James MacLean (1724-1750): The Gentleman Highwayman

Ordinary's Account MAclain

James Maclean (1724-1750) was born in Scotland and descended of a good family, before taking to a life on the road. He is arguably one of, if not the last classic highwayman after James Hind (1616-1652), Jack Sheppard (1702-1724), and Dick Turpin (1705-1739). Maclean it seems was given the best opportunities in life, but his father died when he was very young, and consequently the young Maclean found himself with a ton of money and very little instruction in spending it wisely, and soon he ran out of money. The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account records that:

Mr. Maclean’s Patrimony gone before he was much turned of 20, his Mother’s Friends who were the only Relations he had in Ireland, quarrelled with him for his Extravagance, and refused him either Advice, Shelter or Subsistence, his Brother was then in Holland, and he was too far removed, and too little acquainted with any of his Family in Scotland, to acquaint them with his Wants, or receive any Assistance from them.[1]

Previously a moneyed man of leisure, James was now forced to seek employment, and became a servant in the household of a gentleman, Mr. Howard. In the typical moralistic style common to eighteenth-century criminal biographies, it seems his ‘ruling passions’ grew greater within him every day, and eventually he left Mr. Howard’s service without a character reference.

He did find further employment as a butler in another household, but as The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account records:

At last [he] was guilty of some little Pilfering and Embezzlement in his Trust, and was dismissed the Service without a Character, which deprived him of all Hopes of Service in the Country. [2]

Eventually he set out for London, having borrowed a quite substantial sum of money from a friend. In London he acquired some basic lodgings, and soon squandered all of his money on fine dress and good living. In London he married, and together he and his wife set up a grocer’s shop which thrived for a time. Unfortunately, his wife died which left him with a decent business and a modest amount of money. He wound up the business and soon squandered the money like he did his last inheritance, however, for:

He was too much addicted to Idleness and Pleasure, to confine himself to the Occupation of a Grocer […] and he had in Folly and Extravagance exhausted all he had left of his late Wife’s Portion.[3]

It was just as he hit rock bottom with regard to his finances that he became acquainted with an apothecary called William Plunkett, who convinced him to take to a career of robbing people on the highway. It was his policy to always be courteous and polite to a person when he was robbing them, as The Ordinary’s Account records:

He reign’d long and successfully, and was never but once afraid of a Discovery; at that Time he went over to Holland till the Storm was blown over, and pretended a friendly Visit to his Brother, to whom he gave some sham Account of the Manner of his Living, and was by him introduced to some very polite Assemblies of Dancing, &c. where it is said some Purses and Gold Watches were missed; and since Maclean’s Commitment, the Suspicion seems to be fixed upon him, though at that Time no such Thing occurred. After he had staid some Time in Holland, he again return’d to his Trade.[4]

And Maclean grew rich, and even became a bit of a heartthrob among the fashionable ladies of London:

With these Collections from the Publick, he lived in Splendor, but to avoid impertinent Questions, often shifted his Lodgings; though he appeared in the greatest Splendor in all publick Places, and kept Company not only with the most noted Ladies of the Town, but some Women of Fortune and Reputation were unguarded enough to admit him into their Company, without any other Recommendation than his appearing at all public Places with great Impudence, and a Variety of rich Cloaths. He had the good Fortune, even to make some Progress in the Affections of a Lady who really deserved a better Fate.[5]

He became known as ‘The Gentleman Highwayman’, and rarely ever actually fired his pistol. The only time he did fire his pistol was when he robbed the author Horace Walpole in Hyde Park. After this event Maclean even wrote a letter to Walpole apologising for the fact that his pistol had misfired.

Eventually, however, the authorities caught up with him, and he found guilty and sentenced to hang at Tyburn on 3 October 1750. The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account records his last few days on earth:

Mr. Maclean attended constantly at Chapel, and shewed a very pious and resigned Deportment, he was assisted, being a Protestant Dissenter, in the the more particular Duty of Religion, by a Gentleman of that Persuasion. In the whole of his Department in Newgate, he shewed a very decent Behaviour, a Resignation to the Will of God, a quick Sense of the Wickedness of his past Life, and fortified by the Merit of out blessed Redeemer, looked upon Death as deprived of its Terror, yet could not divest himself of that Horror natural to a Man at the Thoughts of a last and final Dissolution. In short, he was not arrogant enough to brave Death, nor so much wedded to Life, as to dread it like a Coward.[6]

Throughout his life Maclean was not ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ as such. He is represented in the Accounts simply as a man who fell in with the wrong crowd, and allowed himself to fall into a life of sin and vice. It was a love of good living which got him into trouble. For example, when the scheme of robbery is first put to him by Plunkett, Maclean initially is apprehensive of such a scheme:

This Discourse was soon understood by the unhappy Maclean, who tho’ at first shock’d with the bare Mention of it, yet the Necessity of his Pride and Indolence suggested so strong, that he yielded to the Temptation.[7]

We are told that on his first robbery:

He felt every Symptom of Fear and Cowardice, aggravated by the Stings of Conscience, which Vice could not harden. However, the Success of this first Enterprize, was (on a Grazier’s coming from Smithfield Market, from whom, on Hounslow Heath, they took above sixty Pounds) encourag’d him to stifle the Checks of Conscience, and to persevere in a Way, which though to him it appear’d wicked, yet was found so lucrative.[8]

It is poverty, caused by his own recklessness in youth, which has reduced him to crime, which of course ties into the eighteenth-century conceptualisation of the criminal-as-sinner; everyone was the same – and anyone, at any moment, could, as a consequence of original sin and their inherent human depravity, fall into a life of vice and crime. [9] It is a belief that first appears in print in 1655 (though it stretches farther back than that) in A Funeral Elegie upon George Sonds, Esq, in which Sonds’ life is presented as a catalogue of ever increasing human depravity. His sins begin small in scale, but inevitably these small sins lead to larger ones, until eventually he is executed by the authorities for some criminal act. [10] Crime was therefore a consequence of sin – an addiction almost. Indeed, it was said earlier that Maclean was ‘addicted to idleness’. Small scale sins were almost like ‘gateway’ sins, which led the offender onto harder offences, in much the same way that it is believed today that ‘soft’ drugs lead onto harder drugs. [11] As the author of The London Merchant (1731) exclaimed:

One vice naturally begets another.[12]

This doctrine of the criminal-as-sinner can be found being repeated in various more famous works such as Richard Head’s The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (1665). In Head’s work, the first instance of sin, or cruelty, is when he was around five years of age, for he took one of his father’s turkeys, and:

[Used] what little strength I had, to beat his brains out with my cat-stick; which being done, I deplumed his tayl, sticking those feather’s in a bonnet, as the insulting trophies of my first and latest conquest.[13]

In Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (3 Vols., 1719), someone who we today might consider the greatest and most heroic thieves, Robin Hood, is not even immune from the consequences of sin. Smith records how:

Robin Hood had continued in his licentious course of life for 20 years.[14]

Thus people in the eighteenth century had a very different notion of the causes of crime when compared to our own class-based, sociological explanation we hold today.

