“If they must have a British Worthy, they would have Robin Hood”

By Stephen Basdeo

This post originally appeared on the IARHS website

Amongst the great writers of eighteenth-century literature, the names of two men stand out: Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) and Joseph Addison (1672-1719). These two quintessentially “Augustan” [1] writers dominated the literary marketplace between 1709 and 1715 through their essay periodicals The Tatler and The Spectator. Due to the expiration of the Licensing Act in 1695, which saw the end of government censorship, there was an explosion of printed material, [2] and Addison and Steele’s periodicals were part of this expansion in the availability of print culture.

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Addison and Steele’s periodicals

The public appetite for literature it seemed could not be sated. Although these periodicals had a seemingly modest circulation of just 3,000 copies, Addison claimed a readership for The Spectator that was somewhere approaching 60,000. [3] The fame of The Tatler and The Spectator also spread overseas: James Madison (1751-1836), the fourth President of the United States, recalled having read these periodicals daily (which by his time had been bound into 8 volumes and gone through numerous editions). [4] Addison’s high estimate for the number of readers is not unreasonable, for periodicals such as The Tatler, like many of the other periodicals available in the early eighteenth century, were designed to be read and debated in public arenas such as the coffeehouse and the tavern, and periodicals, or “moral weeklies” as Jurgen Habermas calls them, contributed to the birth of the bourgeois public sphere, or as we might phrase it today, public opinion. [5] Through the essays in these periodicals these authors promoted a culture of aristocratic politeness among urban readers, in which learning and self-improvement were the order of the day. [6]

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Frontispiece of Joseph Addison, from Robert Cochrane, ed., The English Essayists: A Comprehensive Selection from the Works of the Great Essayists from Lord Bacon to John Ruskin (London: William P. Nimmo, 1876).

It is Addison’s reference to Robin Hood in the eighty-first issue of The Tatler which I would like to bring to your attention. He opens his essay with a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid:

Hic Manus ob Patriam pugnando Vulnera passi,Quique pii Vates & Phaebo digna locuti, Inventas aut qui Vitam excoluere per Artes,Quique sui memores alios fecere merendo.

Here are the hands that suffered wounds by fighting for their country and those devoted poets, who spoke words worth of Phoebus or those who improved life through learned arts and those who by their merits caused others to remember them. [7]

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Credit: Phoebus, or Apollo, from the Victoria and Albert Museum

Addison tells his reader that he was musing upon the notion of immortality:

“There are two Kinds of Immortality; that which the Soul enjoys after this Life, and that imaginary Existence by which Men live in their Fame and Reputation.” [8]

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Marble bust of Alexander the Great

It is with the second type of immortality that Addison concerns himself with in his essay, and he says that he spent the whole afternoon mentally cataloguing the various heroes and “military Worthies” that have appeared throughout world history. [9] He was so preoccupied with this matter, he says, that after many hours awake thinking it over, he fell into a deep sleep and proceeded to have a dream in which he was invited into a great hall in which a number of prestigious persons entered:

The first who step’d forward, was a beautiful and blooming Hero, and as I heard by the Murmurs round me, Alexander the Great. He was conducted by a Crowd of Historians. [10]

Other ancient worthies enter: Xenophon, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Hannibal, Cato, Pompey the Great, Augustus; it is all very classical, which of course ties into the neoclassical modes of the eighteenth century.

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Augustus of Prima Porta

All of these worthies sit at a table, but it is revealed that there is an empty seat at the table where these illustrious heroes are seated. They begin to whisper among themselves and discuss who, from British history, is worthy to join them at their table. Would they choose King Arthur? He had, after all, been called a “British Worthy” only a few years prior in John Dryden’s opera King Arthur; or, the British Worthy (1691). How about King Alfred, the only English King ever to have been given the epithet “the great”? No—neither of these men are good enough in the estimation of men such as Caesar and Augustus. They conclude by saying that,

“if they must have a British Worthy, they would have Robin Hood.” [11]

An outlaw who (supposedly) lived in the thirteenth century was greater than all of the other heroes of English history, and worthy enough to take his place amongst the likes of Alexander and Caesar.

