Reading Robin Hood in World War Two (1939–45): Data from Mass Observation

Before the twentieth century, Robin Hood was a literary figure: he is the main protagonist in a number of important literary works such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1450); Anthony Munday’s The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597–98); Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Many fine scholarly studies have been conducted which have studied the production and dissemination of these texts.[i] In the twentieth century, the principal means through which the outlaw’s story was disseminated became films and, as domestic television ownership increased, serialised shows. Added to this we can, in the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries, add videogames.[ii] Thus, in the twentieth century, Robin Hood became a visual rather than a literary hero.

While the late-Victorian period witnessed a number of new Robin Hood children’s books being written and published, there were noticeably fewer in the twentieth century, perhaps as a result of the emergence of film technology. Robin Hood scholarship that focuses on twentieth-century sources likewise tends to privilege cinematic portrayals of the outlaw rather than the literature which appeared. Yet people were still reading Robin Hood, as we know from Mass Observation records.

Britain by Mass Observation
First edition of Madge’s Mass Observation Book.

Mass Observation was a project started by the philanthropists and filmmakers, including Humphrey Jennings, Tom Harrisson, and Charles Madge, in 1937. Their aim was a simple one: to create a record of everyday life in Britain by having volunteers write about what they had done on a given day and submit it to the archive.[iii] The first major project was to chronicle people’s thoughts about the abdication of Edward VIII and the coronation of George VI in 1938. Mass Observation continued throughout the Second World War (1939–45) and was occasionally used by the wartime government as a means of collection information on public morale.

Sarah Hawks Sterling’s Robin Hood and His Merry Men (1928) was one of the most popular books requested by children at Fulham Library.[iv] This was surprising for me as a researcher because I assumed that, when Robin Hood books were read by children in the twentieth century, it was generally the American Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). Indeed, when Penguin Books decided to publish a Robin Hood story as part of their Classics range, it was Pyle’s story that they chose for the collection, rather than any English author.

In Mass Observation records, we also see the continuing popularity of Scott’s Ivanhoe amongst children in London, in particular the Penguin Books 6d. edition.[v] The same record also records that nineteenth-century school editions of Ivanhoe remain in circulation and are popular among youths.

We see another unnamed child opting for Sterling’s book in 1942. In Marylebone, a Mass Observation worker saw a child carrying four books on their way home: Sterling’s Robin Hood, and some anonymous works The War of the Wireless, Shadow of the Swastika, and The First Quarter. More importantly, the child also gives the reasons why they have chosen these books: because they liked adventure books; because the books had been recommended by a friend; and they were similar to other books that they had read. They even told the interviewer that it generally takes them half a week to read through a full book.[vi]

Mass Observation did not focus merely upon children, however, for the investigators also interviewed adults. What is interesting are the Variety shows which were held on evenings. On 14 November 1942, a show was held in Bournemouth to raise money for civilians in USSR (the Soviet Union was part of the Allied Forces at this point). The theme of the show was “Merrie England”, Three Robin Hood songs were sung at this event. None of them were of the traditional ballad type, however, and the finale was a song that I have not yet identified, entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood.[vii] There is a Scottish ballad entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John, as recorded in J. M. Gutch’s ballad anthology A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode (1847),[viii] but it is a minor ballad and certainly not worthy a spectacular finale, so it may have been a completely new song composed for the event.

What is conspicuous by its absence is any mention of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), starring Errol Flynn. Such a big set-piece movie, released at the time Mass Observation was initiated, I assumed would have featured in some of the records, but there are none that I have found thus far. Perhaps this should prompt future Robin Hood scholars to reassess the reach and reception of Flynn’s ground-breaking movie, and perhaps it indicates that the ‘prose’ Robin Hood persisted in popularity much longer than previously thought.


[i] J. C. Holt, Robin Hood (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982); Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994); R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw, 3rd edn (Stroud: Sutton, 1997); Thomas Ohglren, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560 : Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del: University of Delaware Press, 2007).

[ii] See Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, pp. 150-210. On videogames see Thomas Rowland, ‘“And Now Begins Our Game”: Revitalizing the Ludic Robin Hood’, in Robin Hood in Outlawed Spaces: Media, Performance, and Other New Directions, ed. by Lesley Coote and Valerie Blythe Johnson (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), pp. 175-188.

