Sir Robin William V. Harcourt Hood, M. P.

By Stephen Basdeo

Whenever a politician proposes raising a new tax or cutting a public service, a newspaper columnist will often respond that the proposed changes are ‘Reverse Robin Hood’. Alternatively, those who look favourably upon governmental tax and finance reforms might attempt to portray the politician in question as embodying Robin Hood values. We see this in the case of Donald Trump’s recent tax reforms, in which newspaper comic artists, as well as some gifted and not-so-gifted meme-makers on both sides of the debate portrayed Trump as an outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor, or who steals from the not-so-fortunate to give to the rich.

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Robin Hood, as previous research of mine has shown, has always stood in for politicians when satirists wish to make a point about a politician’s – or indeed any public body’s – financial management of the country. Back in 1727, two ballads entitled Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster and Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster equated the ‘robbing’ Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, with the outlaw of medieval legend.[1] Other writers in the Georgian era went further and argued that robbing civil servants are more skilled at hiding their frauds than Robin Hood ever was:

Had [Robin Hood] turn’d his head to politics, had he been placed in the finances, or promoted to the station of Paymaster, Receiver General, Treasurer […] and robb’d the Exchequer, as Falstaff says, with unwash’d hands; had he plunder’d the publick, in a civil employment, till he had been almost the only rich man in the kingdom, we may conclude from many passages of history that there would have been no signs of him at this day.[2]

And it was no different during the Victorian era. Railway fares have always been the bane of workers in the United Kingdom and we see in this era satirical poems depicting Robin Hood and Little John tiring of their life in the greenwood and opting to become railway bosses instead, so they can steal from people legally.

One of the most famous satirical magazines in Victorian Britain was Punch, and British politicians were not immune from the Punch Brotherhood’s pens. In 1894, the Liberals were in power, and Sir William Vernon Harcourt introduced a new budget which proposed a very modest form of wealth redistribution to help the poorer classes of society, but it was a measure to which the conservative press objected.[3] The measures included financing modest increases in ‘dole’ for working families using funds raised from increased death duties. The ‘Graduation’ to which the ballad refers was Harcourt’s introduction of an estate tax, payable upon a person’s death, of one per cent on properties worth £500, and eight per cent on properties worth £1 million.[4] Harcourt tried to sell it as a graduated income tax which would be paid by only the wealthiest, and this would be sure to go down well with working-class householders (the male heads of working-class households could vote since 1867).

Harcourt 1

Thus in the poem Bold Robin Hood: A Fytte of Forest Finaunce, which is written in faux-Middle English, Robin stands in for Harcourt who robs a merchant in Sherwood Forest:

“There thou speketh soothe,” the Merchaunte cried,

“Thou scourge of Propertie!

But the thing thou dubbest ‘Graduation,’

Is Highway robberie!”

“Robberie?” quoth Bold Robin Hood,

“Nay that’s a slanderous statement.

Redistribution it is not Theft –

Nor Exemption, nor Abatement.

“I robbe thee not, thou Mammonite!

The aim of all my Labours

Is – to ease thee of superfluous wealth

For the goods of thy poorer neighbours!”[5]

The poem was accompanied with a full page illustration depicting ‘Sir Robin Hood Harcourt (addressing “The Marchaunt”)’ saying ‘“Nay, Friend, ‘Tis no robbery! I do but ease you of this to relieve your poorer brethren”’.[6]

Clearly the writer of this piece was opposed to the measures, like the Tory opposition were. And it the fact that this rather small poem was given such prominence tells us something about the political leanings of the magazine in the so-called ‘golden age’ of Punch. When it was originally founded in the 1840s, it was a fairly liberal magazine which, being founded by Henry Mayhew of London Labour and the London Poor fame, was sympathetic to the plight of the poor. Yet during its golden age, it became a magazine that was (small ‘c’) conservative in its outlook and enjoyed in the middle-class drawing room. Although it hardly liked Disraeli, it often favoured the Tory party over the Liberals. The complaint expressed in this poem, therefore, is, what we might term today, a ‘middle-class problem’. It was not the working class who had to worry about death duties so, very oddly, although readers of Punch were supposed to disapprove of Harcourt’s redistributive graduated tax, Robin Hood is still, in spite of the fact that readers were meant to disapprove of Harcourt’s actions, a man of the people.


References

[1] Stephen Basdeo, ‘A Critical Edition of Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727)’, Bulletin of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies, 1 (2017), 15-31.

[2] ‘Bravery: The Characteristic of an Englishman’, The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, No. 8 (1738), 300.

[3] ‘Sir William Harcourt’s Possible Budget’, The Spectator, 24 March 1894, p. 7.

[4] Donald Read, The Age of Urban Democracy, 1868-1914 (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 295.

