Opium; or, How it Became a “Dirty Drug”

By Stephen Basdeo

We live in an era in which, increasingly, governments in many western countries are realising that they are losing the so-called “War on Drugs”. Some countries have completely decriminalised certain substances, while in some states in the USA, you can buy marijuana over the counter for both medicinal and recreational use. Our attitude to illicit substances is increasingly looking not too dissimilar from that held by many people in the early nineteenth century.

Carver2
Stephen Carver and Sharon Ruston discussing 19th-Century Opium use.

To find out more about historical attitudes to drug use, in particular opium, I attended Bradford Literature Festival on Sunday 30 June and sat in on a panel entitled “The Opium Eaters”, featuring two experts on the subject: Professor Sharon Ruston and Dr Stephen Carver. Ruston is Professor of Literature at Lancaster University and specialises in Romantic-era literature, and Carver is a former “recovering” academic (self-described) who has spent a lifetime researching many things Victorian and particularly the “underworld”.

booksfeat
Thomas De Quincey

The format of the discussion was just that: an informal chat about all things to do with nineteenth-century opium use and, importantly, its relationship to literature. During the discussion I learnt a lot from Ruston and Carver and I hope, if you’re reading this, that from the notes I took at the panel you will too!

Opium has been used by people as far back as Neolithic times, but it was a hot commodity in the nineteenth century; the British Empire fought two wars against China for the right to sell the substance in that country. And it was a popular substance with Britons as well: you could smoke it or eat it, or, you could drink laudanum, which is a mixture of strong alcohol and opium. It was an excellent form of pain relief; people took it to cure stomach upsets, toothache, back-aches, and nervous disorders. Its euphoric effects meant that it soon became a popular substance with literary and artistic types in the nineteenth century.

01614_3
De Quincey’s Opium Eater book

The writer who was one of the first to chronicle his experiences as an opium “addict” (I use the word carefully here as in this period there was little awareness that one could become addicted to opium) was Thomas De Quincey, who wrote Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821). De Quincey was born in Manchester in 1785 to fairly affluent parents but was a bit of a cad: constantly in debt, went through bouts of homelessness while evading creditors—he even lived with the Wordsworths for a while—and cavorted with 15 year old prostitutes. His book, written after a lifetime of opium eating, sought to give a readers a taste of both the pleasures of opium and the pain of opium.

Laudanum-is-a-mixture-of-opium-and-alcohol-It-was-very-widely-used-as-can-be-seen-in
Laudanum might be used for a variety of complaints

De Quincey originally began eating opium to relieve toothache but he really enjoyed the “hit” that it gave him; the experience he described as “sublime”, which means beautiful, awe-inspiring, yet unnerving. It certainly made his nights on the town more enjoyable, often taking it before going out to the opera. His opium and alcohol infused nights did not always end well, however, for sometimes he was unable to find his way home. While under the influence, he was often known for starting random conversations with members of the public.

After his book was published, De Quincey came in for a lot of criticism: fans of opium were displeased as well: Dorothy Wordsworth (of all people) objected to De Quincey’s having demonized a drug which, quite frankly, everyone enjoyed.

The medical profession objected to the book’s glorification of a drug which, while not illegal, was certainly harmful and, given that these were nineteenth-century folks, certainly immoral. And the doctors at the time were fond of moralising; they had to break the stereotype of sinister crooks which had gathered around their profession since the Burke and Hare murders of the early 1800s, when a doctor in Scotland had employed the services of two murderers to acquire cadavers for his use.

dl-portrait-npg-samuel-taylor-coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

When De Quincey was writing, opium could be purchased over the counter from an apothecary. It was not only the doctors who criticised the use of opium; Frederich Engels in the 1840s complained in The Condition of the Working Class in England that the working classes were being ‘enfeebled’ by ‘soothing syrups’, a by-word for opium.

It was surprising to learn from the discussion the extent to which the influence of and references to opium taking pervade nineteenth-century texts. My own favourite author, Walter Scott, was, I learnt for the first time, not averse to a dose or two of laudanum to calm his stomach. For a stomach complaint, laudanum was the worst thing Scott could have taken because it makes you constipated, and would have made the ageing Scot’s bowel complaints even worse. Apparently Scott wrote The Bride of Lammermore (1819) pretty much in an opium induced haze—having visited Abbotsford recently, I’d never have guessed that Scott’s grand old house was the site of drug taking!

_69618650_abbotsfordnew.jpg
Scott’s famous home Abbotsford — evidently a site of drug-taking!

When De Quincey met Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), the pair of them recognised fellow users in each other. Coleridge’s life had pretty much followed a pattern similar to De Quincey’s; a fellow creative, the former was likewise heavily in debt and moved around a lot to avoid creditors—Coleridge likely had bipolar disorder, however, and probably used opium to relieve the symptoms. One of the panellists said that often nineteenth-century writers who used opium often had wonderful ideas but sometimes failed to carry them through to completion; this is very evident in the staggering number of unfinished works Coleridge left, many of which were published as ‘fragments’ after he died.

The tide soon turned against opium; the pharmacists were often looked at by the local community as being of equal weight to medical doctors; however, it was the medical profession’s desire to make themselves respectable in the public eye that led to their campaigning for the passage of the Pharmacy Act in 1868, which ruled that, from then on, dangerous drugs like opium had to be prescribed by a medical doctor.

fatal facility.jpg
Buying drugs in the nineteenth century.

Thereafter, opium becomes something, not indulged in by artistic and literary bohemians but a thing that was taken in seedy opium dens, a borderline criminal act. There were actually very few opium dens in Britain in the nineteenth century, even if literary works like Charles Dickens’s Edwin Drood (1870) and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray (1890) made it seem like they were on every street corner of London’s East End—a contemporary joke was that more opium dens existed in literature than in real life.

The major change in both the government’s and the public’s attitude can be seen in the passage of Dangerous Drugs Act (1928), a time when the community of opium takers was fairly small compared to numbers of people who took it in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, as the panellists pointed out, drug taking, particularly hard drugs, continued to be a part of the creative process into the 1960s, in spite of the criminalisation of most major substances. What you could buy over the counter in the 1810s would, by the 1960s, land you with a potential criminal conviction.

