William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853) is one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
Holman Hunt was a religious man and this was a companion piece to another painting of Jesus Christ entitled The Light of the World (1853).
Hunt had moral principles that were in line with most of his Victorian contemporaries. Through his art he wished to make a moral point about a story which was all-too-familiar to many Victorians: that of the adulterous married man who had a ‘kept woman’ or ‘mistress’. Often a very rich aristocratic or upper middle-class man would seduce a woman and pay for her to live in a fashionable apartment where he could have sex with her without arousing the suspicion of his wife. In G. W. M. Reynolds’s novel The Mysteries of London and The Mysteries of the Court of London (1844–56), for example, there are several aristocratic characters, and even the Prince Regent himself, who keep a woman maintained in an apartment at their beck-and-call.
And the woman in question here is being ‘well-kept’; she lacks a wedding ring yet she is frolicking around with another man—this would have been immediately obvious to the Victorians. Such women were usually from the poorer classes everything in the apartment is brand new, seen from the bright gleam of the varnish on the furnishings.
The clock is likewise an expensive item; it is gold when most people’s clocks in all but the grandest homes would have been relatively modest wooden constructions—this is certainly not what we would expect to see when we enter a relatively small Victorian apartment.
The man has essentially ‘trapped’ her in this lifestyle; she had nothing and he had everything. The idea that she is trapped comes from the cat under the table, who has caught a bird.
And when the man visits, he has one thing on his mind: sex. This is why Holman Hunt has depicted the man’s face as full of lust.
Usually the pair are used to probably having some fun and games beforehand, and on the grand piano which he has bought, the man is playing a tune: Thomas Moore’s Oft in the Stilly Night:
Oft, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber’s chain has bound me,
Fond memory brings the light
Of other days around me;
The smiles, the tears,
Of boyhood’s years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimm’d and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber’s chain hath bound me,
Sad memory brings the light
Of other days around me.
When I remember all
The friends, so link’d together,
I’ve seen around me fall,
Like leaves in wintry weather;
I feel like one
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall deserted,
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber’s chain has bound me,
Sad memory brings the light
Of other days around me.
To the man, this is just some silly old tune written by a long-dead poet and is of little consequence. It is background music to the main event. But it is the playing of this tune which kick-starts the woman’s ‘awakening conscience’. She can remember the tune from her childhood and this reminds her of her ‘lost innocence’.
So suddenly she starts to repent of her life and does not want to have any more “fun” with the man who has entrapped her in this lifestyle. Finally, Holman Hunt makes clear that there is only one way out of this lifestyle for her: we see from the mirror at the back that she is looking out of an open window, signifying that for her to be truly free and regain lost innocence she must leave this apartment and, by extension, her lifestyle.
And if she does not take this opportunity to escape this lifestyle, Holman Hunt reminds us, through the discarded glove on the floor, what often happens to many mistresses: the man gets bored and abandons them.
Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.120-21
Marcia R. Pointon (ed.), Pre-Raphaelites Re-viewed (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989)
The Victorians in many ways were just like us: they enjoyed a good scandal whenever it was reported in the press, they liked both trashy and high-brow entertainment, and like today, they had their popular heroes adored by both adults and children. Let me introduce you to the Harry Potter of the late-Victorian era: Mr Jack Harkaway.
Harkaway was not a real person but a fictional character, immortalised in countless novels and boys’ adventure magazines. And when I say he was popular, I am not exaggerating.
It is hard for us at a distance of over a century to appreciate just how popular Harkaway was with younger readers; in many ways he was the Harry Potter of the late-Victorian period, a character who basked in worldwide fame. So high was demand among newsagents for the latest instalment of a Jack Harkaway, a ‘penny dreadful’ serial, that (allegedly) they battled with each other outside the Edwin J. Brett’s offices—the publisher of The Boys of England—to obtain copies which they could then sell to their younger customers.[i] Hemyng’s first Harkaway serial, entitled Jack Harkaway’s Schooldays was originally published in 1871 in the columns of Brett’s The Boys of England, a penny magazine for younger readers.
Within months, the publishers of The Boys of England knew that they were on to a hit: it had already appeared in the United States in several periodicals by the end of that year, and two years later it was being reprinted in both the United Kingdom and the United States in different magazines. The London-based publisher Hogarth House decided to then issue the first run of serials in clothbound library editions, while similar publishers in America decided to follow suit.
