When “Upperworld” and “Underworld” Meet: Social Class and Crime in “The Mysteries of London (1844-46)

[The following is the text of a talk given at Lancaster University’s ‘Class and the Past Conference’ on 16 March 2017].


George William MacArthur Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London, serialised between 1844 and 1846, was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era. In recent years Reynolds’ life and work have received renewed critical attention from literary scholars, who have explored, as Stephen Carver does, Reynolds’ representation of the underworld.[i] The term ‘underworld’ is one that is often used by scholars, but usually without a full consideration of its meaning. For example, while many scholars speak of an underworld of organised crime, rarely do researchers account for the fact that an ‘upperworld’ must exist also, and that the criminal members of both worlds, or classes, collude together in order to cause harm to ‘the industrious classes’. Given that Reynolds sees society as being divided into three distinct classes: the aristocracy, the industrious classes, and the criminal classes, Reynolds’ depiction of organised crime challenged emerging Victorian stereotypes of a ‘criminal class’. Crime in The Mysteries of London is not merely a story of ‘the wrongs and crimes of the poor’; it is also a story of the wrongs and crimes of those in the ‘upperworld’, which of course suited Reynolds’ radical sentiments.

Reynolds’ Conception of Society

As stated above, Reynolds does not hold to the typical Victorian conception of society as being divided into upper class, middle class(es), and working classes. As we can see, there are several gradations in society: at the top, there is the monarchy and the aristocracy, an institution and a class of people for which Reynolds certainly had no high degree of admiration, and often complained about ‘the sickening specimens of grovelling and self-abasement’ some people displayed towards the monarchy.[ii] A flavour of his attitude towards the aristocracy is evident in his comments about the Duke of Newcastle, who according to Reynolds had ‘a mental capacity amounting almost to the idiotic’.[iii] The Duke of Cumberland’s obituary in Reynolds’ Newspaper said that he was ‘a monster in human shape, a veritable fiend without a single redeeming quality’ whose life amounted to a progression of ‘perjury, adultery, seduction, incest and murder’.[iv]

Reynolds’ Idea of Victorian Class Structure

Towards the clergy and the Christian religion in general Reynolds likewise had no great regard. One of his earliest written works was a short pamphlet entitled The Errors of the Christian Religion Exposed (1832). In this work he writes of how he became a deist, having concluded that ‘we find the Old and New Testament to be false’.[v] Of the nineteenth-century clergy he scathingly asks:

Who are more addicted to the luxuries and sensualities of life than the ministers of God?[vi]

The people who matter in society, according to Reynolds, are the middle classes and ‘the industrious classes’. The hero of The Mysteries of London, Richard Markham, is a member of the middle classes, as was Reynolds himself, in spite of his repeated bankruptcies. Reynolds deplored the condition of the working classes, whose problems he attributes to the upper classes:

The country that contains the greatest wealth of all the territories of the universe, is that which also knows the greatest amount of hideous, revolting, heart-rending misery. In England men and women die of starvation in the streets. In England women murder their children to save them from a lingering death by famine. In England the poor commit crimes to obtain an asylum in a gaol. In England aged females die by their own hands, in order to avoid the workhouse.[vii]

The condition of the working poor is set in contrast with the gluttony of the aristocracy who enjoy a life of plenty.[viii] But this is not to say that Reynolds views the poor as saints. In his opening chapter, he states that ‘crime is abundant in this great city’.[ix] And in the ensuing novel, he makes clear that many members of the poorer classes are indeed criminal. Nevertheless, Reynolds was popular with working people, especially Chartists.[x] And he certainly had nothing to gain by vehemently expressing his radical and republican sentiments in the press except the opprobrium of contemporaries such as Dickens, who wrote in 1849 that Reynolds’ name was ‘a name with which no lady’s, and no gentleman’s, should be associated’.[xi] While some might argue that Reynolds simply supported radical causes to curry favour with the working classes, as will be illustrated below, Reynolds was not writing solely for that class. Instead, Reynolds perhaps saw himself as the Republican activist in The Mysteries of London sees himself; he is a man who is

Represented as a character who ought to be loathed and shunned by all virtuous and honest people […] And yet, O God! […] I only strive to arouse the grovelling spirit of the industrious millions to a sense of the wrongs under which they labour, and to prove to them that they were not sent into this world to lick the dust beneath the feet of majesty and the aristocracy!”[xii]