[iii] See David Hall, Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the Project that Launched Mass Observation (London: W & N, 2015).

[iv] Mass Observation, Topic Collection-59_1413, p. 2.

[v] Mass Observation, File Report-1332_127, p. 116.

[vi] Mass Observation, Marylebone, Library QQM15C, R.C.C. 8. 4. 42, Topic Collection-20_2595.

[vii] Mass Observation, Bourneville Works Musical Society, Topic Collection-16_3753.

[viii] Anon., ‘The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John’, in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, ed. by J. M. Gutch, 2 vols (London: Longman, 1847), 2: 389-91.

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Black Arrow” (1888)

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) is perhaps most famous nowadays for his brilliant novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). This post, however, is about a now little-known novel that he authored entitled The Black Arrow, which was originally serialised in Young Folks; A Boys’ and Girls’ Paper of Instructive and Entertaining Literature over four months in 1883, and then published as a single volume five years later in 1888. It is a story about medieval outlaws during the War of the Roses (1455-1487). The novel appears to be a fusion of William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834),[i] and the numerous Robin Hood children’s novels that were being published in the late Victorian period.[ii]

1

Stevenson was probably inspired to set his outlaw novel during the Hundred Years’ War as a result of having Jules Michelet’s Histoire de France (1844). This history situates Robin and his merry men, not in the time of Richard I, a practice which had been popularised by Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1819), but, as Stevenson does in his novel, between 1455 and 1487. In speaking of Warwick the Kingmaker (a prominent figure in the wars), Michelet writes that he was

The King of the enemies of property, of the plunderers of the borders, and corsairs of the Strait.[iii]

He then goes on to speak about how Robin Hood was one of Warwick’s men:

What is Robin Hood? The outlaw. Robin Hood is naturally the enemy of the man of the law, the adversary of the Sheriff. In the long series of ballads of which he is the hero, we find him first inhabiting the green woods of Lincoln. He is induced to quit them by the French Wars, so he turns his back on the Sheriff and the King’s deer, seeks the sea and crosses it […] All Robin Hood’s companions, all who were under ban of the law, were safe whilst Warwick (either personally or through his brother) was judge of the marches of Calais and Scotland.[iv]

4

Notwithstanding Michelet’s highly suspect scholarship, Stevenson must have been convinced that the time of the wars between Lancaster and York was the perfect period in which to set an outlaw novel. He singles out this passage in his own personal copy of the book.[v] While some of the illustrations by N. C. Wyeth (who worked under Robin Hood author, Howard Pyle, and provided the illustrations to Paul Creswick’s Robin Hood and his Adventures in 1917) in the 1916 edition are clearly supposed to evoke ideas of Robin Hood, The Black Arrow, of course, is not a Robin Hood novel; I suspect (but cannot prove) that the reason Stevenson did not utilise the famous outlaw in his novel is because of the fact that, by the late-Victorian period, the idea that the outlaw flourished during the 1190s has almost become a ‘fact’ in historical writing.

The prologue of the novel is quite sinister, opening with the death by an arrow which is fired out of the forest and directed at a seemingly innocent, harmless and friendly old man named Appleyard in the village churchyard:

An arrow sang in the air, like a huge hornet; it struck old Appleyard between the shoulder blades, and pierced him clean through, and he fell forward on his face among the cabbages.[vi]

The novel evokes the Gothic: family secrets are exposed, past crimes come to light, and as in Ainsworth’s Rookwood, which featured Dick Turpin (1705-1739) it is an outlaw/brigand who is instrumental in exposing these. Immediately after Appleyard’s death, another arrow is fired from afar and lands among the group assembled at the Church. Attached to the arrow is a letter:

I had four blak arrows under my belt,

Four for the greefs that I have felt,

Four for the number of ill menne,

That have opressid me now and then.

One is gone, one is wele sped,

Old Apulyard is ded.

One is for maister Bennet Hatch,

That burned Grimstone, walls and Thatch.

One for Sir Oliver Oates,

That cut Harry Shelton’s throat.

Sir Daniel, ye shall have the fourt,

We shall think it fair sport.

Ye shull each have your own part,

A blak arrow in each blak heart.

Get ye to your knees for to pray:

Ye are ded theeves, by yea and nay!

