The Flemish Revolt: Pierce Egan’s “Quintin Matsys” (1838)

By Stephen Basdeo

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.

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Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880)

He was rather fond of outlaws and rebels and liked to tell their stories: throughout the early part of his career he published Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838); Wat Tyler (1841), in which the eponymous rebel is depicted as a medieval Chartist; Adam Bell (1842), a story of a lesser-known medieval outlaw who is said to have lived around the same time as Robin Hood; Paul Jones (1841), which is the story of a man who defects to the American side during the war of independence; and Captain Macheath (1842), which tells the tale of the hero of Macheath the highwayman who originally appeared in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728). All of these stories were melodramatic and politically radical tales in which the protagonists fight against an unjust and oppressive government.

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Title Page to Pierce Egan the Younger’s Quintin Matsys (1838)

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.

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The Real Quintin Matsys by Jan Wertrix

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.[1]

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The Revolution in Antwerp as depicted by Egan the Younger

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.

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The Revolution in Antwerp as depicted by Egan the Younger

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.

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Young Quintin considering one of his paintings in Egan’s novel

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’.[2] 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.


[1] A. B. Slous, ‘The Pearl of Brabant’, in The Story Teller, Or, Table Book of Popular Literature, 1 (London, 1833), pp. 668–70.

[2] 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).

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Blind Justice in Eugene Sue’s “The Mysteries of Paris” (1842–3)

By Stephen Basdeo

In the 19 June 1842, issue of the Parisian magazine, Journal des Debats, a new serialised novel appeared entitled The Mysteries of Paris, which ran weekly until 15 October 1843.

The novel was written by Eugene Sue (1804-57), and the plot concerns a man called Rodolphe who moves through the Parisian underworld doing good works, such as saving young girls from procuresses (women who would pimp other women out). In time, it turns out that Rodolphe is actually a very rich man, and heir to a German dukedom.

The plot was inspired by his political beliefs, for Sue was a socialist, and his rendering of the desperate plight of the Parisian underclasses was intended to inspire sympathy among for them amongst his affluent readers. This is perhaps why E. R. Tennenbaum sees in Sue’s novel the first glimmers of what he calls ‘bleeding heart liberalism’. In addition to having written some fairly successful novels, he took part in the French Revolution of 1848, after which time he was elected to the Parisian Legislative Assembly, however, with Napoleon III’s coup d’etat, he was exiled to Savoy and spent the rest of his days there.[1]

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Title page to Eugene Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris” (c) Stephen Basdeo

Richard Maxwell argues that The Mysteries of Paris, along with The Mysteries of London (1845) which it inspired, represented a new genre of fiction: the urban gothic. In these novels the modern industrial city provided the setting for a gothic romance, in contrast to the rural gothic settings of writers such as Matthew Lewis and William Harrison Ainsworth. The City is portrayed in these “City Mysteries” as a maze where all manner of vice and crime exist, from fashionable high class residences to the slum districts.[2]

The novel appears to have been well received amongst readers of all classes; and of course G. W. M. Reynolds was quite taken with it, seeing as he produced his own The Mysteries of Londonand Sue’s novel was also translated into English as a penny blood, or penny dreadful, and went through several editions. In fact, Sue’s serial kicked off a whole ‘City Mysteries’ genre such as the aforementioned Mysteries of London by G. W. M. Reynolds; The Mysteries of Lisbon by Camilo Branco; The Slums of St. Petersburg by Vsevolod Krestovsky; and The Mysteries of New York by Ned Buntline.

It should not be supposed that Sue’s novel, in contrast to many penny serials at this time, was aimed at children (penny dreadfuls typically featured boy thieves and highwaymen from the eighteenth century). Instead this is a serial which was read by adults, and it would be only in the latter part of the 1800s that penny serials would become targeted specifically towards young readers.

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Illustration from Eugene Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris” (c) Stephen Basdeo

Indeed, some of the scenes in the novel are so horrific that, had the novel been one for children, they would have had nightmares.

In the early part of the book, Rodolphe encounters a master criminal who goes by the name of the Schoolmaster. Drawing upon contemporary studies of physiognomy, Sue makes it clear that this man has criminality etched into his appearance. He is guilty of all manner of crimes such as murder, kidnapping, extortion. Yet the Schoolmaster finally receives his comeuppance when he makes an attempt upon the life of Rodolphe and his friend, but ultimately fails.

