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

By Stephen Basdeo

Everyone nowadays seems fascinated by the Victorian criminal underworld. From Ripper Street to Peaky Blinders, it seems people cannot get enough of murdered sex workers and brutal yet gentlemanly gangsters. We all now know the tropes: most of the action—murder, rape, theft, domestic violence—in these television dramas takes places at night in gas-lit slum courts and alleyways where downtrodden working-class people eke out a living on poverty.

In The 19th-Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption, historian and novelist Stephen Carver, drawing upon a wide range of archival and literary sources, takes us on a journey through the seedy courts and sinister alleyways of the criminal underworld which existed during the nineteenth century. Yet while we today—as many Victorians did also—associate the idea of an underworld solely with the poor and destitute, Carver’s subtitle is significant: he examines the actual crimes which occurred in the period, taking us through the various laws which were passed against specific crimes theft and murder; he then takes us through a discussion of the controversy surrounding these crimes which was aired in the press and popular literature; and through his discussion of “white collar” crimes such as fraud, shows us how corruption reigned supreme in the higher echelons of society.

There are 9 chapters in total, each of which deals with a separate aspect of the various crimes and vices of the nineteenth-century underworld. Carver is also a novelist (see his other works), and it’s truly a blessing to have him bring his literary talents to a history book. I’ve read many academic histories on crime and many of them can end up reading a little drily, endlessly lost in theories and debates. Academic debates have their place in Carver’s history here, of course, but the reader is not overburdened with incomprehensible jargon from the likes of Michel Foucault—it seems literally every academic work on crime now feels obligated to cite the Foucault in some way or other these days.

Cover of the forthcoming paperback edition

Some of the events Carver recounts are unpleasant, but because he is a skilled writer he manifests a certain sensitivity in dealing with the more horrid aspects–child murders, for instance, are dealt with maturely and soberly. So this is not some rather rubbish true crime book–which always seem to be about ogling the foul deeds committed by brutes–but a well-written book which entertains where possible but treats the source material and subject (and the reader) with respect. I enjoyed all of the chapters, but I have to admit my favourite was chapter 5 on ‘The Real Oliver Twist’. He does not attempt to find a ‘real’ Oliver Twist in the manner that some would try and look for a ‘real’ Robin Hood; instead, he contextualises Dickens’s famous tale alongside contemporary high-profile cases and scandals such as baby farming, pick-pocketing epidemics, and the career of Ikey Solomon, a Jewish fence who almost certainly provided inspiration to Dickens for Fagin.

We find the ‘problem’ of prostitution laid bare to public view. While many true crime books often present sex workers as the helpless victims of fate, consigned forever to ply their trade on the rough street corners of the East End, Carver, refreshingly, at least gives some of these now long dead women some of their agency back—turns out some of them thoroughly enjoyed their profession and had no qualms about admitting it, as one ‘shrewd and clever’ girl told one of Henry Mayhew’s social investigators in the 1850s:

What are my habits? Why, if I have no letters or visits from any of my friends, I get up about four o’clock, dress (“en dishabille”) and dine; after that I may walk about the streets for an hour or two, and pick up any one I am fortunate enough to meet with, that is if I want money; afterwards I go to the Holborn, dance a little, and if any one likes me I take him home with me, if not I go to the Haymarket, and wander from one café to another, from Sally’s to the Carlton, from Barn’s to Sam’s, and if I find no one there I go, if I feel inclined, to the divans. I like the Grand Turkish best, but you don’t as a rule find good men in any of the divans. Strange things happen to us sometimes: we may now and then die of consumption; but the other day a lady friend of mine met a gentleman at Sam’s, and yesterday morning they were married at St. George’s, Hanover Square. The gentleman has lots of money, I believe, and he started off with her at once for the Continent. It is very true this is an unusual case; but we often do marry, and well too; why shouldn’t we, we are pretty, we dress well, we can talk and insinuate ourselves into the hearts of men by appealing to their passions and their senses.”