Carver1
Carver signing copies of his book: The Nineteenth-Century Underworld (2018)

Advertisements

The Female Vagrant

By Stephen Basdeo

English authorities always seems to have had a harsh attitude towards its destitute and homeless people, or vagrants. At the height of the Black Death in medieval England, when labour was becoming scarce and many people, understandably, were falling ill, the Ordinance of Labourers made ‘idleness’ a criminal offence. The penalty for being as an idle vagrant was whipping or branding.

Eleanor_Fortescue-Brickdale_-_The_Female_Vagrant
20th-Century Illustration

During the reign of Henry VIII, vagabonds were again targeted by lawmakers. The Vagabonds Act (1530) decreed that

“Beggars who are old and incapable of working receive a beggar’s licence. On the other hand, [there should be] whipping and imprisonment for sturdy vagabonds. They are to be tied to the cart-tail and whipped until the blood streams from their bodies, then they are to swear on oath to go back to their birthplace or to serve where they have lived the last three years and to ‘put themselves to labour’. For the second arrest for vagabondage the whipping is to be repeated and half the ear sliced off; but for the third relapse the offender is to be executed as a hardened criminal and enemy of the common weal.”

More laws against vagabonds were passed in 1547, 1572, and 1597. The harsh laws against vagabondage occurred at an interesting time in English history: it was a period when feudalism—through which serfs worked for and owed loyalty to the lords in return for protection—was breaking down and capitalism was emerging. The old social structures, with kings, lords, barons, and knights, still remained, of course. Yet whereas at the height of the middle ages the upper classes felt some kind of social responsibility to those beneath them, in the new capitalist, individualist world, the elites no longer felt obligated to care for society’s poorest.

And of course, there was no attempt to address the causes of vagrancy. The authorities merely saw it as a problem which had to be dealt with through harsh measures such as branding. The Henrician and Elizabethan laws against vagrancy had a minor update during Queen Anne’s reign, but the punishments remained largely the same.

51y6tHiHBuL

By the time that the industrial revolution began in the mid-eighteenth century, the power and social pre-eminence of the nobility had been displaced by the rising bourgeoisie. Where the lords in a feudal world might have felt some kind of obligation to the poor and needy, by the Georgian period, contract had replaced custom and, in the words of Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto (1848),

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

There had indeed always been poor people, but poverty had a new sting in its tail: people were now poor in a capitalist world in which, as Marx rightly observed, the paternalist bonds between the classes existed no more. Poets in the late eighteenth century were observed the poverty around. William Wordsworth was one such poet who was moved to write a heart-rending ‘biographical’ poem of the plight of a homeless woman living in the late eighteenth century (the poem does not refer to any particular historical figure but was from Wordsworth’s imagination—vagrancy was not an uncommon experience for many at the time).

8ac368e725669caf8ec1fc68b0af35b7
Later Victorian image of a homeless woman, c. 1890.

The poem was published in Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798). The volume was envisaged as an experiment—it marked a shift away from the pompous ‘Augustan’ poetry of the eighteenth century, which dealt with great men and big events, to a poetry which could be intelligible to common people. Most of the poems in the collection deal not with great men but with commoners as the subject. Even the use of the word ‘ballad’ in the title evokes the popular poetry of the plebeian classes.

williamwordsworth1
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

The poem is meant to evoke feelings of tenderness and kindness to those less fortunate, and in this, at least, Wordsworth succeeded. In the words of Joseph Devey, writing in A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873):

It would appear that Wordsworth designed, by the instrumentality of the lowest ranks of society, to erect a poetic temple, at the shrine of which the most selfish hearts should be humanized, and a feeling of love kept alive, reciprocating and reciprocated, between the rich and the poor, the politically great and the socially defenceless, for ever. ‘Life is the vital energy of love;’ and as long as the two extremes of society stood looking at each other with feelings of repulsion, the end of existence could not be realised. His verse was to become the medium of identifying the loftiest purposes of his art with the purest aims of Christianity.

Yet things took a while to get better: the Speemhamland System of dole relief and wage subsidies did attempt to deal some of the causes of homelessness, but another vagrancy act was passed in 1824 which made it an offence to beg for money or to sleep rough.

vagrancy.jpg.gallery
The Vagrancy Act (1824)

And the Act remains in force to this day in England (though thankfully whipping is no longer part of the punishment, merely a fine):

In 2016, the Vagrancy Act (1824) was used nearly 3,000 times to punish poor rough sleepers.


wordsworth_1798_0881
The Female Vagrant as it appeared in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads (1798)

William Wordsworth, The Female Vagrant (1798)

1 By Derwent’s side my Father’s cottage stood,

(The Woman thus her artless story told)

One field, a flock, and what the neighbouring flood

Supplied, to him were more than mines of gold.

Light was my sleep; my days in transport roll’d:

With thoughtless joy I stretch’d along the shore

My father’s nets, or watched, when from the fold

High o’er the cliffs I led my fleecy store,

A dizzy depth below! his boat and twinkling oar.

 

2 My father was a good and pious man,

An honest man by honest parents bred,

And I believe that, soon as I began

To lisp, he made me kneel beside my bed,

And in his hearing there my prayers I said:

And afterwards, by my good father taught,

I read, and loved the books in which I read;

For books in every neighbouring house I sought,

And nothing to my mind a sweeter pleasure brought.

 

3 Can I forget what charms did once adorn

My garden, stored with pease, and mint, and thyme,

And rose and lilly for the sabbath morn?

The sabbath bells, and their delightful chime;

The gambols and wild freaks at shearing time;

My hen’s rich nest through long grass scarce espied;

The cowslip-gathering at May’s dewy prime;

The swans, that, when I sought the water-side,

From far to meet me came, spreading their snowy pride.

 

4 The staff I yet remember which upbore

The bending body of my active sire;

His seat beneath the honeyed sycamore

When the bees hummed, and chair by winter fire;

When market-morning came, the neat attire

With which, though bent on haste, myself I deck’d;

My watchful dog, whose starts of furious ire,

When stranger passed, so often I have check’d;

The red-breast known for years, which at my casement peck’d.

