The following poem, written anonymously and titled simply as ‘Robin Hood’, appeared in The Oriental Observer and Literary Chronicle in 1828.
The newspaper, printed in Calcutta during the rule of the East India Company, went through a number of name changes during its run (which was not unusual for a newspaper at this time). Its alternative names were:
Oriental Literary Observer.
Oriental Observer and Literary Chronicle.
As some of the names indicate, the paper had a literary focus and often published anonymous pieces of poetry.
‘Tis merry, ‘tis merry, in green Sherwood,
To wind the horn,
When breaks the morn,
O’er the leafy bed of bold Robin Hood.
And the welkin sounds,
And the roebuck bounds,
Through copse, and fallow, and brake, and flood.
The chase is o’er, the merry men all
In their Lincoln green,
Are gather’d at e’en,
To tell of the gallant roe-buck’s fall:
And the bowl is crown’d,
And the toast goes round,
To the grey goose shaft and the bugle call.
‘Robin Hood’, The Oriental Observer, 3 February 1828, p. 407.
“Up at the League, says a friend, there had been one night a brisk conversational discussion, as to what would happen on the Morrow of the Revolution, finally shading off into a vigorous statement by various friends of their views on the future of the fully-developed new society … [William Guest] found himself musing on the subject-matter of discussion, but still discontentedly and unhappily. “If I could but see it!” … “If I could but see it! If I could but see it!”
William Morris, News from Nowhere; or, An Epoch of Rest (1890)[i]
By Stephen Basdeo
On 11 January 1890, the first instalment of a curious new sci-fi novella appeared in the Commonweal magazine. The tale, a follow up to an earlier novel called A Dream of John Ball (1886), was called News from Nowhere; or, An Epoch of Rest and its author was William Morris, an artist, designer, and ‘visionary socialist’ according to The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Morris’s novel presented readers with a vision of a future society—sometime after the year 2003—when ‘mastership’ had changed into ‘fellowship’; the capitalist world system had ended, and Britain had been transformed into a socialist utopia.
The novel offers little in terms of action but instead aims to give a picture of how life would be after the revolution, the details of which come from his many conversations with the inhabitants of twenty-first century Britain. One of the things that Guest is startled to learn is that the only means of exchange is an exchange of labour–men work for subsistence and pleasure–while cash and coins, those physical symbols of capitalism, have disappeared, as he finds out in his exchange with a waterman:
“You think that I have done you a service; so you feel yourself bound to give me something which I am not to give to a neighbour, unless he has done something special for me. I have heard of this kind of thing; but pardon me for saying, that it seems to us a troublesome and roundabout custom; and we don’t know how to manage it. And you see this ferrying and giving people casts about the water is my business, which I would do for anybody; so to take gifts in connection with it would look very queer. Besides, if one person gave me something, then another might, and another, and so on; and I hope you won’t think me rude if I say that I shouldn’t know where to stow away so many mementos of friendship.”
Unlike many utopian novels, past and present, Morris does not shy away from addressing the question of crime, and how this would be dealt with in a seemingly idyllic world (dystopias, in contrast, usually show a lawless and brutal world) . A famous phrase, said to be uttered by Robert F. Kennedy, although its sentiments have been echoed by earlier writers such as G. W. M. Reynolds (1814–79), is that ‘society gets the criminals it deserves’. Late-Victorian society, in which Morris lived, was a capitalist society; Gladstonian Liberalism—favouring free trade, low external tariffs, the protection of private property rights, and a laissez-faire approach to managing social problems—reigned supreme.
In late-Victorian England, when Morris was writing, most of the crimes which people found themselves accused of in the dock were crimes relating to the theft of property. The historian Drew Gray points out, for example, that
‘Most crime is related to property and nearly all of those imprisoned, transported, or hanged from the 1700s onwards had been convicted of stealing something’.[ii]
Gray’s quantitative analysis of convictions at the Old Bailey between 1674 and 1913 support this: of the 211,112 trials listed in the annals of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 85 per cent of these were concerned with some form of property offending.[iii] Murder and manslaughter, in spite of their prominence in the press, accounted for only 2.33 per cent of all offences tried at the Old Bailey during this time, which suggests that Georgian and Victorian society’s obsession with violent crime was really misplaced.
Surely in this new world there were still criminals? So Guest decides to ask his traveller what happened to the judiciary and police organisations:
“I thought that I understood from something that fell from you a little while ago that you had abolished civil law. Is that so, literally?”
