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

By Stephen Basdeo

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

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

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

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Cover of the forthcoming paperback edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Carver further points out:

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

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


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

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Judging Robin Hood: Negotiating Outlawry in Nineteenth-Century Texts

Paper Read at Plymouth University Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference 23-24 June 2016.


Abstract. Robin Hood needs no introduction. He is the noble outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor, living a merry life in Sherwood Forest. Yet people often forget that Robin Hood was a criminal. Indeed, Robin Hood Studies are often seen as a class apart from traditional legal and criminal histories, perhaps because of their ‘popular’ nature. Undoubtedly, by the nineteenth century, Robin Hood emerged as a national hero, partly due to his glorification by Romantic-era writers such as Sir Walter Scott. Yet as my paper will show, there was always uneasiness in some Robin Hood texts between judging Robin’s good deeds on the one hand, and his criminality on the other. Writers explained this in various ways. Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1819) disapproved overall of Robin’s outlawry, but concluded that his actions were necessary for the safeguarding of the nation. Thomas Love Peacock in Maid Marian (1822) gave Robin an a detailed backstory, explaining that he was outlawed only because he was guilty of resisting oppressive Forest Laws, and hence there was justification for his criminal career. Pierce Egan, in Robin Hood and Little John (1840), chose not to portray Robin as an outlaw at all, but as a radical political fighter. Yet in these texts also, other outlaws who are not part of Robin’s band are depicted as murderous brutes. My paper thus argues that these moral judgments (and sometimes the absence of any type of judgment) upon Robin Hood’s outlawry were a way of separating one of England’s foremost national heroes, who was ultimately a criminal, from the ‘criminal class,’ a notion which gained currency during the nineteenth century and held that there was a certain underclass in society which was responsible for the majority of crime.


In the recent television series Arrow (which tells the tale of a superhero who is a skilled archer, dresses in green, wears a hood, and in some instances steals from the rich and gives to the poor) it is said that: ‘People forget that Robin Hood was a criminal’. [1] It was no different during the nineteenth century. Whilst there was a general understanding that Robin was an outlaw, he is usually represented in nineteenth-century literature, not as a common cut-throat but as a patriotic social bandit.[2] He is loyal to the King, opposes the schemes of ‘bad’ Prince John who plots to take the English throne from Richard the Lion-heart, thereby upholding the true order.

chapter 1st
Ivanhoe (1819 – 1871 Edition)

If one studies representations of Robin Hood solely in canonical nineteenth-century texts such as Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822), and Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840), as this paper argues, Robin’s status as an outlaw was often downplayed. This was to distinguish him – England’s great national hero – from the regular criminals. This discussion is needed because, despite the fact that nineteenth-century novelists depicted Robin favourably, less-canonical texts were still ambivalent towards the legendary outlaw.

Many people will be familiar with the Scott’s Ivanhoe and Peacock’s Maid Marian, but just a few months prior to Ivanhoe an anonymous author published Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819). [3] Robin is no ordinary bandit in this novel, and in the lengthy introduction there is a deliberate effort to ensure that readers think Robin is better than ordinary highwaymen and banditti, declaring that he was ‘an innocent and harmless freebooter’. [4] The plot sees Robin cheated out of his Huntingdon estate by his villainous cousin, and left homeless. He subsequently becomes the leader of a band of men living in the forest. The circumstances of his outlawing are out of keeping with both the ballad tradition and novels that would come afterwards: he is outlawed because he interrupts a wedding and stops a bride marrying somebody she does not want to. For this deed Robin is seized by soldiers and reluctantly outlawed by his friend, the Sheriff of Nottingham. In another part of the novel, after he has been outlawed, Robin declares that the word ‘robber’ had ‘become hateful to his thoughts’. [5]

In Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, the outlaw Robin of Locksley appears in only ten out of forty-four chapters in the novel, although he is to all intents and purposes its hero. In the preface to the novel, Scott declares that England should be as proud of its historic outlaw as Scotland was of Rob Roy:

The name of Robin Hood, if duly conjured with, should raise a spirit as soon as that of Rob Roy; and the patriots of England deserve no less their renown than the Bruces and Wallaces of Caledonia. [6]

It is as a patriot that Scott wished Locksley to be seen, rather than an outlaw. Scott links Robin to a conservative agenda. He is now a man who is loyal to the King, and he is never depicted committing any criminal act. Indeed, Locksley is rarely called an outlaw in the text. He is called ‘a stout well-set yeoman, arrayed in Lincoln green’, [7] or simply as a ‘yeoman’, [8] ‘Locksley the yeoman’, [9] or ‘captain’. [10]

Scott is hesitant to name Robin as an outlaw, and there are only two scenes where Locksley is addressed as such. The first is when he is negotiating a ransom for Isaac’s daughter, Rebecca, [11] and towards the end of the novel. Even in these scenes, however, he is not robbing anybody. This may explain why Scott chose to call his character Robin of Locksley: throughout the novel, the reader is never told that Robin of Locksley is the same outlaw as Robin Hood. Readers may have suspected it, but it is not confirmed until the end of the novel, when Richard (who has been disguised as the Black Knight for the majority of the novel) and Locksley reveal their true identities to each other:

“Call me no longer Locksley, my Liege, but know me under the name, which, I fear, fame hath blown too widely not to have reached even your royal ears – I am Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest.”
“King of Outlaws, and Prince of good fellows!” said the King, “who hath not heard a name that has been borne as far as Palestine? But be assured, brave Outlaw, that no deed done in our absence, and in the turbulent times to which it hath given rise, shall be remembered to thy disadvantage.” [12]

Even after Locksley has revealed to the King that he is the famous outlaw, Robin Sherwood, Scott allows Richard to effectively nullify his entire criminal career by pardoning his former misdeeds.

