By Stephen Basdeo
Everyone nowadays seems fascinated by the Victorian criminal underworld. From Ripper Street to Peaky Blinders, it seems people cannot get enough of murdered sex workers and brutal yet gentlemanly gangsters. We all now know the tropes: most of the action—murder, rape, theft, domestic violence—in these television dramas takes places at night in gas-lit slum courts and alleyways where downtrodden working-class people eke out a living on poverty.
In The 19th-Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption, historian and novelist Stephen Carver, drawing upon a wide range of archival and literary sources, takes us on a journey through the seedy courts and sinister alleyways of the criminal underworld which existed during the nineteenth century. Yet while we today—as many Victorians did also—associate the idea of an underworld solely with the poor and destitute, Carver’s subtitle is significant: he examines the actual crimes which occurred in the period, taking us through the various laws which were passed against specific crimes theft and murder; he then takes us through a discussion of the controversy surrounding these crimes which was aired in the press and popular literature; and through his discussion of “white collar” crimes such as fraud, shows us how corruption reigned supreme in the higher echelons of society.
There are 9 chapters in total, each of which deals with a separate aspect of the various crimes and vices of the nineteenth-century underworld. Carver is also a novelist (see his other works), and it’s truly a blessing to have him bring his literary talents to a history book. I’ve read many academic histories on crime and many of them can end up reading a little drily, endlessly lost in theories and debates. Academic debates have their place in Carver’s history here, of course, but the reader is not overburdened with incomprehensible jargon from the likes of Michel Foucault—it seems literally every academic work on crime now feels obligated to cite the Foucault in some way or other these days.
Some of the events Carver recounts are unpleasant, but because he is a skilled writer he manifests a certain sensitivity in dealing with the more horrid aspects–child murders, for instance, are dealt with maturely and soberly. So this is not some rather rubbish true crime book–which always seem to be about ogling the foul deeds committed by brutes–but a well-written book which entertains where possible but treats the source material and subject (and the reader) with respect. I enjoyed all of the chapters, but I have to admit my favourite was chapter 5 on ‘The Real Oliver Twist’. He does not attempt to find a ‘real’ Oliver Twist in the manner that some would try and look for a ‘real’ Robin Hood; instead, he contextualises Dickens’s famous tale alongside contemporary high-profile cases and scandals such as baby farming, pick-pocketing epidemics, and the career of Ikey Solomon, a Jewish fence who almost certainly provided inspiration to Dickens for Fagin.
We find the ‘problem’ of prostitution laid bare to public view. While many true crime books often present sex workers as the helpless victims of fate, consigned forever to ply their trade on the rough street corners of the East End, Carver, refreshingly, at least gives some of these now long dead women some of their agency back—turns out some of them thoroughly enjoyed their profession and had no qualms about admitting it, as one ‘shrewd and clever’ girl told one of Henry Mayhew’s social investigators in the 1850s:
What are my habits? Why, if I have no letters or visits from any of my friends, I get up about four o’clock, dress (“en dishabille”) and dine; after that I may walk about the streets for an hour or two, and pick up any one I am fortunate enough to meet with, that is if I want money; afterwards I go to the Holborn, dance a little, and if any one likes me I take him home with me, if not I go to the Haymarket, and wander from one café to another, from Sally’s to the Carlton, from Barn’s to Sam’s, and if I find no one there I go, if I feel inclined, to the divans. I like the Grand Turkish best, but you don’t as a rule find good men in any of the divans. Strange things happen to us sometimes: we may now and then die of consumption; but the other day a lady friend of mine met a gentleman at Sam’s, and yesterday morning they were married at St. George’s, Hanover Square. The gentleman has lots of money, I believe, and he started off with her at once for the Continent. It is very true this is an unusual case; but we often do marry, and well too; why shouldn’t we, we are pretty, we dress well, we can talk and insinuate ourselves into the hearts of men by appealing to their passions and their senses.”
She may have been classed as a ‘fallen woman’ by pompous moralists, but there was also a chance she could rise to the higher echelons of society through her profession as well.
Yet the nineteenth-century underworld was by no means a poor man’s world.
Many true crime books rehearse those well-known tropes of gas-lit seedy alleys on their front covers. Yet the first thing that strikes the purchaser of Carver’s book is that, instead of such dark streets or a picture from Gustave Doré, we get a splash of colour—an image of pugilists adorns the spine, while the centrepiece of the front cover shows a well-dressed gentleman chatting up a lass whose breasts are partially exposed, although the paperback edition has a slightly different image on the front from Egan’s work. These images are taken from Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821)—the father of Pierce Egan the Younger (1814–80) whom I have written quite a lot about—and the images were a good choice because as Carver shows in his book, the underworld could be a very fun place if you had the money to enjoy the various attractions which London had to offer. It was a place where, as Egan said:
Every man of the most religious or moral habits, attached to any sect, may find something to please his palate, regulate his taste, suit his pocket, enlarge his mind, and make him happy and comfortable.
As Carver further points out:
In Life in London, the underworld is never represented by Egan as the menacing, gothic space it became to the Victorians. If [the characters of Life in London] wander somewhere scary, they do not hang around.
So, for a modestly priced volume which will soon be available in paperback as well, you too can, with Carver, navigate the seedy underworld of nineteenth-century London which could be both fun and frightening!