From Barman to Highwayman: The Case of William Hawke (d.1774)

Not every highwayman throughout history has achieved the fame of Robin Hood (sup. fl. 12th-13th centuries), Rob Roy (1671-1734), Dick Turpin (1705-1739), or Jack Sheppard (1702-1724). The names of most of the highwaymen who flourished in London during the eighteenth century have faded into insignificance. William Hawke is one such highwayman whose life story, while just as interesting as the robbers alluded, never had his story picked up by the likes of Walter Scott (1771-1832) or William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882).

hawke1
The New Newgate Calendar 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg [n.d.]), 5: 135.

William Hawke was born at Uxbridge, Middlesex around the middle of the eighteenth century. He moved to London after the death of his father. Once in the capital, he gained employment in a public house in St. Giles. This area of London was known for its high levels of criminality, and it is during his time as a bar tender that he first became acquainted with some shady characters from the Georgian criminal underworld.

The men that he fell in with encouraged him to try a few turns as a highwayman, running with a partner named James Field.

Both Hawke and Field were apprehended by the authorities in January 1771 for stealing a leather notebook and £20 from a gentleman named John Gordon.[i] Although the theft of a sizeable sum of £20 would have warranted the death penalty in the eighteenth century, it seems the evidence against them was inconclusive. Both men produced witnesses who testified to their good character, and Field claimed that the £20 was his own money:

Field’s Defence.

I have had many a twenty pound note of my own property.

Hawkes’ Defence.

I was going to the play with my wife’s sister and Mr. Field. Roades came up and walked with us; I did not know him at first; he saw me pull my watch out; and wanted to buy it; he got from me; he was to give me two guineas and a half for it; he gave me a guinea; Mr. Field gave him his watch; he gave him nothing. We were several times after him about the money.[ii]

This is probably why Field and Hawkes got off with the comparatively lighter sentence of Transportation to the Americas for a total of 14 years (this is the time, it will be remembered, that Britain still “owns” the Thirteen American Colonies, later to become the USA).

hawke2
William Hawke Robbing Capt. Cunningham at Gunpoint – Illustration from The New Newgate Calendar 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg [n.d.]), 5: 133.

Somehow, and the details here are sketchy, the pair managed to escape from the Americas, and by 1772 were back in London practising their former trade. The Newgate Calendar records that Hawkes,

Upon his return to England he committed a surprising number of most daring robberies; and several months elapsed before the thief takers knew him to be the man by whom the roads about London were so dangerously infested.[iii]

Hawkes proved to be quite a hard man to catch indeed. The ingenious Magistrate of Westminster, Sir John Fielding (brother of the novelist-turned-magistrate, Henry Fielding), directed London’s rudimentary police force, the Bow Street Runners, to watch Hawkes’ wife (the Metropolitan Police would not be established until the 19th century).

The Runners kept watch over the wife, and one night, as Hawkes lay sleeping in her arms in a rented apartment, Constables Bond and Lee went up the stairs and,

Entered the front room, and there discovering Hawke slumbering in bed, threw himself across the highwayman, who, twisting the sheet around Bond’s head, reached at a pistol that was under the pillow, at which instant Smith entered, and caught hold of his hand. With much difficulty Hawke was secured.[iv]

In court the next morning, on 18 May 1774, two gentleman named Captain Cunningham and Charles Hart appeared to give evidence against him:

Hart. A gentleman: I live in May’s Buildings. On the 28th of last March, between the hours of nine and ten in the evening, Capt. Cunningham and myself were stopped in a coach near the Half-way-house leading from Knights-bridge to Walham Green , by one man on horseback; he said to the coachman, God d – n your blood stop, or I’ll blow your brains out! uponwhich I let the glass down which was then up, and he put a pistol to my breast, and demanded my money; I had one shilling and sixpence and some halfpence loose in my waistcoat pocket; I gave him that; I had half a guinea in my fob, which I preserved; he said to me, God d – n you, do you give me nothing but halfpence! I told him it was all I had, and desired him to take the pistol from my breast. In the interim Capt. Cunningham was moving a pocket book from his right hand waistcoat pocket into his left hand breeches pocket, in which were bank notes to the amount of between four and five hundred pounds; he had twenty-six or twenty-seven, guineas in his breeches pocket, but being in liquor he refused being robbed, and said he would not be robbed; the prisoner saw the pocket book, and took the pistol from my breast, and said, God d – n you, give me the pocket book![v]

Hawkes maintained his innocence throughout the whole trial, simply saying:

I am innocent of this affair: I leave myself entirely to the mercy of this honourable Court. I have been guilty of affairs of the kind, but am innocent of this. I am a jeweller by trade: I am twenty-three years old: I have a wife and two small children.[vi]

Despite the protestations of his innocence, the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death by hanging.

By the account recorded in The Newgate Calendar, he was quite stoic about the whole affair.