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In Addison’s essay all of the ancient worthies are from the Classical period, with the exception of Robin Hood. Indeed, Addison’s placing of Robin Hood—a medieval figure—among all those classical heroes seems incongruent. In the early part of the eighteenth century, whilst it was recognised that the Middle Ages were integral to Europe’s past, the period was “not much liked” by scholars and thinkers.[12] And 1750 is the date that Peter Raedt cites as having been the year when eighteenth-century scholars stopped being dismissive of the Middle Ages as a barbaric interlude between antiquity and the “enlightened” eighteenth century and the period began to be appreciated in its own right.[13] Raedt concentrates his article on Germany, and while some of his points are applicable to England, at the same time England seems to have never truly “lost” an appreciation of its medieval past during the early part of the eighteenth century. Dryden’s and Purcell’s King Arthur has already been cited, and Dryden also “translated” (into perfectly rhyming couplets) parts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in his Fables: Ancient and Modern (1700). Handel also produced a medievalist opera Rinaldo (1711) set during the time of the First Crusade (1096-1099). Thomas Arne and James Thomson also authored the libretto for the opera Alfred (1740), known most famously today for its finale Rule Britannia! An appreciation for England’s medieval past also manifested itself in architecture, most famously in the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe, designed in 1734 by William Kent. Whilst the marble busts of most of the great men on display there are mostly from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, there are two medieval figures present: King Alfred and Edward, the Black Prince.

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Temple of British Worthies at Stow Gardens

Yet Addison’s idealisation of Robin Hood as a British Worthy is an anomaly when compared to the works of Arne who venerated a King, Alfred, and the establishment figures that were sculpted in marble by William Kent. Robin is different to these other illustrious persons because he is an outlaw. And Addison’s reference to Robin Hood is certainly more positive than the one which would appear in Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719) only a few years after Addison was writing, where Robin is described as a “wicked, licentious” individual. [14] This makes it seem odd that Addison would choose Robin Hood to make a point in a “moral weekly.” I have two theories about this. Firstly, it would seem that Robin Hood was by the early eighteenth century gentrified enough in the public consciousness for him to be used in such a way. The gentrification process had begun with Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon (1597-98) where Robin is recast firmly as an establishment figure. [15] The second is that an idealisation of Robin Hood fits in with eighteenth-century contemporaries’ love of liberty. In a later issue of The Tatler, Addison wrote about another vision he had in which he witnessed the goddess of Liberty presiding over the prosperity of the nation. [16] Although crime was increasingly viewed as a problem during the eighteenth century, as indicated by Fielding’s lament that the streets of London would soon become impassable except “without the utmost hazard,” [17] liberty-loving men of Georgian England resisted any attempt by the government to form a professional police force. In a rather odd sort of way, highwaymen (and Robin is the original highwayman) were loved by the people because to many they were seen to embody liberty. [18] People of all ranks held a degree of admiration for highwaymen. At the trial of the “Gentleman Highwayman,” James Maclaine (1724-1750), for example, “many persons of rank of both sexes attended his examination, several of whom were so affected with his situation that they contributed liberally towards his support.” [19] This admiration of outlaws and highwaymen perhaps then explains why Smith, whose Highwaymen is a heavily moralist text, is so keen to recast Robin Hood in a negative light, for he evidently disagrees with the prevailing admiration for both Robin Hood and contemporary criminals.

Addison’s and others’ representations of Robin Hood raise questions as to whether the so-called ‘medieval revival’ of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was actually much of a ‘revival’ at all. In the eighteenth century, however, the Robin Hood tradition has a neoclassical overlay, in a similar manner to Ben Jonson’s play The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood (1631), where the story of Robin Hood is portrayed as a classical and quasi-tragic story of lost pastoral love. [20] Drawing further connections with antiquity, in the play Maid Marian is equated with the goddess Diana. [21] After Addison was writing, Ely Hargroves, in Anecdotes of Archery (1792), catalogues all of the greatest archers in history, highlighting many of the illustrious archers of history such as Pandarus, Ulysees, Aeneas, and Robin Hood. [22] As Robin Hood scholars we are often told that the credit for popularising the medieval period rests largely with Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), a novel which, in the words of John Henry Newman (1801-1890),

‘first turned men’s minds in the direction of the Middle Ages.’ [23]

Whilst Scott’s historicist vision of the Robin Hood tradition was different to the neoclassical eighteenth-century interpretations of it discussed above, a sustained interest, admiration even, for medieval figures can be traced throughout the eighteenth century, not just from the Gothic Revival of mid-to-late part of the century onwards.

