The Female Vagrant

By Stephen Basdeo

English authorities always seems to have had a harsh attitude towards its destitute and homeless people, or vagrants. At the height of the Black Death in medieval England, when labour was becoming scarce and many people, understandably, were falling ill, the Ordinance of Labourers made ‘idleness’ a criminal offence. The penalty for being as an idle vagrant was whipping or branding.

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20th-Century Illustration

During the reign of Henry VIII, vagabonds were again targeted by lawmakers. The Vagabonds Act (1530) decreed that

“Beggars who are old and incapable of working receive a beggar’s licence. On the other hand, [there should be] whipping and imprisonment for sturdy vagabonds. They are to be tied to the cart-tail and whipped until the blood streams from their bodies, then they are to swear on oath to go back to their birthplace or to serve where they have lived the last three years and to ‘put themselves to labour’. For the second arrest for vagabondage the whipping is to be repeated and half the ear sliced off; but for the third relapse the offender is to be executed as a hardened criminal and enemy of the common weal.”

More laws against vagabonds were passed in 1547, 1572, and 1597. The harsh laws against vagabondage occurred at an interesting time in English history: it was a period when feudalism—through which serfs worked for and owed loyalty to the lords in return for protection—was breaking down and capitalism was emerging. The old social structures, with kings, lords, barons, and knights, still remained, of course. Yet whereas at the height of the middle ages the upper classes felt some kind of social responsibility to those beneath them, in the new capitalist, individualist world, the elites no longer felt obligated to care for society’s poorest.

And of course, there was no attempt to address the causes of vagrancy. The authorities merely saw it as a problem which had to be dealt with through harsh measures such as branding. The Henrician and Elizabethan laws against vagrancy had a minor update during Queen Anne’s reign, but the punishments remained largely the same.

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By the time that the industrial revolution began in the mid-eighteenth century, the power and social pre-eminence of the nobility had been displaced by the rising bourgeoisie. Where the lords in a feudal world might have felt some kind of obligation to the poor and needy, by the Georgian period, contract had replaced custom and, in the words of Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto (1848),

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

There had indeed always been poor people, but poverty had a new sting in its tail: people were now poor in a capitalist world in which, as Marx rightly observed, the paternalist bonds between the classes existed no more. Poets in the late eighteenth century were observed the poverty around. William Wordsworth was one such poet who was moved to write a heart-rending ‘biographical’ poem of the plight of a homeless woman living in the late eighteenth century (the poem does not refer to any particular historical figure but was from Wordsworth’s imagination—vagrancy was not an uncommon experience for many at the time).

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Later Victorian image of a homeless woman, c. 1890.

The poem was published in Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798). The volume was envisaged as an experiment—it marked a shift away from the pompous ‘Augustan’ poetry of the eighteenth century, which dealt with great men and big events, to a poetry which could be intelligible to common people. Most of the poems in the collection deal not with great men but with commoners as the subject. Even the use of the word ‘ballad’ in the title evokes the popular poetry of the plebeian classes.

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William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

The poem is meant to evoke feelings of tenderness and kindness to those less fortunate, and in this, at least, Wordsworth succeeded. In the words of Joseph Devey, writing in A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873):

It would appear that Wordsworth designed, by the instrumentality of the lowest ranks of society, to erect a poetic temple, at the shrine of which the most selfish hearts should be humanized, and a feeling of love kept alive, reciprocating and reciprocated, between the rich and the poor, the politically great and the socially defenceless, for ever. ‘Life is the vital energy of love;’ and as long as the two extremes of society stood looking at each other with feelings of repulsion, the end of existence could not be realised. His verse was to become the medium of identifying the loftiest purposes of his art with the purest aims of Christianity.

Yet things took a while to get better: the Speemhamland System of dole relief and wage subsidies did attempt to deal some of the causes of homelessness, but another vagrancy act was passed in 1824 which made it an offence to beg for money or to sleep rough.

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The Vagrancy Act (1824)

And the Act remains in force to this day in England (though thankfully whipping is no longer part of the punishment, merely a fine):

In 2016, the Vagrancy Act (1824) was used nearly 3,000 times to punish poor rough sleepers.


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The Female Vagrant as it appeared in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads (1798)

William Wordsworth, The Female Vagrant (1798)

1 By Derwent’s side my Father’s cottage stood,

(The Woman thus her artless story told)

One field, a flock, and what the neighbouring flood

Supplied, to him were more than mines of gold.

Light was my sleep; my days in transport roll’d:

With thoughtless joy I stretch’d along the shore

My father’s nets, or watched, when from the fold

High o’er the cliffs I led my fleecy store,

A dizzy depth below! his boat and twinkling oar.

 

2 My father was a good and pious man,

An honest man by honest parents bred,

And I believe that, soon as I began

To lisp, he made me kneel beside my bed,

And in his hearing there my prayers I said:

And afterwards, by my good father taught,

I read, and loved the books in which I read;

For books in every neighbouring house I sought,

And nothing to my mind a sweeter pleasure brought.

