The Victorian Underworld

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

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


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

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

The Eighteenth Century

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

Romanticised 19th-century image of Dick Turpin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack Sheppard (1702-1724)

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

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

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

The Nineteenth Century

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

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

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

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

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

Header - Oliver Twist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Source: <<>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Henry Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews” (1742)

Illustration from Joseph Andrews (1742)
Illustration from Joseph Andrews (1742)

I return once again to my favourite author, Henry Fielding (1707-1754) and discuss his novel The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams. Written in Imitation of the Manner of Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote (1742). The title is usually shortened to just Joseph Andrews…(they loved long titles in the 18th century).

(My post on one of Wild’s other novels The Life and Death of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743) can be found here)

Joseph Andrews tells the story of its eponymous title character, Joseph. He is the lowly-born footman in the household of Lady Booby. He is a good-looking, kind-natured, and polite young man. Pious and virtuous. He learns music in his spare time and is always endeavouring to improve himself. Although he does not possess a title to the effect, he is de facto a gentleman.

But his virtue and innocence are in danger, for Lady Booby desires Joseph Andrews, and tries to seduce him. He is such a virtuous young man, however, that nothing can tempt him away from the path of virtue. Enraged, embarrassed, Lady Booby dismisses him from service.

After his dismissal from service, Joseph decides to make his way back home in the country to be reunited with his sweetheart, Fanny. On the way many misfortunes befall him. First he gets what little money he has stolen from him by highwaymen (one of my favourite scenes, obviously). He is then stript naked and left for dead. A stagecoach passing by then rescues Joseph and takes him to an inn and Joseph gets better (but not without the doctor mistakenly pronouncing him dead to begin with). While he is recovering, Betty, a chambermaid at the inn takes a fancy to Joseph and attempts to seduce him. Again he resists, because he is such a virtuous young man.

Henry Fielding (1707-1754)
Henry Fielding (1707-1754)

Arriving at the inn in the meantime is Joseph’s old friend, Parson Abraham Adams. He was on his way to sell copies of his Sermons in London but, his wife forgot to pack them. He and Joseph have a catch up and decide to travel back to Adams’ parish together because that is where Fanny is from. Further down the line many more slapstick adventures befall Adams and Joseph, and a few more people try to corrupt Joseph’s innocence but he resists temptation. When finally Joseph meets Fanny again, someone comes and ruins their marriage prospects by saying that Joseph and Fanny may actually be brother and sister, but thankfully this turns out not to be correct. The tale then ends happily with the marriage of Fanny and Joseph.

Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1742)
Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742)

This is a comedy. But Fielding still has a point to make: out of all of the supposedly “high-born” members of the middle classes and the aristocracy, it is only Joseph, Fanny, and Parson Adams – of no particularly high status in society – who are virtuous people. It is the aristocracy who are corrupt and degenerate; it is the way that Joseph conducts himself in daily life which marks him out as a true nobleman:

He an Air, which to those who have not seen many Noblemen, would give an idea of Nobility.

Moreover, in contrast to the aristocracy, Joseph’s ‘morals remained entirely uncorrupted…he was at the same time smarter and genteeler than any of the beaus in Town’. This is in keeping with Fielding’s own patrician country upbringing, an outlook which stressed the virtues of the country against the moral corruption of those who lived in the town.

There is also some funny and interesting intertextuality at play in Fielding’s novel. Joseph has a sister called Pamela (a virtuous young lady) who is married to Mr. Booby, the brother of Lady Booby. Fielding was quite disparaging of another author, Samuel Richardson. I have previously written of my dislike for Richardson’s works. (Perhaps its Fielding’s influence on me which made me dislike it). Richardson’s novels are unnecessarily long, whereas Fielding’s is light and short in comparison. So in a direct attack on Richardson (whose characters Fielding stole), Fielding assures us that there will be no long, drawn out sequel. Fielding had dedicated an entire work to the piss-take of Richardson’s Pamela the year before when he wrote An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. So like me he wasn’t Richardson’s biggest fan as you can gather.

I’ve read quite a lot of 18th-century literature, and if you’re going to begin to make your own foray into the 18th-century world, I urge you to start with Fielding’s works…definitely don’t start with Richardson’s!

Robin Hood the Brute: The Outlaw in Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography

This is a copy of the paper that I presented at the International Association for Robin Hood Studies ‘Outlaws in Context’ Conference, 30 June – 1 July 2015.

Alexander Smith's A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714)
Alexander Smith’s A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714)

Abstract. The eighteenth century was the perfect time for Robin Hood stories to circulate, being the golden age of criminal biography and ‘gentlemanly’ highwaymen such as Dick Turpin. Yet apart from Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795), the outlaw’s appearance in eighteenth-century print culture is under-researched. Robin Hood frequently appeared in the genre of criminal biography. In these works, Robin Hood holds a dubious reputation, his life held up as an example to readers to avoid a life of sin and vice. This paper argues that to fully understand the development of the Robin Hood legend as a whole, then these hitherto neglected sources deserve critical examination from Robin Hood Studies researchers.


The image which most people have of Robin Hood in the eighteenth century is the Robin Hood of antiquarian anthologies. He is the noble Earl of Huntingdon. He steals from the rich to feed the poor. But this is not the eighteenth-century Robin Hood of whom I wish to speak. During my BA and MA studies, under the supervision of Dr. Heather Shore, I was introduced to one of the most fascinating genres of eighteenth-century literature: the criminal biography. So when I began my Ph.D. project, I decided to explore whether Robin Hood appeared in any of these criminal biographies, my reasoning being that, as the eighteenth century was the golden age of the highwayman, then Robin Hood, who in many respects is the original highwayman, must surely have made an appearance somewhere. And sure enough he did. Whilst some early eighteenth-century authors such as Sir Richard Steele call Robin Hood a ‘British Worthy,’ equal to classical heroes such as Jason, Achilles, Alexander, and Caesar,[1] these criminal biographies depict Robin Hood as a cold-blooded killer, a sinner who turned to crime because he gave into his wicked inclinations.

You are probably wondering why I have called this paper ‘Robin Hood the Brute’. I will explain why by going into some of the theory which underpins this talk and my Ph.D. project as a whole. As far as I have been able to ascertain, no Robin Hood scholars have taken up the study of representations of Robin Hood in eighteenth-century criminal biography. So I have had to turn to the work of Lincoln B. Faller who in Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (1987) studied over 2,000 criminal biographies from this period. Based on readings of these sources, he came up with a typology of thieves:

We may begin by positing three categories of thief: hero, brute, buffoon…practically all of them may be described within this range. [2]

I have found that Robin Hood is no exception to this rule, so at the moment I am arranging my own study of Robin Hood literature from the eighteenth century along these lines. The Robin Hood of the broadside ballads, in which he comes across as a bit of a jokey, carnivalesque type outlaw, falls under the ‘buffoon’ category. The Robin Hood of antiquarian anthologies falls under the ‘hero’ category. And the Robin Hood I am about to introduce you to, in which he is portrayed as cold blooded killer, falls under the ‘brute’ category, and I will make the case that these hitherto neglected pieces of literature are worthy of our consideration as Robin Hood scholars if we are to understand more fully how the legend has developed over time.

The Significance of Criminal Biography in the 18th Century

Now, I realise many of you here are medieval historians and literary critics, so just as Henry Fielding frequently does in Tom Jones (1749), in true eighteenth-century style I would like to briefly digress, in order to explain why criminal biography emerged when it did, and to highlight just how popular it was with contemporaries. In the eighteenth century crime appears to have been the subject upon everybody’s lips. People believed that they were in the midst of a crime wave. One late seventeenth-century commentator exclaimed that ‘even at noonday, and in the most open spaces in London, persons are stopped and robbed.’ [3] The situation was apparently still bad in the mid-eighteenth century, as Fielding wrote in his An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c. (1751) that:

The great increase of robbers within these few years, is an evil which to me appears to deserve some attention; and the rather as it seems (tho’ already become so flagrant) not yet to have arrived to that height of which it is capable, and which it is likely to attain […] In fact, 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. [4]

The English Rogue (1665) by William Head
The English Rogue (1665) by William Head – one of many criminal biographies originating in the 17th century.