When he was taken to Tyburn on 1 July 1774 (the site of public executions until 1783), he gave a good show to the assembled mob. He dressed in his smartest coat, with a flower affixed to the breast pocket, gallantly saying ‘how do you do’ to spectators as he passed by in the cart.

The noose was placed around his neck at the foot of Tyburn tree, and as he felt the cart about the move away he leaped up into the air. This ensured that his neck was instantly dislocated and that he never suffered in pain.


References

ALL IMAGES TAKEN FROM BOOKS IN MY PERSONAL COLLECTION

[i] James Field, William Hawke, Theft > pocketpicking, Theft > receiving, 16th January 1771 (t17710116-39) Old Bailey Online [Internet <www.oldbaileyonline.org> Accessed 16 January 2017].

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] The New Newgate Calendar; or, Malefactor’s Bloody Register 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg [n.d.]), p.133.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] William Hawke, Violent Theft > highway robbery, 18th May 1774 (t17740518-26) Old Bailey Online [Internet <www.oldbaileyonline.org> Accessed 16 January 2017].

[vi] Ibid.

Rob Roy (1671-1734)

A famous man is Robin Hood,
The English ballad-singer’s joy!
And Scotland has a thief as good,
An outlaw of as daring mood;
She has her brave ROB ROY!
Then clear the weeds from off his Grave,
And let us chant a passing stave,
In honour of that Hero brave!

The Life of Rob Roy

Each country of what now comprises the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has its famous outlaw-cum-folk hero: England has Robin Hood (sup. fl. 12th-13th centuries), the legendary noble robber who stole from the rich and gave to the poor; Wales boasts of Twm Sion Cati (fl. c. 1550); Ireland has the famous ‘rapparee’ Éamonn an Chnoic (sup. fl. 1670-1724). The subject of today’s blog post is the celebrated Scottish outlaw, Robert Roy MacGregor.[i]

The MacGregors were part of an ancient Scottish family, but although they were minor gentry, they began to experience financial hardship in the late seventeenth century. This was not helped by the fact that the family joined in the Jacobite Rebellion against the government in 1689, after which the family was disgraced. In order to offset some of their money troubles, during the 1690s members of the family began to extort protection money from farmers. It is for their somewhat dubious activities that criminal biographers in the eighteenth century endeavoured to present the family’s history as nothing but a history of crime and depravity:

They were not more Antient, than Infamous, for from time immemorial, they have been shun’d and detested for the Outrages they daily committed. They liv’d by Rapine, and made Murder their Diversion; and, in a Word, they seem’d emulous to monopolize all that was Wicked.[ii]

During the late 1690s and into the eighteenth century, Rob appears to have ceased his illegal activities and, under the assumed name of Campbell, bought some land and ‘thrived modestly’ trading in livestock, according to his biographer.

rob-roy-1723-main-pic
Illustration from: Walter Scott, Rob Roy ed. by A. Lang (London, 1829; repr. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, 2005).

However, the early eighteenth century was a time of Jacobite intrigue: in 1688 the Stuart King, James II was ousted from the thrones of England and Scotland because of his Catholic faith and he was replaced with the Dutch King William and his wife Mary, James’ daughter. In effect, this was a coup d’état, and there was significant opposition, especially in Scotland, to this new foreign King, in spite of the fact that Mary was related to James.  At his time, Rob took to smuggling arms which alarmed the authorities because his loyalty to the new regime had never been rock solid. Yet there was nothing to link him directly, at this early period, to the Jacobite cause (Jacobite is the name given to those in the 17th and 18th centuries who actively fought for the restoration of the Stuarts).

It was also during the early eighteenth century when Rob’s business hit a slump, and in 1708 he was forced to take out loans from a number of local tradesmen. But a few months later when repayment was due, Rob had not got enough cash to meet the demands of his creditors. He was subsequently declared bankrupt by the Marquess of Montrose and his lands were seized. Rob, in order to escape his creditors (a debtors’ prison would likely have been Rob’s punishment), he along with some of his men retreated to the remote areas of the highlands. Although later stories attempt to attribute his downfall to one of Rob’s men absconding with his fortune:

Rob Roy’s fall was a matter of business failure, and the later tradition that it was due to a drover absconding with his money is implausible in view of the evidence that he knew months in advance that he was in trouble, and that he never himself used this as an explanation. His flight to the remote highlands, Montrose’s determination to bring him to justice, and Rob’s passionate belief that he had been wronged, however, converted an everyday bankruptcy into an epic story.[iii]

In 1713 he sought the protection of the Duke of Atholl (one of Montrose’s rivals) who granted him protection and even allowed him to continue trading on a limited scale in order to earn back some of the money he had lost through bad investments.