“It abolished itself, my friend,” said he. “As I said before, the civil law-courts were upheld for the defence of private property; for nobody ever pretended that it was possible to make people act fairly to each other by means of brute force. Well, private property being abolished, all the laws and all the legal ‘crimes’ which it had manufactured of course came to an end. Thou shalt not steal, had to be translated into, Thou shalt work in order to live happily. Is there any need to enforce that commandment by violence?”
What the future resident of Britain is telling our Victorian is, essentially, that the law, being constituted to protect one thing—private property—made people criminal (see also earlier radical, G W M Reynolds, and his thoughts on the causes of crime). This is not simply the whimsical thoughts of a socialist dreamer, however, for modern criminologists would agree with the assessment above:
‘Via the criminal justice process—police, prosecutors, and courts—we construct criminals. That is to say, we take people through a process of arresting, charging, and prosecuting, and, where there is a finding of guilt, we label them as criminal’.[iv]
As most of the laws relate to the protection of private property—which is as true in our own day as it was in Morris’s era—so when a person transgressed the laws of property they were labelled as criminal. These judicial structures, according to Karl Marx, were the means through which the ruling classes in all ages were able to keep those beneath them oppressed.
The idea that societies construct criminals, at least when it comes to property crime, is fairly uncontroversial. Yet what about violent crime—how was that dealt with in the socialist new world of the twentieth century? The waterman tells Guest that,
“By far the greater part of these in past days were the result of the laws of private property, which forbade the satisfaction of their natural desires to all but a privileged few, and of the general visible coercion which came of those laws. All that cause of violent crime is gone. Again, many violent acts came from the artificial perversion of the sexual passions, which caused over-weening jealousy and the like miseries. Now, when you look carefully into these, you will find that what lay at the bottom of them was mostly the idea (a law-made idea) of the woman being the property of the man, whether he were husband , father, brother, or what not. That idea has of course vanished with private property, as well as certain follies about the ‘ruin’ of women for following their natural desires in an illegal way, which of course was a convention caused by the laws of private property. Another cognate cause of crimes of violence was the family tyranny, which was the subject of so many novels and stories of the past and which once more was the result of private property. Of course that is all ended, since families are held together by no bond of coercion, legal or social, but by mutual liking and affection, and everybody is free to come or go as he or she pleases. Furthermore, our standards of honour and public estimation are very different from the old ones; success in beating our neighbours is a road to renown now closed, let us hope for ever. Each man is free to exercise his special faculty to the utmost and every one encourages him in so doing. So that we have got rid of the scowling envy, coupled by the poets with hatred, and surely with good reason; heaps of unhappiness and ill-blood were caused by it, which with irritable and passionate men – i.e., energetic and active men – often led to violence.”
Let us take this apart and discuss it in further detail, particularly the point about violent crime arising out of ‘the artificial perversion of the sexual passions’. Residents of the future world are no longer in relationships as a means to survive in a capitalist world; women are not the property of men, and each person is free to love whom they will. In an 1889 lecture entitled ‘How Shall We Live Then?’, Morris expanded upon
We shall not be happy unless we live like good animals, unless we enjoy the exercise of the ordinary functions of life: eating sleeping loving walking running swimming riding sailing [sic] we must be free to enjoy all these exercises of the body without any sense of shame; without any suspicion that our mental powers are so remarkable and godlike that we are rather above such common things.[v]
According to Ady Mineo, ‘these propositions … polemically challenge the cornerstones of Victorian morality, are translated into imaginative and narrative terms in his utopian romance’; what Guest sees are healthy, happy, and self-confident people whose lives and sexual identities are no longer confined to the role designated to them through the ‘callous cash nexus’. No one in any relationship was another person’s ‘property’; so most crimes of passion, which often stemmed from adultery, would simply fade away in the utopia of the twenty-first century.
William Guest still takes some convincing, however, and turns to the subject of violent crimes which are unrelated to property:
“Hot blood will err sometimes. A man may strike another, and the stricken strike back again, and the result be a homicide, to put it at the worst. But what then? Shall the neighbours make it worse still? Shall we think so poorly of each other as to suppose that the slain man calls on us to revenge him, when we know that if he had been maimed, he would, when in cold blood and able to weigh all the circumstances, have forgiven his maimer? Or will the death of the slayer bring the slain man to life again and cure the unhappiness his death has caused?”
“Yes,” I said, “but consider, must not the safety of society be safeguarded by some punishment?”
“There, neighbour!” said the old man, with some exultation. “You have hit the mark. That punishment of which men used to talk so wisely and act so foolishly, what was it but the expression of their fear? And they had no need to fear, since they—i.e., the rulers of society—were dwelling like an armed band in a hostile country. But we who live amongst our friends need neither fear nor punish. Surely if we, in dread of an occasional rare homicide, an occasional rough blow, were solemnly and legally to commit homicide and violence, we could only be a society of ferocious cowards. Don’t you think so neighbour?”
