Life of a Little-Known Chartist

While the main focus of this website is crime, since the publication of my book, The Life and Legend of Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (2018), I have been increasingly interested also in nineteenth-century radicalism; what was once a passing interest now shares equal space (in my head) with the lives of brave Chartists and rebels. There is of course much overlap with Robin Hood and radicalism (see my post on Joseph Ritson), and in the story below, you’ll see that the local Tories probably did set fire to someone’s business in order to win an election.

While I was researching the book on Wat Tyler, I came across this biography of an old Chartist leader named “Rex” who was interviewed by a correspondent for The Social Democrat (a socialist   publication, although the Chartists were not socialists) in the 1890s and was recalling his youthful activist days.

For those who do not know: Chartism was the first mass working-class political reform movement who had six demands on their Charter:

  • votes for all men;
  • equal electoral districts;
  • abolition of the requirement that Members of Parliament be property owners;
  • payment for M.P.s;
  • annual general elections; and.
  • the secret ballot.

While the movement had fizzled out by the 1850s–and perhaps succeeded by the emerging socialist movement–it will be noticed by eagle-eyed readers that all-but-one of their demands have been implemented in Britain. So, not a “failed” movement after all.

This may not shine a light on the lives of forgotten criminals, but as a social historian, it does shine a little light on those forgotten from history (and even rare in that we have a picture of him!)

The following article appeared in The Social Democrat in 1897:


The Social-Democrat

April 1897

“This strange, eventful history.”—SHAKESPEARE.

Who is he?

One who fought that you may be

Freedom’s child:

Bore the Torch of Liberty


Bore it well and bore it long,

In a world where Greed and Wrong Curse the Weak and aid the Strong

This is he!—R

An old man sits before me. His hand is shrivelled, but his mind is strong; with a heart as responsive as over to Reason and to Right!

“Who is he?” He is none other than “Rex, the Chartist!” Born March 31, 1806—ninety-one years ago.

Rex lost his mother at the early age of six. He received no actual school education; it was only for the absolutely well-to-do children of those days. Yet Rex was fortunate in having for his grandfather a remarkable man; in politics an ardent radical, in religion a thorough Tolstoyite—ignoring the Old Testament, but accepting the precepts of the New, and, what is more, thoroughly practising his Christianity. Rex also received much enlightenment from an exiled Irish schoolmaster who, suspected of stealing a pheasant from a preserve, had to quit his native land whore, as a matter of fact, he had never stolen anything. It was this Mr. Kelly, a very clover man, who, with his exceptionally able grandfather, a Jacobin, and famous fighter for Freedom, nominated young Rex as a member of the famous Quakeress, Hannah Pink’s Select Library. Therein Rex revelled, reading and acquiring knowledge. Indeed, at the age of seventeen he know the histories of Greece and Rome by heart, besides many other and varied masterpieces of English literature, reading until two o’clock in the morning—a practice he long continued.

In 1820, Rex was apprenticed to the cabinet-carving, in which he excelled. But what a reward! Ono shilling a week for the first year; half-a-crown for the seventh! And the hours—four a. m. until six p.m., with a continuous “overtime” until ten!

And it was Britain who freed the blacks!

The absolute integrity of Rex caused his master’s customers to prefer the employee to the dissipated employer. So they set Rex up in business and gave him their custom. It was then the young man married; becoming too the acknowledged sage of the village, where at the inn would gather the “advanced democrats” to hear Rex read the famous Bronterre O’ Brien’s journal, The British Statesmen, and other literature.

Perhaps no better proof of Rex’s sincerity can be given than in the fact of his becoming a total abstainer. Hearing John Cassell, as famous then as a temperance crusader as his children now are as publishers in London, Rex, on economic as well as ethical grounds, felt he had no right to be asking for Democracy greater rights when the rights they already possessed were prostituted by the abuse of alcoholic drinking. Thus, in November, 1833, Rex became an ardent abstainer, remaining so ever on ward.

Rex image
The image of Rex which accompanied the article about him in The Social Democrat in 1897

In 1837 Rex went to Taunton. Here he met Benjamin Lucraft. Thanks to Rex, with whom he worked, Lucraft became an active member of the Working Men’s Peace Association, to which, of course, both men belonged. Of that association Lucraft eventually became secretary, receiving a true reward for his long services. In Taunton, Rex worked hard for the cause of the people; and this notwithstanding he was employed by those utterly opposed to him. His fame as a workman brought him next in the employ of the member for Bridgewater, Colonel Tynt, yet he never lost a moment in expounding his political theories.

