x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Police unmask England's most infamous highwayman

Police in Britain have issued the first "e-fit" picture of Dick Turpin - a notorious criminal who was sent to the gallows in 1739.

LONDON// Police in Britain have issued the first "e-fit" picture of a notorious criminal accused of murder, armed robbery, burglary and even poaching. But the long arm of the law admitted that it was a bit late in producing an accurate picture of the miscreant - he was sent to the gallows in 1739 for stealing horses. The image, prepared by North Yorkshire police, of Richard 'Dick' Turpin, England's most infamous highwayman, will come as a blow to adherents of the romantic legend that has grown up around him since the 18th century.

Far from the handsome character portrayed in countless fictional accounts and in more recent TV and film productions, Turpin turns out to have had nasty features and a pockmarked face. The first realistic image of Turpin, compiled from newspaper descriptions in the time leading up to his hanging in York 270 years ago, was produced by the police at the request of York Castle Museum, which is to stage an exhibition next month on the legend and the reality surrounding the highwayman.

"Richard Turpin is one of the most infamous highwaymen in the world but, interestingly, very little information on what he actually looks like survives," Katherine Prior, a museum spokesman, said. "We have worked with North Yorkshire police to create an e-fit of Mr Turpin, just like they would do from a description of a criminal today. The results are not pretty." An article from the London Gazette in 1737, said: "Richard Turpin was born at Thackstead, in the county of Essex, is about 30 years of age, by trade a butcher, about 5ft 9ins high, of a brown complexion, very much marked with small pox, his cheek bones broad, his face slimmer towards the bottom, his visage short, pretty upright and broad about the shoulders."

All of which scarcely squares with the romanticised image that grew up after his death, of a devilishly handsome rogue and heroic highwayman. Indeed, the Turpin legend has taken a bashing in recent years. In his book Dick Turpin: The Myth of English Highwaymen, James Sharpe, a professor of history at York University, said: "Any ideas that he is a romantic, dashing figure are a nonsense. He had a quick temper and a violent streak."

He said Turpin never owned a mare called Black Bess on which he supposedly made a 15-hour ride from London to York to escape the authorities, a feat subsequently proved to have been impossible. Turpin's crimes were sordid, Prof Sharpe said, involving murders of people who tried to apprehend him or to interfere when he held up stagecoaches. Prof Sharpe said the image of Turpin as a likeable rogue who would kiss maidens before escaping through the windows of inns originated with Harrison Ainsworth, a Victorian novelist.

In 1834, Ainsworth wrote a melodrama called Rockwood, which provided a detailed but wholly fictional account of a handsome Turpin involved in acts of derring-do on Black Bess. Not coincidentally, Prof Sharpe said, that account coincided with the arrival of the railways, an event that marked the end of highway robbery as a major criminal activity in England. "It's an example of crime becoming romanticised at a time when it stops being dangerous," he said.

dsapsted@thenational.ae