Essentially, in a society of equals, no one should desire to strike another. Sometimes a homicide committed in ‘hot blood’ has happened in the utopia, of course, but it there is no need to punish the perpetrator with incarceration or even the death penalty (still very much used against criminals in Morris’s day); that would not do society any good and besides the humiliation and shunning he would receive from his ‘fellows’ would be a deterrent enough to effectively stop it from happening.
Morris’s romance has been accused of being a bit whimsical and his point about the deterrent of murder many modern readers might read as naïve. Yet in the first instance he was certainly correct in surmising that the idea of crime and who is labelled as a criminal has much to do with how the law—formulated by the ruling class—is designed to keep another class oppressed. For Morris, there was no place for the law in a future socialist society.
It’s quite possible that you’ve never heard of George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814–79). His prolific writing career has been overshadowed somewhat by his contemporaries such as Charles Dickens, whose writings, while they manifested a bit of a social conscience, were hardly radical. Reynolds’s name, by contrast, was, in Dickens’s words, ‘a name with which no Lady’s, and no gentleman’s, should be associated’.
But why was Reynolds’s name so dangerous to a man like Dickens? After all, in their fictional works, they both railed against the injustices of the poor law and the workhouse, the oppression of the working class, and the exploitation of children. They should have been natural bed-fellows. But Reynolds was a committed radical, democrat, and borderline revolutionary who sought a fundamental change in society’s constitution, and importantly not a racist (evident by his comments in Grace Darling, published in 1839, in which he criticises those who believed that black people were inferior). Dickens, who had questionable views on race, was a paid-up man of the establishment who merely argued that the upper classes should be philanthropic where possible. Not without justification did Reynolds call him
“That lickspittle hanger-on to the skirts of Aristocracy’s robe—‘Charles Dickens, Esq.’ —originally a dinnerless penny-a-liner on the Morning.”[i]
(The Morning refers to Dickens’s work for the conservative Morning Post newspaper, which was taken over by The Telegraph in the 1930s). Reynolds maintained a firm and unshakeable belief in the rights and sovereignty of the people. His influences in this regard were writers such as Thomas Paine—the intellectual force behind both the American and French Revolutions—and, having spent the early part of his career as a struggling journalist in France, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. This naturally entailed a belief in the sanctity of the ballot and truly universal suffrage, which for Reynolds also included women—something which would not be achieved until after Reynolds’s death:
“Every community has the right to choose its own institutions, its own form of government, and its own rulers.”[ii]
Of course, in the early Victorian era, few could vote. It is true that the ‘Great’ Reform Act was passed in 1832, which extended the franchise to large sections of the middle classes, or those who either rented or owned property worth 40 shillings. But for the Chartists, this was not enough and they kept on campaigning for vote, and neither should the people accept anything less than full universal suffrage, according to Reynolds.
But who were ‘the people’? Interestingly, Reynolds only infrequently uses the term ‘working class’ in his novels and newspaper articles, and opts instead for a much wider term: ‘the industrious millions’.[iii] While Reynolds was a passionate advocate for working-class political enfranchisement, evident through his significant involvement with the Chartist cause, most of the time ‘the oppressed’ or ‘industrious millions’, a term which he uses in The Mysteries of London (1844–48), comprises both the working and middle classes. They occupy a place beneath royalty and aristocracy, as he maintains in the same novel, in which a character named ‘the Republican’ declares that:
“I only strive to arouse the grovelling spirit of the industrious millions to a sense of the wrongs under which they labour, and to prove to them that they were not sent into this world to lick the dust beneath the feet of majesty and aristocracy!”[iv]
Reynolds probably saw something of himself in his republican character. This idea of aristocracy against the people (working and middle classes) is a constant theme throughout his journalism. Both his fiction and his journalism were melodramatic; he had to present a clear ‘bad guy’ or evil class of people, while the industrious millions he depicted as a saintly yet passive oppressed people. It was the aristocracy, in Reynolds’s view, who were responsible for every social ill: poverty, crime, injustice.
