Curteous Outlaws and Elizabethan Rogues: The 16th-Century Context of “A Gest of Robyn Hode”

A conference paper to be delivered at the Forthcoming MEMS Festival, University of Kent, 17-18 June 2016.


A number of excellent scholarly examinations have been carried out upon A Gest of Robyn Hode, notably by Stephen Knight, Thomas Ohlgren, John Marshall, and Alexander Kaufman, as well as older discussions by James C. Holt and R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor.[1] For the most part, these essays have focused upon the content of the Gest within its medieval context. It is the most significant of all the early Robin Hood poems, and at 1,824 lines long is certainly the longest, in all likelihood being a compilation of various Robin Hood tales to which somebody, at some point, gave unity.[2] It is the first time that Robin’s social mission is coherently articulated, being a man who ‘dyde pore men moch gode’.[3] The Gest is definitely of medieval origin, dating from the mid-fifteenth century.[4] It was not printed, however, until the early sixteenth century: one edition was printed by Jan Von Doesbroch in Antwerp around 1510; a further edition was printed by Wynken de Worde between 1492 and 1534; Richard Pynson also printed an edition of the Gest, with his death in 1530 obviously making his edition some time before that date; and William Copland printed an edition c.1560.[5]

Awdley Title Page
Title Page: John Awdley’s The Fraternity of Vagabonds (1575 Edn.)

When the Gest was being printed, a new type of criminal was emerging: the rogue and the vagabond. These felons did not live apart from society, as the greenwood outlaws of the past did. Instead they were a part of society, and were relatively indistinguishable from the law-abiding. This paper suggests that changes in the nature of crime, and its concomitant cultural expression – the emergence of rogue literature – contributed to the idealisation of Robin Hood and his gentrification. This paper will therefore discuss the Gest in the context of it being printed alongside sixteenth-century rogue literature, such as Robert Copland’s The Highway to the Spitalhouse (1535-36), Gilbert Walker’s Manifest Detection of Dice Play (1552), John Awdley’s Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561), and Thomas Harman’s A Caveat for Common Cursitors, Vulgarly Called Vagabonds (1566). This is not to say that these works are taken here to represent a ‘true’ picture of crime during the early modern period. Instead these texts are viewed as ‘factual fictions’: they were real to contemporaries, being an outlet ‘through which the various classes of the “middling sort” of Tudor and Stuart England projected their anxieties’.[6] People needed to believe in the myth of a good outlaw, even if such a myth was ultimately based upon a fiction, because real, contemporary criminals were altogether more menacing.


The medieval period certainly had its fair share of crime,[7] and it is of course during the medieval period that tales of Robin Hood and Adam Bell first emerge. The sentence of outlawry literally placed an offender beyond the protection of the law. But the sentence itself began to lose much of its potency by the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.[8] It was a sentence that existed prior to the establishment of the legal precepts of habeus corpus. It fell into disuse by the late medieval period because the social and legal system of England was changing from one based upon the exclusion of felons, to one based upon the confinement of offenders.[9] Thus by the time that the Gest was printed, it would have been rare to find somebody who had been placed beyond the law: in the early modern period all people were subject to the law.

Gest illustration
Illustration from A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1500)

Additionally, when the time the Gest was being printed, the breakdown of medieval economic and social structures was occurring and society was on its way to becoming capitalist. As a consequence, the perceived increasing numbers of supposedly ‘masterless men’ were becoming a problem for the Tudor state, and were legislated against in the Vagabonds and Beggar’s Act (1495):

Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid.[10]

The problem remained a source of irritation to the authorities throughout the century. While the ‘rogue’ had appeared as a named literary type in Awdley’s Fraternity of Vagabonds in 1561, by the next decade the Vagabonds Act (1572) was also legislating against this new type of criminal:

All the partes of this Realme of England and Wales be p[rese]ntlie with Roges, vacabonds and sturdie beggers excedinglie pestred, by meanes wherof dailye happenethe in the same Realme horrible murders, thefts and other greate owtr[ages], To the highe displeasure of allmightie god, and to the greate anoye of the common weale.[11]

J. Thomas Kelly writes that ‘poverty existed as a widespread and dangerous phenomenon of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England’.[12] But at the same time as the poor were getting poorer, the rich were gaining more wealth,[13] and a new type of ideology was emerging: individualism. Rogues and vagabonds, due to the breakdown of medieval social and economic structures owed loyalty to nobody. It is for this reason that Hal Gladfelder, writing about rogue literature, says that the genre’s emergence, and its portrayal of socially marginal people struggling to survive within a new economic system, was a response to the breakdown of feudalism.[14] The rogues, vagabonds, and cony-catchers present in Tudor rogue literature were essentially deviant proto-capitalist entrepreneurs.[15]

Outlaws and Rogues – Modus Operandi

There are some similarities between the ways in which greenwood outlaws such as Robin Hood and the rogues and vagabonds in Tudor rogue literature operated, As illustrated in the Gest, when Robin wishes to steal from somebody, he first invites them to dine with him in the forest. The traveller is treated to a sumptuous feast, and at the end of it Robin asks him to pay for the meal.[16] If the traveller pleads poverty and is found to be lying to Robin, when the traveller’s effects are searched he is robbed of all the money about his person.[17] Similarly, trickery is employed by many of the various types of rogues in the works of Walker, Awdley, and Harman. Often this was done, as illustrated in cases of Cheaters and Fingerers, described by Awdley, through conning unsuspecting victims out of their money while gambling.[18]

Thomas Harman’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594)

But there were differences between outlaws such as Robin Hood and Tudor rogues. Firstly, outlaws lived in the forest. There is a sense of unity between the outlaws and the natural world: [19] the first glimpse of Robin Hood and Little John in the Gest sees him leaning against a tree.[20] In another outlaw ballad that is of medieval origin, although not printed until c.1557-58, Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie, [21] the poem similarly opens with a celebration of the natural world: ‘Mery it was in grene forest / Among the leves grene’.[22] At no point is it ever implied in the Gest that the outlaws wish to live in the urban environment. The outlaws encounter trouble, for example, whenever they leave the forest and venture into the town:.[23] For example, the outlaws have to make a swift getaway after Robin competes in the archery contest;[24] and after being pardoned by the King and entering his service, Robin finds the world of the Royal court unpalatable, returning to the greenwood after an absence of only ‘twelve moneths and thre’.[25] Outlaws who value freedom see themselves as having no place in urban environments.