“John Amend-All. Of the Green Wood. And his Jolly Fellowship.”[vii]

In contrast to Robin Hood and the other outlaw stories that were circulating at this period, which often present a ‘merrie England’ view of the past, it is clear that this is a story of revenge. Among those assembled in the churchyard is Dick Shelton, who is perplexed at the note because it appears to imply that those closest to him, including Sir Daniel, whose ward he is, are responsible for his father’s murder. Upon finding out that his guardian, Sir Daniel, had his father murdered, young Dick teams up with the outlaws to get revenge on the murderous noblemen.

3

While the novel appeared in a children’s magazine and is viewed by academics as a children’s book (and has even been portrayed by the BBC as a kids’ television show), the only “childlike” thing about it is the fact that it features an adolescent protagonist. The novel’s fairly detailed plot recalls earlier highwaymen novels. Finally, while it is not part of the Robin Hood canon of stories, it does deserve a place, if not within, then alongside the study of other Robin Hood texts.


References

[i] R. L. Stevenson, ‘To Edmund Gosse, 9 November 1881’ in The Selected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson ed. by Ernest Mehew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), pp.197-98; it is known that Stevenson admired Ainsworth (1805-1882), for in a letter to a friend named Edmund Gosse he urged him, while visiting London, to ‘go and see Harrison Ainsworth, and if you do, give him my homage’.

[ii] Examples of these late-Victorian and Edwardian Robin Hood children’s books are numerous, of which a few are named here: Charles Herbert, Robin Hood (London: John F. Shaw [n.d.]); Edward Gilliat, In Lincoln Green: A Story of Robin Hood (London: Seeley & Co. 1897); Stephen Percy, Tales of Robin Hood (London, 1840); Henry Gilbert, Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood (London: T. C. & A. C. Jack, 1912).

[iii] Jules Michelet, The History of France Trans. G. H. Smith 2 Vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1882), 2: 319.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] See the annotated database of Stevenson’s library books at the following website: ‘What Stevenson Read – His Personal Library’ Robert Louis Stevenson Website [Internet <http://robert-louis-stevenson.org/169-robert-louis-stvensons-library/> Accessed 3 February 2017].

[vi] Robert Louis Stevenson, The Black Arrow (London: Cassell, 1888; repr. London: Cassell, 1916), p.9.

[vii] Stevenson, The Black Arrow, p.17.

‘Robin Hood Should Bring Us John Ball’: The Outlaw in William Morris’ “A Dream of John Ball” (1886)

I am currently working on two projects: my PhD thesis examining post-medieval representations of Robin Hood, and my forthcoming book examining the post-medieval cultural history of Wat Tyler, the leader of the so-called Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The two projects are admittedly similar – they both deal with primitive medieval rebels. Yet there is no great degree of overlap between the two figures because both men lived ages apart: Robin Hood (supposedly) flourished in the 1190s, while Wat Tyler died in 1381 at the hands of the treacherous William Walworth. But I finally found one text in which I could, albeit briefly, see the stories of Robin Hood and Wat Tyler united: William Morris’ A Dream of John Ball (1886).

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William Morris (1834-1896) [Credit – Wikimedia Commons]

According to his entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Morris (1834-1896) was ‘a designer, author, and visionary socialist’.[i] From an early age he loved reading tales of medieval times, devouring the works of earlier nineteenth-century writers such as Walter Scott (1771-1832). When he grew up he was involved with the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of painters who were heavily influenced by the medieval period. By the late 1870s and 1880s, Morris was increasingly attracted to the cause of social justice: in 1883 he joined the Democratic Federation (soon to be renamed as The Social Democratic Federation), and began reading Karl Marx’s Das Capital (1867). A number of socialist writings followed. Still retaining his love of the medieval period which had developed in his youth, Morris looked to the medieval period to find prototypical socialist ideas.

1john-ball
Detail from the Kelmscott Edition of A Dream of John Ball (1892) (c) Maryland University

Thus it is with A Dream of John Ball. It was originally serialised in a magazine called The Commonweal, and depicts a time traveller travelling back to the fourteenth century and meeting John Ball. Ball, or Balle, was a radical priest who lived during the fourteenth century and is famous for having the following phrase attributed to him:

Whan Adam dalf, and Eve span, Wo was thanne a gentilman?[ii]

(When Adam delved, and Eve span, who then was the Gentleman?)