In conclusion, whilst many early eighteenth-century appropriations of Robin Hood are negative, Addison’s elevation of Robin Hood into the status of a “worthy” in the face of negative interpretations is interesting for it confirms to us that the gentrification process was not a linear process but an uneven one. Addison’s essay is the only “gentrified” representation of Robin Hood (gentrified in the sense that he is elevated into someone equal to the heroes of antiquity) which I have managed to find between c.1700 and c.1730 and is certainly deserving of consideration. It is often fleeting comments about Robin Hood in later texts such as The Tatler which allow us to map and construct an idea of how people in past ages interpreted the legend at various points in its history. By 1709 it seems that Robin’s status was firmly gentrified in public consciousness for Joseph Addison to speak about him in a “moral weekly.”


Notes

[1] “Augustan,” named after the Roman Emperor, Augustus, is the term usually applied to “high” culture in England which flourished during the reigns of Queen Anne and George I. It is so called because artists and writers imitated Classical styles in their works, e.g. Alexander Pope’s Dunciad (in imitation of the Iliad), or his Imitations of Horace.

[2] Julian Hoppit, A Land of Liberty? England, 1689-1727, The New Oxford History of England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 177.

[3] Joseph Addison, “The Spectator, Number 10.” [1711] The Spectator: A New Edition, Reproducing the Original Text, Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors. Ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1880), 19.

[4] Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1971), 39.

[5] See Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (London: Polity, 1989).

[6] James V. H. Melton, The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe, New Approaches to European History 22 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 96.

[7] “No. 81,” in The Tatler, ed. Donald F. Bond. 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 2: 13-21. Bond notes that but “for the last two sentences, this number is by Addison,” 13. The Latin verse from Virgil included at the beginning of Addison’s article for my essay is translated by Richard Thomason (Ph.D. student at the University of Leeds).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 2: 19.

[10] Ibid., 2: 17.

[11] Ibid., 2: 20.

[12] Peter Raedt, “Representations of the Middle Ages in Enlightenment Historiography,” The Journal of Medieval History 5, no. 1 (2002): 1-20 at 1.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen. Ed.  Arthur Heyward (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1933), 412.

[15] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 44.

[16] “No. 161,” in Bond, The Tatler, 2: 397-401. This issue is also authored by Addison.

[17] Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), 1.

[18] Lucy Moore, Conmen & Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld (London: Penguin, 2001), xiii.

[19] Andrew Knapp & William Baldwin ed. “JAMES MACLANE Called ‘The Gentleman Highwayman.’ Executed at Tyburn, 3rd of October, 1750, for Highway Robbery.” The Newgate Calendar. http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng234.htm (accessed 26 August 2015).

[20] Stephen Knight, “‘Meere English Flocks’: Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd and the Robin Hood Tradition,” in Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-Medieval, ed. Helen Phillips (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005), 129-44 at 131.

[21] Ibid., 134.

[22] Ely Hargroves, Anecdotes of Archery from the Earliest Ages to the Year 1791 (York: Printed for E. Hargroves, 1792), 1-17.

[23] Alice Chandler, “Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19, no. 4 (1965): 315-32 at 315. 

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Unruly Apprentices

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many criminals recorded in works such as Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1714), and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734), as well as his Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735) were said to have begun their criminal careers as unruly, or idle apprentices. The notorious Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) is said to have been apprenticed to a carpenter, but being of a wicked disposition fell out with his master, and began cohabiting with a prostitute, Edgeworth Bess, and thereafter commencing a criminal career.[i] Even when discussing Robin Hood, the authors cited above, in a complete break with the existing historical tradition, state that he was originally apprenticed to a butcher, but ‘being of a wicked, licentious inclination, he followed not his trade’.[ii] (Not a single Robin Hood text, from the medieval period to the eighteenth century, records the famous outlaw as having been a butcher, and eighteenth-century accounts are unusual in this respect).[iii] The figure of the idle apprentice received its most famous artistic representation in William Hogarth’s series of paintings entitled Industry and Idleness (1747).