When George I acceded to the throne of the newly-forged Kingdom of Great Britain (previously, England and Scotland had been separate states), Rob, a nominal Jacobite, saw this as a chance to strike back against Montrose, who was a supporter of the Hanoverians. Although the Jacobites never officially welcomed Rob with open arms into their cause, but they did allow him to carry out raids on the lands of Hanoverian supporters, and no doubt he welcomed the chance to carry out raids on Montrose’s lands in revenge for his bankruptcy.

In 1715, the Jacobites began seriously plotting the downfall of the Hanoverian regime. James II had fled to France after 1688 and raised his youngest sons there. The Jacobites in France, having been in contact with their supporters in Scotland, plotted the invasion of Stuart forces. Once landed, it was hoped that the Scottish and English people would rise up in support of the Stuarts, oust the Hanoverians, and place James Stuart (James II’s son) on the throne.

rob-roy-1723
The Highland Rogue. 1723. (c) ECCO

But a restoration of the Stuarts was not to be: Rob himself witnessed the crushing defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1715 at the Battle of Glen Shiel, for he had been co-opted to serve in the Jacobite forces.

As we have seen, Rob was never a loyal Jacobite, and only joined the cause as a means of getting revenge on his former antagonist, Montrose. After the battle he returned to his life of banditry, although the authorities did not concern themselves with even trying to arrest him. Rob’s lands had been forfeited to the government because he had, by allying with the Jacobites, committed treason. Montrose had, through the government’s seizure, been repaid and so no longer dedicated any effort to capture Rob.

He was pardoned in 1725 after writing a letter swearing allegiance to the House of Hanover. He then became a farmer and died peacefully in his sleep in 1734.

The Legend of Rob Roy

The incidents recorded in the life of the historic Rob Roy are pretty mundane. The details of his life are neither more nor less interesting than the various lives of contemporary criminals which circulated in print during the period that he lived. One such biography, which has been cited above, is The Highland Rogue: or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-Gregor, Commonly called Rob Roy (1723) published while Rob was still at large.

The celebrated poet, William Wordsworth, was inspired to author a poem about Rob after he visited a grave which he presumed to have been the famous outlaw’s:

Heaven gave Rob Roy a dauntless heart

And wondrous length and strength of arm

Nor craved he more to quell his foes,

Or keep his friends from harm.

Yet was Rob Roy as wise as brave;

Forgive me if the phrase be strong;–

A Poet worthy of Rob Roy

Must scorn a timid song.[iv]

rob-roy-title-page
Title Page: Walter Scott, Rob Roy 1st Edn. (Edinburgh, 1818). Personal Collection.

However, perhaps the most famous reincarnation of Rob Roy was Walter Scott’s novel, Rob Roy (1818). Here the highland outlaw is a heavily romanticised outlaw: noble, brave, chivalrous, strong. The novel was phenomenally popular, with a ship leaving Leith for London containing nothing but boxes of Scott’s novel:

It is an event unprecedented in the annals either of literature or of the custom-house that the entire cargo of a packet, or smack, bound from Leith to London, should be the impression of a novel.[v]

Rob Roy was also the main protagonist in a number of Victorian and Edwardian penny dreadfuls. Modern audiences will likely be familiar with Rob Roy though the eponymous film starring Liam Neeson in 1995. Although it is not based upon Scott’s novel, the movie is, like Scott’s portrayal, a heavily romanticised account of Rob’s life: he falls victim to the scheming of an English aristocrat, his lands are confiscated, his wife is raped, and he is outlawed. Eventually, however, he kills his antagonist in a fight to the death at the end of the film.

Like so many criminals-turned-folk heroes, it is his ‘literary afterlife’ which has ensured that his story lives on, more than anything he ever actually did while he was alive.

rob-roy-pd
Aldine Rob Roy Library (c.1900)

References

[i] For a full biography see: David Stevenson, ‘MacGregor , Robert [Rob Roy] (bap. 1671, d. 1734)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. May 2006) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/17524> Accessed 13 Jan 2017]

[ii] The Highland Rogue: or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-Gregor, Commonly called Rob Roy (London: J. Billingsley, 1723), p.x.

[iii] Stevenson, ‘MacGregor , Robert [Rob Roy] (bap. 1671, d. 1734)’

[iv] The Complete Poetical Works by William Wordsworth ed. by John Morley (London: MacMillan, 1888) [Internet <http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww242.html> Accessed 13 January 2017].

[v] Walter Scott, Rob Roy ed. by Andrew Lang (1829; repr. Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 2010), p.69.

My Forthcoming Book: “The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers” (2018)

In addition to my PhD thesis entitled ‘The Changing Faces of Robin Hood, c.1700-c.1900’ and my forthcoming book, The Mob Reformer: The Life and Legend of Wat Tyler (2018), I have also been contracted to author another book entitled The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers which is due to be published by Pen & Sword Books in September 2018.

The book aims to resurrect the format of eighteenth-century criminal biographies such as those by Alexander Smith and Charles Johnson, who authored books such as A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1714) and Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) respectively.

