Thomas Cooper’s “Prison Rhyme” (1845)

By Stephen Basdeo

I recently came into possession of a book written by Thomas Cooper (1805-92), a famous Chartist activist, which he gave to his friend, the newspaper proprietor and fellow Chartist, John Cleave (1790-1847).

Chartism was the first large-scale working-class political reform movement in Britain who had six demands, which they laid out in their People’s Charter: votes for all men; equally-sized electoral districts; abolition of the requirement that MPs be property owners; payment for M.P.s; annual general elections; and the secret ballot.

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The Chartist Rally at Kennington Common in 1848

Leaders of the movement held mass meetings in public places but the movement was also supported by a great corpus of literature including novels, newspapers and periodicals, poetry, and songs. Most of this literature was written by people who hailed from the working classes.[i]

Thomas Cooper was one such man. He was born in Lincoln in 1805 (he was the childhood friend of Robin Hood novel author, Thomas Miller, also from Lincolnshire) and from a young age was a shoemaker’s apprentice. While he was an apprentice, he educated himself by reading a range of literature including history books, fictional works, and poetry. He excelled in English studies and by the age of 23 became a schoolmaster with a side-job as a journalist. By all accounts he was a fiery man and very passionate about whatever subject he was preaching about, and was in a large part responsible for turning Leicester—where he went after his years at Lincoln—into a Chartist stronghold when he became active in the movement.

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Thomas Cooper in later life

And so we come to the book itself. Cooper was passionate about the movement he joined and employed his literary talents to promote its message. In the midst of the General Strike in 1842—a nationwide strike that began in the northern manufacturing districts and spread throughout Britain—Cooper arrived in Hanley, Staffordshire to deliver a speech to workers assembled there and declared that

            All labour cease until the People’s Charter becomes the law of the land.

This was incendiary stuff in an era when unions, or ‘combinations’, were legal but members could often find themselves on the wrong side of the law, as the Tolpuddle Martyrs did in the 1830s. Many arrests were made in the aftermath of Cooper’s speech, and Cooper was among those arrested and he was sentenced to two years in gaol for sedition due to his part in the ‘rising’.

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The Tolpuddle Martyrs

It was in gaol that he wrote The Purgatory of Suicides: A Prison Rhyme, which was then published three years later in 1845 after his release. The theme of the poem is taken from the speech which Cooper gave at the meeting: Slaves Toil No More!

Slaves toil no more!—why delve, and moil, and pine,

To glut the tyrant-forgers of your chain?

Slaves, toil no more—to win a pauper’s doom!

And while the millions swear, fell famine’s gloom

Spreads their haggard faces, like a cloud

Big with the fear and darkness of the tomb:—

How ‘neath its terrors are the tyrants bowed!

Slaves toil no more—to starve!—go forth, and tame the proud![ii]

The poem, written in Spenserian stanzas, in emulation of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590–96), sees Cooper exploring various forms of government while conversing with people who had committed suicide throughout history (and who were in purgatory), including Judas Iscariot, Emperor Nero, and the late Lord Castlereagh on what the ideal form of government was—whether it be monarchical, republican, or democratic and in the words of Stephanie Kuduk:

The energy of the poem builds through its strophe and antistrophe movement between descriptions of contemporary political reality and investigations of its historical and philosophical roots. This movement culminates in a final dream vision of a peaceful republican revolution, brought about by the enlightenment of the people through the agency of “Knowledge” and poetry.[iii]

So, where at the beginning of the poem, Cooper referred to his fellow workers as ‘slaves’, the poem at the end has a more upbeat tone:

Spirits, still more rejoice!—for pain and woe

Are gone and universal life doth bloom

With joy!—The dream o’erwrought me to a throe,

Of bliss—and I awoke to find my home

A dungeon,—thence, to ponder whence would come

The day that goodness shall the earth renew,

And Truth’s young light disperse old Error’s gloom,—

When Love shall Hate, and Meekness Pride subdue,—

And when the many cease their slavery to the Few![iv]

The influence of Percy B. Shelley’s earlier poem, The Mask of Anarchy—written in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819—comes through in the lines about the many versus the few, of which we repeat the final lines here:

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number–

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you—

Ye are many—they are few.[v]

However, having been written before the appearance of the first English translation of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels’s The Communist Manifesto (1848), they neither Shelley nor Cooper talk in terms of ‘class struggle’, and the fight between the elites and the many are seen as one of nobles vs. serfs (see also my post on G. W. M. Reynolds’s political beliefs).

