The Victorian Underworld

The New Newgate Calendar, Vol. 1, No. 41 (1864).

This is the text of a public talk given at Abbey House Museum, Kirkstall, Leeds on 1 March 2015 to complement their Crime and Punishment Exhibition.


The history of crime, in particular the history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century crime, is often sensationalised in popular histories. Usually these types of history books focus upon notorious cases such as that of Jack the Ripper in the late Victorian period. It is only relatively recently that a small cohort of professional historians who have approached the subject from an academic standpoint, including Heather Shore, [1] Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, [2] and Clive Emsley. [3] And it is the insights and research of these historians that I would like to introduce you to today, as well as some of my own research from my Masters dissertation. [4]

The Victorian period witnessed a number of changes in the nature of dealing with crime. There was the establishment of a professionalised police force with the passage of the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829, which replaced the haphazard system of part time constables, Bow Street Runners, and Thief Takers. Gaols, which previously had housed offenders only until their trial, became huge institutions which where offenders stayed for a longer term. The object of this was not only to punish the offender but also to rehabilitate him or her. Most importantly for the purposes of our talk today, the Victorian period witnessed the emergence of an idea: the idea of the criminal class, or underworld. In popular histories, terms such as ‘underworld’ have often been applied without consideration of their full meaning, and usually to sensational effect. Indeed, perhaps I am guilty of this myself in naming my talk such in order to draw people in, playing on people’s interest in the darker side of Victorian life. Sometimes the underworld is almost envisaged as a physical space. To the Victorians the idea of the existence of an underworld, or a criminal class held that there was a certain section of society, drawn from its poorest ranks, that was responsible for the majority of crime. But as I will show, this is very much an idea that was constructed in the Victorian press and popular fiction. To chart the development of the idea of a Victorian criminal, however, we need to briefly begin in the previous century, the Georgian period.

The Eighteenth Century

The image which many people will have of crime in the eighteenth century is of the romanticised highway robber. Criminals such as Dick Turpin (1705-1739) are usually portrayed in literature and television shows as gallant, noble robbers, usually mounted upon a trusty steed such as Turpin’s Black Bess. This was not always the view of people who actually lived in the eighteenth century, however, and Turpin’s modern reputation as a noble robber was an invention of the nineteenth-century novelist William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) in Rookwood: A Romance (1834). The real Turpin was something of a thug.

Romanticised 19th-century image of Dick Turpin

In reality, crime was perceived as a problem during the eighteenth century. People in England, particularly in London, believed that they were in the midst of a ‘crime wave’. One newspaper in the late seventeenth century reported that:

Even at noonday, and in the most open spaces in London, persons are stopped and robbed. [5]

Similarly, the pamphlet Newes from Newgate (Newgate was a notorious gaol in London) reported that:

Notwithstanding the severity of our wholesome laws, and vigilancy of magistrates against robbers and highwaymen, ‘tis too notorious that the roads are almost perpetually infested with them. [6]

Later in the eighteenth century, the author Horace Walpole (1717-1797) wrote to a friend that:

You will hear little news from England, but of robberies […] people are almost afraid of stirring after dark. [7]

Henry Fielding (1707-1754) would echo the same sentiments in his 1751 publication An Enquiry into the Causes of the Great Increase of Robbers, saying that:

I make no doubt, but that the streets of this town, and the roads leading to it, will shortly be impassable without the utmost hazard, nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous rogues gangs of rogues among us, than those which the Italians call the banditti. [8]

Thus what we have in the eighteenth century is a moral panic over this perceived wave of crime that England was said to be experiencing throughout the century. It is doubtful that crime in the eighteenth century was ever as bad as people in the past thought that it might be. Certainly there were sporadic increases in the number of indictments, and these spikes generally coincided with peace treaties, when soldiers returned home and had trouble finding means of supporting themselves.

Jack Sheppard (1702-1724)

However, in the eighteenth century, criminals occupy the same moral universe as law abiding people. [9] They are not inherently different from normal members of society. They are people who had allowed themselves to succumb to their own sinful inclinations. Usually the route to crime was through a love of gambling and good living, and bad associations. So the famous eighteenth-century house breaker, Jack Sheppard (1702-1724), first turned to crime when he met Edgeworth Bess, a prostitute, and began cohabiting with her. Similarly, the fictional highwayman Captain MacHeath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) manifests a love of good living, and it is implied that this is why he continues to rob as it is said:

Mrs. Peach. Pray, my dear, is the Captain rich?
Peach. The Captain keeps too good company ever to grow rich. Marybone and the chocolate-houses are his undoing. The man that proposes to get money by play should have the education of a fine gentleman, and be train’d up to it from his youth. [10]

Criminals are simply people with a tragic fatal flaw in their character, but they are not inherently criminal. And indeed however wrong their actions are, the English criminal in this period was credited with a certain amount of civility and politeness. They might have robbed you, but they were relatively nice about it.

The Nineteenth Century

The situation changes, however, as we move into the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The industrial revolution continued apace and concomitant with this was increasing urbanisation. The poor migrated from rural areas in search of work, and they gathered in certain districts of cities, which in time would come to be designated as slum areas. One effect of having so many people living in close proximity in dire poverty is that the areas where they live become a natural breeding ground for crime. The early socialist writer Frederich Engels painted a gloomy picture in The Condition of the Working Class in England that:

The incidence of crime has increased with the growth of the working-class population and there is more crime in Britain than in any other country in the world.[11]

What we begin to see in the Victorian press and contemporary popular culture are portrayals and references to ‘professional criminals’. This type of offender was represented, for example, by men such as Bill Sikes in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist (1838), who inhabits an ‘underworld’ peopled by other ominous creatures. He is a man whose sole existence and subsistence is based upon the proceeds of crime. Dickens’ description of the environment and the populace in Jacob’s Island, a place notorious for crime, is quite revealing. When Oliver is taken by the Artful Dodger to go and meet Fagin, a receiver of stolen goods, Oliver takes note of some of the people he encounters on the way there:

Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the door-ways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands. [12]

Dickens’ characters, Sikes and Fagin, operate in a relatively sophisticated manner. There’s a division of labour. Sikes and his henchmen rob people, but they rely on Fagin’s criminal network to dispose of their stolen goods.