That was quite a powerful statement for the medieval period, in which it was taken as a given that the lords were superior to commoners.

Before the time traveller goes to hear Ball speak, however, he is conducted by one of the villagers to a tavern, and tells the men assembled there a story. After he is finished, attention turns to another villager whose friends request to

Hearken [to] a stave of Robin Hood; maybe that shall hasten the coming of one I wot of.[iii]

To the villagers, Robin Hood prefigures John Ball. As a lifelong medievalist, Morris will evidently have been acquainted with the printed collections of Robin Hood ballads such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), as well as J. M. Gutch’s A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode (1847), and perhaps the oft-reprinted editions of Robin Hood’s Garland that flourished throughout the nineteenth century.

commonweal
Morris’ A Dream of John Ball was originally serialised in The Commonweal: The Official Journal of the Socialist League (c) William Morris Archive

I think it is the spirit of Joseph Ritson’s radical and republican interpretation that Morris is trying to resurrect here. The song of Robin Hood that the villager sings to the time traveller is a described in the following manner:

My heart rose high as I heard him, for it was concerning the struggle against tyranny for the freedom of life, how that the wildwood and the heath, despite of wind and weather, were better for a free man than the court and the cheaping-town.[iv]

The statement that Robin’s career as an outlaw is a ‘struggle against tyranny’ is reminiscent of Ritson’s sentiments in Robin Hood:

Robin Hood: a man who, in a barbarous age and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence, which has endeared him to the common people, whose cause he maintained, (for all opposition to tyranny is the cause of the people,) and, in spite of the malicious endeavours of pitiful monks, by whom history was consecrated to the crimes and follies of titled ruffians and sainted idiots, to suppress all record of his patriotic exertions and virtuous acts, will render his name immortal.[v]

Morris was less bombastic than the vehement republican Ritson, but the idea of freedom against tyranny is strong in his depiction of a Robin Hood ballad performance.

After the ballad of Robin Hood has finished, all of the men in the tavern congregate in the centre of the village. John Ball has been rescued and is due to give a sermon on the steps of the Church. The time traveller’s companion, Will, turns to him and says:

Was it not sooth that I said, brother, that Robin Hood should bring us John Ball?[vi]

Robin Hood has prepared the way, both literally (in that the man was singing a song of Robin Hood before he arrived), and figuratively: Robin was one of the first steps in the fight to freedom. After him comes John Ball, preaching egalitarianism and telling people that they need no master. But as the time traveller will later reveal to Ball in conversation, the work is not yet done: powerful Victorian industrialists will rise to take the place of the cruel medieval nobles.

While Robin had been appropriated by radicals on several occasions, he has always been an awkward figure for socialists. One might be tempted to argue that the famous notion of him stealing from the rich to give to the poor is an example of socialist redistribution of wealth and resources, but this is far from the case because Robin has never had any ideology underpinning his actions. Still, Morris’ very brief appropriation of Robin is the heir of Robert Southey, Ritson, Thomas Miller, Pierce Egan, and the anonymous Little John and Will Scarlet (1865), but it also anticipates Geoffrey Trease’s left-wing portrayal of the Robin Hood legend in Bows Against the Barons (1934).


REFERENCES

[i] Fiona MacCarthy, ‘Morris, William (1834–1896)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. 2009) [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19322 Accessed 4 Dec 2016]. There are a number of biographical and critical works onn Morris available: Fiona McCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time (London: Faber, 2015); Charles Harvey & John Press, William Morris: Design and Enterprise in Victorian Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991); Norman Kelvin, ed. William Morris on Art and Socialism (New York: Dover, 1999).

[ii] ‘John Ball’s Sermon Theme (Walsingham, Historia Anglicana)’ in Medieval English Political Writings ed. by James M. Dean (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996), p.140.

[iii] William Morris, A Dream of John Ball (London: Kelmscott, 1892; repr. London: W. Jonson [n.d.]), p.15.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Joseph Ritson, ed. Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1: xi-xii.

[vi] Morris, A Dream of John Ball, p.17.