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The First Plate of Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness (1747). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of the reasons why the idea of the unruly apprentice became a worrying figure was because, by going against his master, the delinquent youth was effectively signalling his intention to revolt against, not only his employer, but also the state and divine providence, ‘the concept that invokes hierarchical orders which support eighteenth-century life from the arrangement of the Cosmos to the distribution of wealth among the social classes’.[iv] The noted critic, John Richetti, for example, argues that the idle, or the “revolted apprentice”, ‘embodied furtive and unnatural longings for disruptive revolt […striking out] against social and moral restraints, against any sort of control from an external source’.[v] Moreover, when a certain criminal is represented in literature as having shunned hard work in his youth and preferring to follow a life of crime, this trope allowed the reader to view the felon’s criminality as part of an enduring strain of wickedness in the boy’s moral character, which early signs were present when he was young.

There were several factors which could induce initially virtuous young apprentices to fall into a life of criminality. First among these was the apprentice masters who, it was reasoned by some writers at the time, often failed to act as a moral guide for the youngsters. Often it is the dissolute habits of masters themselves which were assumed to have an adverse effect upon the minds of impressionable youths. For example, The Criminal Recorder; or, Biographical Sketches of Notorious Public Characters (1804-10), says that,

The evil habits of masters are in a great degree the means of corrupting apprentices. No sooner does an apprentice advance towards the last year of his time, than he thinks it incumbent on him to follow the example of his master by learning to smoke. This accomplishment acquired (according to his conception), he is a fit associate for those who frequent public houses.[vi]

Visiting public houses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not, and still is not, a marker of potential criminality of course, but the same writer goes on to argue that, although the master may visit respectable public houses, the apprentice, in order to avoid meeting with the master on a night out, must necessarily visit those places to which he knows that his master will not venture, namely, places of ill-repute where the apprentice ‘meets with depraved company’.[vii]

It is through frequenting such places of ill-repute that the youth first becomes ‘ensnared’.[viii] A major factor in apprentices’ fall from grace is when they first become acquainted with prostitutes in these low public houses, as The Criminal Recorder writes:

Having arrived at the age of puberty, and meeting with profligate females in those haunts of idleness, his passions become inflamed. The force of evil example overpowers him. He too becomes depraved – Money must be procured to supply his wants which are generated by depravity. Aided by the facilities held out by old iron shops, he pilfers from his master to supply those wants, or associates himself with thieves, whose acquaintance he made in the progress of his seduction.[ix]

It will be recalled that this is how the criminal career of Jack Sheppard began, through meeting a prostitute, at which point in his biography Daniel Defoe exclaims:

Now was laid the foundation of his ruin![x]

Sometimes thieves and prostitutes could collaborate together in robbing people to supply their wants, through a system known as the ‘buttock and file’. The woman would entice a respectable passer-by into a dark alley with the prospect of sex. Then her male partner would emerge out of the shadows, usually deal a blow to the gentleman, and rob him.

Yet the idea of the unruly apprentice who shunned hard work and became a criminal was very much a metropolitan idea. Fewer accounts of criminals from outside London record their having been apprentices initially. Much of this was down to the nightlife temptations that were on offer in the capital, which, combined with apprentices’ youth, could be a recipe for moral disaster. As the fictional Memoirs of George Barnwell (1817), based upon an earlier play entitled The London Merchant (1731), records:

The juvenile mind is constitutionally sanguine; and the imagination wanders into wild and fanciful expectations, before its exuberances have been repressed by reason, and its dangerous heat tempered by experience. In the critical season of youth, before prudence and judgement have assumed the sceptre in the bosom, fancy is too apt to “riot in pleasure,” and to revel in visionary delights, the offspring of its own ardour, and which, unless seasonable correctives are applied to keep them in check, may ultimately lead to practical excesses of the most unprincipled nature and dangerous tendency.[xi]

If not constantly on his guard, the unsuspecting apprentice could find himself drawn into the criminal underworld. The account of Robert Crouch, a footpad, in Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, tells the story of how he was initially apprenticed to a butcher in Newgate Market,

But as soon as he was out of it he addicted himself to gaming, drinking, and whoring, and all the other vices which are so natural to abandoned young fellows in low life.[xii]

And it was women, gaming, drinking, and crime that would, it was supposed, eventually lead the apprentice to the gallows, just as happens to Hogarth’s Idle Prentice at the end of his story. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), references, references ‘Marybone and the Chocolate Houses’ as being the ‘undoing’ of the highwayman, Captain Macheath.[xiii]

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Frontispiece to The Memoirs of George Barnwell (1817). Author’s Collection.