Maclean’s case is significant because he was really the last ‘heroic’ highwayman of the eighteenth century. After Maclean, the reputation of highwaymen begins to decline. When the highwayman, Jack Rann (executed in 1774), had his story told in the press shortly before he died, he came across as a pathetic figure; laughable, and almost contemptible. There are several reasons why this happened. Firstly, the literary marketplace was saturated with biographies of highwaymen. There were so many of them featured in the press after 1750 that they scarcely held the public’s interest, much less generate any admiration for them. This decline in popularity was also partly a result of the growth of newspapers. Whereas earlier criminal biographies went into lengthy details of the offender’s life, newspapers only devoted a few lines to crime reports; focusing solely upon the offence committed, this gave the reading public the impression that a lot of crime committed by highwaymen was savage. Prior to 1750 the public had always opposed any form of policing in the country, but in that year the Bow Street Runners – London’s first law enforcement agency – was established, which suggests that the public was becoming aware of the fact that crime was becoming a problem. Thus Maclean really is the ‘watershed’ highwaymen.

Maclean is probably the least well-known of all the classic highwaymen. He never featured in any of the Newgate novels of the 1830s, where Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin enjoyed a resurgence of popularity, and featured in subsequent penny dreadful novels. Maclean was the subject of a long-running narrative in the penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar (1863-65) (See my Conference Paper here) but he only really has come to public notice again through the movie Plunkett and Maclean (1999). The movie is an enjoyable, though heavily fictionalised account, of the two robbers, which I do recommend.


References

[1] Anon. THE ORDINARY of NEWGATE’S ACCOUNT of the Behaviour, Confession, and Dying Words, of the TWELVE MALEFACTORS Who were executed at TYBURN On Wednesday the 3d of OCTOBER, 1750. BEING THE Third EXECUTION in the MAYORALTY OF THE Right Hon’ble John Blachford, Esq ; LORD-MAYOR of the CITY of LONDON. NUMBER VI. for the said YEAR (LONDON: Printed for, and sold by T. PARKER, in Jewin-street, and C. CORBETT, over-against St. Dunstan’s Church, in Fleet-street, the only authorised Printers of the Dying Speeches, 1750), 84.
[2] Anon. THE ORDINARY of NEWGATE’S ACCOUNT, 85.
[3] Anon. THE ORDINARY of NEWGATE’S ACCOUNT, 86.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Anon. THE ORDINARY of NEWGATE’S ACCOUNT, 91.
[7] Anon. THE ORDINARY of NEWGATE’S ACCOUNT, 87.
[8] Anon. THE ORDINARY of NEWGATE’S ACCOUNT, 88.
[9] 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, 2009), p.54.
[10] William Annand, A funeral elegie, upon the death of George Sonds, Esq; &c. Who was killed by his brother, Mr. Freeman Sonds, August the 7th. anno Dom. 1655. By William Annand Junior, of Throwligh. Whereunto is annexed a prayer, compiled by his sorrowfull father Sir George Sonds, and used in his family during the life of the said Freeman (London: John Crowch, 1655), see Faller, Turned to Account, p.94.
[11] Andrea McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007), p.59.
[12] George Lillio, The London Merchant; or, the History of George Barnwell [1731] cited in McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martrys, p.61.
[13] Richard Head, The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon, A Witty Extravagant. Being a Compleat History of the Most Eminent Cheats of Both Sexes (London: Printed for Henry Marsh, at the Princes Arms, Chancery Lane, 1665), p.16.
[14] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Foot-pads, Shoplifts, and Cheats, of Both Sexes. Wherein their most Secret and Barbarous Murders, Unparalleled Robberies, Notorious Thefts, and Unheard-of Cheats are set in a true light and exposed to Public View for the Common Benefit of Mankind Ed. Arthur Heyward (3 Vols. London: J. Morphew, 1719 repr. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1933), 408-412.

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Walter Scott’s Influence Upon 19th-Century Medieval Scholarship

Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795) is one of the most important works in the entire history of the legend. But even more important, arguably, is Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), which is one of the major novels of the nineteenth century. The novel tells the story of how the conquered Anglo-Saxons and their conquerors, the Normans, came together in the 1190s and formed the English nation. One of the major characters in the novel is an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter named Robin of Locksley, or as you may know him, Robin Hood. In the novel Locksley embodies the free and generous spirit of Old England. But that is only fiction; there is nothing in historical scholarship to suggest that Robin Hood was a Saxon freedom fighter, or that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans were in conflict with each other after 1066, much less by the 1190s when Ivanhoe is set. Here I will examine how Scott’s fictional interpretation of the Middle Ages, in particular the notion that Robin Hood was a Saxon yeoman, influenced historical scholarship in the early-to-mid nineteenth century.

Ivanhoe Frontispiece 1830
Frontispiece to Ivanhoe (1830 edition)

In 1819 when Ivanhoe was published, British society was divided. The immediate post-Napoleonic War years had brought economic depression, unemployment, rising crime, and popular political agitation for parliamentary reform. The novel itself was written in the run-up to the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester where the local militia was unleashed on to a crowd of 80,000 peaceful protesters who had gathered together to campaign for political reform, killing 15 people and injuring 700 more. Scott’s purpose in writing Ivanhoe was to create a sense of shared history for his readers. It was a message for people living in the early nineteenth century which read that society did not have to be divided if everyone worked together. This is why Scott begins his novel by showing that society was racially divided:

A circumstance which greatly tended to enhance the tyranny of the nobility, and the sufferings of the inferior classes, arose from the consequences of the Conquest by Duke William of Normandy. Four generations had not sufficed to blend the hostile blood of the Normans and Anglo-Saxons, or to unite, by common language and mutual interests, two hostile races, one of which still felt the elation of triumph, while the other groaned under all the consequences of defeat. The power had been completely placed in the hands of the Norman nobility, by the event of the battle of Hastings, and it had been used, as our histories assure us, with no moderate hand. [1]

The eponymous character, Ivanhoe, symbolises the best of both worlds. He respects his Saxon lineage, but accepts the fact that the best future for the Anglo-Saxons will come about if the acrimony between the Saxons and the Normans is laid aside and they work together. This eventually happens in the novel, as gradually the Norman King, Richard I, works with the outlawed Saxon yeoman, Robin Hood, and the Saxon Franklin, Cedric, to reclaim his lands from the machinations of Richard’s brother, Prince John. In effect, Scott is telling readers that society does not have to be divided; everyone can and should work together; the nation came together in the past and the English can do so again. 

