The Public School Ethos and Late Victorian Children’s Literature

Robert Clive

In 1888, The Life of General Gordon was written so that ‘the young can learn the beautiful lessons of obedience and humility, of loyalty to God and devotion to others’ (Hope, 1888, p.361). The writers of biographical and fictional works in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries sought to instil these values into young people’s minds. These were the values of what is known as the public school ethos. This post shall examine the ways in which the values of the public school ethos were imparted to readers within such literature.

From the eighteenth until the mid-nineteenth century, it could arguably be said that empire did not occupy a prominent position within British society. Control of overseas territories was largely indirect and operated through the agency of trading companies like the East India Company. This method of indirect rule changed, however, with the advent of the era of ‘new’ imperialism which lasted between 1884 and 1914. During this time European powers took direct political control of virtually the whole of Africa (Pakenham, 1991, xxiii). Men with an imperial ethos were needed to run this empire. The public school system subsequently began to develop ‘distinctly militaristic features’ in order to produce the people such men (Searle, 2004, pp.36-37). Nor was this purely a manpower issue. Britain’s poor performance in the Boer War (1899-1902) highlighted what seemed to the establishment to be a case of ‘national deficiency’. One apparent example of this was the fact that approximately one third of British volunteers were turned away from enlisting for being too unhealthy (Searle, 2004, p.302). Additionally, the growing rivalry from other emerging great powers such as USA made the British establishment anxious that they would lose their preeminent international standing. The public school ethos, then, which stressed the values of sportsmanship, manliness and devotion to duty, sought to prepare boys for a life of imperial service (Searle, 2004, p.65). The end result of this ethos was intended to be:

a Christian gentleman…who played by the rules, and whose highest aim was to serve others (James, 1994, p.207).

The attribute of sportsmanship can be found represented in the novel With Clive in India (1884) written by G. A. Henty. The schoolboy hero was central to all of his novels (Thompson, 2005, p.207). He was an ardent imperialist and his works usually celebrated the deeds and great men that had won the empire. The novel  follows the life of a young boy named Charlie Marryatt living in the eighteenth century. He is forced to seek employment in the British East India Company after his father dies. His athletic ability is evident from the outset of the story. He was ‘slight in build…in all sports requiring activity and endurance he was always conspicuous’ (Henty, 1884, p.465). Athleticism was promoted from an early age beginning in the late-nineteenth century. It was seen as developing, not just physique and character, but an esprit de corps, discipline and fair play (Mangan & Hickey, 2002, p.84). Athleticism promoted endurance in the colonies, being seen as equipping young men with the stamina needed to work in what were often inhospitable climates. Charlie’s ability in the novel to undertake his duties in difficult terrain leads to him being selected for a mission requiring the surmounting of dangerous rivers, mountains and passes for its completion (Henty, 1884, p.570). In fact, his physical qualities are first noticed by one of the Company governors when he selflessly jumps overboard from a ship and swims to the rescue of a comrade (Henty, 1884, p.571). Thus athletic ability was imparted to young readers in Henty’s work by its representation as a quality that was likely to help a boy advance himself in the world.

Southey's Life of Nelson
Southey’s Life of Nelson (1813)

However, sportsmanship as an imperial value often meant that war was treated as a game. Charlie finds himself promoted to command a small company of men. His company are out in the field and see a French force approaching. Charlie proceeds to rally his men as though he were speaking to them playing fields; ‘Now lads’, he exclaims: ‘You ought to be grateful to the French…[for] giving you the opportunity of thrashing them,’ at which point his men begin to laugh (Henty, 1884, pp.550-551). An example of how warfare was treated as a game can be seen at the public school which Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement, attended. The war memorials in Charterhouse College list the names of the dead from various colonial conflicts who ‘played up, played up, and played the game’ (Ferguson, 2003, p.262). Such a view of war was perhaps only possible in an era which, since 1815, was devoid of the experience of total war (Thompson, 2005, p.207). Thus while sportsmanship was presented as a valuable attribute in running the empire, it masked some of the more unpleasant experiences of conflict.

The training of boys on the playing fields of public schools was supposed to produce ‘manly’ men. Biographies of military heroes were ideal for presenting a picture of the idealised Christian gentleman. H. M. Stanley, for example, was distinguished for being ‘a brave man as well [as] by his courage as by his gentleness’ (Hope, 1902, p.1). These heroes were represented as being at the forefront of empire, spreading civilisation and Christianity to the ‘darker’ regions of the earth. Focused upon within this paper is the representation of General Gordon (1833-1885) as the true Christian gentleman. He was appointed by the British government to manage a retreat from the Sudan in the face of the Mahdi rebellion. Instead, he disobeyed orders and decided to hold on to the city of Khartoum, resolved to ‘smash up the Mahdi’ (Ferguson, 2003, p.268). He was besieged for almost a year, until the Mahdi broke into the city and he was cut to pieces and killed. Eulogised in such works as The Life of General Gordon (1888), he was seen as embodying both ‘morality and military spirit’ (MacDonald, 1994, p.83). Gordon personified the Anglo-Saxon ideal of the ‘gallant Englishman…a brave hero [who] had…died a martyr’s death’ (Hope, 1888, pp.357-358). This connection of manliness with service to the empire confirms the view of Thompson (2005, p.97) that ‘manliness and empire confirmed one another, enhanced one another’. Thus the masculine ideal was imparted to young readers as being constituted with a life of service to the empire, and readers were given examples of it in the pages of biographies such as those of Gordon.

Life of General Gordon (1888)

Furthermore, Anglo-Saxon masculinity was often presented alongside its binary opposite. Gordon was said to be ‘loyal’ and ‘true’ (Hope, 1888, p.358). By contrast, his foreign enemies were presented as treacherous and deceitful. Faragh Pasha, one of Gordon’s supposed allies, was said to have betrayed him and opened the gates of Khartoum to the forces of the Mahdi. He was nothing but ‘a traitor, whose name will be forever covered with infamy’ (Hope, 1888, p.356). Another man, ‘Abou Saood’, was said to be ‘altogether untrustworthy’ (Hope, 1888, p.175). This depiction of native peoples as treacherous and cunning blends with what Said identified as the ‘orientalist’ discourse that was current in contemporary British society. Oriental people were stereotyped as ‘gullible, “devoid of energy and initiative”, much given to “fulsome flattery”, intrigue, cunning…they are “lethargic and suspicious”, and in everything oppose the clarity, directness and nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race’ (Said, 1978, p.39). Such a stress, then, was placed upon developing ideal Anglo-Saxon masculinity in the public school system because it was thought that ‘prestige of race’ alone upheld British rule (James, 1997, p.307). As well as constituting a life of service to the empire, masculinity, therefore, was presented in biographical works as being the direct opposite of the racial attributes of ‘inferior’ subject peoples.

Additionally, the Anglo-Saxon man faithfully performed his duty to the empire. Emphasis upon duty has been a staple of many military biographies. Even in the early-nineteenth century Southey’s The Life of Nelson (1813), saw Nelson famously telling his men prior to the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) that ‘England expects that every man will do his duty (original emphasis)’ with Nelson in his autobiography urging readers to ‘Go Thou and Do Likewise’ (Southey, 1813: 1888, pp.11 & p.365). Of course, in Nelson’s era, duty and patriotism had a parochial focus, being intertwined with the nation, often specifically England (Colley, 1992, pp.284-285). Yet during the era of ‘new’ imperialism it was duty to both the empire and the nation which was emphasised within biographies and juvenile literature. For example, young Charlie Marryatt in With Clive in India is counselled by his uncle before setting off to India to ‘be steady, and do your duty to your employer’ (Henty, 1884, p.478). The ‘employer’ in this case being the East India Company, hence duty to his employer is duty to the empire. As well representing characters that carried out their service to the empire unflinchingly, there was another method by which Henty in his works tried to fire a zeal for the empire among his young readers. This was to ask them indirect thought-provoking questions. After some years serving in India, young Charlie returns to England with an Indian servant. The servant sees the amount English people and asks Charlie;

Why, when there were so many men, [had] England sent so few soldiers to fight for her in India; and for once, Charlie was unable to give a satisfactory reply…‘It does seem strange’ he said…‘that when such mighty interests were at stake, a body of even ten thousand troops could not have been raised and sent out’ (Henty, 1884, p.770).

The ‘mighty interests’ at stake in the novel was the existence of the East India Company, hence of the empire itself. At a time when Britain faced international rivalry for supremacy, Henty was exhorting younger readers to sign up to serve the empire, and to ensure that it lasted.