About now Rex joined the Complete Suffrage Association, the difference between this body and the Chartists being that, whereas the Chartists were in favour of annual, the Complete Suffrage Association were in favour of triennial Parliaments-neither, by the bye, accomplished facts as yet! Rex next became an employee of the Earl of Egremont, where he proved himself an excellent craftsman and agitator! At length our study settled in Taunton.

In Taunton Rex met Chartists. A society was formed and the fact that no employee could vote without the risk of displeasing his employer, who knew exactly how that employee voted, so annoyed the Chartists that they determined to force local Liberals into pressing upon their party the necessity of the [secret] ballot. Brannan, a Bideford man, and Rex were deputed to wait on the Liberals.

“We were,” said Rex, “treated with scorn and contempt, being told we were only an insignificant body of men!”

”Ah,” said Rex in retiring, “You have refused our appeal, but we will make you repent it!” And, by Jove, they did, for at the next General Election, Sir J. Labouchere, relative of the present member for Northampton, and a member of the Government, with Sir John Colebrook, were severely punished—the Chartists who, on poll-day, had gone for a holiday into the country, returning in the evening to learn Colebrook bad been succeeded by Arthur Mills, the Tory, by five votes; while Sir J. Labouchere had his former majority reduced. “Give us our demands, and not play with us,” said Rex, and that demand the Liberals granted after being punished for their jeer and sneer!

In 1848 a meeting was called “for the reconciliation of the working and middle classes (comrades, don’t laugh!). To that congress Rex was sent, and it was there, Rex thinks, he met George Julian Harney, the brilliant journalist, democrat, and humanitarian, of whom Rex had heard so much and read a deal.

Perhaps of all the treasures which adorn the wall of Rex’s humble habitation, none are held as sacred as the portrait of the eloquent Ernest Jones, given to Rex by the veritably great democrat lawyer on his appearance at Exeter many years ago. There is a deep pathos Rex’s opinion of Jones: “He was a noble fellow—a grand man. I really loved him!” One of those wonderful indomitable spirits whose whole being is a continuous sacrifice for others. Like Rex, who was repeatedly offered a permanent sinecure by aristocrats and the Government if he would “only renounce his stupid views,” Jones, as every student of history knows, refused a heritage of £2,000 a year rather than abjure the faith reason had endowed him with. Proudly Rex points to the life and writings of Jones, laying special emphasis upon the fact that what the advanced thinker is still struggling for Jones long ago advocated at the cost of being prematurely killed by bigotry and persecution in its vilest form.

Here I cannot help expressing my surprise at the fact that, as in the case of Shelley, no monument commemorating the splendid life of Ernest Jones, poet, patriot, politician, has been erected by neglectful democracy. And here I must express passages of Jones’s, doing so at the desire of Rex himself:—

“I believe in the progressive development of the human mind. I believe the human race possesses one great collective life, having its infancy and ripening to its manhood; and I protest against demanding from the infancy of nations that which their maturity alone can achieve. I protest against measuring the child by the standard of the man … I will meet him [Professor Blackie] on the ground he himself has chosen. I will go with him to ancient Greece. I will follow him to classic Rome. I will accompany him to revolutionary France … And I will undertake to show that in them all democracy has been the founder and saviour of the people’s greatness.”


“I proclaim a new crusade; a great crusade; the greatest ever known. Not for the mouldering tomb of a buried God, but the fresh green altar of the living Deity. Arise! Sound with me the signal note tonight which shall make those ramparts rock on their foundation. The people’s land shall be the people’s own!

Yet again:

“What gross injustice, for society counts woman as nothing in its institutions. And yet makes her bear the greatest sufferings infested by a system in which she has no voice. Brute force first imposed the law, and moral force compels her to obey it.”

Finally, Ernest Jones’s opinion on labour and capital:

“Two things are necessary for the production of wealth—labour and capital. It is, therefore, argued that capital has paramount claims, since without capital, labour would be useless. Perhaps so, but let us examine what capital is, whence it arises, and to whom it belongs. The earth itself is the fundamental capital of the human race, which, in return for labour, yields them, as interest, the means of life. Labour is capital; every working-man, the poorest in existence, is the capitalist of labour-power, and claiming as a right a share in the general capital of mankind—the soil, the air, the waters, and the things that in them are. The only fair day’s wage is the wage you pay yourselves. The only fair day’s work is the work that is free.”

Wonderful prophet, Ernest Jones. It is 1851, and thus he writes:—

“Men of America, the sad ruin is germinating in your land. You are following in the wake of Tyre, Carthage, Rome-of Venice, Spain, England!”

“He know then what America of today would be,” says Rex, who is not wrong. This is the genius Rex loved, who was, too, his bosom friend! Any wonder?