It is envisaged as a cultural history of crime, being a readable and scholarly compendium of short biographies of the most notorious thieves, reprobates, rogues, and murderers throughout history. I will discuss whether Robin Hood was a real person, and I will introduce readers to Sawney Beane, the seventeenth-century Scottish cannibal whose story inspired the movie The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

The book will also contain several appendices such as a Dictionary of Thieves’ Cant, as well as several poems on highwaymen from historical works, such as the following one from William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834):

Of every rascal of every kind,

The most notorious to my mind,

Was the Cavalier Captain, gay Jemmy Hind

Which Nobody Can Deny

But the pleasantest coxcomb among them all,

For lute, oranto and madrigal,

Was the galliard Frenchman, Claude DuVall

Which Nobody Can Deny […]

Nor could any so handily break a lock,

As Sheppard, who stood on Newgate Dock,

And nicknamed the gaolers around him his flock

Which Nobody Can Deny

Nor did the highwayman ever possess,

For ease, for security, danger, distress,

Such a mare as Dick Turpin’s Black Bess! Black Bess!

Which Nobody Can Deny.

Having over the years also built up a collection of penny dreadfuls and criminal biographies, the book will also be profusely illustrated throughout with images taken from these rare items.

Below is a copy of the blurb which will appear on the back of the book:

“For as long as human societies have existed there have always been people who have always transgressed the laws of their respective societies. It seems that whenever new laws are made, certain people find ways to break them.

“This book will introduce you to some of the most notorious figures, from all parts of the world, who have committed heinous crimes such as highway robbery, murder, and forgery.

“Beginning with Bulla Felix, the Roman highwayman, this book traces the careers of medieval outlaws such as Robin Hood. Early modern murderers make an appearance such as Sawney Beane, whose story inspired the horror movie The Hills Have Eyes (1977). There is Jack Sheppard, an eighteenth-century criminal who escaped from prison on several occasions, and the ruffian Dick Turpin. There is the Scottish freedom fighter Robert Roy MacGregor, who was immortalised in Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (1817), as well as the Eastern European outlaw Janosik. Australian bushrangers such as Ned Kelly and the American Jesse James also make an appearance, along with many others whose names have become synonymous with crime and roguery.

“This book also includes an appendix of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thieves’ canting language, as well as several historical poems, songs, and ballads relating to the subjects discussed, and the work is prefaced with an essay highlighting the significance of crime literature throughout history.”

Further updates will follow.

Capt. Alexander Smith’s “A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats” (1714)

The eighteenth century was a period which witnessed a great deal of interest in crime. With a rising crime rate, and an inefficient system of law enforcement that consisted of corrupt thief takers and part time constables, people sought to understand the workings of the criminal mind. For this they turned to the numerous pieces of crime literature that were available in the eighteenth century. Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714) was the forerunner to Captain Charles Johnson’s more famous Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735). With its combination of excessive moralism and sensational reporting, Smith’s work deserves discussion because it set the tone for successive portrayals of criminal in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature.

Golden Farmer
An 18th-Century Illustration of the Golden Farmer

The details of who Smith was are now lost to us, and the name is most certainly a pseudonym – a guise that Smith’s successor Johnson would also adopt. The first volume of Smith’s compendium of criminals’ life stories appeared in 1714 in a small 12mo volume (5.5 inches by 7.5 inches). This first volume contained accounts of criminals that had appeared in the fifty years before Smith’s lifetime, including James Hind (1616-1652), James Whitney (d. 1694), and William Davies alias ‘The Golden Farmer’ (1627-1690). Smith’s had to at least pretend that his books were going to serve a moral purpose to make them acceptable to polite readers:

Since preceding generations have made it their grand care and labour not only to communicate to posterity the lives of good and honest men, that thereby men might fall in love with the smooth and beautiful face of virtue, but have also taken pains to recount the actions of criminals and wicked persons, that by the dreadful aspects of vice they may be deterred from embracing her illusions, we here present the public with ‘An History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen’. [1]

highwayman
Engraving of an 18th-Century Highwayman

Despite this benign moral intention behind his work, all that Smith really wants to do is to provide sensational and violent entertainment. Despite the fact that he condemns all of the criminals in his account as ‘wicked’ or ‘licentious’, and stressing how his work was ‘not published to encourage wickedness’, [2] he takes great delight in going into great detail about every violent act the criminals commit. Take the case of a burglary committed on the house of Mr. Bean by Sawney Cunningham, a highwayman and murderer who lived during the reign of Charles I:

He went one day to pay a visit to one Mr. William Bean, his uncle by his mother’s side, and a man of unblameable conversation; who, asking his wicked nephew how he did, and several other questions relating to his welfare, he for answer stabbed him with his dagger to his heart. [3]

Smith recounts with great delight some scenes of rape, or ‘ravishing’ as he calls it. This is the case with a criminal named Patrick O’Bryan, who with his gang break into a house, tie up the five servants, and attempt to rape the lady of the house’s daughter:

Next they went into the daughter’s room, who was also in bed; but O’Bryan being captivated by her extraordinary beauty, quoth he, Before we tie and gag this pretty creature, I must make bold to rob her of her maidenhead. So whilst the villain was eagerly coming to the bedside, protesting that he loved her as he did his soul and designed her no more harm than he did himself, the modest virgin had wrapped herself up in the bedclothes as well as time would permit. And as he took her in one arm, and endeavoured to get his other hand between herself and the sheet, she made a very vigorous defence to save her honour, for though she could not hinder him from often kissing, not only her face, but several other parts of her body, as by struggling they came to be bare; yet by her nimbleness in shifting her posture, and employing his hands so well as her own, they could never attain to the liberty they chiefly strove for. [4]

Often criminal accounts were used as a source of erotica for eighteenth-century readers which indicates that little attention was paid by readers to the moral message behind such texts. [5]

Smith’s work was an instant success, and an enlarged version of his work appeared in two volumes in early 1719, with another expanded three volume edition appearing later the same year. By the time that volume three was published, some of Smith’s accounts begin to verge upon the ridiculous. In volume three the reader is treated to accounts of Sir John Falstaff and Robin Hood (who Smith tries to portray as wicked as all of his other criminals).

sb1
18th-century illustration of Murderer and Highwaymen, Sawney Beane.

All of Smith’s accounts follow a similar formula: he opens the account of an offender’s life with a discussion of their birth and parentage. The felons’ parents are always good people. Whether this was true or not is unknown, but Johnson uses accounts of the parents’ lives so that they might act as foils to the offender, who is usually portrayed as a wicked sinner. This is the case with Ned Bonnet, a highwayman whose life is laid bare for the reader in Smith’s history:

Edward Bonnet was born of very good and reputable parents in the Isle of Ely, Cambridgeshire, who bestowing some small education upon him, as reading, writing, and casting accounts, about the fifteenth year of his age, he was put an apprentice to a grocer living at Potton, in Bedfordshire, whom he served honestly. [6]

After an account of the offender’s good upbringing, Smith tells the tale of how the criminall falls into an ever deeper circle of vice and sin. The tales of most of the male offenders related by Johnson are usually cast as the tale of an idle apprentice who disdains honest employment. This usually follows as the result of keeping unwholesome company, as is the case of Tom Gerrard, a house-breaker:

Having some small education bestowed on him he was, when about sixteen years of age, put apprentice to a poulterer in Clare Market, where he served part of his time. But he addicted himself to ill company, so that wholly leading a loose and idle life, it drew him into many straits and inconveniences. To repair these, he took to the trade of thieving. [7]

What then follows is a tale of all the major robberies committed by the villain, often narrated in very quick succession. The offender’s crimes begin small, often through the pilfering of farthings and marbles, and then they move on to bolder offences. Crime was viewed almost like it was an addiction in eighteenth-century narratives, much like today how ‘soft’ drugs lead on to ‘harder’ drugs. [8]

Sometimes Smith’s highwaymen come across as sympathetic figures. The ambiguously sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we see in criminal biographies are a result of the fact that crimes were seen as sins by eighteenth-century contemporaries. These men are not wicked to the bone, but rather have simply made bad life choices which have consequently led them into a life of crime. Such bad life choices include becoming addicted to drink, gambling, whoring and all the other vices available to young men in eighteenth-century towns. [9]

Towards some of his highwaymen Smith even has a grudging admiration. This was especially the case with the seventeenth-century Royalist highwayman, James Hind. Smith was evidently an ardent royalist, and praised Hind for having once robbed:

That infamous usurper Oliver Cromwell as [he was] coming from Huntingdon to London. [10]

At the end of the tale readers are given an account of the criminal’s death, and notwithstanding the sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we encounter in Johnson’s narratives, hanging is usually portrayed as a sentence that is justly deserved, and the case of another highwayman, Jack Shrimpton, is typical of how many of Smith’s accounts end:

At length, being brought to trial, he was convicted not only for wilful murder, but also for five robberies on the highway. After sentence of death was passed upon him he was very careless of preparing himself for another world, whilst under condemnation […] When he came to the place of execution at St. Michael’s Hill, he was turned off without showing any signs of repentance, on Friday the 4th of September 1713. Thus died this incorrigible offender. [11]

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

The mind of man is naturally a lover of justice, and when we read a story wherein a criminal is overtaken, in whom there is no quality of which is the object of pity, the soul enjoys a certain revenge for the offence done to its nature, in the wicked actions committed in the preceding part of the history. [12]

What we witness when reading criminal biography, furthermore, is nothing less than the birth of the novel: criminal biography freely mixed fact and fiction and, dwelling as it did upon those of low social status (whereas the ‘romance’ – the dominant form of fiction – had usually dwelt upon aristocrats), it primed readers ready for larger factitious accounts of those from low social status. Indeed, Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) cann be regarded as a criminal biography writ large.