She may have been classed as a ‘fallen woman’ by pompous moralists, but there was also a chance she could rise to the higher echelons of society through her profession as well.

Yet the nineteenth-century underworld was by no means a poor man’s world.

Many true crime books rehearse those well-known tropes of gas-lit seedy alleys on their front covers. Yet the first thing that strikes the purchaser of Carver’s book is that, instead of such dark streets or a picture from Gustave Doré, we get a splash of colour—an image of pugilists adorns the spine, while the centrepiece of the front cover shows a well-dressed gentleman chatting up a lass whose breasts are partially exposed, although the paperback edition has a slightly different image on the front from Egan’s work. These images are taken from Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821)—the father of Pierce Egan the Younger (1814–80) whom I have written quite a lot about—and the images were a good choice because as Carver shows in his book, the underworld could be a very fun place if you had the money to enjoy the various attractions which London had to offer. It was a place where, as Egan said:

Every man of the most religious or moral habits, attached to any sect, may find something to please his palate, regulate his taste, suit his pocket, enlarge his mind, and make him happy and comfortable.

As Carver further points out:

In Life in London, the underworld is never represented by Egan as the menacing, gothic space it became to the Victorians. If [the characters of Life in London] wander somewhere scary, they do not hang around.

So, for a modestly priced volume which will soon be available in paperback as well, you too can, with Carver, navigate the seedy underworld of nineteenth-century London which could be both fun and frightening!

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


Thomas Cooper’s “Prison Rhyme” (1845)

By Stephen Basdeo

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

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

The Chartist Rally at Kennington Common in 1848

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

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

Cooper 3
Thomas Cooper in later life

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

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

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

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

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

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

To glut the tyrant-forgers of your chain?

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

And while the millions swear, fell famine’s gloom

Spreads their haggard faces, like a cloud

Big with the fear and darkness of the tomb:—

How ‘neath its terrors are the tyrants bowed!

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

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

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

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

Spirits, still more rejoice!—for pain and woe

Are gone and universal life doth bloom

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

Of bliss—and I awoke to find my home

A dungeon,—thence, to ponder whence would come

The day that goodness shall the earth renew,

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

When Love shall Hate, and Meekness Pride subdue,—

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

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

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number–

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you—

Ye are many—they are few.[v]

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

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Stafford Prison, where Thomas Cooper was imprisoned in 1842 (c) Black Country Muse

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

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

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

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

A keepsake,

From the author to his respected friend,

Mr. John Cleave.


Oct. 20th, / 45

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

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

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

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

Cleave’s Penny Gazette

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[iv] Cooper, p. 344.

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

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

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

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

Crime in a Communist Utopia

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

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

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

By Stephen Basdeo

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

The serialization of News from Nowhere in the Commonweal

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

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

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

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

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

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

The famous Kelmscott edition of News from Nowhere (1892)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[iii] Ibid., p. 90.

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

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

The Crime of Sati

By Stephen Basdeo

In the first Robin Hood novel, Robert Southey’s ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’ (1791), we are told of a Norwegian woman’s travels through the Orient; entranced with the ways of the East, she marries an Indian man. Yet the romance does not last long; her lover dies and according to the custom amongst the gentoos, she must undergo sati, or suttee:

It is a custom among the Gentoos for a widow to burn herself upon the funeral pile of her husband. Yarian, a beautiful female with whom we were acquainted, was in this predicament. At this period a caravan happened to be setting forwards for China and Sir Guelphinor and myself resolved to go with it and then travel through the wide regions of Siberia. It was a long and dangerous route, but the only possible means of returning to our native countries. The Norwegian had before the death of her husband, sincerely though secretly loved Yarina. He had by this time acquired some knowledge of the language and resolved to attempt persuading Yarina to accompany us in disguise. The love of life joined to the affection she entertained for Guelphinor prevailed over the desire of glory. She disguised herself in a suit of her deceased husband and accompanied us. The Norwegian was happy and I partook of his happiness. The dangers we had participated in had been the means of establishing a firm friendship between us and I longed for the time when I should see him and Yarina settled safely in Europe.

