Turpin, Dick

Dick Turpin (d. 1739) is one of Britain’s most infamous highwaymen, whose Ghost is said to still haunt Hounslow Heath and large stretches of highway between London and the Scotland border.

Dick Turpin, from Essex, was a butcher who became a cattle thief, murderer and robber. Most of his criminal activities were carried out in the early 18th century in Essex, North London and Yorkshire. He was one of the many “Knights of the High Toby,” the highwaymen who waylaid travelers along the dangerous country lanes and the major highways such as the Great North Road. He is said to have hidden in numerous pubs and inns, some of which bear his name today.

Turpin was somewhat of a popular hero in his day, because the highwaymen’s robbing of the rich delighted poorer folk. Unlike the legendary Robin Hood, however, they did not give to the poor, but kept their loot themselves. In reality, Turpin and his ilk were anything but heroes. They brutalized people and committed heinous crimes to increase their own wealth. A newspaper story of 1735 tells of how Turpin and his band raided a farm at Edgware. When the farmer protested that he had no money, they took his breeches down and set his rear end on fire.

Turpin was in his early 30s when he was hanged in 1739 at York for stealing cattle. He bowed gallantly to the women present and then threw himself off the ladder. The crowd was so taken with this spectacular performance that they stole his body and buried it in quicklime to prevent it from being sold to anatomists, as was often the custom of the day. Turpin’s tomb is in the churchyard of St. Denys and St. George. The leg irons that held him in prison are on display at York Castle Museum.

Ghost stories about Dick Turpin surround his exploits as a highwayman. He is reported at so many locations that almost any spectral horseman, especially on the Al highway, has been called Dick Turpin. In the Midlands, he is reported to haunt the A5 (Watling Street) between Hinckley and Nuneaton, wearing a large black tricorn hat and a coat with brilliant red sleeves. Some ghost experts, however, believe this specter is that of another, unknown highwayman.

Turpin is said to haunt the area near Woughton-onthe- Green, on B488. The figure is cloaked and hazy, and moves restlessly about as though waiting for something to happen. He is also seen astride his spectral black horse, riding through the area at night. Turpin did in fact use this village as a hideaway following crimes committed in the Watling Street area, which is about three miles away. At the Old Swan Inn, he forced a blacksmith to reverse the shoes on his horse in order to confuse his pursuers. He escaped when his pursuers rode off in the opposite direction.

Turpin’s ghost also is said to haunt the A11 between London and Norwich, especially the stretch north of Loughton through Epping Forest. The ghost, mounted on his black horse, gallops down Traps Hill with a thin woman clutching at his waist, her feet dragging on the ground. She shrieks piteously. According to legend, this haunting is the result of Turpin’s brutal act toward an old and wealthy widow who lived near Loughton. He waylaid her one evening and tortured her until she revealed the hiding place of her jewelry. Then he tied her to his horse and dragged her to her death.

Turpin’s ghost also is said to be among those haunting Heathrow Airport. The airport is located in Hounslow Heath, an area about 25 square miles in size to the west of London once said to be plagued by highwaymen. Turpin’s invisible form reportedly creeps up behind airline staff, breathes down their necks and pants like a dog.

Turpin’s galloping spectral black horse is often incorrectly identified as the famous Black Bess. That horse was ridden by another highwayman, William Nevison. In 1678, Nevison rode from London to York in a mere 15 hours and 35 minutes in order to establish an alibi. King Charles II was so amused by this that he christened Nevison “Swift Nicks” and granted him a pardon. Nevison, like Turpin, still met his fate on the gallows, in 1685.

Further Reading:

  • Brooks, J. A. Ghosts of London: The East End, City and North. Norwich, England: Jarrold Colour Publications, 1982.
  • Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. London: Reader’s Digest Assoc., 1977.
  • Harries, John. The Ghost Hunter’s Road Book. Rev. ed. London: Charles Letts & Co., Ltd., 1974.
  • Hole, Christina. Haunted England. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1940.

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits – Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley  – September 1, 2007

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