It should be said here that, although the original Jack Harkaway stories were serialised in The Boys of England, it was only children who read of Harkaway’s exploits. Just like Harry Potter today, both children and adults devoured his books. Newspaper and magazine advertisements publicising the release of the latest Harkaway novel, for example, declared that ‘every boy and man should read and have in their possession in a complete form Jack Harkaway’s Schooldays’.[ii]
Harkaway was still fondly remembered by some newspaper correspondents as late as the 1960s, when he was described in The Times as ‘a character dear to boyish readers’.[iii] And even in 2000, Keith Waterhouse in the Daily Mail fondly recalled reading reprints of these penny dreadfuls, although he oddly likened the-then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to Jack Harkaway.[iv]
Recent scholarship from Theresa Michals has investigated the blurred lines between those works which literary critics have traditionally thought of as children’s literature were read by many adults. The situation is further complicated by the fact that many adult novels were republished in children’s editions. Michals concludes that many late-Victorian novels were written for ‘children of all ages’, just like, as The Times’s correspondent said of Harkaway in the 1960s, that he was a figure for ‘boyish’ readers—those whose reading tastes might be considered immature—instead of just boys, much like those grown up but rather immature men today read Harry Potter.[v]
Although Hemyng originated the character, having been kept extremely busy writing four Harkaway serials between 1871 and 1874, he soon after laid down his pen and other, now anonymous, authors carried Jack’s adventures further afield. Besides, even though Harkaway’s success had allegedly managed to propel sales of The Boys of England to over 250,000 copies per issue, Hemyng would not have benefitted from this popularity due to the flat fee payment system used by Brett and many other penny publishers.[vi] In the twentieth century some American critics doubted that Hemyng was the original author of the work as it was originally published anonymously.[vii] The tales published in Britain were available for sale in the USA and those printed in the USA were available in England, so it was rather unclear, by the early 1900s, if he was a British hero or an American hero. And once the American writers took over, they were not that bothered about continuity between the various stories. Jack could be visiting Cuba in one serial and be in America in another.
While Harkaway’s success has been studied before in terms of its importance in the history of the penny dreadful publishing industry, he remains a figure whose novels are more often cited rather than actually read, usually with a view to investigating Harkaway’s place in the late nineteenth-century moral panic over penny dreadfuls.[viii] Few indeed, if any, articles have ever subjected the text of the serials to in-depth critical review; the serials are often cited but rarely read and this is something which this chapter hopes to partially remedy. After all, a serial which allegedly sold over 250,000 copies, which appealed to readers of all ages, ought not to be overlooked.
But let’s have a brief overview of this lad’s life and deeds.
Unlike the heroes of the five shilling popular novels, who were usually the son of some aristocrat or upper middle class family, Harkaway’s origins were a little more humble: he was an orphan who was raised in a school for poor children. As he entered his teenage years, he grew increasingly tired of being made to learn so he ran away from school, boarded a ship, and set off on an adventure.
In time, he acquired a servant called Monday, who was obviously based on Defoe’s Man Friday from Robinson Crusoe (1719). The professor and explorer, Dr Mole, also took young Jack under his wing. The exploits of this trio took them around the world. Mole was there to provide the adult advice to Harkaway when he needed it, especially because he was fond of playing pranks on people and generally being an annoyance to those who met him, and Monday was there as the faithful servant who would give his life to save Jack in any situation.
Sometimes Harkaway’s pranks backfired on him somewhat, such as the time he had to do battle with a 15ft python. Professor Mole, Harkaway, and Monday once joined the crew of a sailing ship in the West Indies, but Jack learns that a scientist has brought a large snake on board as a specimen to study when they return to England. Ever reckless, he decides that he will release the snake from its box and then prank his professor by telling him someone wants to see him down below. It does not go as planned for the snake was
Fully fifteen long … the snake, astonished at his unexpected freedom, raised his ugly head and glared savagely at Jack, who picked himself up and retreated to a safe distance.
“Morning, Governor,” he said, nodding his head, “how do you find yourself?”
The python’s only reply to this was to uncoil himself and glide out of his box on to the floor. Jack was rather astonished at his prodigious size; he did not think he was half so big or formidable, and was rather sorry he’d let him out.[ix]
When the crew were alerted to the fact that the snake had escaped, they were clear that it was Jack’s problem for him to sort out. So he had to go in and decapitate the poor thing.
