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

Who was the real Richard Turpin? Matthew Sweet follows his dubious transformation from Essex butcher to gentleman robber
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One of the highlights of a really successful 18th-century public execution was the moment at which the felon on the scaffold was permitted to address his public: a little chat that was customarily terminated by a noose squeaking around his throat or someone setting light to his genitals. It's usually assumed that these remarks were brief. No matter how hardened the homicide or highwayman or horse-stealer, it seems unlikely that they would have been capable of reeling off the immense speeches ascribed to them in the printed souvenir broadsides hawked at the foot of the gallows.

Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman is the last book that James Sharpe will write before he retires from his post as Professor of History at York University. It's an examination of the bathetic shortfall between the Turpin of the historical record and the legendary highwayman familiar from screen and storybook. Sharpe describes the process by which popular tradition recast a squat, pockmarked butcher from Essex as a dashing gentleman of the road by whom lady travellers itched to be robbed. At its best, his book allows you to feel like you're watching Arthur Mullard transform into James Mason before your very eyes.

In the course of Sharpe's study, all the accoutrements of the Turpin story are revealed to be as phoney as the plastic horse brasses adorning the pubs that claim to have supplied him with beer and Black Bess with a carrot. There was, sad to say, no loyal steed of that name. There was no breakneck dash to York. There were no roadside hold-ups at which ladies in Gainsborough get-up flirted with him over their fans as their husbands emptied the moneybags. Instead, Turpin's form was a miserable catalogue of thuggery, burglary and horse-theft.

Having escaped the counter of the family butcher's shop, Richard Turpin took up with the Gregory gang, a coalition of bruisers who specialised in raiding well-to-do farmhouses on the outskirts of London. In a typical adventure in February 1735, the gang burst into Earlsbury Farm in the village of Edgware. While Samuel Gregory, the leader of the gang, took the maid upstairs and raped her at gunpoint, Dick and the others forced a septuagenarian manservant to reveal the presence of the cash box by beating him with their pistols, emptying a kettle of water over his head, dragging him around the house by his nose, and sitting him bare-buttocked on the open fire.

After exposing the historical Turpin as a mean little operator and not at all the sort of man who deserved to have a song written about him by Adam Ant, Sharpe enumerates the texts which built him into a posthumous hero. Since he has gone to the trouble of writing a book on the subject, one might have expected him to argue that British culture would be poorer without the myth of the highwayman, since it has bequeathed us a large and seductive body of popular narrative. Quite the opposite: Sharpe resents the attractive nature of these fictions, and regards their tenacity as evidence of "the widespread unwillingness to accept or engage with any level of difficulty or acknowledge any concept of professional expertise in endeavours that are purely intellectual". That the dandy highwayman still gallops through the popular imagination, he suggests, shows that few people are really interested in the realities to be quarried from the archives. "Is getting history right really so unimportant?" he asks. "And if so, how does this unimportance fit with that ever-increasing public hunger for history, or at least for tasty and easily digestible morsels of the past?"

From here, he launches into a speech railing against the inadequacies of history's treatment in newspapers and on television. Book critics are slapped about for their lack of specialist knowledge. David Starkey feels the full force of Sharpe's handbag: his series on Elizabeth I and Henry VIII had, he argues, "the same cultural resonances as reading Hello! magazine". It's hard not to agree with these statements. The growth of TV history has produced a slew of flaky documentaries - mainly on Hitler, witch-finding and mummification techniques - which have done little to enhance anyone's understanding of the past. Reviewers are sometimes ill-equipped to judge the volumes that end up on their desks. (Usually, it must be said, to the benefit of their authors - as has been demonstrated by some of the over-generous reviews of Dick Turpin that have already appeared.)

Sharpe ought, however, to have made certain of the accuracy of his own research before picking fights with the quality of other people's work. When his story moves beyond his home territory - 18th-century crime - defects in scholarship multiply. Page 199 contains six errors of fact or transcription.

More flaws are legible in his analysis of the highwayman's representation in Victorian penny dreadfuls: sensational serials for boys which boomed after the repeal of the paper taxes in 1861. This is more than a minor detail, as 19th-century popular fiction was largely responsible for recasting the historical Turpin in heroic mould. Sharpe singles out Edwin J Brett's News-Agents Publishing Company as one of the principal producers of these gory productions. His was an area of publishing, he argues, that was transformed in 1879 when "Respectability struck back with the founding of what was to become one of the most successful publications for adolescents ever, The Boys' Own Paper." In fact, this clean-up campaign had begun over a decade before, in the pages of Edwin J Brett's own publications. Brett's magazine Boys of England was founded in 1866 upon similar principles to the Boy's Own, offering a wholesome and educative alternative to the tales of rape and murder with which it shared the children's section of the news-stands.

Moreover, the penny dreadfuls themselves had already begun to acknowledge that the highwaymen on their pages had been romanticised beyond credibility and good taste. By the middle of the 1860s, it was absolutely conventional for a bloodthirsty serial for boys to offer a tirade against the bloodthirsty serial for boys. The Boy Pirate (1866), for example, asks its readers to imagine a highwayman who offers his loot to a needy widow, and yet is still sickened by his ill-gotten gains: "I am not like the hard-working errand boy, who fought with labour, and won its prizes, and then freely gave his hard earnings," he reflects. "I am a humbug." This material is impossible to detect by typing the words "Turpin" or "Highwayman" into a search engine, but the archive has much of it to offer. Either Sharpe's research didn't go far enough to discover its riches, or he has chosen to exclude them for reasons of his own.

A good history book, according to Dick Turpin's latest biographer, must obey a number of basic rules: "Respect for evidence, attempts to get to grips with all relevant documentation, a respect for balance in the approach taken to the subject and a willingness to face complexity and ambiguity in both what is being written about and the materials upon which that writing is based." Not quite a highwayman's valediction. But as famous last words, I think they'll do.