“My Bonny Black Bess (II) (Poor Black Bess; Dick Turpin's Ride)”


Dick Turpin bids farewell to the horse that served his so well, making his exploits possible and finally carrying him from London to York in a single day. Now the hounds are on his trail and he cannot escape; he shoots Bess and waits to die himself


This is much the more popular of the Black Bess songs; to distinguish it from Laws L8, consider the following stanza:

When blindness did guide me, I left my abode;

When friends proved ungrateful, I took to the road.

For to plunder the wealthy and relieve my distress,

I bought you to aid me, my bonny Black Bess.

Although Dick Turpin was real, most of the exploits attributed to him are false. There was, almost certainly, no Black Bess, and the twelve hour race to York was not undertaken by Turpin. Logan reports that the feat was performed by one "Nevison or Nicks, who plundered a traveler at four o'clock in the morning on the slope at Gadshill, and was in the bowling-green at York... at a quarter before eight in the evening."

David Brandon, in _Stand and Deliver: A History of Highway Robbery_, also mentions "a highwayman named Harris" making the trip to Yorkshire.

Patrick Pringle, in _Stand and Deliver: Highwaymen from Robin Hood to Dick Turpin_, has more details on this, devoting a whole chapter to "Who Rode to York?" He notes that it was perfectly possible to cover the London-to-York distance (about 190 miles) in a day -- if one could change to fresh horses along the route. The improbable element of "Turpin's Ride" is the idea of doing it on *one* horse.

Did such a journey happen? There are reports that it did. Daniel Defoe writes of a robber named Nicks (Nix?) who accomplished the feat in 1676. There is a 1668 report of a robber named "Swift Nicks," though it isn't known if it is the same guy.

The other fellow, Nevison, is historical, though there is a lot of uncertainty about him. His name was probably William, but this is not certain. He did most of his work in Yorkshire, and was executed in 1684 or 1685.

The link between Nevison and Nicks is tenuous. According to Brandon, p. 82, Nevison earned the nickname Nicks because he had ridden to York as fast as Old Nick. Right.

So how did this semi-legendary feat come to be associated with Turpin? As far as popular culture is concerned, there is no question but that the responsibility must be pinned on William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882), who made it a major element of his first major novel, _Rookwood_ (1834).

Ainsworth's long account is mostly out of his own head, but it's thought that the seeds of the legend came to him from his family. Could they have gotten it from one of these songs? Or did these songs get it from Ainsworth? It is unlikely, now, that we will ever be able to answer that question. Some of the details of the song, however, do appear in _Rookwood_ -- e.g. Ainsworth claimed that Bess leapt the Hornsey tollgate, perhaps inspiring the line "no toll bars could hold you." He also gave us a Turpin/Bess death scene -- though Turpin merely lingered as the horse died; he didn't shoot her.

The one part of the story that's true is that Turpin, late in his career, transferred from the London area to Yorkshire, though it was not at the end of his career. What follows is mostly condensed from Pringle with some material from Brandon.

Turpin was born probably in 1705 (others say 1706), in Essex, the son of an innkeeper. Apprenticed to a butcher, he married and went into business around 1726. But several sheep turned up missing near his establishment in Waltham Abbey. Apparently forced out of the Guild of Butchers, he took to a life of open crime.

For a time, he was associated with a brutal group of poachers and robbers known as "Gregory's Gang"; large rewards were put on their heads in 1735, but Turpin escaped when the others were taken. He turned to highway robbery. He worked with various companions, the most noteworthy being Tom King (died 1737 -- possibly killed by Turpin himself as they struggled with people who were attempting to apprehend them).

Turpin by that year had a price of 200 pounds on his head. But he disappeared.

In fact he had moved to Yorkshire, and was calling himself John Palmer. He lived a relatively honest life -- but in October 1738, in a fit of mindless brutality, he shot his landlord's gamecock (hence, apparently, the ballad claim that he was taken for "shooting of a dunghill cock").

The charges need not have been fatal, but in a comedy of errors, a sample of his handwriting came to the attention of his old schoolteacher, who supposedly recognized it. Turpin was eventually convicted of horse-stealing and sentenced to hang.

The date of Turpin's hanging is uncertain; generally dated to April 7, 1739 (so, e.g., Pringle and Brandon), but the day may have been April 6 or April 10.

There is little evidence in the historical record of the sort of nobility of character found in many of the songs about him.

Peter Underwood reports that the hoofbeats of the ghost of Black Bess (presumably with Turpin aboard) have been heard at the "Woodfield" estate in Bedfordshire, where Turpin was said to have had a safe house.

The reign of Queen Anne (1702-1712) was considered the heyday of the English highwayman -- probably because the amount of travel was increasing, so there were more targets, but there was no effective national constabulary. Turpin of course came after that time; he was arguably a victim of the reforms that the previous banditry had inspired. - RBW

Broadside LOCSinging sb30428b: H. De Marsan dating per _Studying Nineteenth-Century Popular Song_ by Paul Charosh in American Music, Winter 1997, Vol 15.4, Table 1, available at FindArticles site. - BS

Historical references

  • 1735 - Dick Turpin comes to the attention of the authorities as a robber
  • April 1739 - Hanging of Dick Turpin (by then retired from highway robbery; he was captured after getting drunk and shooting the landlor'd cockerel)

Same tune

  • Poor Dog Tray (per broadsides LOCSinging sb30428b, Murray Mu23-y1:027)

Cross references


  • LOCSinging, sb30428b, "Poor Black Bess," H. De Marsan (New York), 1864-1878
  • Murray, Mu23-y1:027, "Poor Black Bess," James Lindsay Jun (Glasgow), 19C


  • Warde Ford, "My bonny black Bess" (AFS 4212 A1, 1939; in AMMEM/Cowell)
  • Lawrence Older, "Bonnie Black Bess" (on LOlder01)


  1. Laws L9, "My Bonny Black Bess"
  2. Randolph 167, "Bonnie Black Bess" (3 texts, 1 tune, with the "A" fragment and "B" text belonging here; the "C" text is Laws L8)
  3. BrownII 122, "My Bonnie Black Bess" (1 text)
  4. Gardner/Chickering 130, "My Bonny Black Bess" (1 text text plus 1 fragment and an excerpt, 2 tunes)
  5. Mackenzie 126, "Dick Turpin's Ride" (1 text)
  6. Fife-Cowboy/West 7, "Bonny Black Bess" (2 texts, 1 tune; the "A" text is this piece while the "B" text is Laws L8)
  7. Ohrlin-HBT 12, "Bonny Black Bess" (1 text, 1 tune)
  9. Roud #620
  10. BI, LL09


Alternate titles: “Bonnie Black Bess”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1928 (Mackenzie)
Found in: US(MA,MW,SE,So) Canada(Mar)