And they did get into some pretty hair-raising situations: Harkaway became the scourge of pirates and bandits the world over. In Italy, he ensured the apprehension of a notorious outlaw named Barboni.
Although he was a rascal, he had a good heart and would do anything for his friends. He had a deep hatred for the Boers, however, whom he regarded as racist, and when the Boer War broke out, he enthusiastically enlisted to serve his country. in Jack Harkaway in the Transvaal: or, Fighting for the Flag (1900), set during Boer War. When Jack captures a lone Boer, he does not pass up a chance to humiliate his captive by making him sing English patriotic songs:
“…Don’t get up. Keep on your knees; I like to see you that way. Now, follow me, pay attention: say ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God Save the Queen.’”
“What!” cried [the Boer] … “Here you are. ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God Save Your Queen.’ Ugh! There is a lump in my throat. You make me sick. That Queen sticks. She will choke me. I say it, but don’t mean it.”
“Now, sing it,” continued Jack, putting the rifle a few inches nearer to his head. “I set you a go. Don’t mumble, but raise it. Give us a chest note. ‘Send her Victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us, God Save the Queen.’”
With the utmost reluctance, and making as many grimaces as a monkey with the spasms, the Boer followed Jack, and then rolled on the floor, burying his face in his hands.
“Hurrah! That’s your sort. Bravo our side. ‘Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves, and the Transvaal Boers shall never make us slaves.’”[x]
Where Jack’s original adventures took him to deserted islands and mainly British colonies, American authors had him gallivanting all over China, Cuba, Greece, and of course the United States, where he meets with Native Americans and spends some time living on the prairies.[xi]
Eventually, after a long life at sea and getting into scrapes, Jack married his childhood sweetheart. They had a son together but one novelist killed off his wife and then set the stage for a series of adventures featuring both Jack Harkaway and his son.
And, if you look closely at the cover for my forthcoming book, Heroes of the British Empire (2020), you’ll see this guy has pride of place!
[i] Christopher Mark Banham, ‘Boys of England and Edwin J. Brett’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 2006), p. 61.
[ii] ‘Advertisements and Notices’, The Illustrated Police News, 1 February 1873, 4.
[iii] ‘The Most Exciting Boat Race: No Wonder Jack Harkaway Felt a Bit Baked After Oxford’s Win’, The Times, 31 March 1960, 14.
[iv] Keith Waterhouse, ‘Blair’s Bound to Please in Brighton’, Daily Mail, 28 September 2000, 14.
[v] Teresa Michals, Books for Children, Books for Adults: Age and the Novel from Defoe to James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 128, p. 135.
[vi] ‘Jack Harkaway’s Creator’, Daily Mail, 20 September 1901, 3.
[vii] Banham, ‘The Boys of England and Edwin J. Brett’, p. 60.
[viii] John Springhall, ‘A Life Story for the People? Edwin J. Brett and the London “Low-Life” Penny Dreadfuls of the 1860s’, Victorian Studies, 33: 2 (1990), 223–46; John Springhall, Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics Penny Gaffs to Gangsta-Rap, 1830–1996 (London: MacMillan, 1998), pp. 38–97; Louis James, Fiction for the Working Man, 1830–50: A Study of the Literature Produced for the Working Classes in Early Victorian Urban England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963) pp. 159–60;
[ix] Bracebridge Hemyng, Jack Harkaway After Schooldays (London: Publishing Office, 1873), 25–6.
[x] Bracebridge Hemyng, Jack Harkaway in the Transvaal: or, Fighting for the Flag (London: Harkaway House, 1900), p. 55
[xi] J. Randolph Cox, The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000), pp. 129–30.
Many people have adopted the name of Robin Hood over the years. The most obvious ones which spring to mind are the men who appear in medieval court records, being criminals who adopted the alias. The press today even applies the name to criminals who are perceived to be ‘good’ criminals. It was not only criminals who either assumed the name or had it applied to them: Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators, who attempted to assassinate the protestant king, Charles I, were called Robin Hood’s Men. In the eighteenth century, we find the name of Robin Hood applied to the first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745) in satirical ballads such as Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster and Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727).
This is just a small example of how the legendary figure of Robin Hood is truly “all things to all men”.
