image points to horse-magazine business website

Black Bess & Dick Turpin

Black Bess and Dick Trupin: History site section Logo of ancient snaffle bit.

By Cheryl R. Lutring  ( Horse History article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

If blood can give nobility,
A noble steed was she;
Her sire was blood, and blood her dam,
And all her pedigree

If America had outlaws, then England had highwaymen. And the most famous of all England s highwaymen and horse thieves was Dick Turpin.  Born in London in September 1705, he lived but 34 years.

Nearly every British school child knows the story of Dick Turpin and his wonderful mare Black Bess. But they know the story from the book Rookwood written by Harrison Ainsworth in the early 1800s. Black Bess makes her appearance in the fourth book of the series.

 Mr. Ainsworth has it that Dick had to gallop from London to York in order to avoid an inevitable arrest for his criminal activities. To do this he stole a fine horse and made the distance of 150 miles in 19 hours. The horse is described as coal-black, with a skin smooth on the surface as polished jet; not a single white hair could be detected in her satin coat. She was magnificent Every point was perfect, beautiful compact, modeled for strength and speed.  Arched was her neck as lofty as that of the swan; clean and fine were her lower limbs, as those of the gazelle; round and sound as a drum was her carcass and as broad as a cloth yard shaft her width of chest. There was no redundancy of flesh, tis true, her flanks might, to please some tastes, have been rounder, and her shoulder fuller; but look at the nerve and sinew, palpable through the veined limbs!

She was built more for strength than beauty, and yet she was beautiful. Look at that elegant little head; those thin tapering ears, closely placed together; that broad snorting nostril, which seems to snuff the gale with disdain; that eye, glowing and large as the diamond of Giamschid! Is she not beautiful? Behold her paces! How gracefully she moves! She is off! no eagle on the wing could skim the air more swiftly.

With such a vivid description how could she fail to become a legend? But was she real? Some say not. Some say that even Dick Turpin, though undoubtedly real enough, was not the highwayman that made the famous ride to York. Instead it was made by John Swift Nick Nevison who in 1676 robbed a homeward-bound sailor on the road in the county of Kent (south of London). Deciding he needed an alibi, he set off on that famous ride in order to prove himself elsewhere at the time.

But one night Turpin did take a fancy to a particularly fine and splendid black horse ridden by a man called Major, forcing him at musket-point to exchange the black for his own tired and jaded mount. Turpin named his new horse Black Bess but there is no evidence that she was his mount for his own flight to York to avoid the law in the London area.

Despite his best attempts, Turpin failed to avoid arrest and conviction for his criminal activities, but he did manage a jaunty end to his squalid life. While he waited for his execution he bought new clothes and shoes and even hired five mourners. And on 19th April 1739, on his way to the gallows in an open cart he flamboyantly bowed to the crowds. At York racecourse he climbed the ladder to the gibbet and then sat for half an hour chatting to the guards and the executioner. Then, feigning boredom, he rose and threw himself off the platform to his death.

The record tells us nothing of what happened to the legendary Black Bess, but she lives on in the folklore of Great Britain, her name recorded on inn signs, in comic magazines, ballads and novellas. She remains an important part of England s rich culture.

How often does the record uphold an untruth; how often is fact usurped by fiction? More often than most believe but that is for a different forum. Here and now it is the gallantry of Black Bess that inspires.

Return to Horse History Articles