The city of Exeter is a cathedral city. It was a cathedral city when Rex resided in it. And it had a bishop and it had a blackguard! Semper Fidelis is the motto of Exeter. Yes, and “Ever Faithful” it seems to have been to the poor, honest, well-intentioned democrat. Not only was he maligned and derided and stoned, but he was, with premeditation, absolutely ruined by a vagabond who, without doubt, was aided and abetted by men of position who hated Rex because of his political views. At Exeter Rex was well known as an eloquent and earnest reformer. Here, on behalf of the Local Optionists, he was deputed, with a schoolmaster, to wait upon the sitting members for the city—Mills, ex-Tory MP for Taunton, who, of course, knew Rex, and Sir J. Karslake, the well-known lawyer. On being introduced, Arthur Mills said significantly, “Oh yes, I know Mr. Rex; I have met him before!” But he knew ”Mr. Rex” still better, perhaps, after the election, for the future Lord Chief Justice Coleridge and Edward Bowring, having agreed to the desire of the deputation, were preferred to the sitting members, and sent in their places to Parliament. And the Rex who had caused the Tories of Taunton joy in seeing Arthur Mills their MP caused the Tories of Exeter the mortification of seeing the same Arthur Mills their ex-M.P. You can comprehend, then, why Mr. Mills knew of Rex, can you not?

“We shall never get our men in Parliament till Rex is gone,” said the Tories of Exeter. To get rid of him, of course, was the subject for consideration. Rex does not say the Tories burned his house down and ruined him and his family. He does not say so. He prefers to be the sailor’s parrot. That same parrot who heard Shakespeare utter in one of his philosophic moods—”Give thy thoughts no tongue.” Two or three times the factory of Rex was fired; eventually it was destroyed. And the vagabond whose name Rex gives to me as having done the deed never worked again, possessing means ever after. The fire insurance offices, too, refused, after the first attempt, to further insure, saying the factory would surely be burned. Rex, driven from Exeter, left a ruined man, having lost in all twelve hundred pounds. And this, too, in this boasted land of liberty. Yes—assuming that liberty is dominated by political orthodoxy.

Since 1875, I think it is, Rex has eked out an existence in Plymouth. As I hear the lark soaring to salute the light of heaven, I think what a war and what a peace! A plebeian fighting for the poor and rewarded with poverty. Nor stands Rex alone, for as I write comes an appeal to aid noble, old George Julian Harney, who gave wealth, leisure, happiness to the same cause as Rex. And as I look at the excellent wood engravings Rex has lent, and which were given away with the Commonwealth, “the organ of the Reform movement”—portraits of The O’Donoghue, M.P., Charles Braudlaugh, Potter, MP., Ernest Jones, E. O. Greening, Colonel Dickson, Langley, Merriman and others—I ask myself, “Is Demos worth serving?” and from the grand great dead of a buried past, and this fine old veteran before me, comes one united voice:—”Fear no man; follow truth!”

I confess I felt cynical as I bade adieu to the grand old subject of my paper. There, surrounded by his books, in which he still takes a deep interest, I feel how neglectful of the honest, brave, good this world is. Here is a man—a man to the backbone—one who has given his life—money, pen, time—for the benefit of his fellow-being, yet who has been left to eke out an existence that would have spelt poverty itself were it not for a few friends and two clever girls of his, who hold premier positions on the English stage as ladies of the ballet, who have been admitted by the London and provincial Press to be excellent in their art—girls true to their honourable profession, as their father was to his. The reverence of these children is only equalled by the love of the parent, who proudly points to their photo, saying, ”They are good girls, with all the old strength and fire of their father—”

“Not yet dead, yet!” I interject.

“My dear boy, not yet begun to grow old, who will run over to Heath’s and have his photo taken for you—ay, will write you an article for the paper, if you like! What are you laughing at? I mean it. Why, what do you think me, a confirmed in valid?”

“Goodbye, Rex, old fellow, you are a masterpiece!”

I passed into the busy street with mixed feelings of wonderment and regret—wonderment at the still fiery old fellow of ninety-two and regret, disgust that the lives of Jones, of Harney, and of Rex should have been thrown away on behalf of Carlyle’s thirty millions—mostly fools!

Yet, when I take a farewell glance of this old veteran, whose love for his fellow-creatures is still phenomenal, I think—

In the dawn of that tomorrow when this hollow age is past-

Greed, the God alike of Pagan and the Christian, dies at last;

Then, perchance, no more this struggle will the myriad toilers see,

But the prayer of One who uttered “As in Heaven on Earth for Thee”

Not the hypocritic churches, not the bigotry around,

Not the mother and the maiden and the child in serfdom bound,

Nor the noblest once of Nature, Man, as now the brute and worse,

Sacrificed on Mammon’s altar, victim of the robbers’ curse:

In the dawn of that Tomorrow, then, perchance, the race may learn

What THE CHILDREN OF THE DESERT did to win The Promised Bourne! — Rean

Citation: Anon., ‘Rex: The Chartist’, The Social-Democrat, no. 4 (1897), 99–103.



Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo” (2018)

Reviewed by Stephen Basdeo

As a fan of English radical history (did I mention I once wrote a book about Wat Tyler?), I was really looking forward to Mike Leigh’s Peterloo (2018). For the first time I’d see a visual representation of the infamous Peterloo Massacre which occurred in Manchester in 1819; I would see the great radical orator Henry Hunt delivering one of his famous speeches (well, I’d see an actor doing it, but as a historian, this is as close as I’m going to get in seeing one of my heroes in action). The artfully edited trailer made it look a little bit like an English Les Miserables.

Hunt at St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester, as represented in the movie.

The event itself was a national scandal. In August 1819, nearly 60,000 pro-democracy demonstrators gathered in St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester, to hear Hunt speak on the subject of parliamentary reform. The crowd, which was socially diverse, as neither the middle nor the working classes had the vote at this point, had many grievances. These included the fact that none of them could vote, as well as the fact that the largely aristocratic British government had enacted the Corn Laws–tariffs on imports of grain which protected the businesses of the landed classes and kept the price of bread high–the effects of which were exacerbated by high unemployment following the demobilisation of soldiers after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815). But at the meeting, from an upper room in a house in Mount Street, the Manchester Magistrates grew nervous and called the cavalry out on the protesters who, drunk, attacked the peaceful protesters with their sabres.

George Cruikshank, Massacre at St Peter’s or “Britons Strike Home” (London, 1819).  BM 1876,0510.980

It is estimated that around 15 people died on the day, while a further 700 were injured, and countless more may have died of their injuries later. The event was a national scandal and became an important moment in British working-class and labour history.

One of the things that the film does very well is the depiction of the actual massacre itself. There is little background music to dramatize the situation which lends a sense of realism to the portrayal of it; we see the protesters gathered as normal trying to catch a glimpse of Hunt and hear him, then at the back of the crowd the cavalry begin charging at them. To the viewer, as it must have seemed to the crowd at the time, this is initially a bit confusing–just why are the cavalry, who are not exactly galloping fast at first, coming towards the crowd? Then the cavalry begin striking people, and the carnage ensues.

I have also changed my mind about another aspect of the movie which I initially disliked: the political speeches. A good portion of the movie is taken up with various characters uttering speeches at meetings in favour of political reform, with some of the dialogue taken directly from primary sources. Initially, I was a bit underwhelmed; the actors chosen, such as Nico Mirallegro, are not ‘great’ orators, and on a first viewing I felt that he did not give enough ‘umph’ to his demands for liberty. Yet this does actually convey the fact that the ordinary working men who gathered in taverns and in fields in Manchester in 1819, would not have been great orators.

Of course, this is a qualified change of heart on my part. While the sheer amount of speeches in various places does nicely illustrate the fact that there was lots of radical political activity going in many places and promoted by members of both the middle and the working classes, there was no need to quote some of the speeches in their entirety. As any undergraduate history student is told: do not give lengthy quotations; your job is to distil the information and create an argument or narrative out of the information you had. The filmmakers did not follow this basic rule.

In fact, as a historian, I feel as though I am betraying my profession when I say this, but: sometimes movie-makers can pay too much attention to detail when making their films. Let me explain: Maxine Peake is a brilliant actress, and played the part of Nellie admirably, yet her explanation of the Corn Laws was so dry and academic that I half-expected a fully formatted Chicago Style footnote to flash up on the bottom of the screen listing the source. Now, obviously, working-class women in the nineteenth century were intelligent and often well-informed about political matters, but it would have been enough to simply say something along the lines of “the price of bread is high”. It felt a bit too academic.

Adam Buck, Henry Hunt (c.1810). (c) National Portrait Gallery.

While the above are minor quibbles, my real problem is with the portrayal of Henry Hunt as an arrogant and self-centred arse who is dismissive towards poorer people. This is simply wrong; Hunt was named at the time as:

The Poor Man’s Protector.

He spoke over a thousand times at mass meetings about parliamentary reform and of about the need for working-class (a term which he largely pioneered) and middle-class representation in parliament. This was often at great personal financial cost to himself.