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The menacing Schoolmaster. Illustration from Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris” (c) Stephen Basdeo

The Schoolmaster is captured, bound to a chair tightly with rope, and taken into Rodolphe’s drawing room where Rodolphe, his Doctor, and his servant are set around a table. An interrogation of the Schoolmaster follows and Rodolphe has to decide what to do with him.

Sue was highly critical of the French justice system, for it seemed to him, and indeed many reformers of the time, to be ineffective at actually punishing criminals and simply allowed them to refine their criminal talents in concert with other reprobates. And neither was simply turning him over to be guillotined going to be any good:

“If on the other hand, you had braved the scaffold – as one having the murderer’s only redeeming quality, personal courage – equally little would it have availed with me to have given you up to the executioner. For you, the scaffold would be merely an ensanguined stage; where, like so many others, you would make a parade of your ferocity; where, reckless of a miserable life, you would exhale your last breath with a blasphemy … It is not good for the people to see the criminal cracking jokes with the executioner, breathing out in a sneer … All crime may be expiated and redeemed, says the Saviour; but to that end, sincere repentance is necessary. From the tribunal to the scaffold, the journey is too short; it would not do, therefore, for you to die thus.”[3]

So what was to be done? Rodolphe begins to speak every more cryptically:

“You have criminally abused your strength – I will paralyse that strength; the strongest have trembled before you – you shall tremble before the weakest. Assassin! You have plunged the creatures of God into eternal night – the shadows of night eternal shall commence for you even in this world. This night – in a few minutes – your punishment shall equal your offences. But … the punishment I am about to pronounce leaves you a boundless horizon of repentance … I forever deprive you of all the splendours of creation … Yes! For ever isolated from the external world you will be forced to look constantly within yourself.[4]

Rodolphe does say, however, that he will be provided for financially and places in the Schoolmaster’s waistcoat 3,000 francs.

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The punishment of the Schoolmaster. Illustration from Eugene Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris” (c) Stephen Basdeo

At this point, the schoolmaster is tied to a chair so tightly that he cannot move an inch, and the doctor arises and wheels him out of the room momentarily. All is silent, and Rodolphe’s servant, the Chourineur, has no idea what is transpiring in the next room. And then the Schoolmaster is brought back in:

“Blind! Blind! Blind!” cried the brigand, in an increasing tone of agony.

“You are free – you have money – go!”

“But – I cannot go! How would you have me go? I cannot see! Oh it is a frightful crime thus to abuse your strength, in order to–”

“It is a crime to abuse one’s strength,” said Rodolphe, in his most solemn tones. “And then, what hast thou done with thy strength?”

“Oh death! Yes, I should have preferred death!” cried the schoolmaster, “to be at everyone’s mercy, to be afraid of everything! Ah! A mere child can beat me now! What, oh! What shall I do? My God! My God! What shall I do?”

“You have money.”

“I shall be robbed.”

“You will be robbed! Do you understand these words which you pronounce with so much terror? Do you understand them – you, who have robbed so many? Go.”[5]

Rodolphe is not totally unfeeling, however, and he commands his servant to ensure that the Schoolmaster is cared for by being given a place to stay the night, and he is subsequently placed in the care of an honest and respectable family who live in a rural part of France.

As a punishment, blinding stopped being used as a punishment for crimes in Britain and France during the early modern period, and even then, it was not used that much. Its heyday as a punishment in England was during the Anglo-Saxon period, when, along with castration, it served as a punishment for counterfeiters.[6] By the time that Sue was writing, it would have been regarded in both countries as a barbaric punishment.

While Tennebaum argued that Sue’s novel represented the beginnings of “bleeding heart liberalism”, Eugene Sue, in spite of his alleged socialist beliefs, was hardly a kind man when it came to the wrongs and crimes of the poor, or those whom he viewed as irredeemably criminal. When he was elected to the French Legislative Assembly, in fact, while he declared his opposition to capital punishment, he did advocate blinding as a means of reforming criminals, or at the very least, placing them in solitary confinement perpetually. In the novel, Sue’s Grand Duke Rodolphe views the righting of the wrongs and crimes of the poor as his aristocratic responsibility; he has much sympathy with the ‘respectable’ poor (those who conformed to the bourgeoisie’s expectations of how they should act: deferential and working for a pittance with murmuring only very little), but he also accepts that there are some members of the poor who stand little chance of being reformed unless they are taken out of society. As Karl Marx and Frederich Engels pointed out in their commentary on the novel in The Holy Family (1844), Sue’s Rodolphe simply wants to remove from society all who do not conform to his world view.[7]

In the end, the blinding that the Schoolmaster receives does not induce him to mend his ways but instead he broods on his punishment, and vows vengeance upon Rodolphe for the rest of his life…


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

[2] See Richard Maxwell, The Mysteries of Paris and London (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993).