 

3 Can I forget what charms did once adorn

My garden, stored with pease, and mint, and thyme,

And rose and lilly for the sabbath morn?

The sabbath bells, and their delightful chime;

The gambols and wild freaks at shearing time;

My hen’s rich nest through long grass scarce espied;

The cowslip-gathering at May’s dewy prime;

The swans, that, when I sought the water-side,

From far to meet me came, spreading their snowy pride.

 

4 The staff I yet remember which upbore

The bending body of my active sire;

His seat beneath the honeyed sycamore

When the bees hummed, and chair by winter fire;

When market-morning came, the neat attire

With which, though bent on haste, myself I deck’d;

My watchful dog, whose starts of furious ire,

When stranger passed, so often I have check’d;

The red-breast known for years, which at my casement peck’d.

 

5 The suns of twenty summers danced along,—

Ah! little marked, how fast they rolled away:

Then rose a mansion proud our woods among,

And cottage after cottage owned its sway,

No joy to see a neighbouring house, or stray

Through pastures not his own, the master took;

My Father dared his greedy wish gainsay;

He loved his old hereditary nook,

And ill could I the thought of such sad parting brook.

 

6 But, when he had refused the proffered gold,

To cruel injuries he became a prey,

Sore traversed in whate’er he bought and sold:

His troubles grew upon him day by day,

Till all his substance fell into decay.

His little range of water was denied;

All but the bed where his old body lay,

All, all was seized, and weeping, side by side,

We sought a home where we uninjured might abide.

 

7 Can I forget that miserable hour,

When from the last hill-top, my sire surveyed,

Peering above the trees, the steeple tower,

That on his marriage-day sweet music made?

Till then he hoped his bones might there be laid,

Close by my mother in their native bowers:

Bidding me trust in God, he stood and prayed,—

I could not pray: — through tears that fell in showers,

Glimmer’d our dear-loved home, alas! no longer ours!

 

8 There was a youth whom I had loved so long,

That when I loved him not I cannot say.

‘Mid the green mountains many and many a song

We two had sung, like little birds in May.

When we began to tire of childish play

We seemed still more and more to prize each other:

We talked of marriage and our marriage day;

And I in truth did love him like a brother,

For never could I hope to meet with such another.

 

9 His father said, that to a distant town

He must repair, to ply the artist’s trade.

What tears of bitter grief till then unknown!

What tender vows our last sad kiss delayed!

To him we turned: — we had no other aid.

Like one revived, upon his neck I wept,

And her whom he had loved in joy, he said

He well could love in grief: his faith he kept;

And in a quiet home once more my father slept.

 

10 Four years each day with daily bread was blest,

By constant toil and constant prayer supplied.

Three lovely infants lay upon my breast;

And often, viewing their sweet smiles, I sighed,

And knew not why. My happy father died

When sad distress reduced the children’s meal:

Thrice happy! that from him the grave did hide

The empty loom, cold hearth, and silent wheel,

And tears that flowed for ills which patience could not heal.

 

11 ‘Twas a hard change, an evil time was come;

We had no hope, and no relief could gain.

But soon, with proud parade, the noisy drum

Beat round, to sweep the streets of want and pain.

My husband’s arms now only served to strain

Me and his children hungering in his view:

In such dismay my prayers and tears were vain:

To join those miserable men he flew;

And now to the sea-coast, with numbers more, we drew.

 

12 There foul neglect for months and months we bore,

Nor yet the crowded fleet its anchor stirred.

Green fields before us and our native shore,

By fever, from polluted air incurred,

Ravage was made, for which no knell was heard.

Fondly we wished, and wished away, nor knew,

‘Mid that long sickness, and those hopes deferr’d,

That happier days we never more must view:

The parting signal streamed, at last the land withdrew,

 

13 But from delay the summer calms were past.

On as we drove, the equinoctial deep

Ran mountains-high before the howling blast.

We gazed with terror on the gloomy sleep

Of them that perished in the whirlwind’s sweep,

Untaught that soon such anguish must ensue,

Our hopes such harvest of affliction reap,

That we the mercy of the waves should rue.

We reached the western world, a poor, devoted crew.

 

14 Oh! dreadful price of being to resign

All that is dear in being! better far

In Want’s most lonely cave till death to pine,

Unseen, unheard, unwatched by any star;

Or in the streets and walks where proud men are,

Better our dying bodies to obtrude,

Than dog-like, wading at the heels of war,

Protract a curst existence, with the brood

That lap (their very nourishment!) their brother’s blood.

 

15 The pains and plagues that on our heads came down,

Disease and famine, agony and fear,

In wood or wilderness, in camp or town,

It would thy brain unsettle even to hear.

All perished — all, in one remorseless year,

Husband and children! one by one, by sword

And ravenous plague, all perished: every tear

Dried up, despairing, desolate, on board

A British ship I waked, as from a trance restored.

 

16 Peaceful as some immeasurable plain

By the first beams of dawning light impress’d,

In the calm sunshine slept the glittering main.

The very ocean has its hour of rest,

That comes not to the human mourner’s breast.