After the massacre, Hunt was arrested for two years yet from his cell continued to campaign tirelessly for political reform. The final verdict on his character, however, should be given by the people of Manchester themselves. The Newgate Calendar records that:

Hunt was drawn about two miles by women, and ten miles by men. In fact, his return was one long triumphal procession, waited upon by thousands, on horse, on foot, and in carriages, who hailed him with continued shouts of applause. The sensation produced throughout the country by this fatal business was intense. Hunt’s conduct was universally applauded, and he received the thanks of nearly every county in England, and those even who opposed him on principle now forgot their enmity, and hailed him as the uncompromising champion of liberty. His entry into London was public, and some of the first characters of the day honoured him with their presence, whilst hundreds of thousands welcomed him with deafening applause.

Ultimately, the film is visually impressive, but at a personal, human level it fails to impress.

An English Republican’s View of Crime and its Causes

By Stephen Basdeo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After citing his crime statistics, Reynolds asks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passo di Lupo: An Italian Bandit

An outlaw’s life was not a merry one: in the 1820s, banditry in Italy was rife; at this time, a young travel writer named Charles Macfarlane was touring the country and managed to obtain a rare interview with one of these brigands.

I recently managed to track down a copy of Charles Macfarlane’s Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Banditti and Robbers of all Nations (1833). The early nineteenth century was a good time for an aspiring author to be writing about outlaws and highwaymen. Walter Scott had already authored Rob Roy (1818) and Ivanhoe (1819). Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin had released a new multivolume edition of The Newgate Calendar (1824), and Edward Bulwer Lytton had published Paul Clifford (1830) and Eugene Aram (1832), two crime novels, to critical and popular claim. Macfarlane probably presumed that he could capitalise on the popularity of the ‘Newgate Novel’ (named after the infamous London gaol), by offering an updated version of Charles Johnson’s and Alexander Smith’s famous eighteenth-century Lives of the Highwaymen books.

Banndits 4
Italian bandits hiding out in Roman ruins. Illustration by J. Cattermole (c) Stephen Basdeo

(A quick plug: I shall also be following in the footsteps of Johnson, Smith, and Macfarlane when my forthcoming book, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (2018) is published).


However, instead of the sensationalised style of writing adopted by his eighteenth-century forbears, Macfarlane pursues a different approach: he warns the reader in his preface that

You will not find my robbers such romantic, generous characters as those that occasionally figure in the fields of fiction. [You] will meet with men strangers to that virtuous violence of robbing the rich to give to the poor.[i]

This was not mere moralising, for Macfarlane does fulfil his promise to the reader that he will not be overly romanticising them. As for the famous Robin Hood principle of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, Macfarlane is sceptical, or rather, cynical, about this practice:

They [bandits] give to the poor indeed, but it is as spies and instruments of their own crimes, or at least in order to induce the poor to remain passive while they carry out their work of depredation against the rich.[ii]

Thus, Macfarlane’s purpose in writing the Banditti is not to render bandits in a Scott-esque romantic mode, but to present a picture of criminality.[iii] Such intentions anticipate Charles Dickens’s remarks upon thieves in the preface to Oliver Twist (1838), where, referring to Captain Macheath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1727), he says that in his depiction of thieves there will be

No canterings upon moonlit heaths, no merry makings in the snuggest of all possible caverns, none of the attractions of dress, no embroidery, no lace, no jack boots, no crimson coats and ruffles.[iv]

Macfarlane was first and foremost a travel writer, and one example he gives of this decidedly unromantic view of a bandit’s life is in his account of a meeting with a former bandit named Luca whose nickname was ‘Passo di Lupo’ (Wolf’s Step).

Bandit 3
Italian Bandits. Illustration from Macfarlane’s Banditti. (c) Stephen Basdeo

Let me provide some context first: Italy is still a relatively young nation state. Since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, it was divided into a series of small sovereign states. This state of affairs continued until the nineteenth century, and after the upheavals of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815), which in reality was the first ‘world war’,[v] the division of the country was as follows: the Pope directly ruled Rome and a large part of central Italy; the House of Savoy ruled the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia to the north of the country, which also included Nice (now part of France); the regions of Lombardy and Venetia were subject to rule by the Habsburg monarchy, while southern Italy and Sicily, known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, were ruled by the Bourbon dynasty.[vi] None of these states had any effective form of law enforcement beyond the local militia, and these structural weaknesses make the more rural areas of a country more likely to develop a problem with banditry.[vii] Even when Italy was unified in 1861 under the banner of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, it still experienced a problem with banditry until World War Two (1939–45), as the case of Salvatore Giuliano (1922–50) attests.