Reynolds’s radicalism evidently looks back to earlier, more bourgeois forms of it which were influenced by the likes of Paine and various French thinkers from the 1830s. So, while Reynolds does often criticise capitalist society and its attendant social ills, he has no advanced theory of the existence of a ruling class and the class conflict between them and the industrious millions. The best he can do is to map his criticisms of capitalism on to older discourses of ‘Old Corruption’. The idea of Old Corruption held—with much justification—that a narrow oligarchy of aristocrats elected by only a very small proportion of the population pursued their own landed interests at the expense of the people-at-large. In Reynolds’s worldview, in spite of the rise of capitalism, it was still the aristocracy who held sway over the people, as he wrote in 1851:
“As I have often said, England is in reality a despotism—this despotism consisting, not of an autocrat, but of an oligarchy—not of an individual, but of a few hundreds of aristocratic families.”[v]
The caveat for Reynolds was the aristocracy consolidated its power by more often than not allying themselves with the capitalists. In some of his later writings we find references to two types of aristocracies: the aristocracy of birth and the aristocracy of money:
“The Birth Aristocracy sees that the helm is escaping out of its hands; and therefore, rather than allow the slightest chance for the infusion of a democratic element into the system, it will enter into political partnership with the Moneyocracy. This arrangement will be for the perpetuation of tyranny and class-legislation; and the two Aristocracies of Birth and Money will unite with the common object of riveting the chains about the industrious millions.”[vi]
We have to remember that Reynolds’s most biting political commentary came before the first English publication of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels’s The Communist Manifesto (1848). The first English translation of this was published in the Chartist magazine, The Red Republican, but it would not be until the 1870s, which was the decade that Reynolds died, before a fully-fledged English socialist movement would emerge. It would not be until the writings of Marx and Engels’s found their way into mainstream radical thought in Britain after the 1850s that the idea of class conflict between two classes—a bourgeoisie and a proletariat—would be clearly articulated. Thus, Reynolds’s radical philosophy was an early attempt to diagnose the social ills of modern industrial society while taking into account earlier forms of aristocratic, oligarchical oppression.
If we are viewing Reynolds’s politics through a modern lens, we might fall into the trap of thinking that he was what we might call left wing today. Some of his views do indeed correlate with those espoused by prominent members of the left. However, where he would have differed from today’s so-called radicals is in his views on taxation. He was an advocate of what we would now call a low-tax society. One of the primary reasons for this is that he hated the idea that taxes went to fund an idle and profligate monarchy and aristocracy. In an editorial for Reynolds’s Newspaper in 1851, he asked how it could ever be just for the taxes of the working poor should
“Swell the coffers of the Illustrious Beggars and Serene Paupers of Saxe Coburg Gotha.”[vii]
Now, taxes in the Victorian era were, if we look at it objectively, not too onerous. Income tax was first levied during time by the Tory government of Sir Robert Peel at a rate of 7d in the pound. The tax threshold was an income of £150 per year which exempted almost all the working class. Direct taxation was somewhat unpopular in Victorian Britain and some chancellors toyed with the idea of abolishing income it; however, it proved too convenient and lucrative. Yet Reynolds hated all forms of tax: in the middle of many of his novels, he often broke the narrative to enter into a political rant. Perhaps the best articulation of his opposition to all forms of taxes comes in The Days of Hogarth; or, The Mysteries of Old London (1848):
Taxation is a vampire that loves to feast on the blood of a nation’s heart, and prey upon the vitals of an industrious population. It is an avaricious, grasping, griping fiend that places its finger on every morsel of food which enters into the mouth, on every article of clothing which covers the person, and on everything which is pleasant to behold, hear, feel, taste, or smell! It interferes with our warmth—our light—our locomotion—the very printed paper which diffuses knowledge! It roams over the land to claim its share of the produce of our fields and manufactures and it awaits on the [quays] of our seaports for the unlading of vessels bringing things from abroad. The moment the industry or intelligence of man originates something new, the fiend Taxation overshadows it with its loathsome, hat-like wing. It plunges its hand into the rich man’s dish and the poor man’s porridge … Oh! Insatiate is that fiend, for he attends at the death bed when the will is made, and in the spiritual court when it is proven:—he has his share of the price paid for the very marble which covers the grave of the deceased:—and it is only there—in the grave—that the victim of Taxation can be taxed no more![viii]
In sum, Reynolds was a democrat; the people—the working and middle classes—should be granted the vote. They are prevented from achieving political equality due to the machinations of the aristocracy who conspire with the interests of big capital to oppress the industrious millions. And he hated all forms of tax: it made food more expensive; it restricted the exchange of knowledge through the Stamp Act; and it stifled commercial and industrial innovation.
[i] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’s Miscellany, June (1851), cited in Richard Maxwell, The Mysteries of Paris and London (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1992), p. 356.