Mollflanders
Moll Flanders (1722)

True crime writing – the type of books that are sold in Railway station bookshops for a few pounds today – have continued Smith’s style of writing: lurid, sensational, and giving readers a glimpse into the criminal psyche. Even television shows such as Law and Order and Criminal Minds arguably do the same. The Georgians’ love of crime writing shows how, even though manners and social customs can change over time, people have always had a taste for the lurid and violent. And like people today, although the Georgians enjoyed crime as entertainment, they enjoyed seeing criminals get their just desserts also.


References

[1] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts and Cheats Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), p.1.
[2] Smith, Highwaymen, p.401.
[3] Smith, Highwaymen, p.24.
[4] Smith, Highwaymen, p.167.
[5] Peter Wagner, ‘Trial Reports as a Genre of Eighteenth-Century Erotica’ Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 5: 1 (1982), pp.117-121.
[6] Smith, Highwaymen, p.56.
[7] Smith, Highwaymen, p.167.
[8] Andrea McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), p.59.
[9] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 71.
[10] Smith, Highwaymen, p.138.
[11] Smith, Highwaymen, p.144.
[12] Joseph Addison, ‘Number 491’ in The Spectator: A New Edition, Reproducing the Original Text, Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors Ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge, 1880), 699-701 (p.701)

The Newgate Calendar

People in the eighteenth century believed that they were living in a crime-ridden society. In addition to Capt. Alexander Smith’s and Capt. Charles Johnson’s criminal biographies, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, and The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, a series of books were printed in London entitled The Newgate Calendar.

Pillory
A man being publically whipped in the Sessions House Yard. Illustration from The Newgate Calendar (1795) [Stephen Basdeo – Personal Collection]

There is no single authoritative text of The Newgate Calendar as there have been many versions of works bearing the name since the eighteenth century, so a brief history is offered here. Newgate Calendars were named after the infamous London gaol, Newgate, which was first built in 1188, and subjected to numerous renovations and rebuilds in its history until its demolition in 1904.

There were various criminal ‘calendars’ compiled from the beginning of the eighteenth century, such as The Tyburn Calendar, or the Malefactors’ Bloody Register (1705), and The Chronicle of Tyburn; or, Villainy Displayed in all its Branches (1720).

FullSizeRender(23)
The Execution of William Dodd. Illustration from The Newgate Calendar (1795) [Stephen Basdeo – Personal Collection]

The first publication that bore the name of The Newgate Calendar appeared in 1774, entitled The Newgate Calendar, or the Malefactors’ Bloody Register, and published in five volumes. Five years later, there was The Malefactors’ Register; or, The Newgate and Tyburn Calendar, dedicated to the magistrate, Sir John Fielding (1721-1780), the co-founder of the Bow Street Runners, London’s first dedicated law enforcement agency.

Another publication, The New and Complete Newgate Calendar appeared in 1795, whilst William Jackson’s The New and Complete Newgate Calendar; or, the Malefactor’s Universal Register, appeared in 1818.

Like Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1734), the eighteenth-century version of The Newgate Calendar contains biographies of the most notorious criminals. For its sources, the various versions often directly plagiarised contemporary criminal narratives, in particular the ‘Last Dying Speech’ broadsides which contained news of convicted felons. In the words of the 1784 edition, The Newgate Calendar comprises:

All the most material passages in the SESSIONS PAPERS, for a long series of years; together with the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account of the Capital Convicts, and complete narratives of all the most remarkable trials. [1]

And some familiar faces appear in the pages of The Newgate Calendar such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1734), Jonathan Wild (1682-1725), and Dick Turpin (1705-1739). The claim to provide ‘complete’ and ‘true’ accounts of all the trials of these offenders, however, is a little suspect. Despite the claims of the Proceedings (upon which, as we have seen, The Newgate Calendar was based), for instance, to provide a ‘fair, true and perfect narrative’ the publishers of these works had the final say in their content, and they had to be entertaining so they could be profitable. Hence ‘greater attention [was] paid to murders, robberies, and thefts from the person (involving titillating details of prostitutes’ interactions with their clients)’ in order to ‘make the Proceedings appeal to a wide audience,’ and thereby proving profitable.[2]

(For a discussion of how ‘true’ their accounts are, bear in mind that some of these authors thought that Sir John Flastaff was a real person…)

The accounts of each offender, like the broadsides and criminal biographies that they were taken from, were very formulaic in style. They begin with an account of the offender’s birth and parentage, and then describe his/her descent into a life of sin and depravity. Crime, if you have read some of the other posts on this site, in the eighteenth century was viewed as a sin. Criminals were not necessarily inherently wicked: they were people with a tragic fatal flaw in their character, which is why a lot of criminals are portrayed sympathetically in the accounts (murderers apart). [3] Hence in the case of the burglar Luke Cannon, it was ‘an early attachment to bad company, an early introduction to the paths of vice, [that] led with rapid success to his ruin’. [4]

At the close of the narrative they are hanged for their crimes. [5] In a world that lacked a professional police force, one of the aims of the eighteenth-century version of The Newgate Calendar was (as well as providing sensational entertainment), to function as moralist texts. Readers were supposed to shun the examples of sin and vice and avoid making the same unhappy mistakes that had led the criminals to the gallows.