The legal response to this perceived crime wave was the gradual introduction of a bloody law code, in which over 200 offences became capital felonies. Its concomitant cultural response was the proliferation of criminal biographies. Along with serialised publications such as The Proceedings of the Old Bailey and The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, there were also many standalone criminal biographies such as Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1665) and H.D.’s The Life of Jonathan Wild from his Birth to his Death (1725). Major novelists of the period also capitalised on this market for criminal biographies. Daniel Defoe authored three of these types of criminal biographies: The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), A Narrative of All the Robberies, Escapes, &c. of John Sheppard (1724), and The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of Jonathan Wild the Great (1725). In fact, some of Defoe’s novels such as Moll Flanders (1722) are often seen as more ‘sophisticated’ criminal biographies. [5] Fielding himself authored another history of Jonathan Wild entitled The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743). The point here is that this is not some fringe genre of literature which was read by only a few, but in some ways was the most popular form of entertainment in the eighteenth century, especially the early part of it.

Robin Hood the Brute

The first appearance of Robin Hood in criminal biography comes in Captain Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1719), where he is listed as ‘Robin Hood: A Highwayman and Murderer.’ [6] Robin also makes an appearance in a similar compendium of felons’ lives, Captain Charles Johnson’s Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen and Street Robbers (1734). Robin appears also in two more of these; the anonymously-authored The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood (1737), and The Remarkable History of Robin Hood and Little John (1787). Smith’s Highwaymen is the model for all subsequent editions, and many passages in the later biographies are lifted directly from Smith’s work. Criminal biographies are formulaic, beginning with the birth and parentage of the offender. They then recount the criminal’s descent into vice and a life of crime, or, as Faller would put it, ‘a graduated sequence of steps downward, away from the social norm toward ever greater sin.’ [7] Then there is the death of the offender, and all of the Robin Hood criminal biographies follow this pattern.

There is disagreement about Robin Hood’s social status amongst these criminal biographies. We are used to seeing Robin Hood portrayed as being the noble Earl of Huntingdon today, but Smith was not convinced:

This bold robber, Robin Hood, was, some write, descended of the noble family of the earls of Huntingdon; but that is only fiction, for his birth was but very obscure, his pedigree ab origine being no higher than poor shepherds, who for some time lived in Nottinghamshire, in which county, at a little village adjacent to the Forest of Sherwood, he was born in the reign of King Henry the Second. [8]

The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood from 1737, on the other hand, does say that Robin was the Earl of Huntingdon, a tradition which has its origins in Anthony Munday’s and Henry Chettle’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington (1599), and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1601):

I shall not trouble my reader with a long genealogy of the descent of our famous Earl of Huntingdon, whose father was head ranger in the North of England, [and] his mother [who was] the daughter of the Right honourable Earl of Warwick, [and] his uncle [who] was the Squire of Gamwell Hall. [9]

To be honest, Robin Hood’s social status is fairly immaterial to the reader of criminal biography in the eighteenth century, and indeed the authors themselves were rarely concerned with establishing facts. [10] There was no concept of a ‘criminal class’ in eighteenth-century England, and offenders were not sociologically different to law-abiding people. Instead all men were capable of committing a crime because all men were sinners. [11] You became a criminal if you allowed yourself to succumb to your own sinful inclinations.

Smith tells how Robin Hood was ‘bred up a butcher, but being of a very licentious, wicked inclination, he followed not his trade, but in the reign of King Henry the Second, associated himself with several robbers and outlaws.’ [12] The theme of young men who ‘follow not their trade’ is a recurring motif in eighteenth-century criminal biography, and is often the first step towards a criminal career. In Defoe’s biography of Jack Sheppard, for instance, it is Sheppard’s gradual dislike of honest employment that ‘laid the foundation of his ruin.’ [13] It is a theme that is most apparent, of course, in William Hogarth’s series of prints Industry and Idleness (1747). Reminiscent of Hogarth’s prints, in which the tales of an industrious young apprentice is juxtaposed with that of an idle apprentice, is the 1737 version of Robin Hood’s life. The content of Robin’s life is heavily plagiarised from Smith’s work, but the interesting thing about this work is that it is bound together with The History of Johnny Armstrong of Westmoreland. Unlike Robin, Johnny Armstrong is industrious, and grows rich, and in time ‘there was such a providence upon his industry.’ [14] And this appears to have been a deliberate intention on the part of the author or publisher, for in contemporary ballads of Johnny Armstrong, he is every bit of a marauding freebooter as is Robin Hood. [15] If it was not the intention on the part of the author to present the tales of these two men as tales of industry and idleness, then why amend Johnny Armstrong’s story in such a way?

All of the criminal biographies then recount in prose the tales of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Robin Hood ballads, such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford, and The Jolly Pindar of Wakefield. We are told that Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor, but in the eighteenth century this does not make a thief anything special. It is almost as though people simply rolled their eyes when they heard of thieves doing this. Smith records other highwaymen, such as James Hind, doing this on occasion. [16] In fact, when one highwayman in 1763, Paul Lewis, told the Ordinary of Newgate that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor, the Ordinary sarcastically replied that it was ‘a common excuse for all thieves and robbers.’ [17] Another way that the criminal biographies portray Robin negatively is when he meets the king. In A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450), which is one of the earliest Robin Hood ballads, the king travels to Nottingham in disguise, meets Robin, and after a feast and a game of archery, the king reveals himself to Robin:

Robyn behelde our comly kynge,
Wystly in the face,
So dyde syr Richard at the Le,
And kneled downe in that place. [18]

These types of ‘King and Commoner’ tales, as we heard from Mark earlier, are common in folk ballads from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period. [19] Now, the criminal biographies begin the tale of the king and commoner in the usual way; the king sets out on a progress to Nottingham, but ‘Robin Hood, hearing thereof, resolved to rob him.’ [20] And instead of the meeting between the King and Robin ending amiably, as we are used to seeing in adaptations of the legend today, Robin just robs him. Smith writes that ‘the King, seeing it was in vain to resist Robin Hood’s power, he [sic] gave him a purse in which was about 100 pieces of gold; but swore when he was got out of his clutches that he would certainly hang him whenever he was taken.’ [21] So obviously we have here a very revised figure from the Robin Hood whom we would recognise today, and I would like to think that this image of Robin, if he existed at all, is probably closer to how he existed than the Robin Hood of, say, Ivanhoe (1819), or late Victorian children’s books.

The Theatre of God's Judgments (1748)
The Theatre of God’s Judgements (1748)

We all had the wonderful opportunity to visit Robin Hood’s grave in Kirklees yesterday, and I am sure, as Robin Hood scholars, we are all familiar with the accounts of how he dies in the Geste and Robin Hood’s Death and Burial; he is old, he goes to his cousin at Kirklees to be bled, but, conspiring with her lover, Sir Roger of Doncaster, who wants him dead, she bleeds him to death:

Syr Roger of Donkestre,
By the pryoresse he lay,
And there they betrayed good Robyn Hode,
Through theyr false playe. [22]

In his dying moments Little John asks that he might burn the place down but Robin, noble to the end, commands him not too, for he never hurt any company that a woman was in. [23] But in the eighteenth century, the situation is represented rather differently:

Robin Hood had continued in his licentious course of life for 20 years, when being very sick, and then struck with some remorse of conscience, he privately withdrew himself to a monastery in Yorkshire, where being let blood by a nun, he bled to death, aged 43 years, and was buried in Kinslay. [24]

Firstly, the nun receives no censure in this account. It seems as though his death is like divine punishment for having lived a ‘licentious course of life’ for 20 years.’ It has to be remembered that, to the reader of Smith’s work, Robin Hood was not a simple highwayman but also a murderer. Murder was a most heinous crime in the eighteenth century, a direct attack on God, for it was essentially defacing and maiming the image of God which he had placed upon the world. [25] It was believed during the century, even by men as “Enlightenment” as Fielding, that God himself directly intervened in the detection and punishment of murder. The author of the 1748 work The Theatre of God’s Judgement declared that ‘the justice of God riseth up, and with his own arme he discovereth and punisheth the murder; yea, rather than the murderer shall go unpunished, senceless creatures and his own heart and tongue rise to give sentence against him.’ [26] As you can see in Smith’s account, Robin’s own heart had risen up against him, when he was ‘struck with some remorse of conscience,’ and it was then, we he sought refuge in a monastery, that he was finally punished for his wicked ways.