In contrast, rogues do not operate within a separate physical space such as the greenwood. At this point it should be noted that rogues were not a homogenous criminal group: Awdley’s Fraternity or Vagabonds and Harman’s Caveat for Common Cursitors, for example, give different names to a number of various types of criminals. They could masquerade as common beggars, as Copland remarked in The Highway to the Spitalhouse.[26] Or as in Walker’s A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay, when his gentleman ‘haply […] roamed me in the Church of Paul’s’, the rogues that he is introduced to are seemingly gentlemanly tricksters from the shady world of dice play.[27] Awdley in the Fraternity of Vagabonds makes reference to another different type of rogue: the Courtesy Man. This type of rogue, says Awdley:

Is one that walketh about the back lanes in London in the daytime, and sometimes in broad streets in the night season, and when he meeteth some handsome young man cleanly apparelled, or some other honest citizen, he maketh humble salutations and low curtsy.[28]

The Courtesy Man will ingratiate himself into the honest gentleman’s service, but he will then repay their generosity by ‘stealing a pair of sheets or coverlet, and so take their farewell in the morning, before the master or dame be stirring’.[29] Evidently, rogues are a product of the urban environment, and instead of wearing suits of Lincoln Green as Robin Hood is portrayed as doing in the Gest,[30] Tudor rogues and vagabonds go abroad ‘commonly well-apparelled’,[31] spending their days, according to their representations in rogue literature, in the back alleys and courts of the town.[32]

Robin and the outlaws in the Gest do not steal from people indiscriminately, and instead they adhere to a strict moral code. In the first fytte of the Gest, Little John asks Robin:

“Where we shall take, where we shall leve,
Where we shall abide behynde;
Where we shall robbe, where we shal reve,
Where we shall bete and bynde.”[33]

Robin’s reply as to whom the outlaws are permitted to steal from is clear and concise: they are not permitted to steal from any husbandman, nor any good yeoman, nor from any knight or squire. The only people that the outlaws are permitted to rob are corrupt clerics and the Sheriff of Nottingham:

“These bisshoppes and these archebishoppes,
Ye shall them bete and bynde;
The hye sherif of Notyingham,
Hym holde ye in your mynde.”[34]

As Maurice Keen stated in the 1960s, ‘to the poor they [the outlaws] shall be all courtesy […] but to the rich and unjust no mercy is shown’.[35] Although the idea that Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor is not fully articulated in Gest, it is clear that he and his outlaws do not rob people indiscriminately.

Rogues, on the other hand, would steal from people of all social classes, and their victims could hail from both the poorer and wealthier classes. A ‘ruffler’ in Awdley’s work would, for instance, ‘goeth with a weapon to seek service, saying he hath been a servitor in the wars, and beggeth for his relief. But his chiefest trade is to rob poor wayfaring men and market women.’[36] The ‘frater’ would similarly ‘prey […] commonly upon poor women as they go to the markets’.[37] Robert Greene would say of ‘devilish cony-Catchers’ in 1591 that:

The poor man that cometh to the Term to try his right, and layeth his land to mortgage to get some crowns in his purse to see his lawyer, is drawn in by these devilish cony-catchers that at one cut at cards looseth all his money, by which means he, his wife, and children [are] brought to utter ruin and misery.[38]

Tradesmen could also be targets of these thieves, as Awdley says of the ‘whipjack’ that ‘his chiefest trade is to rob booths in a fair, or to pilfer ware from stalls, which they call “heaving off the booth”’.[39] Alternatively, their victims could be of higher social status, just as the cheats in Walker’s Manifest Detection of Diceplay who spent their nights ‘taverning with trumpets, by day spoiling gentlemen of their inheritance’ (emphasis added).[40] The rogues and vagabonds presented in Tudor rogue literature were people who were willing to make money by cheating and stealing. As the Gest makes clear, these are things that outlaws of Robin Hood’s type also aspired to, admittedly, but the difference was that people knew who outlaws were, and if they were truthful with them, and were not a member of the corrupt classes of society such as the clergy, they might have passed them unmolested.


It is clear that there was an emerging dichotomy between rogues, vagabonds, and greenwood outlaws during the sixteenth century. The changing reputation of Robin Hood between the late medieval period and the sixteenth century illustrates this: in Walter Bower’s Continuation of John of Fordun’s Scotichronicon (c.1440), Bower says that:

Then arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedies and comedies, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing above all other ballads.[41]

Bower was a member of the Clergy and, judging by the treatment that clerics receive at the hands of Robin Hood in the Gest, it is perhaps no surprise that he treats of Robin negatively. But when chronicles from the sixteenth century are studied, however, the depiction of Robin Hood becomes less ambiguous. In John Major’s Historia Majoris Britanniae (1521), it is said that:

About this time it was, as I conceive, that there flourished those most famous robbers Robert Hood, and Englishman, and Little John, who lay in wait in the woods, but spoiled of their goods only those that were wealthy […] He would allow no woman to suffer injustice, nor would he spoil the poor, but rather enriched them from the plunder taken from the abbots. The robberies of the man I condemn, but of all robbers he was the most humanest and the chief.[42]

Richard Grafton in his Chronicle at Large (1569) incorporated material from Major’s work, and expanded it, and Robin Hood emerges as thoroughly gentrified.[43] Similarly, in John Stow’s Annales of England (1592) he says that Robin Hood and Little John ‘renowned theeves’ known for ‘dispoyling and robbing the rich’, and concluding with Major’s statement that he was the most humane and Prince of all Robbers.[44] Any threatening aspects of Robin’s character would finally be neutered by Anthony Munday in his two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597-98).

In contrast, the inhabitants of the Elizabethan ‘underworld’ were still being portrayed as foreboding characters at the end of the century. Greene’s The Black Book’s Messenger (1592) almost anticipates the criminal biographies of the eighteenth century by telling, in a moralistic fashion, the story of

Ned Browne […] a man infamous for his bad course of life and well known about London […] in outward shew a Gentlemanlike companion.[45]

Despite his genteel outward appearances, however, he is a threatening figure, and would ‘bung or cut a good purse’ from either a man or woman if he could.[46] Early during the next century, Thomas Dekker’s Lanthorne and Candle-light (1608) represented ‘the laws, manners, and habits of these wild men’ of London.[47] Dekker showed how this supposed underworld, which appeared to mirror legitimate economic and social structures,[48] was divided and subdivided in to ‘ranks’, and had their own ‘canting’ language.[49]

William Head’s The English Rogue (1665)

Some efforts were made to gentrify the rogue, notably by William Shakespeare with his character, Sir John Falstaff.[50] The rogue continued as a literary type in Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1665) which is essentially a ‘fond’ examination of excess and deception in the life of the protagonist, Meriton Latroon, linking the low-born rogue to his aristocratic counterpart, the rake.[51] It would be rare for Robin Hood to receive negative treatment after the sixteenth century. An attempt would be made during the eighteenth century, when criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1714) described him as a man of a ‘wicked, licentious inclination’ who ‘followed not his trade’.[52] It was perhaps easier to gentrify the outlaw and make him appear semi-respectable: he robbed according to a clear moral code, and he was easily identifiable. This way of operating set him in contrast to his more menacing, sinister underworld counterparts: the rogues, vagabonds, fraters, cony-catchers, and prigs who existed in urban settings in early modern England.