It will be noted that he never attacks the middle classes here; he merely speaks of the ‘industrious millions’ as occupying a place beneath the feet ‘of majesty and the aristocracy’. Hence Reynolds’ merging of the middle classes and working classes looks back to earlier forms of nineteenth-century radicalism in which both classes formed an alliance to effect parliamentary reform before the ‘Great Betrayal’ of 1832.[xiii] Among the many readings of Reynolds’ radicalism, it is Gertrude Himmelfarb whose assessment seems most appropriate:

[Reynolds’] radicalism was of an entirely different order and because his idea of poverty was nihilistic rather than compassionate or heroic […] violence and depravity, licentiousness and criminality, were the only forms of existence, and potentially the only means of redemption, available to the poor.[xiv]

In essence, Reynolds’ depiction of criminality amongst the poorer classes is a literary representation of the fact that society gets the criminals that it deserves.

The villains of The Mysteries of London in a low ale-house

Collaboration between Upperworld and Underworld

The principal underworld villains in the novel are the Resurrection Man, the Buffer, Dick Flairer and Bill Bolter. They are a tight-knit criminal gang who also have links to a wider network of criminals known as the Forty Thieves.[xv] Yet organised crime groups usually carry out their activities with the often tacit approval of those in the upperworld.[xvi] There is an instance in the novel which neatly illustrates the collusion between people from the two worlds: the Cracksman’s undertaking of a highway robbery.

Reynolds’ novel is essentially the story of two brothers, the virtuous Richard Markham and his not-so-virtuous brother, Eugene. Although Richard experiences some misfortunes throughout his life, he rises in society through his own virtue, and eventually marries into the family of an Italian nobleman. Eugene, on the other hand, also advances in society through means of corruption, fraud and embezzlement. He eventually becomes the MP for a place called Rottenborough, the naming of which is an allusion to pre-Reform Act constituencies such as Old Sarum. Eugene, who goes under the assumed name of Montague Greenwood, plots to defraud the good Count Alteroni of his fortune. However, he must first acquire a vital document from him. For this, Eugene must employ the services of the Cracksman and his fellows:

“What’s the natur’ of the service?” demanded the Cracksman, darting a keen and penetrating glance at Greenwood.

“A highway robbery,” coolly answered [Eugene …]

“All right!” cried the Cracksman. “Now what’s the robbery, and what’s the reward?”


“I will now explain to you what I want done. Between eleven and twelve o’clock a gentleman will leave London for Richmond. He will be in his own cabriolet, with a tiger, only twelve years old, behind. The cab is light blue – the wheels streaked with white. This is peculiar, and cannot be mistaken. The horse is a tall bay, with silver- mounted harness. This gentleman must be stopped; and everything his pockets contain – everything, mind – must be brought to me. Whatever money there may be about him shall be yours, and I will add fifty guineas to the amount: – but all that you find about his person, save the money, must be handed over to me.”[xvii]

Note the precision with which the robbery is to be carried out: clear and concise instructions are given; crime in the urban, industrial society is cold and calculated; it is organised crime. This is not the romantic highway robbery of the type carried out by William Harrison Ainsworth’s Dick Turpin in Rookwood (1834). Before the Cracksman commits the crime, he receives an ‘advance’ of twenty guineas, at which the Cracksman exclaims: ‘that’s business!’[xviii] The robbery is carried out, and at Eugene and the Cracksman’s second meeting the villains are paid in full for their work. The meeting is concluded with the Cracksman hoping ‘that he should have his custom in future’ (italics in original).[xix] To the villains of The Mysteries of London crime is a business carried out with the sole purpose of financial gain. Surgeons are their customers, or they make themselves available as henchmen-for-hire willing to do the dirty work of those in from supposedly more respectable stations in life as long as the price is right.

The Wrongs and Crimes of the Upperworld

Although the above serves as an example of collaboration between members of the upper world and the underworld, Reynolds shows that members from the supposedly respectable classes were capable of committing crime independently of their counterparts from criminal class. Eugene Markham, for instance, along with several MPs, a Lord, and the Sheriff of London are seen conspiring together to establish a fraudulent railway company at a dinner party held by Eugene for his fellow conspirators:

Algiers, Oran, and Morocco Great Desert Railway.

“(Provisionally Registered Pursuant to Act.)

“Capital £1,200,000, in 80,000 shares, of £20 each.