Robert Southey, ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’. Bodleian MS Eng. Misc. e. 21 (Summary Catalogue 71777), ff.119v-120r.

Robert Southey’s Harold; or, The Castle of Morford (Bodleian Library)

Dr Truesdale and I are currently editing Southey’s manuscript for publication, and this post delves into the changing attitudes towards this custom of sati, whereby a widow is burned alive along with the dead of body of her husband.

Britain and India have a long and interconnected history. Queen Elizabeth I was by no means an imperialist monarch, but her one major contribution to the rise of the British Empire was the granting of a Royal Charter to the Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading with the East Indies (hereafter named the East India Company), which gave this corporation a monopoly over trade with countries in the East.

Gradually, the power and influence of this trading corporation grew, both in England and India.

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

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

Warren Hastings, Head of the Supreme Council of India and Governor of the Presidency of Fort St William. He is said to have loved India “a little more than his own country”.

In the early days of the Company Raj, British administrators still knew that they were there to make money. They wanted to interfere as little as possible with Indians’ existing laws and customs; in short, Indian culture should be respected. And many British administrators very much admired Indian culture. The Governor of the Presidency of Fort St William and Head of the Supreme Council of Bengal, Warren Hastings, once declared

“I love India a little more than my own country.”

Hastings sponsored the first English translation of the Baghavad Gita, the Hindu holy book, and founded the Asiatick Society in 1784. Other men such as James Achilles Kirkpatrick (1764–1805) “went native” by converting to Islam, learning Urdu, and even married Khair-un-Nissa, the daughter of a local Indian ruler. At this time, in high culture, we find that there was briefly a fusion of Indian and British styles of painting, practiced by Indian artists, known as ‘Company Style’, blending the European picturesque with simpler Indian watercolours.

In popular literature, novelists such as Phebe Gibbs in Hartly House, Calcutta (1789) were wholly admiring of the Indian way of life. Which brings us to one particular Indian custom which Gibbs drew attention to in her novel: the practice of sati, or suttee.

An Indian woman being led towards her husband’s funeral pyre to be burned alive (1811). London, Wellcome Collection.

Sati was practiced in wealthier, usually aristocratic, Indian families when the head of the household passed away. Gibbs’s protagonist, Sophia Goldborne, is a committed and enthusiastic orientalist and describes the practice in the following manner:

There are other casts or classes, as you may have read in the European newspapers, that burn the bodies of their departed friends and relatives, and preserve their ashes with great piety. And of this number are those wives, who, with a degree of heroism, that, if properly directed, would do honour to the female world, make an affectionate voluntary sacrifice of themselves upon the funeral pile of their late departed husbands:—it is true that there have been instances of their shewing reluctance—but those instances seldom occur.[i]

According to Sophia Goldborne, a widow who underwent this process could give no further sign of her devotion to her husband than ‘sanctifying’ herself on the husband’s funeral pyre.

Hastings and Gibbs were of the ‘old guard’ mindset: they were entranced by India, this ancient civilization with whom they found themselves in contact (Gibbs’s novel was based on letters from her brother who served in the Company army). Yet waiting in the wings back in England was a new breed of civil servant: fervently Christian, and confident in their belief that England represented civilization and Indians were ‘backward’, they wanted to Christianize and Anglicize India, and remould the subcontinent in England’s image.

Lord William Bentinck, appointed as Governor-General of India in 1828. An ideologue who wanted to Anglicize India.

Their attitude is best summed up in comments made by Thomas Babington Macauley (1800–59):

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

The age of the ‘do-gooders’ had arrived: evangelical reformers, although ignoring social problems, poverty, and calls for political reform at home in Britain, seized on the practice of sati as the target of one of their many empire-wide moral crusades. One man of this mould, William Bentinck, was appointed as the Governor General of India in 1828 and he was determined to stamp it out:

To consent to the consignment, year after year, of hundreds of innocent victims to a cruel and untimely end, when the power exists of preventing it, is a predicament which no conscience can contemplate without horror … Every day’s delay adds a victim to the dreadful list, which might perhaps have been prevented by a more early submission of the present question.

