From Barman to Highwayman: The Case of William Hawke (d.1774)

Not every highwayman throughout history has achieved the fame of Robin Hood (sup. fl. 12th-13th centuries), Rob Roy (1671-1734), Dick Turpin (1705-1739), or Jack Sheppard (1702-1724). The names of most of the highwaymen who flourished in London during the eighteenth century have faded into insignificance. William Hawke is one such highwayman whose life story, while just as interesting as the robbers alluded, never had his story picked up by the likes of Walter Scott (1771-1832) or William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882).

The New Newgate Calendar 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg [n.d.]), 5: 135.

William Hawke was born at Uxbridge, Middlesex around the middle of the eighteenth century. He moved to London after the death of his father. Once in the capital, he gained employment in a public house in St. Giles. This area of London was known for its high levels of criminality, and it is during his time as a bar tender that he first became acquainted with some shady characters from the Georgian criminal underworld.

The men that he fell in with encouraged him to try a few turns as a highwayman, running with a partner named James Field.

Both Hawke and Field were apprehended by the authorities in January 1771 for stealing a leather notebook and £20 from a gentleman named John Gordon.[i] Although the theft of a sizeable sum of £20 would have warranted the death penalty in the eighteenth century, it seems the evidence against them was inconclusive. Both men produced witnesses who testified to their good character, and Field claimed that the £20 was his own money:

Field’s Defence.

I have had many a twenty pound note of my own property.

Hawkes’ Defence.

I was going to the play with my wife’s sister and Mr. Field. Roades came up and walked with us; I did not know him at first; he saw me pull my watch out; and wanted to buy it; he got from me; he was to give me two guineas and a half for it; he gave me a guinea; Mr. Field gave him his watch; he gave him nothing. We were several times after him about the money.[ii]

This is probably why Field and Hawkes got off with the comparatively lighter sentence of Transportation to the Americas for a total of 14 years (this is the time, it will be remembered, that Britain still “owns” the Thirteen American Colonies, later to become the USA).

William Hawke Robbing Capt. Cunningham at Gunpoint – Illustration from The New Newgate Calendar 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg [n.d.]), 5: 133.

Somehow, and the details here are sketchy, the pair managed to escape from the Americas, and by 1772 were back in London practising their former trade. The Newgate Calendar records that Hawkes,

Upon his return to England he committed a surprising number of most daring robberies; and several months elapsed before the thief takers knew him to be the man by whom the roads about London were so dangerously infested.[iii]

Hawkes proved to be quite a hard man to catch indeed. The ingenious Magistrate of Westminster, Sir John Fielding (brother of the novelist-turned-magistrate, Henry Fielding), directed London’s rudimentary police force, the Bow Street Runners, to watch Hawkes’ wife (the Metropolitan Police would not be established until the 19th century).

The Runners kept watch over the wife, and one night, as Hawkes lay sleeping in her arms in a rented apartment, Constables Bond and Lee went up the stairs and,

Entered the front room, and there discovering Hawke slumbering in bed, threw himself across the highwayman, who, twisting the sheet around Bond’s head, reached at a pistol that was under the pillow, at which instant Smith entered, and caught hold of his hand. With much difficulty Hawke was secured.[iv]

In court the next morning, on 18 May 1774, two gentleman named Captain Cunningham and Charles Hart appeared to give evidence against him:

Hart. A gentleman: I live in May’s Buildings. On the 28th of last March, between the hours of nine and ten in the evening, Capt. Cunningham and myself were stopped in a coach near the Half-way-house leading from Knights-bridge to Walham Green , by one man on horseback; he said to the coachman, God d – n your blood stop, or I’ll blow your brains out! uponwhich I let the glass down which was then up, and he put a pistol to my breast, and demanded my money; I had one shilling and sixpence and some halfpence loose in my waistcoat pocket; I gave him that; I had half a guinea in my fob, which I preserved; he said to me, God d – n you, do you give me nothing but halfpence! I told him it was all I had, and desired him to take the pistol from my breast. In the interim Capt. Cunningham was moving a pocket book from his right hand waistcoat pocket into his left hand breeches pocket, in which were bank notes to the amount of between four and five hundred pounds; he had twenty-six or twenty-seven, guineas in his breeches pocket, but being in liquor he refused being robbed, and said he would not be robbed; the prisoner saw the pocket book, and took the pistol from my breast, and said, God d – n you, give me the pocket book![v]

Hawkes maintained his innocence throughout the whole trial, simply saying:

I am innocent of this affair: I leave myself entirely to the mercy of this honourable Court. I have been guilty of affairs of the kind, but am innocent of this. I am a jeweller by trade: I am twenty-three years old: I have a wife and two small children.[vi]

Despite the protestations of his innocence, the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death by hanging.