“Deposit £2 2s. per Share.

Committee of Direction: The Most Honourable Marquis of Holmesford, G. C. B. Chairman. – George Montague Greenwood, Esq. M.P. Deputy Chairman.[xx]

The conspirators require capital, but as Eugene assures those assembled at his dinner party, no such railway scheme exists, and it has only been devised solely for defrauding investors:

And now, my lord and gentlemen, we perfectly understand each other. Each takes as many shares as he pleases. When they reach a high premium, each may sell as he thinks fit. Then, when we have realized our profits, we will inform the shareholders that insuperable difficulties prevent the carrying out of the project,- that Abd-el-Kadir, for instance, has violated his agreement and declared against the scheme,- that the Committee of Direction will, therefore, retain a sum sufficient to defray the expenses already incurred, and that the remaining capital paid up shall be returned to the shareholders.[xxi]

This is an example of what might now be termed ‘white collar crime’ and reflects the ‘Railway Mania’ of 1846-47, occurring at precisely the time when Reynolds was writing The Mysteries of London. The enthusiasm for investing in speculative railway schemes was felt among both the upper and middle classes, and it was the first time that companies relied heavily on investors’ capital rather than on government bonds.[xxii] As George Robb notes, the mania for investing in railway companies was perfect for fraudsters wishing to embezzle funds from their investors: bills for the establishment of new railway companies could be obtained from parliament relatively easily, and investors had little access to sound financial advice and accurate financial data.[xxiii]

The Victorians were under no illusions about the opportunities for fraud and embezzlement that were available to unscrupulous and dishonest businessmen in the nineteenth-century financial world.[xxiv] There are many characters in Victorian literature who exemplify the crooked businessman. Clive Emsley points to Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield (1849-50), a snakelike, devious character who extorts money from the good Mr. Wickfield. Similarly, there is Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel The Woman in White (1859-60), who plots to claim Laura Fairlie’s fortune by faking her death.[xxv] Shore similarly points to some contemporary press reports which expose she what calls ‘a hidden financial criminal underworld, straddling a line between the criminal class and the respectable class’.[xxvi] For the most part, however, members of the supposedly respectable upper and middle classes who turned to crime were just viewed by contemporaries as ‘bad apples’ that had been led astray or placed in tempting situations.[xxvii]


Reynolds’ depiction of criminality amongst members of respectable society is more nuanced than Dickens or Collins: according to Reynolds there is a criminal upper class, and a criminal lower class; the underworld mirrors the upper world. Sometimes members from both spheres collaborate to cause harm to members of ‘the industrious classes’. The M.P., Eugene Markham, is not merely a ‘bad apple’ who has been led astray. Instead, he actively pursues a ‘white collar’ criminal course of life. Portraying the upper world of crime, of course, suited Reynolds’ radical sentiments: as we have seen, he detested the political establishment and ensured that in The Mysteries of London its members were implicated in criminal acts, even if their complicity is limited to merely purchasing smuggled goods.[xxviii] If a majority of the poor are indeed criminal, it is because their upper-class counterparts facilitate or indeed, as we saw with the exchange between Eugene and the Cracksman, take a leading role in directing such crime.


[i] Stephen J. Carver, ‘The Wrongs and Crimes of the Poor: The Urban Underworld of The Mysteries of London in Context’ in G.W.M. Reynolds and Nineteenth-Century British Society: Politics, Fiction and the Press  ed. by Anne Humpherys & Louis James (London: Ashgate, 2008), pp.185-212

[ii] G. W. M. Reynolds cited in Michael Diamond, ‘From Journalism and Fiction into Politics’ in Anne Humpherys & Louis James (eds.) G.W.M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), pp.91-99 (p.91).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Reynolds’ Newspaper 23 November 1851, p.12.

[v] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Errors of the Christian Religion Exposed (London, 1832), p.13.

[vi] Reynolds, The Errors of the Christian Religion Exposed, p.14.

[vii] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 1 (London: G. Vickers, 1845), p.179.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 1, p.2.