(William Bentinck, Minute on Sati, November 1829)

That was certainly a dramatic way of seeing the problem. The truth is that sati was not widespread by the time Bentinck was appointed, but his campaign against it was part of the grander ‘civilizing mission’.

It is amazing how quickly Bentinck’s Christian propagandists swung into action behind this cause and voiced their concerns in popular literature. Where Phebe Gibbs admired the custom in the late eighteenth century, in the early Victorian period, Agnes Strickland left her readers under no illusions—the practice was barbarous and so, by extension, was the Hindu religion and the Indians themselves.

Strickland’s short story, titled Candava; or, the Last Suttee, was serialised in the Home Circle in 1849. Her protagonist, Ellen Mortlake, is a fervent Christian who has gone out to India and intends to set up a Sunday School (for the benefit of the natives, obviously, to bring them to Christ). She and her brother, who is an officer in the Company army, are one day walking in the countryside and they see a sati procession. Ellen is horrified:

Pale and sick with horror, Ellen clung to her brother’s arm for support, as she gasped out, “Is there no means of preventing his frightful tragedy?”

“It can be prevented, and it shall be,” he replied, “Lord William Bentinck has abolished Suttee. Ellen, dare you remain with the bearers while I hasten to the British headquarters to obtain assistance?”

“Go—go my brother,” she replied, “I have no other fears than that you may be too late.”[ii]

The widow is taken to the pyre, kicking and screaming; her limbs are soon bound and the ‘evil Brahmins’ pay no attention to her cries for mercy. Just as they are about to light the fire, a detachment of East India Cavalrymen, led by Ellen’s brother, ride in to save the day.

“Hold,” he exclaimed with equal courage and temper … “The British Government has at length abolished suttee forever, and it will be at the peril of life and property if that abomination is ever again attempted in British India.”[iii]

The widow is rescued, ever grateful to the East India Company for saving her life.

Home Circle
The moral crusade against sati was waged, not only at the level of high politics, but also in popular literature. Stories such as this one which appeared in the Home Circle drew attention to the barbarous practice.

Paradoxically, although the practice was practiced by very few people in India, as the moral crusade against sati got ever more courage in both the Indian and British press, there was a brief resurgence of it in Bengal. It was almost as though, resenting the ever-increasing interference of British legislators into their lives, Indian people were pushing back against it.

In all of the furore around sati, however, the views of Indian women themselves were never asked for. The question of sati and its wider significance for Anglo-Indian relations was discussed at length by Gayatri Spivak in an article entitled ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ That the Indians were a conquered and oppressed people under British rule is beyond doubt, but when it came to sati, Indian women faced two forms of oppression: they could not commit sati without facing sanctions from the British authorities, yet if they decided against going through with it, the woman would be ostracised from her family and local community. At every step of the way during the whole moral crusade against it, it was men who knew best.

While the two examples cited here were fictional works, they are illustrative of wider, changing British attitudes towards sati and Indian culture at large. During the eighteenth century, the British were guests in India, which is why they were respectful of Indian culture; the British nation was a new nation, compared to India, which was thousands of years old. By the mid-Victorian period, the British were in charge; they did not need to ‘respect’ Indian culture as much anymore and where they previously wanted to just make money, now they had acquired a civilizing mission and this required outlawing Indian practices which did not fit with their worldview.

Even though India received its independence from Britain in the 1940s, the Indian Government passed another Act of Parliament in 1988 which confirmed the ban on sati. This decision stemmed in part from a recent case which occurred in 1987 in Rajasthan when an 18-year-old girl mounted her husband’s funeral pyre, much to the condemnation of the international community. The Commission of Sati Prevention Act deemed that

‘if any person commits sati, whoever abets the commission of such sati, either directly or indirectly, shall be punishable with death or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine’.