Remote from man, and storms of mortal care,

A heavenly silence did the waves invest;

I looked and looked along the silent air,

Until it seemed to bring a joy to my despair.

 

17 Ah! how unlike those late terrific sleeps!

And groans, that rage of racking famine spoke,

Where looks inhuman dwelt on festering heaps!

The breathing pestilence that rose like smoke!

The shriek that from the distant battle broke!

The mine’s dire earthquake, and the pallid host

Driven by the bomb’s incessant thunder-stroke

To loathsome vaults, where heart-sick anguish toss’d,

Hope died, and fear itself in agony was lost!

 

18 Yet does that burst of woe congeal my frame,

When the dark streets appeared to heave and gape,

While like a sea the storming army came,

And Fire from Hell reared his gigantic shape,

And Murder, by the ghastly gleam, and Rape

Seized their joint prey, the mother and the child!

But from these crazing thoughts my brain, escape!

—For weeks the balmy air breathed soft and mild,

And on the gliding vessel Heaven and Ocean smiled.

 

19 Some mighty gulph of separation past,

I seemed transported to another world:—

A thought resigned with pain, when from the mast

The impatient mariner the sail unfurl’d,

And whistling, called the wind that hardly curled

The silent sea. From the sweet thoughts of home,

And from all hope I was forever hurled.

For me — farthest from earthly port to roam

Was best, could I but shun the spot where man might come.

 

20 And oft, robb’d of my perfect mind, I thought

At last my feet a resting-place had found:

Here will I weep in peace, (so fancy wrought,)

Roaming the illimitable waters round;

Here watch, of every human friend disowned,

All day, my ready tomb the ocean-flood—

To break my dream the vessel reached its bound:

And homeless near a thousand homes I stood,

And near a thousand tables pined, and wanted food.

 

21 By grief enfeebled was I turned adrift,

Helpless as sailor cast on desart rock;

Nor morsel to my mouth that day did lift,

Nor dared my hand at any door to knock.

I lay, where with his drowsy mates, the cock

From the cross timber of an out-house hung;

How dismal tolled, that night, the city clock!

At morn my sick heart hunger scarcely stung,

Nor to the beggar’s language could I frame my tongue.

 

22 So passed another day, and so the third:

Then did I try, in vain, the crowd’s resort,

In deep despair by frightful wishes stirr’d,

Near the sea-side I reached a ruined fort:

There, pains which nature could no more support,

With blindness linked, did on my vitals fall;

Dizzy my brain, with interruption short

Of hideous sense; I sunk, nor step could crawl,

And thence was borne away to neighbouring hospital.

 

23 Recovery came with food: but still, my brain

Was weak, nor of the past had memory.

I heard my neighbours, in their beds, complain

Of many things which never troubled me;

Of feet still bustling round with busy glee,

Of looks where common kindness had no part,

Of service done with careless cruelty,

Fretting the fever round the languid heart,

And groans, which, as they said, would make a dead man start.

 

24 These things just served to stir the torpid sense,

Nor pain nor pity in my bosom raised.

Memory, though slow, returned with strength; and thence

Dismissed, again on open day I gazed,

At houses, men, and common light, amazed.

The lanes I sought, and as the sun retired,

Came, where beneath the trees a faggot blazed;

The wild brood saw me weep, my fate enquired,

And gave me food, and rest, more welcome, more desired.

 

25 My heart is touched to think that men like these,

The rude earth’s tenants, were my first relief:

How kindly did they paint their vagrant ease!

And their long holiday that feared not grief,

For all belonged to all, and each was chief.

No plough their sinews strained; on grating road

No wain they drove, and yet, the yellow sheaf

In every vale for their delight was stowed:

For them, in nature’s meads, the milky udder flowed.

 

26 Semblance, with straw and panniered ass, they made

Of potters wandering on from door to door:

But life of happier sort to me pourtrayed,

And other joys my fancy to allure;

The bag-pipe dinning on the midnight moor

In barn uplighted, and companions boon

Well met from far with revelry secure,

In depth of forest glade, when jocund June

Rolled fast along the sky his warm and genial moon.

 

27 But ill it suited me, in journey dark

O’er moor and mountain, midnight theft to hatch;

To charm the surly house-dog’s faithful bark,

Or hang on tiptoe at the lifted latch;

The gloomy lantern, and the dim blue match,

The black disguise, the warning whistle shrill,

And ear still busy on its nightly watch,

Were not for me, brought up in nothing ill;

Besides, on griefs so fresh my thoughts were brooding still.

 

28 What could I do, unaided and unblest?

Poor Father! gone was every friend of thine:

And kindred of dead husband are at best

Small help, and, after marriage such as mine,

With little kindness would to me incline.

Ill was I then for toil or service fit:

With tears whose course no effort could confine,

By high-way side forgetful would I sit

Whole hours, my idle arms in moping sorrow knit.

 

29 I lived upon the mercy of the fields,

And oft of cruelty the sky accused;

On hazard, or what general bounty yields,

Now coldly given, now utterly refused.