[x] ’Jessica Hindes, ‘Revealing Bodies: Knowledge, Power and Mass Market Fictions in G.W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London’ (Unpublished PhD Thesis, Royal Holloway, University of London, 2012), p.12n: ‘Reynolds was elected to the National Chartist Association’s National Executive in 1848 with more votes than any of his fellow committee members; 1,805 to Feargus O’Connor’s 1,314’. Further discussions of Reynolds’ role in working-class and radical causes are to be found in the following works: Ian Haywood, ‘George W. M. Reynolds and “The Trafalgar Square Revolution”: Radicalism, the Carnivalesque and Popular Culture in Mid-Victorian England’ Journal of Victorian Culture 7: 1 (2002), pp.23–59

[xi] Charles Dickens, Letter to W.C. Macready, August 30, 1849, cited in Michael Diamond, Victorian Sensation: Or the Spectacular, the Shocking and the Scandalous in Victorian Britain (London: Anthem, 2003), p.191.

[xii] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 1, p.70.

[xiii] On working-class and middle-class radicalism, the alliances between the two classes, and the Reform Act of 1832 more generally, see the following works: Paul Adelman, Victorian Radicalism: The Middle-class Experience, 1830-1914 (London: Longman, 1984); Dror Wahrman, Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain, c.1780-c.1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Nancy D. LoPatin, Political Unions, Popular Politics and the Great Reform Act of 1832 (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1999); Eric J. Evans, Britain Before the Reform Act: Politics and Society 1815-1832 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008).

[xiv] Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (London: Faber & Faber, 1984), p.451.

[xv] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 2 (London: G. Vickers, 1846), p.187.

[xvi]  Kelly Hignett, ‘Organised Crime in East Central Europe: The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland’ Global Crime 6: 1 (2004), pp.70-83 (p.71).

[xvii] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 1, p.149.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 1, p.150.

[xx] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 2, p.95.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] George Robb, White-Collar Crime in Modern England: Financial Fraud and Business Morality, 1845-1929 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp.31-32.

[xxiii] Robb, White-Collar Crime, p.34.

[xxiv] Robb, White-Collar Crime, p.3.

[xxv] Emsley, Crime and Society, p.58.

[xxvi] Shore, London’s Criminal Underworlds, p.3.

[xxvii] Emsley, Crime and Society, p.58.

[xxviii] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 1, p.191.

E. L. Blanchard’s “The Mysteries of London” (1849-50)

My previous post was about Thomas Miller’s continuation of G. W. M. Reynolds’ penny blood The Mysteries of London (Reynolds and Miller’s series were published between 1844 – 1848 and 1848 – 1849 respectively). I managed to track down a copy of it from a second-hand book store. But when I was busy scanning through the images I realised that it also contained Edward L. Blanchard’s The Mysteries of London which was serialised between 1849 and 1850. Two rare books for the price of one is a good bargain.[i]

Blanchard (1820 – 1889) was a journalist and a playwright. He is not particularly distinguished in the annals of Victorian literature, and I had only heard of him in passing before becoming acquainted with his book. The magazines he contributed to include Fun, The Illustrated Times, The Era Almanack and Annual, The Observer, and The Era. He also served as the editor of Chambers’ London Journal (1841) and the New London Magazine (1845). The plays that he wrote include unremarkable pieces such as See Saw Margery Daw, or, Harlequin Holiday and the Island of Ups and Downs (1856). Of the literary works he penned, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that they were mostly ‘unmemorable novels’.[ii]

The ODNB further records that he was pretty inoffensive, and there is nothing to suggest that he shared either Reynolds’ republican sympathies or Miller’s Chartist sentiments. Indeed, the illustrations accompanying Blanchard’s Mysteries are not as violent or as racy as those of Reynolds, and there is certainly no nudity in any of them unlike there was in Reynolds’ first series. In fact, the illustrations seem a lot more ‘domesticated’ than the previous serials. Perhaps the series had been running so long by the time Blanchard was writing that it had ceased to be sensational.

There are actually two books in Blanchard’s version of the Mysteries, and each tells a different story (having only got the books a week ago, I have only skim read the books thus far). The first follows Reynolds and Miller by telling a story of vice and crime in Victorian high and low life. So I’m guessing that The Mysteries of London was like the modern day television show American Horror Story: an anthology series which with different cast and characters in each series, as evident in the introduction:

Again the curtain has descended on the characters that have figured in our former histories, and again we raise it to disclose others that have yet to appear before the eyes of those who watch our onward progress

Curiously, the second book is actually set during the late eighteenth century and the Regency. As you will see from the gallery below, the second set of images depicts men and women in eighteenth-century and Regency style clothing.