[3] Eugene Sue, The Mysteries of Paris (London: Boscoe’s Library, 1843), p. 52.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 53.

[6] Alyxandra Mattison, ‘The Execution and Burial of Criminals in Early Medieval England, c. 850-1150: An Examination of Changes in Judicial Punishment Across the Norman Conquest’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 2016), p. 40.

[7] Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, The Holy Family; or Critique of Critical Criticism, Trans. Richard Dixon (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956) https://www.marxists.org [Accessed 26 July 2018]

An English Republican’s View of Crime and its Causes

By Stephen Basdeo

George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814-79) was one of the Victorian era’ most prolific novelists. Inspired by Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris (1843), Reynolds’s famous The Mysteries of London (1844-46) shined a light on the crimes committed by members of criminal upperworld and underworld.[1] Reynolds was also famous as the editor of Reynolds’s Newspaper, a radical newspaper which eventually became the leading left(ish) wing periodical of its day (sometimes our modern definitions of ‘left’ and ‘right’ are not easily translatable on to historical figures).[2] The paper was published every Saturday, and the first page would feature an editorial from the man himself, commenting upon a variety of social issues. As a man who obviously had a firm understanding of the nature and causes of crime in nineteenth-century London, evident by his Mysteries novels, in 1851 he wrote an essay entitled ‘The Crime and Profligacy of London’ in Reynolds’s Newspaper, which delineated what he thought were the causes of crime.[3]

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Portrait of G. W. M. Reynolds on the cover of his other magazine, Reynolds’s Miscellany.

Reynolds hated the monarchy and the aristocracy with a passion, although, ever the gentleman, he had respect for Victorian herself; it was merely the institution that she represented which he abhorred. One of the reasons he campaigned for reform to Britain’s state apparatus was because, in his view, the state should exist for the betterment of the social condition of the people:

The political institutions of a country are supposed to be established to ensure the well-being of the community at large. It is consequently fair and rational to deduce an answer to the question – Whether our much-vaunted institutions be really valuable and beneficent, or whether they be inefficient and pernicious?[4]

Armed with statistics, Reynolds pointed out that, in 1851, the crime statistics compiled by the government and the police made for grim reading:

To show the amount of depraving, demoralizing, criminal and vicious influences at work in the metropolis alone, the subjoined estimate has been drawn up from official documents, by persons whose veracity can be relied upon: Children trained to crime, 1600; Receivers of stolen goods, 5,000; Gamblers by profession, 15,000; Beggars, 25,000; Thieves, &c., 50,000; Drunkards, 30,000; Habitual gin drinkers, 180,000; Persons subsisting on profligacy, 150,000.[5]

Victorian intellectuals often praised the English constitution as being one of the best in the worlds; governed by a constitutional monarch whose MPs exercised power on her behalf, resulting in a stable form of government; and this in turn, so it was thought by the political establishment, meant that Englishmen (and it was thought of in exclusively gendered terms at this point) enjoyed wonderful degree of political liberty, in spite of the fact that only the middle classes and the aristocracy could vote.

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The Resurrection Man from The Mysteries of London (1844-46): Punished by society simply for being poor, he has no choice but to turn to crime.

Yet Reynolds had no time for people who praised what he saw as a corrupt and undemocratic system, having declared in an earlier article that,

Nothing can be more disgusting than to hear individuals boast of English freedom. There is no real freedom in this country; and the persons who idolise a shadow are either knaves or fools. Those who fatten upon the corrupt institutions of our country will, doubtless, applaud them to the skies; and those who are too prejudiced or too ignorant to view them in their proper light, echo the praises which the selfish and interested bestow upon them.[6]

After citing his crime statistics, Reynolds asks

Who will dare boast of our “blessed institutions” and “our glorious laws” after this fearful exposure? Those stupid vaunts are annihilated by the statistics of crime in a moment.[7]

According to Reynolds, the rottenness of the English constitution was the cause of crime in nineteenth-century London. The narrow upper middle and aristocratic oligarchy which ruled Britain at the time had passed a series of laws which were deliberately designed to punish the poor for being poor. What did the establishment expect, then, but for paupers to turn to crime because they were voiceless? The poorest in society, according to Reynolds, were being systematically excluded from it due to the self-interest of the aristocracy and ‘moneyocracy’.