In spite of this, there has been a case as recently as 2006, when 40 year old Janakrani, burnt to death on the funeral pyre of her husband Prem Narayan in Sagar.[iv] Evidently the practice persists in some of the more rural parts of India.

[i] Phebe Gibbs, Hartly House, Calcutta, ed. by Michael Franklin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019), pp. 102–3.

[ii] Agnes Strickland, ‘Candava; or, The Last Suttee’, Home Circle, 14 July 1849, 17–18.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Anon., ‘India wife dies on husband’s pyre’, BBC News, 22 August 2006, online edn <> [Accessed 17 April 2019].

Further Reading

Ola Abdalkafor, Gayatri Spivak: Deconstruction and the Ethics of Postcolonial Literary Interpretation (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2015)

“La Eme”—The Mexican Mafia

Robert Ramirez delves into the history of the infamous La Eme, better known as the Mexican Mafia.

One of the most brutal gangs in existence is the Mexican Mafia, or, ‘La Eme’ (Spanish for ‘The M’). According to most accounts, the gang was founded in 1957 by Luis ‘Huero buff’ Flores. At the time Flores was incarcerated in a Californian jail; in order to survive the brutal conditions, and protect himself from other prison gangs which were organised along racial lines—such as the Black Guerillas and the Aryan Brotherhood—Flores decided to form a gang to provide protection for him and his Hispanic peers from other prison gangs.

Soon Flores’s gang offered a variety of ‘services’ for other gangs members and paying customers in the prison community at large: drugs, gambling, and contracts killings were just some of the many ‘products’ which people could pay Flores’s gang to carry out. The idea behind the gang’s diverse portfolio of activities had one aim: to establish supremacy over other prison gangs.

La Eme
La Eme in the Early Years

As La Eme continued to grow in size and status inside the prison during the 1960s and 1970s, its more senior members created a structure for the gang in order to spread their activities into other Federal prisons and even local communities. A pyramidal structure evolved as the gang recruited more Hispanics into its ranks. Those at the top would commission lower-ranking members to carry out jobs, for which those at the top received a ‘cut’; La Eme’s operations were now no longer about simply protecting Hispanics in prison but about extending their power and business interests.

During the 1980s, La Eme joined forces with gangs on Los Angeles’ East Side, which gave them a stake in the city’s drug trafficking and contract killings trades—this was when the Mexican mafia really started to thrive. The Mexicans’ dominance over California then allowed them to branch off the contract killings and maximize their profits by focusing on trafficking drugs to and from Mexico.

La Eme soon formed links with cartels in Mexico, who in turn cultivated relationships with other organized crime groups in South America. The Guadalajara cartel—one of Mexico’s biggest—was founded by ‘the Godfather’, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo. Miguel formed a partnership with the infamous Colombian, Pablo Escobar, to expand his empire of the business of cocaine. It was a relationship which offered mutual benefits: the need for the relationship was due to the lack of transportation that fortunately Gallardo could provide for Escobar. Gallardo was in charge of the transports of the cocaine products, he moved them to and from the western side of Mexico such as Tijuana and Sinaloa, adjacent to California, which made it easy for them to illegally transfer their products across the border. Sinaloa was the region of Mexico that Pablo Escobar assigned to the notorious “El Chapo,” also known as Joaquin Guzman Loera.

El Chapo arrest
The Arrest of El Chapo

When Escobar was killed in 1993 by the Colombian authorities, El Chapo took this chance to become the master of the operation and remained in his post for almost an entire decade without being snitched on by his communities and the inside workers from the cartel. The reason that local communities did not report El Chapo to the authorities was simple: they were too scared to do so. And certainly no one in his own gang would dare to betray him; criminal organizations such as the Mexican cartels do not take “rats” lightly; members treat each other as if they are family, and if they turn on family it usually ends in death or severe injuries. Besides, the ‘pyramid’ structure of El Chapo’s gang meant that the soldiers at the very bottom of it know very little of what those at the top of the organization do. Such arrangements protect the boss from getting busted if one of the lower level members gets caught.

