Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) is one of my favourite thieves, second only, in my opinion, to Robin Hood. He was rather like an eighteenth-century Artful Dodger, a proper cheeky chappie who thumbed his nose at authority, escaping from gaol no less than four times. This post gives a brief overview of his life and legend.
Jack Sheppard was born in Stepney, London in 1702. His father died when he was young, and Sheppard was placed into the care of the Parish Workhouse, where he remained for some time before being apprenticed to a carpenter named Mr. Wood, of Wych Street near Drury Lane. Contemporary accounts such as The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), the authorship of which has been credited to Daniel Defoe, tell us that Sheppard was in his early years a perfect apprentice.
Sheppard’s downfall into criminal ways, however, seems to be traced to the time that he first met a prostitute, named Elizabeth Lyons alias Edgeworth Bess, who he began cohabiting with. Sheppard’s biographer tells us that:
Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!
In a typical, Hogarthian idle apprentice manner, Sheppard began to grow weary of his industrious employment, and begins to quarrel with his master, Mr. Wood. Wood and his wife implored him not to associate any longer with Bess, but he would not listen to them. In fact, he beat Mrs. Wood with a stick for criticising Bess.
In July 1723 Sheppard committed his first robbery, having stolen a yard of fustian from the house of a Mr. Bains, a piece-maker who resided in Whitehouse Yard, London while on a job for Mr. Wood. Consequently, Sheppard and Mr. Wood parted ways, and his biographer tells us that:
He was gone from a good and careful patronage, and lay exposed to, and complied with, the temptations of the most wicked wretches this town could afford, as Joseph Blake alias Blueskin, William Field, Doleing, James Sykes, alias Hell and Fury.
In concert with these thieves, robbery followed robbery. One day he was apprehended in the attempt of picking a man’s pocket, and was committed to Newgate gaol with his companion, Edgeworth Bess. Gaols in the eighteenth century were privatised, and for the right price, the gaoler would allow you to have as many visitors as you wanted (even your own luxury private room, for the right price). Sheppard’s friends furnished him with a few instruments, and in three days’ time Sheppard managed to cut through his iron fetters, and cut off an iron bar from the window, out of which he and Bess escaped.
In a very moralistic passage, Sheppard’s biographer tells us that:
Sheppard, not warned by this admonition, returns like a dog to his vomit.
He returns to his thieving ways by robbing Mr. Carter’s house, a tailor who lived near his old master, Mr. Wood. From Mr. Carter he stole goods to the value of nearly £300, a princely sum in the eighteenth century. He then went on to rob a woollen draper, Mr. Kneebone, of goods that were also the equivalent of £50. He was no simple house-breaker though, for Sheppard also liked to rob people on the highway, as all the best eighteenth-century thieves did.
Sheppard’s fame, or infamy, grew so great that one of his victims, Mr. Kneebone, applied to the Thief Taker, Jonathan Wild (c.1682-1725) to have Sheppard apprehended and brought to trial. Wild was the chief agent of law enforcement in the country at the time, for there was no professional police force. The victim of a crime would go to Wild and tell him what he had stolen, Wild would then liaise with certain acquaintances of his from the criminal underworld to arrange, in return for a fee, the stolen goods (unbeknownst to most Londoners, however, is that it was usually Wild himself, at the head of a band of criminals, who was probably directing half of the robberies). Accordingly another warrant for Sheppard was drawn up, and was arrested when he broke into the house of William Fields.
After his indictment, Sheppard was committed to the New Prison, and sentenced to death by hanging. But again gaol could not contain Sheppard, and he escaped once again. His escape caused a sensation in the London press, and he became the talk of the town. The thing about Sheppard was that, while he was good at escaping from prison, he was never very good at evading recapture once he had escaped. He immediately went back to robbing people. And he was captured soon again. This time his time in gaol was spent with his feet weighed down with a ball-and-chain, lest he should try to escape again. By this time he was a celebrity; men and women of all ranks came to see him in prison. Even the famous artist, William Hogarth, came to draw him.