The fields I for my bed have often used:

But, what afflicts my peace with keenest ruth

Is, that I have my inner self abused,

Foregone the home delight of constant truth,

And clear and open soul, so prized in fearless youth.

 

30 Three years a wanderer, often have I view’d,

In tears, the sun towards that country tend

Where my poor heart lost all its fortitude:

And now across this moor my steps I bend—

Oh! tell me whither — for no earthly friend

Have I. — She ceased, and weeping turned away,

As if because her tale was at an end

She wept; — because she had no more to say

Of that perpetual weight which on her spirit lay.

 

 

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Review: “The 19th-Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption” by Stephen Carver

By Stephen Basdeo

Everyone nowadays seems fascinated by the Victorian criminal underworld. From Ripper Street to Peaky Blinders, it seems people cannot get enough of murdered sex workers and brutal yet gentlemanly gangsters. We all now know the tropes: most of the action—murder, rape, theft, domestic violence—in these television dramas takes places at night in gas-lit slum courts and alleyways where downtrodden working-class people eke out a living on poverty.

In The 19th-Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption, historian and novelist Stephen Carver, drawing upon a wide range of archival and literary sources, takes us on a journey through the seedy courts and sinister alleyways of the criminal underworld which existed during the nineteenth century. Yet while we today—as many Victorians did also—associate the idea of an underworld solely with the poor and destitute, Carver’s subtitle is significant: he examines the actual crimes which occurred in the period, taking us through the various laws which were passed against specific crimes theft and murder; he then takes us through a discussion of the controversy surrounding these crimes which was aired in the press and popular literature; and through his discussion of “white collar” crimes such as fraud, shows us how corruption reigned supreme in the higher echelons of society.

There are 9 chapters in total, each of which deals with a separate aspect of the various crimes and vices of the nineteenth-century underworld. Carver is also a novelist (see his other works), and it’s truly a blessing to have him bring his literary talents to a history book. I’ve read many academic histories on crime and many of them can end up reading a little drily, endlessly lost in theories and debates. Academic debates have their place in Carver’s history here, of course, but the reader is not overburdened with incomprehensible jargon from the likes of Michel Foucault—it seems literally every academic work on crime now feels obligated to cite the Foucault in some way or other these days.

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Cover of the forthcoming paperback edition

Some of the events Carver recounts are unpleasant, but because he is a skilled writer he manifests a certain sensitivity in dealing with the more horrid aspects–child murders, for instance, are dealt with maturely and soberly. So this is not some rather rubbish true crime book–which always seem to be about ogling the foul deeds committed by brutes–but a well-written book which entertains where possible but treats the source material and subject (and the reader) with respect. I enjoyed all of the chapters, but I have to admit my favourite was chapter 5 on ‘The Real Oliver Twist’. He does not attempt to find a ‘real’ Oliver Twist in the manner that some would try and look for a ‘real’ Robin Hood; instead, he contextualises Dickens’s famous tale alongside contemporary high-profile cases and scandals such as baby farming, pick-pocketing epidemics, and the career of Ikey Solomon, a Jewish fence who almost certainly provided inspiration to Dickens for Fagin.

We find the ‘problem’ of prostitution laid bare to public view. While many true crime books often present sex workers as the helpless victims of fate, consigned forever to ply their trade on the rough street corners of the East End, Carver, refreshingly, at least gives some of these now long dead women some of their agency back—turns out some of them thoroughly enjoyed their profession and had no qualms about admitting it, as one ‘shrewd and clever’ girl told one of Henry Mayhew’s social investigators in the 1850s:

What are my habits? Why, if I have no letters or visits from any of my friends, I get up about four o’clock, dress (“en dishabille”) and dine; after that I may walk about the streets for an hour or two, and pick up any one I am fortunate enough to meet with, that is if I want money; afterwards I go to the Holborn, dance a little, and if any one likes me I take him home with me, if not I go to the Haymarket, and wander from one café to another, from Sally’s to the Carlton, from Barn’s to Sam’s, and if I find no one there I go, if I feel inclined, to the divans. I like the Grand Turkish best, but you don’t as a rule find good men in any of the divans. Strange things happen to us sometimes: we may now and then die of consumption; but the other day a lady friend of mine met a gentleman at Sam’s, and yesterday morning they were married at St. George’s, Hanover Square. The gentleman has lots of money, I believe, and he started off with her at once for the Continent. It is very true this is an unusual case; but we often do marry, and well too; why shouldn’t we, we are pretty, we dress well, we can talk and insinuate ourselves into the hearts of men by appealing to their passions and their senses.”

She may have been classed as a ‘fallen woman’ by pompous moralists, but there was also a chance she could rise to the higher echelons of society through her profession as well.

Yet the nineteenth-century underworld was by no means a poor man’s world.