The modus operandi and structure common described above, common to many organized crime groups, has been carefully adapted in mafia movies in popular culture. Tony Montana from the 1983 film Scarface, is a character who was inspired by several South American drug lords including El Chaop. Montana is a young Cuban refugee who dreams of a better life and will do anything it takes to achieve it; he starts out as a soldier, carrying out menial duties for those above him in the gang, but eventually climbs his way to the top of the cocaine scheme. During the film, the operation starts by just moving a few kilograms of cocaine but turns into a massive drug selling business connects him to many powerful people. A man from the DEA is out to get Tony and his bosses convicted and warn people about the scandalous amounts of drugs they are bringing into the country, so he decided that he had to take him out by planting a bomb in his car. Montana does not, however, assassinate the man due to his morals—organized crime members are always shown to have some kind of moral compass—as the man from the DEA is traveling in the car with his daughter and wife. By not finishing the job it allowed for the compromise of their operation, leading to the death of his drug business and himself.

The famous “Scarface” based in part on El Chapo and several other drug lords

Scarface of course was a fictional portrayal of a man whose career was similar to El Chapo and many other organized crime bosses. Although unlike Montana, El Chapo was captured, not killed. On three separate occasions, the cartel was able to bribe the security guards of the Federal Maximum Security prison in Mexico and break him out twice. In 2016, the photograph above was taken of El Chapo as he was arrested for the third time in twenty years. The trial for this arrest is still going on today, according to MSN News:

“The 12 jurors began deliberating in federal court in Brooklyn last Monday, and were dismissed for the week on Thursday afternoon. The lack of a verdict in the first week seemed to please Guzman, who grinned and hugged one of his lawyers before he was led out of the courtroom.”

Perhaps the cartels have managed to influence the jury; its members recently alleged that there is no actual evidence to convict him and that El Chapo was being set up as a “fall boy” for another high-ranking member named El Mayo.

In spite of El Chapo’s arrest and trial, the drug trafficking continues under new leaders of who find new ways to smuggle drugs into the United States. According to Insight Crime:

“Sinaloa Cartel hid a haul of 180 kilograms of methamphetamine inside the spare tires of new cars sent from Mexico to Canada, showcasing the innovative tactics drug traffickers are using to successfully skirt border checks.”

The cartel has no intention of stopping business flow, even if its most iconic leaders have perished into the prison system or killed. To keep this drug empire operating at this level is quite an astonishing accomplishment and the cartels are one of the most efficient organized crime units in existence. After decades have passed of the constant successful movement of illegal drugs across different border lines you have to ask yourself: is it that the cartel is just that good or is that the Government of the country the drugs are running through cannot afford to enforce the law? It may be a little bit of both as the cartel knows how to take advantage of countries that live in poverty and are unable to properly manage their own citizens. Mexico is always stereotyped as a country full of gangsters and cartel movement but it is really just a reflection of the Government that allowed its people to live in poverty and ultimately be forced to sell drugs to provide for their families. Organized crime will continue to affect communities locally and globally as they know their way around the government system. The repeated use of bribery, innovative tactics, intimidation and overall crime from the political and social standpoint is what will allow the empire of the Mexican cartel to continue to grow the enterprise.

Further Reading:

Mark Galeotti (2009), Organized crime in History. Abingdon: Routledge.

Brendan Pierson (2019), WWW MSN News, Jury in “El chapos” U.S trial begin second week of deliberations , , sited on 11-02-2019, (Searched 09-03-2019)

Chris Dalby (2019), WWW Insight Crime, Sinaloa cartel places unwanted surprise inside new Ford cars, , sited on 01-03-2019, (Searched on 10-03-2019)

Scarface (1983), Produced by Brian De Palma, United States.

Carlos Rodriguez (2016), Mexican Cartels, (10-03-2019)

Suzanne Pekow (n.a), Gangsters Confidential,  Brutal Control: A brief history of the Mexican Mafia, , sited in (2018) , searched on (11-03-2019)


No Longer a “Dark Age”: Susan Oosthuizen’s “The Emergence of the English” (2019)

By Stephen Basdeo

Professor Susan Oosthuizen’s The Emergence of the English (2019) is a lively and engaging book which takes aim at many widely and long-held assumptions about the emergence of an “English” people in the British Isles after the withdrawal of the Roman legions in 410 AD.