An even more surprising account of the death comes in the 1787 version of Robin Hood’s life:

Being worn out with the many desperate battles he engaged himself in, he retired to his cousin’s who then resided at Kirkley-Hall in the County of York, and upon desiring her to let him blood, she did it so effectually that she meant him never to do any more harm, for, after opening a vein, she locked him in a room, where he bled to death; but, just before his departing, he sounded his bugle horn, when Little John, who heard the summons, directly [illegible] to his lord and master, who begged with his last breath that Kirkley Hall and the nunnery adjoining it, might be burned to the ground as revenge for his death – which request we are informed was complied with. [27]

I have included this account here just to show you all the extent to which the writers of criminal biography were prepared to revise the Robin Hood legend in their writings. He was not the ‘good yeman’ of early medieval texts, [28] nor was he the ‘gentle master’ of seventeenth and eighteenth-century plays. [29] He really was a brute.

Frontispiece to The Newgate Calendar (1774) [Source: Wikipedia]
Frontispiece to The Newgate Calendar (1774)
[Source: Wikipedia]

The authors of criminal biographies intended their works to serve as pieces of moral instruction. Readers were supposed to heed the warnings of the life of the criminal to avoid making the same sinful mistakes that had led the felons to the gallows. And these are texts predominantly aimed at the middle classes. Volume three of Smith’s Highwaymen cost half a crown, whilst Johnson’s Highwaymen was published in folio format complete with fine engravings. [30] Perhaps the best indication of the audience for this type of literature can be gained by examining the frontispiece to another famous (multi-volume, and no doubt expensive) criminal biography entitled The Newgate Calendar (1785). In that picture, a well-to-do lady in a finely furnished apartment hands her son a copy of The Newgate Calendar whilst pointing to the gibbet outside the window, in order to ensure that her son heeds the moral lessons in the text. Whether people actually paid attention to the moral lessons of these texts is debatable. In fact, writers such as Hal Gladfelder have argued that the authors themselves were only paying mere ‘lip service’ to conventional morality in their writings, and that really the desire of Smith and others was to capitalise on people’s desire for sensational and violent entertainment. But I think Robin Hood’s case complicates that position somewhat. Why would the authors take Robin Hood, a man whom contemporary writers such as Steele thought was a ‘British Worthy’ and deliberately reconfigure him into a brute? Why do it if their moralism was only an ‘obligatory gesture’? It seems to me that it is more than mere ‘lip service’ if they were willing to do this.

In terms of our understanding of the development of the Robin Hood legend as a whole, I also believe that this complicates the rather clear-cut thesis that currently seems to be the consensus among Robin Hood scholars. Currently we think of the development of the legend in the following way: in the medieval period Robin was a bold robber, an often violent yeoman, then in the seventeenth century he becomes gentrified and that largely is a process that has continued to this day. [31] Robin is now usually portrayed as the noble Earl of Huntingdon, steals from the rich, etc. etc. These sources from the eighteenth century, however, almost make it seem as though the brakes were applied temporarily to the ongoing gentrification of the legend, especially between c.1720 and c.1740, for there is other sources such as the political ballad Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727) which portray Robin negatively also.


I am sure we are all aware of what happens to the Robin Hood legend in the second half of the eighteenth century. Robin’s gentrification continues in plays such as Moses Mendez’ Robin Hood: A New Musical Entertainment (1751), and Leonard MacNally’s Robin Hood, or Sherwood Forest (1784). It is in the works of late eighteenth-century antiquaries, however, that Robin receives a new breath of life. In Joseph Ritson’s 1795 work Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Robin becomes, as the subtitle implies, the ‘celebrated English outlaw.’ Ritson’s text, including his ‘Life of Robin Hood’ and the anthology of ballads which was included in his work, have been studied at length by scholars, and Ritson’s work is said to be one of the most important works in the history of the Robin Hood legend. His work presents ‘a hero who was undeniably gentrified but also memorable, bold, and adventurous.’ [32] But the criminal biographies I have discussed here, I think, were more subtly influential upon the legend than we Robin Hood scholars have hitherto realised. When Ritson was writing the biography of Robin Hood, in his first paragraph, he references Robin’s previous ‘professed biographers.’ In his very first footnote, he cites some of the criminal biographies I have examined here:

“Former biographers”…the first of these respectable personages is the author, or rather compiler, of “The noble birth and gallant atchievements of that remarkable outlaw Robin Hood”…Another piece of biography, from which not much will be expected, is, “The lives and heroick atchievements of the renowned Robin Hood, and James Hind”…This, however, is probably nothing more than an extract from Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen. [34]

It almost appears as though Joseph Ritson, arguably the most famous man in the history of the Robin Hood legend, wrote his biography of Robin Hood in response to these criminal biographies. He is admiring of his forebears, referring to them as ‘respectable personages’ but Ritson aims to produce a more detailed and scholarly account than the stories of Robin Hood’s birth that were current during the eighteenth century. So I just want to conclude by saying that Robin Hood, for a significant part of the eighteenth century, and in one of the most popular genres of literature, Robin Hood was not a man to be admired, but was nothing more than a brute; knowing this will add to a more nuanced understanding of the development of the legend as a whole in the post medieval period.


[1] Richard Steele, ‘The Tatler, Tuesday 18 October 1709’ The Tatler and the Guardian Complete in One Volume (London: Jones & Co. 1801), pp.178-181 (p.181).
[2] 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.127.
[3] Cited in Faller, Turned to Account, p.X.
[4] Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c. with Some Proposals for Remedying this Growing Evil. In Which the Present Reigning Vices are Impartially Exposed; and the Laws that Relate to the Provision for the Poor, and to the Punishment of Felons are Largely and Freely Examined (Dublin: Printed for G. Faulkner, in Essex Street, P. Wilson, R. James, and M. Williamson in Dame-Street, Booksellers, 1751), p.1.
[5] See Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001).
[6] Alexander Smith, A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats [1719] ed. by Arthur Heyward (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1933), p.408.
[7] Faller, Turned to Account, p.127.
[8] Smith, Highwaymen, p.408.
[9] Anon. The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood (London: Henry Woodgate, 1737), p.1.
[10] Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, p.84.
[11] Faller, Turned to Account, p.54.
[12] Smith, Highwaymen, p.408.
[13] Daniel Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’ [1724] ed. by Richard Holmes Defoe on Sheppard and Wild (London: Harper Perennial, 2004), pp.1-44 (p.6).
[14] Anon. The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood, p.60.
[15] George Barnett Smith, ‘Introduction: Johnnie Armstrong’ ed. by George Banrett Smith Illustrated British Ballads: Old and New (London: Cassell & Company Ltd. 1894), p.330.
[16] Smith, Highwaymen, p.137.
[17] Stephen Roe, The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account of the Behaviour, Confession, and Dying Words of Three Malefactors…Who Were Executed at Tyburn on Wednesday May 4th 1763 (London, 1763), p.35
[18] Anon. ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.73.
[19] Mark Truesdale, ‘The “King and Commoner” and “Robin Hood” Genres: þe best archer of ilkon, / I durst mete hym with a stone’ International Association for Robin Hood Studies, 30 June – 3 July 2015.
[20] Smith, Highwaymen, p.411.
[21] Smith, Highwaymen, pp.411-412.
[22] Anon. ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode,’ p.80.
[23] Anon. ‘Robin Hood’s Death and Burial,’ ed. by Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. II (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.186.
[24] Smith, Highwaymen, p.412.
[25] Faller, Turned to Account, p.73.
[26] Cited in Faller, Turned to Account, p.74.
[27] Anon. The Remarkable History of Robin Hood and Little John (Knaresborough: Broadbell, 1787), p.16.
[28] Anon. ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode,’ p.2.
[29] Francis Waldron, The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood, a Fragment, Written by Ben Jonson, with a Continuation, Notes, and an Appendix (London: J. Nichols, 1783), p.12.
[30] Faller, Turned to Account, p.74.
[31] See Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994).
[32] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, p.96.
[33] Joseph Ritson, ‘The Life of Robin Hood’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.iii.
[34] Joseph Ritson, ‘Notes and Illustrations’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.xiv.