[5] Anon., ‘Bold Robin Hood: A Fytte of Forest Finaunce’, Punch, 5 May 1894, p. 210.

[6] Anon., ‘Bold Robin Hood’, Punch, 5 May 1894, p. 211.

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Victor Hugo’s “The Last Day of a Condemned Man” (1829)

Last week Google celebrated the life of Victor Hugo (1802-85) with some quirky illustrations on its masthead, so I thought I would do the same by writing a post on an early novel by Hugo entitled The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829).

Google V Hugo

Google V Hugo 2
Two of the cartoons by Google celebrating the life of Victor Hugo

To most people, Hugo will be familiar as the man who authored Les Miserables (1862), which during the 1980s was adapted in London’s West End’s longest-running and most successful musical. To those familiar with Hugo’s epic story, it will come as no surprise that he was an outspoken political activist who involved himself in many causes, and one of these was the abolition of the death penalty. Thus, in Hugo’s own words, The Last Day of a Condemned Man is,

nothing more than an appeal – direct or indirect, however you wish to see it – for the abolition of the death penalty.[i]

During the nineteenth century, France’s method of executing criminals was via the guillotine. Most people who have studied the French Revolution at some point in their lives will be familiar with that infamous machine as the symbol of the “Reign of Terror”. The guillotine continued to be used as a method of execution in France until the 1970s, although debates about its abolition began in the nineteenth century. Still, at least it was a more humane method of execution than hanging, because it killed the offender instantly.

As the title of the novel suggests, it is an hour by hour account of the last day of a criminal who has been sentenced to death. Executions in nineteenth-century France were public, and the only contact that most people would have had with the condemned felon would have been through the newspapers by reading about their life (which had a flourishing genre of crime writing, including ‘Last Dying Speeches’ broadsides, to that which existed in England in the same period).

Newspaper and broadside accounts of offenders and their crimes were formulaic and, to quote Vic Gatrell, ‘to read one is to have read them all’.[ii] At a time when most people, if they knew much about the offender at all, would have only been acquainted with the one heinous act they had done to warrant the death penalty, Hugo therefore humanises the figure of the (fictional) condemned man:

Once, because it seems years rather than weeks, I was a man like other men. Every day, every hour had its idea. My mind, young and fertile, was full of fancies … There were young girls, bishops’ magnificent copes, battles won, theatres full of noise and light, and then more young girls … Now I’m a prisoner. My body is in irons in a dungeon, my mind imprisoned in an idea … I have only one thought now, one belief, one certainty: condemned to death![iii]

Hugo does not tell us what the man is condemned for, however, and while the novel elicits sympathy for the condemned man, at the time it was written it would have been an uphill struggle for French readers to empathise with such an offender.

The condemned man vacillates between wanting the execution to be finished quickly, to preferring a life sentence. Heartrendingly, his wife and young daughter come to visit him in his cell, but the daughter does not recognise him as he has been in too long.

Finally the hour comes – he can hear the crowds outside laughing like hyenas. He asks for the execution to be postponed for a few minutes until he should know whether he has received a pardon or not. The magistrate and the executioner then leave his cell for a short time. The novel then ends abruptly:

It sounds as if they are coming up the stairs…[iv]

The publication of Hugo’s text came at interesting point in European history, when social justice began to dominate the political agenda. While novelists in France such as the Eugene Sue in his Mysteries of Paris (1843) drew attention to the plight of the poor, as Hugo also would in Les Miserables, the abolition of the death penalty was a cause that was enthusiastically taken up by the same reformers who viewed the practice as barbaric. It is for this reason that the literature of the 1840s in France are said to represent the beginnings of ‘bleeding heart liberalism’.[v]

The novel was favourably received on this side of the channel as well, being translated by the novelist and radical political commentator, George W. M. Reynolds, the author of The Mysteries of London (1844-46).

Despite the best efforts of reformers in combatting the grisly and inhumane death penalty, it would not be until the 1960s that the death penalty was abolished in the UK, and in France during the 1970s.


[i] Victor Hugo, The Last Day of a Condemned Man Trans. Christopher Moncrieff (London: One World Classics, 2009), p. 3. For further reading on Hugo’s novella, see the following: Amandine Andrade, ‘Le bourreau, figure emblématique du débat sur la peine de mort au dix-neuviéme siècle’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Arizona, 2012).

[ii] V. A. C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 156.

[iii] Hugo, The Last Day of a Condemned Man, p. 37.

[iv] Ibid., p. 100.

[v] Edward R. Tannenbaum, ‘The Beginnings of Bleeding-Heart Liberalism: Eugene Sue’s les Mysteres de Paris’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 23: 3 (1981), pp. 491-507

Header Image Credit: Reynolds’s Miscellany, 14 November 1846, p.25