By the account recorded in The Newgate Calendar, he was quite stoic about the whole affair.

When he was taken to Tyburn on 1 July 1774 (the site of public executions until 1783), he gave a good show to the assembled mob. He dressed in his smartest coat, with a flower affixed to the breast pocket, gallantly saying ‘how do you do’ to spectators as he passed by in the cart.

The noose was placed around his neck at the foot of Tyburn tree, and as he felt the cart about the move away he leaped up into the air. This ensured that his neck was instantly dislocated and that he never suffered in pain.



[i] James Field, William Hawke, Theft > pocketpicking, Theft > receiving, 16th January 1771 (t17710116-39) Old Bailey Online [Internet <> Accessed 16 January 2017].

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] The New Newgate Calendar; or, Malefactor’s Bloody Register 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg [n.d.]), p.133.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] William Hawke, Violent Theft > highway robbery, 18th May 1774 (t17740518-26) Old Bailey Online [Internet <> Accessed 16 January 2017].

[vi] Ibid.

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.

Jackson’s Recantation (1674)

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries crime, and in particular highway robbery, was a problem. Whether crime was actually as bad as Henry Fielding gloomily surmised, that the streets of London ‘were impassable but without the utmost hazard’, is open to debate. One thing is certain, however, for the average Londoner, the fear of being robbed was real to them.

Such fears left their marks upon the popular culture of the day. The theme common to a lot of popular literature produced between c.1660 and c.1740 is crime. Beginning in the 1660s there was Richard Head’s The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (1663). The early eighteenth century witnessed the publication of Alexander Smith’s A Compleat History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), along with Captain Charles Johnson’s A General of History of the Most Noted Pyrates (1724), A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735).

Jackson's Recantation
Richard Head’s Jackson’s Recantation (1674)

Daniel Defoe’s authorship has also been ascribed to three criminal biographies: The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), A Narrative of all the Robberies and Escapes of John Sheppard (1724), and The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). It has been suggested by some scholars that Defoe was actually Charles Johnson, but I have discussed the credibility of that in another post. We know that Defoe definitely authored novels whose protagonists were criminals, such as Moll Flanders (1722), whilst Henry Fielding authored an embellished acccount of Wild’s life entitled The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743).

It is to a work which Richard Head allegedly authored entitled Jackson’s recantation, or, The life & death of the notorious high-way-man, now hanging in chains at Hampstead delivered to a friend a little before execution: wherein is truly discovered the whole mystery of that wicked and fatal profession of padding on the road. They were fond of long titles in the eighteenth century, and the work purports to be the last confession of a relatively obscure highwayman, Francis Jackson.

Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1665)

Richard Head (1637-1686) was born in Ireland, and was a playwright and bookseller. His The English Rogue was one of the first English books that was translated into a foreign language.

The protagonist, Jackson, is currently awaiting his execution in Newgate gaol. He is alone in the condemned hold, and is struck by remorse of conscience for his wicked life:

Heaven thought fit I should no longer reign in pride and arrogance, and therefore committed me into hands of Justice, to be punisht to the demerits of my Crimes. Being here confin’d in this Terrestial Hell, surrounded with horror and despair, my conscience started out of her dead sleep, and demanded a severe account of what I had done; guilt instantly did stop my mouth.

A priest, or The Ordinary of Newgate, comes to visit him in the condemned hold to hear his confession, as was the custom. The Ordinary also was able to make a little money out of these visits to prisoners; they would write down the felons’ stories and sell them to the publishers to make a profit.