Of course, this was the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and when it came to discussions of the luxuries and vices of the town in the public sphere, there was inevitably some class-based hypocrisy at play. The poorer classes might become criminal through indulging their passions at womanising, drinking, and gaming, but the sons of rich aristocrats, or rakes, which did the same, were rarely condemned as criminal. There are further comparisons to be made between the rake and the idle apprentice, one of them being the fact that neither could hold down a job, although of course the sons of the aristocracy had inherited wealth to fall back on. The image of the aristocratic rake is a recurring one throughout the eighteenth century. For example, in issue two of Joseph Addison’s Spectator magazine, one of the members of the fictional coffeehouse club is Will honeycomb, a man who is

Very ready at that sort of Discourse with which Men usually entertain Women. He has all his Life dressed very well, and remembers Habits as others do Men. He can smile when one speaks to him, and laughs easily. He knows the History of every Mode, and can inform you from which of the French King’s Wenches our Wives and Daughters had this Manner of curling their Hair, that Way of placing their Hoods; whose Frailty was covered by such a Sort of Petticoat, and whose Vanity to show her Foot made that Part of the Dress so short in such a Year. In a Word, all his Conversation and Knowledge has been in the female World.[xiv]

In his memoirs, William Hickey (1749-1830) records how he partook of the entertainment of the town, debauching one or two young maidens in the process.[xv] Generally seen as a bit of a cad, this type of man pursued the same pleasures of the town as the idle apprentice, but of course he was not condemned for it.

So what could be done to turn the unsuspecting eighteenth-century apprentice away from a life of crime, and inculcate respect for virtue, religion, and authority? One of the reasons that so many criminal accounts appeared in the eighteenth century is because, at a time of great public concern about the apparently ever-rising crime wave, they were intended as moralist texts. A person was supposed to read the account of the criminal and take lessons from his life. As Johnson in the preface to Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals states,

My intention in communicating to the public the lives of those who, for about a dozen years past have been victims to their own crimes, is to continue to posterity the good effects of such examples, and by a recital of their vices to warn those who become my readers from ever engaging in those paths which necessarily have so fatal an end.[xvi]

Other solutions proposed by the author of The Criminal Recorder include stopping all apprentices’ wages, and making the apprentices entirely dependent upon their masters for food, drink, and lodging. To do otherwise is to ensure that the apprentice falls into a life of crime.[xvii]

Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution continued, the number of apprenticeships drastically declined. But instead of the unruly apprentice, public fears towards the emerging idea of the juvenile criminal. From the 1830s onwards, it would be figures such as the Artful Dodger and the Wild Boys of London, homeless pickpockets with no master, and eventually the hooligan from the late nineteenth century, that would be society’s cause for concern.


References

Header Image: Illustration of Jack Sheppard from The Criminal Recorder 4 Vols. (London: Cundee, 1804-10). Author’s Collection.

[i] Daniel Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild, edited by Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), p. 4.

[ii] Alexander Smith, A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, edited by Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), p. 408.

[iii] Stephen Basdeo, ‘Robin Hood the Brute: Representations of the Outlaw in Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography’ Law, Crime and History 6: 2 (2016), pp. 54-70.

[iv] John Richetti, cited in Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Late-Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 45.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] The Criminal Recorder; or, Biographical Sketches of Notorious Public Characters 4 Vols. (London: Cundee, 1804-10), 3: 11.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] The Criminal Recorder, 3: 11-12.

[x] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, p. 5.

[xi] The Memoirs of George Barnwell; the Unhappy Subject of Lillio’s Celebrated Tragedy (London: Sherwood, Neely & Jones, 1817), p. 7.

[xii] Charles Johnson, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, edited by Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), p. 439.

[xiii] John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera 3rd Edn. (London: J. Watts, 1729), p. 5.

[xiv] Joseph Addison, ‘Number Two’ in The Spectator, edited by Henry Morley (London: Routledge, 1891) [Internet <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/12030/12030-h/12030-h/SV1/Spectator1> Accessed 9 April 2017].

[xv] William Hickey, Memoirs of a Georgian Rake, edited by Roger Hudson (London: Folio Society, 1995), pp. 27-52.

[xvi] Johnson, Remarkable Criminals, p. 1.

[xvii] The Criminal Recorder, 3: 12-13.