Many true crime books rehearse those well-known tropes of gas-lit seedy alleys on their front covers. Yet the first thing that strikes the purchaser of Carver’s book is that, instead of such dark streets or a picture from Gustave Doré, we get a splash of colour—an image of pugilists adorns the spine, while the centrepiece of the front cover shows a well-dressed gentleman chatting up a lass whose breasts are partially exposed, although the paperback edition has a slightly different image on the front from Egan’s work. These images are taken from Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821)—the father of Pierce Egan the Younger (1814–80) whom I have written quite a lot about—and the images were a good choice because as Carver shows in his book, the underworld could be a very fun place if you had the money to enjoy the various attractions which London had to offer. It was a place where, as Egan said:

Every man of the most religious or moral habits, attached to any sect, may find something to please his palate, regulate his taste, suit his pocket, enlarge his mind, and make him happy and comfortable.

As Carver further points out:

In Life in London, the underworld is never represented by Egan as the menacing, gothic space it became to the Victorians. If [the characters of Life in London] wander somewhere scary, they do not hang around.

So, for a modestly priced volume which will soon be available in paperback as well, you too can, with Carver, navigate the seedy underworld of nineteenth-century London which could be both fun and frightening!


Carver, Stephen, The 19th-Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy and Corruption (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018), ISBN: 9781526707543 209pp.

Crime in a Communist Utopia

“Up at the League, says a friend, there had been one night a brisk conversational discussion, as to what would happen on the Morrow of the Revolution, finally shading off into a vigorous statement by various friends of their views on the future of the fully-developed new society … [William Guest] found himself musing on the subject-matter of discussion, but still discontentedly and unhappily. “If I could but see it!” … “If I could but see it! If I could but see it!”

William Morris, News from Nowhere; or, An Epoch of Rest (1890)[i]

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William Morris–‘artist, designer, and visionary socialist’ (ODNB)

By Stephen Basdeo

On 11 January 1890, the first instalment of a curious new sci-fi novella appeared in the Commonweal magazine. The tale, a follow up to an earlier novel called A Dream of John Ball (1886), was called News from Nowhere; or, An Epoch of Rest and its author was William Morris, an artist, designer, and ‘visionary socialist’ according to The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Morris’s novel presented readers with a vision of a future society—sometime after the year 2003—when ‘mastership’ had changed into ‘fellowship’; the capitalist world system had ended, and Britain had been transformed into a socialist utopia.

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The serialization of News from Nowhere in the Commonweal

The novel offers little in terms of action but instead aims to give a picture of how life would be after the revolution, the details of which come from his many conversations with the inhabitants of twenty-first century Britain. One of the things that Guest is startled to learn is that the only means of exchange is an exchange of labour–men work for subsistence and pleasure–while cash and coins, those physical symbols of capitalism, have disappeared, as he finds out in his exchange with a waterman:

“You think that I have done you a service; so you feel yourself bound to give me something which I am not to give to a neighbour, unless he has done something special for me. I have heard of this kind of thing; but pardon me for saying, that it seems to us a troublesome and roundabout custom; and we don’t know how to manage it. And you see this ferrying and giving people casts about the water is my business, which I would do for anybody; so to take gifts in connection with it would look very queer. Besides, if one person gave me something, then another might, and another, and so on; and I hope you won’t think me rude if I say that I shouldn’t know where to stow away so many mementos of friendship.”

Unlike many utopian novels, past and present, Morris does not shy away from addressing the question of crime, and how this would be dealt with in a seemingly idyllic world (dystopias, in contrast, usually show a lawless and brutal world) . A famous phrase, said to be uttered by Robert F. Kennedy, although its sentiments have been echoed by earlier writers such as G. W. M. Reynolds (1814–79), is that ‘society gets the criminals it deserves’. Late-Victorian society, in which Morris lived, was a capitalist society; Gladstonian Liberalism—favouring free trade, low external tariffs, the protection of private property rights, and a laissez-faire approach to managing social problems—reigned supreme.

In late-Victorian England, when Morris was writing, most of the crimes which people found themselves accused of in the dock were crimes relating to the theft of property. The historian Drew Gray points out, for example, that

‘Most crime is related to property and nearly all of those imprisoned, transported, or hanged from the 1700s onwards had been convicted of stealing something’.[ii]

Gray’s quantitative analysis of convictions at the Old Bailey between 1674 and 1913 support this: of the 211,112 trials listed in the annals of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 85 per cent of these were concerned with some form of property offending.[iii] Murder and manslaughter, in spite of their prominence in the press, accounted for only 2.33 per cent of all offences tried at the Old Bailey during this time, which suggests that Georgian and Victorian society’s obsession with violent crime was really misplaced.

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The famous Kelmscott edition of News from Nowhere (1892)

Surely in this new world there were still criminals? So Guest decides to ask his traveller what happened to the judiciary and police organisations:

“I thought that I understood from something that fell from you a little while ago that you had abolished civil law. Is that so, literally?”

“It abolished itself, my friend,” said he. “As I said before, the civil law-courts were upheld for the defence of private property; for nobody ever pretended that it was possible to make people act fairly to each other by means of brute force. Well, private property being abolished, all the laws and all the legal ‘crimes’ which it had manufactured of course came to an end. Thou shalt not steal, had to be translated into, Thou shalt work in order to live happily. Is there any need to enforce that commandment by violence?”