Header - Oliver Twist

[Source: George Cruikshank, ‘Oliver’s reception by Fagin and the boys’ (1846), Eighth illustration, The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham) <>]

In a word, crime in the modern industrial city is thought to have become organised, and this is reflected in other pieces of popular literature such as George W. M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London, serialised between 1844 and 1845, which was the biggest selling novel of the Victorian period. Inspired by a serialised French novel by Eugene Sue entitled The Mysteries of Paris (1844), it is a tale of vice and crime in both high and low life. To see how crime is configured as something that is organised, take this example of a highway robbery:

‘What’s the natur of the sarvice?’ demanded the Cracksman.
‘A highway robbery’ coolly answered [Eugene]…‘I will explain what I want done. Between eleven and twelve o’clock a gentleman will leave London for Richmond. He will be in his own cabriolet. His horse is bay, with silver mounted harness. This gentleman must be stopped; and everything his pockets contain must be brought to me. Whatever money there may be about him shall be yours:-but all that you find about his person, save the money, must be brought to me’. [13]

In this passage, the old image of the lone highwayman upon the heath in the moonlight is dead. This is not a feat likely to have been done by a ‘heroic’ highwayman. What we have here is organised crime. It is carried out with precision. Crime in the new urban society is depicted here as being cold and calculated, and it is carried through as though it was a business transaction. After Eugene relates the particulars of how the robbery is to be undertaken, he gives the Cracksman an advance of twenty guineas, to which the villain exclaims ‘that’s business!’ After the deed has been done, the Cracksman says to Eugene that he hopes ‘that he should have his custom in future’. The Cracksman, similar to Dickens’ Bill Sikes and Fagin, was a ‘professional criminal’. There was nothing ‘gentlemanly’ or ‘polite’ about the above exchange between the Cracksman and Eugene, instead the undertaking of the highway robbery was determined by financial considerations.

Illustration from G. W. M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844-45) [Source:]

In addition to ideas surrounding professional criminals, towards the middle of the century we start to see another term come into use: ‘criminal class’. The criminal class, it was assumed, were a class of people beneath the respectable working classes who, like professional criminals, existed solely upon the proceeds of crime. It was imagined that there were specific geographical locations that harboured members of this criminal class. It was a term which was driven by the press and also adopted by law enforcement. Perhaps the person most responsible for giving impetus to the growth of this idea was Henry Mayhew who wrote a four volume social treatise entitled London Labour and the London Poor in 1861. Mayhew travelled into some of the poorest districts of the capital and documented what he saw, often conducting interviews with paupers. Taking his cue from the eighteenth-century writer Henry Fielding, he divided the poor into three categories or groups – the Victorians loved to categorise things – and these were: those that will work (the respectable working classes), those that can’t work (the infirm, disabled, and the elderly), and those that won’t work. It is in the last category that the criminal classes could be found, according to Mayhew.

Thos Hopkinson Highway Robbery
Hopkinson, Thomas. The life and execution of Thomas Hopkinson, jun. :who suffered this day on the new drop, in front of the county gaol, Derby, for highway robbery.. [Derby] : G. Wilkins, printer, Queen Street, Derby., [1819]. HOLLIS ID: 005949713 [Reproduced with the permission of Harvard Library School of Law]

The poorest class of society were accused of being many things. They were usually accused of being idle – shunning hard work. In turn this made them turn to a life of crime. Usually they indulged in certain vices: gambling, drink. They usually avoided going to Church. The broadside detailing the ‘Last Dying Speech’ of Thomas Hopkinson is typical of how many people viewed criminals:

He formed an intercourse with abandoned companions, and commenced that profligate career which brought him to his untimely end […] his whole time was spent in the perpetration of almost every species of vice. The petty pilferings in which he engaged, gradually, led him on to bolder offences: his mind became so familiarised with guilt that he seemed scarcely sensible of its depravity; and thus, in the natural progress of iniquity, he was led on till be was ‘driven away with his wickedness’. [14]

Their living conditions were assumed to be deplorable. Even a man such as G. W. M. Reynolds, who was a radical and quite friendly towards the working classes, did some investigation into working-class living conditions. He found one slum dwelling that was:

A regular pig-stye, in which they wallowed like swine: and like that of brutes was also the conduct of the boys and girls. If the other rooms of the house were used as a brothel by grown up persons, no stew could be more atrocious than this garret […] Many children of nine and ten practised the vices of their elders. But, my God! Let me draw a veil over this dreadful scene. [15]

Dickens’ description of Jacob’s Island, the area where Fagin lives, is similar in its horror:

Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it – as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob’s Island. [16]

In the years after Reynolds and Mayhew other social investigators would follow his lead. Andrew Mearns authored The Bitter Cry of Outcast London in 1883, subtitled as ‘An Inquiry into the Condition of the Abject Poor’. In 1885 William T. Stead, a journalist for The Pall Mall Gazette, authored a series of articles entitled ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ which purported to be ‘The story of an actual pilgrimage into a real hell’. [17] He showed readers how easy it was for somebody to ‘purchase’ a child prostitute. Similarly, Charles Booth published a monumental social study entitled Life and Labour of the People in London, which eventually ran to seventeen volumes, between 1889 and 1903. All of these publications perpetuated the myth that it was the poorer classes of society who were responsible for the majority of crime. Closer to home, W. Swift authored Leeds Slumdom in 1896, although he was relatively understanding about the problems that working-class people faced, saying that although many people thought that the poor were poor because they were idle, ‘the more I study the character and history of our slum dwellers, the less inclined I am to think that idleness is their besetting sin’. [18]

Nevertheless, so ingrained was the idea of a criminal class becoming that people in government were talking soon about it. In the minutes of evidence for the Report of the Capital Punishment Commission in 1865, for example, we find the commissioners speaking of ‘The vast criminal class that holds sway in this country’. [19] People even assumed that they could identify and quantify this dangerous criminal class. J. Thackeray Bunce, in an academic journal article from 1865, produced a graph in which he estimated the numbers of the criminal classes, as you can see here:


Source: <<>>

The caveat here is that these were ‘estimated numbers’, and in fact it was often quite difficult to find an actual person who hailed from this seemingly elusive criminal class. To be sure, Mayhew had spoken to many criminals, but no criminal ever said: “I am a member of the criminal class and I live in the underworld”. It was very much a label applied by the elite to the poorer sections of society. And it was a convenient label too, which absolved those in higher social situations of any responsibility towards making working and living conditions better for the working classes.

