Charles Johnson’s ‘Lives of the Highwaymen’ (1734)

There is no reference in any historical archives to a Captain named Charles Johnson. The name is most likely a pseudonym for a writer whose identity is now lost to us. Some scholars such as J. R. Moore have theorised that Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), although this has recently been argued against by P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens in Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (1994). [1] Whoever Johnson was, however, he was a prolific writer, and authored several compendiums of criminal biographies beginning with A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), before going on to write The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735).[2]

Johnson title page
Title Page: Johnson’s Highwaymen (1762 edition)

Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen was part of one of the most popular genres of early eighteenth-century literature: the criminal biography. It grew out of seventeenth-century picaresque and rogue fiction, and one factor which explains its emergence is the breakdown of feudalism and the social obligations which each class owed one another, and the rise of capitalism. Hence the protagonist was usually a socially marginal person who was scrambling to survive in a new capitalist world.[3] As crime was increasingly perceived as a problem moving into the eighteenth century, people began to take more of an interest in the literature of crime, seeking to understand the criminal, hence the rise of criminal biographies such as Johnson’s.

For his History of the Highwaymen, Johnson appears to have taken inspiration from, and in some cases virtually plagiarised an earlier compendium of criminal lives by Alexander Smith (another pseudonymous author) entitled A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Foot-pads, Shoplifts, and Cheats, of Both Sexes, for Above Fifty Years Past (1714). In turn Smith’s accounts were widely plagiarised from chapbooks and other earlier pamphlets dealing with the lives of criminals.


In Johnson’s collection, as the title suggests, we have the history of some of the most notorious criminals who lived in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and indeed some from before the early modern period such as Robin Hood. His accounts are usually very formulaic, and he had a particular style. He would open the account of an offender’s life with a discussion of their birth and parentage. Take the account of the noted highwayman, Claude Du Vall:

Du Vall was born at Dumford in Normandy. His father was a miller, and his mother descended from an honourable race of tailors.[4]

The offender’s parents are always good people. Whether this was true or not is unknown, but Johnson uses accounts of the parents’ lives so that they might act as foils to the offender, who is usually portrayed as a wicked sinner. This is the case with Sawney Cunningham, another highwayman whose life is laid bare for the reader in Johnson’s history:

The precepts of a good education, or the example of virtuous parents, were not wanting to render this individual a worthy member of society; his natural untoward disposition, however, was inclined towards wickedness and luxury.[5]

From then on, Johnson tells the tale of how the criminal fell into an ever deeper circle of vice and sin. The tales of most of the male offenders related by Johnson are usually cast as the tale of an idle apprentice who disdains honest employment. Not even Robin Hood, a noble thief by our standards today, is spared this treatment. Johnson tells us that:

At an early period of his life he was trained to the occupation of a butcher, but his roving disposition was soon disgusted by that industrious employment.[6]

What then follows is a tale of all the major robberies committed by the villain, often narrated in very quick succession. The offender’s crimes begin small, often through the pilfering of farthings and marbles, and then they move on to bolder offences. Crime was viewed almost like it was an addiction in eighteenth-century narratives, much like today how ‘soft’ drugs lead on to ‘harder’ drugs.[7]

One interesting aspect of all eighteenth-century highwaymen narratives is that they are usually portrayed as having robbed alone. For example, of the famous highwayman William Davis alias The Golden Farmer, Johnson says:

He usually robbed alone.[8]

In his narrative of Robin Hood, Johnson makes virtually no reference to any of the ‘merry men’ whom we usually associate with the famous outlaw today, and it is pointed out that:

Robin’s adventures were sometimes of a solitary nature.[9]

This is important because people in the eighteenth century were afraid of organised crime, and the prospect of armed gangs of criminals preying upon travellers was offensive to the popular imagination.[10] The semi-romantic idea of a lone highwayman upon the heath, who robbed travellers with a certain degree of civility and politeness, was an altogether more ‘friendly’ image than a gang of armed thugs.