What the future resident of Britain is telling our Victorian is, essentially, that the law, being constituted to protect one thing—private property—made people criminal (see also earlier radical, G W M Reynolds, and his thoughts on the causes of crime). This is not simply the whimsical thoughts of a socialist dreamer, however, for modern criminologists would agree with the assessment above:

‘Via the criminal justice process—police, prosecutors, and courts—we construct criminals. That is to say, we take people through a process of arresting, charging, and prosecuting, and, where there is a finding of guilt, we label them as criminal’.[iv]

As most of the laws relate to the protection of private property—which is as true in our own day as it was in Morris’s era—so when a person transgressed the laws of property they were labelled as criminal. These judicial structures, according to Karl Marx, were the means through which the ruling classes in all ages were able to keep those beneath them oppressed.

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Murder and other violence crimes occupy most of the coverage in the press, but it actually accounts for very little of all crimes prosecuted.

The idea that societies construct criminals, at least when it comes to property crime, is fairly uncontroversial. Yet what about violent crime—how was that dealt with in the socialist new world of the twentieth century? The waterman tells Guest that,

“By far the greater part of these in past days were the result of the laws of private property, which forbade the satisfaction of their natural desires to all but a privileged few, and of the general visible coercion which came of those laws. All that cause of violent crime is gone. Again, many violent acts came from the artificial perversion of the sexual passions, which caused over-weening jealousy and the like miseries. Now, when you look carefully into these, you will find that what lay at the bottom of them was mostly the idea (a law-made idea) of the woman being the property of the man, whether he were husband , father, brother, or what not. That idea has of course vanished with private property, as well as certain follies about the ‘ruin’ of women for following their natural desires in an illegal way, which of course was a convention caused by the laws of private property. Another cognate cause of crimes of violence was the family tyranny, which was the subject of so many novels and stories of the past and which once more was the result of private property. Of course that is all ended, since families are held together by no bond of coercion, legal or social, but by mutual liking and affection, and everybody is free to come or go as he or she pleases. Furthermore, our standards of honour and public estimation are very different from the old ones; success in beating our neighbours is a road to renown now closed, let us hope for ever. Each man is free to exercise his special faculty to the utmost and every one encourages him in so doing. So that we have got rid of the scowling envy, coupled by the poets with hatred, and surely with good reason; heaps of unhappiness and ill-blood were caused by it, which with irritable and passionate men – i.e., energetic and active men – often led to violence.”

Let us take this apart and discuss it in further detail, particularly the point about violent crime arising out of ‘the artificial perversion of the sexual passions’. Residents of the future world are no longer in relationships as a means to survive in a capitalist world; women are not the property of men, and each person is free to love whom they will. In an 1889 lecture entitled ‘How Shall We Live Then?’, Morris expanded upon

We shall not be happy unless we live like good animals, unless we enjoy the exercise of the ordinary functions of life: eating sleeping loving walking running swimming riding sailing [sic] we must be free to enjoy all these exercises of the body without any sense of shame; without any suspicion that our mental powers are so remarkable and godlike that we are rather above such common things.[v]

According to Ady Mineo, ‘these propositions … polemically challenge the cornerstones of Victorian morality, are translated into imaginative and narrative terms in his utopian romance’; what Guest sees are healthy, happy, and self-confident people whose lives and sexual identities are no longer confined to the role designated to them through the ‘callous cash nexus’. No one in any relationship was another person’s ‘property’; so most crimes of passion, which often stemmed from adultery, would simply fade away in the utopia of the twenty-first century.

William Guest still takes some convincing, however, and turns to the subject of violent crimes which are unrelated to property:

“Hot blood will err sometimes. A man may strike another, and the stricken strike back again, and the result be a homicide, to put it at the worst. But what then? Shall the neighbours make it worse still? Shall we think so poorly of each other as to suppose that the slain man calls on us to revenge him, when we know that if he had been maimed, he would, when in cold blood and able to weigh all the circumstances, have forgiven his maimer? Or will the death of the slayer bring the slain man to life again and cure the unhappiness his death has caused?”

“Yes,” I said, “but consider, must not the safety of society be safeguarded by some punishment?”

“There, neighbour!” said the old man, with some exultation. “You have hit the mark. That punishment of which men used to talk so wisely and act so foolishly, what was it but the expression of their fear? And they had no need to fear, since they—i.e., the rulers of society—were dwelling like an armed band in a hostile country. But we who live amongst our friends need neither fear nor punish. Surely if we, in dread of an occasional rare homicide, an occasional rough blow, were solemnly and legally to commit homicide and violence, we could only be a society of ferocious cowards. Don’t you think so neighbour?”

Essentially, in a society of equals, no one should desire to strike another. Sometimes a homicide committed in ‘hot blood’ has happened in the utopia, of course, but it there is no need to punish the perpetrator with incarceration or even the death penalty (still very much used against criminals in Morris’s day); that would not do society any good and besides the humiliation and shunning he would receive from his ‘fellows’ would be a deterrent enough to effectively stop it from happening.

