The Hand Of Turpin
took about three minutes to compose the letter. Dick Turpin had been
furiously; now he sat back and read it through with quiet satisfaction.
never been much of a writer – he had struggled with his letters at
school – but
he could at least put down a few simple words. And the message was
Turpin dipped the quill into the ink bottle
time, tapped away the excess fluid, and with a flourish signed a name
bottom of the page: John
smiled and folded up the letter, sealing it quickly. With the last of
he carefully marked out the address: Mr
Pompr Rivernall, The Blue Bell Inn, Hampstead.
Turpin sat back on the hard wooden chair. The
from a tiny barred window at the far end of the cell dimly illuminated
He frowned, looking across at the thick iron bars. This time, he knew,
be no escape. York Castle was one of the best defended
fortresses in England.
could not simply slip out a door here, as he might have done at
Security at that first prison had been
would have been a simple matter to abscond before things had taken a
serious turn. That would have been the sensible thing to do.
Of course, if he’d had any sense at all, he
have got himself arrested in the first place.
Turpin had been out on a shooting expedition
of weeks before. There had been little sport in the forest that day,
the way home he'd spotted a game bird hopping about on open ground near
aimed his pistol without thinking and shot it.
A labourer was passing by, a scruffy
who immediately berated him. ‘That’s Mr Hall’s bird,’ he protested.
go around shooting other people’s livestock!’
Turpin lost his temper and threatened to put
in the man. The labourer took fright and, whilst Turpin was reloading
pistol, had made a swift exit. That, Turpin assumed, would be the end
It was not the end. The labourer reported him
to a local
magistrate and the next day he was arrested.
Even then, things might have gone well, if
paid out the surety the authorities had demanded. That way, he might
imprisonment altogether. He could have absconded before the trial; left
county and set himself up under a new name somewhere else. But Turpin
out bail money that he could not get back. In any case, it was a petty
and it was not as if they had any idea of his real identity. He was
Palmer, a local horse-breeder, not the notorious highwayman Dick
Turpin. And so
he had allowed himself to be remanded to a House of Correction, in
But then the magistrates had begun to delve
into his background.
Even for Mr John Palmer, there was a bit of a record. Suspected sheep
suspected horse theft. Nothing catastrophic, but enough to upgrade him
from a petty
offender to a full-blown criminal. Horse theft was technically a
though the penalty was rarely enforced.
What Turpin needed now was a few good
witnesses. His brother-in-law would find the people and send them to York. The
would hear their testimony and take pity on John Palmer. It was a first
offence, after all. He might get off with a short gaol term or perhaps
Turpin glanced down at the letter.
A few more days and all would
Rivernall was in a foul mood. The brewery had failed to deliver six
ale and there were not enough reserves in the basement to keep
the Blue Bell
supplied for more than a day. His wife Dorothy was out at the market
picking up various provisions. Rivernall had to mind the inn all on his
There were a couple of serving wenches, but they were no use at all.
gossiping and giving free drinks to anyone they liked the look of. It
even Rivernall’s inn. The place was owned by Dorothy’s father. But John
had got himself jailed over some trivial misunderstanding, and
been left holding the baby. Then this morning some snotty-nosed boy had
along to inform him that a letter had arrived at the local office and
please come and collect it? As if he had the time for that.
Dorothy arrived back mid-afternoon. She was a
buxom thing, broad-hipped, with a jovial manner. Rivernall grunted as
backed herself in through the side door, carrying a small crate of
didn’t offer to help and observed with contempt the meagre fair she
spent several hours bartering for. ‘That was a waste of a trip,’ he
nothing here at all.’ After the glut of the harvest, things were
to slow down.
Rivernall left his wife to clean up the bar
popped out to see about the letter. The post office was at the back of
draper’s shop. A clerk in a dusty tunic sat behind a desk in the
through a stack of mail. He was an ugly fellow in late middle age, with
broken nose and an obvious squint. Rivernall disliked him at once.
He took a deep breath. ‘I understand there’s
The clerk looked up and Rivernall gave him
‘Ah yes. That’s right, sir. It’s here
somewhere.’ The man
stood and gathered a small pile of correspondence from a nearby shelf,
quickly sorted through. ‘Oh yes. Here it is.’
He pulled a crumpled letter from the pile.
Rivernall regarded it suspiciously. ‘Who’s it
The other man peered at the address. ‘Er…the
from York, sir.’ He flipped it over. ‘There’s no return address.
Perhaps on the
inside?’ He handed the letter across.
Rivernall scowled. ‘I don’t know anybody in York.’ He looked
the front, seeing his own name there and noting the appalling quality
The clerk had other considerations. ‘That’ll
‘Thruppence!’ Rivernall roared. ‘I’m not
‘I’m afraid that’s the cost of the postage,
Rivernall threw the letter back
can keep your bloody letter, then!’ So saying, he
turned and stormed out of the
Smith was heading in the opposite direction. A plump, smartly
dressed man in
his mid thirties, Smith had also received word of a letter and was
the draper’s shop to collect it. As he moved to the doorway, he nearly
with Rivernall, who was steaming headlong out into the street. ‘I beg
pardon, sir,’ Smith said automatically, doffing his hat. The other man
pause in his stride. Damnably rude, Smith thought, staring after him.
departing figure seemed vaguely familiar.