Towards all of his criminals Johnson has an ambiguous attitude. He admires them and despises them in equal measure. For example, even though Robin Hood is portrayed as a typical idle apprentice, having lived ‘a misspent life’, Johnson exhorts the reader at the end of his narrative to:

Offer for his soul your prayers.[11]

Indeed, Johnson portrays many of his highwaymen as being very generous fellows, as is the case with the seventeenth-century Royalist highwayman, James Hind:

Hind has often been celebrated for his generosity to the poor.[12]

The ambiguously sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we see in criminal biographies are a result of the fact that crimes were seen as sins by eighteenth-century contemporaries. These men are not wicked to the bone, but rather have simply made bad life choices which have consequently led them into a life of crime. Such bad life choices include becoming addicted to drink, gambling, whoring and all the other vices available to young men in eighteenth-century towns.

Golden Farmer
Engraving of a highwayman from Johnson’s Highwaymen (1762 Edition)

At the end of the tale we are given an account of the criminal’s death, and notwithstanding the sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we encounter in Johnson’s narratives, hanging is usually portrayed as a sentence that is justly deserved, as in the case of Tom Sharp, another highwayman:

Tom finished his career, by shooting a watchman who had prevented him from breaking into a shop. After sentence, he continued as hardened as ever, and despised all instruction; but when the halter was placed around his neck, he cried out for mercy, and manifested the strongest signs of wretchedness and wild despair. In this awful state of mind, the cart went forward, and he suffered the due merit of his crimes.[13]

However much an audience may have sympathised with a criminal, they usually liked to see them punished just as much – to see justice done, as Joseph Addison (1682-1719) explained that:

The mind of man is naturally a lover of justice, and when we read a story wherein a criminal is overtaken, in whom there is no quality of which is the object of pity, the soul enjoys a certain revenge for the offence done to its nature, in the wicked actions committed in the preceding part of the history.[14]

Furthermore, the tales Johnson tells are what I like to call “true-ish”; that is to say that, there is some fact interspersed with a lot of fiction. Indeed, the fact that these works were ‘histories’ is a little misleading. Johnson, and Smith before him, were rarely concerned with laying out the ‘facts’ of offender’s life; they simply wanted to entertain. In fact, sometimes they completely invented the narratives. In both Smith and Johnson’s work, for instance, we have the life of that celebrated robber, Sir John Falstaff,[15] and in another place, we have the life of Colonel Jack, based upon a novel by Daniel Defoe.

There is a high degree of sanctimonious moralism in Johnson’s narratives, such as the opening to the account of the highwayman, Walter Tracey:

The adventures of this individual are neither of interest nor importance; but his life, like that of Cunningham, shows how far the advantages of a good education may be perverted.[16]

At the beginning of Colonel Jack’s narrative, Johnson says that:

The various turns of fortune present a delightful field, in which the reader may gather useful instruction. The thoughtless and profligate reader will be stimulated to reformation, when he beholds that repentance is the happiest termination of a wicked life.[17]

Hal Gladfelder says, however, that the moralism in these texts was merely an ‘obligatory gesture’ to the establishment, while what Johnson really wanted to do was to provide sensational entertainment; entertainment that would sell well.[18]

It would be easy to dismiss Johnson’s work as nothing more than cheap Grub Street and of no significance. But these compendia were quite expensive works. Johnson’s original Lives of the Highwaymen was published in folio size and accompanied with fine engravings. It was most likely a middle-class readership which these books were aimed at. Indeed, in Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, he states in the introduction that:

It will not be without its uses amongst the middling sort of people.[19]

Although largely forgotten about today, criminal biographies did do one important thing: they paved the way for the emergence of the novel. Instead of relating the lives of aristocrats and Kings, criminal biography attempted to show people ‘real life’. This is why many early novels deal with crime: Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wild (1743) are merely two examples of this. Thus criminal biography, although it died out relatively quickly, has left its mark on a genre of fiction that we still read today.

Read the 1762 Edition of Johnson’s Highwaymen here.