[1] See the following works by Stephen Knight: Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Cambridge: Brewer, 1994). Works by Thomas Ohlgren include: Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560 Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2007); ‘The “Marchaunt” of Sherwood: Mercantile Ideology in A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in Robin Hood in Popular Culture: Violence, Transgression, and Justice Ed. Thomas Hahn (Cambridge: Brewer, 2000), 175-190. There is also John Marshall’s research: ‘Picturing Robin Hood in Early Print and Performance: 1500-1590’ in Images of Robin Hood: Medieval to Modern Eds. Lois Potter & Joshua Calhoun Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 60-82, as well as Alexander Kaufman, ‘Histories of Context: Form, Argument, and Ideology in A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty Ed. Alexander Kaufman (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011), 146-164. Older works include James C. Holt, Robin Hood 2nd Edn. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989) and R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. (Stroud: Sutton, 1997).
[2] Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode, 74.
[3] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 80-168 (148).
[4] There is debate about the dating of A Gest of Robyn Hode: James C. Holt originally argued that ‘the Gest was first composed, in something close to its present form, in the fifteenth century, perhaps even as early as 1400’ – Robin Hood, 11. He subsequently revised this estimate, saying that c.1450 was a ‘safer date’ than c.1400 – James C. Holt, ‘Robin Hood: The Origins of the Legend’ in Robin Hood: The Many Faces of that Celebrated English Outlaw Ed. Kevin Carpenter (Oldenburg: Bibliotteks- und Enformationssystem der Universität Oldenburg, 1995), 27-34.
[5] Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode, 71-72.
[6] Craig Dionne, ‘Fashioning Outlaws: The Early Modern Rogue and Urban Culture’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 33-61 (38).
[7] Andrew McCall, The Medieval Underworld (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979).
[8] McCall, The Medieval Underworld, 109.
[9] Melissa Sartore, Outlawry, Governance, and Law in Medieval England (New York: Peter Lang, 2013), 14.
[10] Vagabonds and Beggars Act 11 Henry 7 c.2 1494 cited in J. R. Tanner (ed.), Tudor Constitutional Documents, AD 1485-1603 with an Historical Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), 469-470. Admittedly this was not the first piece of legislation passed against vagabonds and beggars. Two statutes of Edward III punished ‘who wandered at night or otherwise acted suspiciously’, while another statute of Richard II similarly brought punitive measures against vagrants. But the Tudor legislation against vagabonds and suspected persons was different in several respects: the Reformation had eroded the Church’s welfare provisions for the poor, with the State forced to intervene (often in a haphazard and inefficient manner) in the granting of poor relief to those in need; Tudor legislation was more repressive than earlier laws, given the fact that the Tudor monarchs viewed the poor with suspicion, conscious of the lack of legitimacy for their rule – See J. Thomas Kelly, Thorns on the Tudor Rose: Monks, Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1977).
[11] An Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds 14 Eliz. 1 c. 5 Parliamentary Archives HLRO HL/PO/PU/1/1572/14Eliz1n5 (1572).
[12] Kelly, Thorns on the Tudor Rose, 111.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
[15] Brooke A. Stafford, ‘Englishing the Rogue, “Translating” the Irish: Fantasies of Incorporation and Early Modern English National Identity’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 312-336 (323)
[16] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 92-101.
[17] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 117-123.
[18] John Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds [1561]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 85-102 (95-97).
[19] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 17.
[20] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 90.
[21] For a critical discussion of Adam Bell, see Thomas Hahn, ‘Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley’ in Medieval Outlaws: Ten Tales in Modern English Ed. Thomas Ohlgren (Stroud: Sutton, 1998), 239-252.
[22] Anon. ‘Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie’ in Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. Eds. R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Stroud: Sutton, 1997), 258-273 (260).
[23] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 17.
[24] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 125-130.
[25] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 145.
[26] Robert Copland ‘The Highway to the Spitalhouse [1535-36]’ in Key Writings on Subcultures, 1535-1727: Classics from the Underworld, Volume One 3rd Edn. Ed. A. V. Judges (London: Routledge, 2002), 1-25 (5).
[27] Gilbert Walker, ‘A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay, and other Practices Like the Same [1552]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 59-84 (66).
[28] John Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds, 94.
[29] Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 95.
[30] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 143.
[31] Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 95.
[32] Steve Mentz, ‘Magic Books: Cony-Catching and the Romance of Early Modern London’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 240-260 (240).
[33] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 91.
[34] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 92.
[35] Maurice Keen, The Outlaws of Medieval Legend 4th Edn. (Dorset: Marboro, 1989), 100.
[36] Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 92.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Robert Greene, ‘A Notable Discovery of Cozenage [1591]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 155-186 (164).
[39] Awdely, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 92.
[40] Walker, ‘A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay’, 71.
[41] Walter Bower, ‘Scotichronicon [c.1440]’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 25-26 (26).
[42] John Major, ‘Historia Majoris Britanniae [1521]’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 26-27 (27).
[43] Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren (eds.) Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 28.
[44] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 48.
[45] Robert Greene, ‘The Black Book’s Messenger [1592]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 193-205 (193).
[46] Ibid.
[47] Thomas Dekker, ‘Lanthorne and Candle-light [1608]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 213-260 (214).
[48] Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz, ‘Introduction’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 1-29 (2).
[49] Ibid.
[50] Dionne & Mentz, ‘Introduction’, 2.
[51] Ken Gelder, Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice (London: Routledge, 2007), 8.
[52] Alexander Smith, A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), 408.


The Victorian Underworld

The New Newgate Calendar, Vol. 1, No. 41 (1864).

This is the text of a public talk given at Abbey House Museum, Kirkstall, Leeds on 1 March 2015 to complement their Crime and Punishment Exhibition.


The history of crime, in particular the history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century crime, is often sensationalised in popular histories. Usually these types of history books focus upon notorious cases such as that of Jack the Ripper in the late Victorian period. It is only relatively recently that a small cohort of professional historians who have approached the subject from an academic standpoint, including Heather Shore, [1] Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, [2] and Clive Emsley. [3] And it is the insights and research of these historians that I would like to introduce you to today, as well as some of my own research from my Masters dissertation. [4]

The Victorian period witnessed a number of changes in the nature of dealing with crime. There was the establishment of a professionalised police force with the passage of the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829, which replaced the haphazard system of part time constables, Bow Street Runners, and Thief Takers. Gaols, which previously had housed offenders only until their trial, became huge institutions which where offenders stayed for a longer term. The object of this was not only to punish the offender but also to rehabilitate him or her. Most importantly for the purposes of our talk today, the Victorian period witnessed the emergence of an idea: the idea of the criminal class, or underworld. In popular histories, terms such as ‘underworld’ have often been applied without consideration of their full meaning, and usually to sensational effect. Indeed, perhaps I am guilty of this myself in naming my talk such in order to draw people in, playing on people’s interest in the darker side of Victorian life. Sometimes the underworld is almost envisaged as a physical space. To the Victorians the idea of the existence of an underworld, or a criminal class held that there was a certain section of society, drawn from its poorest ranks, that was responsible for the majority of crime. But as I will show, this is very much an idea that was constructed in the Victorian press and popular fiction. To chart the development of the idea of a Victorian criminal, however, we need to briefly begin in the previous century, the Georgian period.