 

5 The suns of twenty summers danced along,—

Ah! little marked, how fast they rolled away:

Then rose a mansion proud our woods among,

And cottage after cottage owned its sway,

No joy to see a neighbouring house, or stray

Through pastures not his own, the master took;

My Father dared his greedy wish gainsay;

He loved his old hereditary nook,

And ill could I the thought of such sad parting brook.

 

6 But, when he had refused the proffered gold,

To cruel injuries he became a prey,

Sore traversed in whate’er he bought and sold:

His troubles grew upon him day by day,

Till all his substance fell into decay.

His little range of water was denied;

All but the bed where his old body lay,

All, all was seized, and weeping, side by side,

We sought a home where we uninjured might abide.

 

7 Can I forget that miserable hour,

When from the last hill-top, my sire surveyed,

Peering above the trees, the steeple tower,

That on his marriage-day sweet music made?

Till then he hoped his bones might there be laid,

Close by my mother in their native bowers:

Bidding me trust in God, he stood and prayed,—

I could not pray: — through tears that fell in showers,

Glimmer’d our dear-loved home, alas! no longer ours!

 

8 There was a youth whom I had loved so long,

That when I loved him not I cannot say.

‘Mid the green mountains many and many a song

We two had sung, like little birds in May.

When we began to tire of childish play

We seemed still more and more to prize each other:

We talked of marriage and our marriage day;

And I in truth did love him like a brother,

For never could I hope to meet with such another.

 

9 His father said, that to a distant town

He must repair, to ply the artist’s trade.

What tears of bitter grief till then unknown!

What tender vows our last sad kiss delayed!

To him we turned: — we had no other aid.

Like one revived, upon his neck I wept,

And her whom he had loved in joy, he said

He well could love in grief: his faith he kept;

And in a quiet home once more my father slept.

 

10 Four years each day with daily bread was blest,

By constant toil and constant prayer supplied.

Three lovely infants lay upon my breast;

And often, viewing their sweet smiles, I sighed,

And knew not why. My happy father died

When sad distress reduced the children’s meal:

Thrice happy! that from him the grave did hide

The empty loom, cold hearth, and silent wheel,

And tears that flowed for ills which patience could not heal.

 

11 ‘Twas a hard change, an evil time was come;

We had no hope, and no relief could gain.

But soon, with proud parade, the noisy drum

Beat round, to sweep the streets of want and pain.

My husband’s arms now only served to strain

Me and his children hungering in his view:

In such dismay my prayers and tears were vain:

To join those miserable men he flew;

And now to the sea-coast, with numbers more, we drew.

 

12 There foul neglect for months and months we bore,

Nor yet the crowded fleet its anchor stirred.

Green fields before us and our native shore,

By fever, from polluted air incurred,

Ravage was made, for which no knell was heard.

Fondly we wished, and wished away, nor knew,

‘Mid that long sickness, and those hopes deferr’d,

That happier days we never more must view:

The parting signal streamed, at last the land withdrew,

 

13 But from delay the summer calms were past.

On as we drove, the equinoctial deep

Ran mountains-high before the howling blast.

We gazed with terror on the gloomy sleep

Of them that perished in the whirlwind’s sweep,

Untaught that soon such anguish must ensue,

Our hopes such harvest of affliction reap,

That we the mercy of the waves should rue.

We reached the western world, a poor, devoted crew.

 

14 Oh! dreadful price of being to resign

All that is dear in being! better far

In Want’s most lonely cave till death to pine,

Unseen, unheard, unwatched by any star;

Or in the streets and walks where proud men are,

Better our dying bodies to obtrude,

Than dog-like, wading at the heels of war,

Protract a curst existence, with the brood

That lap (their very nourishment!) their brother’s blood.

 

15 The pains and plagues that on our heads came down,

Disease and famine, agony and fear,

In wood or wilderness, in camp or town,

It would thy brain unsettle even to hear.

All perished — all, in one remorseless year,

Husband and children! one by one, by sword

And ravenous plague, all perished: every tear

Dried up, despairing, desolate, on board

A British ship I waked, as from a trance restored.

 

16 Peaceful as some immeasurable plain

By the first beams of dawning light impress’d,

In the calm sunshine slept the glittering main.

The very ocean has its hour of rest,

That comes not to the human mourner’s breast.

Remote from man, and storms of mortal care,

A heavenly silence did the waves invest;

I looked and looked along the silent air,

Until it seemed to bring a joy to my despair.

 

17 Ah! how unlike those late terrific sleeps!

And groans, that rage of racking famine spoke,

Where looks inhuman dwelt on festering heaps!

The breathing pestilence that rose like smoke!

The shriek that from the distant battle broke!

The mine’s dire earthquake, and the pallid host

Driven by the bomb’s incessant thunder-stroke

To loathsome vaults, where heart-sick anguish toss’d,

Hope died, and fear itself in agony was lost!

 

18 Yet does that burst of woe congeal my frame,

When the dark streets appeared to heave and gape,

While like a sea the storming army came,

And Fire from Hell reared his gigantic shape,

And Murder, by the ghastly gleam, and Rape

Seized their joint prey, the mother and the child!

But from these crazing thoughts my brain, escape!

—For weeks the balmy air breathed soft and mild,

And on the gliding vessel Heaven and Ocean smiled.

 

19 Some mighty gulph of separation past,

I seemed transported to another world:—

A thought resigned with pain, when from the mast

The impatient mariner the sail unfurl’d,

And whistling, called the wind that hardly curled

The silent sea. From the sweet thoughts of home,

And from all hope I was forever hurled.

For me — farthest from earthly port to roam

Was best, could I but shun the spot where man might come.

 

20 And oft, robb’d of my perfect mind, I thought

At last my feet a resting-place had found:

Here will I weep in peace, (so fancy wrought,)

Roaming the illimitable waters round;

Here watch, of every human friend disowned,

All day, my ready tomb the ocean-flood—

To break my dream the vessel reached its bound:

And homeless near a thousand homes I stood,

And near a thousand tables pined, and wanted food.

 

21 By grief enfeebled was I turned adrift,

Helpless as sailor cast on desart rock;

Nor morsel to my mouth that day did lift,

Nor dared my hand at any door to knock.

I lay, where with his drowsy mates, the cock

From the cross timber of an out-house hung;

How dismal tolled, that night, the city clock!