It is fairly undisputed that, in the whole of the later Robin Hood tradition, Walter Scott’s name looms large. When the second edition of Joseph Ritson’s 1795 publication Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads was published in 1820, it was dedicated ‘To His Grace, Walter Francis Montagu Douglas Scott’. [2] The preface to this second edition makes a further reference to Scott, saying that ‘this little volume will prove peculiarly acceptable at the moment, in consequence of the hero, and his merry companions, having been recently portrayed in the most lively colours by the masterly hand of the author of Ivanhoe’. [3] By 1820 the original 1795 edition of Ritson’s work had become ‘exceedingly scarce and expensive’. [4] In effect it is Scott who rejuvenated historical interest in the old ballads of Robin Hood, for Ivanhoe initiated a reprinting of Ritson’s work, which was in reality an obscure little two-volume work for serious antiquaries.

Sir_Henry_Raeburn_-_Portrait_of_Sir_Walter_Scott
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Novels which were published later in the nineteenth century also utilise the Saxon versus Norman theme. All of these novels include an historical note as to where the authors obtained the sources for their stories, thereby trying to assert their credentials as serious novelists, no doubt. The preface to Pierce Egan the Younger’s penny serial Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, published in weekly numbers between 1838 and 1840, with a single volume edition appearing later, states in its preface that:

[Robin Hood] was the last Saxon who made a positive stand against the dominancy of the Normans […] in fact, his predatory attacks upon them were but the national efforts of one who endeavoured to remove the proud foot of a conqueror from the neck of his countrymen […] and must have been a source of constant alarm and harass to the Normans within his three counties, as well as of much uneasiness to the Governments under which he lived. [5]

The French author Alexandre Dumas in his novel The Prince of Thieves (1873), similarly states in his preface that ‘Robin Hood was the last Saxon who tried to seriously resist the Norman rule’. [6]

Not long after Egan was writing, John Mathew Gutch published another collection entitled A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode in 1847. This collection was published as an ‘attempt to throw some new light on the life and actions of this celebrated hero of English serfs, the poor and obscure of the Anglo-Saxon race’. [7] It was not only British historians, however, who believed that Robin was a Saxon hero. Gutch quotes at length from the French historian Augustin Thierry. In Thierry’s History of the Norman Conquest (1825), in a passage which is obviously inspired by Scott (of whom he was a fan), he wrote how:

The forest of Sherwood was at that time [the 1190s] a terror to the Normans; it was the last remnant of the bands of armed Saxons, who, still denying the conquest, voluntarily persisted in living out of the law of the descendants of foreigners […] About that time that this heroic prince [Richard I], the pride of the Norman barons, visited the forest of Sherwood, there dwelt under the shade of that celebrated wood a man who was the hero of the Anglo-Saxon race […] the famous brigand Robin Hood. [8]

Linking Robin Hood with the Saxons even more explicitly, Thierry goes on to state that:

It can hardly be doubted that Robert, or more vulgarly, Robin Hood, was of Saxon birth […] Hood is a Saxon name. [9]

In conclusion, it is best to reiterate the point that by the 1190s, at least, there was no enmity between the Normans and Saxons in Britain. Eighteenth-century historians make no reference to the Saxons in connection with Robin Hood. The Saxons appear nowhere, for instance, in any of the criminal biographies of the early period, and neither are they referenced in Ritson’s afore-mentioned collection of Robin Hood ballads in 1795. It is clear, then, that historians such as Gutch and Thierry have taken Scott’s interpretation of the middle ages and applied it to their own research. This speaks to Scott’s power as a novelist. When people were reading Ivanhoe in 1819, they assumed that they were getting a relatively true-to-life depiction of what life was like during the Middle Ages. The novel is littered with footnotes of various kinds directing the reader, should he like to know more upon a subject, to various manuscripts held within the Bodleian Library, or Cambridge University’s Library. Even the framing narrative which Scott deploys in Ivanhoe, his ‘Dedicatory Epistle’, is written as a quite believable debate between two antiquaries, Sir Lawrence Templeton and Dr. Dryasdust. Thus it is clear that Scott had an enduring influence, not only upon nineteenth-century fiction, but upon historical scholarship in the period also.


References

[1] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance (3 Vols. Edinburgh: Bannatyne, 1819 repr. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1871), 3.
[2] Anon. ‘Dedication’ in Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw Ed. Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795 repr. 1 Vol. London: Longman, 1820), v.
[3] Anon. ‘Preface’ in Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw Ed. Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795 repr. 1 Vol. London: Longman, 1820), vii.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Pierce Egan, Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (London: W. S. Johnson, 1840), i.
[6] Alexandre Dumas, The Prince of Thieves Trans. Alfred Mallinson (Paris: M. Levy, 1873 repr. London: Methuen, 1890), 1.
[7] John Mathew Gutch, ‘Preface’ in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode with other Ancient and Modern Ballads and Songs Relating to this Celebrated Yeoman Ed. John Mathew Gutch (2 Vols. London: Longman, 1847), 1: iii.
[8] Augustin Thierry, ‘History of the Norman Conquest’, cited in Gutch (ed.) A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, 1: 101.
[9] Ibid.

Jack Sheppard (1702-1724)

Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) is one of my favourite thieves, second only, in my opinion, to Robin Hood. He was rather like an eighteenth-century Artful Dodger, a proper cheeky chappie who thumbed his nose at authority, escaping from gaol no less than four times. This post gives a brief overview of his life and legend.

Jack Sheppard was born in Stepney, London in 1702. His father died when he was young, and Sheppard was placed into the care of the Parish Workhouse, where he remained for some time before being apprenticed to a carpenter named Mr. Wood, of Wych Street near Drury Lane. Contemporary accounts such as The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), the authorship of which has been credited to Daniel Defoe, tell us that Sheppard was in his early years a perfect apprentice.

Sheppard’s downfall into criminal ways, however, seems to be traced to the time that he first met a prostitute, named Elizabeth Lyons alias Edgeworth Bess, who he began cohabiting with. Sheppard’s biographer tells us that:

Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!

In a typical, Hogarthian idle apprentice manner, Sheppard began to grow weary of his industrious employment, and begins to quarrel with his master, Mr. Wood. Wood and his wife implored him not to associate any longer with Bess, but he would not listen to them. In fact, he beat Mrs. Wood with a stick for criticising Bess.