[ii] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The Duty of the French Republicans’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 29 December 1850, 1
[iii] As he progressed throughout life, however, he does opt for the term ‘working class’ with greater frequency.
[iv] G. W. M. Reynolds, Mysteries of London, 2 vols (London: G. Vickers, 1846), I, p. 70
[v] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The Necessity for the Ballot’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 22 June 1851, 1.
[vi] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The People’s Rights’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 13 April 1851, 1.
[vii] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘A Word to the “Liberal Minority” in Parliament’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 16 March 1851, 1.
[viii] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Days of Hogarth; or, The Mysteries of Old London (London: John Dicks [n. d.]), ch.5.
Pierce Egan the Younger (1814–80) is one of my most favourite Victorian authors. The son of the more famous Regency journalist and writer, Pierce Egan (1772–1849), he was an artist, illustrator, journalist, newspaper editor and novelist who, although rarely studied or read today, made a significant mark on Victorian popular fiction.
Before all of these, however, Egan wrote Quintin Matsys (1838).
It was his first literary project and he took an unlikely historical figure for its subject, the Flemish painter Quintin Matsys (1466–1530). Matsys will be familiar to all art history students as the founder of the Antwerp School of painting and some of his most famous works include A Portrait of an Elderly Man (1513), A Grotesque Old Woman (c. 1513) and The Money Changer and His Wife (1514). The first of these has become a popular meme in today’s internet culture while the latter is famous throughout the world.
Shortly before Egan put pen to paper, a short story fictionalising Matsys’s life was written by A. B. Slous, entitled ‘The Pearl of Brabant’, and appeared in volume one of The Story Teller, Or, Table Book of Popular Literature (1833), so this may have been where Egan got some inspiration from, as the opening chapter in Egan’s novel which tells of Matsys’s early life bears much resemblance to the first chapter in Slous’s short story.
Yet Egan’s was no dry novel about the life of a painter. Matsys starts out in the novel as a humble and starving painter but becomes embroiled in a revolution against the noblemen of the City of Antwerp. Matsys leads a secret society of men known as ‘Redressors’ who punish noblemen who commit wrongs against the working and middle classes of Antwerp and its surrounding regions. Issues come to a head when a (very melodramatic and characteristically bad, scheming, and evil) aristocrat has Matsys’s future father-in-law arrested on a spurious charge of treason.
After this, the Redressors lead the middle classes and working classes to the barricades in which they drive out the bad aristocrats and their private armies from the city. The many illustrations which accompanied the novel—which Egan engraved himself—are in fact highly reminiscent of the imagery of the French Revolution of 1830 (not the ‘big’ French Revolution of 1789 but the one featured in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables). Eventually the Holy Roman Emperor steps in and brokers a truce between the classes; when the working classes and bourgeoisie have secured certain political rights, Matsys is able to devote himself full time to the profession for which he would become famous. This is what might be termed an ‘origin’ story if we were talking about pop culture today.
Obviously, Egan intended this novel to be a commentary on the politics of England at the time, and not those of Belgium and there are allusions in Egan’s text to ‘the present day, when society is, in all its relations, as opposite as it can possibly be to that which 400 years since existed’. And there is, in fact, no evidence to suggest that the historical Quintin Matsys ever led a revolt against the nobles of Antwerp.
However, this did not bother the authors of penny bloods like Egan as they regularly made stuff up anyway.
Egan’s radicalism is more of a pre-1832 style of English radicalism; the cause was the political enfranchisement of the people at large, and their struggle was conceived of in terms of a conflict between the bourgeoisie and the workers, with their main enemy being the aristocratic political establishment. This is the politics of Henry Hunt and those in attendance at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, 1819; it harks back to a time in British politics when, prior to the ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832, the workers and the middle classes had indeed allied together to campaign for the vote. But ever sneaky, the British establishment used that classic tactic of divide-and-rule; they gave the vote to some middle-class householders (those who owned or rented property worth more than forty shillings), which left poorer people out in the cold. So, the working classes had to organise themselves, and in 1836, the London Working Men’s Association was formed to secure the vote for the working man, and two years later the Chartist movement was born. Egan’s depiction of the middle classes and working classes working together, writing as he does in 1838, suggests that he believes such an alliance is still possible.
Much emphasis is placed by Matsys and his fellow rebels upon the ‘rights and sovereignty of the people’ and ‘the people’s liberties’. The people of course are the working and middle classes, but the generalised idea of the people and of liberty recalls not only Henry Hunt but also Thomas Paine. The Chartists likewise drew upon such language, but it has to be remembered that the movement was not fully formed at the period when Egan’s novel began its serialisation in early 1838, and later, it was the terms of the People’s Charter which the Chartists most emphasised. And in Egan’s Wat Tyler, we see a firmer idea of a ‘Charter of Liberties’ with specific demands, while it’s left a little more hazy in the early Quintin Matsys novel.