Enjoy the images – as far as I can ascertain this version of The Mysteries of London has not yet been digitised by any university library.

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[i] To find out which public and scholarly libraries hold this book, see the listings on the Price One Penny Database: http://www.priceonepenny.info/database/show_title.php?work_id=276.

[ii] Jane W. Stedman, ‘Blanchard, Edward Litt Leman (1820–1889)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. Jan 2011) [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/2602 Accessed 16 Dec 2016]. Other biographical works on Blanchard include Scott Clement and Cecil Howard, The Life and Reminisces of E. L. Blanchard (London: Hutchison, 1891).

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

G W M Reynolds – Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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

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

G. W. M. Reynolds on Robin Hood

Modern period dramas on television often depict the Victorian era as a time when, although there were problems, people never criticised the monarchy or the established order. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, to the extent that Parliament felt compelled to pass the Treason Felony Act in 1848 which made it a felony to “compass, imagine, invent, devise, or intend”:

  1. To deprive the Queen of her crown.
  2. To levy war against the Queen.
  3. To “move or stir” any foreigner to invade the United Kingdom or any other country belonging to the Queen.

Yet while most radical journalists during the period masked their republican sentiments by criticising Old Corruption – indeed, even the Chartists did not advocate republicanism – one brave journalist was unafraid of sounding his opinions in the public arena: George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814-1879).

Reynolds was the nineteenth century’s most popular author, outselling even Dickens, and his novel The Mysteries of London (1844-45) was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era. His output of novels was certainly impressive, for he authored over thirty, and was editor of three newspapers throughout his life.

He hated the idea all of the hereditary nobilities of Europe – Queen Maria of Spain he called:

A bloated, gluttonous strumpet. [1]

When it was proposed to erect a statue of Prince Albert, Reynolds denounced the measure as:

One of the most nauseating, degrading, and sickening specimens of grovelling self-abasement. [2]

The Secretary of State for War, the Duke of Newcastle was said to have:

A mental capacity amounting almost to the idiotic. [3]

These attacks were not simply for sensationalism, however, for what Reynolds aimed to do was to present an alternative history of monarchy and aristocracy which in Reynolds’ view was too sycophantic and loyal. [4] When he published his history of England in Reynolds Newspaper, Henry VIII was:

The Royal Bluebeard. [5]

In his novel Canonbury House (1857-58), Queen Elizabeth I is described as being both a tyrant and ugly:

Despite the eulogies passed upon her by parasite poets and sycophantic scribes of her own time and subsequent periods. [6]

Charles II was:

One of the most licentious, dissipated, and unprincipled scoundrels that ever disgraced the earth. [7]

Moreover, in Victorian history writing, William of Orange was often viewed positively – as a Protestant King who freed the English from the tyranny of the Catholic Stuarts. But according to Reynolds William III was:

A sovereign to be execrated and loathed as one of the scourges of the human race. [8]

When the Duke of Cumberland died in 1851, many of the obituaries were overwhelmingly positive, but the obituary in Reynolds’ Newspaper stated that the sum total of his character amounted to:

Perjury, adultery, seduction, incest and murder. [9]

Surprisingly, Reynolds did not adopt the legend of Robin Hood in any major way, in spite of the fact that radicals prior to him had done so, such as Joseph Ritson (1782-1803), Thomas Miller (1807-1874), and even his friend Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880). On 10 January 1869, however, Reynolds’ Newspaper addressed the subject of ‘The Robbery of the Land by the Aristocracy’.

Title Page Illustration to Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844-45) [Source: http://www.Victorianlondon.org]

In the article he discusses how the aristocracy came to hold their land, and argues that the people in the nineteenth century are essentially slaves to the nobility:

Albeit pretty certain that Britons never will be slaves to foreign masters, it is by no means equally sure that they are not even now bondsmen to native tyrants. [10]

The article then goes on to give a survey of the state of land ownership in nineteenth-century Britain: in pre-historical times, Reynolds argues, ‘providence intended that the produce of the earth should be enjoyed in common’. [11] However, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror rewarded those who joined him in battle with land stolen from the English. The result of this land grab by the Norman nobility resulted in the poverty that many people suffered during the Victorian era, according to Reynolds: ‘heavy rents hang round the necks […] like Millstones […] and thus it is that we find tens of thousands of our fellow men starving amid plenty’. [12]

But, Reynolds notes, throughout history there have been a few courageous men who have stood up to these tyrants, and they were mostly thieves:

Servile historians have depicted as robbers, rascals, and freebooters men who were in reality doing their utmost to save themselves and posterity from being plundered by the ancestors of those coroneted robbers who now hold possession of a large portion of English soil. [13]

Among these robbers and freebooters, Robin Hood is the most noteworthy. Although he was called a robber, Reynolds notes, he was gallant and brave, ever ready to help those who suffered under the oppression of Norman tyranny.