Yet inexplicably, despite being manacled on both of his limbs, Sheppard escaped again. The contemporary accounts of Sheppard’s life are not clear just how he managed this, but this last escape caused an even bigger sensation than his previous one. Unfortunately, he was again apprehended. It would have been better for him simply to have left London, but he did not. He was retaken. This last time there would be no escape, and on the 16 November 1724 Sheppard passed in the cart to Tyburn, where public executions were held, and was launched into eternity.
Sheppard’s story was used as the model for the highwayman Captain MacHeath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728). As well as the contemporary accounts of his life allegedly written by Defoe, narratives of Sheppard’s life appear in well-known criminal biographies such as Charles Johnson’s A General and True History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers (1734), and Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735), as well as in the countless editions of The Newgate Calendar which were published during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is also speculated that Sheppard may have been the inspiration for Hogarth’s Idle ‘Prentice in his series of prints entitled Industry and Idleness (1747). There were also plays about his life staged at the St. Bartholomew Fair celebrations, in addition to numerous street ballads and songs detailing his life and exploits.
It was in the Victorian era, however, when Jack’s reputation soared to new heights. William Harrison Ainsworth published his novel Jack Sheppard in 1839. The novel was initially well-received and even outsold early editions of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838), and is by far the best prose account of Sheppard’s story, although it is heavily fictionalised. Ainsworth draws upon Hogarth’s themes of industry and idleness; Sheppard and his childhood friend Thames Darrell are apprenticed to Mr. Wood. Sheppard is the idle apprentice while his friend Darrell is the industrious apprentice. Sheppard falls into a life of criminality; he commences by working for Jonathan Wild, but after a feud between the two, Wild vows to have Sheppard hanged, and eventually succeeds by the end of the novel.
The novel soon generated controversy, however, and there was a storm of moral outrage in the press. A reviewer in The Athenaeum called it:
A bad book, and what is worse, one of a class of bad books, got up for a bad people…a history of vulgar and disgusting atrocities.
Alongside the unfavourable reviews in magazines such as The Athenaeum, matters came to head in July 1840. In that year Lord William Russell (1767-1840) was murdered in his sleep by his valet, Benjamin Courvoisier. In one of several public confessions the valet stated that the idea for murdering his master came from having read the novel Jack Sheppard. W. M. Thackeray was disgusted with the genre and wrote his own Newgate novel, Catherine (1840) in order ‘to exhibit the danger and folly of investing [criminals] with heroic and romantic qualities’. The reaction to Ainsworth’s work broke through the romantic quarantine which the popular criminals such as Dick Turpin had hitherto enjoyed in literature. Ainsworth responded to his critics by writing a vigorous defence of the novel in The Times, and concluded that these attacks were nothing more than:
A most virulent and libellous attack upon my romance.
However, the damage had been done. The genre fell out of favour with the respectable reading public. The work really was perceived by them as ‘a bad book…one of a class of bad books’. The reason why there was a big moral panic over the novel, and in particular youth’s idealisation of Sheppard, was because in the novel Sheppard is not a noble robber like Robin Hood, nor is he a gentlemanly highwayman like Dick Turpin. In Ainsworth’s novel his boy thief, rather, acts on his impulses and takes pleasure in his crimes. There was no justification for Sheppard’s crimes in the novel.
Paradoxically, while he is a thief, he is also inherently noble, loyal to his friend Darrell and his mother, Joan. His devotion to his mother leads to his arrest, for he is apprehended at her funeral by Jonathan Wild, the famous thief taker. Sheppard’s moral ambiguity accounts for why the novel was deemed to be truly subversive by middle-class commentators in the press, as Lyn Pykett explains that:
Critics of the novel objected to mixed motives and mixed morality, preferring the security of a moral universe in which the good and bad, the criminal and the law-abiding, were readily identifiable as such.