The Novel and 18th-Century Criminal Biography

Title Page and Frontispiece to the First Edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Title Page and Frontispiece to the First Edition of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719)

The expiration of the Licensing Act in 1695, which had required the pre-publication censorship of all printed matter, led to an explosion of published works during the 18th century; books, periodicals, and pamphlets poured forth from the press in great abundance. One of the most enduring genres which emerged during this perod, however, was the novel.

The first English novel is generally assumed to be Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). It had its roots in the romance genre which began on the continent with titles such as Don Quixote (1605, 1615), which usually took as their heroes members of the nobility acting within fantastical settings. Yet novels, in contrast, took for their subject real life, and usually purported to be the ‘life’ or ‘history’ of a real person, hence the full title of Defoe’s work, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719). Their purpose was to provide entertainment and moral instruction to aspirant members of polite society, as Henry Fielding wrote in the preface to his novel, Joseph Andrews (1742):

Delight is mixed with Instruction…the Reader is almost as much improved as entertained.

Additionally, the novel also had roots in late 17th- and18th-century criminal biography. Criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1719), Charles Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735), and many other individual titles detailing the life of a condemned felon, sought to mix entertainment with moral instruction by presenting readers with highly fictionalised lives of criminals, detailing their birth, life, and death, and making a moral example of them.

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums (1722) by Daniel Defoe.
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums (1722) by Daniel Defoe.

It was the readers of this type of fiction that the first novelist, Defoe, marketed his early works towards, by providing them with more sophisticated criminal narratives, as in his novel, Moll Flanders (1722). The full title of the novel is quite revealing:

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.

Defoe himself also authored three ‘proper’ criminal biographies:

  1. The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724)
  2. A Narrative of all the Robberies, Escapes, &c. of John Sheppard (1724)
  3. The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725).

Defoe would continue to use the conventions of criminal biography in later novels, such as (and I quote the title in full to emphasise its “criminal” connections):

The History and Remarkable Life of the truly Honourable Col. Jacque, commonly call’d Col. Jack, who was Born a Gentleman, put ‘Prentice to a Pick−Pocket, was Six and Twenty Years a Thief, and then Kidnapp’d to Virginia, Came back a Merchant; was Five times married to Four Whores; went into the Wars, behav’d bravely, got Preferment, was made Colonel of a Regiment, came over, and fled with the Chevalier, is still abroad compleating a Life of Wonders, and resolves to dye a General (1722).

Later authors such as Henry Fielding would also utilise the conventions of criminal biography in their works, as in Fielding’s novel, The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743).

These types of novels were popular with the reading public because, as we have seen, they told stories of ‘real life’ in contrast to the aristocratic romances of an earlier generation.

Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740)
Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740)

But why did novels manage to build on, and eventually dominate, the market for criminal and rogue lives? John Bender says that:

The explanation lies in the parallel between the novel’s understanding of character as something susceptible to education and change and the analogous assumption that the individual can be reformed, an assumption that underlay the 18th-century penal system. It is certainly true that prisons and penitentiaries are recurrent motifs in early novels.

In addition, Lennard J. Davis suggests that the novel further satisfied the public’s desire for novelty and entertainment, desires which had been met before by other narrative traditions. This sentiment is echoed by Lincoln B. Faller in Turned to Account (1987), who says that:

The most valuable way to relate criminal biography to the novel…is not in terms of its inherent forms or concerns, but rather in terms of the “occasion” it made for reading and writing of extended narratives about…”problematic” lives. Defoe is of course its most obvious beneficiary. Criminal biography not only provided him with an audience trained up to have certain tastes and expectations, it may possibly have endowed him, too, with that other grand requisite of writers, a sense of mission.

The ‘sense of mission’ was the moral purpose of the novel, as Defoe exclaims at the end of Colonel Jack:

I recommend it to all that read this story, when they find their lives come up in any degree to any similitude of cases, they will enquire by me, and ask themselves, is it not time to repent?

The “problematic lives,” the protagonists of early English novels, were characters such as socially-climbing servants (Pamela), illegitimate children (Tom Jones), and fortune-hunting adventurers (Robinson Crusoe), prostitutes (Moll Flanders), and pirates (as in Colonel Jack). It was these types of “problematic” characters which readers first read in criminal biography, and in the early-to-mid eighteenth century could view also within the more sophisticated genre of the novel.

There was one difference between the criminal and/or socially deviant protagonists of novels, however, which is that they were rarely punished. Moll Flanders makes a new life for herself in America. Robinson Crusoe makes money by gaining riches in South America. Pamela, the “socially disruptive” servant girl of Richardson’s novel, ends up marrying her master, Mr. B.

These themes would have struck a chord with the middle classes, who constituted the primary audience for both criminal biography and novels, for these new novels depicted people getting on and advancing in life, as John Richetti says that:

Novels represent[ed] individuals from the middling ranks or classes of society… [and] attempts to acquire status (or wealth and power) through isolated and individual virtue and action rather than by inheritance.

Self-improvement was seen as a trait peculiar to the middle classes, hence in Robinson Crusoe’s diary of his life on the island, even though he has never picked up any carpenters’ tools in his life, he writes that ‘I began to apply myself to make such necessary things as I found I most wanted, particularly a chair and a table.’

Thus, as Hal Gladfelder says, novels, ‘produced an ideologically resonant and commercially proven model of open-ended narrative construction, staging the conflict between the transgressive individual and a normative community.’ In other words, novels drew upon an existing literary market in which the lives of the, often socially marginal people, negotiate their lives in settings that readers would have recognised. There was, therefore, two genres that contributed to the development of the English novel: romance and criminal biography.

The Rise and Fall of Highwaymen in Print

Hopkinson, Thomas. The life and execution of Thomas Hopkinson, jun. :who suffered this day on the new drop, in front of the county gaol, Derby, for highway robbery.. [Derby] : G. Wilkins, printer, Queen Street, Derby., [1819].  HOLLIS ID:  005949713   [Reproduced with the permission of Harvard Library School of Law]
‘The life and execution of Thomas Hopkinson: 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].
[Reproduced with the permission of Harvard Library School of Law]
Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon's "Last Dying Speech"
Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon’s “Last Dying Speech”

In 1751 the novelist and Magistrate of Westminster, Henry Fielding (1707-1754) published An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers. ‘The great Increase of Robberies within these few years,’ he wrote, was ‘an Evil which…appears to deserve some attention.’ Crime did receive much attention from eighteenth-century contemporaries such as Fielding. This is because England, especially London, was seen as being in the midst of a crime wave throughout the period by both the public and politicians. Despite the antagonism between the two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, Paul Langford says that ‘the one common view to which all parties could subscribe was that crime was increasing.’ One response by the authorities to this perceived rising tide of criminality was the gradual introduction of a bloody law code. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the number of capital felonies on the statute books increased from fifty to two hundred and twenty. Despite the perceived increase of crime, however, to many Englishmen in the early-eighteenth century the idea of having a uniformed police service was anathema. To contemporaries the idea of the state patrolling its citizens was tyrannical. This post briefly explores the extent to which contemporary representations of criminals over the course of the ‘long eighteenth century’ (c.1689 – c.1837), particularly of highwaymen, reflected changing attitudes towards crime and criminality.