G. A. Henty, With Clive in India
G. A. Henty, With Clive in India

Thompson (2005, p.103) asks, ‘how far, then, did children’s literature “instil…the qualities of courage, justice, and fair play that had made and would keep Britain great?”’. There are theories by imperial historians which could be adapted to answer such a question. Porter says that an understanding of people’s attitude to empire must be considered in relation to their social class (Porter, 2004, p.311). The most receptive audience for such literature does appear to have been upper-middle class public schoolboys (Thompson, 2005, p.102). Additionally, Thompson states further that the working-classes read such fiction primarily for entertainment and a sense of adventure, since they rarely ventured far from their homes (Ibid). Yet in the opinion of the writer of this essay, such a view of working class indifference to this imperial ethos is hard to maintain. If young working-class boys were reading this literature in c.1900-1905 they were probably among the ones which enthusiastically enlisted for service to King and country in 1914. Indeed many people from all classes, both men and women, were taken in by ‘khaki fever’ in the early months of World War One (Searle, 2004, p.782). Perhaps the answer to Thompson’s question, then, is that the reception of these messages between different social groups was uneven. Consequently, if the reception of the messages between classes was complex, then so too was its reception within classes (Thompson, 2005, p.102).

However, what can be said with perhaps more certainty is that these public school values of masculinity did not retain their currency for very long. In the aftermath of World War One, many of the ideals of the Victorian age came in for reassessment. After all, a ‘stiff-upper lip’ mentality could hardly be maintained in the face of mass bodily dismemberment and mental scarring. If the Victorian ideal of manliness was relevant in 1914, then by 1918 one recent dissertation has concluded that in the space of four years, the concept of what constituted manliness changed irrevocably (Cairns, 2012, p.29). Nor by 1918 was the reputation of the Victorian hero still sacred. Strachey, in his work Eminent Victorians (1918), described Gordon in the following way;

Alien to the subtleties of civilised statesmanship…unamenable to official control… [and] incapable of the skilful management of delicate situations (Strachey, 1918:2002, p.255).

This is a far cry from Hope’s description of him as ‘a gallant and skilful leader…to be trusted with the great interests at stake in Shanghai’ (Hope, 1888, p.80). Thus despite the repeated idealisation of such men and their public school qualities in biographies and fiction, these ideas began to lose their relevance in a post-1918 England.

Strachey's Eminent Victorians
Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918)

In conclusion, the late-Victorian and Edwardian public school ethos of sportsmanship, manliness, and duty were imparted to young readers through fictional works and military biographies. These values were personified in the representations of both current and historical heroes of empire. Imperial heroes and schoolboy characters embodied the ethos. It was, as far as historians have been able to gather, the boys of the upper and middle-classes who provided the most receptive audience for this type of literature. The working-classes attitude towards it, however, is much less easier to determine. Finally, despite the fact that there were many similar works to those of Henty and Hope, these ideas began to decline in relevance after World War One.

Primary Sources
Henty, G. A. (1884) ‘With Clive in India’. British Empire Adventure Stories (2005). London: Carlton Books.
Hope, E. (1888). The Life of General Gordon. Edinburgh: W P Nimmo.
Hope, E. (1902). Stanley and Africa. London: Walter Scott Press
Southey, R. (1813: 1888). The Life of Nelson. London: George Bell & Sons
Strachey, L. (1918:2002). Eminent Victorians. London: Continuum Books

Secondary Sources
Colley, L. (1992). Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837. Yale University Press
Ferguson, N. (1993). Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Penguin.
James, L. (1994). The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. London: Abacus.
James, L. (1997). Raj: The Making of British India. London: Abacus.
MacDonald, R. (1994). The Language of Empire: Myths and Metaphors of Popular Imperialism, 1880-1918. Manchester: MUP
Mangan, J. A. & Hickey, C. (2002). ‘Missing Middle-Class Dimensions: Elementary Schools, Imperialism and Athleticism’. European Sports History Review 4 pp.73-90
Pakenham, T. (1991). The Scramble for Africa. London: Abacus
Porter, B. (2004). The Absent-Minded Imperialists. Oxford: OUP
Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. London: Penguin
Searle, G. R. (2004). A New England? England 1886-1918. Oxford: OUP
Thompson, A. (2005). The Empire Strikes Back? London: Pearson

Unpublished Dissertations
Cairns, T. (2012) ‘Tommy has the jerks mum, but don’t worry I’m ok’ Personal reflections of combat, emotions and dismemberment during the Great War, 1914-1918. [Unpublished Dissertation: BA Hons]. Leeds Metropolitan University


Kew Gardens’ Imperial Connections

Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew were founded by Princess Augusta (1713-1772) in the 1760s. In 1838 a Royal Commission was set up to inquire into the future of the gardens. The Commission concluded that, after years of official neglect, ‘the gardens should either be put on a professional footing or be closed’. The government took the first option and throughout the rest of the nineteenth-century Kew gardens developed and expanded its activities. The following essay will account for the development of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew after 1840 by illustrating that three factors contributed to this. These factors were moves towards rational recreation among the middle classes, imperialism, and in the twentieth-century, conservationism.

In the nineteenth century the emerging middle classes had at their disposal more wealth and more leisure time than ever before. This increase of affluence and leisure time coincided with a growing interest in horticulture and gardening among the middle classes (McCracken, 1997, p.74). This growing interest in gardening and horticulture blended with the prevailing nineteenth-century ideas of engaging in what was known as ‘rational recreation’. Along with the public city parks which were opening during this period, such as Derby Arboretum (1833), and Peel’s Park, Salford (1840), the Royal Botanical Gardens was established to help people ‘improve’ themselves. For example, botanical gardens such as Kew offered, ‘improvement through the findings of natural science’ (Clark, 1973, p.35). Judging by the number of visitors that the Royal Botanical Gardens were receiving, it is evident that many in the middle classes embraced this form of recreation. For example, by 1850 the gardens at Kew were receiving 179,627 visitors per year (Brockway, 1797a, p.81). Thus from the outset the gardens role as a place of rational recreation was popular with the public.

The role of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, however, was to essentially be an agent of empire during the nineteenth century. William Thistleton-Dyer (1843-1928), the third Director of Kew gardens, penned a pamphlet in 1880 entitled The Botanical Enterprise of the Empire. In the pamphlet Thistleton-Dyer had summed up his vision of the gardens’ role in relation to the empire. He stated that Kew should be a ‘botanical clearing-house or exchange for the empire’ (Thistleton-Dyer, 1880, p.6). From the 1840s onwards Kew gardens received substantial government grants. This was because the British nation in general was in an expansive mood after their victory in the Napoleonic Wars and science and colonial activity was a high priority for the government (Brockway, 1979a, p.77). There came to be, therefore, ‘a close connection between imperial expansion and government support for science’ (Brockway, 1979a, p.77).

To further their aims in assisting the expansion of the British Empire, the Directors of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew took steps to ensure that the gardens became the nerve centre of a network of colonial botanical gardens. One of the aims of the gardens was to coordinate ‘the efforts of the many gardens in the British colonies and dependencies, such as Calcutta, Bombay, Saharanpur, the Mauritius, Sidney, and Trinidad, whose utility [was] wasted for want of unity and central direction’ (Brockway, 1979b, p.452). As the centre of a network of colonial botanical gardens, Kew trained up specialist botanists and sent them forth into different parts of the empire. Nathaniel Wilson (1809-1874) had served at Kew gardens and was subsequently appointed to the botanical gardens in Jamaica. He took with him to Jamaica various seed including mangoes and pineapples. The emphasis in this enterprise was upon ‘economic botany’. Economic botany was the planting of seeds and reintroduction of plants which had commercial value for the empire. The experiment in economic botany with pineapples in Jamaica was a success. So successful it was, in fact, that in 1897 it seemed that there was nothing which could prevent Jamaica from becoming, ‘for the quality, variety, and commercial value of its fruit, the most noted spot in the world’ (Fawcett, 1897, p.351). The successful experiment with pineapples in Jamaica has had effects which have lasted into modern times. In 2009 pineapples ranked among Jamaica’s top twenty exports, with the country now exporting over 21,368 metric tonnes per annum (FAO, 2010). Thus Kew gardens had successfully introduced a commercially valuable plant into one part of the British Empire, it thrived, and the effects of this enterprise are felt even today.

Two case studies follow which illustrate Kew’s policies of economic botany serving the needs of empire. The first study is that of the cinchona transfer. Malaria had claimed many a life of the British soldier serving in the tropical climates in the nineteenth century. Quinine, which is used to treat malaria, is extracted from the cinchona bark. The plant itself was originally native to South America. It was one of the region’s most valuable exports. The British government was spending £53,000 per year to purchase quinine for troops in India (Brockway, 1979a, p.113). The East India Company, which governed large areas of India, had previously rejected attempts to introduce cinchona into India. They stated that, ‘after the Chinese teas, no more important plants could be introduced into India’ (Desmond, 1995, p.214). In many ways the introduction of tea from China into India, as orchestrated by the East India Company, served as the model for the transfers of plants of economic importance which the Royal Botanical Gardens would initiate (Brockway, 1979a, p.28). However, in the wake of the Great Rebellion in India in 1857, the Indian government dropped its opposition to the introduction of cinchona. This was because the government had decided to increase the British military presence in the region and needed fit and healthy soldiers. Furthermore, cinchona grown on Indian, and therefore British, soil would be substantially cheaper than importing it from South America (Desmond, 1995, p.214). Botanists trained at Kew were sent out to South America to obtain cinchona seeds which could subsequently be replanted in plantations in southern India. Despite some initial failures, the introduction of cinchona into India was a success. Quinine became available in India for less than a penny per packet (Brockway, 1979b, p.457). However, the losers in this botanical enterprise were of course the newly independent South American countries. The combination of European scientific expertise and finance wiped the Latin American countries’ trade in cinchona off the market (Brockway, 1979b, p.458). Furthermore, the cheap quinine available in India rarely filtered down to the common Indian (Ibid). In spite of this, the cinchona transfer boosted the reputation of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew ‘by confirming its dominance in the botanical activities of empire’ (Desmond, 1995, p.215). Thus Kew gardens contributed to the overall strength of the empire by helping to supply medicine to Britain’s imperial soldiers.