At morn my sick heart hunger scarcely stung,

Nor to the beggar’s language could I frame my tongue.

 

22 So passed another day, and so the third:

Then did I try, in vain, the crowd’s resort,

In deep despair by frightful wishes stirr’d,

Near the sea-side I reached a ruined fort:

There, pains which nature could no more support,

With blindness linked, did on my vitals fall;

Dizzy my brain, with interruption short

Of hideous sense; I sunk, nor step could crawl,

And thence was borne away to neighbouring hospital.

 

23 Recovery came with food: but still, my brain

Was weak, nor of the past had memory.

I heard my neighbours, in their beds, complain

Of many things which never troubled me;

Of feet still bustling round with busy glee,

Of looks where common kindness had no part,

Of service done with careless cruelty,

Fretting the fever round the languid heart,

And groans, which, as they said, would make a dead man start.

 

24 These things just served to stir the torpid sense,

Nor pain nor pity in my bosom raised.

Memory, though slow, returned with strength; and thence

Dismissed, again on open day I gazed,

At houses, men, and common light, amazed.

The lanes I sought, and as the sun retired,

Came, where beneath the trees a faggot blazed;

The wild brood saw me weep, my fate enquired,

And gave me food, and rest, more welcome, more desired.

 

25 My heart is touched to think that men like these,

The rude earth’s tenants, were my first relief:

How kindly did they paint their vagrant ease!

And their long holiday that feared not grief,

For all belonged to all, and each was chief.

No plough their sinews strained; on grating road

No wain they drove, and yet, the yellow sheaf

In every vale for their delight was stowed:

For them, in nature’s meads, the milky udder flowed.

 

26 Semblance, with straw and panniered ass, they made

Of potters wandering on from door to door:

But life of happier sort to me pourtrayed,

And other joys my fancy to allure;

The bag-pipe dinning on the midnight moor

In barn uplighted, and companions boon

Well met from far with revelry secure,

In depth of forest glade, when jocund June

Rolled fast along the sky his warm and genial moon.

 

27 But ill it suited me, in journey dark

O’er moor and mountain, midnight theft to hatch;

To charm the surly house-dog’s faithful bark,

Or hang on tiptoe at the lifted latch;

The gloomy lantern, and the dim blue match,

The black disguise, the warning whistle shrill,

And ear still busy on its nightly watch,

Were not for me, brought up in nothing ill;

Besides, on griefs so fresh my thoughts were brooding still.

 

28 What could I do, unaided and unblest?

Poor Father! gone was every friend of thine:

And kindred of dead husband are at best

Small help, and, after marriage such as mine,

With little kindness would to me incline.

Ill was I then for toil or service fit:

With tears whose course no effort could confine,

By high-way side forgetful would I sit

Whole hours, my idle arms in moping sorrow knit.

 

29 I lived upon the mercy of the fields,

And oft of cruelty the sky accused;

On hazard, or what general bounty yields,

Now coldly given, now utterly refused.

The fields I for my bed have often used:

But, what afflicts my peace with keenest ruth

Is, that I have my inner self abused,

Foregone the home delight of constant truth,

And clear and open soul, so prized in fearless youth.

 

30 Three years a wanderer, often have I view’d,

In tears, the sun towards that country tend

Where my poor heart lost all its fortitude:

And now across this moor my steps I bend—

Oh! tell me whither — for no earthly friend

Have I. — She ceased, and weeping turned away,

As if because her tale was at an end

She wept; — because she had no more to say

Of that perpetual weight which on her spirit lay.

 

 

Review: “The 19th-Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption” by Stephen Carver

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.

17233
Cover of the forthcoming paperback edition

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!


Carver, Stephen, The 19th-Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy and Corruption (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018), ISBN: 9781526707543 209pp.

Thomas Cooper’s “Prison Rhyme” (1845)

By Stephen Basdeo

I recently came into possession of a book written by Thomas Cooper (1805-92), a famous Chartist activist, which he gave to his friend, the newspaper proprietor and fellow Chartist, John Cleave (1790-1847).

Chartism was the first large-scale working-class political reform movement in Britain who had six demands, which they laid out in their People’s Charter: votes for all men; equally-sized electoral districts; abolition of the requirement that MPs be property owners; payment for M.P.s; annual general elections; and the secret ballot.

chartists
The Chartist Rally at Kennington Common in 1848

Leaders of the movement held mass meetings in public places but the movement was also supported by a great corpus of literature including novels, newspapers and periodicals, poetry, and songs. Most of this literature was written by people who hailed from the working classes.[i]

Thomas Cooper was one such man. He was born in Lincoln in 1805 (he was the childhood friend of Robin Hood novel author, Thomas Miller, also from Lincolnshire) and from a young age was a shoemaker’s apprentice. While he was an apprentice, he educated himself by reading a range of literature including history books, fictional works, and poetry. He excelled in English studies and by the age of 23 became a schoolmaster with a side-job as a journalist. By all accounts he was a fiery man and very passionate about whatever subject he was preaching about, and was in a large part responsible for turning Leicester—where he went after his years at Lincoln—into a Chartist stronghold when he became active in the movement.

Cooper 3
Thomas Cooper in later life

And so we come to the book itself. Cooper was passionate about the movement he joined and employed his literary talents to promote its message. In the midst of the General Strike in 1842—a nationwide strike that began in the northern manufacturing districts and spread throughout Britain—Cooper arrived in Hanley, Staffordshire to deliver a speech to workers assembled there and declared that

            All labour cease until the People’s Charter becomes the law of the land.

This was incendiary stuff in an era when unions, or ‘combinations’, were legal but members could often find themselves on the wrong side of the law, as the Tolpuddle Martyrs did in the 1830s. Many arrests were made in the aftermath of Cooper’s speech, and Cooper was among those arrested and he was sentenced to two years in gaol for sedition due to his part in the ‘rising’.

01_T0221_0
The Tolpuddle Martyrs

It was in gaol that he wrote The Purgatory of Suicides: A Prison Rhyme, which was then published three years later in 1845 after his release. The theme of the poem is taken from the speech which Cooper gave at the meeting: Slaves Toil No More!

Slaves toil no more!—why delve, and moil, and pine,

To glut the tyrant-forgers of your chain?