So now we turn to the years 1819–20, a turbulent period in English history. Soldiers returned home at the end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815), many of them returned to high unemployment. Where labour in vital industries had been scarce during the wars, now the labour market was glutted with plenty of people needing a job. Yet there were not many jobs available: tradesmen had done well out of the war, having been contracted to provide war materiel, there was now a trade depression. The war had created an artificial demand for goods.
To make matters worse, since 1815, the hated Corn Laws were in effect. These laws were tariffs on imports of grain and other foodstuffs. During the war, Britain had imported vast amounts of food to feed its soldiers. Yet after the war, landowners, many of whom were part of the political class, decided that it was high time to protect their own businesses from imports of cheap food: the result was that the price of food was kept artificially high in order to protect the landowners’ inefficient businesses.
Nowadays, if a government treated its citizens that badly, it would soon be voted out. This was not the case in 1819: by and large, neither the working classes nor the middle classes could vote. The franchise was restricted to men who owned freehold property worth 40 shillings. Very few people, even the quite wealthy upper middle classes, owned property in this era. And many of the wealthy industrialists lived in new towns such as Manchester and Leeds—commercial and industrial meccas which drove British economic growth. Yet the large northern cities had no representation in parliament, while fields such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire containing one cottage returned 2 MPs to the Commons.
It was an unjust system.
Yet there was a glimmer of hope.
Reformers, some who quite famous like Henry Hunt, were organising, marching, and most importantly: they were printing. Their cause was political reform through the extension of the franchise and a repeal of the Corn Laws. A number of penny periodicals were printed which contained opinion pieces on current affairs rather than reporting actual news (otherwise they would be subject to the paying of stamp duty, “the tax on knowledge”).
It is in the print culture of the early nineteenth century, then, that we find a man who named Robin Hood who wrote to The Medusa; or, The Penny Politician on three occasions in the years 1819–20.
The Medusa, named after the famous Greek mythical figure, was a satirical magazine which, through its humour excoriated the ruling class:
What! Will you not believe the Prime Minister, the Privy Council, the Bishops, the Judge, the Counsellors, the Lawyers, the Borough-mongers, the Placemen, and all the Pensioners? The Dukes, the Earls, the Marquisses, the Barons, the Knights, &c. &c.? Deluded multitude! Here is a collection of the happiest creatures in the world, united together to persuade you that you are extremely happy, and yet you give no credit to what they may either say or swear! O Shocking stupidity!
This was complete and utter sarcasm, a sly dig at the idea, propagated at the time by those in power, that Britain boasted of the most glorious constitution in the world—that Britons were “free” and “happy”! Lest anyone doubt the paper’s radical credentials, however, if the sardonic tone did not immediately hit home then the engraving of Henry Hunt, given away free with the paper’s first number, would have left readers in no doubt.
It was not unusual for people to assume pseudonyms in this era. It was an era in which, according to Robert Reid, England’s system of government, with its system of spies and informants, resembled more the Third Reich than an emergent democracy. People wanted to protect their names in public—after all, the campaign for reform was supported by both the working class and respectable tradesmen. Pseudonyms based upon medieval resistors of tyranny were especially popular. Some wrote letters under the name of Wat Tyler, some under Jack Cade, a Thomas Paine here and there, and, of course, Robin Hood.
When Robin Hood, when he wrote his letters, was angry about many things (if Twitter was around in 1819, his account would probably look a little like mine!)
One of the measures which this radical Robin Hood proposed was the formation of a fund to aid the legal defence of men accused of sedition, an accusation applied to many a radical publisher who was hauled through the courts on trumped-up charges:
The present system of persecution adopted by our tyrants to stifle the public voice, should be met by a correspondent determination on the part of the friends of freedom to oppose their diabolical measures: a “Stock Purse” should be raised and maintained to counteract their evil purposes, the funds of which should be appropriated to defray the legal &c. expenses of the deserving public characters, whom our tyrants think to bear down by accumulated indictments.
Robin Hood speaks of politicians as being tyrants quite frequently. And in 1819, an event which no doubt confirmed him in his beliefs came to pass: the Peterloo Massacre on 16 August in Manchester. Nearly 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators came to hear the famous Henry Hunt speak in support of the cause of political reform; the magistrates got scared, however, and called out the local yeomanry on the crowd, resulting in the deaths of at least 15 people and injuring over 500, many of whom later died from their wounds.