For some members of the supposed criminal class, however, it was not all doom and gloom. Children especially could be redeemed through the efforts of reforming societies and a rigorous penal system, because one of the great fears of people in the early nineteenth century was that the opportunistic young pickpocket would grow into a professional criminal. Early on some reformers realised that it was sometimes counter-productive to incarcerate children with adults because of the corrupting effects it might have on a child who could be saved:

I consider that the indiscriminate confinement practised in most of our prisons, where the child committed for trial or some small offence, is locked up in the same yard, and obliged to constantly associate with the hardened offender and convicted felon, is the most certain method that can be devised of increasing the number of delinquents. [20]

The press unsurprisingly saw the work of these reformers as a good thing. In 1852, for example, The Morning Chronicle reported how:

A blue book containing evidence given before the Select Committee of the House of Commons upon juvenile destitution will comprise an account [… of how] 140 of the vagrant and criminal class [… have been] drilled into order and industry. [21]

Of course, most of the people, children included, who were indicted for robbery and/or burglary were not in reality professional criminals. But as I said earlier, it was convenient for the Victorian press and contemporary reformers to push the idea of an underworld or criminal class.

uriah heep
Uriah Heep, from Dickens’ David Copperfield (1849-50)

Surely, however, the idea of a criminal class or underworld subculture does not sufficiently explain the fact that seemingly respectable criminals turned to crime? It is a question that Victorian moralists in the press themselves struggled to explain. Why did white collar crime exist when it was supposedly only the criminal class – drawn from the poorer parts of society – who perpetrated the majority of crime? A prevalent motif in Victorian literature is that of the corrupt clerk or banker who embezzles and steals funds from respectable people. In Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield (serialised between 1849 and 1850), for instance, we have Uriah Heep, an almost snakelike and devious character who extorts money from the good Mr. Wickfield. Similarly, there is Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel The Woman in White, serialised between 1859 and 1860, who plots to claim Laura Fairlee’s fortune by faking her death. Recognising that businessmen of good social standing were perfectly able to commit offences, The Illustrated London News reported that:

If we progress at the same rate for half a generation longer, commercial dishonesty will become the rule, and integrity the exception. On every side of us we see perpetually – fraud, fraud, fraud. [22]

These people, however, were viewed as exceptions: they were often seen as ‘bad apples’. They had often been led astray or been placed in a tempting situation. [23] In the case of middle- and upper-class offenders, often employers were criticised for lacking a sense of proper business management, or for paying their clerks wages that were too low. [24] As one newspaper asked:

We can’t for a moment dispute the right of merchant princes paying what salaries they deem fit to their clerks […] but we would ask, is the system of paying low salaries likely to conduce a high moral tone in the young men employed? [25]

Oddly, while low wages might encourage dishonesty in middle-class clerks, the same reasoning seems never to have been applied to the poorer classes who often lived a hand-to-mouth existence.


Just to conclude, I hope that what I have shown you today is that the idea of a Victorian underworld, or criminal class, is just that: an idea. There was never anything tangible about the underworld. You could not go and visit. It was a description applied by the elites in society to some of the poorest, most vulnerable members of society. Moralists in the press imagined that there were some people who were irredeemably criminal. Yet the fact that it was an invented idea should be evident by the fact that a conception of a criminal class, or underworld, did not exist prior to the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth century nobody was born a criminal; offenders and the law-abiding inhabited the same moral universe. [26] Crime was a sin, rather than something inherent.

The term ‘underworld’ is still used frequently in the press to this day. We are told in The Telegraph, for example, that the Hatton Garden Robbers ‘the busiest crooks in the underworld’. [27] Similarly, so convincing in explaining criminality was the idea of a criminal class that it is, by and large, an explanation of crime which we are stuck with today. I just want to take a recent example from The Big Issue magazine. While the magazine praised its own good work in helping to reform many offenders, it lamented the state of the prison system in the UK, saying:

Some Big Issue sellers are ex-cons but, while this organisation helps move people back to normal life, our prisons are so useless in helping men and women back permanently on to the straight and narrow that they increase rather than decrease the overall size of the criminal class. [28]

Additionally, in the Daily Mail newspaper in January of this year, the columnist Peter Hitchens in an article entitled ‘The Great British Bobby is Dead’ railed against the police in the following manner:

These new police are obsessed with the supposed secret sins of the middle class, and indifferent to the cruel and callous activities of the criminal class. [29]

Crime these days is often something that happens ‘out there’ in what the press calls ‘deprived areas’. Indeed, television shows such as Benefits Street, arguably the modern equivalent of Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, encourage the myth that it is primarily people from lower social strata who turn to crime. So if there is one thing which I hope you will take away from today, it is obviously that it is not the poor who are responsible for the majority of crime; the criminal underworld is nothing more than a convenient label for the elites which they apply often to some of our most vulnerable people.