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Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as depicted in Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1844-46); frivolous and without a care for her subjects, the queen is kept in ignorance of the plight of the working classes who live a hand-to-mouth existence.

Nine-tenths of crime, according to Reynolds in the article, have as their cause the punitive and self-serving actions of the British establishment, and at the head of this system was the monarch and the royal family, too spineless to ever intervene on behalf of her subjects whom she professed to care for.

Reynolds’s attitude was articulated some years before in his Mysteries of London, in the character of the Resurrection Man. Had the establishment not enacted laws such as the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), which expanded the workhouse system and made it incredibly harsh, or had they not pursued the cut-throat ideology of laissez-faire capitalism, then crime would be much lower than the statistics he cited.

Reynolds’s attitude raises interesting questions today about who really is to blame for crime. Ultimately, as Reynolds recognises in his article, societies get the criminals they deserve.


[1] See Stephen Basdeo, ‘That’s Business: Organised Crime in G. W. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1844-48)’, Law, Crime and History, 8: 1 (2018), 53-70.

[2] For further reading see Anne Humpherys and Louis James, eds., G.W.M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).

[3] George W. M. Reynolds, ‘The Crime and Profligacy of London’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 25 May 1851, p. 1. Reynolds is cited as the author.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] George W. M. Reynolds, ‘Our Boasted Freedom’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 12 May 1850, p. 1.

[7] Reynolds, ‘The Crime and Profligacy of London’, p. 1.

Pierce Egan’s “Robin Hood Ballads” (1840)

This post is not one of my usual essay style posts, with an introduction and conclusion, etc., but more of a research note after having got hold of a first edition of Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood novel.

Pierce Egan the Younger was one of the most popular Victorian penny-a-liner authors. Although he was the son of the more famous Pierce Egan the Elder (1772-1849), very little is known of the son’s early life.[i] The younger Egan first came to public notice when he provided the illustrations to a work that his father had written entitled The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National (1838). In the same year that he collaborated with his father on the Pilgrims, he began writing Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. The novel is one of the best (in my opinion) Robin Hood novels published during the nineteenth century. It is also one of the longest: it was sold for a penny in weekly instalments over the course of two years, between 1838 and 1840.

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Title Page to Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood Ballads (1840)

The novel, targeted primarily towards working-class and lower middle-class adults, is filled with sex, violence, and radical politics, and is the story of Robin Hood’s life from his birth to his death. Egan is clearly acquainted with earlier Robin Hood works such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795); Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Egan’s novel went through several editions throughout the nineteenth century. As an appendix to the first edition in 1840, however, he included a collection of Robin Hood ballads.

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Egan’s collection is based upon eighteenth-century versions of Robin Hood’s Garland. These were anthologies of seventeenth-century Robin Hood ballads. And it is only the early modern ballads included in Egan’s collection, such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Jolly Pinder of Wakefield, Robin Hood and Allen-a-Dale, and Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford. The medieval poems such as A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin Hood and the Monk are, strangely, not included in Egan’s version.

The extent of his ‘editing’ of the texts is minimal. In fact, one might be forgiven for thinking that the appending of the ballad collection at the end of Egan’s novel was perhaps the publisher George Pierce’s idea. The preface included at the beginning is virtually plagiarised from Charles Johnson’s account of Robin Hood, with one or two notes from Joseph Ritson inserted towards the end, and there is no attempt to relate the ballads to the sequences and plotlines in Egan’s actual novel.

One contribution to the ballad collection that we can tell Egan did make, however, is in the illustrations he provided (he had also provided all of the illustrations to the novel in the first edition). Through his images, Egan did attempt to provide some continuity with his preceding novel. This is because the characters of Robin Hood and his men who appear in the novel look exactly the same as those which appear in this ballad collection. Furthermore, as the ballads accompany the first edition, and Egan often insisted on providing the illustrations to all of his first editions (later publishers incorporated entirely new illustrations in later editions), then there is no reason to suppose that these illustrations are not his.

First editions of Egan’s Robin Hood with the ballads are rare: more common is the 1850 edition, published by W. S. Johnson, which will still fetch approximately £100.