In fact, the title page of the 1795 edition contains a short piece of verse which is illustrative of its aims:

The crimes related here art great and true,
The subjects vary, and the work is new,
By reading, learn the ways of sin to shun,
Be timely taught, and you’ll not be undone. [6]

It might be supposed that The Newgate Calendar was cheap entertainment for eighteenth-century readers. However, this is not the case: firstly, all editions of The Newgate Calendar were multivolume sets, and accompanied with fine engravings. Although we do not know the prices for the individual editions of The Newgate Calendar, comparisons can be made with the prices of other works. Volume three of Alexander Smith’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1719) cost half a crown, an expensive amount in the 1700s. Similarly, Charles Johnson’s Highwaymen addressed ‘gentlemen’. We are talking about a literate and sophisticated audience who read these books.

There were further publications bearing the name of The Newgate Calendar during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A major early nineteenth-century version was edited by two layers, Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, in 1824, and given the name The Newgate Calendar; Comprising Interesting Memoirs of the Most Notorious Characters Who Have Been Convicted of Outrages upon the Laws of England since the Eighteenth Century, with a revised edition appearing in 1826.

After Knapp and Baldwin’s editions followed G. Thompson’s Newgate Calendar of 1840, which at first glance appears to be a virtual plagiarism of Knapp and Baldwin’s version. The penny dreadful version, The New Newgate Calendar, was then published weekly between 1863 and 1865, and then Camden Pelham published, in two volumes The Chronicles of Crime; or, the New Newgate Calendar in 1887.

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Penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar (1864) [Stephen Basdeo – Personal Collection].

The last large-scale five volume compilation of The Newgate Calendar was printed by the Navarre Society in 1927, whilst the Folio Society has more recently reprinted a selection of the most famous trials in two volumes, The Newgate Calendar, and The New Newgate Calendar (1951).

The legacy of The Newgate Calendar can be seen in any bookshop today. This publication, along with criminal biographies, initiated the whole ‘true crime’ book industry.

More importantly, however, criminal biographies and The Newgate Calendar paved the way for a form of literature that we still read today: the novel. Whereas fiction before the eighteenth century tended to focus upon the lives of aristocrats, such as Don Quixote (2 Vols. 1605, 1611), criminal biography primed readers for reading about ‘real life’. Hence it is no surprise that the first English novelist, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), often made the protagonists of his novels, not Kings and nobles, but those from low life: prostitutes (Moll Flanders, 1722), pirates (Captain Singleton, 1720).

Thus although nobody today prints accounts of criminals in the same way as the publishers of The Newgate Calendar did, it has to be remembered that there would be no novels were it not for eighteenth-century criminal accounts.


References

[1] The New Newgate Calendar; or, The Malefactor’s Bloody Register 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg, 1795), 1.
[2] Robert Shoemaker ‘The Old Bailey Proceedings and the Representation of Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century London’ Journal of British Studies 47: 3 (2008), 563.
[3] John Brewer The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2013), 351.
[4] The New Newgate Calendar, 16.
[5] For a critical discussion of these accounts see Andrea Mckenzie Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Continuum, 2007) and Lincoln B. Faller Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1987).
[6] The New Newgate Calendar, 1.

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

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

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

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

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

James_Hind_horse
17th-century woodcut of James Hind

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

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

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

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

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

drawn
Hind was hanged, drawn and quartered.

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

Jackson’s Recantation (1674)

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries crime, and in particular highway robbery, was a problem. Whether crime was actually as bad as Henry Fielding gloomily surmised, that the streets of London ‘were impassable but without the utmost hazard’, is open to debate. One thing is certain, however, for the average Londoner, the fear of being robbed was real to them.

Such fears left their marks upon the popular culture of the day. The theme common to a lot of popular literature produced between c.1660 and c.1740 is crime. Beginning in the 1660s there was Richard Head’s The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (1663). The early eighteenth century witnessed the publication of Alexander Smith’s A Compleat History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), along with Captain Charles Johnson’s A General of History of the Most Noted Pyrates (1724), A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735).

Jackson's Recantation
Richard Head’s Jackson’s Recantation (1674)

Daniel Defoe’s authorship has also been ascribed to three criminal biographies: The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), A Narrative of all the Robberies and Escapes of John Sheppard (1724), and The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). It has been suggested by some scholars that Defoe was actually Charles Johnson, but I have discussed the credibility of that in another post. We know that Defoe definitely authored novels whose protagonists were criminals, such as Moll Flanders (1722), whilst Henry Fielding authored an embellished acccount of Wild’s life entitled The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743).