In the post office, the ageing clerk was just
the rejected letter back on top of the pile. Smith coughed and the
glanced up at him.
‘James Smith. I believe there’s a letter for
The clerk thought for a moment and then
yes, sir.’ He rose to his feet and went to a shelf where another stack
letters was carefully stock-piled.
‘Was that Mr Rivernall I saw just leaving?’
‘Indeed sir. Come to collect a letter too.
wouldn’t pay the postage.’
Smith shrugged. ‘Doesn’t surprise me.
fellow. He’s married to Dick Turpin’s sister.’
The clerk's eyes widened. ‘What, the
‘That’s what some call him. Cutpurse more
Turpin was nothing but a common criminal. He attacked and robbed
farmhouses. There had been talk of rape. Murder, even. ‘Is that the
The clerk nodded. ‘I’ll have to send it back
came from.’ He sighed. ‘What did you say your name was again?’
‘Yes, of course.’ The clerk looked through
of paper on the shelf. The original letter was still on the desk.
Smith leaned across. ‘This is the one for Mr
The clerk glanced back. ‘That’s right, sir.
Smith peered at the letter closely.
‘My God!’ He picked it up.
The clerk looked around. ‘Sir?’
James Smith stared in disbelief. ‘I don’t
he exclaimed. ‘This is Dick Turpin’s hand.’
magistrate was sceptical. ‘How can you be so sure?’
James Smith was adamant. ‘I went to school
with him. I taught him to
read and write. And I’d
recognise that handwriting anywhere.’
The magistrate, Thomas Stubbing, rubbed his
The clerk in Hampstead had sent the letter on
Saffron Walden, at Smith’s request. Only a magistrate had the authority
other people’s correspondence. Stubbing had paid the postage and
acquired the letter.
Smith eagerly read through the contents. His
were confirmed at once. Though the note was clearly signed "John Palmer", it was in
the hand of the infamous highwayman.
Stubbing regarded James Smith thoughtfully.
‘And you just happened to be passing by the
‘I was picking up a letter of my own,’ he
‘I live quite close to an inn that’s owned by John Turpin.’
‘According to this letter,’ Stubbing said,
Palmer is in prison at York
offence. If this man is who you think he is we need to let the
That much was obvious.
Stubbing considered for a moment.
‘You say you knew him as a child?’
‘We went to the same school. It was my job to
some of the younger children. He was an awkward fellow, even then.’
‘But would you recognise him as an adult?’
Smith nodded. ‘I’ve met him once or twice
although not recently, I’m afraid.’
‘Could you describe him?’
‘Well…about five feet nine. Broad shouldered.
by the pox. Not handsome by any means. Usually wears a dark wig.’
Stubbing folded up the letter.
‘In that case, Mr Smith, I
think a trip to York
might be in order…’
guards had been eyeing him suspiciously all morning. Something
odd was going on.
Turpin was convinced of it. He had not been a criminal for all these
to pick up on a change in mood. None of the other prisoners seemed to
were fifteen of them in the cell. Scoundrels all. Some of them he knew,
were strangers. All of them would cut his throat as soon as look at
you, he would do the same if there was any money in it.
When the guards came for him in the
afternoon, he knew
it was serious. They looked over a few of the other prisoners and told
come too. But it was Turpin they were interested in.
‘Have I got a visitor?’ he asked, as he was
led out of the cell into a larger chamber.
‘Something like that,’ the guard replied
‘Just stand there. You too.’ He gestured to the others. There were
about half a
dozen of them standing around, just as confused as he was.
This was not a room for visitors, Turpin
was just a large empty space. He could hear the sound of keys unlocking
The gaoler herded the group into a rough line.
Feeling distinctly nervous, but not quite
Turpin watched as the door at the far end swung heavily open.
Two figures were silhouetted in the frame of
One of them was a magistrate. Turpin had never seen him before. The
other man looked
familiar. Turpin wracked his brains, trying to place the face. It took
few seconds. And then he shuddered. It was James Smith. Someone he had
school with. A man who could reveal his true identity.
How could he be here? How could anyone have
The two men stepped further into the room.
locked eyes with Turpin at once. There was a half smile on his face.
‘Take your time,’ the magistrate said. ‘Have
look. Do you recognise any of these prisoners?’
Smith nodded slowly. He hadn’t even glanced
others. ‘That’s him,’ he said, indicating the highwayman. ‘That’s Dick
Turpin stared back in horror. His life had
come to an
end. The noose was already around his neck. Anger boiled up inside him.
son of a –’ He lunged forward but the gaoler grabbed hold of him. His
any case, were tied at the wrist.
Smith took a step backwards.
The magistrate turned calmly to the gaoler.
is the fellow claiming to be John Palmer?’
‘That’s right, sir.’
‘Very well. Take him away.’
‘How did you know?’ Turpin demanded angrily
as he was
dragged towards the other door. ‘How did you know?’
James Smith took the letter from his pocket
it up for Turpin to see. Smith
satisfaction. ‘It was in your own hand,’ he said.
note: the book “Dick Turpin: The
The English Highwayman” by James Sharpe was invaluable in the
of this story. Anyone who wishes to learn more about the life of Dick
should certainly pick up a copy.]