1. Heather Shore, Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in Early Nineteenth-Century London (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1999) & London’s Criminal Underworlds, c.1720-c.1930: A Social and Cultural History (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015).
2. Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime, and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
3. Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900 (London: Longman, 1987)
4. Stephen Basdeo, ‘Dying Speeches, Daring Robbers, and Demon Barbers: The Forms and Functions of Nineteenth-Century Crime Literature, c.1800-c.1868 (Unpublished MA Thesis, Leeds Metropolitan University, 2014).
5. Cited in Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.x.
6. Anon. Newes from Newgate: or, a True Relation of the Manner of Taking Several Persons, Very Notorious for Highway-men, in the Strand; upon Munday the 13th of this Instant November, 1677 cited in Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 47
7. Horace Walpole, ‘To Mann, Wednesday 31 January 1750’ in The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, Eds. W. S. Lewis et al 48 Vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 20: 111-131 (111)
8. Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increases of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), p.1.
9. Emsley, Crime and Society, p.59.
10. John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera (London: John Watts, 1728), p.5.
11. Frederich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1848 repr. London: Penguin, 2009)
12. Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (London, 1838) [Internet <<>&gt; Accessed 24 February 2016].
13. George William MacArthur Reynolds, The Mysteries of London: Containing Stories of Vice in the Modern Babylon (1845 repr. London, 1890), p.81.
14. The Life and Execution of Thomas Hopkinson (Derby: G. Wilkins, 1819).
15. G. W. M. Reynolds cited in Michael Diamond, Victorian Sensation: or, The Spectacular, the Shocking, and the Scandalous inn Nineteenth-Century Britain (London: Anthem, 2003), 193.
16. Dickens, Oliver Twist [Internet <<>&gt; Accessed 24 February 2016].
17. W. T. Stead, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon: A Notice to Our Readers: A Frank Warning’ The Pall Mall Gazette 4 July 1885 [Internet <; Accessed 24 February 2016].
18. W. Swift, Leeds Slumdom (Leeds, 1896), p.15.
19. Report of the Capital Punishment Commission (London: George E. Eyre, 1866), p.240.
20. Cited in Shore, Artful Dodgers, p.102.
21. Anon. The Morning Chronicle 11 August 1852, p.2.
22. Cited in Emsley, Crime and Society, p.57.
23. Emsley, Crime and Society, p.58.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid.
26. Emsley, op cit.
27. Tom Morgan and Martin Evans ‘Revealed: How Hatton Garden’s OAP raiders were cream of criminal underworld’ The Telegraph 14 January 2016 [Internet: <<>&gt; Accessed 01 February 2016].
28. Dennis McShane, ‘Lord Ramsbotham Interview: There is No Accountability in Our Prisons’ The Big Issue 8 June 2015 [Internet: <<>&gt; Accessed 01 February 2016].
29. Peter Hitchens, ‘The Great British Bobby is Dead’ Mail on Sunday 24 January 2016 [Internet: <; Accessed 01 February 2016.


Charles Johnson’s ‘Lives of the Highwaymen’ (1734)

There is no reference in any historical archives to a Captain named Charles Johnson. The name is most likely a pseudonym for a writer whose identity is now lost to us. Some scholars such as J. R. Moore have theorised that Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), although this has recently been argued against by P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens in Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (1994). [1] Whoever Johnson was, however, he was a prolific writer, and authored several compendiums of criminal biographies beginning with A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), before going on to write The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735).[2]

Johnson title page
Title Page: Johnson’s Highwaymen (1762 edition)

Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen was part of one of the most popular genres of early eighteenth-century literature: the criminal biography. It grew out of seventeenth-century picaresque and rogue fiction, and one factor which explains its emergence is the breakdown of feudalism and the social obligations which each class owed one another, and the rise of capitalism. Hence the protagonist was usually a socially marginal person who was scrambling to survive in a new capitalist world.[3] As crime was increasingly perceived as a problem moving into the eighteenth century, people began to take more of an interest in the literature of crime, seeking to understand the criminal, hence the rise of criminal biographies such as Johnson’s.

For his History of the Highwaymen, Johnson appears to have taken inspiration from, and in some cases virtually plagiarised an earlier compendium of criminal lives by Alexander Smith (another pseudonymous author) entitled A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Foot-pads, Shoplifts, and Cheats, of Both Sexes, for Above Fifty Years Past (1714). In turn Smith’s accounts were widely plagiarised from chapbooks and other earlier pamphlets dealing with the lives of criminals.


In Johnson’s collection, as the title suggests, we have the history of some of the most notorious criminals who lived in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and indeed some from before the early modern period such as Robin Hood. His accounts are usually very formulaic, and he had a particular style. He would open the account of an offender’s life with a discussion of their birth and parentage. Take the account of the noted highwayman, Claude Du Vall:

Du Vall was born at Dumford in Normandy. His father was a miller, and his mother descended from an honourable race of tailors.[4]

The offender’s parents are always good people. Whether this was true or not is unknown, but Johnson uses accounts of the parents’ lives so that they might act as foils to the offender, who is usually portrayed as a wicked sinner. This is the case with Sawney Cunningham, another highwayman whose life is laid bare for the reader in Johnson’s history:

The precepts of a good education, or the example of virtuous parents, were not wanting to render this individual a worthy member of society; his natural untoward disposition, however, was inclined towards wickedness and luxury.[5]

From then on, Johnson tells the tale of how the criminal fell into an ever deeper circle of vice and sin. The tales of most of the male offenders related by Johnson are usually cast as the tale of an idle apprentice who disdains honest employment. Not even Robin Hood, a noble thief by our standards today, is spared this treatment. Johnson tells us that:

At an early period of his life he was trained to the occupation of a butcher, but his roving disposition was soon disgusted by that industrious employment.[6]

What then follows is a tale of all the major robberies committed by the villain, often narrated in very quick succession. The offender’s crimes begin small, often through the pilfering of farthings and marbles, and then they move on to bolder offences. Crime was viewed almost like it was an addiction in eighteenth-century narratives, much like today how ‘soft’ drugs lead on to ‘harder’ drugs.[7]

One interesting aspect of all eighteenth-century highwaymen narratives is that they are usually portrayed as having robbed alone. For example, of the famous highwayman William Davis alias The Golden Farmer, Johnson says:

He usually robbed alone.[8]

In his narrative of Robin Hood, Johnson makes virtually no reference to any of the ‘merry men’ whom we usually associate with the famous outlaw today, and it is pointed out that:

Robin’s adventures were sometimes of a solitary nature.[9]

This is important because people in the eighteenth century were afraid of organised crime, and the prospect of armed gangs of criminals preying upon travellers was offensive to the popular imagination.[10] The semi-romantic idea of a lone highwayman upon the heath, who robbed travellers with a certain degree of civility and politeness, was an altogether more ‘friendly’ image than a gang of armed thugs.