Despite Robin’s reconfiguration as a patriot in Ivanhoe, Scott did try to provide some balance. Whilst Richard I displays nothing but unqualified admiration for the outlaws, the jester Wamba gives a more nuanced assessment of the outlaws’ morality: he says that, however much good the outlaws may have done for Richard, ‘those honest fellows balance a good deed with one not quite so laudable’. Richard asks Wamba to elaborate upon what he has said:

The merry men of the forest set off the building of a cottage with the burning of a castle – the thatching of a choir against the robbing of a church – the setting free a poor prisoner against the murder of a proud sheriff; or, to come nearer to our point, the deliverance of a Saxon Franklin against the burning alive of a Norman baron. Gentle thieves they are, in short, and courteous robbers; but it is ever the luckiest to meet with them when they are at their worst. [14]

It is as though Scott is partially continuing the conventions of eighteenth-century criminal biography by allowing Locksley to be portrayed as a hero, yet simultaneously critiquing his actions. Scott highlights the outlaws’ heroism on the one hand, and their negative traits on the other. In Charles Johnson’s eighteenth-century account of Robin Hood’s life, for example, Robin is a ‘a very bold man, of a charitable disposition, generous and open to the last degree’, at the same time as being described as having lived ‘a mispent [sic] life’ and engaging in ‘unlawful practices’. [15] It is known that Scott owned and read Charles Johnson’s The History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) and owned several other criminal biographies which must have undoubtedly influenced his tale. [16]

Despite his attempt to provide some nuance, some reviewers were less than impressed with his portrayal of Robin Hood. A reviewer in The Monthly Review said that the Robin Hood of Ivanhoe comes across as nothing more than one of ‘the lower orders’ who has taken to the road because he ‘disdained the regular pursuits of industry’. [17] Similarly, in 1820 Henry Crabb Robinson wrote that Scott:

Has failed, however, in rendering Robin Hood acceptable – the delightful hero of the old popular ballad is degraded in the modern romance into a sturdy vagrant’.[18]

Nevertheless, despite Scott’s skilled and complex portrayal of Robin Hood, it is the vision of a patriotic English freedom fighter that has succeeded through to twenty-first century portrayals, and any nuances in Robin’s morality have been jettisoned.

150px-Maid_Marian_by_Peacock
Maid Marian (1822)

Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822) followed after Ivanhoe, and is a lighter work than Scott’s. The novel begins very dramatically with soldiers interrupting the Robert of Huntingdon’s and Marian’s wedding, declaring him an outlaw, a swordfight then ensues, and Robin and his men escape to the woods. Robin is not outlawed due to having committed any heinous crime – he is simply outlawed because he had fallen into debt. He gathers around him a band of men who are described, not as cut-throats, but:

A band of disinherited prodigals, outlawed debtors, excommunicated heretics, elder sons that have spent all they had, and younger sons that never had anything to spend; and with these he kills the king’s deer, and plunders wealthy travellers of five-sixths of their money; but if they be abbots or bishops, them he despoils utterly. [19]

Whilst there are elements of social banditry in Locksley’s character in Ivanhoe, it is in Maid Marian that Robin fully emerges as one. Peacock develops the themes of the outlaw code found in the A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450). [20] Robin’s merry men live according to noble principles, displaying ‘Legitimacy, equity, hospitality, chivalry, chastity, and courtesy’ in everything that they do. [21] Robin’s band is also commanded that:

All usurers, monks, courtiers, and other drones of the great hive of society, who shall be found laden with any portion of the honey whereof they have wrongfully despoiled the industrious bee, shall be rightly despoiled thereof in turn; and all bishops and abbots shall be bound and beaten, especially the abbot of Doncaster; as shall also all sheriffs, especially the sheriff of Nottingham’. [22]

Just as a true social bandit does, Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor. [23] Despite the worthy maxims of social banditry contained in Maid Marian, as with so many texts in which Robin and Marian are portrayed as Lord and Lady, the reader is never allowed to forget that these two are merely playing at being outlaws. [24] Marian expresses boredom in the domestic sphere, and longs to be liberated from ‘tapestried chambers and dreary galleries’. [25] When she joins Robin Hood and commences living in the forest with him, all that she is doing is swapping one bourgeois world for another. Tuck, Little John, and Will Scarlet, for instance, are all described as ‘peers of the forest’. [26] The main characters in Peacock’s novel, then, were people who essentially from the same world as the novel’s middle-class readers – a world of tapestried chambers and galleries, and ‘green tea and muffins at noon’. [27] Robin and Marian’s exploits in the novel are presented as an aristocratic frolic for Lord and Lady Huntingdon.

Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or The Days of King John (1838) and Pierce Egan the Younger’s novel appropriate the outlaw to serve a radical message. Miller imitates Scott, making Robin a supporting characters who allies with the protagonist Royston Gower – a Saxon – who experiences ‘a radical awakening’ after his Norman master asks him to kill a Saxon woman in cold blood, which he refuses to do. Gower, Robin Hood, and the other Saxon characters subsequently fight on behalf of the oppressed who suffer under ‘the tyranny of the Norman forest laws’. [28] Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood is no robber either, and instead is portrayed as a man who fights for the political rights of the Anglo-Saxon serfs. [29] Egan places Robin in a class apart from the other outlaws that existed during the period, and he acknowledges that both past and present criminals, for the most part, are indiscriminate in whom they rob. [30] A Review of Egan’s novel in The Westminster Review, in an article entitled ‘Modern Perversions’, says that

“Robin Hood and Little John” by Pierce Egan the Younger! Truly this is too bad’.[31]

The reviewer goes on to state that England’s national hero has become nothing more than:

A thorough-bred cockney of the year of grace 1839 […] in the region of undying glory occupied by Tom and Jerry, Black Sall, and Dusty Bob’. [32]

‘Tom and Jerry’ is a reference to Egan the Elder’s Life in London (1823), while Dusty Bob was a colloquial term for a parish dustman. [33] The same reviewer, however, still gives Egan credit for making Robin Hood ‘far above Jack Sheppard’, [34] which, given the contemporary furore surrounding William Harrison Ainsworth’s eponymous novel published in 1839, [35] was at least a grudging compliment. Thus it is clear that nineteenth-century authors downplayed Robin’s criminality, but when certain authors attempted to critique his actions, reviewers were ever ready to criticise a writer who might present Robin Hood as anything less than an English patriot.