Capt. Alexander Smith’s “A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats” (1714)

The eighteenth century was a period which witnessed a great deal of interest in crime. With a rising crime rate, and an inefficient system of law enforcement that consisted of corrupt thief takers and part time constables, people sought to understand the workings of the criminal mind. For this they turned to the numerous pieces of crime literature that were available in the eighteenth century. Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714) was the forerunner to Captain Charles Johnson’s more famous Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735). With its combination of excessive moralism and sensational reporting, Smith’s work deserves discussion because it set the tone for successive portrayals of criminal in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature.

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An 18th-Century Illustration of the Golden Farmer

The details of who Smith was are now lost to us, and the name is most certainly a pseudonym – a guise that Smith’s successor Johnson would also adopt. The first volume of Smith’s compendium of criminals’ life stories appeared in 1714 in a small 12mo volume (5.5 inches by 7.5 inches). This first volume contained accounts of criminals that had appeared in the fifty years before Smith’s lifetime, including James Hind (1616-1652), James Whitney (d. 1694), and William Davies alias ‘The Golden Farmer’ (1627-1690). Smith’s had to at least pretend that his books were going to serve a moral purpose to make them acceptable to polite readers:

Since preceding generations have made it their grand care and labour not only to communicate to posterity the lives of good and honest men, that thereby men might fall in love with the smooth and beautiful face of virtue, but have also taken pains to recount the actions of criminals and wicked persons, that by the dreadful aspects of vice they may be deterred from embracing her illusions, we here present the public with ‘An History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen’. [1]

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Engraving of an 18th-Century Highwayman

Despite this benign moral intention behind his work, all that Smith really wants to do is to provide sensational and violent entertainment. Despite the fact that he condemns all of the criminals in his account as ‘wicked’ or ‘licentious’, and stressing how his work was ‘not published to encourage wickedness’, [2] he takes great delight in going into great detail about every violent act the criminals commit. Take the case of a burglary committed on the house of Mr. Bean by Sawney Cunningham, a highwayman and murderer who lived during the reign of Charles I:

He went one day to pay a visit to one Mr. William Bean, his uncle by his mother’s side, and a man of unblameable conversation; who, asking his wicked nephew how he did, and several other questions relating to his welfare, he for answer stabbed him with his dagger to his heart. [3]

Smith recounts with great delight some scenes of rape, or ‘ravishing’ as he calls it. This is the case with a criminal named Patrick O’Bryan, who with his gang break into a house, tie up the five servants, and attempt to rape the lady of the house’s daughter:

Next they went into the daughter’s room, who was also in bed; but O’Bryan being captivated by her extraordinary beauty, quoth he, Before we tie and gag this pretty creature, I must make bold to rob her of her maidenhead. So whilst the villain was eagerly coming to the bedside, protesting that he loved her as he did his soul and designed her no more harm than he did himself, the modest virgin had wrapped herself up in the bedclothes as well as time would permit. And as he took her in one arm, and endeavoured to get his other hand between herself and the sheet, she made a very vigorous defence to save her honour, for though she could not hinder him from often kissing, not only her face, but several other parts of her body, as by struggling they came to be bare; yet by her nimbleness in shifting her posture, and employing his hands so well as her own, they could never attain to the liberty they chiefly strove for. [4]

Often criminal accounts were used as a source of erotica for eighteenth-century readers which indicates that little attention was paid by readers to the moral message behind such texts. [5]

Smith’s work was an instant success, and an enlarged version of his work appeared in two volumes in early 1719, with another expanded three volume edition appearing later the same year. By the time that volume three was published, some of Smith’s accounts begin to verge upon the ridiculous. In volume three the reader is treated to accounts of Sir John Falstaff and Robin Hood (who Smith tries to portray as wicked as all of his other criminals).

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18th-century illustration of Murderer and Highwaymen, Sawney Beane.

All of Smith’s accounts follow a similar formula: he opens the account of an offender’s life with a discussion of their birth and parentage. The felons’ parents are always good people. Whether this was true or not is unknown, but Johnson uses accounts of the parents’ lives so that they might act as foils to the offender, who is usually portrayed as a wicked sinner. This is the case with Ned Bonnet, a highwayman whose life is laid bare for the reader in Smith’s history:

Edward Bonnet was born of very good and reputable parents in the Isle of Ely, Cambridgeshire, who bestowing some small education upon him, as reading, writing, and casting accounts, about the fifteenth year of his age, he was put an apprentice to a grocer living at Potton, in Bedfordshire, whom he served honestly. [6]