The eighteenth century witnessed an explosion of print culture due to the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695, which ended government censorship of printed matter. Alongside polite periodicals such as The Spectator, there was a thriving literature trade in chapbooks, ballads, and biographies featuring contemporary criminals. Regularly published works concerning the lives of the criminals such as The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account would contain the last dying speeches of criminals condemned to the gallows. Also available was The Proceedings of the Old Bailey which supposedly contained ‘a true, fair and perfect narrative’ of the trials at the Old Bailey Courthouse in London. Stage plays such as The Beggar’s Opera (1729) by John Gay (1685-1732) featured criminals as their heroes. Criminal biographies and novels such as Moll Flanders (1722) by Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), told the stories of criminals through ‘a graduated series of steps downwards, away from the social norm toward ever greater sin.’ There was, therefore, no shortage of genres within eighteenth-century print culture in which eighteenth-century people could see criminals represented.

the cherished notion of liberty accounts for the popularity that portrayals of highwaymen enjoyed. This was the case in The Beggar’s Opera. In it, the principal character, highwayman Captain MacHeath, is a gallant gentleman on horseback. His spirit of manly independence is encapsulated when he sings, ‘My Heart was free, It rov’d like the Bee.’ Contemporary notions of ‘the “independent man,” Matthew McCormack says, emphasised ‘the basic libertarianism of the freeborn Englishman who refused to be pushed around.’ The highwayman was popular with the mass of people because his life represented a life unrestrained by the hard yet unrewarding work which many people of the plebeian class experienced during this period, and as Lucy Moore adds, ‘a downtrodden scullery maid watching [a highwayman]…pass by in his wagon on the way to Tyburn might feel that someone, at least, had escaped the hardship of the lifestyle they once shared.’ Indeed, for many of the lower orders, the only alternative to a life of hardship was a life of crime Many highwaymen even represented themselves in the press and at their trials as eighteenth-century Robin Hoods, claiming moral justifications for their crimes such as robbing the rich and giving to the poor. The concept of ‘social crime’ goes some way to explaining popular support for the highwayman among the lower classes. Perhaps they were perceived by the common people as a challenge to the status quo, at a time when there was a perception that the law itself was unjust; the vices of rich went unpunished whilst the poorer classes felt the full weight of the law, a point illustrated in The Beggar’s Opera when Captain MacHeath sings this air:

Since Laws were made for ev’ry degree,
To curb vice in others, as well as me,
I wonder we han’t better company
Upon Tyburn tree!
But gold from law can take out the sting;
And if rich men like us were to swing,
‘Twou’d thin the land, such numbers to string
Upon Tyburn Tree

In this song here is an implicit acknowledgement that the law, especially laws concerned with protecting property, were unequal, and this is  a theme which runs throughout Gay’s opera. In another scene, for instance, one highwayman asks another of his accomplices, ‘Why are the laws levell’d at us? Are we more dishonest than the rest of mankind?’ In fact, it has been argued by both historians and literary critics alike that The Beggar’s Opera was a satirical stab at the then-serving Prime Minister, Robert Walpole (1676-1745). He was seen by many contemporaries as a robber himself, governing the country as a ‘robinocracy’ and hence historians such as Douglas Hay argue that the law in the eighteenth century developed into an instrument of power for the propertied classes.

Another factor which perhaps explains the high regard that highwaymen enjoyed in the early part of the century was the fact that they robbed the rich mainly (though they did not always redistribute money to the poor), and they reportedly treated their victims with courtesy and respect, which earned them a reputation for politeness and civility. However, it is doubtful whether highwaymen always lived up to their gallant reputation. For example, in Captain Alexander Smith’s 1714 work, The History of the Lives of the most noted Highway-men, Foot-Pads, Housebreakers, Shop-Lifts, and Cheats, he recounts the story of the robber known as the Golden Farmer. Upon encountering a Lady in a coach who refused to hand over any possessions, the highwayman called her a ‘whinging Whore…[and a] hollow B—ch’ – certainly not polite behaviour. Nevertheless, highwaymen were treated a special breed of criminal in the early-eighteenth century. They were represented as courageous, courteous, and in some instances having a moral justification for their crime.

Jack Sheppard (Source: Wikipedia)
Jack Sheppard (Source: Wikipedia)

By the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, however, the tide of public opinion seems to have turned against the figure of the highwayman. This is because the state grew increasingly stronger in this later period. Indeed, it is arguably only at a time such as the early part of the century, when the hold of government, law, and order was weak that the figure of the highwayman or outlaw could flourish. Middle-class reformers by the late-eighteenth century had begun to convince many people of the need for a standardised system of law enforcement and prison reform. Such reforms included a move away from the mere prosecution of crime to the prevention of crime through increased policing activity; from mere punishment through physical pain and death sentences towards long-term institutional management. Besides, it was argued by contemporaries at the time that the system of state terror through a bloody law code was ineffectual at stopping crime, with many pardons given throughout the course of the century for crimes which warranted capital punishment. Moreover, increasingly crime began to be reported in newspapers, and the victim became the central figure in these newspapers’ often brief accounts and representations of crime. In contrast to criminal biographies, newspapers omitted lengthy explanations and justifications of why criminals had turned to a life of crime. This left many readers with the feeling that crime was often savage and opportunistic. For example, in 1798 The Times newspaper carried this very brief entry regarding one attack by a highwayman:

The Post-Boy, carrying the Mail from Bromley to Sevenoaks last night, was stopped about 2 miles from Farnborough, between the hours of 10 and 11 o’clock, by a single highwayman, who presented a horse-pistol and demanded the Mail, which the boy gave him. He offered the robber half a guinea, but he declined taking it (The Times, October 3rd, 1798, p.1).

Furthermore, Elizabeth Foyster says that newspapers were often broadly supportive of new policing and legal reforms to the extent that by the 1790s highwaymen appeared to, according to Robert Shoemaker, have ‘lost their former magnanimity.’ Lincoln B. Faller argues further that during this period the highwayman went through three gradations; from hero, to brute, to buffoon. A depiction of highwaymen as brutes is found in an 1813 work entitled The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. The kind-hearted Doctor Syntax sets off on a tour of England during the summer season. Along the way he has an encounter with highwaymen:

Three ruffians issued from a bush…While they all threat the Doctor’s brains,
Poor Syntax, trembling with a fright, Resists not such superior might,
But yields him to their savage pleasure, And gives his purse with all its treasure.
Fearing, however, the Doctor’s view, Might be to follow and pursue;
The cunning robbers wisely counted, That he, of course, should be dismounted.

The highwaymen robbed the old Doctor of both his money and his horse. The criminals are here represented as ‘cunning robbers’ and ‘ruffians’ indulging ‘savage pleasures’. They are certainly not the gallant polite gentlemen of an earlier era; they are self-serving and a contrast to earlier stereotypes. As the accompanying print pictured below by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) illustrates, the robbers are not even on horseback. As such they are scarcely distinguishable from the hated footpads. Robert Shoemaker says that footpads, or common street robbers, were reviled throughout the century as being of the lowest order of criminals. As support for policing and legal reforms grew, therefore, so the popularity of criminals such as highwaymen began to wane.