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Stafford Prison, where Thomas Cooper was imprisoned in 1842 (c) Black Country Muse

When Cooper was released from prison two years later, he decided to publish the poem. In the preface to the first edition he (quite sarcastically) thanked his government captors for giving him the time to finish a poem which he had been planning to write for a couple of years:

My persecutors have, at least, the merit of assisting to give a more robust character to my verses,—though I most assuredly owe them no love for the days and nights of agony I endured from neuralgia, rheumatism, and I know not what other torments,—occasioned by a damp sleeping cell, added to the generally injurious influences of imprisonment.[vi]

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Thomas Cooper’s inscription to his friend, John Cleave.
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Title Page to Thomas Cooper’s Purgatory of Suicides (1845)

Only 500 copies of the first edition were printed. This was not an unusual number of copies printed for a first edition of a work by a (at this point) relatively minor author. Just like publishers do today, authors receive a number of copies of their own works which they can distribute to friends and family gratis. The copy of Cooper’s work which I have was given to his friend John Cleave, and inscribed on the front end paper is the following message:

A keepsake,

From the author to his respected friend,

Mr. John Cleave.

London,

Oct. 20th, / 45

John Cleave was a member of the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC), ‘a major reforming organisation’ which counted among its members radical publishers such as Henry Hetherington, James Watson, and of course, Cleave.[vii]

Cleave was also the editor of several newspapers over the course of his career: Cleave’s London Satirist, Cleave’s Penny Gazette, and Cleave’s Penny Police Gazette. His sympathies most definitely lay with the radicals and the Chartists—before striking out on his own, Cleave had collaborated with Henry Hethertington on The Poor Man’s Guardian. He was also a businessman, and was not only a newspaper proprietor but also owned a coffee shop and a book shop, which was based at 1 Shoe Lane, Fleet Street, London.

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The Poor Man’s Guardian–one of John Cleave’s first projects with fellow radical Henry Hetherington

Just like Thomas Cooper, Cleave had also had his own brush with the law. When Cleave’s business was at its height, the Stamp Act was in full swing; this ‘tax on knowledge’ was a duty placed on paper, and newspapers had to pay it if they printed news. Publishers of serialised popular fiction were exempt from paying it, which is why many cheaper ‘news’ papers often combined light entertainment in the form of serialised novels as well as commentary on political and social issues. Yet Cleave continued to publish newspapers without paying the tax, and for this he was imprisoned for short spells in Newgate gaol twice, in 1834 and again in 1836.

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Cleave’s Penny Gazette

Cleave refused to pay the Stamp Tax because, along with believing that all working men and women should have the vote—unusual even among radicals at this point—he also believed that the key to building a democratic society was through the education of the masses, and in this his newspapers had a role to play. The idea that the spread of knowledge would emancipate the working classes is found throughout Cooper’s poem, which is probably why Cooper gave a copy of his book to his ‘respected friend’.

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John Cleave’s Son-in-Law, Henry Vincent

Cleave died in 1847, and it is not known what happened to the many books he possessed. The particular copy I have in my possession made its way across the Atlantic at some point, for I purchased from a bookseller named Ann Kruger in the USA. This is strange as neither Cleave, nor his daughter Lucy, who married Chartist activist Henry Vincent, ever appears to have taken a trip to the USA, although the Vincents’ descendants have now settled in New Zealand. This is what perhaps makes antiques, and books in particular, special: you never know who has ‘thumbed the pages’ before you. Also, we often know of these working-class writers and publishers through their printed works, yet they leave very few physical mementoes behind, so it is nice to know that something Cooper himself touched still survives.