Slaves, toil no more—to win a pauper’s doom!

And while the millions swear, fell famine’s gloom

Spreads their haggard faces, like a cloud

Big with the fear and darkness of the tomb:—

How ‘neath its terrors are the tyrants bowed!

Slaves toil no more—to starve!—go forth, and tame the proud![ii]

The poem, written in Spenserian stanzas, in emulation of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590–96), sees Cooper exploring various forms of government while conversing with people who had committed suicide throughout history (and who were in purgatory), including Judas Iscariot, Emperor Nero, and the late Lord Castlereagh on what the ideal form of government was—whether it be monarchical, republican, or democratic and in the words of Stephanie Kuduk:

The energy of the poem builds through its strophe and antistrophe movement between descriptions of contemporary political reality and investigations of its historical and philosophical roots. This movement culminates in a final dream vision of a peaceful republican revolution, brought about by the enlightenment of the people through the agency of “Knowledge” and poetry.[iii]

So, where at the beginning of the poem, Cooper referred to his fellow workers as ‘slaves’, the poem at the end has a more upbeat tone:

Spirits, still more rejoice!—for pain and woe

Are gone and universal life doth bloom

With joy!—The dream o’erwrought me to a throe,

Of bliss—and I awoke to find my home

A dungeon,—thence, to ponder whence would come

The day that goodness shall the earth renew,

And Truth’s young light disperse old Error’s gloom,—

When Love shall Hate, and Meekness Pride subdue,—

And when the many cease their slavery to the Few![iv]

The influence of Percy B. Shelley’s earlier poem, The Mask of Anarchy—written in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819—comes through in the lines about the many versus the few, of which we repeat the final lines here:

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number–

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you—

Ye are many—they are few.[v]

However, having been written before the appearance of the first English translation of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels’s The Communist Manifesto (1848), they neither Shelley nor Cooper talk in terms of ‘class struggle’, and the fight between the elites and the many are seen as one of nobles vs. serfs (see also my post on G. W. M. Reynolds’s political beliefs).

Snap 2014-06-08 at 16.17.13
Stafford Prison, where Thomas Cooper was imprisoned in 1842 (c) Black Country Muse

When Cooper was released from prison two years later, he decided to publish the poem. In the preface to the first edition he (quite sarcastically) thanked his government captors for giving him the time to finish a poem which he had been planning to write for a couple of years:

My persecutors have, at least, the merit of assisting to give a more robust character to my verses,—though I most assuredly owe them no love for the days and nights of agony I endured from neuralgia, rheumatism, and I know not what other torments,—occasioned by a damp sleeping cell, added to the generally injurious influences of imprisonment.[vi]

Cooper2
Thomas Cooper’s inscription to his friend, John Cleave.
Cooper1
Title Page to Thomas Cooper’s Purgatory of Suicides (1845)

Only 500 copies of the first edition were printed. This was not an unusual number of copies printed for a first edition of a work by a (at this point) relatively minor author. Just like publishers do today, authors receive a number of copies of their own works which they can distribute to friends and family gratis. The copy of Cooper’s work which I have was given to his friend John Cleave, and inscribed on the front end paper is the following message:

A keepsake,

From the author to his respected friend,

Mr. John Cleave.

London,

Oct. 20th, / 45

John Cleave was a member of the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC), ‘a major reforming organisation’ which counted among its members radical publishers such as Henry Hetherington, James Watson, and of course, Cleave.[vii]

Cleave was also the editor of several newspapers over the course of his career: Cleave’s London Satirist, Cleave’s Penny Gazette, and Cleave’s Penny Police Gazette. His sympathies most definitely lay with the radicals and the Chartists—before striking out on his own, Cleave had collaborated with Henry Hethertington on The Poor Man’s Guardian. He was also a businessman, and was not only a newspaper proprietor but also owned a coffee shop and a book shop, which was based at 1 Shoe Lane, Fleet Street, London.

prpoor3
The Poor Man’s Guardian–one of John Cleave’s first projects with fellow radical Henry Hetherington

Just like Thomas Cooper, Cleave had also had his own brush with the law. When Cleave’s business was at its height, the Stamp Act was in full swing; this ‘tax on knowledge’ was a duty placed on paper, and newspapers had to pay it if they printed news. Publishers of serialised popular fiction were exempt from paying it, which is why many cheaper ‘news’ papers often combined light entertainment in the form of serialised novels as well as commentary on political and social issues. Yet Cleave continued to publish newspapers without paying the tax, and for this he was imprisoned for short spells in Newgate gaol twice, in 1834 and again in 1836.

862739
Cleave’s Penny Gazette

Cleave refused to pay the Stamp Tax because, along with believing that all working men and women should have the vote—unusual even among radicals at this point—he also believed that the key to building a democratic society was through the education of the masses, and in this his newspapers had a role to play. The idea that the spread of knowledge would emancipate the working classes is found throughout Cooper’s poem, which is probably why Cooper gave a copy of his book to his ‘respected friend’.

Henry_Vincent_Chartist
John Cleave’s Son-in-Law, Henry Vincent

Cleave died in 1847, and it is not known what happened to the many books he possessed. The particular copy I have in my possession made its way across the Atlantic at some point, for I purchased from a bookseller named Ann Kruger in the USA. This is strange as neither Cleave, nor his daughter Lucy, who married Chartist activist Henry Vincent, ever appears to have taken a trip to the USA, although the Vincents’ descendants have now settled in New Zealand. This is what perhaps makes antiques, and books in particular, special: you never know who has ‘thumbed the pages’ before you. Also, we often know of these working-class writers and publishers through their printed works, yet they leave very few physical mementoes behind, so it is nice to know that something Cooper himself touched still survives.

Cooper lived on until 1892, and during this time published several works of prose fiction and poetry. He turned more to religious matters and was a fierce opponent of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). In later life, by the time that he wrote his autobiography entitled The Life of Thomas Cooper written by Himself (1872), Cooper was still a committed democrat and advocate of social justice, and counselled readers at the end to

If you have any money to spare, give it away to relieve the wretched; they abound on every hand. Give yourself up to your work, and live for that only. Go and sell all you have and follow your Master, and you shall have treasure in heaven.[viii]


References

[i] See: Mike Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Ian Haywood, ed., The Literature of Struggle: An Anthology of Chartist Fiction, rev. ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016); Ian Haywood, Working Class Fiction: from Chartism to Trainspotting (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997).