Perhaps as an indication of the continuing influence of Walter Scott’s Saxon vs. Norman idea, Reynolds argues that Robin Hood was most popular with the oppressed Saxons who looked upon Robin Hood ‘as their chieftain and defender’. [14]

Unfortunately, Robin was not to be successful in his endeavours:

The struggle, however, that endured for centuries between the people and the nobility – the former striving to retain possession of their land, the latter determined to dispossess them of it, has terminated in the complete triumph of the of the latter, and the result of this is despoilment is the terrible amount of pauperism, misery, destitution, and crime that overshadows the nation like a funeral pall. [15]

In many ways this is a topical post: the Duke of Westminster has recently passed away, and there have been ongoing debates in the press about whether the new Duke will pay inheritance tax upon the land and estates that now pass to him.Incidentally, the Duke of Westminster is descended from Gilbert le Grosveneur, who came over with William in the conquest annd was awarded land in and around London. It is impossible to know what Reynolds would have written about a situation like that, but he would have been questioning just by what right aristocrats continue to hold the land that they do.


[1] G. W. M. Reynolds cited in Michael Diamond, ‘From Journalism and Fiction into Politics’ in G. W. M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press Eds. Anne Humpherys and Louis James (Ashgate, 2008), p.91.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Diamond, ‘From Journalism and Fiction into Politics’, p.92.
[5] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 26 October 1851, p.1.
[6] G. W. M. Reynolds, Canonbury House (London: J. Dicks, 1859), p.103.
[7] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 13 July 1851, p.1.
[8] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 5 September 1852, p.1.
[9] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 23 November 1851, p.12.
[10] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 10 January 1869, p.5.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.

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) < http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/cruikshank/ot9.html>]

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: http://www.victorianlondon.org]

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] http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4788375

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: <<http://humanities.uwe.ac.uk/bhr/Main/m_crime/criminal.htm>>

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 << http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/olivertwist>&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 << http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/olivertwist>&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 <http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk/pmg/tribute/notice.php&gt; 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: << http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/12093096/Revealed-How-Hatton-Gardens-OAP-raiders-were-cream-of-criminal-underworld.html>&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: << http://www.bigissue.com/features/interviews/5293/lord-ramsbotham-interview-there-is-no-accountability-in-our-prisons>&gt; Accessed 01 February 2016].
29. Peter Hitchens, ‘The Great British Bobby is Dead’ Mail on Sunday 24 January 2016 [Internet: <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3413970/The-British-bobby-long-dead-one-chance-bring-writes-PETER-HITCHENS.html#ixzz3yvCdhsxo&gt; Accessed 01 February 2016.

Eugene Sue’s “The Mysteries of Paris” (1843)

4In the 19 June 1842 issue of the Parisian magazine, Journal des Debats, a new serialised story appeared entitled The Mysteries of Paris, which ran weekly until 15 October 1843.

The novel was written by Eugene Sue (1804-1857), and the plot concerns a man called Rodolphe who moves through the Parisian underworld doing good works, such as saving young girls from procuresses (women who would pimp other women out). In time, it turns out that Rodolphe is actually a very rich man, and heir to a German dukedom.

2The plot was inspired by his political beliefs, for Sue was a socialist, and his rendering of the desperate plight of the Parisian underclasses was intended to inspire sympathy among for them amongst his affluent readers. This is perhaps why Richard Maxwell sees in Sue’s novel the first glimmers of what he calls ‘bleeding heart liberalism’ (think The Guardian newspaper). In addition to having written some fairly successful novels, he took part in the French Revolution of 1848, after which time he was elected to the Parisian Legislative Assembly, however, with Napoleon III’s coup d’etat, he was exiled to Savoy and spent the rest of his days there.