Rubber Plant
Rubber Plant

The next study concerns the rubber transfer of 1876. The native habitat of the rubber plant is in South America. Yet in 1986, Malaysia, a former British colony, was the world’s chief supplier of rubber (Chapman, 1991, p.36). The plant’s introduction into Malaysia was the work of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. In association with the India Office, Kew sent out botanists to South America to smuggle out of Brazil seventy-thousand rubber seeds (Brockway, 1979b, p.458). Prior to this event, Brazil’s exports of rubber ‘seemed capable of supplying all the rubber which the world required’ (Rae, 1938, p.318). Once in Kew’s possession, the seeds were planted with some limited success in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), but they thrived in Malaya (Malaysia) (Brockway, 1979b, p.458). With the advent of the motor car, European plantation rubber was by 1938 fulfilling ninety-eight per cent of the world’s rubber requirements (Rae, 1938, p.318). Naturally, the loser in this botanical enterprise was Brazil. In contrast with the 1,090,000 tonnes of rubber which European plantations were exporting, Brazil – once able to fill the world’s demand for rubber – had a mere output of 14,000 tonnes (Brockway, 1979b, p.460). Thistelton-Dyer was enthusiastic about the results of the rubber exchange. The operation was, according to him, a brilliant example of what could be achieved through the proper organisation and coordination of efforts between the various botanical gardens of the empire (Desmond, 1995, p.258). Thus the network of the British Empire’s botanical gardens, with Kew at their head, had served to boost the wealth of the British Empire.

In the twentieth century, when the British was gradually dissolved after 1945, Kew gardens found itself seeking a new purpose. It was in this period that the Royal Botanical Gardens shifted its focus from economic botany, and the imperialist activities of the past, as ‘the conservation ethic came strongly to the forefront of Kew’s thinking’ (Kew, 2008b). From the 1970s until the 1990s, Kew gardens forged strong links with global plant conservation movements and the IUCN (World Conservation Union). Out of the four-hundred-and-fifty plants listed on the IUCN’s endangered species lists, four hundred of these have been proposed by Kew gardens (Kew, 2008a). Additionally, the Royal Botanical Gardens nowadays conduct their own research which attempts to save plants from all over the world from extinction. In 2010, the thermal lily, just one centimetre in diameter and native to Rwanda, had been extinct for two years. However, the plant was successfully regrown by scientists working at Kew and it is hoped that the plant flourish in Rwanda once more (BBC, 2010). Finally, there is Kew’s involvement with the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership. This association of conservationist bodies has, with Kew’s assistance, managed to ‘bank’ ten per cent of the world’s wild flowers (Kew 2009c). Whilst Kew gardens had also promoted conservationism in the nineteenth century, the institutions motives were still basically economic and colonial (Kew, 2009b). As has been illustrated above, though, these days Kew gardens focuses on rescuing plants which are most at risk from climate change and human the impact of human activities (Kew, 2009c). Thus from the second half of the twentieth century, especially with the loss of empire, Kew has successfully managed to transform itself into an institution where the conservation ethic is at the front of its thinking, in contrast with the colonial enterprises of earlier days.

In conclusion, it is clear that after 1840 the following factors account for the development of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Firstly, the establishment of Kew gardens was part of a wider move towards rational recreation in the nineteenth century. Secondly, Kew gardens developed and increased its activities to serve the needs of the expanding British Empire. It achieved this through the practice of economic botany and plant transfers. These actions complemented the imperial ideology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century. Finally, with the decline and fall of the British Empire, Kew gardens evolved into a conservationist institution. Thus these three factors accounted for the development of Kew gardens after 1840: ideas of rational recreation, imperialism, and conservationism.

BBC (2010). ‘Water Lily Saved from Extinction’. [Internet] [accessed 30/11/2011].
Blomfield, D. (1992). The Story of Kew: The Gardens, the Village, the National Archives 2011 Edition. Kew: Leybourne Publications
Brockway, L. (1979a). Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. New York: Yale University Press
Brockway, L. (1979b). ‘Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens’. American Ethnologist. 6 (3) pp.449-465
Chapman, E.C. (1991). ‘The Expansion of Rubber in Southern Yunnan, China’. The Geographical Journal. 157 (1) pp.36-44
Clark, F. (1973). ‘Nineteenth-Century Public Parks from 1830’. Garden History. 1 (3) pp.31-41
Desmond, R. (1995). Kew: The History of the Royal Botanical Gardens. London: The Harvill Press
FAO: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2010). ‘Commodities by Country: Jamaica 2009 Data’. [Internet] [accessed 27/11/2011]
Ferguson, N. (2003). Empire. London: Penguin Books
James, L. (1994). The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. London: Abacus
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Rae, G. (1938). ‘The Statistics of the Rubber Industry’. The Journal of the Royal Statistics Society. 101 (2) pp.317-325
Thistleton-Dyer, W. (1880). The Botanical Enterprise of the Empire. London: HMSO
Underwood, L.M. (1899). ‘The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew’. Science. 10 (238) pp.65-75

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

This post has been adapted from a chapter in my MA Thesis which was completed under the supervision of Dr. Heather Shore.

Sweeney Todd's Chair [Source: Yesterday's Papers].
Sweeney Todd’s Chair
[Source: Yesterday’s Papers].

The tale of Sweeney Todd, the ‘demon barber,’ (originally entitled A String of Pearls) is perhaps one the most famous penny bloods of the nineteenth century. The story is set during the 1780s ‘when George the Third was young’. It begins when a young gentleman returns from overseas intent on marrying his fiancée, Johanna. He is carrying a gift of a string of pearls which he intends to give to her. Before visiting her, however, he decides to go for a shave. Both the gentleman and the pearls go missing. Investigations begin into the missing gentleman’s whereabouts, and suspicions are raised in London when Todd attempts to pawn a matching set of pearls because he cannot give ‘satisfaction as to how he came by them’. Subsequent investigations into Todd’s business reveal that there are many valuable items of all descriptions kept within his residence. The outcome of the subsequent investigations reveals a horrifying truth. The owners of the valuables have all been killed by Todd. With the collusion of his neighbour, Mrs. Lovett, who runs a pie manufactory in which she has imprisoned numerous subterranean workers, the victims’ bodies have been served up as meat in her veal pies.

If you are interested in reading the original novel, click the link to purchase Dennis Mack’s recently edited critical edition

The mystery of the novel centres around the chair in which his unfortunate customers sit to be ‘polished off’, for ‘there is some horrible mystery connected with the chair’. The chair is revealed to be a mechanical device which facilitates the speedy disposal of the victims’ bodies into an underground vault:

There was a piece of the flooring turning upon the centre, and the weight of the chair, when the bolt was withdrawn, by means of a simple leverage from the inner room, weighed down upon one end of the top by a little apparatus, was to swing completely round, there being another chair on under the surface, which thus became the upper, exactly resembling the one in which the unhappy customer was supposed to be ‘polished off’.

There was an image which accompanied the text that illustrated exactly how the intricate machine worked (see above).

Todd’s modus operandi may have had particular resonance for working-class readers whose lives were beginning to be dominated by machinery and manufactory. Thompson writes that ‘one after another, as the nineteenth century ran its course, old domestic crafts were displaced’ by machinery. Indeed, anxiety over the effects that machinery was having upon working-class people’s livelihoods in the early nineteenth century led to Luddite rebellions between 1811 and 1812, and machine breaking riots amongst farm labourers in the 1830s. The chair, the intricate mechanical device which takes away people’s valuables (their livelihoods), and finally disposes of them in the subterranean ‘pie manufactory’, represented ‘an expression of profound social anxiety…the growing perception that the sanctity of selfhood is threatened by the aggressive commercial forces generated by the industrial city’. Nevsett explains that the use of the term ‘pie manufactory’ is significant:

Todd runs an extremely tiny corporation…he murders his barber shop clients and sells their bodies as ‘veal pies’ with the help of Mrs. Lovett…and a nameless sequence of subterranean ‘pie manufactory’ workers who may not leave the factory floor and are quietly killed when they become exhausted or unmanageable.