[ii] Thomas Cooper, The Purgatory of Suicides: A Prison Rhyme (London: Jeremiah How, 1845), p. 1.

[iii] Stephanie Kuduk, ‘Sedition, Chartism, and Epic Poetry in Thomas Cooper’s The Purgatory of Suicides’, Victorian Poetry, 39: 2 (2001), 165–86 (pp. 165–66).

[iv] Cooper, p. 344.

[v] Percy B. Shelley, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, in Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works, ed. by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 400–11 (p. 411).

[vi] Cooper, Purgatory of Suicides, p. iii.

[vii] Ian Haywood, The Revolution in Popular Literature: Print, Politics, and the People, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 108.

[viii] Thomas Cooper, The Life of Thomas Cooper written by Himself (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1877), p. 400.

Crime in a Communist Utopia

“Up at the League, says a friend, there had been one night a brisk conversational discussion, as to what would happen on the Morrow of the Revolution, finally shading off into a vigorous statement by various friends of their views on the future of the fully-developed new society … [William Guest] found himself musing on the subject-matter of discussion, but still discontentedly and unhappily. “If I could but see it!” … “If I could but see it! If I could but see it!”

William Morris, News from Nowhere; or, An Epoch of Rest (1890)[i]

3055807_williammorris
William Morris–‘artist, designer, and visionary socialist’ (ODNB)

By Stephen Basdeo

On 11 January 1890, the first instalment of a curious new sci-fi novella appeared in the Commonweal magazine. The tale, a follow up to an earlier novel called A Dream of John Ball (1886), was called News from Nowhere; or, An Epoch of Rest and its author was William Morris, an artist, designer, and ‘visionary socialist’ according to The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Morris’s novel presented readers with a vision of a future society—sometime after the year 2003—when ‘mastership’ had changed into ‘fellowship’; the capitalist world system had ended, and Britain had been transformed into a socialist utopia.

nn3
The serialization of News from Nowhere in the Commonweal

The novel offers little in terms of action but instead aims to give a picture of how life would be after the revolution, the details of which come from his many conversations with the inhabitants of twenty-first century Britain. One of the things that Guest is startled to learn is that the only means of exchange is an exchange of labour–men work for subsistence and pleasure–while cash and coins, those physical symbols of capitalism, have disappeared, as he finds out in his exchange with a waterman:

“You think that I have done you a service; so you feel yourself bound to give me something which I am not to give to a neighbour, unless he has done something special for me. I have heard of this kind of thing; but pardon me for saying, that it seems to us a troublesome and roundabout custom; and we don’t know how to manage it. And you see this ferrying and giving people casts about the water is my business, which I would do for anybody; so to take gifts in connection with it would look very queer. Besides, if one person gave me something, then another might, and another, and so on; and I hope you won’t think me rude if I say that I shouldn’t know where to stow away so many mementos of friendship.”

Unlike many utopian novels, past and present, Morris does not shy away from addressing the question of crime, and how this would be dealt with in a seemingly idyllic world (dystopias, in contrast, usually show a lawless and brutal world) . A famous phrase, said to be uttered by Robert F. Kennedy, although its sentiments have been echoed by earlier writers such as G. W. M. Reynolds (1814–79), is that ‘society gets the criminals it deserves’. Late-Victorian society, in which Morris lived, was a capitalist society; Gladstonian Liberalism—favouring free trade, low external tariffs, the protection of private property rights, and a laissez-faire approach to managing social problems—reigned supreme.

In late-Victorian England, when Morris was writing, most of the crimes which people found themselves accused of in the dock were crimes relating to the theft of property. The historian Drew Gray points out, for example, that

‘Most crime is related to property and nearly all of those imprisoned, transported, or hanged from the 1700s onwards had been convicted of stealing something’.[ii]

Gray’s quantitative analysis of convictions at the Old Bailey between 1674 and 1913 support this: of the 211,112 trials listed in the annals of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 85 per cent of these were concerned with some form of property offending.[iii] Murder and manslaughter, in spite of their prominence in the press, accounted for only 2.33 per cent of all offences tried at the Old Bailey during this time, which suggests that Georgian and Victorian society’s obsession with violent crime was really misplaced.

NN1
The famous Kelmscott edition of News from Nowhere (1892)

Surely in this new world there were still criminals? So Guest decides to ask his traveller what happened to the judiciary and police organisations:

“I thought that I understood from something that fell from you a little while ago that you had abolished civil law. Is that so, literally?”

“It abolished itself, my friend,” said he. “As I said before, the civil law-courts were upheld for the defence of private property; for nobody ever pretended that it was possible to make people act fairly to each other by means of brute force. Well, private property being abolished, all the laws and all the legal ‘crimes’ which it had manufactured of course came to an end. Thou shalt not steal, had to be translated into, Thou shalt work in order to live happily. Is there any need to enforce that commandment by violence?”

What the future resident of Britain is telling our Victorian is, essentially, that the law, being constituted to protect one thing—private property—made people criminal (see also earlier radical, G W M Reynolds, and his thoughts on the causes of crime). This is not simply the whimsical thoughts of a socialist dreamer, however, for modern criminologists would agree with the assessment above:

‘Via the criminal justice process—police, prosecutors, and courts—we construct criminals. That is to say, we take people through a process of arresting, charging, and prosecuting, and, where there is a finding of guilt, we label them as criminal’.[iv]

As most of the laws relate to the protection of private property—which is as true in our own day as it was in Morris’s era—so when a person transgressed the laws of property they were labelled as criminal. These judicial structures, according to Karl Marx, were the means through which the ruling classes in all ages were able to keep those beneath them oppressed.

unknown-broadside-B20071-74
Murder and other violence crimes occupy most of the coverage in the press, but it actually accounts for very little of all crimes prosecuted.