And this was the state of Italy when Macfarlane met Passo, while traveling through Abruzzi during the 1820s, which was then part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Passo was a former member of a fearsome gang of outlaws named the Vardarelli, whom Macfarlane met at a gathering in the town square. He made enquiries as to who the strange-looking man was, and his guide immediately recognised him as a local famous former outlaw. This is the description of his appearance that Macfarlane gives:

I was struck with  the appearance of a fellow with the deep scar of an old wound across his swarthy brow, and his left arm in a sort of sling.[viii]

Macfarlane’s first question was to ask him what motivated him to become a bandit:

“Please your excellency,” said [Luca], “I was making love with a Paesana, and had the misfortune to give a blow of the knife to one I thought my rival.”[ix]

Understandably, the authorities attempted to arrest Luca for having killed a man, although Luca himself viewed this as a wholly unreasonable persecution.[x] In fairness to Luca, however, the vendetta – the settling of feuds through violence – was a custom amongst both the elites and the plebeian classes between the Renaissance and the twentieth century, and it still persists among organised crime groups in Italy. Thus, Luca’s view of the authorities’ apprehension of him as unreasonable should be viewed in context.[xi] 

Banndit 2
Bandits in a standoff with the local milita. Illustration from Macfarlane’s Banditti (c) Stephen Basdeo

Luca’s brush with the law made him seek out the company of a famous group of brigands, the Vardarelli, who operated in Ponte di Bovino, a mountain range about thirty miles from his home in Monte Gargano. However, he was not welcomed with open arms at first. The brigands distrusted him at first, and he was effectively a prisoner in the camp for a number of weeks and not permitted to venture outside of it. Only after having proved himself to them by taking an oath administered by a local priest who ministered to the bandits was he finally allowed to accompany the robbers on their excursions. Nevertheless, Luca looked back to his robbing days with nostalgia, as Macfarlane records that,

I thought the fellow’s hawk-like eyes still beamed joyfully as he talked of stopping government mails and diligences, and rich graziers from the fairs of Foggia; and as he told me, how, at times, he had scoured the whole plain of Apulia and crossed the mountains of Basilicata, and plunged into other provinces – meeting nowhere a formidable resistance – nearly everywhere an impunity of plunder.[xii]

However, Luca recalled that the bandit chiefs kept the lesser people of the gang in a state of near poverty: the guappi, or the bullies of the gang, kept the lion’s share and threw morsels only to those below them. Then again, Macfarlane says that Luca recalled never being able to spend the little money that he did get on the few luxuries he desired. The townsfolk were generally hostile to them, which made it a no-go area. It did not help the robbers’ cause, of course, that they were indiscriminate in whom they chose for their victims, for they robbed peasants as well as rich farmers. The peasants were only left alone or given money if they needed a hiding place in the winter months. Lodging in a peasant’s house then brought with it a further threat of being betrayed to the authorities for the reward money. During the milder seasons, their accommodation was scarcely more inviting as they slept in cold caves. As a result, food could often be scarce, and Luca recalls that often they were so hungry that sheep were stolen from fields and eaten raw on the spot.[xiii] Scarcity of food meant that quarrels often broke out between the bandits. Duels were conducted and these frequently resulted in the death of a gang member.[xiv]

Eric Hobsbawm in his seminal study of banditry states that bandits often have short careers due to the fact that their ‘profession’ is a high risk one and conducive to a long life. In fact, the typical bandit’s career can be as short as two years before being either captured and punished, or returns to mainstream society.[xv] The man whom Macfarlane interviewed fell into the latter camp. Macfarlane asks him what induced him to forsake his former accomplices. It transpired that his arm had been badly injured in an altercation with the Bourbon government militia. He was permitted by some sympathetic townsfolk to shelter and recuperate in one of their houses, hidden from the authorities. Although he recovered, his injuries meant that he would not be of any further use to his fellow brigands. Luckily at this time, with banditry being so endemic in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, King Ferdinand decided that, instead of fighting what seemed like an ever losing battle, he would simply extend a pardon to all bandits who wished to take up the offer. Passo was one of those who took advantage of this. Little is known of how Lupo died – after their encounter Macfarlane does not know.


[i] Charles Macfarlane, Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Banditti and Robbers of all Nations (Philadelphia: G. Evans, 1833), p. 10.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, rev. ed. (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1841), p. x.

[v] Michael Rapport, The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 1.

[vi] For more information on the history of Italy during the 19th century see the following: Christopher Duggan, A Concise History of Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[vii] See Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2004).

[viii] Macfarlane, Lives of the Banditti, p. 16.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Raymond E. Role, ‘The War Games of Central Italy’, History Today, 49: 6 (1999), online edn. [Accessed 11 November 2017].

[xii] Macfarlane, Lives of the Banditti, p. 17.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 18.