Penny dreadfuls, targeted as they were towards the working classes, thus expressed working-class fears surrounding urban living and industrialisation. This is true in both The Mysteries of London and A String of Pearls where these fears were as Crone says, ‘clothed in everyday dress’.

  • Crone, R. Violent Victorians (MUP, 2012).
  • Hobsbawm, E. (1952). ‘The Machine Breakers’. Past and Present 1(1).
  • Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1848:2005). The Communist Manifesto. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Nevsett, R. (2014). ‘Welcome to the Pie Manufactory: Sweeney Todd and The String of Pearls’. ETHOS. [Internet] [Accessed 04/08/2014].
  • Powell, S. (2004). ‘Black Markets and Cadaverous Pies: The Corpse, Urban Trade and industrial Consumption in the Penny Blood’.
  • Prest, T.P. (1846). ‘A String of Pearls: A Romance’. Mack, R.L. ed. (2007). Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Thompson, E.P. (1963). The Making of the English Working Class. London: Penguin

Organised Crime in “The Mysteries of London” (1844)

The Mysteries of London was a long-running penny dreadful serial which ran between 1844 and 1846 and was the biggest selling novel of the Victorian era. Read the ebook here.

A version of this post was also published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online 

Illustration from The Mysteries of London (1844) [Source:]

When I was completing my MA in Social History at Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett) there was an excellent module I completed entitled ‘Organised Crime in the Modern World’ run by Dr. Kelly Hignett. It was an interesting area of study which looked at why organised crime emerges in certain conditions at certain times. Of the case studies we looked at there was, obviously, the Sicilian Mafia, as well as other groups such as the Japanese Yakuza and the Russian Mafia. Whilst drawing on longer established histories, these groups have all flourished in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and some of them have been immortalised in movies such as The Godfather (1970), Goodfellas (1990), and, my favourite, Donnie Brasco (1997). These films depicting organised crime are set in the twentieth century, and it is often assumed by law-makers, academics, and the public that organised crime is a modern phenomenon’. However, crime fiction in the early-Victorian period shows that contemporaries were aware that crime was becoming sophisticated and increasingly organised. Terms such as ‘professional criminal’ signified a person whose sole living was earned through the proceeds of crime, and into this category would have fallen well-known characters like Bill Sikes and Fagin from Oliver Twist (1838). I would like to show how some of the current theories in criminology relating to organised crime can be applied to the representations of crime in the early nineteenth-century penny serial The Mysteries of London (1845) by G. W.M. Reynolds (1814-1879).

First, though, it would be useful to have a working definition of ‘organised crime’, although arriving at a single definition has proven to be a headache for academics and policy makers alike. Generally speaking, however, ‘organised crime’ can be defined as ‘a continuing enterprise, apart from traditional legal and social structures, within which a number of persons work together under their own hierarchy for their private gain through illegal activities’. Organised crime may indeed exist separately as a murky underworld alongside a society of law and order, but it cannot exist without an organised society. Hence ‘organised crime has evolved as the shadowy underside of modernisation and order’.

Illustration from Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844) [Source:]

Most readers will be aware that London society had become increasingly organised by the early nineteenth century. The eighteenth-century system of law enforcement, with its corrupt web of thief takers, constables, and watchmen, had been abolished and replaced with a professional police force in 1829. Although limited in its scope, welfare for the most destitute members of society was provided through the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) which expanded the workhouse system. Working life was increasingly regulated through successive Factory Acts passed in the 1830s and 1840s. The government in the early Victorian period, therefore, extended its reach into more areas of public life than before it had done previously.

Organised crime historically flourishes in places where law enforcement and social institutions are seen as weak or ineffectual, or are mistrusted by large sections of the population. As you will probably agree, despite the government’s efforts at ‘organising’ society there were still holes in its fabric which underworld figures exploited – for with the workhouse system as cruel as it was, is it any wonder that the young boys in Oliver Twist turned to Fagin? Added to this is the fact that the police force in the early Victorian period was not trusted by the working classes. They were seen as a force which protected the propertied classes only, and to working-class people they merely ‘guarded St. James by watching St. Giles’.

It was such a society that was depicted by Reynolds in his penny serial The Mysteries of London. The modern industrial city is depicted as a maze in which vice and criminal behaviour exist in both high and low life. There are four main criminal characters in the story: the Cracksman, Crankey Jem, the Buffer and the sinister Resurrection Man. They are all natives of the worst rookeries and slum districts of the metropolis. The gang is hired at one point by a bourgeois capitalist named Montague Greenwood to carry out a criminal act:

‘What’s the natur’ of the sarvice?’ demanded the Cracksman.
‘A highway robbery’ coolly answered [Eugene]…‘I will explain what I want done. Between eleven and twelve o’clock a gentleman will leave London for Richmond. He will be in his own cabriolet. His horse is bay, with silver mounted harness. This gentleman must be stopped; and everything his pockets contain must be brought to me. Whatever money there may be about him shall be yours:-but all that you find about his person, save the money, must be brought to me’.

The gentleman in question is consequently robbed and receives the butt of a pistol bashed against his head for good measure. It becomes clear that this band of criminals’ sole motivation in carrying out this crime was profit, for when Greenwood pays the Cracksman he exclaims that he hopes ‘he should have his custom in future’. Karl Marx and Frederich Engels wrote in 1848 that in a capitalist society relationships between members of society had been reduced to a ‘callous cash payment’. As the “upperworld” and the “underworld” reflected each other, it is clear that crime in the modern industrial city is driven by financial considerations.

As I have highlighted already, organised crime has to be a continuing illegal enterprise – a criminal network should still function even if one or more of its members are incarcerated or killed. Reynolds seems to have had at least some understanding of this. In the story, Crankey Jem seized by the authorities and consequently sentenced to Transportation for life. The gang still operates despite the departure of this member who had been a central figure in Reynolds’ depiction of the London underworld. At the end of the first series, the Resurrection Man appears receives his just desserts, dying by the hand of a former associate. Yet true to his name, in the second series of The Mysteries of London the Resurrection Man was resurrected for readers. It turns out that he did not die and he returns to assume his place in the labyrinthine network of the Victorian criminal underworld.

The sinister Resurrection Man. Illustration from The Mysteries of London (1844) [Source:]

Of course, Reynolds merely represented organised crime. The next question to be asked is whether organised crime groups actually existed in this period? I will admit now that you would be unlikely to find the term ‘organised crime’ in any early-Victorian text. As I mentioned earlier, the Victorians preferred terms such as ‘professional criminal’. Kellow Chesney’s work on crime in the Victorian period is now a classic, however, and regarding the methods of men such as cracksmen he says: ‘they often spent months surveying and preparing a big robbery’. There also appears to have been a loose hierarchy among criminals in this period, as Chesney says that gangs were comprised of many different types of thieves, each of whom usually performed a different function, from the head house-breaker down to the lowly look out. Now obviously the depictions of organised crime gangs in Reynolds’ work, and their real-life nineteenth-century counterparts, did not follow modern criminologists’ definitions of organised crime to the letter. Yet Chesney’s research shows that there was at least some kind of organised and sophisticated structure to these gangs’ operations in this period.

What I have intended to show, then, is that while organised crime is often thought to be a strictly modern phenomenon. Yet the theories of criminologists relating to organised crime can be applied to the study of crime and its representation in the early Victorian period. A short glance at Reynolds’ penny blood of in the early nineteenth century illustrates that contemporaries were aware that crime was becoming increasingly sophisticated. The gradual organisation of the “upperworld” in the nineteenth century laid the groundwork for the organisation of the underworld. Crime in the modern industrial society of the nineteenth century was ruthless, cold, and driven by profit. As you can see, it had become organised. Thus an understanding of how and why organised crime emerges and flourishes in particular times and places can enhance our understanding of the history of Victorian crime.

This is the second post in a series on organised crime and its representation in historical literature.


  • Mark Galeotti, a leading criminologist, has recently argued against this perspective, see: Galeotti, M. ‘Criminal Histories: An Introduction’. In Organised Crime in History, ed. Mark Galeotti (London: Routledge, 2009), p.1.
  • Emsley, C. Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900. (London: Harper, 1987), p.168.
  • J.O. Finckenaur ‘Problems of Definition: What is Organised Crime?’ Trends in Organized Crime, 8:3, 2005, p.64.
  • Galeotti ‘Criminal Histories: An Introduction,’ p.6
  • Galeotti, ‘Criminal Histories: An Introduction,’ p.1.
  • Skaperdas, S. ‘The Political Economy of Organised Crime: Providing Protection When the State Does Not’. Economics of Governance, Vol. 2 (2001), p.173.
  • Storch, R. ‘The Plague of Blue Locusts: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840–57’ International Review of Social History 20:1, 1975, p.61.
  • George W.M. Reynolds The Mysteries of London. (London: Published for the Booksellers, 1845:1890), p.81.
  • Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, p.82 (Emphasis added).
  • Marx, K. and Engels, F. The Communist Manifesto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1848:2005), p.5.
  • Chesney, K. The Victorian Underworld (London: Penguin Books, 1970), p.196.
  • Chesney, The Victorian Underworld, p.198.