Thomas Rowlandson (1813) Doctor Syntax Stopt by Highwaymen.  Scanned image from: Combe, W. (1813). The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. London: W. Tegg
Thomas Rowlandson (1813) Doctor Syntax Stopt by Highwaymen.
Scanned image from: Combe, W. (1813). The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. London: W. Tegg

Alongside the growing support of policing and legal reforms in the latter half of the eighteenth century was a rise in the notion of respectability among the middle classes. In the early part of the century literature such as the Proceedings and the Ordinary’s Account were described as something which ‘gentlemen’ read. This was because much of the crime-focused literature in that early period served a moral and instructive purpose for its readers. Readers were supposed to learn lessons from the life of the criminal, and supposedly they would avoid making the same mistakes that had led the condemned to the gallows. As readers were supposedly identifying with the condemned, there was in this literature often a sympathetic portrayal of criminals. This was the case with the infamous thief Jack Sheppard (1702-1724). In a biography reputedly written by Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), Sheppard is written, as so many criminals were, not as innately evil but, as John Brewer says, ‘at worst a person with a tragic fatal flaw.’ It was his weakness for women and a fatal encounter with a prostitute which sealed Jack’s fate and led him into a life of vice and crime. As his biography records:

The lad proved an early proficient…had a ready and ingenious hand, and soon became master of his business…But, alas, unhappy youth! Before he had completed six years of his apprenticeship he commenced a fatal acquaintance with one [Edgworth Bess]…who lived a wicked and debauched life…Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!

Similarly, Defoe used the conventions of criminal biography in his novel Moll Flanders. In that novel the character, Moll, recounts ‘the vicious part of her life’ so that readers could ‘make good uses of it.’ Indeed, it was not solely in literature that the middle classes felt that they could identify and sympathise with the lives of criminals. As Lucy Moore states, people of all classes attended public executions, and Jack Sheppard found his procession to the gallows strewn with well-wishers offering their support.

Yet even by mid-century the lives of criminals were ceasing to be of interest to the middle classes. Fielding’s novel Jonathan Wild (1743) was an embellished account of Wild’s life, self-styled ‘Thief-Taker General of Great Britain’. Thief-takers were individuals hired by the local parish to recover stolen goods, forming, in effect, a quasi-entrepreneurial police force. As such, the people who held the posts were often corrupt. The real-life Jonathan Wild (1682-1725), arguably Britain’s first master-criminal, developed a complex system of training thieves to steal, receiving the stolen goods, then offering the items back to their owners for a reward. So it was that Fielding portrayed Wild as ‘the most pernicious…the most contemptible of all the Works of Creation.’ Some middle-class readers by this point, it seems, no longer wished to identify with the actions of criminals. Besides, as the novel emerged as the dominant genre of literature around the middle of the century with the publication of Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), there were more respectable representations from middle-class life from which readers could glean moral instruction. Most novels depicted the middle classes practising their virtues and manners in settings recognisable to them. Reflective of this retreat from criminality by the middle classes is the way that public executions were moved. For most of the eighteenth century the public executions held at Tyburn in the West End of London attracted large crowds. Yet by 1783 the executions had moved away from the West End to the front of Newgate gaol in order to spare the sensibilities of West End inhabitants. Thus as the middle classes began to think of themselves as increasingly respectable in manners and morals, so criminals began to be portrayed in a less positive light.

Thus it is evident that literary representations of eighteenth-century highwaymen reflected changing attitudes to crime and criminality. At the beginning of the century, a distrust of any form of policing contributed to the glamorisation of figures such as the highwayman. At the end of the century, as the state grew stronger and reform was in the air, support and admiration of highwaymen in literature declined. Complementary to this was a rise in the notion of respectability among the middle classes. Why would a respectable and virtuous middle-class reader want to draw moral lessons from the life of a criminal? They could, after all, find examples of virtue in literary representations of their own class in novels. So it was that, by the time of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), criminals were painted as sinister and devious creatures. As he said in his preface to Oliver Twist (1838), unlike The Beggar’s Opera where ‘the thieves are represented as leading a life that is rather to be envied than otherwise’ he aimed to show crime and criminality ‘in all their deformity.’ Consequently, in successive pieces of crime fiction, Lucy Moore says that gradually the dominant figure became, not the criminal, but the man pursuing him.’

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Jonathan Wild – London’s First Mob Boss

This blog post is adapted from an essay I submitted whilst I was completing my MA in Social History at Leeds Beckett University. The module tutor and course leader was Dr. Kelly Hignett and I was also completing a thesis at this time on Victorian crime under the supervision of Dr. Heather Shore.

This essay uses the the theoretical concepts in criminology relating to organised crime to analyse the reign of one of London’s first mob bosses. (n.b. being adapted from an essay, this post is a bit more formal and very “essay-like” in tone).

A ticket of admittance to the hanging of Mr. Jonathan Wild at Tyburn in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]
A ticket of admittance to the hanging of Mr. Jonathan Wild at Tyburn in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]

Organised crime is generally considered to be a modern phenomenon, yet it appears that it has existed further back in history than is generally assumed (Galeotti, 2009, p.1). London in the early-eighteenth century was a period in which Thief Takers, house-breakers and highwaymen flourished. Jonathan Wild (c.1682-1725) built one of Britain’s first organised crime networks. An examination of the way that he operated indicates that organised crime did indeed exist in early-eighteenth century London, and that it is far from being a modern phenomenon.

Defining Organised Crime

Organised crime has proven to be difficult to define. There is no single definition upon which policy-makers and academics agree. This is because ‘this “thing”, this phenomenon known as organised crime, cannot be defined by crimes alone…Any definition, must address and account for the elusive modifying term organised’ (Finckenaur, 2005, p.64). Many crimes are organised, in that they require a degree of organisation to be carried out, but not all crimes count as ‘organised crime’ (Finckenaur, 2005, p.76). Galeotti defines the term as, ‘a continuing enterprise, apart from traditional legal and social structures, within which a number of persons work together under their own hierarchy to gain power and profit for their private gain through illegal activities’ (Galeotti, 2009, p.6). Thus for a criminal gang to be classed as an organised crime network there has to be a structure or hierarchy within which its members, acting under instructions, engage in illegal acts for the sake of profit.

Alexander Smith’s The History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1714). [Source:]

Criminal Narratives in the Eighteenth Century

Just as people today receive their understanding of organised crime through the media and films such as The Godfather (1972) it was no different in the early-eighteenth century. Indeed ‘crime has always been a sure-fire topic for the entertainment of the public’ (Cawelti, 1975, p.326). Plays such as The Beggar’s Opera (1728) featured criminals as their heroes. Publications such as The Newgate Calendar supposedly gave contemporary readers ‘a true, fair and perfect narrative’ of the lives and trials of condemned criminals (Emsley, Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2013). In addition, there was a thriving trade in ‘Last Dying Speeches’ of criminals. These single-sheet pages containing short biographies and ballads were often sold at public executions (HLSL, 2013). Novels and criminal biographies such as Smith’s The History of the Most Noted Highway-Men, House-Breakers, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714) presented embellished accounts of the lives of criminals. Often their lives are presented as one in which, through a life of sin and vice, they eventually ended up at the gallows (Faller, 1987, p.126). The readership for this literature came primarily from ‘men and women of small property’ (Langford, 1989, p.157). By depicting the story of how criminals eventually ended at Tyburn by becoming involved in crime, the stories served a didactic purpose. By heeding the lessons in the biographies, readers could supposedly avoid the same fate (McKeon, 1987, p.98). Regarding Jonathan Wild himself there are several sources. Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) likely penned one pamphlet entitled The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). Probably the most famous account of Wild’s life comes from the mid-eighteenth century novel The Life of Jonathan Wild, the Great (1743) by Henry Fielding (1707-1754). Despite the fact that many such accounts were often embellished, they nevertheless offer fascinating glimpses into the ways in which eighteenth-century criminals, in particular Wild himself, operated.

Why Organised Crime Flourished.

