Dick Turpin: the myth of the English highwayman, by James Sharpe

A nasty thug who became a romantic hero
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The Independent Culture

Along with Casanova and Bonnie Prince Charlie, Dick Turpin is one of the few 18th-century personalities to survive as a household name. In popular imagination he was a romantic "knight of the road", a loveable rogue and ladies' man who rode overnight from London to York on his faithful mare Black Bess to establish an alibi.

But the historical Turpin was a rather nasty thug, a butcher's apprentice who graduated to highway robbery via burglary, robbery and murder. A marked man after his lurid past with the Essex gang and his associate Tom King, he was hanged at York in 1739 on the capital charge of horse-stealing. Like Al Capone, jailed for income tax evasion, Turpin got his comeuppance for a lesser crime than most he had committed.

There was no comely innkeeper's daughter, no ride to York, and no Black Bess in the true Turpin story: only viciousness and ruthlessness, treachery and bounty hunters. Fascinated by the interplay between history and legend, James Sharpe first gives us a scholarly retelling of the facts of Turpin's life, then asks how the Turpin legend started. This leads him to Harrison Ainsworth, whose 1834 novel Rookwood got the mythical ball rolling. Sharpe makes a convincing case that many of Turpin's mythical attributes were taken from the 17th-century highwayman, Claude Duval.

In the second half of the book, the author, a professor at York University, lets his scholarly hair down for a romp through fiction and movies that culminates in a prolonged discussion of Sid James and the Carry On team in Carry On Dick. Finally, Sharpe gets serious again and fulminates about dumbing down, Hollywood falsification and the heritage industry. I sympathise. There are enough outstanding stories extant, both factual and fictional, without the need to mix the modes.

Sharpe's book is both erudite and entertaining but, since he on several occasions reprimands others for inaccuracy, we should point out that this particular Homer sometimes nods. Victor McLaglen, John Wayne's old sparring partner, appears as Victor McLagan, while it is something of a howler to state that Ainsworth (died1882) outlived Robert Browning (died 1889). Most of all, Sharpe never really explains why Turpin, rather than any other highwayman, assumed Robin Hood's legendary mantle.

There may be no explanation other than the adventitious. My own studies of the American West have left me puzzled as to why Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Jesse James caught on as household names. Perhaps Eric Hobsbawm has the answer: Turpin was idealised and given the attributes of Robin Hood simply because he preyed on merchants and rich travellers who enjoyed no great sympathy among the poor. It is odd that Sharpe never refers to Hobsbawm's Bandits. To find so much space for Hattie Jacques, and none for Hobsbawm, would seem to place Sharpe in the gallery of eccentric academics.

The reviewer's new book, '1759', is published this month by Cape