[1] P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: Hambledon, 1994), 133-134.
[2] Perhaps the name Charles Johnson was chosen because in 1712 another man named Charles Johnson had authored a play entitled The Successful Pyrate (London, 1712).
[3] Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
[4] Charles Johnson, The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Street Robbers, Pirates (1734 repr. London: T. Tegg, 1839), 140.
[5] Johnson, Highwaymen, 86.
[6] Johnson, Highwaymen, 70.
[7] Andrea Mackenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), 59.
[8] Johnson, Highwaymen, 21.
[9] Johnson, Highwaymen, 73.
[10] 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), 71.
[11] Johnson, Highwaymen, 80.
[12] Johnson, Highwaymen, 137.
[13] Johnson, Highwaymen, 415.
[14] Joseph Addison, ‘Number 491’ in The Spectator: A New Edition, Reproducing the Original Text, Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors Ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge, 1880), 699-701 (701).
[15] It need scarcely be explained that Falstaff is actually a Shakespearean character, and therefore completely fictional.
[16] Johnson, Highwaymen, 91.
[17] Johnson, Highwaymen, 275.
[18] Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, 71.
[19] Charles Johnson, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), i.


Rogues in Early Modern England

Information for this post was taken principally from Steve Mentz’ and Craig Dionne’s introduction to an edited collection of essays in the book Rogues and Early Modern English Culture (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006) with further information gleaned from Hal Gladfelder’s Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001).

Before the sixteenth century, there was no such thing as a ‘rogue’. The idea had not entered into popular culture, and the word was only coined in the 1560s. Rogues were different to the outlaw of medieval times. Whereas the medieval outlaw was placed literally beyond the protection of the law and often lived apart from normal society (think of Robin Hood living in the greenwood), the situation with the rogue was different. The rogue was not part of any criminal underworld but rather signified a figure that remained a part of normal society but simultaneously saw no problem with breaking the law.

The rogue was out to get all he could from modern society, usually by swindling, embezzling, and occasionally robbing people. In effect, the rogue was a deviant representative of the self-fashioned gentleman, and representative of wider changes in English society: the breakdown of feudalism and the emergence of capitalism. The rogue owed loyalty to no one but himself, and he was determined to ‘make’ himself through any means necessary. The term soon became a catch-all term for a variety of social deviants and outcasts: rural migrants, urban con-artists, thieves. But it was not always a negative term: for instance, one of Shakespeare’s rogue characters, Sir John Falstaff, is represented as a jolly fat knight who spends a lot of his time drinking and whoring. The rogue could be a figure of fun.

But the rogue could also have negative connotations. The Elizabethan period saw the emergence of English rogue fiction. This was marked by the translation into English of the Spanish work Lazarillo de Tormes (1586; original Spanish edn. 1554), as well as works of a more English flavour such as Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller, or The Life of Jack Wilton (1594). Whereas Falstaff in Shakespeare’s play is associated with the Royal court, the majority of English rogue fiction depicts socially marginal protagonists struggling to survive within an emerging capitalist world. The main associates of the protagonists in English rogue literature are usually the lowest of the low: conmen, cut-purses, petty thieves, prostitutes. Personal gain is these characters’ main object. Jack Wilton in Nashe’s work, for instance, ‘engages in a series of rogueries, some designed to get money, some to get revenge, others for the rough pleasure of practical joking’ (Gladfelder, 2001, 34).

Title Page: Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) [Source: Adelaide University]

Rogues in Elizabethan popular literature were more often than not associated with the ‘underworld’. There is, and there was, no physical space in society where there exists an underworld. Rather the idea was constructed in popular culture. Increasingly after the 1550s such literature began to describe the underworld ‘as an autonomous social space with different classes or “degrees” of thieves, each with its own distinct language and tradition (Mentz and Dionne, 2006, 2). Although these people were not outlaws, in the sense that Robin Hood and his men were, they were simultaneously a part of society, in that they lived among the law abiding population, yet they were different to law abiding people.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that ‘rogues’, or people who engaged in ‘rogueish activities’ (cheating, swindling, embezzling, etc.) existed before the 1560s. But it was only in the Elizabethan period that the idea of the rogue was articulated in popular culture. These men were not outlaws and did not live in the forest as Robin Hood and his men. Rather they lived among normal people. While they did rob people, their modus operandi was more subtle: they cheated you out of money; played tricks on you. They were the product of an emerging capitalist society which praised the personal gain of the individual over the good of society. Ultimately rogue literature would give birth to the criminal biography of the eighteenth century: the precursor of modern crime fiction.