Most people in English history lessons at school are taught a fairly straightforward narrative of these times: the Romans left, and their departure left the island defenceless; petty little warlords grew in their place and some of these invited mercenaries from northern Europe—the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—to defend their lands. These people then invaded in ever greater numbers and gradually displaced the Romano-British, often reducing them to the status of serfs. Much of this happened in that murky period called the “dark ages”, a term which, in spite of its flaws, remains embedded in popular historical understanding.

Withdrawal of the Roman Legions from Britain in 410 AD.

I have always wondered what happened to the Romano-British immediately after 410 AD. Did they ever begin to “feel” English as opposed to Saxon? What most surprised me in reading Oosthuizen’s book was the fact that, although the Romans withdrew from the isle, there was hardly an apocalyptic breakdown of Romano-British social and economic structures, as has often been touted. I know from my own research into Victorian medievalism, is a narrative which has had currency for much longer than it ever should have. Indeed, in her literature review, Oosthuizen points out that in spite of lots of new research into this period many historians still cling to a narrative similar to the one outlined above, which began in the nineteenth century. Yet as Oosthuizen points out that even after the withdrawal of the legions in 410 AD, late Romano-Britons still believed that Britain remained Roman in culture and outlook. Through an extensive critique of the main textual sources such as accounts from St Patrick and Gildas, as well as the Gallic Chronicle (452 AD), which allegedly support the prevailing narrative of violent Saxon conquest, Oosthuizen convincingly concludes that

‘There is, then, no reliable, contemporary documentary evidence from early British or continental scholars for substantive invasion, settlement, or conquest of Britain from northwest Europe in the fifth century’.

To simplify the findings presented in further chapters somewhat: essentially what we have is a case of continued and lengthy continuity of Romano-British society along with a gradual arrival of northern Europeans, during which the Romano-British adopted some of the new immigrants’ customs and traded with them, and the English people evolved out of this process. The two groups interacted, intermarried, and adopted an increasingly “English” culture. As Oosthuizen further points out towards her conclusion:

‘There is little evidence of any early medieval social restructuring in which “Anglo-Saxon” migrant elites reduced existing Romano-British communities to servile status. Instead, continuity of agricultural exploitation and the invisibility of differences in or between communities in terms of their political structure, the languages they spoke, or their material culture, suggests that local groups continued to occupy land their ancestors had held, and that incomers, whether large or small in number, were by and large assimilated.’

Oosthuizen proves her point through an impressive analysis of a wide range of primary sources, comprising not only textual sources but also archaeological evidence—it truly is an interdisciplinary work. Oosthuizen had images specially commissioned for this book (which I expect I cannot reproduce here for copyright reasons), but they do help the reader to visualise the processes of integration and assimilation between the Romano-British and the Anglo-Saxons (see Fig. 7 in the book if you buy it).


Oosthuizen should also be thanked for choosing to publish her research with the newly-established Arc Humanities Press. Most of the major academic publishers’ monographs retail at exorbitant prices and are mostly off-limits to the general public who (understandably) would be mostly unwilling to spend £70 plus on a single volume. However, this volume came with an RRP of £14.99, which is a lower price than many popular history books. So, buyers can get access to the latest top quality research without shelling out an arm and a leg. It is a concise book and mostly avoids overly complicated jargon, although where technical terms are used these are explained in plain English first. This will therefore interest the general reader, the student, and the academic, even if their specialism is not in this immediate area, and readers will likely be left wanting to know more, which is meant in the most positive sense. I have a feeling that this may become, in time, one of our standard works on that “dark age” that this book sheds much light on.

Susan Oosthuizen, The Emergence of the English (Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2019), RRP £14.99, 140 pp. ISBN 9781641891271