[xv] Hobsbawm, Bandits, pp. 34-45.

The Last Dying Speech and Confession of Jack Straw

In 1381, one of the most important events in English medieval history occurred: the Peasants’ Revolt. Under the leadership of a former soldier, Wat Tyler (d. 1381), a radical priest, John Ball (d. 1381), and Jack Straw (d. 1381), approximately 50,000 Englishmen descended on the capital to vent their grievances to King Richard II (although the event has been called ‘the Peasants’ Revolt’ by historians in the nineteenth century, the rebel crowd was actually composed of people from a variety of social classes). The most immediate cause of their anger was the imposition of a Poll Tax the previous year. This had been the third such tax enacted in recent years, with the government having demanded money in 1377 and 1379 as well. The rebels also demanded the abolition of serfdom, and the right to buy and sell in the market place. Their social and economic grievances were further fired by John Ball’s radical egalitarian ideology which proposed bringing all land under common ownership. His views are famously encapsulated in the record of a speech which he gave to the rebels at Blackheath:

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men were created equal by nature, and that servitude had been introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord.

Ball then finished with the recommendation that the people,

uproot the tares that are accustomed to destroy the grain; first killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors, and finally rooting out everyone whom they knew to be harmful to the community in future.[i]

Some of the above must be taken with a pinch of salt, particularly John Ball’s recommendation that all lawyers must be slain, for they were recorded by a chronicler named Thomas Walsingham who aimed to paint the actions of the rebels in as negative a light as he possibly could.

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Although royal charters had been granted which satisfied the rebels’ demands, Wat Tyler was brutally killed by the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth. The additional rebel ring leaders such as Ball and Straw were then rounded up and suffered one of the most brutal sentences of the age: they were hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Unusually for common rebel leaders from this period, we have an account of the last dying speech and confession that Jack Straw allegedly made shortly before his execution because it is recorded by Walsingham. I say that he allegedly made the confession, however, for the noted historian of the Peasants’ Revolt, R. B. Dobson, says that it occurs at a point in Walsingham’s narrative in which ‘he gladly relieves himself of facts and gives free rein to his powerful imagination’.[ii] Yet still, Dobson acknowledges that Straw’s alleged confession cannot have been a mere figment of Walsingham’s imagination and must have had a grain of truth to it.[iii]

Let us take a look at the portrayal of Jack Straw’s final moments as Walsingham records them:

How the insurgents planned to destroy the realm is proved by the confession of Jack Straw, the most important of their leaders after Walter Tylere. After Straw had been captured and sentenced to execution in London by the mayor, the latter spoke to him publicly: “Behold, John! You are certain to die soon and have no hope of saving your life […] tell us in all honesty what plans you rebels pursued and why you stirred up the crowd of the commons.[iv]

Straw then proceeds to say

It no longer serves me to lie, nor is it proper to speak falsehoods, especially as I know that my soul would be subjected to harsher torments if I did so. Moreover, I hope for two advantages in speaking the truth: first because what I say may profit the country; and also because, according to your promises, I will have the help of your prayers after my death. So I will speak without any attempt to deceive. At the time we were assembled at “le Blakehethe” in order to arrange to meet the king, our plan was to kill all the knights, esquires, and other gentlemen who came with him. Then we would have taken the king with us from place to place in full sight of all; so that when everybody, and especially the common people, saw him, they would willingly have joined us and our band […] then we would have killed the king and driven out of the land all possessioners, bishops, monks, canons, and rectors of churches […] We would have created kings, Walter Tyler in Kent and one each in other counties, and appointed them […we would have] set fire to four parts of the city and [burnt] it down and divided all the precious goods found there amongst ourselves.[v]

After this short speech, Straw was executed and his head was placed on top of London Bridge alongside that of his fellow rebel leader, Wat Tyler. It is likely that the other parts of Straw’s body, as well as Tyler and Ball’s, were sent to be displayed in public spaces in other cities, although none of the accounts of the revolt tell us where.