Towards all of his criminals Johnson has an ambiguous attitude. He admires them and despises them in equal measure. For example, even though Robin Hood is portrayed as a typical idle apprentice, having lived ‘a misspent life’, Johnson exhorts the reader at the end of his narrative to:

Offer for his soul your prayers.[11]

Indeed, Johnson portrays many of his highwaymen as being very generous fellows, as is the case with the seventeenth-century Royalist highwayman, James Hind:

Hind has often been celebrated for his generosity to the poor.[12]

The ambiguously sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we see in criminal biographies are a result of the fact that crimes were seen as sins by eighteenth-century contemporaries. These men are not wicked to the bone, but rather have simply made bad life choices which have consequently led them into a life of crime. Such bad life choices include becoming addicted to drink, gambling, whoring and all the other vices available to young men in eighteenth-century towns.

Golden Farmer
Engraving of a highwayman from Johnson’s Highwaymen (1762 Edition)

At the end of the tale we are given an account of the criminal’s death, and notwithstanding the sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we encounter in Johnson’s narratives, hanging is usually portrayed as a sentence that is justly deserved, as in the case of Tom Sharp, another highwayman:

Tom finished his career, by shooting a watchman who had prevented him from breaking into a shop. After sentence, he continued as hardened as ever, and despised all instruction; but when the halter was placed around his neck, he cried out for mercy, and manifested the strongest signs of wretchedness and wild despair. In this awful state of mind, the cart went forward, and he suffered the due merit of his crimes.[13]

However much an audience may have sympathised with a criminal, they usually liked to see them punished just as much – to see justice done, as Joseph Addison (1682-1719) explained that:

The mind of man is naturally a lover of justice, and when we read a story wherein a criminal is overtaken, in whom there is no quality of which is the object of pity, the soul enjoys a certain revenge for the offence done to its nature, in the wicked actions committed in the preceding part of the history.[14]

Furthermore, the tales Johnson tells are what I like to call “true-ish”; that is to say that, there is some fact interspersed with a lot of fiction. Indeed, the fact that these works were ‘histories’ is a little misleading. Johnson, and Smith before him, were rarely concerned with laying out the ‘facts’ of offender’s life; they simply wanted to entertain. In fact, sometimes they completely invented the narratives. In both Smith and Johnson’s work, for instance, we have the life of that celebrated robber, Sir John Falstaff,[15] and in another place, we have the life of Colonel Jack, based upon a novel by Daniel Defoe.

There is a high degree of sanctimonious moralism in Johnson’s narratives, such as the opening to the account of the highwayman, Walter Tracey:

The adventures of this individual are neither of interest nor importance; but his life, like that of Cunningham, shows how far the advantages of a good education may be perverted.[16]

At the beginning of Colonel Jack’s narrative, Johnson says that:

The various turns of fortune present a delightful field, in which the reader may gather useful instruction. The thoughtless and profligate reader will be stimulated to reformation, when he beholds that repentance is the happiest termination of a wicked life.[17]

Hal Gladfelder says, however, that the moralism in these texts was merely an ‘obligatory gesture’ to the establishment, while what Johnson really wanted to do was to provide sensational entertainment; entertainment that would sell well.[18]

It would be easy to dismiss Johnson’s work as nothing more than cheap Grub Street and of no significance. But these compendia were quite expensive works. Johnson’s original Lives of the Highwaymen was published in folio size and accompanied with fine engravings. It was most likely a middle-class readership which these books were aimed at. Indeed, in Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, he states in the introduction that:

It will not be without its uses amongst the middling sort of people.[19]

Although largely forgotten about today, criminal biographies did do one important thing: they paved the way for the emergence of the novel. Instead of relating the lives of aristocrats and Kings, criminal biography attempted to show people ‘real life’. This is why many early novels deal with crime: Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wild (1743) are merely two examples of this. Thus criminal biography, although it died out relatively quickly, has left its mark on a genre of fiction that we still read today.

Read the 1762 Edition of Johnson’s Highwaymen here.



[1] P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: Hambledon, 1994), 133-134.
[2] Perhaps the name Charles Johnson was chosen because in 1712 another man named Charles Johnson had authored a play entitled The Successful Pyrate (London, 1712).
[3] Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
[4] Charles Johnson, The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Street Robbers, Pirates (1734 repr. London: T. Tegg, 1839), 140.
[5] Johnson, Highwaymen, 86.
[6] Johnson, Highwaymen, 70.
[7] Andrea Mackenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), 59.
[8] Johnson, Highwaymen, 21.
[9] Johnson, Highwaymen, 73.
[10] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 71.
[11] Johnson, Highwaymen, 80.
[12] Johnson, Highwaymen, 137.
[13] Johnson, Highwaymen, 415.
[14] Joseph Addison, ‘Number 491’ in The Spectator: A New Edition, Reproducing the Original Text, Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors Ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge, 1880), 699-701 (701).
[15] It need scarcely be explained that Falstaff is actually a Shakespearean character, and therefore completely fictional.
[16] Johnson, Highwaymen, 91.
[17] Johnson, Highwaymen, 275.
[18] Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, 71.
[19] Charles Johnson, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), i.

Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)

Ritson’s introduction to A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode.

One of the more interesting characters that I have come across in the course of my research is the antiquarian, Joseph Ritson (1752-1803). Ritson was born in Stockton-on-Tees northern England. Not a lot is known of his early life. His tutor, Rev. John Thompson, however, spoke of him as one of his best pupils. [1] He never went to university but was instead apprenticed to a solicitor. Ritson is remembered, however, for his antiquarian pursuits; an interest he maintained throughout his life.

Before going into detail about his antiquarian research, however, I would like to dwell upon some of his eccentricities. Unusually for people in the eighteenth century, Ritson was a vegetarian. Nicholas Harris explained in his biography that:

A perusal of Maudeville’s Fable of the Bees, induced […] serious reflection and caused him firmly to adhere to a milk and vegetable diet, having at least never tasted, during the whole course of those thirty years, a morsel of flesh, fish, or fowl. [2]

At a time when eating beef was seen as patriotic (it was the era of ‘the roast beef of old England), Ritson’s diet must have raised a few eyebrows. He published the reasons for his vegetarianism in An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food, as a Moral Duty (1802).