More research is needed into the early works. As we noted earlier, all of Egan’s early novels—Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, Adam Bell, and Paul Jones—include revolts against ‘the powers that were’. The fact that the revolt in all of these novels, but most markedly in Quintin Matsys and Wat Tyler, is led by men of the middle and working classes gives us an insight into radical ideas in what is often a rather understudied phase in English working-class history and thought between the 1832 Reform Act and the emergence of Chartism.
 A. B. Slous, ‘The Pearl of Brabant’, in The Story Teller, Or, Table Book of Popular Literature, 1 (London, 1833), pp. 668–70.
 Pierce Egan, Quintin Matsys, The Blacksmith of Antwerp (London: W. Barth [n.d.]), p.179.
See also: Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’, in Imagining the Victorians, ed. by Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett, Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, 15 (Leeds: LCVS, 2016).
In the course of my research for my book The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler, due to be published by Pen & Sword in 2018, I came across a now little-known novel written by a Mrs. O’Neill (I have been unable to find out her full name) entitled The Bondman: A Historical Narrative of the Times of Wat Tyler (1833). O’Neill’s text is the first time that the story of Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 received its ‘big break’ in the historical novel. Now, during the nineteenth century, novelists would often appropriate the medieval past to comment upon contemporary social, political, and economic issues. Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), about which I have written a lot on this site, was written as a response to the parlous, divided state of England at the time. As I was reading The Bondman, I realised that in the novel there are echoes of the political agitation that occurred in the lead up to the passage of the Reform Act of 1832.
During the early nineteenth century, by and large, neither the working nor the middle classes had the vote. The franchise was restricted to those who owned over 40 shillings of freehold property. Electoral constituencies were not equally sized, and many were not fit for purpose. Some constituencies, the ‘rotten boroughs’, such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire (which was a mere field in 1832), returned two MPs to Parliament. Yet new towns such as Leeds and Manchester had no representation in Westminster. The system needed changing, and after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), reform-minded members of the middle and working classes came together to secure representation in Parliament. Mass meetings were held throughout the country, but it was only in 1832 that the Whigs passed the ‘Great’ Reform Act, which widened the franchise by lowering the property qualification to £10. This went some way to addressing the demands of the reformers, but it still excluded many members of the working classes from voting. From that point on, the middle classes, who had been allies with the lower classes previously, now abandoned all further actions towards reform (the working-class Chartist movement would be founded six years later).[i]
So how does The Bondman reflect the events of 1832?
Firstly, perhaps a précis of the plot is in order. The narrative revolves around the life of a serf named Stephen Holgrave, who lives on Baron Sudbury’s estate in the South of England. He is set free from bondage after having saved his master Sudbury’s life on campaign in the Hundred Years’ War. Now a free man, he goes off to marry his sweetheart. Yet he falls victim to the schemes of Thomas Calverley, the Baron’s sergeant-at-arms, who is secretly in love with Holgrave’s life. Accused by Calverley of poaching in the Royal forest, Holgrave must submit to becoming a bondman again. From that day forward he experiences a radical awakening. He begins to resent the upper classes, a resentment fuelled by the preaching of his brother-in-law, John Ball (a historical figure and one of the key men in the Revolt of 1381), as well as by the revolutionary ideas of the local village blacksmith, Wat Tyler. Soon the revolt breaks out, and Holgrave joins with Tyler, Ball, and Jack Straw.
Essentially, the novel is the story of the growth of a labouring class consciousness, and the language of class is prominent throughout the novel. Having resubmitted to bondage, Stephen asks himself,
Can it be that the lord of the castle and I are sons of the same heavenly father?[ii]
In one of his speeches given to a crowd of peasants, John Ball speaks of bondmen as being,
When the Poll Tax of 1381 is initiated by Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury (who also has a personal rivalry with John Ball), opposition to the tax creates discontent, nnot simply among the peasants, but amongst merchants, skilled workers, and professional people. What emerges in the novel is
This ‘coalition of the lower classes’ mirrors the alliance of the working and middle classes seen prior to the passage of the Reform Act. Reflecting the strikes and the political agitation seen in the lead up to the passage of the Act in 1832, O’Neill’s novel speaks of how there was,
In the novel, the rebels have a very specific set of demands which are in keeping with the historical rebels’ demands, such as the abolition of serfdom, the right to freely buy and sell in the marketplace, as well as a general pardon for all offences committed during the rebellion. But in O’Neill’s novel, added on to this list of demands, is the general enfranchisement of serfs and freemen.[vi]
At the end of the novel, Tyler and Ball die, but Holgrave survives and must go back to serving his Lord. But the Baron of Sudbury soon realises, through twists and turns in the plot which are unnecessary to repeat here, that Holgrave was falsely accused of the crime. the Baron immediately restores Holgrave to freedom, and in a show of good faith, he releases all of his other serfs from bondage as well, because it is, in the Baron’s opinion, much better to be served by freemen. Of course, O’Neill points out that it is only some people in medieval England who get emancipated, while the rest carry on as before. Holgrave, instead of adhering to Tyler and Ball’s revolutionary principles throughout his life instead settles down to family life and thinks no more about his fellow bondmen in England. Such scenes mirror the ‘Great Betrayal’ of the working classes by the middle classes after 1832.