The novel’s publication also coincided with the emergence of Chartism in 1838 – the year before the publication of the novel, and in the summer of 1839 – the year of Jack Sheppard’s publication – there was particularly violent rhetoric coming from the mouths of Chartist leaders, many of whom advocated strikes and violence against authority. Many young boys often took an active role in the Chartist movement, and contemporary police reports from the 1840s lay a particular emphasis upon the presence of young males at Chartist meetings. Although admittedly many of the boys present at those meetings may simply have been pickpockets who wished to capitalise upon the pickings to be had where a great number of people were present. Be that as it may, the figure of ‘the Artful Chartist Dodger’ was a worrying spectre for the respectable classes of Middle England, combining threats of both criminality and political insurrection.
You have to wonder why, in an age in which several novels featuring thieves and highwaymen were published, such as Rob Roy (1817), Robin Hood (1819), Ivanhoe (1819), Maid Marian (1822), Paul Clifford (1830), Eugene Aram (1832), Rookwood (1834), it was only Jack Sheppard in 1839 that was singled out for attention. And this was not lost on some contemporary reviewers:
Critics, who had always a passion for heroes in fetters before, now found out that housebreakers are disreputable characters. They were in raptures with the old-established brigand still, and the freebooter of foreign extraction; they could hug Robin Hood as fondly as ever, and dwell with unhurt morals on the little peccadilloes of Rob Roy; nay, they had no objection to ride behind Turpin to York any day, and would never feel ashamed of their company; but they shook their heads at Sheppard, because low people began to run after him at the theatres; he was a housebreaker!
After the furore surrounding Ainsworth’s novel in the 1840s died down, Sheppard’s tale continued to be popular, especially with young readers in the emerging ‘penny dreadful’ genre of literature. For example, there was the anonymously authored penny serial Jack Sheppard; or, London in the Last Century (1847). Despite the serial’s purporting to be an original story ‘arranged from some rare and original documents, in connection with the remarkable history of the above notorious individual, only recently discovered’, it is a virtual abridgment of Ainsworth’s novel. There was also The Eventful Life and Unparalleled Exploits of the Notorious Jack Sheppard, the Housebreaker, The Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard, as well as The Life of Jack Sheppard the Housebreaker, which are all undated but probably published around the 1840s. Other penny serial authors appropriated Sheppard’s name and fame for stories of other boy thieves, such as Charley Wag; or, The New Jack Sheppard (1865). Young male readers loved these tales, as indicated by the interviews with some youths which the social investigator, Henry Mayhew, published in his London Labour and the London Poor (1861):
Fifty of this number [of youths interviewed] said they had read ‘Jack Sheppard’ and the lines of Dick Turpin, Claude du Val, and all the other popular thieves’ novels, as well as the Newgate Calendar and Lives of Robbers and Pirates. Those who could not read themselves, said they’d had ‘Jack Sheppard’ read to them at the lodging houses. Numbers avowed that they had been induced to resort to an abandoned course of life from reading the lives of notorious thieves and novels about highway robbers.
And one youth told Mayhew that:
Of a night…we’d read stories about Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin, and all through that set. They were large thick books, borrowed from the library. They told how they used to break open the houses, and get out of Newgate, and how Dick got away to York. We used to think Jack and them very fine fellows. I wished I could be like Jack (I did then), about the blankets in his escape, and that old house in West-street -it is a ruin still.
Stage plays were held frequently throughout the nineteenth century in many of the ‘penny gaff’ theatres. And it may not be amiss to say that during the nineteenth century Jack Sheppard’s fame equalled that of Robin Hood himself, the original highwayman. And his image was also in advertising, and on cigarette trading cards. In short, he was one of the most famous thieves of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, the memory of Jack Sheppard has faded from public consciousness. He was the subject of a movie called Where’s Jack? (1969), which starred Tommy Steele in the title role. Perhaps one day some movie-maker will resurrect Jack Sheppard back into public memory.
n.b. All illustrations used are scanned from my own copies of first editions of these novels.