In what type of a society, then, does organised crime emerge and flourish? English society was very unequal in the eighteenth century. Most of the working population lived below the breadline, and the top 1.2 per cent of the population controlled 14 per cent of the wealth of the nation (Porter, 1982, pp.14-15). For the most part, ‘the poor were regarded as a class apart; to be ignored except when their hardships made them boisterous’ (Williams, 1960, p.129). Additionally, the laws were often seen as weighted in favour of the rich against the poor. The law, made by those at the top of society, ‘allowed the rulers of England to make the courts a selective instrument of class justice, yet simultaneously to proclaim the law’s incorruptible impartiality and absolute determinacy’ (Hay, 1975, p.48). In The Beggar’s Opera there is a scene in which a group of highwaymen are gathered in a tavern. One highwayman asks of the other, ‘Why are the Laws levell’d at us? are we more dishonest than the rest of Mankind?’ (Gay, 1728, p.25). Moreover, London was not a pleasant place in the early-eighteenth century. In the literature of the time, the recurrent motifs of London were often ‘squalor, pestilence, ordure, [and] poverty’ (Rogers, 1972, p.3). Pickard states that, ‘the average poor family lived in one furnished room, paying a weekly rent of perhaps 2s, less for a room in the cellar…the house itself might be old…or it might be new, run up out of nothing in back alleys’ (Pickard, 2000, p.64). In this squalid environment, with its ever growing alleyways and rookeries, there was virtually no organised system of law enforcement. In fact, London did not have a professional, paid police force until 1829 with the passage of the Metropolitan Police Act. Organised crime usually emerges ‘out of the vacuum that is created by the absence of state [law] enforcement’ (Skaperdas, 2001, p.173). That is to say, that the state is either unwilling or unable to enforce its own laws. Yet eighteenth-century contemporaries appeared quite contented with this state of affairs. Jealous as they were of their hard won liberties since the Glorious Revolution 1689, they were resistant to the idea of having a uniformed and professional police service. It seemed tyrannical, and more suited to despotic foreign states whose monarchs were absolutists (Porter, 1982, p.119). One of the most serious crimes during this period was the theft of property, as private property was deemed to be sacrosanct (Hoppit, 2000, p.480). By 1751 robbery and theft were deemed to have reached such hellish proportions that Henry Fielding felt compelled to write a pamphlet entitled An Enquiry into the Causes of the Great Increase of Robbers, &c. in which he said that:

The great Increase of Robbers within these few years…[will make] the Streets of this Town, and the Roads leading to it…impassable without the utmost Hazard, nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous Gangs of Rogues among us, than those which the Italians call the banditti (Fielding, 1751, p.1).

Thus to Fielding the increasing numbers of various criminal gangs operating in and around London was an issue which he felt deserved action.

Henry Fielding (Stifts- och landsbiblioteket i Skara) Tags: portrtt frfattare henryfielding storbritannien
Henry Fielding, Esq. (1707-1754)

Before Fielding established London’s first law enforcement agency in 1749 called the Bow Street Runners, the prosecution of crime was left to the victim. The victim paid the court to bring a prosecution against an offender. Part-time and unpaid parish constables usually arrested criminals if they caught them ‘red-handed’, or as the result of their capture through the ‘hue-and-cry’ (Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2006, p.1). One result of this haphazard system of crime prevention was that many victims bypassed the expensive judicial system by going to see their local Thief Taker. An interview would be held with the victim of the crime, ascertaining what items were stolen. For a fee thief takers would then arrange to miraculously recover the said stolen items (Hoppit, 2000, p.486). Thief Takers were individuals who appear to have occupied a hazy position on the borders of both the ‘upper-world’ and the ‘underworld’. As Moore says, usually they were:

Receivers of stolen goods, or fences, whose knowledge of the criminal world provided them with unique access to criminals…by the 1710s thief taking had become a complex trade involving blackmail, informing, bribery, framing and organisation of theft (Moore, 1997, p.60).

Despite their often obviously corrupt ways of operating, however, it should be noted that these individuals did play an important part in early-modern law enforcement, for without them ‘too much crime would go unpunished’ (Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2006, p.3). Hence the inadequate system of law enforcement in the early-eighteenth century gave figures such as Thief Takers a degree of legitimacy.

Jonathan Wild: Thief Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland

Jonathan Wild occupied a simultaneous position as both Thief Taker and underworld crime lord. He was born in Wolverhampton to honest and hard-working parents. He had a wife and bore a son, but unable to make it in his chosen trade as a buckle maker, he abandoned his wife and child and went to London. In London he fell upon hard times and found himself in the Wood Street Compter for debt (Defoe[?], 1725, pp.77-79). It was here that he first became acquainted with the criminal underworld. After he was released from the Compter, he set up an establishment in the St. Giles area of London, and it quickly became a favourite haunt of thieves, prostitutes, and highwaymen. The St. Giles residence was the first time that Wild tried his fortunes as a receiver of stolen goods. He was originally in the employ of another prominent Thief Taker, Charles Hitchin (c.1675-1727). However, Wild gradually moved to oust Hitchin from the business altogether, and achieved this partly by penning a tract exposing Hitchin’s homosexuality (Moore, 1997, p.85). Hitchin was subsequently disgraced, and Wild proclaimed himself ‘Thief Taker General of Great Britain’. He thus became both thief taker (in his legitimate line of work) and thief maker (as the head of an organised crime network) (Moore, 1997, p.84).

Wild would have his various gangs of thieves and highwaymen bring their stolen goods into one of his several warehouses. Victims of crime, records Defoe, would then go to Wild with a description of what was “lost” and offer a reward for the items to be recovered (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). An article would then be published in the newspaper directing the “finder” (one of Wild’s gang) of the lost article to report to Jonathan Wild and return the items. This practice of using newspaper advertisements would obscure the fact that Wild was directing all events. The advertisements usually ran in a similar manner to this one:

Lost on Friday Night last, a Green Vellum Letter-Case…If the Person who hath found this Case and Tickets &c. will bring them to Mr. Jonathan Wild in the Old Bailey…he shall have Two Guineas Reward and no Questions asked’ (Daily Courant, Nov. 22, 1715, p.2).

Everyone would be content with the outcome. The victim recovered their valuables, and bypassed an expensive prosecution (should the thief even have been caught), the criminal received a fee for returning the items, and Wild received a reward from an all-too-grateful victim. Wild made himself indispensable to his criminal subordinates, for ‘[thieves] could not subsist but by the bounty of the governor [Wild]’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). His influence over criminals was so extensive that he found it necessary to divide ‘the town and country into so many districts, and appoint[ing] gangs for each’ (Warrant of Detainder, 1725, p.261). Yet legally Wild remained guiltless. Defoe records that he ‘received nothing, delivered nothing, nor could anything be fastened to him’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). He became popular with the general public. Defoe berated his readers for being blindly taken in by Wild’s schemes:

How infatuate were the people of this nation all this while! Did they consider, that at the very time that they treated this person with such a confidence, as if he had been appointed to the trade, he had, perhaps, the very goods in his keeping, waiting the advertisement for the reward, and that, perhaps, they had been stolen with that very intention? (Defoe[?], 1725, p.96).

Wild’s position as both Thief Taker and thief maker, therefore, required collaboration with many figures in the criminal underworld such as house-breakers and highwaymen. The Beggar’s Opera was based upon the story of Wild’s criminal network (Brewer, 2013, p.345). The character Peachum, a fence, has a register of the gang listing the various talents and contributions of the criminals in his employ. Crook Finger’d Jack, for example, brought into Peachum’s warehouse ‘five Gold Watches, and Seven Silver ones’ (Gay, 1728, p.7). However, Slippery Sam was to be given up to the authorities by Peachum because he wanted to start his own criminal organisation (Ibid). This was how Wild worked. Periodically, to divert any suspicion from himself, and to keep himself popular with the authorities, Wild would abandon some of his criminals ‘[to] the mercy of the government’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.106). This happened to several of Wild’s gang, especially if the reward money for the recovery of the stolen goods was considerable. In 1716 a young gentleman named Knap and his mother were robbed in Gray’s-Inn-Gardens. The mother went to Wild and gave them a description of the robbers. From this information, ‘Wild immediately judged the gang to be composed of William White, Thomas Thurland, John Chapman…Timothy Dun and Isaac Rag’ (Anon. 1774, p.89). For the sake of reward money, these members of Wild’s own gang were ‘soon after executed at Tyburn’ (Anon. 1774, p.92). Jonathan Wild was thus akin to a modern-day godfather, directing and controlling various gangs of thieves in his employ, and giving them up to the authorities once they had served their usefulness.