In July 1723 Sheppard committed his first robbery, having stolen a yard of fustian from the house of a Mr. Bains, a piece-maker who resided in Whitehouse Yard, London while on a job for Mr. Wood. Consequently, Sheppard and Mr. Wood parted ways, and his biographer tells us that:

He was gone from a good and careful patronage, and lay exposed to, and complied with, the temptations of the most wicked wretches this town could afford, as Joseph Blake alias Blueskin, William Field, Doleing, James Sykes, alias Hell and Fury.

In concert with these thieves, robbery followed robbery. One day he was apprehended in the attempt of picking a man’s pocket, and was committed to Newgate gaol with his companion, Edgeworth Bess. Gaols in the eighteenth century were privatised, and for the right price, the gaoler would allow you to have as many visitors as you wanted (even your own luxury private room, for the right price). Sheppard’s friends furnished him with a few instruments, and in three days’ time Sheppard managed to cut through his iron fetters, and cut off an iron bar from the window, out of which he and Bess escaped.

In a very moralistic passage, Sheppard’s biographer tells us that:

Sheppard, not warned by this admonition, returns like a dog to his vomit.

He returns to his thieving ways by robbing Mr. Carter’s house, a tailor who lived near his old master, Mr. Wood. From Mr. Carter he stole goods to the value of nearly £300, a princely sum in the eighteenth century. He then went on to rob a woollen draper, Mr. Kneebone, of goods that were also the equivalent of £50. He was no simple house-breaker though, for Sheppard also liked to rob people on the highway, as all the best eighteenth-century thieves did.

Jack Sheppard in Newgate. Illustration by G. Cruikshank (1839)
Jack Sheppard in Newgate. Illustration by G. Cruikshank (1839)

Sheppard’s fame, or infamy, grew so great that one of his victims, Mr. Kneebone, applied to the Thief Taker, Jonathan Wild (c.1682-1725) to have Sheppard apprehended and brought to trial. Wild was the chief agent of law enforcement in the country at the time, for there was no professional police force. The victim of a crime would go to Wild and tell him what he had stolen, Wild would then liaise with certain acquaintances of his from the criminal underworld to arrange, in return for a fee, the stolen goods (unbeknownst to most Londoners, however, is that it was usually Wild himself, at the head of a band of criminals, who was probably directing half of the robberies). Accordingly another warrant for Sheppard was drawn up, and was arrested when he broke into the house of William Fields.

After his indictment, Sheppard was committed to the New Prison, and sentenced to death by hanging. But again gaol could not contain Sheppard, and he escaped once again. His escape caused a sensation in the London press, and he became the talk of the town. The thing about Sheppard was that, while he was good at escaping from prison, he was never very good at evading recapture once he had escaped. He immediately went back to robbing people. And he was captured soon again. This time his time in gaol was spent with his feet weighed down with a ball-and-chain, lest he should try to escape again. By this time he was a celebrity; men and women of all ranks came to see him in prison. Even the famous artist, William Hogarth, came to draw him.

Yet inexplicably, despite being manacled on both of his limbs, Sheppard escaped again. The contemporary accounts of Sheppard’s life are not clear just how he managed this, but this last escape caused an even bigger sensation than his previous one. Unfortunately, he was again apprehended. It would have been better for him simply to have left London, but he did not. He was retaken. This last time there would be no escape, and on the 16 November 1724 Sheppard passed in the cart to Tyburn, where public executions were held, and was launched into eternity.

Jack Sheppard faces up to Jonathan Wild. Illustration by G. Cruikshank (1839).
Jack Sheppard faces up to Jonathan Wild. Illustration by G. Cruikshank (1839).

Sheppard’s story was used as the model for the highwayman Captain MacHeath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728). As well as the contemporary accounts of his life allegedly written by Defoe, narratives of Sheppard’s life appear in well-known criminal biographies such as Charles Johnson’s A General and True History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers (1734), and Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735), as well as in the countless editions of The Newgate Calendar which were published during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is also speculated that Sheppard may have been the inspiration for Hogarth’s Idle ‘Prentice in his series of prints entitled Industry and Idleness (1747). There were also plays about his life staged at the St. Bartholomew Fair celebrations, in addition to numerous street ballads and songs detailing his life and exploits.

It was in the Victorian era, however, when Jack’s reputation soared to new heights. William Harrison Ainsworth published his novel Jack Sheppard in 1839. The novel was initially well-received and even outsold early editions of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838), and is by far the best prose account of Sheppard’s story, although it is heavily fictionalised. Ainsworth draws upon Hogarth’s themes of industry and idleness; Sheppard and his childhood friend Thames Darrell are apprenticed to Mr. Wood. Sheppard is the idle apprentice while his friend Darrell is the industrious apprentice. Sheppard falls into a life of criminality; he commences by working for Jonathan Wild, but after a feud between the two, Wild vows to have Sheppard hanged, and eventually succeeds by the end of the novel.

Jack Sheppard's Progress to Tyburn. illustration by G. Cruishank (1839).
Jack Sheppard’s Progress to Tyburn. illustration by G. Cruishank (1839).

The novel soon generated controversy, however, and there was a storm of moral outrage in the press. A reviewer in The Athenaeum called it:

A bad book, and what is worse, one of a class of bad books, got up for a bad people…a history of vulgar and disgusting atrocities.

Alongside the unfavourable reviews in magazines such as The Athenaeum, matters came to head in July 1840. In that year Lord William Russell (1767-1840) was murdered in his sleep by his valet, Benjamin Courvoisier. In one of several public confessions the valet stated that the idea for murdering his master came from having read the novel Jack Sheppard. W. M. Thackeray was disgusted with the genre and wrote his own Newgate novel, Catherine (1840) in order ‘to exhibit the danger and folly of investing [criminals] with heroic and romantic qualities’. The reaction to Ainsworth’s work broke through the romantic quarantine which the popular criminals such as Dick Turpin had hitherto enjoyed in literature. Ainsworth responded to his critics by writing a vigorous defence of the novel in The Times, and concluded that these attacks were nothing more than:

A most virulent and libellous attack upon my romance.

However, the damage had been done. The genre fell out of favour with the respectable reading public. The work really was perceived by them as ‘a bad book…one of a class of bad books’. The reason why there was a big moral panic over the novel, and in particular youth’s idealisation of Sheppard, was because in the novel Sheppard is not a noble robber like Robin Hood, nor is he a gentlemanly highwayman like Dick Turpin. In Ainsworth’s novel his boy thief, rather, acts on his impulses and takes pleasure in his crimes. There was no justification for Sheppard’s crimes in the novel.