[i] To learn more about some of the facts I have managed to reconstruct about his early life from archival records clink this link.

Mack the Knife: The “True” Story Behind the Song

The popular song Mack the Knife was based upon the story of an eighteenth-century highwayman named Captain Macheath. This post traces the literary life of this fictional character.

Most people, at some point in their lives, will have heard the song Mack the Knife, which has been covered by a wide range of singers including Louis Armstrong (1901–71), my personal favourite, Bobby Darin (1936–73), Frank Sinatra (1915–98), and Roger Daltrey (1944–). Few people will realise, however, that the song is based upon the story of a fictional eighteenth-century highwayman named Captain Macheath, who first appeared in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1727) and whose story was subsequently reimagined in Bertold Brecht’s The Three-Penny Opera (1928).

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John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728)

Gay’s opera was essentially the first ‘jukebox musical’: it took the tunes of contemporary popular folk songs, changed their lyrics, and inserted them into the narrative. It tells the story of a womanising highwayman, Macheath, based upon the real-life thief, Jack Sheppard (1702–24), who has a romance with the daughter of the thief taker, Peachum. The latter is a character based upon Sheppard’s nemesis, Jonathan Wild (c. 1688–1725). As thief taker, Peachum controls all the crime in London in his capacity as the main law-enforcer, and has the power of life and death over his criminals. He takes exception to the proposed marriage between Macheath and his daughter and resolves to have him hanged. What follows is a comical tale of encounters with sex workers, escapes from gaol, until finally he is taken to be hanged. Instead of being hanged, however, the playwright steps on to the stage and proclaims a reprieve at the last moment, saving the heroic highwayman from the gallows.

The play did much to cement the image of the heroic highwayman in public consciousness with contemporary audiences, which built upon previous portrayals of some robbers as noble and generous in criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1714) and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734).[i] In turn, later highwaymen such as James Maclaine (1724–50) fashioned themselves as modern-day Macheaths in order to curry favour with the public. In his play, Gay had a wider point to make, however: he wanted to criticise the government; the leading ministers of state were no better than the corrupt thief takers who patrolled London’s streets and who, while they prosecuted certain small-scale, petty criminals, left larger crimes unpunished. Thus we see Peachum in the opening scene of The Beggar’s Opera singing:

Through all the employments of life

Each neighbour abuses his brother;

Whore and rogue they call husband and wife,

All professions be-rogue one another.

The priest calls the lawyer a cheat,

The lawyer beknaves the Divine,

And the statesman because he’s so great,

Thinks his trade as honest as mine.[ii]

He then proceeds to say

A lawyer is an honest employment, so is mine. Like me too he acts in a double capacity, both against rogues and for ‘em; for ‘tis fitting that we should protect and encourage cheats, since we live by ‘em.[iii]

A particular target of Gay’s attacks in The Beggar’s Opera was the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745). Widely viewed as corrupt, even though nobody ever managed to trace any particular frauds or embezzlements to him, to satirists in the eighteenth century he represented all that was wrong with the ruling aristocratic oligarchy.

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(Portrayals of Captain Macheath/Mack the Knife through the Ages)

During the Victorian period, with the rise of the penny dreadful publishing industry, tales of highwaymen became immensely popular with both adults and youths of the lower middle and working classes. Dick Turpin (1705–39) appeared regularly in the columns of these cheap magazines, as did older highwaymen such as Robin Hood and the afore-mentioned Jack Sheppard. The actual stories differed little from other contemporary tales of highwaymen, being mostly full of daring adventures, escapes from the police, and the rescue of young maidens from aristocratic villains. Pierce Egan (1814–80), an author about whom I have written a lot on this website, authored Captain Macheath: The Highwayman of a Century Since (1840). Later anonymously-written penny dreadfuls include a long running serial in the magazine Tales of Highwaymen (1865–66), as well as Captain Macheath: The Prince of the Highway (1892), which is a virtual plagiarism of Egan’s earlier novel.

The song Mack the Knife does not appear in Gay’s opera, but appeared Brecht’s Three-Penny Opera. While in Gay’s earlier play, Macheath is a jovial and relatively good-natured fellow who flinches from using violence, Brecht gives us a Macheath, or a ‘Mack the Knife’ who, it is hinted, has a darker side to his character. This comes through most clearly in the song entitled Die Moritat von Mackie Messer, sung usually at the beginning of the play, which is the song we all know as Mack the Knife:

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear

And it shows them pearly white

But the knife that Macheath carries,

No one knows where it may be.[iv]

The song then gives us a litany of some of the quite brutal crimes attributed to Macheath/Mack the Knife:

On a blue and blamy Sunday

On the Strand a man  has lost his life.