It is to a work which Richard Head allegedly authored entitled Jackson’s recantation, or, The life & death of the notorious high-way-man, now hanging in chains at Hampstead delivered to a friend a little before execution: wherein is truly discovered the whole mystery of that wicked and fatal profession of padding on the road. They were fond of long titles in the eighteenth century, and the work purports to be the last confession of a relatively obscure highwayman, Francis Jackson.

525px-Richard_Head_1666
Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1665)

Richard Head (1637-1686) was born in Ireland, and was a playwright and bookseller. His The English Rogue was one of the first English books that was translated into a foreign language.

The protagonist, Jackson, is currently awaiting his execution in Newgate gaol. He is alone in the condemned hold, and is struck by remorse of conscience for his wicked life:

Heaven thought fit I should no longer reign in pride and arrogance, and therefore committed me into hands of Justice, to be punisht to the demerits of my Crimes. Being here confin’d in this Terrestial Hell, surrounded with horror and despair, my conscience started out of her dead sleep, and demanded a severe account of what I had done; guilt instantly did stop my mouth.

A priest, or The Ordinary of Newgate, comes to visit him in the condemned hold to hear his confession, as was the custom. The Ordinary also was able to make a little money out of these visits to prisoners; they would write down the felons’ stories and sell them to the publishers to make a profit.

The highwayman reveals that he turned to robbery in his youth because he was starving and destitute. Yet to Richard Head, this is no justification for robbery. After finding a purse full of money in the street, the highwayman takes it, and keeps it, and from then on it is a downward spiral for him into a life of sin and vice, until he soon joins forces with other robbers that he meets:

The first Robbery that I committed, I told you was on a Coach near Barnet; The second was this, we were four in Company, and took our Road towards Maiden-head, more for intelligence sake than for any present Booty; in Maidenhead we din’d, and towards four a clock in Summer time we travel’d on for Redding, making a little halt by the way at Maidenhead Thicket, expecting there to light upon some prize; having waited an hour or more to no purpose, we proposed to distribute our selves, and Ride into Redding singly, and that two should lie in one Inn, and two in the other, for the better benefit of observation. My other two Comerades lay in an Inn where they were intimately acquainted, and were winkt at by the Master of the House, the Servants also being at their Devotion; by whose means they understood that there was a Gentleman in the house who was the next morning with his Man, would set out for Malbrough, and that it was thought by the weight of a small Port-mantue, that it must be mony that caused it to be so heavy. We on the other side could make no discovery till after Supper, and then we heard what our hearts desired. An Attourney was in the company, and amongst other talk, he said he was bound for London to be there at the Term […] I put his hand in his pocket and pul’d out a Bagg wherein were an hundred and fifty Guinnies, saying, these I will so conceal in the Saddle I ride upon.

But this was not only a moralist text, expounding the dangers of falling into a life of vice and crime. It was also a manual for Londoners to know how they could avoid being robbed. The whole narrative is supposed to illuminate the modus operandi of organised criminal gangs in the seventeenth century. If you do happen to be robbed in London, Head gives this advice:

If you are set upon and rob’d in the Eastern quarter, take not that Road in which you were to London, nor raise the Country thereabout, for it is to no purpose; but ride with all speed to Holbourn, Strand, St. Jameses, or West∣minster, and there search with all diligence. If you are rob’d towards the North, never search any place in the City, but make all convenient speed to the Bank-side, Southwark, Lambeth, or Fox-hall; by thus planting themselves, they know, or think at least, they are sufficiently secure, having the City between them and you.

He also gives advice on how to spot a highwayman:

The first caution is this, be shy of those who are over prone in prossing into your company; it is more safe to entertain such who are unwilling to associate themselves with you, or if they do it is with such indifferency, that there need the urging of perswasions to effect it. Now to the intent you may distinguish an honest man from a Thief or Robber, take these informations and directions; first if you suspect your company, halt a little, and in your stay observe whether they still hold on their course, or slack their pace, or it may be alight and walk with their Horses in their hands, if you observe any of these, you may conclude them the justly suspected marks of an High-wayman.

This pamphlet was very popular, and provided inspiration for other writers of criminal biography such as Smith and Johnson, especially its illuminating descriptions of how highwaymen operated. But the pamphlet ends with a stark warning, saying that however much new laws are created to curb crime, criminals will always find a way to circumvent them:

Let this suffice, for according to the Proverb, new Lords, new Laws; so all new Gangs have new Orders, Plots and Designs, to Rob and Purloin from the honest Traveller.

Jack Sheppard (1702-1724)

Contemporary portrait of Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) by James Thornhill.
Contemporary portrait of Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) by James Thornhill. [Source: Wikipedia].

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

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

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

Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A most virulent and libellous attack upon my romance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one youth told Mayhew that:

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

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


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