The Eighteenth Century

The image which many people will have of crime in the eighteenth century is of the romanticised highway robber. Criminals such as Dick Turpin (1705-1739) are usually portrayed in literature and television shows as gallant, noble robbers, usually mounted upon a trusty steed such as Turpin’s Black Bess. This was not always the view of people who actually lived in the eighteenth century, however, and Turpin’s modern reputation as a noble robber was an invention of the nineteenth-century novelist William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) in Rookwood: A Romance (1834). The real Turpin was something of a thug.

Romanticised 19th-century image of Dick Turpin

In reality, crime was perceived as a problem during the eighteenth century. People in England, particularly in London, believed that they were in the midst of a ‘crime wave’. One newspaper in the late seventeenth century reported that:

Even at noonday, and in the most open spaces in London, persons are stopped and robbed. [5]

Similarly, the pamphlet Newes from Newgate (Newgate was a notorious gaol in London) reported that:

Notwithstanding the severity of our wholesome laws, and vigilancy of magistrates against robbers and highwaymen, ‘tis too notorious that the roads are almost perpetually infested with them. [6]

Later in the eighteenth century, the author Horace Walpole (1717-1797) wrote to a friend that:

You will hear little news from England, but of robberies […] people are almost afraid of stirring after dark. [7]

Henry Fielding (1707-1754) would echo the same sentiments in his 1751 publication An Enquiry into the Causes of the Great Increase of Robbers, saying that:

I make no doubt, but that the streets of this town, and the roads leading to it, will shortly be impassable without the utmost hazard, nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous rogues gangs of rogues among us, than those which the Italians call the banditti. [8]

Thus what we have in the eighteenth century is a moral panic over this perceived wave of crime that England was said to be experiencing throughout the century. It is doubtful that crime in the eighteenth century was ever as bad as people in the past thought that it might be. Certainly there were sporadic increases in the number of indictments, and these spikes generally coincided with peace treaties, when soldiers returned home and had trouble finding means of supporting themselves.

Jack Sheppard (1702-1724)

However, in the eighteenth century, criminals occupy the same moral universe as law abiding people. [9] They are not inherently different from normal members of society. They are people who had allowed themselves to succumb to their own sinful inclinations. Usually the route to crime was through a love of gambling and good living, and bad associations. So the famous eighteenth-century house breaker, Jack Sheppard (1702-1724), first turned to crime when he met Edgeworth Bess, a prostitute, and began cohabiting with her. Similarly, the fictional highwayman Captain MacHeath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) manifests a love of good living, and it is implied that this is why he continues to rob as it is said:

Mrs. Peach. Pray, my dear, is the Captain rich?
Peach. The Captain keeps too good company ever to grow rich. Marybone and the chocolate-houses are his undoing. The man that proposes to get money by play should have the education of a fine gentleman, and be train’d up to it from his youth. [10]

Criminals are simply people with a tragic fatal flaw in their character, but they are not inherently criminal. And indeed however wrong their actions are, the English criminal in this period was credited with a certain amount of civility and politeness. They might have robbed you, but they were relatively nice about it.

The Nineteenth Century

The situation changes, however, as we move into the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The industrial revolution continued apace and concomitant with this was increasing urbanisation. The poor migrated from rural areas in search of work, and they gathered in certain districts of cities, which in time would come to be designated as slum areas. One effect of having so many people living in close proximity in dire poverty is that the areas where they live become a natural breeding ground for crime. The early socialist writer Frederich Engels painted a gloomy picture in The Condition of the Working Class in England that:

The incidence of crime has increased with the growth of the working-class population and there is more crime in Britain than in any other country in the world.[11]

What we begin to see in the Victorian press and contemporary popular culture are portrayals and references to ‘professional criminals’. This type of offender was represented, for example, by men such as Bill Sikes in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist (1838), who inhabits an ‘underworld’ peopled by other ominous creatures. He is a man whose sole existence and subsistence is based upon the proceeds of crime. Dickens’ description of the environment and the populace in Jacob’s Island, a place notorious for crime, is quite revealing. When Oliver is taken by the Artful Dodger to go and meet Fagin, a receiver of stolen goods, Oliver takes note of some of the people he encounters on the way there:

Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the door-ways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands. [12]

Dickens’ characters, Sikes and Fagin, operate in a relatively sophisticated manner. There’s a division of labour. Sikes and his henchmen rob people, but they rely on Fagin’s criminal network to dispose of their stolen goods.

Header - Oliver Twist

[Source: George Cruikshank, ‘Oliver’s reception by Fagin and the boys’ (1846), Eighth illustration, The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham) <>]

In a word, crime in the modern industrial city is thought to have become organised, and this is reflected in other pieces of popular literature such as George W. M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London, serialised between 1844 and 1845, which was the biggest selling novel of the Victorian period. Inspired by a serialised French novel by Eugene Sue entitled The Mysteries of Paris (1844), it is a tale of vice and crime in both high and low life. To see how crime is configured as something that is organised, take this example of a highway robbery:

‘What’s the natur of the sarvice?’ demanded the Cracksman.
‘A highway robbery’ coolly answered [Eugene]…‘I will explain what I want done. Between eleven and twelve o’clock a gentleman will leave London for Richmond. He will be in his own cabriolet. His horse is bay, with silver mounted harness. This gentleman must be stopped; and everything his pockets contain must be brought to me. Whatever money there may be about him shall be yours:-but all that you find about his person, save the money, must be brought to me’. [13]

In this passage, the old image of the lone highwayman upon the heath in the moonlight is dead. This is not a feat likely to have been done by a ‘heroic’ highwayman. What we have here is organised crime. It is carried out with precision. Crime in the new urban society is depicted here as being cold and calculated, and it is carried through as though it was a business transaction. After Eugene relates the particulars of how the robbery is to be undertaken, he gives the Cracksman an advance of twenty guineas, to which the villain exclaims ‘that’s business!’ After the deed has been done, the Cracksman says to Eugene that he hopes ‘that he should have his custom in future’. The Cracksman, similar to Dickens’ Bill Sikes and Fagin, was a ‘professional criminal’. There was nothing ‘gentlemanly’ or ‘polite’ about the above exchange between the Cracksman and Eugene, instead the undertaking of the highway robbery was determined by financial considerations.