The idea that societies construct criminals, at least when it comes to property crime, is fairly uncontroversial. Yet what about violent crime—how was that dealt with in the socialist new world of the twentieth century? The waterman tells Guest that,

“By far the greater part of these in past days were the result of the laws of private property, which forbade the satisfaction of their natural desires to all but a privileged few, and of the general visible coercion which came of those laws. All that cause of violent crime is gone. Again, many violent acts came from the artificial perversion of the sexual passions, which caused over-weening jealousy and the like miseries. Now, when you look carefully into these, you will find that what lay at the bottom of them was mostly the idea (a law-made idea) of the woman being the property of the man, whether he were husband , father, brother, or what not. That idea has of course vanished with private property, as well as certain follies about the ‘ruin’ of women for following their natural desires in an illegal way, which of course was a convention caused by the laws of private property. Another cognate cause of crimes of violence was the family tyranny, which was the subject of so many novels and stories of the past and which once more was the result of private property. Of course that is all ended, since families are held together by no bond of coercion, legal or social, but by mutual liking and affection, and everybody is free to come or go as he or she pleases. Furthermore, our standards of honour and public estimation are very different from the old ones; success in beating our neighbours is a road to renown now closed, let us hope for ever. Each man is free to exercise his special faculty to the utmost and every one encourages him in so doing. So that we have got rid of the scowling envy, coupled by the poets with hatred, and surely with good reason; heaps of unhappiness and ill-blood were caused by it, which with irritable and passionate men – i.e., energetic and active men – often led to violence.”

Let us take this apart and discuss it in further detail, particularly the point about violent crime arising out of ‘the artificial perversion of the sexual passions’. Residents of the future world are no longer in relationships as a means to survive in a capitalist world; women are not the property of men, and each person is free to love whom they will. In an 1889 lecture entitled ‘How Shall We Live Then?’, Morris expanded upon

We shall not be happy unless we live like good animals, unless we enjoy the exercise of the ordinary functions of life: eating sleeping loving walking running swimming riding sailing [sic] we must be free to enjoy all these exercises of the body without any sense of shame; without any suspicion that our mental powers are so remarkable and godlike that we are rather above such common things.[v]

According to Ady Mineo, ‘these propositions … polemically challenge the cornerstones of Victorian morality, are translated into imaginative and narrative terms in his utopian romance’; what Guest sees are healthy, happy, and self-confident people whose lives and sexual identities are no longer confined to the role designated to them through the ‘callous cash nexus’. No one in any relationship was another person’s ‘property’; so most crimes of passion, which often stemmed from adultery, would simply fade away in the utopia of the twenty-first century.

William Guest still takes some convincing, however, and turns to the subject of violent crimes which are unrelated to property:

“Hot blood will err sometimes. A man may strike another, and the stricken strike back again, and the result be a homicide, to put it at the worst. But what then? Shall the neighbours make it worse still? Shall we think so poorly of each other as to suppose that the slain man calls on us to revenge him, when we know that if he had been maimed, he would, when in cold blood and able to weigh all the circumstances, have forgiven his maimer? Or will the death of the slayer bring the slain man to life again and cure the unhappiness his death has caused?”

“Yes,” I said, “but consider, must not the safety of society be safeguarded by some punishment?”

“There, neighbour!” said the old man, with some exultation. “You have hit the mark. That punishment of which men used to talk so wisely and act so foolishly, what was it but the expression of their fear? And they had no need to fear, since they—i.e., the rulers of society—were dwelling like an armed band in a hostile country. But we who live amongst our friends need neither fear nor punish. Surely if we, in dread of an occasional rare homicide, an occasional rough blow, were solemnly and legally to commit homicide and violence, we could only be a society of ferocious cowards. Don’t you think so neighbour?”

Essentially, in a society of equals, no one should desire to strike another. Sometimes a homicide committed in ‘hot blood’ has happened in the utopia, of course, but it there is no need to punish the perpetrator with incarceration or even the death penalty (still very much used against criminals in Morris’s day); that would not do society any good and besides the humiliation and shunning he would receive from his ‘fellows’ would be a deterrent enough to effectively stop it from happening.

Morris’s romance has been accused of being a bit whimsical and his point about the deterrent of murder many modern readers might read as naïve. Yet in the first instance he was certainly correct in surmising that the idea of crime and who is labelled as a criminal has much to do with how the law—formulated by the ruling class—is designed to keep another class oppressed. For Morris, there was no place for the law in a future socialist society.


[i] William Morris, News from Nowhere; or, An Epoch of Rest (London: Kelmscott, 1892), online edn <http://morrisedition.lib.uiowa.edu> [Accessed 18 April 2019].

[ii] Drew Gray, Crime, Policing, and Punishment in England, 1660–1914 (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 328.

[iii] Ibid., p. 90.

[iv] Tim Newburn, Criminology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 14.

[v] Ady Mineo, ‘Eros Unbound: Sexual Identities in News from Nowhere’, Journal of William Morris Studies, 9: 4 (1992), 8–14 (p. 9).

Bandits and Robbers of India

By Stephen Basdeo

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British East India Company established a number of fortified trading settlements—“factories”—in various parts of the Indian subcontinent. The trading company boasted its own army and as it sought to increase its influence over Indian rulers and secure ever more favourable trading terms, it regularly got involved in territorial disputes between local Indian princely states, as well as against the French East India Company. When the first “World War” broke out in 1756—the Seven Year’s War, between the Kingdom of France and Great Britain and their respective allies—the British East India Company found itself fighting against the French Company and the Nawab of Bengal’s army.

Clive1
Robert Clive and the British East India Company are victorious at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 (c) Wikimedia Commons

Had the French and the Nawab of Bengal succeeding in expelling the British company from the subcontinent forever, then the history of Britain in India might be consigned to a mere footnote in history. But the British won: as a result of its victory against the Nawab of Bengal and French East India Company at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India Company annexed the region of Bengal. A vast part of the subcontinent was now under the control of a trading company, and Company rule was confirmed when the Treaty of Allahabad was signed in 1765, when the Mughal Emperor granted the British company the diwani of Bengal—the power to levy taxes on the inhabitants. From this point onwards, the Company expanded and consolidated its power not only over the territories it annexed, but also over the numerous princely states. By the nineteenth century it was clear that the British were there to stay.