The Rise and Fall of Highwaymen in Print

Hopkinson, Thomas. The life and execution of Thomas Hopkinson, jun. :who suffered this day on the new drop, in front of the county gaol, Derby, for highway robbery.. [Derby] : G. Wilkins, printer, Queen Street, Derby., [1819].  HOLLIS ID:  005949713   [Reproduced with the permission of Harvard Library School of Law]
‘The life and execution of Thomas Hopkinson: who suffered this day on the new drop, in front of the county gaol, Derby, for highway robbery’ [Derby] : G. Wilkins, printer, Queen Street, Derby., [1819].
[Reproduced with the permission of Harvard Library School of Law]
Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon's "Last Dying Speech"
Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon’s “Last Dying Speech”

In 1751 the novelist and Magistrate of Westminster, Henry Fielding (1707-1754) published An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers. ‘The great Increase of Robberies within these few years,’ he wrote, was ‘an Evil which…appears to deserve some attention.’ Crime did receive much attention from eighteenth-century contemporaries such as Fielding. This is because England, especially London, was seen as being in the midst of a crime wave throughout the period by both the public and politicians. Despite the antagonism between the two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, Paul Langford says that ‘the one common view to which all parties could subscribe was that crime was increasing.’ One response by the authorities to this perceived rising tide of criminality was the gradual introduction of a bloody law code. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the number of capital felonies on the statute books increased from fifty to two hundred and twenty. Despite the perceived increase of crime, however, to many Englishmen in the early-eighteenth century the idea of having a uniformed police service was anathema. To contemporaries the idea of the state patrolling its citizens was tyrannical. This post briefly explores the extent to which contemporary representations of criminals over the course of the ‘long eighteenth century’ (c.1689 – c.1837), particularly of highwaymen, reflected changing attitudes towards crime and criminality.

The eighteenth century witnessed an explosion of print culture due to the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695, which ended government censorship of printed matter. Alongside polite periodicals such as The Spectator, there was a thriving literature trade in chapbooks, ballads, and biographies featuring contemporary criminals. Regularly published works concerning the lives of the criminals such as The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account would contain the last dying speeches of criminals condemned to the gallows. Also available was The Proceedings of the Old Bailey which supposedly contained ‘a true, fair and perfect narrative’ of the trials at the Old Bailey Courthouse in London. Stage plays such as The Beggar’s Opera (1729) by John Gay (1685-1732) featured criminals as their heroes. Criminal biographies and novels such as Moll Flanders (1722) by Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), told the stories of criminals through ‘a graduated series of steps downwards, away from the social norm toward ever greater sin.’ There was, therefore, no shortage of genres within eighteenth-century print culture in which eighteenth-century people could see criminals represented.

the cherished notion of liberty accounts for the popularity that portrayals of highwaymen enjoyed. This was the case in The Beggar’s Opera. In it, the principal character, highwayman Captain MacHeath, is a gallant gentleman on horseback. His spirit of manly independence is encapsulated when he sings, ‘My Heart was free, It rov’d like the Bee.’ Contemporary notions of ‘the “independent man,” Matthew McCormack says, emphasised ‘the basic libertarianism of the freeborn Englishman who refused to be pushed around.’ The highwayman was popular with the mass of people because his life represented a life unrestrained by the hard yet unrewarding work which many people of the plebeian class experienced during this period, and as Lucy Moore adds, ‘a downtrodden scullery maid watching [a highwayman]…pass by in his wagon on the way to Tyburn might feel that someone, at least, had escaped the hardship of the lifestyle they once shared.’ Indeed, for many of the lower orders, the only alternative to a life of hardship was a life of crime Many highwaymen even represented themselves in the press and at their trials as eighteenth-century Robin Hoods, claiming moral justifications for their crimes such as robbing the rich and giving to the poor. The concept of ‘social crime’ goes some way to explaining popular support for the highwayman among the lower classes. Perhaps they were perceived by the common people as a challenge to the status quo, at a time when there was a perception that the law itself was unjust; the vices of rich went unpunished whilst the poorer classes felt the full weight of the law, a point illustrated in The Beggar’s Opera when Captain MacHeath sings this air:

Since Laws were made for ev’ry degree,
To curb vice in others, as well as me,
I wonder we han’t better company
Upon Tyburn tree!
But gold from law can take out the sting;
And if rich men like us were to swing,
‘Twou’d thin the land, such numbers to string
Upon Tyburn Tree

In this song here is an implicit acknowledgement that the law, especially laws concerned with protecting property, were unequal, and this is  a theme which runs throughout Gay’s opera. In another scene, for instance, one highwayman asks another of his accomplices, ‘Why are the laws levell’d at us? Are we more dishonest than the rest of mankind?’ In fact, it has been argued by both historians and literary critics alike that The Beggar’s Opera was a satirical stab at the then-serving Prime Minister, Robert Walpole (1676-1745). He was seen by many contemporaries as a robber himself, governing the country as a ‘robinocracy’ and hence historians such as Douglas Hay argue that the law in the eighteenth century developed into an instrument of power for the propertied classes.

Another factor which perhaps explains the high regard that highwaymen enjoyed in the early part of the century was the fact that they robbed the rich mainly (though they did not always redistribute money to the poor), and they reportedly treated their victims with courtesy and respect, which earned them a reputation for politeness and civility. However, it is doubtful whether highwaymen always lived up to their gallant reputation. For example, in Captain Alexander Smith’s 1714 work, The History of the Lives of the most noted Highway-men, Foot-Pads, Housebreakers, Shop-Lifts, and Cheats, he recounts the story of the robber known as the Golden Farmer. Upon encountering a Lady in a coach who refused to hand over any possessions, the highwayman called her a ‘whinging Whore…[and a] hollow B—ch’ – certainly not polite behaviour. Nevertheless, highwaymen were treated a special breed of criminal in the early-eighteenth century. They were represented as courageous, courteous, and in some instances having a moral justification for their crime.

Jack Sheppard (Source: Wikipedia)
Jack Sheppard (Source: Wikipedia)

By the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, however, the tide of public opinion seems to have turned against the figure of the highwayman. This is because the state grew increasingly stronger in this later period. Indeed, it is arguably only at a time such as the early part of the century, when the hold of government, law, and order was weak that the figure of the highwayman or outlaw could flourish. Middle-class reformers by the late-eighteenth century had begun to convince many people of the need for a standardised system of law enforcement and prison reform. Such reforms included a move away from the mere prosecution of crime to the prevention of crime through increased policing activity; from mere punishment through physical pain and death sentences towards long-term institutional management. Besides, it was argued by contemporaries at the time that the system of state terror through a bloody law code was ineffectual at stopping crime, with many pardons given throughout the course of the century for crimes which warranted capital punishment. Moreover, increasingly crime began to be reported in newspapers, and the victim became the central figure in these newspapers’ often brief accounts and representations of crime. In contrast to criminal biographies, newspapers omitted lengthy explanations and justifications of why criminals had turned to a life of crime. This left many readers with the feeling that crime was often savage and opportunistic. For example, in 1798 The Times newspaper carried this very brief entry regarding one attack by a highwayman:

The Post-Boy, carrying the Mail from Bromley to Sevenoaks last night, was stopped about 2 miles from Farnborough, between the hours of 10 and 11 o’clock, by a single highwayman, who presented a horse-pistol and demanded the Mail, which the boy gave him. He offered the robber half a guinea, but he declined taking it (The Times, October 3rd, 1798, p.1).

Furthermore, Elizabeth Foyster says that newspapers were often broadly supportive of new policing and legal reforms to the extent that by the 1790s highwaymen appeared to, according to Robert Shoemaker, have ‘lost their former magnanimity.’ Lincoln B. Faller argues further that during this period the highwayman went through three gradations; from hero, to brute, to buffoon. A depiction of highwaymen as brutes is found in an 1813 work entitled The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. The kind-hearted Doctor Syntax sets off on a tour of England during the summer season. Along the way he has an encounter with highwaymen:

Three ruffians issued from a bush…While they all threat the Doctor’s brains,
Poor Syntax, trembling with a fright, Resists not such superior might,
But yields him to their savage pleasure, And gives his purse with all its treasure.
Fearing, however, the Doctor’s view, Might be to follow and pursue;
The cunning robbers wisely counted, That he, of course, should be dismounted.

The highwaymen robbed the old Doctor of both his money and his horse. The criminals are here represented as ‘cunning robbers’ and ‘ruffians’ indulging ‘savage pleasures’. They are certainly not the gallant polite gentlemen of an earlier era; they are self-serving and a contrast to earlier stereotypes. As the accompanying print pictured below by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) illustrates, the robbers are not even on horseback. As such they are scarcely distinguishable from the hated footpads. Robert Shoemaker says that footpads, or common street robbers, were reviled throughout the century as being of the lowest order of criminals. As support for policing and legal reforms grew, therefore, so the popularity of criminals such as highwaymen began to wane.