Illustration from G. W. M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844-45) [Source:]

In addition to ideas surrounding professional criminals, towards the middle of the century we start to see another term come into use: ‘criminal class’. The criminal class, it was assumed, were a class of people beneath the respectable working classes who, like professional criminals, existed solely upon the proceeds of crime. It was imagined that there were specific geographical locations that harboured members of this criminal class. It was a term which was driven by the press and also adopted by law enforcement. Perhaps the person most responsible for giving impetus to the growth of this idea was Henry Mayhew who wrote a four volume social treatise entitled London Labour and the London Poor in 1861. Mayhew travelled into some of the poorest districts of the capital and documented what he saw, often conducting interviews with paupers. Taking his cue from the eighteenth-century writer Henry Fielding, he divided the poor into three categories or groups – the Victorians loved to categorise things – and these were: those that will work (the respectable working classes), those that can’t work (the infirm, disabled, and the elderly), and those that won’t work. It is in the last category that the criminal classes could be found, according to Mayhew.

Thos Hopkinson Highway Robbery
Hopkinson, Thomas. The life and execution of Thomas Hopkinson, jun. :who suffered this day on the new drop, in front of the county gaol, Derby, for highway robbery.. [Derby] : G. Wilkins, printer, Queen Street, Derby., [1819]. HOLLIS ID: 005949713 [Reproduced with the permission of Harvard Library School of Law]

The poorest class of society were accused of being many things. They were usually accused of being idle – shunning hard work. In turn this made them turn to a life of crime. Usually they indulged in certain vices: gambling, drink. They usually avoided going to Church. The broadside detailing the ‘Last Dying Speech’ of Thomas Hopkinson is typical of how many people viewed criminals:

He formed an intercourse with abandoned companions, and commenced that profligate career which brought him to his untimely end […] his whole time was spent in the perpetration of almost every species of vice. The petty pilferings in which he engaged, gradually, led him on to bolder offences: his mind became so familiarised with guilt that he seemed scarcely sensible of its depravity; and thus, in the natural progress of iniquity, he was led on till be was ‘driven away with his wickedness’. [14]

Their living conditions were assumed to be deplorable. Even a man such as G. W. M. Reynolds, who was a radical and quite friendly towards the working classes, did some investigation into working-class living conditions. He found one slum dwelling that was:

A regular pig-stye, in which they wallowed like swine: and like that of brutes was also the conduct of the boys and girls. If the other rooms of the house were used as a brothel by grown up persons, no stew could be more atrocious than this garret […] Many children of nine and ten practised the vices of their elders. But, my God! Let me draw a veil over this dreadful scene. [15]

Dickens’ description of Jacob’s Island, the area where Fagin lives, is similar in its horror:

Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it – as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob’s Island. [16]

In the years after Reynolds and Mayhew other social investigators would follow his lead. Andrew Mearns authored The Bitter Cry of Outcast London in 1883, subtitled as ‘An Inquiry into the Condition of the Abject Poor’. In 1885 William T. Stead, a journalist for The Pall Mall Gazette, authored a series of articles entitled ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ which purported to be ‘The story of an actual pilgrimage into a real hell’. [17] He showed readers how easy it was for somebody to ‘purchase’ a child prostitute. Similarly, Charles Booth published a monumental social study entitled Life and Labour of the People in London, which eventually ran to seventeen volumes, between 1889 and 1903. All of these publications perpetuated the myth that it was the poorer classes of society who were responsible for the majority of crime. Closer to home, W. Swift authored Leeds Slumdom in 1896, although he was relatively understanding about the problems that working-class people faced, saying that although many people thought that the poor were poor because they were idle, ‘the more I study the character and history of our slum dwellers, the less inclined I am to think that idleness is their besetting sin’. [18]

Nevertheless, so ingrained was the idea of a criminal class becoming that people in government were talking soon about it. In the minutes of evidence for the Report of the Capital Punishment Commission in 1865, for example, we find the commissioners speaking of ‘The vast criminal class that holds sway in this country’. [19] People even assumed that they could identify and quantify this dangerous criminal class. J. Thackeray Bunce, in an academic journal article from 1865, produced a graph in which he estimated the numbers of the criminal classes, as you can see here:


Source: <<>>

The caveat here is that these were ‘estimated numbers’, and in fact it was often quite difficult to find an actual person who hailed from this seemingly elusive criminal class. To be sure, Mayhew had spoken to many criminals, but no criminal ever said: “I am a member of the criminal class and I live in the underworld”. It was very much a label applied by the elite to the poorer sections of society. And it was a convenient label too, which absolved those in higher social situations of any responsibility towards making working and living conditions better for the working classes.

For some members of the supposed criminal class, however, it was not all doom and gloom. Children especially could be redeemed through the efforts of reforming societies and a rigorous penal system, because one of the great fears of people in the early nineteenth century was that the opportunistic young pickpocket would grow into a professional criminal. Early on some reformers realised that it was sometimes counter-productive to incarcerate children with adults because of the corrupting effects it might have on a child who could be saved:

I consider that the indiscriminate confinement practised in most of our prisons, where the child committed for trial or some small offence, is locked up in the same yard, and obliged to constantly associate with the hardened offender and convicted felon, is the most certain method that can be devised of increasing the number of delinquents. [20]

The press unsurprisingly saw the work of these reformers as a good thing. In 1852, for example, The Morning Chronicle reported how:

A blue book containing evidence given before the Select Committee of the House of Commons upon juvenile destitution will comprise an account [… of how] 140 of the vagrant and criminal class [… have been] drilled into order and industry. [21]

Of course, most of the people, children included, who were indicted for robbery and/or burglary were not in reality professional criminals. But as I said earlier, it was convenient for the Victorian press and contemporary reformers to push the idea of an underworld or criminal class.

uriah heep
Uriah Heep, from Dickens’ David Copperfield (1849-50)

Surely, however, the idea of a criminal class or underworld subculture does not sufficiently explain the fact that seemingly respectable criminals turned to crime? It is a question that Victorian moralists in the press themselves struggled to explain. Why did white collar crime exist when it was supposedly only the criminal class – drawn from the poorer parts of society – who perpetrated the majority of crime? A prevalent motif in Victorian literature is that of the corrupt clerk or banker who embezzles and steals funds from respectable people. In Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield (serialised between 1849 and 1850), for instance, we have Uriah Heep, an almost snakelike and devious character who extorts money from the good Mr. Wickfield. Similarly, there is Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel The Woman in White, serialised between 1859 and 1860, who plots to claim Laura Fairlee’s fortune by faking her death. Recognising that businessmen of good social standing were perfectly able to commit offences, The Illustrated London News reported that:

If we progress at the same rate for half a generation longer, commercial dishonesty will become the rule, and integrity the exception. On every side of us we see perpetually – fraud, fraud, fraud. [22]

These people, however, were viewed as exceptions: they were often seen as ‘bad apples’. They had often been led astray or been placed in a tempting situation. [23] In the case of middle- and upper-class offenders, often employers were criticised for lacking a sense of proper business management, or for paying their clerks wages that were too low. [24] As one newspaper asked:

We can’t for a moment dispute the right of merchant princes paying what salaries they deem fit to their clerks […] but we would ask, is the system of paying low salaries likely to conduce a high moral tone in the young men employed? [25]

Oddly, while low wages might encourage dishonesty in middle-class clerks, the same reasoning seems never to have been applied to the poorer classes who often lived a hand-to-mouth existence.