This type of ‘spectacular justice’, in which criminals underwent an excruciating death, might at first glance seem to simply be a sign of a strong state crushing its opposition. Yet as Katherine Royer points out, if governments had to use this form of ‘spectacular justice’ frequently, which the government of Richard II had to do after the rebellion, it actually shows just how weak the state was.[vi] Thus, ‘the history of the dismembered and displayed body of a traitor bears little resemblance to the long-told story of a late-medieval state’s march to a monopoly of violence’.[vii]

Straw’s alleged last dying speech is interesting, furthermore, because it shows how just how important the actual speech of a dying person is becoming at this point. This is because, as Royer argues elsewhere, in the early medieval period, death was imagined as a long, drawn out process: a human was not properly dead until their body had completely decayed. But with the emergence of the doctrine of purgatory in in the 12th century, death increasingly became conceived of as a discrete event. Thus, what a criminal said in his last moments mattered more and more.[viii]

In his confession, Straw makes a ‘bargain’ with the authorities: prayers will be said on behalf of his immortal soul if he, in his final moments, recognises the authority of the state. If he dies resistant to authority, then prayers will not be said for the safety of his soul after death. Thus Straw has nothing to lose: he may as well as submit to kingly authority and ensure the safety of his soul in the hereafter.

Jack Straw’s story was adopted by later authors who wrote about the Peasants’ Revolt. Jack Straw appears as the principal protagonist in a play entitled The Life and Death of Iacke Strawe (1593). In this narrative, Straw and Wat Tyler have swapped places, for the former is the leader of the revolt, while the latter is consigned to a minor role in the rebellion. As such, Straw’s last dying speech is not dramatized as he is killed at Smithfield by William Walworth. The rebels’ aims are the same, however, as those intimated in Straw’s final confession above: to kill the king and the nobleman; to kill all bishops and lawyers; and to divide the land between themselves in the name of ‘communalitie’ (an almost proto-communist) ideology.

A slightly altered version of Jack Straw’s last dying speech appeared a few centuries later in a little-known criminal biography entitled The History of All the Mobs, Tumults, Insurrections in Great Britain (1716):

When we were assembled, says he, upon Black Heath, and had sent for the king to come to us, our purpose was to have slain all knights and gentlemen that he should have about him; and as for the king, we would have kept him among us, to the end the people might more boldly have repaired to us, and when we had gotten power enough, we would have slain all noblemen, especially the Knights of the Rhodes, and lastly would have kill’d the king and all men of possessions, with bishops, monks, parsons of churches […] then we would have deivs’d laws according to which the people should have liv’d, for which we would have created kings; as Wat Tyler in Kent, and other in other counties: and the same night that Wat Tyler was kill’d, we intended to have set fire to the city in four corners and to have divided the spoil amongst us. And this was our purpose as God may help me now at my last end.[ix]

When The History of all the Mobs appeared, the last dying speeches of criminals were printed en masse to be read as entertainment at public executions, and these speeches were often incorporated into compendiums of criminals’ lives such as The Newgate Calender (1784). The eighteenth century was also a period in which, as Dorothy George says, ‘King Mob might at any point resume his reign after the briefest insurrection’.[x] That is to say that the plebeian classes during the eighteenth century regularly expressed their dissatisfaction with the government’s policies through rioting. The spark for the riot could be quite small, and a series of riots in the 1740s began because the government slightly increased the duty on gin, thereby making it more expensive. With the purpose of criminal biography being primarily moralistic, what the anonymous author of The History of All the Mobs is doing is going back through the lives of every rebel leader throughout history, showing how they came to an untimely end, and through that warning people not to make the same mistakes, as it says in the preface that,

In all our histories of Great Britain and Ireland, we meet with nothing more frequent than mobs and insurrections, which tho’ they have terminated always in the destruction of the ringleaders and principal abettors, yet we shall find that the madness of the people has fatally spread itself from one age to another, and is become even at this day no less dangerous and infectious than it was at the very beginning. Upon this account this short history is attempted, that it may be a standing caution to the common people, for whose use it is chiefly intended.[xi]

Jack Straw appears as a turncoat in Mrs. O’Neill’s The Bondman (1833), who betrays the rebels in return for a pardon from the king. And as was the case with most historical rebels, Jack Straw was honoured (?) with a penny dreadful devoted entirely to himself entitled The Sword of Freedom; or, The Boyhood Days of Jack Straw (c. 1860). In this story he is a young lad who, like Robin Hood, is forced to become an outlaw. He spends his youthful days rescuing women from attempted rapes by Norman soldiers, and singlehandedly fighting off hordes of Norman soldiers. As the story only deals with his life before the insurrection, the reader is not given any information on his last dying speech here either.

[i] R. B. Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: Macmillan, 1970), p. 375.

[ii] Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, p. 364.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, p. 365.

[v] Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, pp. 365-66.

[vi] Katherine Royer, The English Execution Narrative, 1200-1700 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), p. 31.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Royer, The English Execution Narrative, p. 51.

[ix] The History of All the Mobs, Tumults, Insurrections in Great Britain (London: J. Moore, 1716), pp. 12-13.

[x] Dorothy George, Grub Street: Studies in a Subculture (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), p. 4.

[xi] The History of All the Mobs, pp. 2-3.