Thomas Rowlandson (1813) Doctor Syntax Stopt by Highwaymen.  Scanned image from: Combe, W. (1813). The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. London: W. Tegg
Thomas Rowlandson (1813) Doctor Syntax Stopt by Highwaymen.
Scanned image from: Combe, W. (1813). The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. London: W. Tegg

Alongside the growing support of policing and legal reforms in the latter half of the eighteenth century was a rise in the notion of respectability among the middle classes. In the early part of the century literature such as the Proceedings and the Ordinary’s Account were described as something which ‘gentlemen’ read. This was because much of the crime-focused literature in that early period served a moral and instructive purpose for its readers. Readers were supposed to learn lessons from the life of the criminal, and supposedly they would avoid making the same mistakes that had led the condemned to the gallows. As readers were supposedly identifying with the condemned, there was in this literature often a sympathetic portrayal of criminals. This was the case with the infamous thief Jack Sheppard (1702-1724). In a biography reputedly written by Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), Sheppard is written, as so many criminals were, not as innately evil but, as John Brewer says, ‘at worst a person with a tragic fatal flaw.’ It was his weakness for women and a fatal encounter with a prostitute which sealed Jack’s fate and led him into a life of vice and crime. As his biography records:

The lad proved an early proficient…had a ready and ingenious hand, and soon became master of his business…But, alas, unhappy youth! Before he had completed six years of his apprenticeship he commenced a fatal acquaintance with one [Edgworth Bess]…who lived a wicked and debauched life…Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!

Similarly, Defoe used the conventions of criminal biography in his novel Moll Flanders. In that novel the character, Moll, recounts ‘the vicious part of her life’ so that readers could ‘make good uses of it.’ Indeed, it was not solely in literature that the middle classes felt that they could identify and sympathise with the lives of criminals. As Lucy Moore states, people of all classes attended public executions, and Jack Sheppard found his procession to the gallows strewn with well-wishers offering their support.

Yet even by mid-century the lives of criminals were ceasing to be of interest to the middle classes. Fielding’s novel Jonathan Wild (1743) was an embellished account of Wild’s life, self-styled ‘Thief-Taker General of Great Britain’. Thief-takers were individuals hired by the local parish to recover stolen goods, forming, in effect, a quasi-entrepreneurial police force. As such, the people who held the posts were often corrupt. The real-life Jonathan Wild (1682-1725), arguably Britain’s first master-criminal, developed a complex system of training thieves to steal, receiving the stolen goods, then offering the items back to their owners for a reward. So it was that Fielding portrayed Wild as ‘the most pernicious…the most contemptible of all the Works of Creation.’ Some middle-class readers by this point, it seems, no longer wished to identify with the actions of criminals. Besides, as the novel emerged as the dominant genre of literature around the middle of the century with the publication of Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), there were more respectable representations from middle-class life from which readers could glean moral instruction. Most novels depicted the middle classes practising their virtues and manners in settings recognisable to them. Reflective of this retreat from criminality by the middle classes is the way that public executions were moved. For most of the eighteenth century the public executions held at Tyburn in the West End of London attracted large crowds. Yet by 1783 the executions had moved away from the West End to the front of Newgate gaol in order to spare the sensibilities of West End inhabitants. Thus as the middle classes began to think of themselves as increasingly respectable in manners and morals, so criminals began to be portrayed in a less positive light.

Thus it is evident that literary representations of eighteenth-century highwaymen reflected changing attitudes to crime and criminality. At the beginning of the century, a distrust of any form of policing contributed to the glamorisation of figures such as the highwayman. At the end of the century, as the state grew stronger and reform was in the air, support and admiration of highwaymen in literature declined. Complementary to this was a rise in the notion of respectability among the middle classes. Why would a respectable and virtuous middle-class reader want to draw moral lessons from the life of a criminal? They could, after all, find examples of virtue in literary representations of their own class in novels. So it was that, by the time of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), criminals were painted as sinister and devious creatures. As he said in his preface to Oliver Twist (1838), unlike The Beggar’s Opera where ‘the thieves are represented as leading a life that is rather to be envied than otherwise’ he aimed to show crime and criminality ‘in all their deformity.’ Consequently, in successive pieces of crime fiction, Lucy Moore says that gradually the dominant figure became, not the criminal, but the man pursuing him.’

  • Combe, W. (1813). The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. London: W. Tegg.
  • Defoe, D. (1722:1991). Moll Flanders. London: Everyman Library.
  • Defoe, D. [?] (1724). ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard, Containing A Particular Account of his Many Robberies and Escapes’. In Holmes, R. ed. (2004). Defoe on Sheppard & Wild. London: Harper.
  • Dickens, C. (1838:1936). Oliver Twist. London: Odhams Press.
  • Fielding, H. (1743:2003). Jonathan Wild. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fielding, H. (1751). An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c. with some Proposals for Remedying this Growing Evil. London: G. Faulkner.
  • Gay, J. (1729:1961). The Beggar’s Opera. New York: Argonaut Books.
  • Smith, A. (1714). The History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Housebreakers, Shoplifts, and Cheats. London: J. Morphew.

  • Borsay, P. (2002). ‘The culture of improvement’. In Langford, P. ed. (2002). The Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Brandon, D. (2001). Stand and Deliver! A History of Highway Robbery. Stroud: The History Press.
  • Brewer, J. (2013). Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century. London: Routledge.
  • Emsley, C. (1987). Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900. London: Longman.
  • Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker (2013). ‘The Proceedings – Associated Records’ [Internet] Old Bailey Proceedings Online [Accessed: 05/05/2013].
  • Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker (2013b) ‘The Proceedings – Ordinary of Newgate’s Accounts’ [Internet] Old Bailey Proceedings Online [Accessed: 05/05/2013]
  • Faller, L. B. (1987). Turned to Account: The forms and functions of criminal biography in late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Foyster, E. (2007). ‘Introduction: Newspaper reporting of crime and justice’. Continuity and Change. 22(01) pp.9-12.
  • Gatrell, V. (2006). City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London. London: Atlantic Books.
  • George, D. (1925). London Life in the Eighteenth Century. London: Peregrine Books.
  • Gladfelder, H. (2013). ‘Introduction’. The Beggar’s Opera & Polly. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hay, D. (1975). ‘Property, Authority, and the Criminal Law’. In Hay, Linebaugh & Winslow eds. (2011). Albion’s Fatal Tree. London: Verso Books.
  • Langford, P. (1989). A Polite and Commercial People. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Linebaugh, P. (1991). The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. London: Penguin.
  • Loftus, D. (2011). ‘BBC History: The Rise of the Victorian Middle Class’. [Internet] [Accesssed: 05/05/2013]
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  • Moore, L. (1987). The Thieves’ Opera: The Remarkable Lives and Deaths of Jonathan Wild, Thief-Taker, and Jack Sheppard, House-Breaker. London: Penguin.
  • Moore, L. ed. (2000). Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld. London: Penguin.
  • Paley, R. (1989). ‘Thief-Takers in London in the Age of the McDaniel Gang, c.1745-1754’. Policing and Prosecution in Britain, 1750-1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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  • Shoemaker, R. (2006). ‘The Street Robber and the Gentleman Highwayman: Changing Representations and Perceptions of Robbery in London, 1690-1800’. Cultural and Social History. 3(4) pp.381-405.
  • Shoemaker, R. (2008). ‘The Old Bailey Proceedings and the Representation of Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century London’. Journal of British Studies 47(3) pp.559-580.

Jonathan Wild – London’s First Mob Boss

This blog post is adapted from an essay I submitted whilst I was completing my MA in Social History at Leeds Beckett University. The module tutor and course leader was Dr. Kelly Hignett and I was also completing a thesis at this time on Victorian crime under the supervision of Dr. Heather Shore.

This essay uses the the theoretical concepts in criminology relating to organised crime to analyse the reign of one of London’s first mob bosses. (n.b. being adapted from an essay, this post is a bit more formal and very “essay-like” in tone).

A ticket of admittance to the hanging of Mr. Jonathan Wild at Tyburn in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]
A ticket of admittance to the hanging of Mr. Jonathan Wild at Tyburn in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]

Organised crime is generally considered to be a modern phenomenon, yet it appears that it has existed further back in history than is generally assumed (Galeotti, 2009, p.1). London in the early-eighteenth century was a period in which Thief Takers, house-breakers and highwaymen flourished. Jonathan Wild (c.1682-1725) built one of Britain’s first organised crime networks. An examination of the way that he operated indicates that organised crime did indeed exist in early-eighteenth century London, and that it is far from being a modern phenomenon.