Just to conclude, I hope that what I have shown you today is that the idea of a Victorian underworld, or criminal class, is just that: an idea. There was never anything tangible about the underworld. You could not go and visit. It was a description applied by the elites in society to some of the poorest, most vulnerable members of society. Moralists in the press imagined that there were some people who were irredeemably criminal. Yet the fact that it was an invented idea should be evident by the fact that a conception of a criminal class, or underworld, did not exist prior to the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth century nobody was born a criminal; offenders and the law-abiding inhabited the same moral universe. [26] Crime was a sin, rather than something inherent.

The term ‘underworld’ is still used frequently in the press to this day. We are told in The Telegraph, for example, that the Hatton Garden Robbers ‘the busiest crooks in the underworld’. [27] Similarly, so convincing in explaining criminality was the idea of a criminal class that it is, by and large, an explanation of crime which we are stuck with today. I just want to take a recent example from The Big Issue magazine. While the magazine praised its own good work in helping to reform many offenders, it lamented the state of the prison system in the UK, saying:

Some Big Issue sellers are ex-cons but, while this organisation helps move people back to normal life, our prisons are so useless in helping men and women back permanently on to the straight and narrow that they increase rather than decrease the overall size of the criminal class. [28]

Additionally, in the Daily Mail newspaper in January of this year, the columnist Peter Hitchens in an article entitled ‘The Great British Bobby is Dead’ railed against the police in the following manner:

These new police are obsessed with the supposed secret sins of the middle class, and indifferent to the cruel and callous activities of the criminal class. [29]

Crime these days is often something that happens ‘out there’ in what the press calls ‘deprived areas’. Indeed, television shows such as Benefits Street, arguably the modern equivalent of Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, encourage the myth that it is primarily people from lower social strata who turn to crime. So if there is one thing which I hope you will take away from today, it is obviously that it is not the poor who are responsible for the majority of crime; the criminal underworld is nothing more than a convenient label for the elites which they apply often to some of our most vulnerable people.


1. Heather Shore, Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in Early Nineteenth-Century London (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1999) & London’s Criminal Underworlds, c.1720-c.1930: A Social and Cultural History (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015).
2. Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime, and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
3. Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900 (London: Longman, 1987)
4. Stephen Basdeo, ‘Dying Speeches, Daring Robbers, and Demon Barbers: The Forms and Functions of Nineteenth-Century Crime Literature, c.1800-c.1868 (Unpublished MA Thesis, Leeds Metropolitan University, 2014).
5. Cited in Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.x.
6. Anon. Newes from Newgate: or, a True Relation of the Manner of Taking Several Persons, Very Notorious for Highway-men, in the Strand; upon Munday the 13th of this Instant November, 1677 cited in Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 47
7. Horace Walpole, ‘To Mann, Wednesday 31 January 1750’ in The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, Eds. W. S. Lewis et al 48 Vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 20: 111-131 (111)
8. Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increases of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), p.1.
9. Emsley, Crime and Society, p.59.
10. John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera (London: John Watts, 1728), p.5.
11. Frederich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1848 repr. London: Penguin, 2009)
12. Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (London, 1838) [Internet <<>&gt; Accessed 24 February 2016].
13. George William MacArthur Reynolds, The Mysteries of London: Containing Stories of Vice in the Modern Babylon (1845 repr. London, 1890), p.81.
14. The Life and Execution of Thomas Hopkinson (Derby: G. Wilkins, 1819).
15. G. W. M. Reynolds cited in Michael Diamond, Victorian Sensation: or, The Spectacular, the Shocking, and the Scandalous inn Nineteenth-Century Britain (London: Anthem, 2003), 193.
16. Dickens, Oliver Twist [Internet <<>&gt; Accessed 24 February 2016].
17. W. T. Stead, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon: A Notice to Our Readers: A Frank Warning’ The Pall Mall Gazette 4 July 1885 [Internet <; Accessed 24 February 2016].
18. W. Swift, Leeds Slumdom (Leeds, 1896), p.15.
19. Report of the Capital Punishment Commission (London: George E. Eyre, 1866), p.240.
20. Cited in Shore, Artful Dodgers, p.102.
21. Anon. The Morning Chronicle 11 August 1852, p.2.
22. Cited in Emsley, Crime and Society, p.57.
23. Emsley, Crime and Society, p.58.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid.
26. Emsley, op cit.
27. Tom Morgan and Martin Evans ‘Revealed: How Hatton Garden’s OAP raiders were cream of criminal underworld’ The Telegraph 14 January 2016 [Internet: <<>&gt; Accessed 01 February 2016].
28. Dennis McShane, ‘Lord Ramsbotham Interview: There is No Accountability in Our Prisons’ The Big Issue 8 June 2015 [Internet: <<>&gt; Accessed 01 February 2016].
29. Peter Hitchens, ‘The Great British Bobby is Dead’ Mail on Sunday 24 January 2016 [Internet: <; Accessed 01 February 2016.

Captain James Hind (1616-1652): The Royalist Highwayman

William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Rookwood (1834) is the work which, along with Edward Bulwer Lytton’s lesser novel Paul Clifford (1830) imbued eighteenth-century highwaymen to legendary status. Ainsworth wanted to write a novel which, he says, was ‘in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe’. Ann Radcliffe was a Gothic novelist who wrote works such as The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Radcliffe’s tale is set in Italy and is filled with Gothic motifs: family secrets; family intrigue; dark castles. And it also features in its narrative a brigand. Ainsworth wanted to adapt the themes of Radcliffe’s novel and set it, not in Italy, but in England. Drawing upon a rich English tradition of criminal biography, one of the main protagonists in Rookwood is the highwayman, Dick Turpin (1705-1739).

Ainsworth has a clear admiration for eighteenth-century highwaymen, and in an early part of the novel he has Turpin, whom Ainsworth’s transforms from an eighteenth-century thug into a gallant gentleman, sing a song dedicated to his forbears entitled Of Every Rascal of Every Kind. It begins in the following manner:

Of every rascal of every kind,
The most notorious to my mind,
Was the Cavalier Captain, gay JEMMY HIND!
Which nobody can deny.