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

Paris1The novel appears to have been well received amongst readers of all classes; and of course G. W. M. Reynolds was quite taken with it, seeing as he produced his own The Mysteries of London, and Sue’s novel was also translated into English as a penny blood, or penny dreadful, and went through several editions. In fact, Sue’s serial kicked off a whole ‘City Mysteries’ genre:

  • Les Vrais Mysteres des Paris by Eugene Vidocq
  • The Mysteries of London by G. W. M. Reynolds
  • The Mysteries of Lisbon by Camilo Branco
  • The Slums of St. Petersburg by Vsevolod Krestovsky
  • The Mysteries of New York by Ned Buntline

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

Despite being one of the most successful novels of the nineteenth century, and having inspired a host of imitators, there has as yet been no English language film made of it (nor of Reynolds’ Mysteries either). There was one French film made back in the 1960s but, alas, it is extremely hard to get hold of, so I doubt I’ll be watching it anytime soon!

Here are some of the images from the first English edition of the novel:



Read the 1887 edition of The Mysteries of Paris here.

Organised Crime in “The Mysteries of London” (1844)

The Mysteries of London was a long-running penny dreadful serial which ran between 1844 and 1846 and was the biggest selling novel of the Victorian era. Read the ebook here.

A version of this post was also published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online 

Illustration from The Mysteries of London (1844) [Source: Victorianweb.org]

When I was completing my MA in Social History at Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett) there was an excellent module I completed entitled ‘Organised Crime in the Modern World’ run by Dr. Kelly Hignett. It was an interesting area of study which looked at why organised crime emerges in certain conditions at certain times. Of the case studies we looked at there was, obviously, the Sicilian Mafia, as well as other groups such as the Japanese Yakuza and the Russian Mafia. Whilst drawing on longer established histories, these groups have all flourished in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and some of them have been immortalised in movies such as The Godfather (1970), Goodfellas (1990), and, my favourite, Donnie Brasco (1997). These films depicting organised crime are set in the twentieth century, and it is often assumed by law-makers, academics, and the public that organised crime is a modern phenomenon’. However, crime fiction in the early-Victorian period shows that contemporaries were aware that crime was becoming sophisticated and increasingly organised. Terms such as ‘professional criminal’ signified a person whose sole living was earned through the proceeds of crime, and into this category would have fallen well-known characters like Bill Sikes and Fagin from Oliver Twist (1838). I would like to show how some of the current theories in criminology relating to organised crime can be applied to the representations of crime in the early nineteenth-century penny serial The Mysteries of London (1845) by G. W.M. Reynolds (1814-1879).

First, though, it would be useful to have a working definition of ‘organised crime’, although arriving at a single definition has proven to be a headache for academics and policy makers alike. Generally speaking, however, ‘organised crime’ can be defined as ‘a continuing enterprise, apart from traditional legal and social structures, within which a number of persons work together under their own hierarchy for their private gain through illegal activities’. Organised crime may indeed exist separately as a murky underworld alongside a society of law and order, but it cannot exist without an organised society. Hence ‘organised crime has evolved as the shadowy underside of modernisation and order’.

Illustration from Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844) [Source: Victorianweb.org]

Most readers will be aware that London society had become increasingly organised by the early nineteenth century. The eighteenth-century system of law enforcement, with its corrupt web of thief takers, constables, and watchmen, had been abolished and replaced with a professional police force in 1829. Although limited in its scope, welfare for the most destitute members of society was provided through the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) which expanded the workhouse system. Working life was increasingly regulated through successive Factory Acts passed in the 1830s and 1840s. The government in the early Victorian period, therefore, extended its reach into more areas of public life than before it had done previously.

Organised crime historically flourishes in places where law enforcement and social institutions are seen as weak or ineffectual, or are mistrusted by large sections of the population. As you will probably agree, despite the government’s efforts at ‘organising’ society there were still holes in its fabric which underworld figures exploited – for with the workhouse system as cruel as it was, is it any wonder that the young boys in Oliver Twist turned to Fagin? Added to this is the fact that the police force in the early Victorian period was not trusted by the working classes. They were seen as a force which protected the propertied classes only, and to working-class people they merely ‘guarded St. James by watching St. Giles’.

It was such a society that was depicted by Reynolds in his penny serial The Mysteries of London. The modern industrial city is depicted as a maze in which vice and criminal behaviour exist in both high and low life. There are four main criminal characters in the story: the Cracksman, Crankey Jem, the Buffer and the sinister Resurrection Man. They are all natives of the worst rookeries and slum districts of the metropolis. The gang is hired at one point by a bourgeois capitalist named Montague Greenwood to carry out a criminal act:

‘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’.