Cooper lived on until 1892, and during this time published several works of prose fiction and poetry. He turned more to religious matters and was a fierce opponent of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). In later life, by the time that he wrote his autobiography entitled The Life of Thomas Cooper written by Himself (1872), Cooper was still a committed democrat and advocate of social justice, and counselled readers at the end to

If you have any money to spare, give it away to relieve the wretched; they abound on every hand. Give yourself up to your work, and live for that only. Go and sell all you have and follow your Master, and you shall have treasure in heaven.[viii]


References

[i] See: Mike Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Ian Haywood, ed., The Literature of Struggle: An Anthology of Chartist Fiction, rev. ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016); Ian Haywood, Working Class Fiction: from Chartism to Trainspotting (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997).

[ii] Thomas Cooper, The Purgatory of Suicides: A Prison Rhyme (London: Jeremiah How, 1845), p. 1.

[iii] Stephanie Kuduk, ‘Sedition, Chartism, and Epic Poetry in Thomas Cooper’s The Purgatory of Suicides’, Victorian Poetry, 39: 2 (2001), 165–86 (pp. 165–66).

[iv] Cooper, p. 344.

[v] Percy B. Shelley, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, in Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works, ed. by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 400–11 (p. 411).

[vi] Cooper, Purgatory of Suicides, p. iii.

[vii] Ian Haywood, The Revolution in Popular Literature: Print, Politics, and the People, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 108.

[viii] Thomas Cooper, The Life of Thomas Cooper written by Himself (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1877), p. 400.

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Available for preorder: “The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler” (2018)

My book entitled The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (Pen & Sword, 2018) is now available to preorder on Amazon and Waterstones’s website.

Follow the Amazon link: Stephen Basdeo, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader (2018)

The blurb on the back of the book reads:

In 1381, England was on the brink – the poor suffered the effects of war, the Black Death, and Poll Tax. At this time the brave Wat Tyler arose to lead the commoners, forming an army who set off to London to meet with King Richard II and present him with a list of grievances and demands for redress. Tyler was treacherously struck down by the Lord Mayor. His head hacked from his shoulders, pierced on a spike, and made a spectacle on London Bridge. Yet he lived on through the succeeding centuries as a radical figure, the hero of English Reformers, Revolutionaries, and Chartists. ‘The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler’ examines the eponymous hero’s literary afterlives. Unlike other medieval heroes such as King Arthur or King Alfred, whose post medieval manifestations were supposed to inspire pride in the English past, if Wat Tyler’s name was invoked by the people, the authorities had something to fear.

If you buy it, I hope you enjoy it and are likewise inspired to learn more about the hero of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

Rob Roy (1671-1734)

A famous man is Robin Hood,
The English ballad-singer’s joy!
And Scotland has a thief as good,
An outlaw of as daring mood;
She has her brave ROB ROY!
Then clear the weeds from off his Grave,
And let us chant a passing stave,
In honour of that Hero brave!

The Life of Rob Roy

Each country of what now comprises the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has its famous outlaw-cum-folk hero: England has Robin Hood (sup. fl. 12th-13th centuries), the legendary noble robber who stole from the rich and gave to the poor; Wales boasts of Twm Sion Cati (fl. c. 1550); Ireland has the famous ‘rapparee’ Éamonn an Chnoic (sup. fl. 1670-1724). The subject of today’s blog post is the celebrated Scottish outlaw, Robert Roy MacGregor.[i]

The MacGregors were part of an ancient Scottish family, but although they were minor gentry, they began to experience financial hardship in the late seventeenth century. This was not helped by the fact that the family joined in the Jacobite Rebellion against the government in 1689, after which the family was disgraced. In order to offset some of their money troubles, during the 1690s members of the family began to extort protection money from farmers. It is for their somewhat dubious activities that criminal biographers in the eighteenth century endeavoured to present the family’s history as nothing but a history of crime and depravity:

They were not more Antient, than Infamous, for from time immemorial, they have been shun’d and detested for the Outrages they daily committed. They liv’d by Rapine, and made Murder their Diversion; and, in a Word, they seem’d emulous to monopolize all that was Wicked.[ii]

During the late 1690s and into the eighteenth century, Rob appears to have ceased his illegal activities and, under the assumed name of Campbell, bought some land and ‘thrived modestly’ trading in livestock, according to his biographer.

