The Berkshire links to highwayman Dick Turpin
PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 February 2020
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Thanks to the movies, the highwayman has passed from being a terrifying threat to travellers to being something of a swashbuckling folklore hero. The best known of them all was Dick Turpin, who was no stranger to Berkshire...
Many areas of the country lay claim to being the true home of Dick Turpin but Berkshire's claim is among the most significant. There is no doubt that he was born in Essex and became an apprentice butcher. Later he ran his own shop and that, it is believed, is where his life of crime began. He met up with a gang of deer poachers and joined them on the nightly raids. The gang became more ambitious though and the poaching turned to crimes of serious violence and theft.
When things became too hot, Dick would take off and ply his trade elsewhere. He had become a highwayman and not only were there rich pickings on the roads of Berkshire but Dick had an aunt who lived in Sonning and she could always be visited in times of stress. Thus, Dick was frequently in the county.
The old cottage where he stayed is still there and familiarly known as 'Turpins'. If you are visiting it is at the corner of Pearson Road. Dick's aunt seems to have been fully aware of his misdeeds but he no doubt treated her well and always bought her a drink or two or more, so Dick was always welcome.
He was also welcome at many of Berkshire's famous inns. The Old Manor Inn in Bracknell is said to have been one of his favourite dwelling places, perhaps because there was an escape tunnel large enough for Dick to ride Black Bess through in an emergency, although it could be said that it might have been that across the road was one of his most favourite pubs, The Hinds Head, sadly no longer with us.
The whole of the county seems to feature Dick Turpin's favourite pubs, cottages where he stayed and remote places where he lurked in readiness to relieve frightened travellers of their money, belongings and whatever he might fancy.
Maidenhead and Cookham both have links with the legendary highwayman but it is the George Hotel in picturesque Wallingford that appears to be his all-time favourite. Wait a minute, Wallingford is not in Berkshire! Well it was when Dick was around. The George Hotel is still there and well worth a visit. History - or legend - whichever you prefer, says that while Dick was knocking back a pint or two upstairs his faithful steed Black Bess would be waiting under the window ready for a quick departure. More than once the window flew open and Dick leapt straight into the saddle. Black Bess was not just his trusty horse but also his getaway!
There are countless tales of people who met Dick Turpin. Some drank with him, others were accosted by him as they travelled the main roads of Berkshire. Some viewed him as an anti-hero and cheered his many escapes from the hands of the law. Some even added to his legend by writing about his exploits. It was Richard Bayes who famously wrote about the flight from London to York and this added a great deal to the legend of the man and his horse. It makes for a good story but don't believe all you read on the pages. York was certainly the undoing of Dick as he was recognised, captured and eventually had an appointment with the gallows on the Knavesmire, which is best known today as York Racecourse.
For his execution Dick bought himself a new outfit and apparently bowed and waved to the crowds. In London there were celebrations at the news of his capture and death. In Berkshire there were also glasses raised but many of them were to toast the highwayman they had come to know as a gentleman and friend, always one step ahead of the law.
So was Dick Turpin a legendary hero or a villain? His career of crime is a catalogue of more than gently removing money and jewellery from innocent travellers. He had at times been far more brutal than it would be seemly to report on these pages. Yes, he was generous in giving to the poor but the trail of tears he brought forth from his victims and their families must surely draw only one conclusion.
Was it the real Dick Turpin?
How many Dick Turpins were there? Well, only one, although in the 18th Century you could call yourself anything you liked and no doubt some young hopefuls would try to cash in on the romance of the highwayman by claiming to be the man himself.
Turpin adopted an alias himself and for a time was known as John Palmer. He was still Palmer when he was captive in York, but writing a letter to his Essex family proved to be his undoing. The postmaster at Saffron Walden, James Smith, recognised the handwriting as he was the man who had taught Turpin how to write.
Smith went to the jail in York and identified Palmer as Turpin. Turpin was also later seen by many others who knew him, including those from Berkshire. Indeed it was the notorious Dick Turpin who rode the highways of this county.