Paradoxically, while he is a thief, he is also inherently noble, loyal to his friend Darrell and his mother, Joan. His devotion to his mother leads to his arrest, for he is apprehended at her funeral by Jonathan Wild, the famous thief taker. Sheppard’s moral ambiguity accounts for why the novel was deemed to be truly subversive by middle-class commentators in the press, as Lyn Pykett explains that:

Critics of the novel objected to mixed motives and mixed morality, preferring the security of a moral universe in which the good and bad, the criminal and the law-abiding, were readily identifiable as such.

The novel’s publication also coincided with the emergence of Chartism in 1838 – the year before the publication of the novel, and in the summer of 1839 – the year of Jack Sheppard’s publication – there was particularly violent rhetoric coming from the mouths of Chartist leaders, many of whom advocated strikes and violence against authority. Many young boys often took an active role in the Chartist movement, and contemporary police reports from the 1840s lay a particular emphasis upon the presence of young males at Chartist meetings. Although admittedly many of the boys present at those meetings may simply have been pickpockets who wished to capitalise upon the pickings to be had where a great number of people were present. Be that as it may, the figure of ‘the Artful Chartist Dodger’ was a worrying spectre for the respectable classes of Middle England, combining threats of both criminality and political insurrection.

You have to wonder why, in an age in which several novels featuring thieves and highwaymen were published, such as Rob Roy (1817), Robin Hood (1819), Ivanhoe (1819), Maid Marian (1822), Paul Clifford (1830), Eugene Aram (1832), Rookwood (1834), it was only Jack Sheppard in 1839 that was singled out for attention. And this was not lost on some contemporary reviewers:

Critics, who had always a passion for heroes in fetters before, now found out that housebreakers are disreputable characters. They were in raptures with the old-established brigand still, and the freebooter of foreign extraction; they could hug Robin Hood as fondly as ever, and dwell with unhurt morals on the little peccadilloes of Rob Roy; nay, they had no objection to ride behind Turpin to York any day, and would never feel ashamed of their company; but they shook their heads at Sheppard, because low people began to run after him at the theatres; he was a housebreaker!

Title Page to Jack Sheppard; or, London in the Last Century (1847). A rare penny dreadful.
Title Page to Jack Sheppard; or, London in the Last Century (1847). A rare penny dreadful.

After the furore surrounding Ainsworth’s novel in the 1840s died down, Sheppard’s tale continued to be popular, especially with young readers in the emerging ‘penny dreadful’ genre of literature. For example, there was the anonymously authored penny serial Jack Sheppard; or, London in the Last Century (1847). Despite the serial’s purporting to be an original story ‘arranged from some rare and original documents, in connection with the remarkable history of the above notorious individual, only recently discovered’, it is a virtual abridgment of Ainsworth’s novel. There was also The Eventful Life and Unparalleled Exploits of the Notorious Jack Sheppard, the Housebreaker, The Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard, as well as The Life of Jack Sheppard the Housebreaker, which are all undated but probably published around the 1840s. Other penny serial authors appropriated Sheppard’s name and fame for stories of other boy thieves, such as Charley Wag; or, The New Jack Sheppard (1865). Young male readers loved these tales, as indicated by the interviews with some youths which the social investigator, Henry Mayhew, published in his London Labour and the London Poor (1861):

Fifty of this number [of youths interviewed] said they had read ‘Jack Sheppard’ and the lines of Dick Turpin, Claude du Val, and all the other popular thieves’ novels, as well as the Newgate Calendar and Lives of Robbers and Pirates. Those who could not read themselves, said they’d had ‘Jack Sheppard’ read to them at the lodging houses. Numbers avowed that they had been induced to resort to an abandoned course of life from reading the lives of notorious thieves and novels about highway robbers.

And one youth told Mayhew that:

Of a night…we’d read stories about Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin, and all through that set. They were large thick books, borrowed from the library. They told how they used to break open the houses, and get out of Newgate, and how Dick got away to York. We used to think Jack and them very fine fellows. I wished I could be like Jack (I did then), about the blankets in his escape, and that old house in West-street -it is a ruin still.

Stage plays were held frequently throughout the nineteenth century in many of the ‘penny gaff’ theatres. And it may not be amiss to say that during the nineteenth century Jack Sheppard’s fame equalled that of Robin Hood himself, the original highwayman. And his image was also in advertising, and on cigarette trading cards. In short, he was one of the most famous thieves of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, the memory of Jack Sheppard has faded from public consciousness. He was the subject of a movie called Where’s Jack? (1969), which starred Tommy Steele in the title role. Perhaps one day some movie-maker will resurrect Jack Sheppard back into public memory.


n.b. All illustrations used are scanned from my own copies of first editions of these novels.

Daniel Defoe’s “The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood”

The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood, and his Merry Companions. Written by Capt. Charles Johnson (1800) [attr. Daniel Defoe].
The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood, and his Merry Companions. Written by Capt. Charles Johnson (1800) [attr. Daniel Defoe].

I recently came across an obscure little book entitled The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood and his Merry Companions. Written by Captain Charles Johnson. To Which are added, some of the most favourite ballads from an old book, entitled Robin Hood’s Garland (1800). The archival entry lists the author as Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), which had me puzzled. I knew Captain Charles Johnson was a pseudonym for a writer whose real identity is now lost to us, but I never thought that he and Defoe were one and the same person.

Captain Charles Johnson wrote many of the criminal biographies I have written about on this website numerous times before. His major works are A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), A History of the Most Highwaymen, Street Robbers, Pirates, &c. (1734), and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735). Robin Hood features in his history of the highwaymen, and receives a bad reputation. He is of ‘a licentious and wicked inclination’, and, in true eighteenth-century style, only turns to crime because he followed not his trade (just as Hogarth’s Idle ‘Prentice), and associates himself with several robbers and outlaws. Much of the text is directly plagiarised from an earlier compendium of criminal lives by Captain Alexander Smith entitled A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats, published in three volumes between 1714 and 1719.

But was Johnson really Daniel Defoe writing under a pseudonym? Defoe’s novels do seem to have centred upon criminals; Captain Singleton (1720) is based on the life of the pirate Henry Avery, and Moll Flanders (1722) is the story of a prostitute. Yet it would be difficult to attribute Johnson’s works to Defoe. For one thing, even while Defoe lived, he acknowledged that some of the works which were attributed to him were not actually his:

And this is to have every Libel, every Pamphlet, be it ever so foolish, so malicious, so unmannerly, or so dangerous, be laid at my Door, and be call’d publickly by my Name. It has been in vain for me to struggle with this Injury; It has been in vain for me to protest, to declare solemnly, nay, if I would have sworn that I had no hand in such a Book or Paper, never saw it, never read it, and the like, it was the same thing.
My Name has been hackney’d about the Street by the hawkers, and about the Coffee-Houses by the Politicians, at such a rate, as no Patience could bear. One Man will swear to the Style; another to this or that Expression; another to the Way of Printing; and all so positive, that it is to no purpose to oppose it.