In addition, Kathryn Gleadle points out in Borderline Citizens: Women, Gender and Political Culture in Britain, 1815-1867 (2009), the role of women and the events of 1832 are not well-researched.[vii] The novel is also interesting because it illustrates how one woman, at least, in an era when women could not vote, was engaging in politics (some wealthy women could vote in elections in some instances prior to 1832, but it was rare, and this right was taken away from them after the passage of the Act). Unfortunately, I have been unable to find out any further information about Mrs. O’Neill. She was definitely an educated woman, for footnotes appear throughout the novel referencing primary sources such as Froissart’s Chronicles. Of what social class she was I do not know, but it is evident that her sympathies lay with the rebels of 1381, for she calls Wat Tyler ‘the Worthy’.
[i] See the following works on the Great Reform Act of 1832: Edward Pearce, Reform! The Fight for the 1832 Reform Act (London: Random House, 2003); Eric J. Evans, The Great Reform Act of 1832 2nd Edn. (London: Routledge, 1992).
[ii] Mrs. O’Neill, The Bondman: A Historical Narrative of the Times of Wat Tyler (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1833; repr. 1837), p. 139.
A famous man is Robin Hood,
The English ballad-singer’s joy!
And Scotland has a thief as good,
An outlaw of as daring mood;
She has her brave ROB ROY!
Then clear the weeds from off his Grave,
And let us chant a passing stave,
In honour of that Hero brave!
The Life of Rob Roy
Each country of what now comprises the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has its famous outlaw-cum-folk hero: England has Robin Hood (sup. fl. 12th-13th centuries), the legendary noble robber who stole from the rich and gave to the poor; Wales boasts of Twm Sion Cati (fl. c. 1550); Ireland has the famous ‘rapparee’ Éamonn an Chnoic (sup. fl. 1670-1724). The subject of today’s blog post is the celebrated Scottish outlaw, Robert Roy MacGregor.[i]
The MacGregors were part of an ancient Scottish family, but although they were minor gentry, they began to experience financial hardship in the late seventeenth century. This was not helped by the fact that the family joined in the Jacobite Rebellion against the government in 1689, after which the family was disgraced. In order to offset some of their money troubles, during the 1690s members of the family began to extort protection money from farmers. It is for their somewhat dubious activities that criminal biographers in the eighteenth century endeavoured to present the family’s history as nothing but a history of crime and depravity:
They were not more Antient, than Infamous, for from time immemorial, they have been shun’d and detested for the Outrages they daily committed. They liv’d by Rapine, and made Murder their Diversion; and, in a Word, they seem’d emulous to monopolize all that was Wicked.[ii]
During the late 1690s and into the eighteenth century, Rob appears to have ceased his illegal activities and, under the assumed name of Campbell, bought some land and ‘thrived modestly’ trading in livestock, according to his biographer.
However, the early eighteenth century was a time of Jacobite intrigue: in 1688 the Stuart King, James II was ousted from the thrones of England and Scotland because of his Catholic faith and he was replaced with the Dutch King William and his wife Mary, James’ daughter. In effect, this was a coup d’état, and there was significant opposition, especially in Scotland, to this new foreign King, in spite of the fact that Mary was related to James. At his time, Rob took to smuggling arms which alarmed the authorities because his loyalty to the new regime had never been rock solid. Yet there was nothing to link him directly, at this early period, to the Jacobite cause (Jacobite is the name given to those in the 17th and 18th centuries who actively fought for the restoration of the Stuarts).