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Illustration from: Walter Scott, Rob Roy ed. by A. Lang (London, 1829; repr. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, 2005).

However, the early eighteenth century was a time of Jacobite intrigue: in 1688 the Stuart King, James II was ousted from the thrones of England and Scotland because of his Catholic faith and he was replaced with the Dutch King William and his wife Mary, James’ daughter. In effect, this was a coup d’état, and there was significant opposition, especially in Scotland, to this new foreign King, in spite of the fact that Mary was related to James.  At his time, Rob took to smuggling arms which alarmed the authorities because his loyalty to the new regime had never been rock solid. Yet there was nothing to link him directly, at this early period, to the Jacobite cause (Jacobite is the name given to those in the 17th and 18th centuries who actively fought for the restoration of the Stuarts).

It was also during the early eighteenth century when Rob’s business hit a slump, and in 1708 he was forced to take out loans from a number of local tradesmen. But a few months later when repayment was due, Rob had not got enough cash to meet the demands of his creditors. He was subsequently declared bankrupt by the Marquess of Montrose and his lands were seized. Rob, in order to escape his creditors (a debtors’ prison would likely have been Rob’s punishment), he along with some of his men retreated to the remote areas of the highlands. Although later stories attempt to attribute his downfall to one of Rob’s men absconding with his fortune:

Rob Roy’s fall was a matter of business failure, and the later tradition that it was due to a drover absconding with his money is implausible in view of the evidence that he knew months in advance that he was in trouble, and that he never himself used this as an explanation. His flight to the remote highlands, Montrose’s determination to bring him to justice, and Rob’s passionate belief that he had been wronged, however, converted an everyday bankruptcy into an epic story.[iii]

In 1713 he sought the protection of the Duke of Atholl (one of Montrose’s rivals) who granted him protection and even allowed him to continue trading on a limited scale in order to earn back some of the money he had lost through bad investments.

When George I acceded to the throne of the newly-forged Kingdom of Great Britain (previously, England and Scotland had been separate states), Rob, a nominal Jacobite, saw this as a chance to strike back against Montrose, who was a supporter of the Hanoverians. Although the Jacobites never officially welcomed Rob with open arms into their cause, but they did allow him to carry out raids on the lands of Hanoverian supporters, and no doubt he welcomed the chance to carry out raids on Montrose’s lands in revenge for his bankruptcy.

In 1715, the Jacobites began seriously plotting the downfall of the Hanoverian regime. James II had fled to France after 1688 and raised his youngest sons there. The Jacobites in France, having been in contact with their supporters in Scotland, plotted the invasion of Stuart forces. Once landed, it was hoped that the Scottish and English people would rise up in support of the Stuarts, oust the Hanoverians, and place James Stuart (James II’s son) on the throne.

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The Highland Rogue. 1723. (c) ECCO

But a restoration of the Stuarts was not to be: Rob himself witnessed the crushing defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1715 at the Battle of Glen Shiel, for he had been co-opted to serve in the Jacobite forces.

As we have seen, Rob was never a loyal Jacobite, and only joined the cause as a means of getting revenge on his former antagonist, Montrose. After the battle he returned to his life of banditry, although the authorities did not concern themselves with even trying to arrest him. Rob’s lands had been forfeited to the government because he had, by allying with the Jacobites, committed treason. Montrose had, through the government’s seizure, been repaid and so no longer dedicated any effort to capture Rob.

He was pardoned in 1725 after writing a letter swearing allegiance to the House of Hanover. He then became a farmer and died peacefully in his sleep in 1734.

The Legend of Rob Roy

The incidents recorded in the life of the historic Rob Roy are pretty mundane. The details of his life are neither more nor less interesting than the various lives of contemporary criminals which circulated in print during the period that he lived. One such biography, which has been cited above, is The Highland Rogue: or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-Gregor, Commonly called Rob Roy (1723) published while Rob was still at large.