Evidently, the literary attributions suited Defoe, as well as the hawkers, who probably thought they could make more money out of people if the name of a famous author such as Defoe was attached to the piece of low literary hack work which they were selling.

Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731).
Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731).

It was in 1934 that an American scholar J. R. Moore announced that Captain Charles Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe writing under a pseudonym. He had no documentary evidence to make such a claim, and instead pointed to the style and subject matter. His main line of reasoning was that the frequent moralism throughout Johnson’s works is similar to the didacticism in Defoe’s novels. Thus Moore was, as Defoe himself put it ‘swearing to the style, or this or that expression’. Moore went further, and compiled a checklist of over 500 works that had been attributed to Daniel Defoe. It is a checklist that is still quite influential to this day, including works such as The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), The Life of Jonathan Wild (1725), and The True and Genuine Account…of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). These are works which I have used repeatedly in my own research, and in the latest edited edition of them by Richard Holmes entitled Defoe on Sheppard and Wild (2002), the credit for these works is clearly given to Defoe.

It seems, however, that I need to go back to some of my old essays, my undergraduate dissertation, and my MA dissertation, and de-attribute these works from Defoe. During peer review for an article on Robin Hood in criminal biography I recently wrote, it was suggested that I take a look at P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens book Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (1987). On the subject of Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, Furbank and Owens say this:

Moore announced his belief that Defoe had a considerable hand in this work, described on its title page as ‘by Captain Charles Johnson’, at an MLA meeting in 1932; and by 1939, when he published Defoe in the Pillory and Other Studies, he was asserting that the General History was substantially Defoe’s work throughout and that it combined much authentic information with passages of historical fiction and ‘unrestrained romance’. His case was based entirely on internal evidence, and in particular ‘parallels’ with Defoe’s known works.

Furbank and Owens dismiss Moore’s belief that Johnson was in fact Defoe, and point out many differences between Johnson’s and Defoe’s works, such as the fact that the account of the life of the pirate Henry Avery is very different in style and tone to Defoe’s known history of him. Moreover, Johnson in his works displays clear Jacobite sympathies, and staunchly loyal to the Stuart monarchy. In his A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen praises Capt. James Hind ‘the loyal highwayman’, for robbing ‘the infamous usurper Oliver Cromwell’:

About this time the unfortunate Charles I suffered death for his political principles. Captain Hind conceived an inveterate enmity to all that party who had stained their hands with the sovereign’s blood, and gladly embraced every opportunity to wreak his vengeance upon them. In a short time they met with the usurper Oliver Cromwell.

In view of the fact that Defoe was a supporter of the Hanoverian regime and Robert Walpole, it seems further unlikely that Johnson, who manifests Jacobite beliefs throughout all of his works, is the same person as Daniel Defoe. For example, he wrote a vigorous defence of William III entitled The True-Born Englishman (1701), and also carried out intelligence work for the Whigs, writing numerous pamphlets attacking the Tories, who were predominantly Jacobite supporters.

Another work that has been attributed to Defoe: The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725)
Another work that has been attributed to Defoe: The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725)

Who Captain Charles Johnson was nobody knows; perhaps we never will know. One thing is certain, however, he was not Daniel Defoe. Whilst there have only been a couple of famous novelists such as Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) associated with the Robin Hood legend, unfortunately, it seems that we cannot add Defoe to the list.


Further Reading:

P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: The Hambledon Press, 1987).

Dick Turpin (1705-1739)

TrialDick Turpin (1705-1739) is perhaps the most famous highwayman in English history after Robin Hood (fl. 12th-13th centuries). He is remembered today as a heavily romanticised noble, gallant figure, having allegedly rode his horse from London to York in one day upon his trusty horse, Black Bess, the real Dick Turpin, as you would expect, was a wholly different man. This post gives a brief overview of his life and the legend which grew around him.

Dick Turpin was born in East Ham, in Essex, and received quite a good education, learning how to read and write. It was this good education which, as we will see, proved to be his ultimate downfall. At a young age he was apprenticed to a butcher, and having learnt a trade, established his own business after completing his term as an apprentice. It was when he set up his own business that he began to act as a receiver of stolen livestock for a gang of poachers called the Essex Gang. Although the exact details of Turpin’s involvement with the Essex Gang are unclear, it seems he became ever more deeply involved with them, and some historians have implicated him in the robbery of William Mason’s house – a farmer who lived in Essex – during which his daughters were raped.

In time, most of the members of the Essex Gang had been captured and executed, or sent for Transportation. It was after this, in 1735, that he turned to crime. He spent a brief career upon the road with two other highwaymen called Matthew King and Stephen Potter, and with them he committed several robberies, and, it is rumoured, even a murder.

King died, and Potter was later arrested, and so Turpin fled north (but not, as the legend would have you believe, in one day). Arriving in the East Riding of Yorkshire, he posed for a time as a horse trader under the assumed name of John Palmer. However, it is almost as though he could not help himself but engage in criminal activities; despite having a fresh start, he got caught stealing chickens from a farm, was arrested and placed in York Gaol. Whilst in Gaol, he wrote a letter to his brother-in-law in Hempstead asking for assistance. His brother-in-law did not collect the letter, and the letter remained at the post office, and the handwriting on the envelope and the letter was recognised as being none other than that of the wanted highwayman, Dick Turpin.

Dear Brother,
York, Feb. 6, 1739.
I am sorry to acquaint you, that I am now under confinement in York Castle, for horse-stealing. If I could procure an evidence from London to give me a character, that would go a great way towards my being acquitted. I had not been long in this county before my being apprehended, so that it would pass off the readier. For Heaven’s sake dear brother, do not neglect me; you will know what I mean, when I say,
I am yours,
JOHN PALMER.

Turpin was sentenced to death at York Tyburn, but he apparently gave a good show to spectators in his last few moments, bowing to them in the cart as he passed by. When he climbed the scaffold the York Courant reported that: ‘with undaunted courage looked about him, and after speaking a few words to the topsman, he threw himself off the ladder and expired in about five minutes’.

William Harrison Ainsworth's Rookwood (1834).
William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834).

It is only later that legends began to build up around him, and the construction of the legend, and its longevity, is surprising. In his own time, not much was written about him. He had a couple of entries in various editions of The Newgate Calendar, and none of those seem to have portrayed him in a good light. In fact, in the eighteenth century, the real criminal heroes were highwaymen like Claude DuVall, James Hind, Jack Sheppard, and James MacLean.