Pierce Egan the Younger pic
Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880)

Thus far the view of Robin that has been given is the canonical view of Robin Hood, who was appropriated to serve nationalist, patriotic, and even radical ends. Books written for children insisted that:

Though Robin Hood was a robber, which, to be sure, is a bad thing, he behaved himself in such a manner as to have the good word and good wishes of all the neighbourhood. He never loved to rob anyone except people who were very rich, and who had not lived to make good use of their riches. [36]

But not everybody believed that Robin was a class apart from most criminals. Henry Walter in A History of England (1828) said that Robin was

Neither more nor less than a highway robber of notoriety’ in his lifetime, being ‘the hero in many an idle song, in the mouths of the dissolute. [37]

Charles Macfarlane in The Lives and Exploits of the Banditti and Robbers of all Nations (1833) says that Robin’s life was a series of ‘predatory exertions of power’. [38] An anonymous correspondent in The Times made no distinction between Robin Hood and Little John ‘and their dingy imitators in this metropolis described by Dickens and Ainsworth’. [39] This article from the 1850s is especially interesting: nothing distinguishes the greenwood outlaws of old from the Fagins of the nineteenth century because

The same man passes from one form into another – developing, according to the changes in society, from a forester to a mountaineer, thence to a highwayman, thence to an instructor of pickpockets and the receiver of their day’s work in St. Giles. [40]

By the time that Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time was published, he was no ordinary robber. Instead he was portrayed in various manners such as a freedom fighter or dispossessed aristocrat. If authors attempted, like Scott, to portray Robin as a complex character, they were criticised by reviewers. People wanted to believe that Robin was not a regular criminal. Yet despite the image that the canonical texts put forth, there is a certain school of thought in non-canonical texts which saw no issue in placing Robin alongside other less respectable thieves such as Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, the highwaymen of the eighteenth century, or the Fagins described by Dickens in Oliver Twist. Thus there is a dichotomy between the representation of Robin Hood in novels, and his reception amongst lesser-known writers.


References

[1] Arrow S1E09 ‘Year’s End’, dir. John Dahl (The CW Television Network, 2012) [DVD].

[2] See Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits 2nd Edn. (London: Penguin, 1972).

[3] See Stephen Basdeo, ‘Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time’ in The Cambridge Guide to the Eighteenth-Century Novel Ed. April London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) [Forthcoming]. See also Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 147-150.

[4] Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time 2 Vols. (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1819), 1: 54.

[5] Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, 2: 103-4.

[6] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1819 repr. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1871), 12.

[7] Scott, Ivanhoe, 84.

[8] Scott, Ivanhoe, 89, 110, 144, 145,148, 194.

[9] Scott, Ivanhoe, 193.

[10] Scott, Ivanhoe, 125-126.

[11] Scott, Ivanhoe, 338-339.

[12] Scott, Ivanhoe, 419-420.

[13] Scott, Ivanhoe, 414.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Anon. The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood, and His Merry Companions. Written by Capt. C. Johnson. To Which are Added, Some of the Most Favourite Ballads from an Old Book, Entitled Robin Hood’s Garland (London: J. Bonsor, 1800), 20.

[16] In Scott’s last written work Reliquiae Trotcosienses or, The Gabions of the Late Jonathan Oldbuck Esq. of Monkbarns (1832), which is a guide to Abbotsford and its collections, Scott picks out Charles Johnson’s The History of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) as being of especial interest, and indeed it seems he was familiar with several of the anonymous criminal biographies from the early eighteenth century such as The History and Lives of the Most Notorious Pirates and their Crews which is probably just a reprint of Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724). See Walter Scott, The Pirate Eds. Mark Weinstein & Alison Lumsden (Edinburgh: Constable et al, 1832 repr. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), 490n.

[17] Anon. The Monthly Review Jan 1820, 71-89 (82)

[18] Henry Crabb Robinson, ’Diary Entry by Henry Crabb Robinson, 21 Jan. 1820’ in Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and their Writers Ed. E. J. Morley, 3 Vols. (London: Dent, 1938), 1: 238.

[19] Peacock, Maid Marian, 46.

[20] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 129.

[21] Peacock, Maid Marian, 88.

[22] Peacock, Maid Marian, 89.

[23] Peacock, Maid Marian, 126.

[24] This is the point made by Liz Oakley-Brown in regards to Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington, and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon. See Liz Oakley-Brown, ‘Framing Robin Hood: Temporality and Textuality in Munday’s Huntington Plays’ in Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-Medieval Ed. Helen Philips (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005), 113-128 (115).

[25] Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.

[26] Peacock, Maid Marian, 82.

[27] Peacock, Maid Marian, 5.

[28] Thomas Miller, Royston Gower, or, The Days of King John (1838 repr. London: W. Nicholson [n.d.] c.1890?), 5.

[29] Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, Volume 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo & Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), 48-65.

[30] Pierce Egan, Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1840 repr. London: W. S. Johnson, 1850), 12.

[31] Anon. ‘Modern Perversions’ The Westminster Review Vol. XXXIII (London: Henry Hooper, 1840), 425.

[32] Ibid.

[33] See Brian Maidment, Dusty Bob: A Cultural History of Dustmen, 1780-1870 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).

[34] Anon, ‘Modern Perversions’, p.425.

[35] See Lauren Gillingham, ‘Ainsworth’s “Jack Sheppard” and the Crimes of History’ SEL Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 49: 4 (2009), pp.879-906.

[36] Anon. Tabart’s Collection of Popular Stories for the Nursery: Newly Translated and Revised from the French, Italian, and Old English Writers (London: Tabart & Co., 1809), 151.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Charles Macfarlane, The Lives and Exploits of the Banditti and Robbers of all Nations 2 Vols. (Philadelphia: R. W. Pomeroy, 1833), 2: 75.

[39] Anon. ‘Editorial: Talk of Robin Hood and Little John’ The Times 22 June 1855, 6.

[40] Ibid.

“Ballad of Robin Hood” (1846)

Research into the Robin Hood tradition has hitherto tended to focus upon canonical texts and poems, especially those from the fifteenth century. Obviously the Robin Hood tradition did not stop there but evolved over the centuries. In the seventeenth century he became Robert, Earl of Huntingdon in Anthony Munday’s plays. In the eighteenth century he was a wicked criminal. It is only really during the nineteenth century that Robin is firmly established within the bounds of respectability. This occurred largely as a result of three texts: Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822).