The highwayman reveals that he turned to robbery in his youth because he was starving and destitute. Yet to Richard Head, this is no justification for robbery. After finding a purse full of money in the street, the highwayman takes it, and keeps it, and from then on it is a downward spiral for him into a life of sin and vice, until he soon joins forces with other robbers that he meets:

The first Robbery that I committed, I told you was on a Coach near Barnet; The second was this, we were four in Company, and took our Road towards Maiden-head, more for intelligence sake than for any present Booty; in Maidenhead we din’d, and towards four a clock in Summer time we travel’d on for Redding, making a little halt by the way at Maidenhead Thicket, expecting there to light upon some prize; having waited an hour or more to no purpose, we proposed to distribute our selves, and Ride into Redding singly, and that two should lie in one Inn, and two in the other, for the better benefit of observation. My other two Comerades lay in an Inn where they were intimately acquainted, and were winkt at by the Master of the House, the Servants also being at their Devotion; by whose means they understood that there was a Gentleman in the house who was the next morning with his Man, would set out for Malbrough, and that it was thought by the weight of a small Port-mantue, that it must be mony that caused it to be so heavy. We on the other side could make no discovery till after Supper, and then we heard what our hearts desired. An Attourney was in the company, and amongst other talk, he said he was bound for London to be there at the Term […] I put his hand in his pocket and pul’d out a Bagg wherein were an hundred and fifty Guinnies, saying, these I will so conceal in the Saddle I ride upon.

But this was not only a moralist text, expounding the dangers of falling into a life of vice and crime. It was also a manual for Londoners to know how they could avoid being robbed. The whole narrative is supposed to illuminate the modus operandi of organised criminal gangs in the seventeenth century. If you do happen to be robbed in London, Head gives this advice:

If you are set upon and rob’d in the Eastern quarter, take not that Road in which you were to London, nor raise the Country thereabout, for it is to no purpose; but ride with all speed to Holbourn, Strand, St. Jameses, or West∣minster, and there search with all diligence. If you are rob’d towards the North, never search any place in the City, but make all convenient speed to the Bank-side, Southwark, Lambeth, or Fox-hall; by thus planting themselves, they know, or think at least, they are sufficiently secure, having the City between them and you.

He also gives advice on how to spot a highwayman:

The first caution is this, be shy of those who are over prone in prossing into your company; it is more safe to entertain such who are unwilling to associate themselves with you, or if they do it is with such indifferency, that there need the urging of perswasions to effect it. Now to the intent you may distinguish an honest man from a Thief or Robber, take these informations and directions; first if you suspect your company, halt a little, and in your stay observe whether they still hold on their course, or slack their pace, or it may be alight and walk with their Horses in their hands, if you observe any of these, you may conclude them the justly suspected marks of an High-wayman.

This pamphlet was very popular, and provided inspiration for other writers of criminal biography such as Smith and Johnson, especially its illuminating descriptions of how highwaymen operated. But the pamphlet ends with a stark warning, saying that however much new laws are created to curb crime, criminals will always find a way to circumvent them:

Let this suffice, for according to the Proverb, new Lords, new Laws; so all new Gangs have new Orders, Plots and Designs, to Rob and Purloin from the honest Traveller.

Henry Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews” (1742)

Illustration from Joseph Andrews (1742)
Illustration from Joseph Andrews (1742)

I return once again to my favourite author, Henry Fielding (1707-1754) and discuss his novel The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams. Written in Imitation of the Manner of Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote (1742). The title is usually shortened to just Joseph Andrews…(they loved long titles in the 18th century).

(My post on one of Wild’s other novels The Life and Death of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743) can be found here)

Joseph Andrews tells the story of its eponymous title character, Joseph. He is the lowly-born footman in the household of Lady Booby. He is a good-looking, kind-natured, and polite young man. Pious and virtuous. He learns music in his spare time and is always endeavouring to improve himself. Although he does not possess a title to the effect, he is de facto a gentleman.

But his virtue and innocence are in danger, for Lady Booby desires Joseph Andrews, and tries to seduce him. He is such a virtuous young man, however, that nothing can tempt him away from the path of virtue. Enraged, embarrassed, Lady Booby dismisses him from service.