He was also an atheist. When he died, for instance, he was in the middle of completing a tract that attempted to prove that Jesus Christ was an imposter. Indeed, throughout his life he was known to have told his associates that:

He did not believe that there was any such being as Almighty God, or that there was any future state of rewards or punishment, and the greatest devil he knew was a nasty, crabbed, ill-natured old woman. [3]

But he was always a kind man, and would do anything to help his friends. His kindliness manifested itself in various ways. He was known to be very charitable towards the poor. Not out of the hope of ‘storing up treasures in heaven’ but simply out of fellow human goodness. [4] He did not need a God to tell him to do good works.

Ritson’s Select Collection of English Songs.

Ritson could also be cantankerous, although this was probably a result of the mental health issues he suffered from throughout his life. He was one of a group of antiquarian scholars who came to prominence during the eighteenth century, but he constantly criticised other scholars’ methodologies in the press. Thomas Percy, who took it upon himself to ‘edit’ old English ballads, came in for a lot of criticism by Ritson. The criticism was often justified; Percy, for instance, ‘edited’ the medieval ballad of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne so as not to offend the polite sensibilities of his eighteenth-century readers. Consequently, Robert Southey would later remark of Ritson that:

Ritson is the oddest, but most honest of all our antiquarians, and he abuses Percy and Pinkerton with less mercy than justice’.[5]

Luckily, despite his severe criticism of other scholars, people such as Sir Walter Scott appeared to know how to handle him and his eccentric ways.

He published many collections of ‘ancient’ (I will discuss the implications of this below) poetry, such as The Northumberland Garland (1793) and Ancient English Metrical Romances (1802). Ritson is chiefly remembered nowadays, however, for the work that he did on the Robin Hood legend. In 1795 he published his two volume work Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795). In this publication Ritson gathered together every known Robin Hood text then known, and made available for the first time in an accessible printed form the ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450). As well as Robin Hood and the Potter and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, both of which date from the fifteenth century, he included many of the later seventeenth-century broadside ballads such as Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood (1631), and Robin Hood and the Tanner (late 17th century). Ritson, however, was quite cunning in including these later ballads in a collection of ‘all the ancient poems, songs, and ballads’. Except for the Geste, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, and Robin Hood and the Potter, most of the later ballads in his collection were not ‘reliques’ of an ancient English past; they were still being sold as broadsides for a penny during the eighteenth century.

Title Page to the 1823 Edition of Ritson's Anthology
Ritson, J. ed. Robin Hood (1795).

Ritson also offered readers ‘historical anecdotes’ of Robin Hood’s life which he prefaced to the beginning of the collection of ballads. But before we discuss the biography of Robin Hood that he had written, let me give you some background in regards to Ritson’s political beliefs. Ritson was an outspoken republican who wished to see an end to the monarchy. But these beliefs, with the commencement of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), and the repressive legislation on political freedom of thought brought in by the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, meant that it was quite dangerous to express republican sympathies in public. Ritson himself was conscious that he was being watched by the authorities. While in the early years of the Revolution he referred to his friends by such names as ‘Citizen Equality’, by 1793 he decided to stay silent in all political matters:

I find it prudent to say as little as possible on political subjects, in order to keep myself out of Newgate. [6]

Consequently, he needed an outlet for his republican sympathies. So when he was writing his biography of Robin Hood, he transformed Robin Hood from being a small-time medieval outlaw who lived in the woods to a radical, almost revolutionary bandit:

In these forests, and with this company, he for many years reigned like an independent sovereign; at perpetual war, indeed, with the King of England, and all his subjects, with an exception, however, of the poor and needy. [7]

Ritson states, furthermore, that Robin’s acts of defiance against the King should be viewed as the highest form of patriotism:

It is not, at the same time, to be concluded that he must, in this opposition, have been guilty of manifest treason or rebellion; as he most certainly can be justly charged with neither. [8]

In short, Robin was a man whom:

In a barbarous age, and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence, which has endeared him to the common people, whose cause he maintained, (for all opposition to tyranny is the cause of the people), and in spite of the malicious endeavours of pitiful monks, by whom history was consecrated to the crimes and follies of titled ruffians and sainted idiots, to suppress all record of his virtuous acts, will render his name immortal. [9]

In Ritson’s view Robin was a true patriot, the epitome of the eighteenth-century ‘independent man’ who would brook no interference from those in authority. [10]

Ritson’s Robin Hood was published at a time when other radical authors were appropriating figures from England’s medieval past. Ritson strains the figure of Robin Hood somewhat in order to make him fit his vision of a medieval Thomas Paine. But Robert Southey had the year previously also wrote Wat Tyler, A Dramatic Poem in Three Acts (1794), a highly anachronistic view of the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, in which Tyler fights for ‘liberty’ and ‘rights’. Despite Ritson’s best efforts, however, reviewers of his work in literary magazines raised an eyebrow at his interpretation of Robin Hood’s life. One reviewer in The Critical Review, for example, said that:

Robin Hood’s character is here estimated too highly. He certainly possessed a spirit of freedom and independence; but, however we may be inclined to excuse the manner in which that spirit was displayed, it was not without a smile that we saw it denominated patriotism. [11]

Most likely the anonymous reviewer was aware of Ritson’s radical sympathies. Indeed, before William Pitt’s repressive legislation, Ritson had hardly been secretive about his republican sympathies.

History is silent about the particulars of Ritson’s later life. It is known that his mental health deteriorated rapidly in the late 1790s. In September 1803 he barricaded himself in his room and violently tried to attack all who approached him. He was thereby forcibly removed to the country house of Sir Jonathan Miles and attended to by doctors. Four days later, however, he sadly died. [12]

He certainly made his mark upon the world, however. He was viewed as an authority on all things antiquarian. Although their politics were different, furthermore, he appears to have maintained a friendship with Walter Scott, to whom he gave advice while he was composing his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). In Scott’s novel The Antiquary (1816) we meet a cantankerous old lawyer-cum-antiquary named Jonathan Oldbuck (perhaps inspired by Ritson himself). Oldbuck regularly engages in debates with his fellow antiquaries, and Ritson is referenced in a very humorous exchange between Oldbuck and Sir Arthur Wardour (the fictional character whose name would be given to the ‘Wardour MS.’ – a medieval document which is supposedly where Scott found the tale of Ivanhoe recorded). [13]

Although Francis James Child’s collection of ballads in the late 1800s is usually given more authority than Ritson’s work, were it not for his tireless endeavours in researching Robin Hood some of the materials relating to the outlaw legend may have been lost.