George Emmett’s “Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood” (1868-69)

[All images taken from books in my personal collection – feel free to use]


Further to my recent postings on Robin Hood in Victorian penny dreadfuls, this post sheds light upon another Robin Hood serial written by George Emmett entitled Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood which was serialised between 1868 and 1869. The Emmett brothers owned a busy but financially insecure publishing business. Constantly in financial difficulty, Emmett perhaps mistook his true vocation for none of his novels sold well enough. Emmett’s tale is a very defective historical romance which, had it been undertaken by a more talented writer, might have passed for a good novel.[1]

robin-titel
Title Page to Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (1873)

Following Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), the novel is framed as an antiquary’s research into the old ballads of Robin Hood. But unlike the antiquarian research of Joseph Ritson (1752-1803) or Thomas Percy (1729-1811), the study of old ballads that Emmett undertakes (or says that he has done, at least) has a tint of nationalism to it. He says that the old Robin Hood ballads were

Rude in composition […but] suited our sturdy Saxon ancestors […] expressing all that was manly and brave […] appealed to the hearts of the freeborn youth of England, and taught them to aid the oppressed.[2]

Although the idea of Social Darwinism had yet to emerge, one can detect the first seeds of the sense that Robin, a Saxon, is racially superior to the Normans. And Robin’s Saxon heritage is constantly played up in the novel. In one of many instances, Emmett writes that Robin was

The indomitable leader of the Saxon archers.[3]

robin-1
Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merry Sherwood (London: Hogarth, 1870)

While Ritson, Pierce Egan the Younger, Thomas Miller, and the anonymous author of Little John and Will Scarlet (1865) had cast Robin as a radical and anti-establishment figure in their works, it is in Emmett’s work that Robin truly becomes the loyal servant of the King and nation in Victorian literature.

The novel begins promisingly by setting the story of Robin Hood, not during the times of King Richard and Prince John, but during the rebellion of Simon de Montfort, or ‘The Second Barons War’ (1264-67). This had been done before in G. P. R. James’ novel Forest Days (1843). But Emmett was not as talented as James and lacks the talent for weaving together a complicated tale of exciting battles and political intrigue. In fact, both in its text and images, the novel is barely historicised. Robin is always dressed more as a seventeenth-century highwayman than a medieval outlaw.

As is usual in the later Victorian penny dreadfuls, Robin is the Earl of Huntingdon. In other places, Emmett also calls Robin a yeoman, which is quite puzzling.[4] There is unlikely to be a ‘deep’ explanation for this inconsistency of the account of Robin’s birth, in all likelihood it was probably the case that, in a novel which was written on a weekly basis, Emmett simply forgot that he had made Robin an Earl. But he is not the type of outlaw that a person would want to meet. By that, I do not mean that he is a cruel and murderous outlaw as he is in eighteenth-century criminal biography. Rather it is to say that he treats his fellow outlaws, especially Little John, with a harshness that borders upon contempt. In all fairness, Little John is portrayed as an annoying fellow, and somewhat dim and constantly utters the annoying phrase ‘Body o’me’ when he’s astounded by something. Thus Little John, the sturdy giant of earlier tales is degraded in Emmett’s novel into a buffoon.

Furthermore, the Forest Society of Sherwood lacks the free-spirited and democratic ideals of Egan’s novel and Ritson’s ballad anthology. There is the sense that Robin, the Earl, is very much the undisputed leader of the outlaw band. And it is very hierarchical. Robin calls Will Scarlet his lieutenant’.[5] In addition, Robin is repeatedly called ‘King of the Outlaws’, and Robin draws his men up in military array.[6]

robin-2
Robin Hood and the Wood Demon from Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (London: Hogarth, 1873)

The one interesting insertion into the narrative is that of the Forest Demon. When Robin and his men are outlawed for joining Simon De Montfort in his rebellion, they make their home in Sherwood Forest. It is here that Robin meets the strange woodland creature. Forest spirits would make their way into further Robin Hood adaptations such as Paul Creswick’s Robin Hood and his Adventures (1917) and in the television series Robin of Sherwood (1984-86). The association between Robin Hood and woodland spirits comes from a now-discredited theory from 1830s (which was never taken seriously at the time anyway) that supposed Robin to be the manifestation of the Teutonic Spirit Hodekin, and which subsequently made it into The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography when Sir Sidney Lee was editing it during the nineteenth century.