The celebrated poet, William Wordsworth, was inspired to author a poem about Rob after he visited a grave which he presumed to have been the famous outlaw’s:

Heaven gave Rob Roy a dauntless heart

And wondrous length and strength of arm

Nor craved he more to quell his foes,

Or keep his friends from harm.

Yet was Rob Roy as wise as brave;

Forgive me if the phrase be strong;–

A Poet worthy of Rob Roy

Must scorn a timid song.[iv]

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Title Page: Walter Scott, Rob Roy 1st Edn. (Edinburgh, 1818). Personal Collection.

However, perhaps the most famous reincarnation of Rob Roy was Walter Scott’s novel, Rob Roy (1818). Here the highland outlaw is a heavily romanticised outlaw: noble, brave, chivalrous, strong. The novel was phenomenally popular, with a ship leaving Leith for London containing nothing but boxes of Scott’s novel:

It is an event unprecedented in the annals either of literature or of the custom-house that the entire cargo of a packet, or smack, bound from Leith to London, should be the impression of a novel.[v]

Rob Roy was also the main protagonist in a number of Victorian and Edwardian penny dreadfuls. Modern audiences will likely be familiar with Rob Roy though the eponymous film starring Liam Neeson in 1995. Although it is not based upon Scott’s novel, the movie is, like Scott’s portrayal, a heavily romanticised account of Rob’s life: he falls victim to the scheming of an English aristocrat, his lands are confiscated, his wife is raped, and he is outlawed. Eventually, however, he kills his antagonist in a fight to the death at the end of the film.

Like so many criminals-turned-folk heroes, it is his ‘literary afterlife’ which has ensured that his story lives on, more than anything he ever actually did while he was alive.

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Aldine Rob Roy Library (c.1900)

References

[i] For a full biography see: David Stevenson, ‘MacGregor , Robert [Rob Roy] (bap. 1671, d. 1734)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. May 2006) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/17524> Accessed 13 Jan 2017]

[ii] The Highland Rogue: or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-Gregor, Commonly called Rob Roy (London: J. Billingsley, 1723), p.x.

[iii] Stevenson, ‘MacGregor , Robert [Rob Roy] (bap. 1671, d. 1734)’

[iv] The Complete Poetical Works by William Wordsworth ed. by John Morley (London: MacMillan, 1888) [Internet <http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww242.html> Accessed 13 January 2017].

[v] Walter Scott, Rob Roy ed. by Andrew Lang (1829; repr. Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 2010), p.69.

Thomas Miller’s “The Mysteries of London; or, Lights and Shadows of London Life” (1849)

Thomas Miller’s The Mysteries of London; or, The Lights and Shadows of London Life (1849) is a continuation of G. W. M. Reynolds’ eponymous penny blood serialised novel published between 1844 and 1848 (Reynolds had been inspired by an earlier French serial entitled The Mysteries of Paris published in 1844 by Eugene Sue). Reynolds decided to quit writing the Mysteries for two reasons: he had not only grown tired of writing it but had also fallen out with his publisher.[i] Miller, who was a skilled novelist, was chosen by the publisher, George Vickers, to continue the very popular serial. The Mysteries of London, in fact, was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era.

I have only recently tracked down a copy of Miller’s continuation of the Mysteries and have not had time to read it as yet. Like Reynolds’ first and second volume of the Mysteries, it does not yet appear to have been digitised by Nineteenth-Century Collections Online or the British Library, and is quite rare.[ii] Furthermore, it has not, thus far, been subjected to critical analysis.