A man darts around the corner,

People call him Mack the Knife.

 

And Schmul Meier is still missing,

One more wealthy man removed,

Somehow Mackie has his money,

Yet nothing can be proved.

 

Jenny Towler was discovered,

With a knife stuck in her chest,

Mackie strolls along the dockside,

Knows no more than all the rest.

 

Seven children and an old man,

Burned alive in old Soho

In the crowd stands Mack the Knife

Who’s not asked and doesn’t know.

 

And the widow not yet twenty

Only her name could she say,

Defiled one night as she lay sleeping

Mackie what price did you pay?[v]

Murder, arson, and rape: all of these crimes are attributed to Macheath; even though he is the hero of the tale, he is certainly not as noble and gentlemanly as the Macheath of Gay’s story. The story of the play is essentially the same as The Beggar’s Opera, although it is set in Victorian London instead of Georgian London as Gay’s play was: Mack the Knife marries Polly Peachum, to the chagrin of her father Peachum who is an underworld crime lord; in concert with the Chief of Police, Peachum convinces the policeman to gather enough evidence to hang Mack. Eventually Mack is arrested and is taken to be hanged, but at the last minute a pardon arrives from Queen Victoria for him. He is released and is soon elevated to a Baronetcy, the implication being that he can now steal from people legally because he is a member of the aristocracy. Through this means, Brecht, a socialist, offers a critique of the corruption endemic in the modern capitalist city in which thieves are no better than the elites, which is a similar argument to that made by Gay almost two centuries before.

Later singers, such as the ones I pointed out in the introduction, adapted Brecht’s Moritat and gave it the title of Mack the Knife. We see a slight return in these later songs to a friendlier portrayal of Macheath, such as that contained in the Bobby Darin lyrics:

Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear

And it shows them pearly white

Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe

And he keeps it, ah, out of sight.

Ya know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe

Scarlet billows start to spread

Fancy gloves, oh, wears old MacHeath, babe

So there’s never, never a trace of red.

Now on the sidewalk, huh, huh, whoo sunny morning, un huh

Lies a body just oozin’ life, eek

And someone’s sneakin’ ’round the corner

Could that someone be Mack the Knife?

 

There’s a tugboat, huh, huh, down by the river don’tcha know

Where a cement bag’s just a’drooppin’ on down

Oh, that cement is for, just for the weight, dear

Five’ll get ya ten old Macky’s back in town

Now d’ja hear ’bout Louie Miller? He disappeared, babe

After drawin’ out all his hard-earned cash

And now MacHeath spends just like a sailor

Could it be our boy’s done somethin’ rash?

 

Now Jenny Diver, ho, ho, yeah, Sukey Tawdry

Ooh, Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown

Oh, that line forms on the right, babe

Now that Macky’s back in town.

 

I said Jenny Diver, whoa, Sukey Tawdry

Look out to Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown

Yes, that line forms on the right, babe

Now that Macky’s back in town

Look out, old Macky’s back

It appears that there are still heavy penalties for those who cross his path, but at least he does not rape women or burn whole families alive in their houses.

For those interested in seeing original versions of The Three-Penny Opera, see the following youtuve videos:

And the Roger Daltrey version of the movie can be found here:


References

[i] For a detailed and scholarly discussion of highwaymen and masculinity see the following: Erin Mackie, Rakes, Highwaymen, and Pirates: The Making of the Modern Gentleman in the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). For further reading on The Beggar’s Opera (1728) see the following: Lucy Moore, The Thieves’ Opera (London: Penguin, 1997).

[ii] John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, 3rd Edn (London: J. Watts, 1729), p. 1.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Translated approximately from the original German.

[v] Bertolt Brecht, The Three-Penny Opera (1928).

‘The Prince of Pick-Pockets’: George Barrington (1755-1804)

George Waldron, alias Barrington, was born into a poor family at Maynooth, County Kildare, Ireland. Although destitute, his mother and father made sure to learn that he could read and write. Because of his rudimentary education, he attracted the attention of the local doctor, who privately tutored him in mathematics, geography, and grammar. The young George Barrington made great progress, and the local bishop paid for him to go to the grammar school at Dublin.[i]

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A “True” Likeness of George Barrington, Esq. From The Criminal Recorder, Vol. 1 (1804). Author’s Collection.