Robin Hood was furious at
The late most atrocious outrages committed at Manchester, by order of a base Magistracy on a lawful multitude constitutionally assembled, by a banditti of FEROCIOUS MONSTERS, habited in the GARB of soldiers … Gracious God! Will Britons suffer themselves to be BUTCHERED by a banditti of lawless ruffians? Forbid it heaven! If the laws are perverted and an aggrieved people cannot obtain redress, they will be bound in justice to redress their own wrongs; they are called upon by the innocent blood of their murdered relatives, to AVENGE the deaths of numerous and unoffending individuals.
The emphasis in the passage above was part of the original letter. Capitals were used back then in writing in the same way that we use them today: to show anger. The real law-breakers at Peters Fields in Manchester on 16 August were not the demonstrators but the magistrates.
Unfortunately, The Medusa did not last long; its last number was printed in January 1820, which was not unusual for some of these early publications. Yet while this would be worthy of nothing more than an interesting anecdote in a monograph, it does illustrate a wider point that the name of Robin Hood was being used at this point, as it had been before, as a symbol of resistance.
As one of England’s most famous historical figures, the name of Robin Hood appears in countless records. The first record we have of a man named Robin Hood is in the York Assize Records for the years 1225–26. This man is listed as a ‘fugitive’ and it is him whom scholars such as J. C. Holt argue was the ‘real’ Robin Hood. The fictional outlaw who appeared in countless poems, songs, ballads, and novels also inspired other people to take his name. Thus we have Robin Hoods who appear in medieval court records during the 1300s and the 1400s.
On a recent work-related trip to London, I got chance to pop into the Foundling Hospital where, to my surprise, I found another person—a young boy—also named Robin Hood, although he did not live in the medieval period but actually lived in the Georgian era.
How on earth did a lad called Robin Hood appear in the records of an eighteenth-century institution?
To begin with, let us briefly consider the context:
A ‘foundling’ is an archaic term for our modern word ‘orphan’, although a foundling usually would have had no knowledge of whom his parents were, whereas orphans might well do, and foundlings were usually from poorer families.
Foundling (noun): an infant that has been abandoned by its parents and is discovered and cared for by others.
If you were poor in eighteenth-century London—if you had found yourself out of work, or if you were a woman and your husband had died leaving you penniless—you weren’t totally friendless. Since the passage of the Elizabethan Poor Law in 1601, the government deemed that parishes should assist those who had fallen on hard times by giving them ‘outdoor relief’. Paupers could apply to the local parish and they would be assisted with money, food, clothing, or goods to get by until their situations improved. This was often much preferable to having them enter one of the parish almshouses or workhouses.
If you were a woman on your own in London with a child or several children to support, you might leave your child in the care of the Foundling Hospital. This was often done in order for a woman to get back on her feet while she worked and earned money, with the intention of collecting her child later once she was earning a bit more. The child may also have been born out of wedlock, which would have made it difficult to for her to secure work if she had a child, owing to the prejudices of the time.
At other times, condemned criminals might, in their last hours, implore the governors of the hospital to take care of their children after death. Giuseppe Ricciardelli, an Italian immigrant sentenced to death in 1752, wrote to a friend and asked him whether he might do him one last favour after he had gone:
…and particularly beseeching you, if possible, to get the Child to be admitted into the Foundling Hospital and educated in the Protestant Religion.[i]
The Foundling Hospital was set up in Bloomsbury by Thomas Coram in 1739; the first children admitted were sent to live with nurses before a purpose-built facility was opened in 1745, the remains of which can be visited today at Coram’s Fields, London.
Coram was a naval captain but on his retirement, but the reason why he set up the hospital was because, having returned to London, he was dismayed at what he saw: orphans living on the street left to fend for themselves. While he and his wife did not have children of their own, they resolved set themselves a mission to save the children.
To raise money, the Corams enlisted the help of the great and the good and got them to donate money. Georg Handel lent his assistance and even conducted a special performance of his celebrated oratorio Messiah for a charity concert—the concert was fully booked and tickets for the event ask ladies not to wear their hoops and gentleman to attend without their swords. The Corams made the plight of pauper children fashionable.
So how did a child end up in the Foundling Hospital?
A mother would deposit her child with the receiving officer. The mothers would leave some kind of token with the hospital so that they would know their child if they returned to collect them at any point. These tokens could be all sorts of items: the exhibits in the Foundling Hospital show that mothers left rings, coins, buttons, badges, pieces of string and even nuts. The fact the hospital still has many of these tokens is a sad testament to the fact that many mothers and their children were never reunited.