What is clear from Emmett’s tale is that the quality of Robin Hood novels has begun to decline by the 1870s. Further evidence of the poor quality is The Prince of Archers (1883) which appeared in The Boys of England. They are very much for a juvenile audience and cease to be targeted in any way towards adults. Still, just like the late-Victorian children’s books, they were undoubtedly popular with the young lads who read them avidly.


References

[1] Robert Kirkpatrick, Pennies, Profits and Poverty: A Biographical Directory of Wealth and Want in Bohemian Fleet Street (London: CreateSpace, 2016), pp.417-422.
[2] George Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (London: Hogarth House [n.d.]), p.2.
[3] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.19.
[4] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.2.
[5] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.24.
[6] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.25.

Pernicious Trash? “The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood”(1883)

There is now before us such a veritable mountain of pernicious trash, mostly in paper covers, and “Price One Penny”; so-called novelettes, tales, stories of adventure, mystery and crime; pictures of school life hideously unlike reality; exploits of robbers, cut-throats, prostitutes, and rogues, that, but for its actual presence, it would seem incredible.[1]

The citation above denouncing penny dreadfuls as pernicious trash brilliantly encapsulates mid-to-late Victorian moralists’ views of popular reading matter. As previous posts on this website have shown, Robin Hood stories formed a staple of the penny dreadful publishing industry. Much like graphic novels today, penny dreadfuls were popular with both younger and more mature readers. Criminals such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) and Dick Turpin (1705-1739) usually featured as their heroes. Sometimes they were issued as standalone periodicals, but more often than not a few chapters per week were featured in magazines such as The Boys of England. It was in The Boys of England that a long-running serial entitled The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood first appeared in 1883.

boys-england-1
Illustration from The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood (1883)

As the title suggests it is the story of Robin’s youth. But the influence of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) can be seen from the start. Robin and his father live on the Huntingdon estate, but the political rival of the Lord of Huntingdon is the Lord of Torilstone who lives not far from the Huntingdons.[2] Readers familiar with Scott’s work will immediately recognise the not-so-subtle reference to Torquilstone in Ivanhoe. One of the key villains is Sir Front de Boeuf.[3] There is also the usual Anglo-Saxon versus Norman theme that is usual in Victorian Robin Hood narratives.

The actual story is relatively unremarkable and lacks the democratic political sentiments found in Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838-40) and the anonymous Little John and Will Scarlet (1865). After Robin’s estates are confiscated by Prince John, Robin and Little John are forced to seek shelter in Sherwood Forest. They come across some outlaws and, upon learning that he is of noble birth they ask him to become their leader. Instead of being elected as leader of the outlaws in Egan’s novel, Robin is

Appointed King of Sherwood.[4]

Robin does steal from the rich and give to the poor, but this is done by the outlaws more out of a sense of Christian charity, rather than a desire to improve the lot of the commoners of England through political activism, as he does in Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or, the Days of King John (1838).

boys-england-2
Illustration from The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood (1883)

But before we assume that this story was considered as respectable reading for youths, it should be noted that the narrative is filled with graphic descriptions and illustrations of violence. Here is an example of the cruelty of one of the Norman Barons to their own  soldiers:

“Base Slave!” thundered the Baron; and then with all the force of his muscular arm, he brought down the heavy drinking cup upon the skull of the soldier who stood uncovered before him. The wretched man fell to the ground and lay senseless, bleeding from a terrible scalp wound; the tankard was crushed and bent out of shape by the force of the blow.[5]

There is also an attempted rape upon the sweetheart of Allen-a-Dale.[6] The outrages of the Normans are met with an equally violent response by the outlaws. Robin and his men do not hesitate to resort to violence. This is the description of Robin shooting one of Baron Torilstone’s retainers through the eye:

The missile flew true to its mark, its steel point entering the man’s eye, pierced his brain, and he fell headlong to the ground.[7]

While the Victorians in general loved violent entertainment,[8] it was the violence contained in The Boys of England that led to it being widely condemned in the press as an example of the pernicious reading that was used as a scapegoat for juvenile crime.[9]

victorian-children-in-trouble-with-the-law-source-1
One of the many Victorian Juvenile Criminals who passed through the Courts. This one was named Joseph Lewis, and was indicted for stealing 28lb of iron in 1873. Sentenced to 12 months hard labour. (c) National Archives 5348 (PCOM 2/291)