Miller will be familiar to readers of this blog as the man who authored the Robin Hood novel, Royston Gower; or, The Days of King John (1838). Interestingly, from my own position as a Robin Hood researcher, the principal aristocratic villains of Miller’s Mysteries has the same surname of De Marchmont, the same name as one of the cruel Norman antagonists in Miller’s Robin Hood story. Furthermore, one of the principal female protagonists in Miller’s novel is named Marian, and she has travelled from a village near Sherwood to seek her fortune in London. Given that Miller’s Mysteries was written partially to highlight the abuses and corruption of the aristocracy, perhaps he was trying to incorporate the world of the Mysteries into the Robin Hood universe, in order to show that, even from the medieval period, aristocrats are villainous, self-serving, and corrupt.[iii]

Once I have read the novel in full an analysis and commentary will follow. This post is only to highlight some of the pictures that appeared in the serial. Permission is freely granted to use the pictures, should anybody wish to do so – a citation to the website is all that is asked as it does take a lot of time to scan these images in and upload them on the website (I had a recent twitter spat with a certain popular history magazine after they used one of my images).

See also my post on E L Blanchard’s Mysteries sequel.


References

[i] Anne Humpherys, ‘An Introduction to G. W. M. Reynolds’ “Encyclopedia of Tales”’ in G. W. M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press ed. by Anne Humpherys & Louis James (Ashgate, 2008), p.125.

[ii] See listings on Price One Penny database: copies are available in Bishopsgate Library, British Library, Bodleian Library, Cambridge University Library, Kansas University Library, Uni. California, Senate House, and Minneapolis Central Library www.priceonepenny.info

[iii] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), p.155; Knight says that Miller was ‘a serious radical’ and ‘a dedicated Chartist’. While there is sympathy for the Chartist cause in his work, I can find no overt reference in either Miller’s writings or those of Chartist historians to suggest that he played a role in the movement. His main association with Chartism seems to have come from the fact that he was friends with Thomas Cooper throughout his life.

Society Gets the Criminals it Deserves: The Resurrection Man from G. W. M. Reynolds’ “The Mysteries of London” (1844-45)

[All images unless otherwise stated are my own, scanned from a first edition of Reynolds’ Mysteries that is in my own collection – permission to use is freely granted providing there is a citation or link to this blog]

George William MacArthur Reynolds’ long-running serial novel, The Mysteries of London (1844-45), was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era. It was full of sex, featuring characters such as the debauched aristocrat who keeps four beautiful women at his beck and call to service his every need. There is a lot of violence which is often gratuitous, as well as healthy doses of radical political sentiments. Reynolds (1814-1879) was a radical who espoused many political causes, the principal ones being Republicanism and Chartism. The sex, violence, and political radicalism of this novel and of Reynolds’ other novels moved Charles Dickens (1812-1870) to exclaim that Reynolds’ name was

A name with which no lady’s, and no gentleman’s, should be associated.[1]

This post discusses the principal criminal character in The Mysteries of London, the Resurrection Man. While the Resurrection Man, or Anthony Tidkins as he is also known, is a menace to the good and virtuous (if slightly naïve) hero, Richard Markham, Reynolds simultaneously argues that we should not condemn this criminal character outright.

To begin, however, let us briefly discuss what a Resurrection Man was. The medical profession during the eighteenth century needed bodies to dissect and study. In London, the profession received a steady supply of bodies from the many criminals hanged at Tyburn. However, at the same time that the medical profession was expanding, juries were becoming more lenient and, to put it bluntly, there were not enough people being hanged. Still, the doctors managed to somehow get enough fresh cadavers to operate upon, often asking no awkward questions of the shady characters they had to do business with. Issues came to a head when it was revealed that Burke and Hare, two notorious Body Snatchers from Edinburgh in the 1820s, had not only been digging up graves but also murdering people to sell on to the surgeons. By the time Reynolds was writing The Mysteries of London the Anatomy Act had been passed which had at least gone some way to regulating the supply of cadavers for the medical profession – Doctors could now legally have access to the bodies of deceased people provided there was no existing relatives. The Resurrection Man does not simply dig up corpses, however: his exploits comprise a wide range of criminal activities: extortion, blackmail, highway robbery, burglary, and murder.

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The Resurrection Man Relates his History to the Cracksman – G W M Reynolds, The Mysteries of London (1844-45) (c) Stephen Basdeo

Yet the blame for the Resurrection Man’s course of life is attributed to Victorian society. Reynolds humanises him by giving his working- and middle-class readers the Resurrectionist’s backstory.