Oddly, Turpin chose not to begin his song with Robin Hood. He would no doubt have been aware of the deeds and exploits of the legendary medieval outlaw, and he certainly was acquainted with Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe (1819). This is perhaps why Ainsworth only wrote about eighteenth-century highwaymen; Scott, an acquaintance of his, had already covered Robin Hood, and Ainsworth, while wanting to emulate Scott by writing historical novels, probably wanted to break new ground.

17th-century woodcut of James Hind

Instead it is with ‘the Cavalier Captain, gay Jemmy Hind’ whom Ainsworth begins with. Hind (1616-1652) was born in Oxfordshire, and the great criminal biographer, Captain Charles Johnson, tells us that Hind had a most respectable upbringing, having received a ‘good education and remaining at school until he was fifteen years of age’. It seems, according to Johnson, that he was apprenticed to the butchers’ trade after this, though it is less than certain how true this fact is. There was an odd association between highway robbery and the meat trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was thought to have contributed to a bloody and barbarous disposition, and hence some offenders were said to be butchers, even when they had in all likelihood never picked up a meat cleaver. This was most likely an attempt by Johnson to denote this aspect of Hind’s character. For example, even Robin Hood in Johnson’s account is said to have been a butcher, even though that is without precedent in the entire Robin Hood tradition.

What is known is that Hind became a soldier in the Royalist army during the English Revolution (1642-1651). When the Royalists lost the war and Cromwell came to power, Hind decided to take to a career upon the road, and claimed as his mission, not that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but that he robbed because he had remained loyal to the Stuart dynasty instead of ‘the infamous usurper, Oliver Cromwell’. In fact, he made it his business to only ever rob Parliamentarians – he was a highwayman with a mission. It is reported that when he robbed Hugh Peters, a signatory to the death warrant of Charles I, Hind gave his victim a moral lesson:

Another time Captain Hind meeting High Peters in Enfield Chase, he commanded that celebrated regicide to stand and deliver. Whereupon he began to cudgel this bold robber with some parcels of scripture, saying, The eighth commandment commands that you should not steal; besides, it is said by Solomon, Rob not the Poor, because he is poor. Then Hind recollecting what he could remember of his reading the Bible in his minority, he began to pay the Presbyterian parson with his own weapon, saying, Friend, if you had obeyed God’s precepts as you ought, you would not have presumed to have wrested his holy word to a wrong sense, when you took this text, Bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron, to aggravate the misfortunes of your royal master, whom your cursed Republican party unjustly murdered before his own palace.

Unfortunately, Hind’s career upon the road did not last long. One of his associates betrayed him to the authorities. He was tried, not for the crime of highway robbery, but for treason, and the sentence which was passed decreed that Hind should be hanged, drawn, and quartered.

On the day of his death, he declared that he did not consider himself guilty of treason, for he had stayed loyal to England’s true ruler, Charles I, and the Stuart dynasty. After his death, his head was placed upon a spike in London as a warning to people not to follow his course of life.

Hind was hanged, drawn and quartered.

Hind’s story was taken and embellished by several criminal biographers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and his case is significant because he was the first robber since Robin Hood to take upon himself a mission: loyalty to the crown. He did not necessarily steal from the rich and give to the poor, what mattered was that he was the enemy of the Republicans. Indeed, the accounts of Hind which have survived to our own day often portray him in a sympathetic light. Both Alexander Smith and Capt. Charles Johnson were fervent Royalists, and wanted to portray him as a martyr. In fact, to Smith and Johnson, it is Hind who is the most heroic highwayman who has ever lived. They repeatedly refer to Hind as ‘our hero’ whereas, in contrast, Robin Hood is nothing special. Robin is merely one of a number of criminals who were of a ‘wicked, licentious inclination’. For a brief period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, therefore, it was James Hind, not Robin Hood, who was England’s most heroic robber.

The Rogue Academic: William Dodd, L.L.D. (1729-1777)

The Execution of Dr. William Dodd in 1777 (Illustration from The Newgate Calendar)

William Dodd, the son of a Clergyman, was born in Lincoln in 1729 to a comfortable middle-class family. He was educated at Cambridge University, and was awarded the degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1750, and by all accounts distinguished himself there by a close application to his studies. He was also a good-looking young fellow who knew how to dress. The account of his life states that:

It was not, however, only in his academical pursuits that he was emulous of distinction. Having a pleasing form, a genteel address, and a lively imagination, he was equally celebrated for accomplishments which seldom accompany a life of learned retirement. In particular, he was fond of the elegancies of dress, and became, as he ludicrously expressed it, a zealous votary of the God of Dancing. [1]

After completing his BA he for a time lived as a professional author, at which time his finances began to dwindle. Then, to the surprise of all of his friends, he announced, in 1751, that he was going to marry someone, a Miss Mary Perkins; this surprised his friends even more because, knowing Dodd’s precarious financial situation, the marriage to them seemed unsuitable because she was not in the least bit wealthy herself. They must, then, really have married for love, even if the marriage was somewhat hasty.

Dodd and his wife took lodgings in Wadour Street, Soho and he seems to have immersed himself in London’s night life, which greatly alarmed his family and friends:

Dancing on the brink of a precipice, and careless of to-morrow, his friends began to be alarmed at his situation. His father came to town in great distress upon the occasion, and he quitted the house before winter. [2]

Things seemed to then be looking up for Dodd, for after he left London he was appointed as Deacon at Caius College, Cambridge. There he devoted himself to his profession, and distinguished himself, and most of his family and friends thought that Dodd had finally matured and become a man. This seemed further evident when he was appointed as a Clergyman at a Parish in West Ham, where his behaviour was described as:

Proper, decent, and exemplary. [3]

It was during this time that he also completed his Master of Arts degree, in which he again proved to be a model pupil. Shortly after this, in 1766, he was appointed as Chaplain to his Majesty whilst simultaneously completing his Doctor of Laws at Cambridge.

As a man who was educated, and very successful in life, why, then, did he end up in Newgate gaol? Whilst contemporary accounts say that he managed to suppress the ‘wild inclinations’ of his youth whilst he was completing his doctorate, this seems to have changed when he won the National Lottery. Suddenly, with a lot of funds at his disposal, it seems he fell back into his old ways, once again developing a fondness for good living. His debts started to climb, and he resolved to commit forgery in the hope of getting enough money to pay off his debts.