After an account of the offender’s good upbringing, Smith tells the tale of how the criminall falls into an ever deeper circle of vice and sin. The tales of most of the male offenders related by Johnson are usually cast as the tale of an idle apprentice who disdains honest employment. This usually follows as the result of keeping unwholesome company, as is the case of Tom Gerrard, a house-breaker:

Having some small education bestowed on him he was, when about sixteen years of age, put apprentice to a poulterer in Clare Market, where he served part of his time. But he addicted himself to ill company, so that wholly leading a loose and idle life, it drew him into many straits and inconveniences. To repair these, he took to the trade of thieving. [7]

What then follows is a tale of all the major robberies committed by the villain, often narrated in very quick succession. The offender’s crimes begin small, often through the pilfering of farthings and marbles, and then they move on to bolder offences. Crime was viewed almost like it was an addiction in eighteenth-century narratives, much like today how ‘soft’ drugs lead on to ‘harder’ drugs. [8]

Sometimes Smith’s highwaymen come across as sympathetic figures. The ambiguously sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we see in criminal biographies are a result of the fact that crimes were seen as sins by eighteenth-century contemporaries. These men are not wicked to the bone, but rather have simply made bad life choices which have consequently led them into a life of crime. Such bad life choices include becoming addicted to drink, gambling, whoring and all the other vices available to young men in eighteenth-century towns. [9]

Towards some of his highwaymen Smith even has a grudging admiration. This was especially the case with the seventeenth-century Royalist highwayman, James Hind. Smith was evidently an ardent royalist, and praised Hind for having once robbed:

That infamous usurper Oliver Cromwell as [he was] coming from Huntingdon to London. [10]

At the end of the tale readers are given an account of the criminal’s death, and notwithstanding the sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we encounter in Johnson’s narratives, hanging is usually portrayed as a sentence that is justly deserved, and the case of another highwayman, Jack Shrimpton, is typical of how many of Smith’s accounts end:

At length, being brought to trial, he was convicted not only for wilful murder, but also for five robberies on the highway. After sentence of death was passed upon him he was very careless of preparing himself for another world, whilst under condemnation […] When he came to the place of execution at St. Michael’s Hill, he was turned off without showing any signs of repentance, on Friday the 4th of September 1713. Thus died this incorrigible offender. [11]

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

The mind of man is naturally a lover of justice, and when we read a story wherein a criminal is overtaken, in whom there is no quality of which is the object of pity, the soul enjoys a certain revenge for the offence done to its nature, in the wicked actions committed in the preceding part of the history. [12]

What we witness when reading criminal biography, furthermore, is nothing less than the birth of the novel: criminal biography freely mixed fact and fiction and, dwelling as it did upon those of low social status (whereas the ‘romance’ – the dominant form of fiction – had usually dwelt upon aristocrats), it primed readers ready for larger factitious accounts of those from low social status. Indeed, Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) cann be regarded as a criminal biography writ large.

Mollflanders
Moll Flanders (1722)

True crime writing – the type of books that are sold in Railway station bookshops for a few pounds today – have continued Smith’s style of writing: lurid, sensational, and giving readers a glimpse into the criminal psyche. Even television shows such as Law and Order and Criminal Minds arguably do the same. The Georgians’ love of crime writing shows how, even though manners and social customs can change over time, people have always had a taste for the lurid and violent. And like people today, although the Georgians enjoyed crime as entertainment, they enjoyed seeing criminals get their just desserts also.


References

[1] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts and Cheats Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), p.1.
[2] Smith, Highwaymen, p.401.
[3] Smith, Highwaymen, p.24.
[4] Smith, Highwaymen, p.167.
[5] Peter Wagner, ‘Trial Reports as a Genre of Eighteenth-Century Erotica’ Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 5: 1 (1982), pp.117-121.
[6] Smith, Highwaymen, p.56.
[7] Smith, Highwaymen, p.167.
[8] Andrea McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), p.59.
[9] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 71.
[10] Smith, Highwaymen, p.138.
[11] Smith, Highwaymen, p.144.
[12] Joseph Addison, ‘Number 491’ in The Spectator: A New Edition, Reproducing the Original Text, Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors Ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge, 1880), 699-701 (p.701)

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

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

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

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

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

highwayman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He usually robbed alone.[8]

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

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

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

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

Offer for his soul your prayers.[11]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Read the 1762 Edition of Johnson’s Highwaymen here.


 

References

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