“I was born thirty-eight years ago, near the village of Walmer, in Kent. My father and mother occupied a small cottage – or rather hovel, made of the wreck of a ship, upon the sea-coast. Their ostensible employment was that of fishing: but it would appear that smuggling … formed a portion of my father’s avocations. The rich inhabitants of Walmer and Deal encouraged him in his contraband pursuits … and in consequence of the frequent visits they paid our cottage, they took a sort of liking to me.”[2]

Okay, so his father was a bit dodgy, and he used to supply the local villages with illegal cut-price luxuries. But neither the father nor young Tidkins are wicked to the core. They are generally good people.

But one morning the Resurrection Man’s father is arrested for smuggling, and the local villagers then become confirmed hypocrites:

“The whole neighbourhood expressed their surprise that a man who appeared to be so respectable, should turn out such a villain. The gentlemen who used to buy brandy of him talked loudly of the necessity of making an example of him: the ladies, who were accustomed to purchase gloves, silks, and eau-de-cologne wondered that such a desperate ruffian should have allowed them to sleep safe in their bed; and of course the clergyman and his wife kicked me ignominiously out of door”.[3]

While his father is in prison, the Resurrection Man and his mother are reduced to a state of dire poverty and the villagers, supposed Christian people, refuse to render them any assistance. The young soon-to-be criminal witnesses the local Parson preach charity and philanthropy from the pulpit.

The father is acquitted for want of evidence but the goodwill that Tidkins’ family enjoyed from the other villagers is never revived. Despite the hypocrisy he has witnessed, young Tidkins strives to grow up honest and respectable by finding himself a job. Yet he is met with more callous treatment at the hands of the villagers:

“I was not totally disheartened. I determined to call upon some of those ladies and gentlemen who had been my father’s best customers for his contraband articles. One lady upon hearing my business, seized hold of the poker with one hand and her salts-bottle with the other ;- a second was also nearly fainting, and rang the bell for her maid to bring her some eau-de-cologne – the very eau-decologne which my father had smuggled for her ;- a third begged me with tears in her eyes to retire, or my very suspicious appearance would frighten her lap-dog into fits ;- and a fourth (an old lady, who was my father’s best customer for French brandy), held up her hands to heaven, and implored the Lord to protect her from all sabbath-breakers, profane swearers, and drunkards”.[4]

From this point forward the young Tidkins realises that he can no longer maintain an honest livelihood even if he wanted to. But still he is not wicked. He becomes a Resurrection Man with his father and carries on the dubious trade for some time. Yet still there is the prospect of redemption for Tidkins. In the course of his duties as a Resurrectionist, he becomes acquainted with a certain medical doctor and his daughter. Tidkins and the daughter fall in love, and it looks as if he is ready to try and turn from his dishonest profession. However, further ill luck befalls the now adolescent Tidkins:

“One morning I was roving amidst the fields, when I heard a loud voice exclaim,- ‘I say, you fellow there, open the gate, will you?’ I turned round, and recognised the baronet on horseback. He had a large hunting whip in his hand.- ‘Open the gate!’ said I; ‘and whom for?’ ‘Whom for!’ repeated the baronet; ‘why, for me, to be sure, fellow.-‘ ‘Then open it yourself.’ said I. The baronet was near enough to me to reach me with his whip; and he dealt me a stinging blow across the face. Maddened with pain, and soured with vexation, I leapt over the gate and attacked the baronet with a stout ash stick which I carried in my hand. I dragged him from his horse, and thrashed him without mercy. When I was tired, I walked quietly away, he roaring after me that he would be revenged upon me as sure as I was born”.[5]

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The Resurrection Man Burns Down the Judge’s House – From G W M Reynolds The Mysteries of London (1844-45) (c) Stephen Basdeo

Unlike what the television period dramas of men such as Julian Fellowes would have you believe, the Victorian and Edwardian eras were not peopled with friendly and benevolent aristocrats. A lot of the time they were exploitative, framing laws in their own interests, resisting any demands for political reform, and treated the working poor with utter contempt. Tidkins is committed to gaol for two years and it is here that his heart becomes truly hardened:

“I could not see any advantage in being good … I swore within myself that whenever I did commence a course of crime, I would be an unsparing demon at my work”.[6]

He is eventually released, and after the manner of the time, there is no probationary service and he is simply left to fend for himself without a crust.