In February 1777, one of Dodd’s pupils was the young Lord Chesterfield. Dodd forged a bond to the sum of £4,200 with Chesterfield’s name on it. This was a pretty dangerous crime to commit; it was technically classed as Treason against the King, the punishment for which was hanging, drawing and quartering. [4] The forgery was discovered soon after, and Dodd’s trial commenced on 24 February 1777. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang at Tyburn. During his time in prison, some 23,000 people signed a petition to have him pardoned, notably among them was Doctor Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). But forgers rarely obtained reprieves; their crime was an offence against the authorities and against trade; everything that the English held dear. Dodd was subsequently taken to Tyburn and hanged on 27 February 1777.

Dodd’s case is significant for it presented something of a difficulty for people in the late eighteenth century. Dodd was to all appearances a good man, happily married, and educated; he should not in theory have become involved in crime. This was explained away by the fact that popular notions of criminality in the century held that all people, regardless of social status, could become a criminal because all men were guilty of original sin. Yet that notion was dominant in the early part of the century. By Dodd’s time, crime was increasingly thought of in terms of class. There was an idea, not yet fully articulated, that it was only people from a certain class who were responsible for the vast majority of crime.

When Dodd’s trial report, and his own auto-biographical Thoughts in Prison (1777), was published, it was designed to be a moral tale. Readers were supposed to follow Dodd’s life story through the pages, see where he had made fatal moral mistakes along the way, and avoid the consequences of a life of sin and vice – namely, hanging at Tyburn. But on a lighter note, perhaps we can also draw a further moral from it; I like to think of it as a case that we should pay and value our academics more in society!


[1]Anon. ‘The Life of the Author’ in Thoughts in Prison; in Five Parts, viz. The Imprisonment, The Retrospect, Public Punishment, The Trial, Futurity. By William Dodd, L. L. D. (London, 1777 repr. London: Longman, 1815), v.
[2]Anon. ‘The Life of the Author’, vi.
[3]Anon. ‘The Life of the Author’, vii.
[4]Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock, and Robert Shoemaker ‘Punishments at the Old Bailey’ Old Bailey Online [Internet <> Accessed 29/11/2015].

James MacLean (1724-1750): The Gentleman Highwayman

Ordinary's Account MAclain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are told that on his first robbery:

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

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

One vice naturally begets another.[12]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Recidivism in “A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode” (c.1450)?

Recidivism is one of the most fundamental concepts in criminal justice. It refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime.

National Institute of Criminal Justice

'A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode'
‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’

I will talk here again about the ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (referred to hereafter as the Geste). It is a poem that was composed c.1450 but not printed until much later, most probably between the years c.1490 and c.1510. It is a long tale composed of eight ‘fyttes,’ and chronicles many of the deeds and exploits that Robin becomes embroiled in. It is a long poem at 1,824 lines.

I will dwell here upon fyttes seven and eight in the Geste. Before going further, let me say that Robin Hood is first and foremost a criminal. He’s an outlaw who sets himself up in defiance of the authorities. People seem to forget this. Anything he is taken to represent, such as a love of liberty, or “the fellowship of free and equal men” as some scholars say, are meanings which people ascribe to the legend rather than anything which Robin in the early texts says that he represents.

Let us begin at the end of fytte six, where Robin has killed the Sheriff:

Robyn bent a good bowe,
An arrowe he drew at his wyll,
He hyt so the proude sheryf,
Upon the grounde he lay full styll.
And or he myght up aryse,
On his fete to stoned,
He smote of the sheryves head,
With his bryght bronde.

The King is understandably a bit annoyed that this outlaw has killed his representative of law and order, and in the seventh fytte we are told that:

The kynge came to Notynghame,
With knyghts in grete araye,
For to take that gentyll knight,
And Robyn Hode, yf he may.

The King is also a bit miffed that when he has been hunting, he cannot find any deer, for Robin and his men have been feasting upon them. So the King resolves to travel into the forest in disguise to meet Robin Hood and capture him. Dressed as monks, the king and his men happen to come across Robin and his men. This part of the poem is a rehash of medieval and early-modern ‘King and Commoner’ ballads, and cannot be taken to be factually true. When Robin meets the King (in disguise as a monk) Robin praises the King, and the King is impressed with this.

Robin invites the disguised King and his men for a meal in the forest and they have a feast. Afterwards, Robin demands payment from the King, at which point the King reveals himself to Robin and the outlaws:

Robyn behelde our comly kynge
Wystly in the face,
So dyde Syr Rycharde at the Le,
And kneled downe in that place.

And so dyde all the wylde outlawes,
Whan they see them knele:
“My lorde the kynge of Englonde,
Now I knowe you well.”

“Mercy then, Robyn,” sayd our kynge,
“Under your trystyll-tre,
Of thy goodnesse and thy grace,
For my men and me!”

The King forgives Robin for his crimes and invites him to live at Court with him, which Robin readily accepts.

He stays with the King for a full year, after which time Robin begins to get itchy feet. In reality, he is more like the King’s hostage than his servant – what better way to control England’s most notorious outlaw than to have him directly in sight at all times, right? Anyhow, Robin asks the King if he might have a few days’ leave of the King to travel back to Barnsdale to visit a chapel he had built to Mary Magdalene in the woods:

“Yf it be so,” than sayd our kynge,
“It may no better be,
Seven nyght I gyve the leve,
No lengre, to dwell fro me.”

“Gramercy, lorde,” then sayd Robyn,
And set hym on his kne;
He toke his leve courteysly,
To grene wode then went he.

Granted seven days’ leave and no more, Robin returns to Barnsdale. Once there, he cannot help himself but break the law again:

Whan he came to grene wode,
In a mery mornynge,
There he herde the notes small
Of byrdes mery syngynge.

“It is ferre gone,” sayd Robyn,
“That I was last here;
Me lyste a lytell for to shote
At the donne dere.”

Robyn slewe a full grete harte,
His horne than gan he blow,
That all the outlawes of that forest
That horne coud they knowe,

And gadred them togyder,
In a lytell throwe;
Seven score of wyght yonge men
Came redy on a rowe.

He really cannot help himself-once back in the green wood he slays another deer, and immediately sounds his bugle horn and rejoins the other outlaws living in the forest. He remains an outlaw for another 22 years until he finally dies at the hands of the Prioress of Kirklees.

Thomas Bewick, 'Robin Hood and the Tanner' ed. by Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795).
Illustration from Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795).

Now, obviously caution has to be exercised when applying a modern theoretical concept such as recidivism to an early English text, for the legal system of the 1400s was very different to the legal system in England today. But the fundamental principle – that offenders can reoffend – remains the same. To repeat the definition of ‘recidivism’: It refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime. The ‘intervention’ Robin receives is being invited by the King to live at his court. Robin even receives a fee from the king – like a salary – for the duties he carries out at Court. Yet he still cannot help himself but reoffend the moment he is given a little bit of freedom from the King. Were this a more recent outlaw/highwayman from the 1700s, we would term this ‘recidivism’.