[1]Nicholas Harris, ‘The Life of Joseph Ritson’ in The Letters of Joseph Ritson, Esq. Edited Chiefly from Originals in the Possession of his Nephew Ed. Nicholas Harris (London: William Pickering, 1833), p.ii.
[2]Harris, ‘The Life of Joseph Ritson’, pp.iii-iv.
[3]Alfred Henry Burd, Joseph Ritson: A Critical Biography (Illinois, 1916), p.102.
[5]Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey (New York, 1855), p. 159.
[6]Joseph Ritson, ‘CVI: To Mr. Wadeson’ in The Letters of Joseph Ritson, Esq. Edited Chiefly from Originals in the Possession of his Nephew Ed. Nicholas Harris (London: William Pickering, 1833), pp.5-7 (p.7).
[7]Joseph Ritson (ed.) Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1, p.v.
[8]Ritson, Robin Hood, 1,
[9]Ritson, Robin Hood, 1, pp.xi-xii.
[10]See Matthew McCormack, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England (Manchester: MUP, 2005).
[11]Anon. ‘Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw; to which are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of his Life. 2 vols. 8vo. 12s. Boards’ The Critical Review or Annals of Literature, No.23 (1798), p.229.
[12]Burd, Joseph Ritson, 193.
[13]Walter Scott, The Antiquary [1816] Ed. N. J. Watson (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2002), p.64.

Rogues in Early Modern England

Information for this post was taken principally from Steve Mentz’ and Craig Dionne’s introduction to an edited collection of essays in the book Rogues and Early Modern English Culture (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006) with further information gleaned from Hal Gladfelder’s Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001).

Before the sixteenth century, there was no such thing as a ‘rogue’. The idea had not entered into popular culture, and the word was only coined in the 1560s. Rogues were different to the outlaw of medieval times. Whereas the medieval outlaw was placed literally beyond the protection of the law and often lived apart from normal society (think of Robin Hood living in the greenwood), the situation with the rogue was different. The rogue was not part of any criminal underworld but rather signified a figure that remained a part of normal society but simultaneously saw no problem with breaking the law.

The rogue was out to get all he could from modern society, usually by swindling, embezzling, and occasionally robbing people. In effect, the rogue was a deviant representative of the self-fashioned gentleman, and representative of wider changes in English society: the breakdown of feudalism and the emergence of capitalism. The rogue owed loyalty to no one but himself, and he was determined to ‘make’ himself through any means necessary. The term soon became a catch-all term for a variety of social deviants and outcasts: rural migrants, urban con-artists, thieves. But it was not always a negative term: for instance, one of Shakespeare’s rogue characters, Sir John Falstaff, is represented as a jolly fat knight who spends a lot of his time drinking and whoring. The rogue could be a figure of fun.

But the rogue could also have negative connotations. The Elizabethan period saw the emergence of English rogue fiction. This was marked by the translation into English of the Spanish work Lazarillo de Tormes (1586; original Spanish edn. 1554), as well as works of a more English flavour such as Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller, or The Life of Jack Wilton (1594). Whereas Falstaff in Shakespeare’s play is associated with the Royal court, the majority of English rogue fiction depicts socially marginal protagonists struggling to survive within an emerging capitalist world. The main associates of the protagonists in English rogue literature are usually the lowest of the low: conmen, cut-purses, petty thieves, prostitutes. Personal gain is these characters’ main object. Jack Wilton in Nashe’s work, for instance, ‘engages in a series of rogueries, some designed to get money, some to get revenge, others for the rough pleasure of practical joking’ (Gladfelder, 2001, 34).

Title Page: Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) [Source: Adelaide University]

Rogues in Elizabethan popular literature were more often than not associated with the ‘underworld’. There is, and there was, no physical space in society where there exists an underworld. Rather the idea was constructed in popular culture. Increasingly after the 1550s such literature began to describe the underworld ‘as an autonomous social space with different classes or “degrees” of thieves, each with its own distinct language and tradition (Mentz and Dionne, 2006, 2). Although these people were not outlaws, in the sense that Robin Hood and his men were, they were simultaneously a part of society, in that they lived among the law abiding population, yet they were different to law abiding people.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that ‘rogues’, or people who engaged in ‘rogueish activities’ (cheating, swindling, embezzling, etc.) existed before the 1560s. But it was only in the Elizabethan period that the idea of the rogue was articulated in popular culture. These men were not outlaws and did not live in the forest as Robin Hood and his men. Rather they lived among normal people. While they did rob people, their modus operandi was more subtle: they cheated you out of money; played tricks on you. They were the product of an emerging capitalist society which praised the personal gain of the individual over the good of society. Ultimately rogue literature would give birth to the criminal biography of the eighteenth century: the precursor of modern crime fiction.

Sir John Falstaff, the Notorious Highwayman

So committed to historical accuracy were Alexander Smith and Charles Johnson that in their respective History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1714) and Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) they give us the life of Sir John Falstaff.

Falstaff lived, we are told by Smith and Johnson, during the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V. Being born of no great or distinguished parentage, they tell us that Falstaff took to the road with three accomplices to support his extravagant lifestyle. He was a very fat man, and his nicknames were:

– Ton of Man (a pun on the Biblical term ‘Son of Man’)
– Chops
– Sack and Sugar
– Fat-Kidneyed Rascal
– Bombast

Apparently Henry IV, who Smith tells us took to life upon the road for a short while, said to him:

You are so fat-witted with drinking of old sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches in the afternoon.

He was also a womaniser, and could often be found in the lowest bawdy houses of London, according to Capt. Charles Johnson.

Then came the wars of the roses, we are told by Smith and Johnson, and as a consequence of his acquaintance and friendship with King Henry, Falstaff received a commission to serve as a Captain, as well as a salary of £350. Despite his love of drinking and eating, Johnson tells us that:

Leaving the region of poetry, all historians agree, that, instead of his being a coward, a glutton, or a drunkard, he was a brave commander, and, on account, of his valour, was knighted by Henry IV, with a pension of four hundred marks.