After his dismissal from service, Joseph decides to make his way back home in the country to be reunited with his sweetheart, Fanny. On the way many misfortunes befall him. First he gets what little money he has stolen from him by highwaymen (one of my favourite scenes, obviously). He is then stript naked and left for dead. A stagecoach passing by then rescues Joseph and takes him to an inn and Joseph gets better (but not without the doctor mistakenly pronouncing him dead to begin with). While he is recovering, Betty, a chambermaid at the inn takes a fancy to Joseph and attempts to seduce him. Again he resists, because he is such a virtuous young man.

Henry Fielding (1707-1754)
Henry Fielding (1707-1754)

Arriving at the inn in the meantime is Joseph’s old friend, Parson Abraham Adams. He was on his way to sell copies of his Sermons in London but, his wife forgot to pack them. He and Joseph have a catch up and decide to travel back to Adams’ parish together because that is where Fanny is from. Further down the line many more slapstick adventures befall Adams and Joseph, and a few more people try to corrupt Joseph’s innocence but he resists temptation. When finally Joseph meets Fanny again, someone comes and ruins their marriage prospects by saying that Joseph and Fanny may actually be brother and sister, but thankfully this turns out not to be correct. The tale then ends happily with the marriage of Fanny and Joseph.

Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1742)
Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742)

This is a comedy. But Fielding still has a point to make: out of all of the supposedly “high-born” members of the middle classes and the aristocracy, it is only Joseph, Fanny, and Parson Adams – of no particularly high status in society – who are virtuous people. It is the aristocracy who are corrupt and degenerate; it is the way that Joseph conducts himself in daily life which marks him out as a true nobleman:

He an Air, which to those who have not seen many Noblemen, would give an idea of Nobility.

Moreover, in contrast to the aristocracy, Joseph’s ‘morals remained entirely uncorrupted…he was at the same time smarter and genteeler than any of the beaus in Town’. This is in keeping with Fielding’s own patrician country upbringing, an outlook which stressed the virtues of the country against the moral corruption of those who lived in the town.

There is also some funny and interesting intertextuality at play in Fielding’s novel. Joseph has a sister called Pamela (a virtuous young lady) who is married to Mr. Booby, the brother of Lady Booby. Fielding was quite disparaging of another author, Samuel Richardson. I have previously written of my dislike for Richardson’s works. (Perhaps its Fielding’s influence on me which made me dislike it). Richardson’s novels are unnecessarily long, whereas Fielding’s is light and short in comparison. So in a direct attack on Richardson (whose characters Fielding stole), Fielding assures us that there will be no long, drawn out sequel. Fielding had dedicated an entire work to the piss-take of Richardson’s Pamela the year before when he wrote An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. So like me he wasn’t Richardson’s biggest fan as you can gather.

I’ve read quite a lot of 18th-century literature, and if you’re going to begin to make your own foray into the 18th-century world, I urge you to start with Fielding’s works…definitely don’t start with Richardson’s!

Greatness vs. Goodness in Henry Fielding’s “Jonathan Wild” (1743)

Jonathan Wild in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]
Ticket to the Hanging of Jonathan Wild in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]

I have previously written on this blog about London’s first mob boss, Jonathan Wild (1682-1725). He was the Thief Taker General of Britain and Ireland. In the days before the establishment of a police force in England, thief takers were men who were hired by the victims of robberies to effect the return of their stolen goods. In time, he became the master of nearly all the criminals in London.

He was the subject of numerous criminal biographies, including one written by the novelist, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731).

One of the most lengthy treatments of his life, however, was written by the novelist, Henry Fielding, entitled The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743). It is similar to the many criminal biographies of the period, but it is also different in many ways, for this was a satire (which will be explained more fully below).

At the outset, Fielding explains himself to the reader, telling them why he has decided to call this quite reprehensible man ‘the Great’. All the great men of history, he says, are in effect bad people:

Greatness consists of bringing all manner of mischief on mankind, and Goodness in removing it…In the histories of Alexander and Caesar, we are frequently, and indeed impertinently, reminded of their benevolence and generosity, of their clemency and kindness. When the former had with fire and sword overrun a vast empire, had destroyed the lives of an immense number of innocent wretches, had scattered ruin and desolation like a whirlwind, – we are told, as an example of his clemency, that he did not cut the throat of an old woman, and ravish her daughters, but was content with only undoing them.

