by John Fox
In past Newsletters of our Industrial Historical Society I've seen little mention of an industry that many of our forbears dabbled in, thievery. Robin Hood is, perhaps, our best known thief, but running a very close second to him must be Dick Turpin, a robber who, I shall show, was arrested for shooting a chicken and hung for the lack of sixpence.
My interest in this robber was awakened when reading about him in the 'Newgate Calendar,' the 18th century equivalent of the 'Sun' newspaper, made me remember my childhood, in East Ham. I was about eight and a gang of us kids were walking towards the High Street. Getting near the Town Hall one of the lads pointed to a pub and told us, "Dick Turpin used to keep his horse there". Us children were all suitably impressed, 'Caw', to think, Dick Turpin kept his horse there. When reading the Newgate Calendar I saw that indeed it is quite likely that he had.
However, let's start at the beginning. Dick Turpin was born in Thackstead; Essex the son of a farmer and after getting a sketchy education from the village school his father apprenticed him to a butcher. Completing his apprenticeship Dick opened his own butchers in Stratford, just across the river and married a Miss Jenny Palmer of East Ham.
As a good businessman, young Dick was determined to simplify the bookkeeping system of his butcher shop, with this in mind he ended the palaver of paying for the animals he slaughtered and took to stealing them instead. This minor character blemish was eventually found out and a warrant issued for his arrest. Evading capture he fled to 'The Hundreds of Essex'. The smuggling wasn't a great success for, as the Newgate Calendar so nicely puts it, "Custom-house Officers, by one successful stroke, deprived him of all his ill-acquired gains". He next turned his hand to deer stealing in Epping Forest, but again with little success and so, he and a bunch of like-minds tried housebreaking.
Theirs was a simple plan, selecting a house, which they hoped, contained a lot of money, one of them would knock on the door and when it was opened they'd all rush in and grab whatever they could. Doing this act several times, getting, what was in the eighteenth century quite a lot of money, £400 in Loughton, £700 from a farmer at Barking, a miserly £120 from the keeper of Epping Forest.
They also carried out a house breaking escapade in this locality - may I give an account of it as printed in the Newgate Calendar. "On the 11th of January 1735, Turpin and five of his companions went to the house of Mr. Saunders, a rich farmer at Charlton at Kent, between seven and eight in the evening, and having knocked at the door, asked if Mr. Saunders was at home. Being answered in the affirmative, they rushed into the house, and found Mr. Saunders, with his wife and friends, playing at cards in the parlour. They told the company that they would remain uninjured, if they made no disturbance. Having made a prize of a silver snuff-box which lay on the table a part of the gang stood guard over the rest of the company, while the others attended Mr. Saunders going through the house, and breaking open his escritoires and closets, stole about £100, exclusive of plate. During these transactions the servant maid ran up stairs, barring the door of her room, and cried out, "Thieves!” with a view of alarming the neighbourhood; but the robbers broke open the door of her room, secured her.. Finding some minced-pies and some bottles of wine, they sat down to regale themselves; and meeting with a bottle of brandy, they compelled each of the company to drink a glass of it. Mrs. Saunders fainting through terror, they administered some drops in water to her, and recovered her to the use of her senses.
Having staid in the house a considerable time, they packed up their booty and departed, having first declared, that if any of the family gave the least alarm within two hours, or advertised the marks of the stolen plate, they would return and murder them at some future date."
When I read this account I imagined a lonely farmhouse well off the beaten tracks of Charlton, perhaps in the marshes. How untrue! Checking up at the Local History Library I found that Mr. Saunders farm was on the main Blackheath to Charlton road, separated by the village green from Charlton House - the actual spot is now covered by Games House, in the Council estate there.
The gang carried out these house break-ins for three months, but the reward for members of the gang went up to £100 and two of them were caught and hanged. With these problems, Turpin decided to move out of London and on the road to Cambridge he caught up with a well-dressed man riding on a valuable horse. Now our Richard, pushed his pistol in the man's face and demanded his money. I think we can all imagine his surprise when the chap burst out laughing at this threat "What, dog eat dog is it? Come, come brother Turpin; if you don't know me, I know you and shall be glad of your company".
This fellow he was attempting to rob was King, a well-known highwayman and uniting with him Dick Turpin became one himself. The two became such scourge on the roads of Essex that, as the Newgate Calendar puts it, "no public house would receive them as guests", and they made themselves a cave, in Epping Forest as their hideout.
In 1737, Turpin and King went to the Red Lion PH in Whitechapel intending to sell a horse they had stolen. The Landlord of the pub knew they were coming and saw a way of making some easy money. Hiding outside in the stables, seeing King approaching he drew his pistol and presented it to the robbers head. King, called out to Turpin behind him. "Shoot him, Dick, or we are taken." Turpin fired, missed and shot his friend, King. Now a search was underway in earnest, at one stage the 'Epping Fox Hunt' went looking for him with their bloodhounds, forcing Dick to hide in a tree. Too well known on the roads of Essex, he and his wife went to Yorkshire. Here, going by the name of John Palmer, his wife's maiden name, he lived the life of a gentleman of means.
One day he shot a chicken belonging to his landlord and followed it with - "If you just stay there while I reload my gun, I’ll shoot you as well." the neighbour told the landlord who applied for a warrant for the apprehension of Mr. Palmer. Dick wrote to his bother telling he was in prison pleading "For Heaven's sake dear brother, do not neglect me; you will know what I mean, when I say, I am Yours, John Palmer." It was sheer bad luck that a Mr. Smith, the schoolteacher that had taught Dick to write recognized the handwriting and notified the authorities who this mysterious Mr. Palmer was.
Dick Turpin was hanged at York. The crowd were so impressed by his 'going' that they took his body to 'lay in state' at the Blue Boar, Castle-Gate, York and be buried, next morning in St George's churchyard. This done, a rumour flew around town that grave robbers had ransacked Turpin's grave. A hue and cry was raised and the good people found his body with a surgeon. Regaining possession of it, the corpse was laid on a board and carried through the streets of York in a triumphant procession. Taken back to St George's Church, this time the 'mourners' filled the coffin with unslaked lime before burial. Thus ensuring the remains of the very much ex-highway man, ex-cattle rustler, ex-smuggler, ex-house breaker and all round bad egg, Dick Turpin, would not be worth digging up a second time.