The Shirley Highwayman


England’s most notorious highwayman terrorised the nation’s travellers and became a legend in his own lifetime.

Dick Turpin conjures up the essence of the bandit, roaming dangerous roads on horseback and demanding poor victims “stand and deliver”.

By the time Turpin was hung in York in 1739 his fame was such that crowds of curious onlookers came to glimpse his body – the young robber was only 33 years old.

Although he met his end in the north of the country, much of his infamous criminal career was spent in the area that would one day be encompassed by the city of London.

And, according to legend, the symbol of the highwayman lived and robbed in the area which is now Croydon.

The London to Brighton road was thought to be an ideal place for robbers to ply their trade to the despair of travellers. Legend has it that Essex man Turpin lived for a time in Thornton Heath, dwelling in a cottage which would have been typical of the area at that time – rural and isolated.

He had become involved with the Essex Gang: a bunch of criminals who rapidly became notorious for their raids in the early 1730s. What began with deer poaching in Waltham Forest quickly became robbery wherever was possible.

Turpin, a butcher by trade, was thought to have been involved with the rogues who would force their way into people’s houses and take what they could.

After a string of these household raids the gang were rumoured to be in the Croydon area, and planning another robbery at a tavern.

On a winter’s night on January 18, 1735, Turpin and his gang are thought to have struck in Shirley.

At around 7pm in the evening, accounts from the time report, they went to the house of a Mr Sheldon. They bound his servant in stables and made for the house itself, catching Mr Sheldon in the yard. The “five rogues” grabbed the owner and forced him to open the doors of his home, and tied the poor man up with the rest of his family.

Turpin and the others are reputed to have plundered the house – they took seven guineas (a lot of money), jewellery and even plates. According to one later account, some of the money was returned with an apology for the robbery and a bidding of “good night”. This gentlemanly conduct probably didn’t happen.

Turpin was not a highwayman at this time, that more dashing kind of criminality came later, after the breakup of the gang which raided the Shirley home.

This was where his reputation grew, to the point where he was forced to change his name to John Palmer and try and to duck out of criminal life. But in York he was tried and found guilty for horse theft under his new name.

He was sentenced to hang and was executed in 1739, with flocks of people turning up to see his body. It was after his death that the legend of his (often exaggerated) deeds began to spread.

Story contribution from the Shirley North Safer Neighbourhood Team.
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