It is Stephen Knight in Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (2003) who made the later tradition a valid area of scholarly enquiry. His wide-ranging survey of the legend covered various incarnations of Robin Hood from his medieval incarnations to the twentieth century.

But the way scholars do research has changed since Knight wrote his study. The digitisation of many primary sources, and in particular Victorian periodicals, has meant that scholars can now uncover many more previously unknown literary works. Robin Hood was featured in a number of minor poems during the nineteenth century. Some were good, and indeed some were bad. The piece I have transcribed below is taken from Bentley’s Miscellany in 1846. The periodical was started by Richard Bentley in 1836, who invited Charles Dickens to be its editor. Some very famous novels were first serialised in the magazine: Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) and William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (1839) made their debuts here.

As people are unlikely to have read this particular poem before, I therefore leave it for readers without providing any commentary or argument upon it – though any thoughts people have are welcome in the comments.

I have found quite a few of these minor poems, and in the coming weeks will be uploading more of them.

W. H. C. W. ‘Robin Hood and his Merry Men’

Bentley’s Miscellany, July 1846, p.246

Introduction
Under the merry greenwood tree
With me who likes may roam;
And there, although we shall be out,
We’ll make ourselves “at home;”
And, by your leave, beneath its leaves
Will we conn o’er again
The quips and cranks, and merry pranks,
Of Robin Hood and merry men.

I.
To Sherwood Forest Robin Hood,
Real Earl of Huntingdon,
An outlaw fled, and there, ‘tis said,
Was join’d by Little John,
Who was a great man, as they say,
At drawing well the strong bow;
And as his shaft went a long way,
No doubt he drew the “long bow!”

II.
Bold Robin Hood was so beloved,
His band increased in haste,
As also Friar Tuck’s, the fat,
Who never would see waste
In any thing that he conceived
The inner man might succour:
He bib’d the wine, and if ‘twas wrong,
Twas but a bib and Tuck-er(r).

III.
A useful member to the band
Was Tuck at Feast or fire;
The deer they took ‘twas wrong to cook,
So in conscience kept a friar.
Though ven’son then, as now, was dear,
This vantage they could reap –
Just like their means the game was near,
And so they got it cheap.

IV.
The chieftain as the chief of darts
Contentedly down sat him;
But couldn’t ‘scape sly Cupid’s arts,
Or shafts he levell’d at him.
Maid Marian was made Robin’s queen,
Queen of the greenwood shade,
Annd kindly kept his cave well swept,
Because he’d no house made.

V.

That Robin was a robber bold
May well be understood;
In every joke you saw he told
That he was Rob(b)in(g) Hood.
We’re told Tell was a telling shot,
(Nice even to a hair,)
And because he shot the apple,
Tell and Hood are deem’d a pair.

VI.

Let this opinion current go,
From monarch to the pedlar;
Who’d spoil them of their sweet deserts,
A most obnoxious meddler!
Long may the fame of Robin Hood,
And all his merry men,
As merry make all merry hearts,
Who’d merry make again!

The Victorian Underworld

nc4
The New Newgate Calendar, Vol. 1, No. 41 (1864).

This is the text of a public talk given at Abbey House Museum, Kirkstall, Leeds on 1 March 2015 to complement their Crime and Punishment Exhibition.


Introduction

The history of crime, in particular the history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century crime, is often sensationalised in popular histories. Usually these types of history books focus upon notorious cases such as that of Jack the Ripper in the late Victorian period. It is only relatively recently that a small cohort of professional historians who have approached the subject from an academic standpoint, including Heather Shore, [1] Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, [2] and Clive Emsley. [3] And it is the insights and research of these historians that I would like to introduce you to today, as well as some of my own research from my Masters dissertation. [4]

The Victorian period witnessed a number of changes in the nature of dealing with crime. There was the establishment of a professionalised police force with the passage of the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829, which replaced the haphazard system of part time constables, Bow Street Runners, and Thief Takers. Gaols, which previously had housed offenders only until their trial, became huge institutions which where offenders stayed for a longer term. The object of this was not only to punish the offender but also to rehabilitate him or her. Most importantly for the purposes of our talk today, the Victorian period witnessed the emergence of an idea: the idea of the criminal class, or underworld. In popular histories, terms such as ‘underworld’ have often been applied without consideration of their full meaning, and usually to sensational effect. Indeed, perhaps I am guilty of this myself in naming my talk such in order to draw people in, playing on people’s interest in the darker side of Victorian life. Sometimes the underworld is almost envisaged as a physical space. To the Victorians the idea of the existence of an underworld, or a criminal class held that there was a certain section of society, drawn from its poorest ranks, that was responsible for the majority of crime. But as I will show, this is very much an idea that was constructed in the Victorian press and popular fiction. To chart the development of the idea of a Victorian criminal, however, we need to briefly begin in the previous century, the Georgian period.

The Eighteenth Century

The image which many people will have of crime in the eighteenth century is of the romanticised highway robber. Criminals such as Dick Turpin (1705-1739) are usually portrayed in literature and television shows as gallant, noble robbers, usually mounted upon a trusty steed such as Turpin’s Black Bess. This was not always the view of people who actually lived in the eighteenth century, however, and Turpin’s modern reputation as a noble robber was an invention of the nineteenth-century novelist William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) in Rookwood: A Romance (1834). The real Turpin was something of a thug.

turpin1
Romanticised 19th-century image of Dick Turpin

In reality, crime was perceived as a problem during the eighteenth century. People in England, particularly in London, believed that they were in the midst of a ‘crime wave’. One newspaper in the late seventeenth century reported that:

Even at noonday, and in the most open spaces in London, persons are stopped and robbed. [5]

Similarly, the pamphlet Newes from Newgate (Newgate was a notorious gaol in London) reported that:

Notwithstanding the severity of our wholesome laws, and vigilancy of magistrates against robbers and highwaymen, ‘tis too notorious that the roads are almost perpetually infested with them. [6]

Later in the eighteenth century, the author Horace Walpole (1717-1797) wrote to a friend that:

You will hear little news from England, but of robberies […] people are almost afraid of stirring after dark. [7]

Henry Fielding (1707-1754) would echo the same sentiments in his 1751 publication An Enquiry into the Causes of the Great Increase of Robbers, saying that:

I make no doubt, but that the streets of this town, and the roads leading to it, will shortly be impassable without the utmost hazard, nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous rogues gangs of rogues among us, than those which the Italians call the banditti. [8]

Thus what we have in the eighteenth century is a moral panic over this perceived wave of crime that England was said to be experiencing throughout the century. It is doubtful that crime in the eighteenth century was ever as bad as people in the past thought that it might be. Certainly there were sporadic increases in the number of indictments, and these spikes generally coincided with peace treaties, when soldiers returned home and had trouble finding means of supporting themselves.