That day came. I was turned adrift, as before, without a shilling and without a crust … How could I remain honest, even if I had any longer been inclined to do so, when I could not get work and had no money – no bread – no lodging? The legislature does not think of all this. It fancies that all its duty consists in punishing men for crimes, and never dreams of adopting measures to prevent them from committing crimes at all. But I now no more thought of honesty: I went out of prison a confirmed ruffian. I had no money – no conscience – no fear – no hope – no love – no friendship – no sympathy – no kindly feeling of any sort. My soul had turned to the blackness of hell![7]

He resolves to get revenge upon the Justice who sentenced him to goal. He breaks into the Justice’s house and helps himself to the food in his pantry. He also carries off with him a significant quantity of silver plate. As he is making his way out of the Justice’s estate, he spies a barn and resolves to set it alight:

“A bright column of flame was shooting up to heaven! Oh I how happy did I feel at that moment. Happy! this is not the word! I was mad – intoxicated – delirious with joy. I literally danced as I saw the barn burning”.[8]

Tidkins’ glee is raised to new heights the day after when he reads in the newspaper that the fire in the Barn spilled over into the main house, and the Justice’s daughter is burned alive! He next puts the Baronet’s estate to the flame:

“Not many hours elapsed before I set fire to the largest barn upon the baronet’s estate. I waited in the neighbourhood and glutted myself with a view of the conflagration. The damage was immense.[9]

Although both the Justice and the Baronet suspect Tidkins of setting their property alight, they cannot prove it and although he is re-arrested he is released due to lack of evidence.

“And the upper classes wonder that there are so many incendiary fires: my only surprise is, that there are so few! Ah! the Lucifer-match is a fearful weapon in the hands of the man whom the laws, the aristocracy, and the present state of society have ground down to the very dust”.[10]

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G W M Reynolds – Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Make no mistake: Reynolds does not ask us to sympathise with Tidkins – he is, after all, a wicked man. Rather, we are supposed to understand what led him to commit crimes in the first place.

Society has made him the way he is: the Resurrection Man was from the working classes, and the cards were stacked against him since birth. He had no choice but to turn to crime. This was a feature of what Gertrude Himmelfarb calls Reynolds’ nihilistic political radicalism: he often highlighted the plight of the working classes and the need for their enfranchisement, but as Himmelfarb says, if one examines Reynolds’ Mysteries, the only social message to be drawn from it is that:

Violence and depravity, licentiousness and criminality, were the only forms of existence, and potentially the only means of redemption, available to the poor.[11]

The root cause of criminality, as Reynolds argues, is the social and political oppression of the working poor. As the Resurrection Man says:

Let a rich man accuse a poor man before a justice, a jury, or a judge, and see how quick the poor wretch is condemned! The aristocracy hold the lower classes in horror and abhorrence. The legislature thinks that if it does not make the most grinding laws to keep down the poor, the poor will rise up and commit the most unheard-of atrocities. In fact the rich are prepared to believe any infamy which is imputed to the poor.[12]

Other questions of society are also raised in Reynolds’ novel, such as how to properly treat prisoners. Turning them out into the street with minimal support will only increase recidivism rates and harden them further. Thus, Reynolds’ depiction of the Resurrection Man’s history anticipates Emile Durkeim’s statement that ‘society gets the criminals it deserves’.


References

[1] Charles Dickens, The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens ed. by Madeline House and Graham Storey 12 Vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), 5: 604.

[2] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London 2 Vols. (London: G. Vickers, 1845), 1: 191.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 192.

[5] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 195.

[6] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 195.

[7] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 196.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983) p.450.

[12] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 193.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The indomitable leader of the Saxon archers.[3]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References

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