Defining Organised Crime

Organised crime has proven to be difficult to define. There is no single definition upon which policy-makers and academics agree. This is because ‘this “thing”, this phenomenon known as organised crime, cannot be defined by crimes alone…Any definition, must address and account for the elusive modifying term organised’ (Finckenaur, 2005, p.64). Many crimes are organised, in that they require a degree of organisation to be carried out, but not all crimes count as ‘organised crime’ (Finckenaur, 2005, p.76). Galeotti defines the term as, ‘a continuing enterprise, apart from traditional legal and social structures, within which a number of persons work together under their own hierarchy to gain power and profit for their private gain through illegal activities’ (Galeotti, 2009, p.6). Thus for a criminal gang to be classed as an organised crime network there has to be a structure or hierarchy within which its members, acting under instructions, engage in illegal acts for the sake of profit.

Alexander Smith’s The History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1714). [Source:]

Criminal Narratives in the Eighteenth Century

Just as people today receive their understanding of organised crime through the media and films such as The Godfather (1972) it was no different in the early-eighteenth century. Indeed ‘crime has always been a sure-fire topic for the entertainment of the public’ (Cawelti, 1975, p.326). Plays such as The Beggar’s Opera (1728) featured criminals as their heroes. Publications such as The Newgate Calendar supposedly gave contemporary readers ‘a true, fair and perfect narrative’ of the lives and trials of condemned criminals (Emsley, Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2013). In addition, there was a thriving trade in ‘Last Dying Speeches’ of criminals. These single-sheet pages containing short biographies and ballads were often sold at public executions (HLSL, 2013). Novels and criminal biographies such as Smith’s The History of the Most Noted Highway-Men, House-Breakers, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714) presented embellished accounts of the lives of criminals. Often their lives are presented as one in which, through a life of sin and vice, they eventually ended up at the gallows (Faller, 1987, p.126). The readership for this literature came primarily from ‘men and women of small property’ (Langford, 1989, p.157). By depicting the story of how criminals eventually ended at Tyburn by becoming involved in crime, the stories served a didactic purpose. By heeding the lessons in the biographies, readers could supposedly avoid the same fate (McKeon, 1987, p.98). Regarding Jonathan Wild himself there are several sources. Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) likely penned one pamphlet entitled The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). Probably the most famous account of Wild’s life comes from the mid-eighteenth century novel The Life of Jonathan Wild, the Great (1743) by Henry Fielding (1707-1754). Despite the fact that many such accounts were often embellished, they nevertheless offer fascinating glimpses into the ways in which eighteenth-century criminals, in particular Wild himself, operated.

Why Organised Crime Flourished.

In what type of a society, then, does organised crime emerge and flourish? English society was very unequal in the eighteenth century. Most of the working population lived below the breadline, and the top 1.2 per cent of the population controlled 14 per cent of the wealth of the nation (Porter, 1982, pp.14-15). For the most part, ‘the poor were regarded as a class apart; to be ignored except when their hardships made them boisterous’ (Williams, 1960, p.129). Additionally, the laws were often seen as weighted in favour of the rich against the poor. The law, made by those at the top of society, ‘allowed the rulers of England to make the courts a selective instrument of class justice, yet simultaneously to proclaim the law’s incorruptible impartiality and absolute determinacy’ (Hay, 1975, p.48). In The Beggar’s Opera there is a scene in which a group of highwaymen are gathered in a tavern. One highwayman asks of the other, ‘Why are the Laws levell’d at us? are we more dishonest than the rest of Mankind?’ (Gay, 1728, p.25). Moreover, London was not a pleasant place in the early-eighteenth century. In the literature of the time, the recurrent motifs of London were often ‘squalor, pestilence, ordure, [and] poverty’ (Rogers, 1972, p.3). Pickard states that, ‘the average poor family lived in one furnished room, paying a weekly rent of perhaps 2s, less for a room in the cellar…the house itself might be old…or it might be new, run up out of nothing in back alleys’ (Pickard, 2000, p.64). In this squalid environment, with its ever growing alleyways and rookeries, there was virtually no organised system of law enforcement. In fact, London did not have a professional, paid police force until 1829 with the passage of the Metropolitan Police Act. Organised crime usually emerges ‘out of the vacuum that is created by the absence of state [law] enforcement’ (Skaperdas, 2001, p.173). That is to say, that the state is either unwilling or unable to enforce its own laws. Yet eighteenth-century contemporaries appeared quite contented with this state of affairs. Jealous as they were of their hard won liberties since the Glorious Revolution 1689, they were resistant to the idea of having a uniformed and professional police service. It seemed tyrannical, and more suited to despotic foreign states whose monarchs were absolutists (Porter, 1982, p.119). One of the most serious crimes during this period was the theft of property, as private property was deemed to be sacrosanct (Hoppit, 2000, p.480). By 1751 robbery and theft were deemed to have reached such hellish proportions that Henry Fielding felt compelled to write a pamphlet entitled An Enquiry into the Causes of the Great Increase of Robbers, &c. in which he said that:

The great Increase of Robbers within these few years…[will make] the Streets of this Town, and the Roads leading to it…impassable without the utmost Hazard, nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous Gangs of Rogues among us, than those which the Italians call the banditti (Fielding, 1751, p.1).

Thus to Fielding the increasing numbers of various criminal gangs operating in and around London was an issue which he felt deserved action.

Henry Fielding (Stifts- och landsbiblioteket i Skara) Tags: portrtt frfattare henryfielding storbritannien
Henry Fielding, Esq. (1707-1754)

Before Fielding established London’s first law enforcement agency in 1749 called the Bow Street Runners, the prosecution of crime was left to the victim. The victim paid the court to bring a prosecution against an offender. Part-time and unpaid parish constables usually arrested criminals if they caught them ‘red-handed’, or as the result of their capture through the ‘hue-and-cry’ (Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2006, p.1). One result of this haphazard system of crime prevention was that many victims bypassed the expensive judicial system by going to see their local Thief Taker. An interview would be held with the victim of the crime, ascertaining what items were stolen. For a fee thief takers would then arrange to miraculously recover the said stolen items (Hoppit, 2000, p.486). Thief Takers were individuals who appear to have occupied a hazy position on the borders of both the ‘upper-world’ and the ‘underworld’. As Moore says, usually they were:

Receivers of stolen goods, or fences, whose knowledge of the criminal world provided them with unique access to criminals…by the 1710s thief taking had become a complex trade involving blackmail, informing, bribery, framing and organisation of theft (Moore, 1997, p.60).

Despite their often obviously corrupt ways of operating, however, it should be noted that these individuals did play an important part in early-modern law enforcement, for without them ‘too much crime would go unpunished’ (Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2006, p.3). Hence the inadequate system of law enforcement in the early-eighteenth century gave figures such as Thief Takers a degree of legitimacy.

Jonathan Wild: Thief Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland

Jonathan Wild occupied a simultaneous position as both Thief Taker and underworld crime lord. He was born in Wolverhampton to honest and hard-working parents. He had a wife and bore a son, but unable to make it in his chosen trade as a buckle maker, he abandoned his wife and child and went to London. In London he fell upon hard times and found himself in the Wood Street Compter for debt (Defoe[?], 1725, pp.77-79). It was here that he first became acquainted with the criminal underworld. After he was released from the Compter, he set up an establishment in the St. Giles area of London, and it quickly became a favourite haunt of thieves, prostitutes, and highwaymen. The St. Giles residence was the first time that Wild tried his fortunes as a receiver of stolen goods. He was originally in the employ of another prominent Thief Taker, Charles Hitchin (c.1675-1727). However, Wild gradually moved to oust Hitchin from the business altogether, and achieved this partly by penning a tract exposing Hitchin’s homosexuality (Moore, 1997, p.85). Hitchin was subsequently disgraced, and Wild proclaimed himself ‘Thief Taker General of Great Britain’. He thus became both thief taker (in his legitimate line of work) and thief maker (as the head of an organised crime network) (Moore, 1997, p.84).

Wild would have his various gangs of thieves and highwaymen bring their stolen goods into one of his several warehouses. Victims of crime, records Defoe, would then go to Wild with a description of what was “lost” and offer a reward for the items to be recovered (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). An article would then be published in the newspaper directing the “finder” (one of Wild’s gang) of the lost article to report to Jonathan Wild and return the items. This practice of using newspaper advertisements would obscure the fact that Wild was directing all events. The advertisements usually ran in a similar manner to this one:

Lost on Friday Night last, a Green Vellum Letter-Case…If the Person who hath found this Case and Tickets &c. will bring them to Mr. Jonathan Wild in the Old Bailey…he shall have Two Guineas Reward and no Questions asked’ (Daily Courant, Nov. 22, 1715, p.2).

Everyone would be content with the outcome. The victim recovered their valuables, and bypassed an expensive prosecution (should the thief even have been caught), the criminal received a fee for returning the items, and Wild received a reward from an all-too-grateful victim. Wild made himself indispensable to his criminal subordinates, for ‘[thieves] could not subsist but by the bounty of the governor [Wild]’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). His influence over criminals was so extensive that he found it necessary to divide ‘the town and country into so many districts, and appoint[ing] gangs for each’ (Warrant of Detainder, 1725, p.261). Yet legally Wild remained guiltless. Defoe records that he ‘received nothing, delivered nothing, nor could anything be fastened to him’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). He became popular with the general public. Defoe berated his readers for being blindly taken in by Wild’s schemes:

How infatuate were the people of this nation all this while! Did they consider, that at the very time that they treated this person with such a confidence, as if he had been appointed to the trade, he had, perhaps, the very goods in his keeping, waiting the advertisement for the reward, and that, perhaps, they had been stolen with that very intention? (Defoe[?], 1725, p.96).