The gentleman in question is consequently robbed and receives the butt of a pistol bashed against his head for good measure. It becomes clear that this band of criminals’ sole motivation in carrying out this crime was profit, for when Greenwood pays the Cracksman he exclaims that he hopes ‘he should have his custom in future’. Karl Marx and Frederich Engels wrote in 1848 that in a capitalist society relationships between members of society had been reduced to a ‘callous cash payment’. As the “upperworld” and the “underworld” reflected each other, it is clear that crime in the modern industrial city is driven by financial considerations.

As I have highlighted already, organised crime has to be a continuing illegal enterprise – a criminal network should still function even if one or more of its members are incarcerated or killed. Reynolds seems to have had at least some understanding of this. In the story, Crankey Jem seized by the authorities and consequently sentenced to Transportation for life. The gang still operates despite the departure of this member who had been a central figure in Reynolds’ depiction of the London underworld. At the end of the first series, the Resurrection Man appears receives his just desserts, dying by the hand of a former associate. Yet true to his name, in the second series of The Mysteries of London the Resurrection Man was resurrected for readers. It turns out that he did not die and he returns to assume his place in the labyrinthine network of the Victorian criminal underworld.

The sinister Resurrection Man. Illustration from The Mysteries of London (1844) [Source: victorianweb.org]

Of course, Reynolds merely represented organised crime. The next question to be asked is whether organised crime groups actually existed in this period? I will admit now that you would be unlikely to find the term ‘organised crime’ in any early-Victorian text. As I mentioned earlier, the Victorians preferred terms such as ‘professional criminal’. Kellow Chesney’s work on crime in the Victorian period is now a classic, however, and regarding the methods of men such as cracksmen he says: ‘they often spent months surveying and preparing a big robbery’. There also appears to have been a loose hierarchy among criminals in this period, as Chesney says that gangs were comprised of many different types of thieves, each of whom usually performed a different function, from the head house-breaker down to the lowly look out. Now obviously the depictions of organised crime gangs in Reynolds’ work, and their real-life nineteenth-century counterparts, did not follow modern criminologists’ definitions of organised crime to the letter. Yet Chesney’s research shows that there was at least some kind of organised and sophisticated structure to these gangs’ operations in this period.

What I have intended to show, then, is that while organised crime is often thought to be a strictly modern phenomenon. Yet the theories of criminologists relating to organised crime can be applied to the study of crime and its representation in the early Victorian period. A short glance at Reynolds’ penny blood of in the early nineteenth century illustrates that contemporaries were aware that crime was becoming increasingly sophisticated. The gradual organisation of the “upperworld” in the nineteenth century laid the groundwork for the organisation of the underworld. Crime in the modern industrial society of the nineteenth century was ruthless, cold, and driven by profit. As you can see, it had become organised. Thus an understanding of how and why organised crime emerges and flourishes in particular times and places can enhance our understanding of the history of Victorian crime.

This is the second post in a series on organised crime and its representation in historical literature.


  • Mark Galeotti, a leading criminologist, has recently argued against this perspective, see: Galeotti, M. ‘Criminal Histories: An Introduction’. In Organised Crime in History, ed. Mark Galeotti (London: Routledge, 2009), p.1.
  • Emsley, C. Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900. (London: Harper, 1987), p.168.
  • J.O. Finckenaur ‘Problems of Definition: What is Organised Crime?’ Trends in Organized Crime, 8:3, 2005, p.64.
  • Galeotti ‘Criminal Histories: An Introduction,’ p.6
  • Galeotti, ‘Criminal Histories: An Introduction,’ p.1.
  • Skaperdas, S. ‘The Political Economy of Organised Crime: Providing Protection When the State Does Not’. Economics of Governance, Vol. 2 (2001), p.173.
  • Storch, R. ‘The Plague of Blue Locusts: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840–57’ International Review of Social History 20:1, 1975, p.61.
  • George W.M. Reynolds The Mysteries of London. (London: Published for the Booksellers, 1845:1890), p.81.
  • Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, p.82 (Emphasis added).
  • Marx, K. and Engels, F. The Communist Manifesto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1848:2005), p.5.
  • Chesney, K. The Victorian Underworld (London: Penguin Books, 1970), p.196.
  • Chesney, The Victorian Underworld, p.198.