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
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
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.
sat back on the hard wooden chair. The
from a tiny barred window at the far end of the cell
He frowned, looking across at the thick iron bars.
This time, he knew,
be no escape. York
one of the best defended
fortresses in England.
could not simply slip out a door here, as he might
have done at
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
course, if he’d had any sense at all, he
have got himself arrested in the first place.
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.
labourer was passing by, a scruffy
who immediately berated him. ‘That’s Mr Hall’s bird,’
go around shooting other people’s livestock!’
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.
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
Turpin. And so
he had allowed himself to be remanded to a House of
But then the
magistrates had begun to delve
into his background.
Even for Mr John Palmer, there was a bit of a record.
suspected horse theft. Nothing catastrophic, but
enough to upgrade him
from a petty
offender to a full-blown criminal. Horse theft was
though the penalty was rarely enforced.
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
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
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
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,
to slow down.
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
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.
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
Perhaps on the
inside?’ He handed the letter across.
scowled. ‘I don’t know anybody in York.’ He looked
the front, seeing his own name there and noting the
The clerk had
other considerations. ‘That’ll
Rivernall roared. ‘I’m not
that’s the cost of the postage,
the letter back
can keep your bloody letter, then!’ So
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
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?’
Come to collect a letter too.
wouldn’t pay the postage.’
‘Doesn’t surprise me.
fellow. He’s married to Dick Turpin’s sister.’
eyes widened. ‘What, the
some call him. Cutpurse more
Turpin was nothing but a common criminal. He attacked
farmhouses. There had been talk of rape. Murder, even.
‘Is that the
nodded. ‘I’ll have to send it back
came from.’ He sighed. ‘What did you say your name was
course.’ The clerk looked through
of paper on the shelf. The original letter was still
on the desk.
across. ‘This is the one for Mr
glanced back. ‘That’s right, sir.
Smith peered at
the letter closely.
‘My God!’ He
picked it up.
looked around. ‘Sir?’
stared in disbelief. ‘I don’t
he exclaimed. ‘This is Dick Turpin’s
magistrate was sceptical. ‘How can you be so
James Smith was
adamant. ‘I went to school
with him. I taught
read and write. And I’d
recognise that handwriting anywhere.’
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
acquired the letter.
read through the contents. His
were confirmed at once. Though the note was clearly
Palmer", it was in
the hand of the infamous highwayman.
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
this letter,’ Stubbing said,
Palmer is in prison at York Castle on
offence. If this man is who you think he is we need to
That much was
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?’
‘I’ve met him once or twice
although not recently, I’m afraid.’
five feet nine. Broad shouldered.
by the pox. Not handsome by any means. Usually wears a
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
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
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.
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
This was not a
room for visitors, Turpin
was just a large empty space. He could hear the sound
of keys unlocking
herded the group into a rough line.
distinctly nervous, but not quite
Turpin watched as the door at the far end swung
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.
time,’ the magistrate said. ‘Have
look. Do you recognise any of these prisoners?’
slowly. He hadn’t even glanced
others. ‘That’s him,’ he said, indicating the
highwayman. ‘That’s Dick
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
turned calmly to the gaoler.
is the fellow claiming to be John Palmer?’
Take him away.’
‘How did you
know?’ Turpin demanded angrily
as he was
dragged towards the other door. ‘How did you know?’
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
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.]