Wild’s position as both Thief Taker and thief maker, therefore, required collaboration with many figures in the criminal underworld such as house-breakers and highwaymen. The Beggar’s Opera was based upon the story of Wild’s criminal network (Brewer, 2013, p.345). The character Peachum, a fence, has a register of the gang listing the various talents and contributions of the criminals in his employ. Crook Finger’d Jack, for example, brought into Peachum’s warehouse ‘five Gold Watches, and Seven Silver ones’ (Gay, 1728, p.7). However, Slippery Sam was to be given up to the authorities by Peachum because he wanted to start his own criminal organisation (Ibid). This was how Wild worked. Periodically, to divert any suspicion from himself, and to keep himself popular with the authorities, Wild would abandon some of his criminals ‘[to] the mercy of the government’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.106). This happened to several of Wild’s gang, especially if the reward money for the recovery of the stolen goods was considerable. In 1716 a young gentleman named Knap and his mother were robbed in Gray’s-Inn-Gardens. The mother went to Wild and gave them a description of the robbers. From this information, ‘Wild immediately judged the gang to be composed of William White, Thomas Thurland, John Chapman…Timothy Dun and Isaac Rag’ (Anon. 1774, p.89). For the sake of reward money, these members of Wild’s own gang were ‘soon after executed at Tyburn’ (Anon. 1774, p.92). Jonathan Wild was thus akin to a modern-day godfather, directing and controlling various gangs of thieves in his employ, and giving them up to the authorities once they had served their usefulness.

Late Victorian Edition of The Newgate Calendar
Late Victorian Edition of The Newgate Calendar [Scanned Image]

Moreover, Jonathan Wild and his criminal underlings were motivated solely by profit. Profit as the sole motivational factor behind organised crime is what distinguishes it from terrorism. Organised crime is non-ideological (Wright, 2006, p.11). Avarice and the pursuit of profit alone drove Wild throughout his career (Defoe[?], 1725, p.100). He amassed a fortune which amounted to approximately £10,000 pounds (H.D., 1725, p.217). Some thieves and highwaymen during this period did try to present themselves as having noble intentions. Linebaugh points to the case of one highwayman, Thomas Easter, who when he was robbing a gentleman in 1722 exclaimed, ‘I rob the Rich to give to the Poor’ (Linebaugh, 1991, p.187). It is true that many criminals during this period were popular with the public, especially the poor. Hobsbawm in the 1960s advanced the theory of social banditry. Social bandits, he said, ‘are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice’ (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.17). As a left-wing, Marxist historian, Hobsbawm was probably all-too eager to sympathise with any figure even slightly anti-establishment. The truth is, however, that for every gentlemanly Claude DuVall or Dick Turpin, there were enough highwaymen who were also nasty brutes. Fielding had a slightly more realistic idea of how highwaymen targeted rich and poor people. His novel Joseph Andrews (1742) depicts a scene where the penniless Joseph is set upon and robbed by a gang of highwaymen, whom he terms ‘ruffians’ (Fielding, 1742, p.46). Fielding probably had a more realistic concept of the ways in which criminal gangs operated from the time that he spent serving as Magistrate of Westminster. Indeed, it is in all likelihood the case that early-modern criminals such as highwaymen and bandits, ‘quite often terrorised those from whose very ranks they managed to rise’ (Blok, 2000, p.16). Nevertheless, highwaymen such as Dick Turpin, and house-breakers such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) continued to be popular figures throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth.

Perhaps these criminals were popular in the press the same way that mobsters are in films today. Movies such as Goodfellas glorify and glamorise organised crime. For example, in Goodfellas, the narrating character Henry Hill starts off his story with the line; ‘as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster’ (Scorsese, 1990). As a child the character in that film admired the rich and flashy lifestyle of the mafia gangs that controlled his neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York. Similarly in the eighteenth century, ‘crime had about it an air (however illusory) of glamour, and brought with it the hope (however short-term) of liberty’ (Moore, 2001, xi). Thus despite the fact that these members of organised criminal gangs tried to present themselves as having noble intentions, their sole motivation was their own private gain.

Ray Liotta in "Goodfellas"
Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas”

Along with their apparently noble motives for robbing people, criminals in the eighteenth century allegedly behaved politely towards their victims. Their code of honour appears to have been polite gentlemanliness. Politeness in this period was a public code of conduct which emphasised good manners (Langford, 1989, p.1). Wild aspired to ‘live like a gentleman’ (H.D., 1725, p.203). Langford states that ‘the English criminal was credited with a certain sense of generosity and chivalry…Defoe described it as an “English way of Robbing generously, as they called it, without Murthering or Wounding”’ (Langford, 2000, p.p.145). This code of conduct was not restricted solely to Wild’s gang. Spraggs points to the case of other highwaymen later in the century. James Maclaine, the archetypal gentlemanly highwayman, once wrote a letter of apology to Horace Walpole after his pistol accidentally misfired when he robbed Walpole’s coach (Spraggs, 2001, p.185). As Captain MacHeath the highwaymen tells his fellow robbers in The Beggar’s Opera, ‘Act with Conduct and Discretion, A Pistol is your last resort’ (Gay, 1728, p.27). Similarly, the mafia today also are supposed to be men of honour and respect (Cottino, 2000, p.116). Nevertheless, lurking behind this gentlemanly façade was the threat of violence. The use of or the willingness to use violence is a characteristic of many organised criminal groups (Wright, 2006, p.12). Despite Wild’s pretensions to gentility, for example, he was still at heart a brutish man. This was evident when he fell into dispute with his second wife in London, Mary Milliner. Wild said that he, ‘would “mark her for a bitch”, and instantly drawing his sword struck at her, and cut off one of her ears’ (Anon., 1774, p.80). Additionally, despite the prevailing stereotype of highwaymen as polite gentlemen, Smith in 1714 recorded the case of a gang of highwaymen who mercilessly killed every male traveller in a stage coach (Smith, 1714, pp.3-4). Thus members of London’s eighteenth-century criminal underworld appear to have been more than willing to use violence against their victims.

Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon's "Last Dying Speech"
Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon’s “Last Dying Speech”

Furthermore, another characteristic of any organised crime groups is that, despite the death of their leader, the group still continues to exist. Organised crime is said to be ‘a continuing enterprise’ (Galeotti, 2009, p.6 emphasis added). Wild was finally caught out by the authorities in February 1725 for attempting to help one of his gang members to escape from gaol (Moore, 1997, p.239). One by one, as the charges against him mounted, many criminals formerly in his employ turned evidence against him. He was finally executed on 24th May 1725. There is no conclusive evidence that Wild ever had a successor. However, Wild himself, in a pamphlet he allegedly authored entitled Jonathan Wild’s Advice to his Successor (1725) thought that someone would succeed him. This pamphlet laid out instructions for whoever would take over. An eighteenth-century organised crime lord should form ‘a proper connection with all the villains of the town…but if any overzealous officer of justice should happen to detect them, give them up to the law’ (Wild[?], 1725, p.264). Thief taking certainly existed after Wild met his end. Indeed, there is evidence that some thief takers were still recovering “lost” goods for victims of crime in the 1730s through ‘means not always clear and occasionally suspect’ (Beattie, 1986, p.56). If anyone did directly succeed Wild, perhaps he was simply more discreet. In any case, there is no doubt that during this period crime was perceived by the public and the government as having increased (Langford, 1989, p.155). Thus it is reasonable to suppose that, even if no one directly took over Wild’s business – though this is what he expected – different thief takers were still operating in the same ways as Wild.


In conclusion, it is clear that organised crime existed in early-eighteenth century London. Jonathan Wild constructed a network around him of thieves, footpads, and highwaymen. He controlled and directed their activities. There were no lofty motives behind his actions. He was not, despite Hobsbawm’s theory of social banditry and social crime, striking back against the state. Indeed, when Wild was carted off, the crowd ‘treated [Wild] with remarkable severity…execrating him as the most consummate villain that had ever disgraced human nature’ (Anon., 1774, p.110). Profit was his driving force. Wild grew rich from the proceeds of crime. Moreover, his network, or one very similar to it, likely existed after his death. After all, robbers would have had to dispose of their stolen good somewhere. Nevertheless, Wild was able to flourish because of the society in which he lived. Many people lived on the breadline. The laws were perceived as unfairly weighted against the poor. Additionally, there was a lack of adequate law enforcement, and the judicial system made the victim of crime pay out of their own pocket to prosecute an offender who had wronged them, assuming the thief was ever caught. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that many people turned to thief takers to recover their stolen property, with no questions asked. Ultimately, therefore, organised crime is far from being a modern phenomenon.

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