FullSizeRender(3)
Jack Sheppard (1702-1724)

However, in the eighteenth century, criminals occupy the same moral universe as law abiding people. [9] They are not inherently different from normal members of society. They are people who had allowed themselves to succumb to their own sinful inclinations. Usually the route to crime was through a love of gambling and good living, and bad associations. So the famous eighteenth-century house breaker, Jack Sheppard (1702-1724), first turned to crime when he met Edgeworth Bess, a prostitute, and began cohabiting with her. Similarly, the fictional highwayman Captain MacHeath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) manifests a love of good living, and it is implied that this is why he continues to rob as it is said:

Mrs. Peach. Pray, my dear, is the Captain rich?
Peach. The Captain keeps too good company ever to grow rich. Marybone and the chocolate-houses are his undoing. The man that proposes to get money by play should have the education of a fine gentleman, and be train’d up to it from his youth. [10]

Criminals are simply people with a tragic fatal flaw in their character, but they are not inherently criminal. And indeed however wrong their actions are, the English criminal in this period was credited with a certain amount of civility and politeness. They might have robbed you, but they were relatively nice about it.

The Nineteenth Century

The situation changes, however, as we move into the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The industrial revolution continued apace and concomitant with this was increasing urbanisation. The poor migrated from rural areas in search of work, and they gathered in certain districts of cities, which in time would come to be designated as slum areas. One effect of having so many people living in close proximity in dire poverty is that the areas where they live become a natural breeding ground for crime. The early socialist writer Frederich Engels painted a gloomy picture in The Condition of the Working Class in England that:

The incidence of crime has increased with the growth of the working-class population and there is more crime in Britain than in any other country in the world.[11]

What we begin to see in the Victorian press and contemporary popular culture are portrayals and references to ‘professional criminals’. This type of offender was represented, for example, by men such as Bill Sikes in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist (1838), who inhabits an ‘underworld’ peopled by other ominous creatures. He is a man whose sole existence and subsistence is based upon the proceeds of crime. Dickens’ description of the environment and the populace in Jacob’s Island, a place notorious for crime, is quite revealing. When Oliver is taken by the Artful Dodger to go and meet Fagin, a receiver of stolen goods, Oliver takes note of some of the people he encounters on the way there:

Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the door-ways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands. [12]

Dickens’ characters, Sikes and Fagin, operate in a relatively sophisticated manner. There’s a division of labour. Sikes and his henchmen rob people, but they rely on Fagin’s criminal network to dispose of their stolen goods.

Header - Oliver Twist

[Source: George Cruikshank, ‘Oliver’s reception by Fagin and the boys’ (1846), Eighth illustration, The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham) < http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/cruikshank/ot9.html>]

In a word, crime in the modern industrial city is thought to have become organised, and this is reflected in other pieces of popular literature such as George W. M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London, serialised between 1844 and 1845, which was the biggest selling novel of the Victorian period. Inspired by a serialised French novel by Eugene Sue entitled The Mysteries of Paris (1844), it is a tale of vice and crime in both high and low life. To see how crime is configured as something that is organised, take this example of a highway robbery:

‘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’. [13]

In this passage, the old image of the lone highwayman upon the heath in the moonlight is dead. This is not a feat likely to have been done by a ‘heroic’ highwayman. What we have here is organised crime. It is carried out with precision. Crime in the new urban society is depicted here as being cold and calculated, and it is carried through as though it was a business transaction. After Eugene relates the particulars of how the robbery is to be undertaken, he gives the Cracksman an advance of twenty guineas, to which the villain exclaims ‘that’s business!’ After the deed has been done, the Cracksman says to Eugene that he hopes ‘that he should have his custom in future’. The Cracksman, similar to Dickens’ Bill Sikes and Fagin, was a ‘professional criminal’. There was nothing ‘gentlemanly’ or ‘polite’ about the above exchange between the Cracksman and Eugene, instead the undertaking of the highway robbery was determined by financial considerations.

mysteries
Illustration from G. W. M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844-45) [Source: http://www.victorianlondon.org]

In addition to ideas surrounding professional criminals, towards the middle of the century we start to see another term come into use: ‘criminal class’. The criminal class, it was assumed, were a class of people beneath the respectable working classes who, like professional criminals, existed solely upon the proceeds of crime. It was imagined that there were specific geographical locations that harboured members of this criminal class. It was a term which was driven by the press and also adopted by law enforcement. Perhaps the person most responsible for giving impetus to the growth of this idea was Henry Mayhew who wrote a four volume social treatise entitled London Labour and the London Poor in 1861. Mayhew travelled into some of the poorest districts of the capital and documented what he saw, often conducting interviews with paupers. Taking his cue from the eighteenth-century writer Henry Fielding, he divided the poor into three categories or groups – the Victorians loved to categorise things – and these were: those that will work (the respectable working classes), those that can’t work (the infirm, disabled, and the elderly), and those that won’t work. It is in the last category that the criminal classes could be found, according to Mayhew.