It was also during the early eighteenth century when Rob’s business hit a slump, and in 1708 he was forced to take out loans from a number of local tradesmen. But a few months later when repayment was due, Rob had not got enough cash to meet the demands of his creditors. He was subsequently declared bankrupt by the Marquess of Montrose and his lands were seized. Rob, in order to escape his creditors (a debtors’ prison would likely have been Rob’s punishment), he along with some of his men retreated to the remote areas of the highlands. Although later stories attempt to attribute his downfall to one of Rob’s men absconding with his fortune:
Rob Roy’s fall was a matter of business failure, and the later tradition that it was due to a drover absconding with his money is implausible in view of the evidence that he knew months in advance that he was in trouble, and that he never himself used this as an explanation. His flight to the remote highlands, Montrose’s determination to bring him to justice, and Rob’s passionate belief that he had been wronged, however, converted an everyday bankruptcy into an epic story.[iii]
In 1713 he sought the protection of the Duke of Atholl (one of Montrose’s rivals) who granted him protection and even allowed him to continue trading on a limited scale in order to earn back some of the money he had lost through bad investments.
When George I acceded to the throne of the newly-forged Kingdom of Great Britain (previously, England and Scotland had been separate states), Rob, a nominal Jacobite, saw this as a chance to strike back against Montrose, who was a supporter of the Hanoverians. Although the Jacobites never officially welcomed Rob with open arms into their cause, but they did allow him to carry out raids on the lands of Hanoverian supporters, and no doubt he welcomed the chance to carry out raids on Montrose’s lands in revenge for his bankruptcy.
In 1715, the Jacobites began seriously plotting the downfall of the Hanoverian regime. James II had fled to France after 1688 and raised his youngest sons there. The Jacobites in France, having been in contact with their supporters in Scotland, plotted the invasion of Stuart forces. Once landed, it was hoped that the Scottish and English people would rise up in support of the Stuarts, oust the Hanoverians, and place James Stuart (James II’s son) on the throne.
But a restoration of the Stuarts was not to be: Rob himself witnessed the crushing defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1715 at the Battle of Glen Shiel, for he had been co-opted to serve in the Jacobite forces.
As we have seen, Rob was never a loyal Jacobite, and only joined the cause as a means of getting revenge on his former antagonist, Montrose. After the battle he returned to his life of banditry, although the authorities did not concern themselves with even trying to arrest him. Rob’s lands had been forfeited to the government because he had, by allying with the Jacobites, committed treason. Montrose had, through the government’s seizure, been repaid and so no longer dedicated any effort to capture Rob.
He was pardoned in 1725 after writing a letter swearing allegiance to the House of Hanover. He then became a farmer and died peacefully in his sleep in 1734.
The Legend of Rob Roy
The incidents recorded in the life of the historic Rob Roy are pretty mundane. The details of his life are neither more nor less interesting than the various lives of contemporary criminals which circulated in print during the period that he lived. One such biography, which has been cited above, is The Highland Rogue: or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-Gregor, Commonly called Rob Roy (1723) published while Rob was still at large.
The celebrated poet, William Wordsworth, was inspired to author a poem about Rob after he visited a grave which he presumed to have been the famous outlaw’s:
However, perhaps the most famous reincarnation of Rob Roy was Walter Scott’s novel, Rob Roy (1818). Here the highland outlaw is a heavily romanticised outlaw: noble, brave, chivalrous, strong. The novel was phenomenally popular, with a ship leaving Leith for London containing nothing but boxes of Scott’s novel:
It is an event unprecedented in the annals either of literature or of the custom-house that the entire cargo of a packet, or smack, bound from Leith to London, should be the impression of a novel.[v]
Rob Roy was also the main protagonist in a number of Victorian and Edwardian penny dreadfuls. Modern audiences will likely be familiar with Rob Roy though the eponymous film starring Liam Neeson in 1995. Although it is not based upon Scott’s novel, the movie is, like Scott’s portrayal, a heavily romanticised account of Rob’s life: he falls victim to the scheming of an English aristocrat, his lands are confiscated, his wife is raped, and he is outlawed. Eventually, however, he kills his antagonist in a fight to the death at the end of the film.
Like so many criminals-turned-folk heroes, it is his ‘literary afterlife’ which has ensured that his story lives on, more than anything he ever actually did while he was alive.
[i] For a full biography see: David Stevenson, ‘MacGregor , Robert [Rob Roy] (bap. 1671, d. 1734)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. May 2006) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/17524> Accessed 13 Jan 2017]
[ii]The Highland Rogue: or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-Gregor, Commonly called Rob Roy (London: J. Billingsley, 1723), p.x.
[iii] Stevenson, ‘MacGregor , Robert [Rob Roy] (bap. 1671, d. 1734)’