But from a young age, it seems, Barrington, always had a propensity to commit acts of violence. While at school, he stabbed one of his schoolmates with a pen-knife. The wound was not fatal, luckily for the other boy, and Barrington was flogged for the assault. He resented the punishment, and in May 1771, he stole a few pieces of gold from the school and absconded.

He set off on the Great North Road from Dublin until he came to Drogheda, where he stopped at inn. After having eaten a meal and gotten some rest at the inn, he got talking to a man named John Price, ‘an abandoned character’, according to Barrington’s biographer. Price was the manager of a company of travelling street performers. He invited Barrington to tour with them.

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Penny Dreadful Serialisation of Barrington’s Life (1863). Author’s Collection.

He turned out to be a pretty good actor, and apparently distinguished himself in the lead role of a play entitled Venice Preserved. But the successes were not to last, and soon the entire company of players fell on hard times. Having noted his acting skills, Price asked Barrington if he would use his talents to become a gentleman pickpocket, ‘by affecting the airs and importance of a gentleman of fashion’.

It seems, however, that he was not a very good pickpocket. He first attempted an aristocrat at the races in Carlow, but he was caught. However, the good-natured nobleman said that if he returned his property nothing more would be said about the matter. Barrington wisely agreed.

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Penny Dreadful serialisation of Barrington’s Life (1863). Author’s Collection.

Meantime, his former master, Mr. Price, had been arrested for forgery and was hanged. So Barrington decided it was best if he moved to England and tried his game there. He first travelled to Brighton where, in 1775, he ingratiated himself into polite society. During this time he robbed several of his high-born friends.

He then travelled to London where he became acquainted with a Mister Lowe, another pickpocket, and the two men became quite daring in their enterprises.

Barrington went to Court where the Queen’s birthday celebrations were being held. Dressed as a clergyman, and again ingratiating himself with all the nobility, managed to rob several pounds from various people, as well as a diamond. He then retired from the party without suspicion and sold his stolen goods to a Jewish fence.

Barrington next visited a Drury Lane theatre, and proceeded to play a game of cards with Count Orlow, the Russian ambassador. He robbed the Russian of a gold snuff box set with diamonds. But one of the count’s servants saw him and seized him. Hauled before the Magistrate of Westminster, Sir John Fielding, Barrington confessed all, whereupon he was sentenced. The Count declined to prosecute, however, and so the matter went away.

He soon returned to his old ‘profession’, however, and in the Spring of 1777, he was arrested and sent to the prison hulks for three years. Due to his good behaviour, he was released after only twelve months, and went straight back to thieving.

Only a few days after his release, he attended a sermon at St. Sepulchre’s Church, and attempted to rob a lady’s purse. But he was seen by Constable William Payne, and again taken before the magistrate. He was found guilty and probably would have been hanged had he not pleaded for mercy before the judge. The account of Barrington’s life in The Criminal Recorder (1804-09) records this purported speech, in which he blames his criminality on his poverty. Although given the many fictional confessions at the time, there is no way of knowing if Barrington ever actually said these words.

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Penny Dreadful serialisation of Barrington’s Life (1863). Author’s Collection.

The magistrate took his lengthy speech into consideration, and sentenced him to seven years’ transportation to Botany Bay (see my other post on transportee Charles Kinnaister). While there, he conducted himself in an admirable manner, but in the latter part of his life suffered from various mental health problems, and he died in 1804.

Barrington went on to enjoy a limited literary afterlife as the hero of a long-running serial in the penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar. There are various stories of him robbing corrupt officials and decadent aristocrats. As all true outlaws should, he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. He is named in these serials as ‘The Prince of the Pickpockets’.

Like all eighteenth-century criminals who enjoyed a brief resurgence in Victorian literature, however, he soon fades from cultural memory. It seems that no historical thief can compete with Robin Hood.


References

[i] Information for this article taken from the following books: The Criminal Recorder; or, Biographical Sketches of Notorious Public Characters 4 Vols. (London: T. Hurst & D. Symonds, 1804-09), 1: 38-46; Camden Pelham, Esq. The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar (London: T. Miles, 1887), pp. 363-369.