Shah_'Alam_conveying_the_grant_of_the_Diwani_to_Lord_Clive
The signing of the Treaty of Allahabad, granting the diwai of Bengal to the British East India Company (c) Wikimedia Commons

Eric Hobsbawm in Bandits (1969) tells us that, in times of political crisis, banditry usually flourishes. This is especially the case in regions of the world which are less urbanised or industrialised, and where the reach of “the long arm of the law” extends only as far as where there is a policeman or some other form of law enforcement to actually enforce the law. Hobsbawm chooses to focus principally upon Southern Italy, Central, and South America; it should come as no surprise to us, however, that in India during the early nineteenth century, banditry likewise flourished during this period which witnessed a number of rapid political changes, during the decline of an old empire and the rise of a new one.

Back in Britain, crime literature was as popular as ever: two lawyers named Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin published a new edition of The Newgate Calendar in four volumes in 1824, with an extended edition comprising five volumes a year later—such was its commercial success. Walter Scott published Rob Roy (1818) which thoroughly romanticised the image of the highland outlaw and freedom fighter. Pierce Egan the Elder (1772–1849) would be making money covering sensational trials alongside his sports journalism. Penny bloods such as those written by G. W. M. Reynolds “exposed” the hidden criminal underworld of the nineteenth-century industrial city.[i] And Charles Macfarlane, in emulation of earlier eighteenth-century criminal biographies, published The Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Robbers and Banditti of All Nations (1833).

Just like it says on the tin, Macfarlane—a travel writer—wanted to shine a light on the lives and careers of highwaymen from Europe and also in England’s newly-acquired dominions in the subcontinent. So alongside tales of Italian bandits we also meet robbers from as far afield as Afghanistan and India.

There is some racialism in Macfarlane’s description of robbers from the Far East. Of “oriental” highwaymen, Macfarlane tells us that

Compared indeed with the hordes—the hosts—the almost nations of marauders in the East, our most numerous troops of [European] banditti sink into the insignificance of mere gangs. Their crimes, too, are tame and colourless contrasted with the full fire of Oriental atrocity.[ii]

This immediately marks out Indian bandits as a lesser and more savage ‘race’ than their European counterparts. In Europe, it was a—ultimately false—but widely held belief that highwaymen would simply rob you but rarely resort to violence. Macfarlane’s words on Indians, however, recycle orientalist stereotypes about the ‘savagery’ and ‘primitiveness’ of people in the East. Of course, when one actually reads Macfarlane’s book, the crimes committed by Indian bandits are no better or worse than those committed by the Italian robbers of whom he was so fond.

Rohilla
A Rohilla kidnapping a child–illustration from the America edition of Macfarlane’s book

One of the most notorious gangs of bandits in India were the Rohilla, who ‘infested’ the region of Rohilkhand, Uttar Pradesh, in the northern part of India. One of their primary grievances was the fact that, unsurprisingly, they did not like being ruled by the British. On this matter, Macfarlane quoted Bishop Herber who told him that:

The conquest of Rohilcund by the English and the death of its chief in battle, its subsequent cession to the Nawab of Oudh … form one of the worst chapters of English history in India … by all I could learn, the people appear by no means to have forgotten or forgiven their first injuries.[iii]

According to Macfarlane—and we must bear in mind that crime writers in this period were prone to completely inventing the odd fact or five—the Rohilla band were primarily former soldiers who had fought against the British. Feeling angry that the British had taken control of their region, they took to the forests around the foothills of the Himalayas and began to prey upon unsuspecting travellers. In view of the fact that their problems were mainly with the British occupiers, one might have assumed that they would only have targeted British travellers. Yet Macfarlane records that they robbed people of all ethnicities; British travellers, in fact, usually travelled in well-armed convoys, so it was not always wise for them to attack lest they bring the full force of the Company Raj upon them. So we might make a further assumption here that it was Indians themselves who bore the brunt of their depredations. They were most famous, as well, for creeping into villages late at night and stealing horses—an offence of similar magnitude to that of car stealing today.

Charles_D'Oyly00
Calcutta in 1848 (c) Wikimedia Commons

We must, furthermore, view their political grievances with a pinch of salt: there is evidence that groups like the Rohilla had flourished even under the Mughal Empire. For this reason, B. Cohen describes them more as outlaws-cum-mercenaries, willing to hire out their arms to the highest bidder whatever their grievances might be.[iv]

The English tried all manner of things to catch the ring leaders of this notorious band, including offering a reward of up to 10,000 rupees to anyone who might betray their location. But the local population kept their mouths shut. This shows that the Rohillas were a very successful organised crime group—or a very brutal one. All gangs of bandits usually pay off the local inhabitants to keep them quiet, as Macfarlane told readers in his preface:

Before the reader proceeds further I will warn him that he will not find my robbers such romantic, generous characters as those who occasionally figure in the fields of fiction. He will meet with men strangers to that virtue of robbing the rich to give to the poor. They give to the poor indeed, but it is as spies and instruments of their own crimes, or at least in order to avoid detection.[v]

These men were hardly the Robin Hoods of their day. They were brutal, cared not who they robbed. They were not even overtly political, thus they cannot be placed into Hobsbawm’s paradigm of the bandit as a proto-revolutionary type of figure. They really were just thugs. Of course, while we describe these men with terms such as “bandit” or “outlaw”, we have to ask ourselves whether, in an era of colonialism when the men were living under the rule of a British trading company—a company described as “the original corporate raiders” by some—who the real outlaws and bandits of the period truly were.


In-Text References

[i] Stephen Basdeo, ‘”That’s Business”: Organised Crime in G. W. M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1844-48)’, Law, Crime and History, 8: 1 (2018), 54–75.

[ii] Charles Macfarlane, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Robbers and Banditti of All Countries (Philadelphia: G. Evans [n. d.]), p. 258.

[iii] Macfarlane, p. 280.

[iv] B. B. Cohen, Kingship and Colonialism in India’s Deccan 1850–1948 (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), p. 16.

[v] Macfarlane, p. 2.

Further Reading:

Basdeo, Stephen, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018)

Hobsbawm, Eric, Bandits, 2nd edn (London: Pelican, 1972)

Howe, Stephen, Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Knapp, Andrew and William Baldwin, eds. The New Newgate Calendar, 4 vols (London: J. Robins, 1824)

Scott, Walter, Rob Roy, 3 vols (Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1818)