Once the child had been admitted, they were given a new name which was entered in the register. There is a wonderful assortment of names to be found in the records of the Foundling Hospital, which were often taken from famous historical figures. It was hoped that a new name might enable the child to have a completely new start and that their lives might be free from prejudice, particularly necessary if their mother was a ‘fallen’ woman.
As one might expect, quite a few were named after their ‘adopted’ father, Thomas Coram; there are a few Walter Raleighs and Francis Drakes, named after the illustrious Elizabethan seafarers; and it is in these records that we find our little Robin Hood, a name given him by a Mr Edwards who worked at the Foundling Hospital.[ii]
Robin’s parents’ names are not recorded, and we do not know his date of birth, but we know that he was baptised on 25 May 1746. He would have been less than a year old when admitted and, just like the children admitted to the hospital in the earliest days, would have been sent to live in a foster home until the age of 5. He would then have been readmitted to the hospital to receive a rudimentary education, until having been apprenticed to a trade or forced to enlist in the military at age 15.
Further archival work will be required to ascertain what happened next to our eighteenth-century Robin Hood. Luckily, there are no records of anyone bearing his name hanged in the Old Bailey Record (which are all now online, free to search and view) — maybe he went on to prosper in a trade? Maybe, and hopefully, he may finally have been reunited with his mother who left him at the hospital in the hope of a better life?
[i]The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, 23 March 1752, cited in Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 259.
[ii] The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; General Register Office: Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths surrendered to the Non-parochial Registers Commissions of 1837 and 1857; Class Number: RG 4; Piece Number: 4396
Berry, Helen, Orphans of Empire: The Fate of London’s Foundlings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019)
Holt, J. C., Robin Hood, 2nd Edn (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989)
While physical archival research remains the “bread and butter” of the work of any historian, the rise of online repositories of primary sources have proved to be of invaluable use to many a historian over the years. This is particularly the case when you want to investigate what, say, the Victorians thought about a person like Robin Hood. A simple key word search will bring up a number of results from often quite obscure places. And I came across a rather interesting commentary on a Robin Hood ballad, titled Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford, which was reprinted in Toby Veck’s Facts and Figures: Ten Tables Telling Tales of My Landlord and the Church (1846).
Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford is one of the more humorous songs of Robin Hood that was first printed in the seventeenth century. Robin and John meet with the bishop (The earliest surviving text is in the so-called Forresters manuscript (British Library Additional MS 71158), which dates to the 1670s). The song sees Robin and Little John, disguised as shepherds, poaching in an area of the forest which they know the bishop will pass through. The Bishop does indeed see them and demands that they come with him to face the king’s justice. The outlaws scoff and Robin, blowing his horn, summons his soldiers who surround the bishop and his men. The outlaws tie the bishop to a tree and force him to sing Mass for them; they then hold a feast for which, harking back to earlier Robin Hood tales such asA Gest of Robyn Hode (1495), the bishop is compelled to pay.
When Egan was writing, the price of bread was kept artificially high because of the Corn Laws. After the Napoleonic Wars, or the “first” World War, the British industrial and agricultural sectors were on their knees. When the war ended in 1815, British landowning elites, who had done very well out of the war, feared that, with the opening of the continent to British trading again (it had of course been cut off under Napoleon’s Continental System), the price of grain, and their incomes, would be slashed. As the government of the day was dominated by an aristocratic oligarchy for whom few could vote, the ruling class naturally legislated for something that in their narrow party interests against the benefit of the British people-at-large. So tariffs were placed upon imports of grain. The ruling class was happy.
This policy hurt both the middle-class tradesman and the poorer labourer. Everyone had to eat, and everyone had to pay the same high price for bread.
Much opposition to the tariffs, or the “Corn Laws” as they became known, was voiced by radicals and reformers in the press, and the policy even had a few enemies among MPs. Yet it took a while for opposition to the laws to coalesce into a firm, united front. While the tariffs had been legislated for in 1815, it was not until 1836—almost in tandem with the emergence of the Chartist movement—that one of Britain’s most successful pressure groups was formed: The Anti-Corn Law League.
