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Strangely, highwaymen seem to carry a romantic, even heroic image. Lady Katherine Ferrers, whilst there can be no doubting her unfortunate start to life – her father dying just two weeks before his daughter’s birth, being orphaned whilst still in her teens and having her family fortune stolen by means of stealth – was, if the stories are true, a ruthless killer, as well as robber and terrorist. Perhaps the most notorious, and paradoxically the most romantic, highwayman of all was the ubiquitous Dick Turpin.
Turpin reputedly committed his first crime at a chandler’s shop in Watford, and frequented a tavern, the Traveller’s Rest, Bedmond (now gone), and committed robberies at Bushey Heath, Letchmore Heath as well as throughout southern and eastern England. He reputedly galloped about on his steed, Black Bess, and to him is attributed the ‘gentleman highwayman’s’ code of conduct: ‘Stand and Deliver!’
In fact, Dick Turpin was a ruthless gangster, a torturer of innocent victims, especially women, a horse thief and a murderer. He was born around 1705 in Essex, and lived a life of crime in which he met up with the real ‘gentleman highwayman’, Tom King, whom he accidentally shot and killed. It is said that when King and Turpin accosted two women at Bungay, Suffolk, the gallant King chose not to rob them, but the greedy Turpin took their money.
In 1737 Turpin murdered a gamekeeper in Essex. Not surprisingly, after that, things turned hot for him. His demise came about after he shot a cockerell for fun! He was arrested and taken to York prison under the name of ‘Mr Palmer’. The authorities suspected ‘Mr Palmer’ had a more sinister background, and they were right. Turpin was identified in prison by his old schoolmaster, and hanged at York Tyburn, on what is now York racecourse.
His ‘hero’ reputation is believed to derive from a novel, ‘Rookwood, in which the author turned Turpin from villain to hero, a reputation that stuck. It seems that most highwaymen have benefited from this misrepresentation of fact, real-life villains turned into fictional heroes, when in reality their crimes were perpetuated against unarmed victims on England’s quiet heathlands.
Lady Katherine Ferrers, too, had her moment of glory. Her dashing, highwayman’s role was played by Margaret Lockwood opposite James Mason in a film about the Wicked Lady.