Individual stories from The Boys of England were rarely picked up on, but there were many instances in court when the magazine appeared in the dock. For example, in 1872 thirteen-year-old Samuel Hoy was indicted for poisoning his stepmother with arsenic. At his trial it was said that amongst his possessions were copies of The Boys of England.[10] And the press usually made sure to point out whether a particular juvenile offender had on his person at the time of his arrest a copy of a penny dreadful. When thirteen-year-old Alfred Saunders was arrested for stealing £7 from his father, The Times reported that:

His pockets were crammed with copies of The Pirates League, or The Seagull, the Young Briton, Sons of Britannia and The Boys of England.[11]

Reading The Boys of England, along with other penny dreadful tales, made youths delinquent because it corrupted their morals, according to moralists in the Victorian press. For example, a headmaster in 1874 wrote that:

The hero in these periodicals, read openly in the streets, devoured, I should say, by the thousands of errand and work boys, is he who defies his governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters, and is the leader of the most outrageous acts.[12]

It is doubtful whether those who complained about penny dreadfuls ever actually took the time to read them, The genre as a whole was often condemned in blanket statements such as those seen above, while picking on one or two titles in particular.

It is not the intention here to discuss whether these magazines actually drove youths to crime or not. The supposed links between violent entertainment and criminal acts have raged since Victorian times. But I think the study of penny dreadfuls highlights some of the problems associated with Robin Hood scholars’ ideas of ‘gentrification’. A gentrified Robin Hood text is any text in which Robin is the Earl of Huntingdon. Scholars tend to assume, as in the case of Anthony Munday’s sixteenth-century plays, that if Robin is a lord then he is also a highly moral character. Yet surely this idea of gentrification is complicated if the vehicle in which these stories appeared was widely condemned in the press? Contemporaries did not view these tales as gentrified, and denounced them as ‘pernicious trash’. In light of this, are such tales really gentrified?


References

[1] Anon cited in Juvenile Literature and British Society: The Age of Adolescence, 1850-1950 ed. by Charles Ferrall & Anna Jackson (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 12.
[2] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 9 March 1883, p.25.
[3] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 13 April 1883, p.105.
[4] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 11 May 1883, p.171.
[5] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 20 April 1883, p.122.
[6] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 8 June 1883, p.233.
[7] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 23 March 1883, p.57.
[8] Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).
[9] John Springhall, ‘Pernicious Reading? The Penny Dreadful as Scapegoat for Late-Victorian Juvenile Crime’ Victorian Periodicals Review 27: 4 (1994), pp.326-349.
[10] Robert J. Kirkpatrick, Children’s Books History Society, Occasional Paper XI: Wild Boys in the Dock – Victorian Juvenile Literature and Juvenile Crime (London: Children’s Books History Society, 2013), p.17.
[11] Kirkpatrick, Wild Boys in the Dock, p.9.
[12] Kirkpatrick, Wild Boys in the Dock, p.25.

Radical Robin Hood: “Little John and Will Scarlet” (1865)

Introduction

With the exception of Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838-40), Robin Hood penny dreadfuls have generated very little critical attention. Usually they are not even read but merely cited. I have shown in a previous post, and in an essay for Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies (2016), (1) how Egan’s text should be read as a radical text. That particular essay has been adapted into an article which has recently been accepted by the journal English. But here I would like to draw attention to a less prominent, though no less radical Robin Hood story entitled Little John and Will Scarlet (1865). The novel was not merely an insignificant piece of trashy literature, but rather a thought-provoking story that was intended as a commentary upon nineteenth-century British society. In this post I shall show how the novel made direct references to contemporary debates regarding the extension of the vote to working-class men, and similarly highlight how the anonymous author employs radical discourse in the novel.