Morris’s romance has been accused of being a bit whimsical and his point about the deterrent of murder many modern readers might read as naïve. Yet in the first instance he was certainly correct in surmising that the idea of crime and who is labelled as a criminal has much to do with how the law—formulated by the ruling class—is designed to keep another class oppressed. For Morris, there was no place for the law in a future socialist society.


[i] William Morris, News from Nowhere; or, An Epoch of Rest (London: Kelmscott, 1892), online edn <http://morrisedition.lib.uiowa.edu> [Accessed 18 April 2019].

[ii] Drew Gray, Crime, Policing, and Punishment in England, 1660–1914 (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 328.

[iii] Ibid., p. 90.

[iv] Tim Newburn, Criminology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 14.

[v] Ady Mineo, ‘Eros Unbound: Sexual Identities in News from Nowhere’, Journal of William Morris Studies, 9: 4 (1992), 8–14 (p. 9).

“Confusion, horror, and bloodshed”: Joseph Ritson’s Eye-Witness Account of the Gordon Riots in 1780

By Stephen Basdeo

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will have noticed that across the English Channel in France, quite a few people are very, very annoyed with the current administration. The people of France, having had a major revolution between 1789 and 1799, and large-scale rebellions in 1830, 1832, 1848, 1871, and 1968, have something of a reputation for rioting.

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Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)

Yet there was a time that the English were known as the rebellious people of Europe. During the 1700s, riots frequently broke out in the capital; it was an era in which, according to Pat Rogers, ‘King Mob might resume his reign after the briefest interregnum’. One of the worst of these riots was the Gordon Riots in June 1780 when, for just over a week, London was under mob rule. The diaries of a young conveyancer, named Joseph Ritson (1752–1803), who had recently moved to London offer an interesting eye-witness account of those weeks.

Ritson had been a legal apprentice in his home town of Stockton but was encouraged to move to London by his employer, Mr Robinson, because he felt that the young Joseph’s talents and ambition would be put to better use in the capital than they ever could be in a provincial northern town. So, at the age of 23 this young lad, from a poor family of yeoman farmers in Stockton, set off to London on foot with nothing but a knapsack containing two shirts.

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18th-century Stockton

He found lodgings at Grays Inn and, almost immediately as he arrived in 1776, found employment as a clerk in the firm of Masterman and Lloyd on a salary of £150 per year—he was hardly poor on this salary, but he was not exactly rich either. While he no doubt applied himself diligently in the service of his employers, his real passion lay in researching ancient books and manuscripts and writing history books.

There is little political comment in Ritson’s letters until the period of the French Revolution, other than a few snipes at both the Whigs and the Tories. Although he had his own faith, furthermore, he appears to have regarded it as a private matter and rarely passed comment on religious subjects. He was unusual, however; Britain had been a Protestant nation since the sixteenth century and Catholics were forbidden from holding public office, attending universities, or even serving in the army. The establishment was paranoid that any adherent of the Catholic religion might get close to power—Britain had after all gotten rid of its pro-Catholic monarch in 1688 and replaced him with a Protestant King and Queen, while Catholics had largely supported the Jacobite rebels in 1715 and 1745. A large part of Britain’s emerging national identity was founded upon loyalty to the Protestant Monarchy; to be a Catholic in eighteenth-century England must have felt similar to what it was like being a communist in McCarthy-Era USA.

But in 1778, Britain was fighting a war against its Americans colonies who wanted independence, and France who decided to support the Americans. Britain needed soldiers, and so the government—supported by Parliament—thought that it might be expedient to lift the ban on Catholics serving in the army as well as granting them some civil liberties, all contained in the Papists’ Act.

While Ritson paid no heed to what was going on in Parliament, a young Scottish nobleman named Lord George Gordon got angry. He signed up to the Protestant Association—a kind of early modern extra-parliamentary pressure group—and became its president in 1779. He petitioned King George III on numerous occasions to repeal the Papists Act, but the king just humoured him. Annoyed with the rejection of his numerous appeals, on 29 May 1780, Gordon rallied the members of his Protestant Association and marched on the House of Commons to deliver a final petition.

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Lord George Gordon

The anti-Catholic crowd grew in size and eventually numbered 60,000 people. When parliamentarians refused to debate the public’s petition, the crowd got angry and began attacking some members of the House of Lords.

Things spiralled out of control quickly.