Thos Hopkinson Highway Robbery
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] http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4788375

The poorest class of society were accused of being many things. They were usually accused of being idle – shunning hard work. In turn this made them turn to a life of crime. Usually they indulged in certain vices: gambling, drink. They usually avoided going to Church. The broadside detailing the ‘Last Dying Speech’ of Thomas Hopkinson is typical of how many people viewed criminals:

He formed an intercourse with abandoned companions, and commenced that profligate career which brought him to his untimely end […] his whole time was spent in the perpetration of almost every species of vice. The petty pilferings in which he engaged, gradually, led him on to bolder offences: his mind became so familiarised with guilt that he seemed scarcely sensible of its depravity; and thus, in the natural progress of iniquity, he was led on till be was ‘driven away with his wickedness’. [14]

Their living conditions were assumed to be deplorable. Even a man such as G. W. M. Reynolds, who was a radical and quite friendly towards the working classes, did some investigation into working-class living conditions. He found one slum dwelling that was:

A regular pig-stye, in which they wallowed like swine: and like that of brutes was also the conduct of the boys and girls. If the other rooms of the house were used as a brothel by grown up persons, no stew could be more atrocious than this garret […] Many children of nine and ten practised the vices of their elders. But, my God! Let me draw a veil over this dreadful scene. [15]

Dickens’ description of Jacob’s Island, the area where Fagin lives, is similar in its horror:

Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it – as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob’s Island. [16]

In the years after Reynolds and Mayhew other social investigators would follow his lead. Andrew Mearns authored The Bitter Cry of Outcast London in 1883, subtitled as ‘An Inquiry into the Condition of the Abject Poor’. In 1885 William T. Stead, a journalist for The Pall Mall Gazette, authored a series of articles entitled ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ which purported to be ‘The story of an actual pilgrimage into a real hell’. [17] He showed readers how easy it was for somebody to ‘purchase’ a child prostitute. Similarly, Charles Booth published a monumental social study entitled Life and Labour of the People in London, which eventually ran to seventeen volumes, between 1889 and 1903. All of these publications perpetuated the myth that it was the poorer classes of society who were responsible for the majority of crime. Closer to home, W. Swift authored Leeds Slumdom in 1896, although he was relatively understanding about the problems that working-class people faced, saying that although many people thought that the poor were poor because they were idle, ‘the more I study the character and history of our slum dwellers, the less inclined I am to think that idleness is their besetting sin’. [18]

Nevertheless, so ingrained was the idea of a criminal class becoming that people in government were talking soon about it. In the minutes of evidence for the Report of the Capital Punishment Commission in 1865, for example, we find the commissioners speaking of ‘The vast criminal class that holds sway in this country’. [19] People even assumed that they could identify and quantify this dangerous criminal class. J. Thackeray Bunce, in an academic journal article from 1865, produced a graph in which he estimated the numbers of the criminal classes, as you can see here:

graph

Source: <<http://humanities.uwe.ac.uk/bhr/Main/m_crime/criminal.htm>>

The caveat here is that these were ‘estimated numbers’, and in fact it was often quite difficult to find an actual person who hailed from this seemingly elusive criminal class. To be sure, Mayhew had spoken to many criminals, but no criminal ever said: “I am a member of the criminal class and I live in the underworld”. It was very much a label applied by the elite to the poorer sections of society. And it was a convenient label too, which absolved those in higher social situations of any responsibility towards making working and living conditions better for the working classes.

For some members of the supposed criminal class, however, it was not all doom and gloom. Children especially could be redeemed through the efforts of reforming societies and a rigorous penal system, because one of the great fears of people in the early nineteenth century was that the opportunistic young pickpocket would grow into a professional criminal. Early on some reformers realised that it was sometimes counter-productive to incarcerate children with adults because of the corrupting effects it might have on a child who could be saved:

I consider that the indiscriminate confinement practised in most of our prisons, where the child committed for trial or some small offence, is locked up in the same yard, and obliged to constantly associate with the hardened offender and convicted felon, is the most certain method that can be devised of increasing the number of delinquents. [20]

The press unsurprisingly saw the work of these reformers as a good thing. In 1852, for example, The Morning Chronicle reported how:

A blue book containing evidence given before the Select Committee of the House of Commons upon juvenile destitution will comprise an account [… of how] 140 of the vagrant and criminal class [… have been] drilled into order and industry. [21]

Of course, most of the people, children included, who were indicted for robbery and/or burglary were not in reality professional criminals. But as I said earlier, it was convenient for the Victorian press and contemporary reformers to push the idea of an underworld or criminal class.

uriah heep
Uriah Heep, from Dickens’ David Copperfield (1849-50)

Surely, however, the idea of a criminal class or underworld subculture does not sufficiently explain the fact that seemingly respectable criminals turned to crime? It is a question that Victorian moralists in the press themselves struggled to explain. Why did white collar crime exist when it was supposedly only the criminal class – drawn from the poorer parts of society – who perpetrated the majority of crime? A prevalent motif in Victorian literature is that of the corrupt clerk or banker who embezzles and steals funds from respectable people. In Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield (serialised between 1849 and 1850), for instance, we have Uriah Heep, an almost snakelike and devious character who extorts money from the good Mr. Wickfield. Similarly, there is Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel The Woman in White, serialised between 1859 and 1860, who plots to claim Laura Fairlee’s fortune by faking her death. Recognising that businessmen of good social standing were perfectly able to commit offences, The Illustrated London News reported that:

If we progress at the same rate for half a generation longer, commercial dishonesty will become the rule, and integrity the exception. On every side of us we see perpetually – fraud, fraud, fraud. [22]

These people, however, were viewed as exceptions: they were often seen as ‘bad apples’. They had often been led astray or been placed in a tempting situation. [23] In the case of middle- and upper-class offenders, often employers were criticised for lacking a sense of proper business management, or for paying their clerks wages that were too low. [24] As one newspaper asked:

We can’t for a moment dispute the right of merchant princes paying what salaries they deem fit to their clerks […] but we would ask, is the system of paying low salaries likely to conduce a high moral tone in the young men employed? [25]

Oddly, while low wages might encourage dishonesty in middle-class clerks, the same reasoning seems never to have been applied to the poorer classes who often lived a hand-to-mouth existence.