Late Victorian Edition of The Newgate Calendar
Late Victorian Edition of The Newgate Calendar [Scanned Image]

Moreover, Jonathan Wild and his criminal underlings were motivated solely by profit. Profit as the sole motivational factor behind organised crime is what distinguishes it from terrorism. Organised crime is non-ideological (Wright, 2006, p.11). Avarice and the pursuit of profit alone drove Wild throughout his career (Defoe[?], 1725, p.100). He amassed a fortune which amounted to approximately £10,000 pounds (H.D., 1725, p.217). Some thieves and highwaymen during this period did try to present themselves as having noble intentions. Linebaugh points to the case of one highwayman, Thomas Easter, who when he was robbing a gentleman in 1722 exclaimed, ‘I rob the Rich to give to the Poor’ (Linebaugh, 1991, p.187). It is true that many criminals during this period were popular with the public, especially the poor. Hobsbawm in the 1960s advanced the theory of social banditry. Social bandits, he said, ‘are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice’ (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.17). As a left-wing, Marxist historian, Hobsbawm was probably all-too eager to sympathise with any figure even slightly anti-establishment. The truth is, however, that for every gentlemanly Claude DuVall or Dick Turpin, there were enough highwaymen who were also nasty brutes. Fielding had a slightly more realistic idea of how highwaymen targeted rich and poor people. His novel Joseph Andrews (1742) depicts a scene where the penniless Joseph is set upon and robbed by a gang of highwaymen, whom he terms ‘ruffians’ (Fielding, 1742, p.46). Fielding probably had a more realistic concept of the ways in which criminal gangs operated from the time that he spent serving as Magistrate of Westminster. Indeed, it is in all likelihood the case that early-modern criminals such as highwaymen and bandits, ‘quite often terrorised those from whose very ranks they managed to rise’ (Blok, 2000, p.16). Nevertheless, highwaymen such as Dick Turpin, and house-breakers such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) continued to be popular figures throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth.

Perhaps these criminals were popular in the press the same way that mobsters are in films today. Movies such as Goodfellas glorify and glamorise organised crime. For example, in Goodfellas, the narrating character Henry Hill starts off his story with the line; ‘as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster’ (Scorsese, 1990). As a child the character in that film admired the rich and flashy lifestyle of the mafia gangs that controlled his neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York. Similarly in the eighteenth century, ‘crime had about it an air (however illusory) of glamour, and brought with it the hope (however short-term) of liberty’ (Moore, 2001, xi). Thus despite the fact that these members of organised criminal gangs tried to present themselves as having noble intentions, their sole motivation was their own private gain.

Ray Liotta in "Goodfellas"
Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas”

Along with their apparently noble motives for robbing people, criminals in the eighteenth century allegedly behaved politely towards their victims. Their code of honour appears to have been polite gentlemanliness. Politeness in this period was a public code of conduct which emphasised good manners (Langford, 1989, p.1). Wild aspired to ‘live like a gentleman’ (H.D., 1725, p.203). Langford states that ‘the English criminal was credited with a certain sense of generosity and chivalry…Defoe described it as an “English way of Robbing generously, as they called it, without Murthering or Wounding”’ (Langford, 2000, p.p.145). This code of conduct was not restricted solely to Wild’s gang. Spraggs points to the case of other highwaymen later in the century. James Maclaine, the archetypal gentlemanly highwayman, once wrote a letter of apology to Horace Walpole after his pistol accidentally misfired when he robbed Walpole’s coach (Spraggs, 2001, p.185). As Captain MacHeath the highwaymen tells his fellow robbers in The Beggar’s Opera, ‘Act with Conduct and Discretion, A Pistol is your last resort’ (Gay, 1728, p.27). Similarly, the mafia today also are supposed to be men of honour and respect (Cottino, 2000, p.116). Nevertheless, lurking behind this gentlemanly façade was the threat of violence. The use of or the willingness to use violence is a characteristic of many organised criminal groups (Wright, 2006, p.12). Despite Wild’s pretensions to gentility, for example, he was still at heart a brutish man. This was evident when he fell into dispute with his second wife in London, Mary Milliner. Wild said that he, ‘would “mark her for a bitch”, and instantly drawing his sword struck at her, and cut off one of her ears’ (Anon., 1774, p.80). Additionally, despite the prevailing stereotype of highwaymen as polite gentlemen, Smith in 1714 recorded the case of a gang of highwaymen who mercilessly killed every male traveller in a stage coach (Smith, 1714, pp.3-4). Thus members of London’s eighteenth-century criminal underworld appear to have been more than willing to use violence against their victims.

Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon's "Last Dying Speech"
Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon’s “Last Dying Speech”

Furthermore, another characteristic of any organised crime groups is that, despite the death of their leader, the group still continues to exist. Organised crime is said to be ‘a continuing enterprise’ (Galeotti, 2009, p.6 emphasis added). Wild was finally caught out by the authorities in February 1725 for attempting to help one of his gang members to escape from gaol (Moore, 1997, p.239). One by one, as the charges against him mounted, many criminals formerly in his employ turned evidence against him. He was finally executed on 24th May 1725. There is no conclusive evidence that Wild ever had a successor. However, Wild himself, in a pamphlet he allegedly authored entitled Jonathan Wild’s Advice to his Successor (1725) thought that someone would succeed him. This pamphlet laid out instructions for whoever would take over. An eighteenth-century organised crime lord should form ‘a proper connection with all the villains of the town…but if any overzealous officer of justice should happen to detect them, give them up to the law’ (Wild[?], 1725, p.264). Thief taking certainly existed after Wild met his end. Indeed, there is evidence that some thief takers were still recovering “lost” goods for victims of crime in the 1730s through ‘means not always clear and occasionally suspect’ (Beattie, 1986, p.56). If anyone did directly succeed Wild, perhaps he was simply more discreet. In any case, there is no doubt that during this period crime was perceived by the public and the government as having increased (Langford, 1989, p.155). Thus it is reasonable to suppose that, even if no one directly took over Wild’s business – though this is what he expected – different thief takers were still operating in the same ways as Wild.


In conclusion, it is clear that organised crime existed in early-eighteenth century London. Jonathan Wild constructed a network around him of thieves, footpads, and highwaymen. He controlled and directed their activities. There were no lofty motives behind his actions. He was not, despite Hobsbawm’s theory of social banditry and social crime, striking back against the state. Indeed, when Wild was carted off, the crowd ‘treated [Wild] with remarkable severity…execrating him as the most consummate villain that had ever disgraced human nature’ (Anon., 1774, p.110). Profit was his driving force. Wild grew rich from the proceeds of crime. Moreover, his network, or one very similar to it, likely existed after his death. After all, robbers would have had to dispose of their stolen good somewhere. Nevertheless, Wild was able to flourish because of the society in which he lived. Many people lived on the breadline. The laws were perceived as unfairly weighted against the poor. Additionally, there was a lack of adequate law enforcement, and the judicial system made the victim of crime pay out of their own pocket to prosecute an offender who had wronged them, assuming the thief was ever caught. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that many people turned to thief takers to recover their stolen property, with no questions asked. Ultimately, therefore, organised crime is far from being a modern phenomenon.

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