Naturally, the young Ritson, who was very close to his mother back in Stockton—who at this point was gravely ill—sought to reassure her that he had come to no harm. After all, news still travelled fast in the Georgian era:

Grays Inn, 7th June, 1780

Dear Mother,

I am very well and am much grieved to find that you should continue otherwise, but hope to God you will soon get better of your complaint … the confusion which reigns here would have prevented me from writing sooner. A general spirit of discontent has long been increasing among the people: it has at last broken out among the lower class in London.[i]

It will be noticed that Ritson here foregrounds the ‘spirit of discontent’ among the poorer classes of people. Yes, he acknowledges later in his letter that he personally saw many ‘Down with the Papists’ and ‘No Popery’ slogans being chanted by the people, and that some very rich Catholics had their homes burnt down, but he registers their primary concerns as being a general disillusionment with the establishment more generally.

gordon_riots

In fact, Ritson only makes a passing comment on the anti-Catholic nature of the riots but instead singles out a few other events which, to him at least, were more representative of the nature of the riots: they were an attack on symbols of state power. For example, Ritson told his mother that,

Five of the mob having been committed to Newgate, and the keeper refusing to set them free, their comrades yesternight, burnt it to the ground, and set not only their own people, but all of the debtors and felons at liberty, three or four of whom were to be executed within these few days … Sir John Fielding’s house was also plundered of everything, and the furniture,, &c. burnt in the street … Lord Mansfield’s house, in Bloomsbury Square, was burnt this morning … Lord Mansfield’s country seat, about four miles from town, is said to be now in flames … destruction has been vowed against the houses and persons of several noblemen, bishops, and gentry.[ii]

In a letter written the following week, again to his mother, Ritson told her that

The same evening on which I wrote my letter to you, but after I had finished and sealed my letter, the mob burnt the Fleet and King’s Bench prisons, and set all the debtors at liberty, and likewise the toll gates on Black-friars bridge, and the greatest part of Holborn was in flames.[iii]

How might the young Joseph Ritson—a lawyer and in some ways a representative of the legal establishment—have avoided getting his house trashed or being assaulted? We do not know exactly, but as riots were common in eighteenth-century London, he might have placed a candle in the window of his rooms. During the frequent riots of the eighteenth century, doing this signalled that you supported the rioters in whatever cause they were rioting over and you could therefore be sure that your person and your property would be safe.

But were the people whom Ritson observed all just Protestant religious bigots? No they were not, and Ritson was right to focus on the protests against symbols of power, and he stated in another place that,

No person any way innocent either has or (except by consequence) will suffer, and most of those whom they single out as examples of their vengeance, have long and deservedly been objects of public detestation, such as Lord Mansfield, Lord North, Lord Sandwich, Lord George Germaine, and others of the present scoundrel ministry.[iv]

(And neither should we be surprised at Ritson’s attitude—he was a self-professed radical and later enthusiastically supported the French Revolution).

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The Gordon Riots – By John Seymour Lucas

Edward P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (1963), having conducted research into the events of June 1780, as well as other riots in the period, refrained from calling the Gordon Rioters a ‘mob’ but opted instead for the term ‘revolutionary crowd’.

Such revolutionary crowds passed through three stages: the first was an orderly march to parliament to deliver their petition; the second was a demonstration against parliamentarians in the immediate aftermath of the petition’s rejection. Governments do not concern themselves too much with phases one and two, other than keeping an eye on the crowd. Most mobs usually end their activities at the second phase and often the movement fades as people go home and realise that they will get no satisfaction from the government today.

The final—and most dangerous phase—of any riotous crowd is when ‘licensed spontaneity’ occurs: people unrelated to the original cause join the mob and at this point, within the crowd, anything goes as far as settling concerns with the rich. During the Gordon Riots too, there was also a significant amount of drunkenness and looting, but this did not turn the population too much against the rioters; in societies where a large part of the population are or feel that they are excluded from political discussion, any actions that the rioters take are generally approved of or at the very least not condemned by the people-at-large. This is what is happening in Ritson’s account. The eccentric bookworm has not participated in the riots himself but he understands that the mob are settling a score with the rich and he feels that they are justified in doing so.

Eventually the army was called in because at this point in time, Britain had no professional police force but relied on a corrupt system of thief takers and bailiffs to uphold law and order. There were some constables charged with keeping the peace, known as Bow Street Runners, who worked out of John Fielding’s Bow Street Magistrates Office, although the punishment meted out to Fielding’s house gives us an indication of what the crowd thought of these guys. The army quelled the rioters: the total costs of the damages inflicted by the mob in just one week totalled £200,000. A total of 32 private homes were destroyed as well as numerous businesses. Ritson’s account offers us an interesting eye-witness perspective on the most notorious riots in London history—an event which has become central to the study of plebeian resistance to the establishment.

Notes:

[i] Joseph Ritson, ‘Letter VI’, in The Letters of Joseph Ritson, ed. by Harris Nicholas, 2 vols (London: William Pickering, 1833), I, pp. 14–15.

[ii] Ibid., p. 16.

[iii] Ritson, ‘Letter VII’, I, p. 18.

[iv] Ritson, ‘Letter VI’, I, p. 16.

Further Reading:

Hitchcock, Tim and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime, and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Rogers, Pat, Hacks and Dunces: Pope, Swift and Grub Street (London: Methuen, 1980)

Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963)

 

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

By Stephen Basdeo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are free – you have money – go!”

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

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

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

“You have money.”

“I shall be robbed.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 53.

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

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

An English Republican’s View of Crime and its Causes

By Stephen Basdeo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After citing his crime statistics, Reynolds asks

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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

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