Christmas in Newgate Gaol

Newgate gaol was London’s most infamous gaol. It was built in the twelfth century as a place to hold prisoners until judges were available to debate their innocence. The original gaol was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. After this it was rebuilt and expanded into two new buildings, and remained in use until 1902.

Source: Wikipedia

Newgate has been home to some of the most famous criminals in English history, some of whom I’ve written about on this website before such as:

Jack Sheppard (1702-1724)
Jonathan Wild (1683-1725)
James Maclaine (1724-1750)

It was not just hardened criminals who found themselves unlucky enough to be imprisoned within its walls, however. The Jacobean playwright Ben Jonson, who authored The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1631) found himself spending a brief spell in Newgate after killing a man in a duel. The novelist Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe (1719) found himself in Newgate after having published a pamphlet attacking the government entitled The Shortest Way with Dissenters (1701). The Venetian libertine Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) similarly found himself residing in Newgate, having been charged with bigamy, a charge which, in all likelihood, was probably justified.

In the literature of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries Newgate gaol looms large. Indeed, it gave its name to The Newgate Calendar, a compendium of criminals’ lives that appeared frequently throughout the eighteenth century. Newgate was an idea as much as a place. The people in it constituted, as Henry Fielding declared in his novel The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743):

Human Nature with its Mask off.

Yet in the eighteenth century one could find life in Newgate quite comfortable. If you were a person of means, then you could pay the gaoler for your own cell, and perhaps he would take your manacles off. If you were feeling “lonely”, then perhaps you might get your mistress to visit you during your confinement. If you were one of the poorer prisoners, however, you would be with the masses in the festering dungeons below, the stench of which apparently made passers-by hold their noses.

Newgate Christmas Sermon
Newgate Christmas Sermon

Whilst for the majority of its history the gaol was little more than a holding cell whilst people awaited their sentences of death, transportation, the pillory, or hard labour, by the nineteenth century things began to change. The government began to look at trying to reform prisoners. This meant that prisoners would be spending more time there; prison now would be about both punishment and rehabilitation.

The reporter who visited Newgate on Christmas Day was writing for The New Newgate Calendar, a penny dreadful (notable for featuring both current affairs and entertainment) which was published between 1863 and 1865 (thieves and rogues are the real heroes of penny dreadfuls, and bear no relation the mish-mash of late Victorian supernatural Gothic horror monsters in the recent eponymous TV series). Eighteenth-century criminal biographies were published as moralist texts, and from the following opening paragraph, it is evident that the reporter’s aims are the same as his eighteenth-century forbears:

Yes! Christmas in Newgate! – and why not? You are free from its sombre, grimy walls, but all are not so fortunate! You are certain of a slice of rich plum pudding, and a cut of turkey, or tit-bit of fat goose, but do you suppose that all of the thousands who look for a dinner in the big city of London on this twenty-fifth day of December, in the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, will feed upon pudding, turkey, and goose? Not a bit of it, we tell you; so thank your lucky stars that you are well provided for. And while you revel in good cheer, make your friends welcome, romp with your children, or stir that glowing fire, do so in a spirit of thankfulness; forget not that thousands hunger without your door, and that many poor wretches – driven to crime by want and evil companionship – have sinned and sinned again, and broken our laws, until, in their evil fortune, they are compelled to eat their dinner in solitude on Christmas Day, and that within the brick walls of Newgate.

It is a pleasure to have scanned this issue from my personal collection of penny dreadfuls, especially in view of the fact that The New Newgate Calendar penny dreadful is not yet available in any modern edition.

Read here: The New Newgate Calendar Saturday Jan 2nd 1864

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].

Jack Sheppard (1702-1724)

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

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

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

Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A most virulent and libellous attack upon my romance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one youth told Mayhew that:

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

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

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