There were many Dick Turpins, writes James Sharpe in his study of the mythical English highwayman. There was “the son of John and Mary Turpin, born in Essex in 1705, who was a butcher by trade, drifted into crime, became a notorious highwayman, and was eventually executed at York in 1739.” No one knows that “pock-marked thug.” The Dick Turpin everyone knows “is a romantic, courageous, daredevil figure, elegantly clad and handsome, robbing the rich to help the poor, defying corrupt authority, and riding a faithful mare called Black Bess on whom he made his epic journey to York. It is this Turpin who has stalked the pages of novels, nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls and twentieth-century boys’ comics. It is this Turpin, instantly recognisable, who appeared in equestrian spectacles, in films, in television programmes, in a modern pantomime, and on the signs outside the many pubs that bear Turpin’s name, from York to San Remo with Bordeaux in between.”
Sharpe finds it “remarkable how a totally fictitious exploit became so widely accepted, and how, to borrow his term, the shadowland of myth and legend eclipsed historical reality so powerfully. The highwayman who had been more or less completely forgotten in the years after his death had, over a century after his demise, taken on a new reality and a totally unexpected celebrity.”
This leads him into broader musings on the role of the critical, academic historian in contemporary culture. History is in vogue; but popular history is often contemptuous of the skeptical erudition of academic history. He cites two earlier histories of highwaymen. One, published in 1951, concludes, “If we start delving any deeper into the archives we shall find ourselves willy-nilly in the mournful company of the learned historians.” The other, published in 1908, includes this: “It would be a thankless task to present the highwayman as he really was: a fellow rarely heroic, generally foul-mouthed and cruel, and often cowardly. No novelist would be likely to thank the frank historian for this disservice; and I do not think that the historian who came to the subject in this cold scientific spirit of a ‘demonstrator in surgery would be widely read.’”
Sharpe observes that the first historian “was aware of the need to explore the possibility of getting something right,” and the second “was aware that the reality of the highwayman as an historical figure was different from that of popular myth. Yet both of them, for rhetorical reasons or otherwise, felt it necessary to shy away from ‘learned historians’, in much the same spirit as those reviewers in the broadsheet newspapers who reserve ‘academic’ as their most damning insult when reviewing works of history.” Pity the mournful historian, intent on determining what happened.