Friday, 19 February 2010

Is this Dick Turpin's Ghost?

These days Woughton on the Green in Buckinghamshire is just another of the strangely uniform suburbs of Milton Keynes, that experimental example of 1960s new town planning. In the past forty years, Woughton on the Green has been engulfed in a sea of sweeping boulevards, concrete structures and modern architecture.

But it was not always this way. Woughton on the Green is one of the oldest villages in Buckinghamshire, being mentioned in the Domesday Book, and occupied a prominent position on the banks of the River Ouzel. Remnants of past days remain, the Church being medieval and both Woughton House and the Swan Inn dating back centuries. All three of these buildings face The Green, itself a scheduled ancient monument, and it is here that the phantom of Woughton on the Green lurks.

The ghost in question is usually only glimpsed. Mounted on a dark horse, the man is dressed in dark clothes and wears a tricorn hat. Few see more than that, as the ghost rides out of sight behind a hedge or round a corner. Some people have got a better view, including one who saw the phantom in the mid-1980s. This witness described the man as being dressed in a cloak over a fancy waistcoat with thigh high top boots of black leather.

Clearly the phantom dates back to the 18th century, but who is he?

The locals at Woughton on the Green have few doubts. Their ghost is the spirit of none other than the famous highwayman Dick Turpin. Although the ghost is rarely seen clearly enough to be certain, the identification is more than likely. Watling Street, now better known as the A5, runs close to the village on its way from London to Chester. The rich merchants who used the road made easy pickings for men such as Turpin, and he is known to have held up more than one coach on Watling Street.

Also certain is the fact that the notorious highwayman came to Woughton on the Green at least once. Turpin was planning a particularly daring robbery and was reasonably certain that he would quickly be pursued by armed guards. Before setting out on his job, Turpin came to Woughton on the Green and visited the Swan Inn, where the village blacksmith then plied his trade. 

Turpin paid the burly blacksmith handsomely for a rather unusual task. He instructed the blacksmith to remove all the shoes from his horse and replace them with new ones, but demanded that the new shoes should be put on backwards. Only after the robbery had taken place did the purpose of this strange request become clear. As Turpin galloped off, his horse left hoofprints leading towards the crime scene, not away from it. The baffled pursuers soon gave up the chase and Turpin got clean away. Turpin’s ghost is also said to haunt Trap’s Hill at Loughton, three miles to the west, where the holdup actually happened.

Dick Turpin is a strange character. He is said to haunt several places around England and is mentioned in folklore at locations he almost certainly never visited. He is often spoken of as if he were a daring, dashing hero who robbed the unworthy rich to give money to the poor.

Such an image of highwaymen had some elements of truth. Several of the first highwaymen were well born cavaliers who lost their wealth when King Charles I was defeated in the Civil War of the 1640s. Taking to the road on their magnificent chargers and dressed in beautifully tailored clothes of finest cloth, these men were clearly a cut above the average robber. They treated their victims with gallantry and politeness, rarely bothering to rob a poor farmer of his pennies. Before long many robbers aspired to the status of gentleman that went with being a highwayman. If they could afford the clothes and the horse, they took to the road to ape the manners of the gentry and earn the admiration of criminal colleagues.

By the time Turpin became a highwayman they were a vanishing breed. The authorities had developed mounted patrols and better methods of gaining information. It was becoming too dangerous to rob travellers on the king’s highway. Turpin was one of the last men to adopt the lifestyle, and it is on this that his fame largely rests. He had been a burglar and cattlethief for some years before, in July 1735, he donned the fine clothes and manners of the highwayman and took to the road. After a career of two years robbing coaches and travellers on the main roads leading out of London, Turpin retired to Yorkshire and assumed the name of John Palmer.

In 1738 Turpin visited Welton and, apparently for sport, shot a cockerel in the street. The bird’s owner demanded payment, but ‘Palmer’ merely threatened him. The man had ‘Palmer’ arrested. By chance Turpin’s old schoolmaster happened to see a letter sent by ‘Palmer’ and recognised the handwriting. Turpin was rapidly identified and on 7 April 1739 was executed. True to his criminal profession, Turpin ordered a new set of fashionable clothes for the event and spent his time entertaining friends and celebrities in his cell. He died bravely, without a single sign of fear.

The age of the highwayman was over, except in Woughton on the Green where Turpin’s galloping ghost still has the power to alarm travellers.

This is an extract from Haunted Places of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire by Rupert Matthews.


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  3. Dick Turpin did not have a black horse names black bess... People that claim to see this are not seeing Dick Turpin. After months of research into this famous highway man I came to realise a lot of what is said is folk law and not the real facts. It would be interesting to know who this highway man is.