Conclusion

Just to conclude, I hope that what I have shown you today is that the idea of a Victorian underworld, or criminal class, is just that: an idea. There was never anything tangible about the underworld. You could not go and visit. It was a description applied by the elites in society to some of the poorest, most vulnerable members of society. Moralists in the press imagined that there were some people who were irredeemably criminal. Yet the fact that it was an invented idea should be evident by the fact that a conception of a criminal class, or underworld, did not exist prior to the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth century nobody was born a criminal; offenders and the law-abiding inhabited the same moral universe. [26] Crime was a sin, rather than something inherent.

The term ‘underworld’ is still used frequently in the press to this day. We are told in The Telegraph, for example, that the Hatton Garden Robbers ‘the busiest crooks in the underworld’. [27] Similarly, so convincing in explaining criminality was the idea of a criminal class that it is, by and large, an explanation of crime which we are stuck with today. I just want to take a recent example from The Big Issue magazine. While the magazine praised its own good work in helping to reform many offenders, it lamented the state of the prison system in the UK, saying:

Some Big Issue sellers are ex-cons but, while this organisation helps move people back to normal life, our prisons are so useless in helping men and women back permanently on to the straight and narrow that they increase rather than decrease the overall size of the criminal class. [28]

Additionally, in the Daily Mail newspaper in January of this year, the columnist Peter Hitchens in an article entitled ‘The Great British Bobby is Dead’ railed against the police in the following manner:

These new police are obsessed with the supposed secret sins of the middle class, and indifferent to the cruel and callous activities of the criminal class. [29]

Crime these days is often something that happens ‘out there’ in what the press calls ‘deprived areas’. Indeed, television shows such as Benefits Street, arguably the modern equivalent of Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, encourage the myth that it is primarily people from lower social strata who turn to crime. So if there is one thing which I hope you will take away from today, it is obviously that it is not the poor who are responsible for the majority of crime; the criminal underworld is nothing more than a convenient label for the elites which they apply often to some of our most vulnerable people.


References

1. Heather Shore, Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in Early Nineteenth-Century London (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1999) & London’s Criminal Underworlds, c.1720-c.1930: A Social and Cultural History (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015).
2. Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime, and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
3. Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900 (London: Longman, 1987)
4. Stephen Basdeo, ‘Dying Speeches, Daring Robbers, and Demon Barbers: The Forms and Functions of Nineteenth-Century Crime Literature, c.1800-c.1868 (Unpublished MA Thesis, Leeds Metropolitan University, 2014).
5. Cited in Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.x.
6. Anon. Newes from Newgate: or, a True Relation of the Manner of Taking Several Persons, Very Notorious for Highway-men, in the Strand; upon Munday the 13th of this Instant November, 1677 cited in Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 47
7. Horace Walpole, ‘To Mann, Wednesday 31 January 1750’ in The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, Eds. W. S. Lewis et al 48 Vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 20: 111-131 (111)
8. Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increases of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), p.1.
9. Emsley, Crime and Society, p.59.
10. John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera (London: John Watts, 1728), p.5.
11. Frederich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1848 repr. London: Penguin, 2009)
12. Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (London, 1838) [Internet << http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/olivertwist>&gt; Accessed 24 February 2016].
13. George William MacArthur Reynolds, The Mysteries of London: Containing Stories of Vice in the Modern Babylon (1845 repr. London, 1890), p.81.
14. The Life and Execution of Thomas Hopkinson (Derby: G. Wilkins, 1819).
15. G. W. M. Reynolds cited in Michael Diamond, Victorian Sensation: or, The Spectacular, the Shocking, and the Scandalous inn Nineteenth-Century Britain (London: Anthem, 2003), 193.
16. Dickens, Oliver Twist [Internet << http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/olivertwist>&gt; Accessed 24 February 2016].
17. W. T. Stead, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon: A Notice to Our Readers: A Frank Warning’ The Pall Mall Gazette 4 July 1885 [Internet <http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk/pmg/tribute/notice.php&gt; Accessed 24 February 2016].
18. W. Swift, Leeds Slumdom (Leeds, 1896), p.15.
19. Report of the Capital Punishment Commission (London: George E. Eyre, 1866), p.240.
20. Cited in Shore, Artful Dodgers, p.102.
21. Anon. The Morning Chronicle 11 August 1852, p.2.
22. Cited in Emsley, Crime and Society, p.57.
23. Emsley, Crime and Society, p.58.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid.
26. Emsley, op cit.
27. Tom Morgan and Martin Evans ‘Revealed: How Hatton Garden’s OAP raiders were cream of criminal underworld’ The Telegraph 14 January 2016 [Internet: << http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/12093096/Revealed-How-Hatton-Gardens-OAP-raiders-were-cream-of-criminal-underworld.html>&gt; Accessed 01 February 2016].
28. Dennis McShane, ‘Lord Ramsbotham Interview: There is No Accountability in Our Prisons’ The Big Issue 8 June 2015 [Internet: << http://www.bigissue.com/features/interviews/5293/lord-ramsbotham-interview-there-is-no-accountability-in-our-prisons>&gt; Accessed 01 February 2016].
29. Peter Hitchens, ‘The Great British Bobby is Dead’ Mail on Sunday 24 January 2016 [Internet: <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3413970/The-British-bobby-long-dead-one-chance-bring-writes-PETER-HITCHENS.html#ixzz3yvCdhsxo&gt; Accessed 01 February 2016.

Criminality in Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838)

Fagin and his Gang - Illustration by George Cruikshank (1838)
Fagin and his Gang – Illustration by George Cruikshank (1838)

The master of the Victorian social novel was undoubtedly Charles Dickens. His novel, Oliver Twist was published in serial instalments in Bentley’s Miscellany between 1837 and 1838 and was perceived by contemporaries to be a Newgate novel [1]. The reason that it was perceived so is because critics felt that it glorified members of the criminal underworld. Dickens’ novel was published alongside William Harrison Ainsworth’s second Newgate novel, Jack Sheppard, in the same magazine; Dickens was Ainsworth’s friend, and the two men even considered collaborating on a novel [2]. Dickens’ tale of an orphan who falls into the clutches of the criminal underworld was set in nineteenth-century London, and the novel attacked the recently passed Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which had expanded the workhouse system. Dickens was ‘one of the people to light a fuse of criticism that was to blow the calculated neglect and casual cruelty of the workhouse system away’ [3].