It was only in the next century when a novelist named William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) that Turpin’s legend really took off. Ainsworth wrote the novel Rookwood (1834). It was in this novel that the conventions of gothic romance and criminal biography converged; Ainsworth’s preface explained that he:

Resolved to attempt a story in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe [who wrote the Gothic romance The Mysteries of Udolpho]…substituting an old English squire, an old English manorial residence, and an old English highwayman, for the Italian marchese, the castle and brigand.

The novel begins with the death of Sir Piers Rookwood who has two sons. The firstborn, Luke, is supposedly illegitimate and has no right to the estate. The other son, and hitherto legitimate, heir is Ranulph Rookwood. It is revealed that Luke is actually legitimate by way of a clandestine first marriage of Sir Piers and a Catholic woman and stands to inherit the Rookwood estate. The novel becomes a battle between the two brothers and their respective families to inherit the estate. Moving the plot forward is a jovial character that goes by the name of Jack Palmer, who is Luke’s friend, and it turns out that this character is the famous highwayman Dick Turpin.

The Real Dick Turpin - Modern Police eFit based on contemporary descriptions [Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/north_yorkshire/8154929.stm]
The Real Dick Turpin – Modern Police eFit based on contemporary descriptions [Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/north_yorkshire/8154929.stm]

In this novel Turpin is a true gentleman; a romantic, courageous, daredevil figure, elegantly clad and handsome, in contrast to the real Turpin, whom, says Gillian Spraggs, was a ‘pock-marked thug’. In fact, one of the reasons why the reading public may have warmed to Turpin in this novel is because throughout the whole novel, we never actually see Turpin robbing anybody at all. Instead the members of the aristocratic Rookwood are the real criminals because they continue their murderous ways until they each fall victim to their own schemes.

Ainsworth’s novel, moreover, was an exciting scene, and Turpin gets all of the best scenes, such as the now infamous ride from London to York in one day upon his loyal horse, Black Bess:

It was then, for the first time, that the thoughts of executing his extraordinary ride to York flashed across him…his pursuers were now within a hundred yards, and shouted him to stand…the whole of the neighbourhood was alarmed by the cries, and the tramp of horses…suddenly three horsemen appear in the road; they hear the uproar and din. “A highwayman! A highwayman” cry the voices: “Stop him! Stop him!” But it is no such easy matter. With a pistol in each hand, and his bridle in his teeth, Turpin passed boldly on. His fierce looks – his furious steed – the impetus with which he pressed forward, bore down all around him.

The ride to York is simply a legend, and was attributed to at least two other highwaymen before it settled upon Turpin; Daniel Defoe in A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1727-1727) attributes the feat to the highwayman William Nevison.

Ainsworth led readers to believe that the mounted highway robber was a special figure. A song which Ainsworth wrote and inserts into the novel entitled Nobody Can Deny celebrates the exploits of historical highwaymen, and ends with Turpin:

Of every rascal of every kind,
The most notorious to my mind,
Was the Cavalier Captain, gay Jemmy Hind
Which Nobody Can Deny
But the pleasantest coxcomb among them all,
For lute, oranto and madrigal,
Was the galliard Frenchman, Claude DuVall
Which Nobody Can Deny…
Nor could any so handily break a lock,
As Sheppard, who stood on Newgate Dock,
And nicknamed the gaolers around him his flock
Which Nobody Can Deny
Nor did the highwayman ever possess,
For ease, for security, danger, distress,
Such a mare as Dick Turpin’s Black Bess! Black Bess!
Which Nobody Can Deny.

The placing of Turpin at the end of this list of illustrious highwaymen is significant; towards the end of the novel, Ainsworth calls Turpin the Great Highwayman:

Turpin was the ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race, which (we were almost about to say, we regret) is now altogether extinct…with him expired the chivalrous spirit which animated successively the bosoms of so many knights of the road.

Broadside Ballad of O Rare Turpin from the Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads Archive
Broadside Ballad of O Rare Turpin from the Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads Archive

After Ainsworth’s novel, Turpin began to appear frequently on broadside ballads such as The Life and Death of Dick Turpin (c.1838), My Bonny Black Bess (c.1838), O Rare Turpin (c.1844), The Death of Black Bess (printed after c.1850), One Foot in the Stirrrup (c.1850), Poor Black Bess (c.1860).

It seems, however, that Ainsworth’s novel was the only foray into ‘high’ culture that the Turpin would make. After Ainsworth’s novel, Turpin appears in penny dreadfuls such as Henry Downs Miles’ The Life and Death of Richard Palmer, better known as Dick Turpin (1845). He also appears in the penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar (1863-1866), as well as the mammoth 254-part penny serial Black Bess, or, the Knight of the Road (1867-1868). He is also the subject of a number of comics in the early 1930s such as The Dick Turpin Library. Most of these penny serials were denounced as pernicious trash by commentators in the press, and indeed their literary quality is low compared to Ainsworth’s novel.

A Late 19th-Century Penny Dreadful Featuring Dick Turpin
Black Bess, or the Knight of the Road (1867-68).

It appears in the twentieth century, however, that his popularity has died down a little. He has been the subject of the eponymous TV series Dick Turpin which ran for a few season back in the late 1970s, but has not featured in a major way on television or on film. His name survives in the adage (peculiar, as far as I can ascertain, to Yorkshire) “Even Dick Turpin wore a mask”, which is used to express astonishment at the high cost of goods when buying something. Although York city centre makes much of Turpin’s legend to attract tourism (you can visit the cell where he was held at York Castle Museum), and they do have a grave there which is said to be that of Turpin’s, it seems that there is really only one criminal who bears a special place in the hearts and minds of English people: Robin Hood.

The Birth of Robin Hood

The ballad The Birth of Robin Hood is of uncertain date, and never appeared in Joseph Ritson’s influential Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795). It came to the attention of Robert Jamieson in 1800, who heard a Mrs. Brown, of Falkland, singing the song. Jamieson later published it in his ballad anthology Popular Ballads and Songs, from Tradition, Manuscripts, and Scarce Editions (1806). Mrs. Brown contributed two songs to the Robin Hood tradition: The Birth of Robin Hood, and Rose the Red, and White Lily. The latter song also came to the attention of Sir Walter Scott and was included in his ballad collection The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Scott’s influence over the Robin Hood legend in 1819 would be immeasurable.

Thomas Bewick, 'Robin Hood and the Tanner' in Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, 2 Vols. ed. by Joseph Ritson (London: T. Egerton, 1795).
Thomas Bewick, ‘Robin Hood and the Tanner’ in Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, 2 Vols. ed. by Joseph Ritson (London: T. Egerton, 1795).