Despite being given a seemingly good salary, however, Smith and Johnson say that he could not but help himself in pursing his former lawless course, and took to a career upon the road again. He continued his criminal course of life for a number of years, Johnson tells us in his typical dramatic manner:

Sir John was become grey in vice, and he renewed his former courses. Neither the threats nor the promises of his sovereign could effect his reformation. He continued his depredations until he was apprehended, and committed to prison, and found guilty.

Crime was viewed as an addictive practice in the eighteenth century – one small crime (such as stealing apples from orchards for instance), it was believed, led on to larger crimes. Luckily for Falstaff, however, we are told, the King intervenes and instead of hanging Falstaff receives the sentence of banishment.

Now, any literature and history student worth their salt would realise that Falstaff never actually existed, and is a completely fictional character invented by William Shakespeare. Despite being marketed and sold as ‘histories’ these criminal biographies were not scholarly texts, and they were not ‘history’ as we would imagine today. They freely sacrificed historical authenticity to provide a sensational entertainment, with obligatory lip service to upholding the prevailing moral and social order. Yet it is almost as though Smith believes that Falstaff is real. He gives us/invents specific places where Falstaff is said to have robbed, where he was incarcerated, and where he was buried. Smith and Johnson’s narratives so convincingly fit alongside accounts of other highwaymen that you have to wonder whether they were having a joke at the expense of their less educated readers.

Joseph Ritson in the late eighteenth century was a more serious scholar and criticised Johnson for including the life of Falstaff in a history book. But even in the nineteenth century it seems that authors wanted to try and market Falstaff as a real person and sell biographies of him, evident in the publication of such works as Robert Brough’s and George Cruikshank’s The Life of Sir John Falstaff: A Biography of the Knight from Authentic Sources (1858).

Falstaff 2
Robert Brough and George Cruikshank’s Life of Sir John Falstaff (1858) [Image from Duke University]

Usually in my study of eighteenth-century texts I always advocate going back to the original editions and seeing the way that the text is presented in those ancient works. But the one advantage of having a modern critical edition of Smith’s History of the Highwaymen is that you get the editor Arthur Heyward’s notes which are sometimes quite humorous. Of Smith’s account of Falstaff he sarcastically says this:

It scarcely need to be observed that the character of Falstaff is entirely Shakespeare’s creation; the adventures related in the following pages are chiefly taken from Henry IV, with additions from Captain Smith’s own imagination.

Christmas in Newgate Gaol

Newgate gaol was London’s most infamous gaol. It was built in the twelfth century as a place to hold prisoners until judges were available to debate their innocence. The original gaol was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. After this it was rebuilt and expanded into two new buildings, and remained in use until 1902.

Source: Wikipedia

Newgate has been home to some of the most famous criminals in English history, some of whom I’ve written about on this website before such as:

Jack Sheppard (1702-1724)
Jonathan Wild (1683-1725)
James Maclaine (1724-1750)

It was not just hardened criminals who found themselves unlucky enough to be imprisoned within its walls, however. The Jacobean playwright Ben Jonson, who authored The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1631) found himself spending a brief spell in Newgate after killing a man in a duel. The novelist Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe (1719) found himself in Newgate after having published a pamphlet attacking the government entitled The Shortest Way with Dissenters (1701). The Venetian libertine Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) similarly found himself residing in Newgate, having been charged with bigamy, a charge which, in all likelihood, was probably justified.

In the literature of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries Newgate gaol looms large. Indeed, it gave its name to The Newgate Calendar, a compendium of criminals’ lives that appeared frequently throughout the eighteenth century. Newgate was an idea as much as a place. The people in it constituted, as Henry Fielding declared in his novel The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743):

Human Nature with its Mask off.

Yet in the eighteenth century one could find life in Newgate quite comfortable. If you were a person of means, then you could pay the gaoler for your own cell, and perhaps he would take your manacles off. If you were feeling “lonely”, then perhaps you might get your mistress to visit you during your confinement. If you were one of the poorer prisoners, however, you would be with the masses in the festering dungeons below, the stench of which apparently made passers-by hold their noses.

Newgate Christmas Sermon
Newgate Christmas Sermon

Whilst for the majority of its history the gaol was little more than a holding cell whilst people awaited their sentences of death, transportation, the pillory, or hard labour, by the nineteenth century things began to change. The government began to look at trying to reform prisoners. This meant that prisoners would be spending more time there; prison now would be about both punishment and rehabilitation.

The reporter who visited Newgate on Christmas Day was writing for The New Newgate Calendar, a penny dreadful (notable for featuring both current affairs and entertainment) which was published between 1863 and 1865 (thieves and rogues are the real heroes of penny dreadfuls, and bear no relation the mish-mash of late Victorian supernatural Gothic horror monsters in the recent eponymous TV series). Eighteenth-century criminal biographies were published as moralist texts, and from the following opening paragraph, it is evident that the reporter’s aims are the same as his eighteenth-century forbears:

Yes! Christmas in Newgate! – and why not? You are free from its sombre, grimy walls, but all are not so fortunate! You are certain of a slice of rich plum pudding, and a cut of turkey, or tit-bit of fat goose, but do you suppose that all of the thousands who look for a dinner in the big city of London on this twenty-fifth day of December, in the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, will feed upon pudding, turkey, and goose? Not a bit of it, we tell you; so thank your lucky stars that you are well provided for. And while you revel in good cheer, make your friends welcome, romp with your children, or stir that glowing fire, do so in a spirit of thankfulness; forget not that thousands hunger without your door, and that many poor wretches – driven to crime by want and evil companionship – have sinned and sinned again, and broken our laws, until, in their evil fortune, they are compelled to eat their dinner in solitude on Christmas Day, and that within the brick walls of Newgate.

It is a pleasure to have scanned this issue from my personal collection of penny dreadfuls, especially in view of the fact that The New Newgate Calendar penny dreadful is not yet available in any modern edition.

Read here: The New Newgate Calendar Saturday Jan 2nd 1864