This is what “great” men do, whilst “good” men do the opposite.

Henry Fielding (1707-1754)
Henry Fielding (1707-1754)

Fielding beguiles his readers into thinking that Wild is a hero (in the proper sense of the word – a man to be admired, respected), etc. And Fielding proceeds to write about his ‘hero’ as though he were some illustrious person, exercising all the qualities of “great” men. For example, when he works behind the scenes to have one of his own friends imprisoned in Newgate, Wild immediately goes to visit his friend in gaol, ‘for he was none of those half-bread fellows who are ashamed to see their friends when they have plundered and betrayed them.’

Wild, the ‘Great Man,’ as all great men do, has nothing but contempt for good men. This is shown by his treatment of an old school friend called Mr. Heartfree. Fielding writes that this Mr. Heartfree:

Had several great weaknesses of mind; being too good-natured, friendly, and generous to a great excess. He had, indeed, little regard for common justice…his life was extremely temperate, his expenses solely being confined to the cheerful entertainment of his friends at home.

Of course we, the reader, secretly want to sympathise with Heartfree, especially when Wild moves things behind the scenes to have him committed to gaol and hanged (he does this a few times in the novel).

Towards the end of the novel, however, Fielding tells the reader that they were silly, all along, to admire such a creature as Wild, when he is finally arrested for being a receiver of stolen goods, and Fielding lists the qualities of this “great” man in great detail, so that his readers too would know when they came across “greatness” in a fellow and avoid them. Wild lays down his maxims for being a great man in the following way:

  1. Never to do more mischief to another than was necessary to the effecting his purpose; for that mischief was too precious a thing to be thrown away.
  2. To know no distinction of men from affection; but to sacrifice all with equal readiness to his interest.
  3. Never to communicate more of an affair to the person who was to execute it.
  4. Not to trust him who hath deceived you, nor who knows that he hath been deceived by you.
  5. To forgive no enemy; but to be cautious and often dilatory in revenge.
  6. To shun poverty and distress, and to ally himself as close as possible to power and riches.
  7. To maintain a constant gravity in his countenance and behaviour, and to affect wisdom on all occasions.
  8. Never to reward any one equal to his merit, but always to insinuate that the reward was above it.
  9. A good name, like money, must be parted with, or at least greatly risked, in order to bring any advantage.

This was not merely an attack on Wild, however, for it was also a critique of politicians, and in particular the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745). Walpole was the first Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Great Britain, and, in Fielding’s view, entrenched his power in the world of courtiers and MPs in the same way that Wild set himself up as the master of London’s low-life and thieves. Walpole was regularly lampooned in the press, and even was equated with Robin Hood on occasion. The constant references to “greatness” and “great man” are a reference to Walpole, who in his role as Prime Minister was often derogatorily called “The Great Man”.

Jonathan Wild and Miss Letitia Snap (from the 1799 edition of Jonathan Wild)
Jonathan Wild and Miss Letitia Snap (from the 1799 edition of Jonathan Wild) [Source:

To Fielding, there was no difference between the great men in high life and those in low life.

But I think Fielding’s lessons on goodness and greatness have resonance beyond the 18th century. When people think of history, they often do so in terms of a “great man” approach, and they often (I do on occasion) confuse goodness in a man with greatness. They are not the same thing. Napoleon was a great man, but he was not a good man. Fielding says of Caesar similarly that:

When the mighty Caesar, with wonderful greatness of mind, had destroyed the liberties of his country, and with all the means of fraud and force had placed himself at the head of his equals, had corrupted and enslaved the greatest people whom the sun ever saw; we are reminded, as an evidence of his generosity, of his largesses [gifts] to his followers and tools, by whose means he had accomplished his purpose and by whose assistance he was to establish it.

Fielding chose Caesar and Alexander because the Georgians practically idolised the Classical period, but the same could be true of our own day and our veneration of, say, Winston Churchill. The English nation praises him for being a Great Man, but he was not necessarily a Good Man.