Dickens’ critique of the workhouse system is less important here than his representations of nineteenth-century criminal underworld figures, and it is Fagin and Bill Sikes that I wish to discuss here. Dickens draws upon gothic literary conventions by representing in his novel two binary camps of good and evil. The ‘good’ camps in the novel are those of Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies. The ‘bad’ camps are those of Bill Sykes and Fagin [4]. The two camps vie with each other throughout the novel to claim the innocence of young Oliver. The first time this is apparent is when Oliver comes into contact with Fagin, a receiver of stolen goods, who runs a criminal gang of young pickpockets. The types of gangs run by Fagin were common in nineteenth-century London. Often they were to be found in some of the common lodging houses, where ‘keepers maintained gangs of professional child thieves and even ran schools for pickpockets’ [5]. Fagin attempts to teach Oliver how to be a thief through a series of childish games:

“Is my handkerchief hanging out of my pocket?” said the Jew.
“Yes, Sir,” said Oliver.
“See if you can take it out, without my feeling it: as you saw them do, when we were at play this morning” [6].

Fagin’s attempts to convert Oliver into a criminal fail and this perplexes him as he has managed to corrupt other young boys prior to meeting Oliver. Oliver is ‘not easy to train…not like other boys in the same circumstance’ [7]. The reason for this is that young Oliver is actually middle class by birth and represented as inherently innocent, and theft is the ‘single specific crime that menaces Oliver’s innocence’ [8]. The reason Fagin’s other boys had been corrupted was because they were members of the ‘criminal class,’ a notion which gained currency between the 1820s and 1830s [9]. According to this idea, there was a dangerous criminal class lurking beneath the working class in the poorest districts of cities [10]. In contrast to Ainsworth’s gentlemanly Dick Turpin in Rookwood, the villains of Dickens’ work were hideous creatures who lived in dirty hovels in the rookery of Saffron Hill, Holborn. Dickens described Fagin and his lair in the following way: ‘the walls of the ceiling of the room were perfectly black with age and dirt…standing over them, with a toasting fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair’ [11]. For ‘Fagin’ readers would have inferred ‘Satan’; the hook-nose and the toasting fork drawing upon older Christian images of the devil [12]. In contrast to Ainsworth’s Dick Turpin, in Dickens’ work there was ‘no canterings on moonlit heaths, no merry-makings in the snuggest of all possible caverns…none of the dash and freedom with which [highwaymen have] been time out of mind invested’ [13]. Thus the highwayman of old was a product of the pre-industrial, rural England, whilst Fagin was essentially a product of an urbanised society, and represented the worst of that society, being a member of the ‘criminal class’.

Oliver_Twist_08
Bill Sikes and Oliver Twist – Illustration by George Cruikshank (1838)

Dickens’ other criminal character was the house-breaker Bill Sikes. Sikes is described as ‘bad-tempered and uncivil’ [14]. He is also murderous. He kills his lover, Nancy, because he believes that she has ‘peached’ on him:

The robber sat regarding her, for a few seconds, with dilated nostrils and heaving breast; and then, grasping her by the throat, dragged her into the middle of the room…the housebreaker freed one arm, and grabbed his pistol. The certainty of detection if he fired, flashed across his mind even in the midst of his fury, and he beat it twice with all the force he could summon, upon [her] upturned face…The murder…seized a heavy club and struck her down [15].

Sikes is dehumanised in this passage and descends through three gradations. At first he was simply a robber. Robbers can be accepted and even revered to a certain extent in their respective societies (think Robin Hood) [16]. He is then described as a house-breaker. The offence of house-breaking was less palatable to people than was highway robbery, for example, because since the eighteenth century, ‘the perimeter of “the private house” represented a sacred frontier’ [17]. Finally he became a murderer. Murder was reviled because ‘homicide is the most dramatic crime of violence’ [18]. Indeed, the people who cheered highwaymen at public executions were often unanimous in their condemnation of murderers [19]. There is a clear contrast between Ainsworth’s Turpin, who shrinks from shedding blood, and Sikes who spills it. Dickens did not allow the reader to have sympathy with his criminals. The highwayman may have been a romantic figure galloping on the heath in the moonlight, but nineteenth-century slum dwelling criminals were altogether baser creatures; creatures of the newly-emerging criminal class.


[1] Pykett, L. (2003). ‘The Newgate Novel and Sensation Fiction’, p.21
[2] Emsley, C. (1987). Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900. London: Harper, p.84
[3] Tindall, G. (2012). ‘Dickens’ London: Further Twists’. History Today 62(12) [Internet] http://www.historytoday.com/gillian-tindall/dickens-london-further-twists [Accessed 16/07/2014]
[4] West, N.M. (1989). ‘Order and Disorder: Surrealism and Oliver Twist’. South Atlantic Review 54(2), p.43
[5] Chesney, K. (1970). The London Underworld. London: Penguin, p.111
[6] Dickens, C. (1838:1930). Oliver Twist. London: Odhams Press, p.69

[7] Dickens, C. (1838: 1930). Oliver Twist, p.181
[8] Wolff, L. (1996). ‘“The Boys are Pickpockets, and the Girl is a Prostitute”: Gender and Juvenile Criminality in Early Victorian England from Oliver Twist to London Labour’. New Literary History 27(2), p.234
[9] Shore, H. (1999). Artful Dodgers, p.19
[10] Emsley, C. (1987). Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900, p.114
[11] Dickens, C. (1838:1930). Oliver Twist, p.64
[12] Rosenberg, E. (1960). From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction. Stanford: Stanford University Press, p.126
[13] Dickens, C. (1838: 1930). Oliver Twist, p.14
[14] Spraggs, G. (2001). Outlaws and Highwaymen, p.245
[15] Dickens, C. (1838:1930) Oliver Twist, pp.324-325

[16] Hobsbawm, E. (1969) Bandits, p.19
[17] Vickery, A. (2009). Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England. Yale University Press, p.33
[18] Emsley, C. (1987). Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900, p.41
[19] Gatrell, V.A.C. (1994). The Hanging Tree, pp.99-100