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Cover of the First Two Issues of Little John and Will Scarlet (1865)

Radicalism in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

By the mid-Victorian period the great radical movements of the early nineteenth century had all but disappeared. Chartism had effectively failed in 1848, and while a few attempts were made to revive the movement after this date, it is clear that many previous radicals lent their support to reform movements which advocated a series of more gradual reforms in British politics:

The campaign for ‘the Charter and something more’ ended with the sacrifice of the [Chartists’ demands and] abandoned in favour of ‘respectable’ and rational gradualism, moderation, and expediency.(2)

Yet demands for working-class suffrage did not disappear after the failure of Chartism. Two factors contributed to the emergence of a national debate about the extension of the vote to working-class males. Firstly, the Prime Minister Lord Palmerston died in 1865. Palmerston had previously blocked any attempt at political reform. Secondly, the American Civil War made some of the elites in this country fearful that Britain would witness the resurgence of a popular radical movement.(3) Debate about the subject of working-class votes was a hot topic in the press during the mid-1860s, and it is in such a political landscape that Little John and Will Scarlet began its publication.

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Little John and Will Scarlet (1865)

Old Corruption

“Old Corruption” was a term used by radicals during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to draw attention to corruption endemic in the British political system. At its most basic, it highlighted how the propertied elites abused the law to oppress the rights and trample upon the sovereignty of the people. Yet it had practically disappeared from political discourse by the 1860s, as W. D. Rubinstein argues.(4)

Yet Little John and Will Scarlet is unusual in that it still uses the discourse of Old Corruption in its description of both twelfth- and, indirectly, nineteenth-century British society. The aristocracy are:

Legalised banditti.(5)

England in the medieval period is ‘falsely called merrie’ according to the author for ‘miserable and wretched was man’s condition’.(6) This is because the people were ruled by a corrupt aristocracy:

The aristocracy was uniformly composed of marauders, tyrants, and sycophants – the usual characteristics of aristocrats – whose occupation was pillage, murder, and the ravishment of maidens.(7)

Moreover, these members of the aristocratic classes, or the legalised banditti use every device of cruelty and wickedness to oppress the good people of England. The result is that

Under these circumstances the people of England suffered deeply for the present, and had yet more dreadful cause for fear for the future. They always in the end bore the burden, and have from time immemorial to the present day.(8)

Both the twelfth- and the nineteenth-century aristocracy are to blame for the dire poverty that the common people of England face.

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Little John and Will Scarlet (1865)

The Solution

It was not enough simply to whinge about the present, however, for if one wishes to effect radical change then one must also present a vision of a better society. For society to change for the better, then society must become democratic. This is why Sherwood Forest’s outlaw society is presented as one which elects its leaders: Robin must be elected by his fellow men.(9) The result of this democratic and egalitarian arrangement is that society becomes harmonious and a place in which food is plentiful. This is in stark contrast to the undemocratic system perpetuated by the Norman/nineteenth-century aristocracy. But the anonymous author goes further: he hints at a republican solution to the problems facing nineteenth-century society:

Once when Oliver Cromwell released them from despotism, they had an opportunity, but they threw it away.(10)

Clearly, a republic would be a better set up for society than the prevailing system. This is quite significant as it represents the first time that a Robin Hood author since Joseph Ritson (1752-1803) connected republicanism with Robin Hood. Not even Pierce Egan the Younger or Thomas Miller the Chartist desired a republic.

Conclusion

This seemingly innocuous Robin Hood penny dreadful is suffused with radical thought. The public debate surrounding the extension of the vote to working-class males raged on until 1867 when the administration of the Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli passed the Representation of the People Act. Little John and Will Scarlet effectively marks the end of radical portrayals of Robin Hood. Between 1880 and 1914 a number of children’s books appeared which presented a wholly conservative depiction of the famous outlaw. Attempts would be made during the 1930s to reclaim Robin Hood for radicals, notably with G. Trease’s Bows Against the Barons (1934) which is a very communist portrayal of the legend in which the outlaws call each other ‘comrade’.


References

(1)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 ed. by Stephen Basdeo & Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), pp.48-64.
(2) John Belchem, Popular Radicalism in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1996), p.101.
(3) Brent E. Kinser, The American Civil War in the Shaping of British Democracy (Ashgate, 2011).
(4) W. D. Rubinstein, ‘The End of Old Corruption in Britain, 1780-1860’ Past and Present, No. 101 (1983), pp.55-86.
(5) Little John and Will Scarlet (London: H. Vickers [n.d.]), p.182.
(6) Little John and Will Scarlet, p.3.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Little John and Will Scarlet, p.183.
(9) Little John and Will Scarlet, pp.46-47.
(10) Little John and Will Scarlet, p.183.