Dick Turpin, the infamous 18th century highwayman, is more commonly associated with York and London than with North Warwickshire. However, his ghost riding a phantom horse is reputed to travel along Watling Street between Nuneaton and Hinckley near to the deserted medieval village of Stretton Baskerville (Atkins, p. 126). A spate of eyewitness accounts, reported in newspapers in the 1920s, described the ghostly Turpin as wearing a black tricorn hat and a coat with red sleeves (Harries, p. 94; Atkins, pp. 126-127).
It may be the lure of hidden treasure which attracted the spectral Turpin to Stretton Baskerville as gold was reputed to be buried (possibly by Turpin himself) where the village once stood (Wharton, p. 82).
Stretton Baskerville’s demise
Folklore has it that Stretton Baskerville was destroyed by Henry Tudor during the Wars of the Roses. In 1485, after winning the battle of Bosworth, Henry rode to the village and burned it as its owner had refused to supply him with men for his battle against Richard III (Wharton, p. 82). However, the truth behind Stretton Baskerville’s demise is more prosaic. It was one of hundreds of villages which were depopulated during the late 15th century as their land was enclosed to make way for sheep farming, finally being completely abandoned in 1495.
How did Dick Turpin come to be linked with Stretton Baskerville in Warwickshire ghost lore? Whilst it is unclear when the earliest sightings of his ghost were recorded there, a series of children’s comics called The Dick Turpin Library appeared in the 1920s which may have had an influence on some witnesses’ perceptions of what they saw. The comics depicted Turpin dressed in a tricorn hat and red coat, much as described in the eyewitness accounts mentioned above.
A shady reputation
Dick Turpin could also have become linked with Stretton Baskerville as both it and Watling Street had a reputation for being used by those who were outside the law. Not only were stretches of Watling Street the location for some of Turpin’s nefarious activities but it was also ‘a vagrants’ highway’ (Beresford, p. 74). Although they could include criminals, vagrants were often those who had been made homeless or unemployed and roamed the country seeking work. However such bands of wanderers were viewed as a threat to law and order and, from the 14th century, vagrancy was a punishable offence.
In the case of Stretton Baskerville, deserted villages had a long-held reputation as hiding places for criminals. For example, in his list of abandoned settlements made in 1486, John Rous, the antiquarian and a chantry priest at Guy’s Cliffe, commented that such ’deserted places… provided a refuge for thieves’ (Atkins, p. 127).
Taking these factors into account Stretton Baskerville and its surrounds provides a more than suitable location for a highwayman’s ghost – though whether the spectre is actually Dick Turpin is a matter of speculation.
Meg Elizabeth Atkins, Haunted Warwickshire (London: Robert Hale), 1981, p. 126.
Maurice Beresford, The Lost Villages of England (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1998).
J. Harries, The Ghost Hunter’s Road Book (London: Muller, 1968) cited Wharton.
C.S. Wharton, Folklore of South Warwickshire (unpublished PhD thesis, 1974).