Opposite St. George’s church, a little walk from Walmgate Bar, there is a small walled patch of green which some nearby office workers sit in on sunny lunchtimes, and residents often use as a public park space. It is quiet, and serene. A welcome calm area on that side of town. However, at the far end of the park stands a fairly inauspicious gravestone. There is no effigy of any kind; no statues, or any real indicator to the inhabitant of the grave, save the short inscription, that reads, “John Palmer, otherwise Richard Turpin, The Notorious Highwayman and Horse Stealer, Executed at Tyburn April 7th 1739, and Buried in St. George’s Churchyard.”
Richard “Dick” Turpin, legendary highwayman, is buried here in York, mere spitting distance from where he was executed. Turpin was not from York, (in fact, he was born in Essex), but his name is synonymous with the area, and the York Dungeons feature him highly in their exhibits. His lonely grave is testament to his position in society at his time of death, yet its survival throughout almost three hundred years only emphasises his cultural and societal impact.
Achieving what would in today’s vernacular would be ‘cult’ status for his highwayman antics, Turpin robbed his way around the country, killing one man, a gamekeeper named Morris, which, along with horse-stealing, is what he was convicted for. Caught out by his former schoolmaster recognising his handwriting in a letter to his brother, Dick Turpin (writing as his alias, John Palmer), was sentenced to death for his crimes.
Turpin’s grave doesn’t garner many visitors today; the site isn’t in many guidebooks. However, the enduring legacy of his criminal career have lasted well into the twenty-first century. At the time of his death, the gaolers earned a lot of money arranging meetings between Turpin and his friends and family. His popularity was great, (he was also a rich man), and as pardoned fellow highwayman Thomas Hadfield led him to the gallows, he was said to have “behav’d himself with amazing assurance, bowing to the spectators as he passed”. In 2012, however, Turpin has few spectators, and his modest grave lies close to the city centre, in a small quiet patch of earth.