The Anti-Corn Law League certainly alarmed the Tories, whose policy it was. By 1836, the middle classes could now vote and even stand for parliament providing they owned or leased land or property worth over 40 shillings. One response by the league, which was backed by some big names of the day such as Richard Cobden and John Bright, was to donate a 40 shilling freehold to friendly would-be MPs and field them as candidates for parliament in by-elections where “protectionists” stood.
And they wrote, and they printed, and they mobilised mass support among the working classes through large rallies. Much of the opposition came from the industrial towns while support for the laws came from Tory and Whig landowners. But so successful was the Anti-Corn Law League that they even managed to convince the Tory Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, of the necessity for ending the Corn Laws and, by all accounts, even secured the backing of Queen Victoria herself!
It is in one such Anti-Corn Law League pamphlet where we find our “free trade” Robin Hood: the aforementioned work Ten Tables by Toby Veck. The name was a pseudonym, for Toby Veck is a character who appears in Charles Dickens’sThe Chimes (1844). When reading Veck’s work, we find him making numerous appeals to an idealised Anglo-Saxon past in which, so he believed, Englishmen enjoyed political liberty and did not starve under the benevolent rule of the various Anglo-Saxon kings.
At the end of his work, he decided to share a little anecdote.
He told readers that when he was a boy, he knew “a fine old English gentleman”—a farmer—who could sing from Robin Hood’s Garlandfor six hours straight! (Slight exaggeration here, most likely—that’s a tall order for any singer, then or now). Of all the ballads this farmer sung to him, he recalled Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford.
He reprinted the ballad in full and then commenced upon a short explanation.
The Bishop in the ballad was definitely a Tory, so Veck reasoned: he was against the “free trade” in venison, which Veck assures us was a catch-all term which included not only meat but also bread (a reach, certainly, but definitely not the wildest appropriation of a Robin Hood character I’ve seen).
Robin Hood, on the other hand, was a medieval Anti-Corn Law Leaguer: his attempt to go a poaching on the Bishop’s land represented the good Saxon Englishman’s yearning for free trade. Veck even gave his readers a useful key to the antiquated terminology used in the ballad:
Explanations.—“Bishop of Hereford and Company,” the Protectionists and their leader; “ven’son” means cheap corn; six of his men, Repealers in the disguise of conservatives; “Lives away,” to turn ‘em out; a Tree, “public opinion;” “a thorn,” the League; “the horn of Repeal,” three score and ten Leaguers; “cut off his head,” immediate Repeal; “staying at Barnsdale,” delay of three years during which they are in a state of alarm; and at the expiration of that period comes “the reckoning.”
So, let us try and work out that allegory in full now Veck has given us the key to decipher this seventeenth-century rant against the nineteenth-century Corn Laws:
Robin Hood is an Anti-Corn Law Leaguer who with “six of his men” ventures into the Tory Bishop’s lands to poach and steal and really put free trade into full practice for they are Repealers disguised as Tories who are venturing into the hostile land of protectionism when all they want is cheap “venison”/Corn—whatever! When the Bishop tries to prevent Robin’s exercise in forest free trade he sounds the horn of Repeal at which many other Repealers flock to his side. Little John, the more hot-headed Repealer, wants to immediately cut off the Bishop’s head and gain an immediate repeal of protectionist forest laws; but the Bishop has by this point been tied to the “tree” of public opinion and just a little stay longer will make the Bishop see the wisdom of forest free trade too! And of course, soon would then come the reckoning: the floodgates of repeal would burst open and there would be forest free trade for all!
While amusing to us, this was not satire: the Corn Laws meant that many poorer families did indeed go hungry due to the high price of bread. Usually, Victorian medievalists were a little more subtle in their appropriation of the Norman Forest Laws to serve different political causes. Thomas Miller’s Chartist novel Royston Gower (1838) is particularly good in this respect, being a novel in which the outlaws seek a “Forest Charter” to reclaim their ancient rights. Robin Hood fans will also be pleased to know that Sir Walter Scott, the author of Ivanhoe (1819),opposed the Corn Laws.
Repeal finally came in 1846, when Prime Minister Robert Peel used the votes of the opposition to carry through the measure. Yet it split the Tory Party: the “Peelites” broke away and joined with the Whigs and the Radicals in Parliament, and formed the Liberal Party. The Tory party limped on and remained practically on its deathbed for a few years until it was popularly revived under the leadership of Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
William Wordsworth, The Female Vagrant (1798)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.