The story of The Birth of Robin Hood concerns a man called Willie who goes to serve as a retainer in the household of an Earl Richard. Whilst there, he falls in love with Earl Richard’s daughter, who remains nameless. Knowing her father would probably hang his steward if he found out about their relationship, the couple carry on their relationship in secret. Eventually she falls pregnant with his son, and the couple go out to the woods so she can give birth without her father knowing. Back at Earl Richard’s home, he thinks his daughter has gone missing and organises a search party to find her. The men search everywhere, and eventually Richard finds his daughter in the woods nursing a young boy. Moved with compassion, he picks up in the infant:

He kist him o’er and o’er again:
‘My grandson I thee claim,
And Robin Hood in gude green-wood,
And that shall be your name.’

The language indicates that it is clearly a ballad of Scottish origin, and the account of Robin Hood’s birth that it gives seems to many scholars to be improbable. It is certainly not a ballad of medieval origin. For these reasons this song has not always been popular among ballad collectors and Robin Hood scholars. The antiquary J. M. Gutch in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode (1847) said that ‘little historical credit may be due to it’ due to the fact that it seems to ‘fit’ the legend almost too well, assigning Robin Hood a birth of noble degree, when in fact the earliest texts such as A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450) state that Robin was not an Earl but a yeoman (the Earl of Huntingdon storyline only came in 1598 with Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon). Similarly, the folk song scholar Francis J. Child in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1898) did not include it in his collection of Robin Hood ballads, instead assigning it the title of Willie and Earl Richard’s Daughter. It is only Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in The Oxford Book of Ballads (1947) that this ballad was placed alongside other ballads.

Whilst many events of Robin Hood’s life recounted even in the later seventeenth-century ballads seem to have been incorporated somehow into the legend via film and television (i.e. the fight which Robin and Little John have when they first meet), this ballad seems not to have had a great impact, which is a shame because it is one of the most singable, infectious tunes of all the Robin Hood ballads which I have come across.


The Lyrics – Unaltered from Mrs. Brown in 1800.

O WILLIE’s large o’ limb and lith,
And come o’ high degree,
And he is gane to Earl Richard,
To serve for meat and fee.

Earl Richard had but ae daughter,
Fair as a lily-flower,
And they made up their love-contract
Like proper paramour.

It fell upon a simmer’s nicht,
Whan the leaves were fair and green,
That Willie met his gay ladie
Intil the wood alane.

‘O narrow is my gown, Willie,
That wont to be sae wide;
And gane is a’ my fair colour,
That wont to be my pride.

‘But gin my father should get word
What’s past between us twa,
Before that he should eat or drink,
He’d hang you o’er that wa’.

‘But ye’ll come to my bower, Willie,
Just as the sun gaes down,
And kep me in your arms twa,
And latna me fa’ down.’

O whan the sun was now gane down,
He’s doen him till her bower,
And there, by the lee licht o’ the moon,
Her window she lookit o’er.

Intill a robe o’ red scarlèt
She lap, fearless o’ harm;
And Willie was large o’ lith and limb,
And keppit her in his arm.

And they’ve gane to the gude green-wood,
And, ere the night was deen,
She’s born to him a bonny young son,
Amang the leaves sae green.

Whan night was gane, and day was come,
And the sun began to peep,
Up and raise the Earl Richard
Out o’ his drowsy sleep.

He’s ca’d upon his merry young men,
By ane, by twa, and by three:
‘O what’s come o’ my daughter dear,
That she’s nae come to me?

‘I dreamt a dreary dream last night,
God grant it come to gude!
I dreamt I saw my daughter dear
Drown in the saut sea flood.

‘But gin my daughter be dead or sick,
Or yet be stown awa’,
I mak a vow, and I’ll keep it true,
I’ll hang ye ane and a’!’

They sought her back, they sought her fore,
They sought her up and down;
They got her in the gude green-wood,
Nursing her bonny young son.

He took the bonny boy in his arms,
And kist him tenderlie;
Says, ‘Though I would your father hang,
Your mother’s dear to me.’

He kist him o’er and o’er again:
‘My grandson I thee claim,
And Robin Hood in gude green-wood,
And that shall be your name.’

And mony ane sings o’ grass, o’ grass
And mony ane sings o’ corn,
And mony ane sings o’ Robin Hood
Kens little whare he was born.

It wasna in the ha’, the ha’,
Nor in the painted bower;
But it was in the gude green-wood,
Amang the lily-flower.


Lyrics in Modern English

Oh Willie’s tall, and Willie’s strong
And he is born of high degree,
And he has gone to Earl Richard
To serve obediently.

Earl Richard had one daughter dear,
The fairest to be seen,
And Willie fell in love with her
All in the garden green.

Well, the summer’s night was warm and still
And brightly shone the moon,
When Willie’s met his sweetheart
In the garden, all alone.

“Oh narrow is my gown, Willie,
That wont be so wide,
And gone is all my fair colour
That wont to be my pride.

“But if my father should find out
What’s passed between us two,
Before that he would eat or drink
He would hang you over that wall.

“But come up to my bower, Willie,
Just as the sun goes down,
And catch me in your two strong arms
And let me not fall down.”

So when the sun was setting low
He has gone up to her bower,
And by the pale light of the moon
Her window she looked over.

All in that robe of red scarlet
She jumped, fearless of harm.
And Willie was tall and Willie was strong,
He caught her in his arms.

When night was done, and day was come
And the light began to creep,
Well up and rose the Earl Richard
From out of his drowsy sleep.

“Well I dreamed a dreadful dream last night,
God grant it come to good:
I dreamed I saw my daughter dear
Drowning in the flood.”

So he’s called to him his servant men
By one, by two, by three,
“Oh what’s become of my daughter dear
That she’ll not come to me?”

“Oh if that she’s been stolen away
Or taken from this hall,
Well I’ll make a vow and I’ll keep it true:
I’ll hang you one and all!”

So they searched east and they searched west,
And they searched up and down.
They found her in the merry green wood
Nursing her bonny young son.

Well he’s taken the baby all in his arms
And kissed him tenderly,
Saying, “Although I would your father hang
Yet your mother is dear to me.”

He kissed him once, he kissed him twice:
“My grandson I thee claim,
And Robin Hood in the merry green wood
That shall be your name.”

There’s many that sing of green, green grass
And sing of golden corn,
And there’s many that sing of Robin Hood
Know not where he was born.

Well, it wasn’t in the lofty hall
Nor in the painted bower,
But it was in the merry green wood
All among the lily-flowers.