Pernicious Trash? “The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood”(1883)

There is now before us such a veritable mountain of pernicious trash, mostly in paper covers, and “Price One Penny”; so-called novelettes, tales, stories of adventure, mystery and crime; pictures of school life hideously unlike reality; exploits of robbers, cut-throats, prostitutes, and rogues, that, but for its actual presence, it would seem incredible.[1]

The citation above denouncing penny dreadfuls as pernicious trash brilliantly encapsulates mid-to-late Victorian moralists’ views of popular reading matter. As previous posts on this website have shown, Robin Hood stories formed a staple of the penny dreadful publishing industry. Much like graphic novels today, penny dreadfuls were popular with both younger and more mature readers. Criminals such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) and Dick Turpin (1705-1739) usually featured as their heroes. Sometimes they were issued as standalone periodicals, but more often than not a few chapters per week were featured in magazines such as The Boys of England. It was in The Boys of England that a long-running serial entitled The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood first appeared in 1883.

boys-england-1
Illustration from The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood (1883)

As the title suggests it is the story of Robin’s youth. But the influence of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) can be seen from the start. Robin and his father live on the Huntingdon estate, but the political rival of the Lord of Huntingdon is the Lord of Torilstone who lives not far from the Huntingdons.[2] Readers familiar with Scott’s work will immediately recognise the not-so-subtle reference to Torquilstone in Ivanhoe. One of the key villains is Sir Front de Boeuf.[3] There is also the usual Anglo-Saxon versus Norman theme that is usual in Victorian Robin Hood narratives.

The actual story is relatively unremarkable and lacks the democratic political sentiments found in Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838-40) and the anonymous Little John and Will Scarlet (1865). After Robin’s estates are confiscated by Prince John, Robin and Little John are forced to seek shelter in Sherwood Forest. They come across some outlaws and, upon learning that he is of noble birth they ask him to become their leader. Instead of being elected as leader of the outlaws in Egan’s novel, Robin is

Appointed King of Sherwood.[4]

Robin does steal from the rich and give to the poor, but this is done by the outlaws more out of a sense of Christian charity, rather than a desire to improve the lot of the commoners of England through political activism, as he does in Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or, the Days of King John (1838).

boys-england-2
Illustration from The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood (1883)

But before we assume that this story was considered as respectable reading for youths, it should be noted that the narrative is filled with graphic descriptions and illustrations of violence. Here is an example of the cruelty of one of the Norman Barons to their own  soldiers:

“Base Slave!” thundered the Baron; and then with all the force of his muscular arm, he brought down the heavy drinking cup upon the skull of the soldier who stood uncovered before him. The wretched man fell to the ground and lay senseless, bleeding from a terrible scalp wound; the tankard was crushed and bent out of shape by the force of the blow.[5]

There is also an attempted rape upon the sweetheart of Allen-a-Dale.[6] The outrages of the Normans are met with an equally violent response by the outlaws. Robin and his men do not hesitate to resort to violence. This is the description of Robin shooting one of Baron Torilstone’s retainers through the eye:

The missile flew true to its mark, its steel point entering the man’s eye, pierced his brain, and he fell headlong to the ground.[7]

While the Victorians in general loved violent entertainment,[8] it was the violence contained in The Boys of England that led to it being widely condemned in the press as an example of the pernicious reading that was used as a scapegoat for juvenile crime.[9]

victorian-children-in-trouble-with-the-law-source-1
One of the many Victorian Juvenile Criminals who passed through the Courts. This one was named Joseph Lewis, and was indicted for stealing 28lb of iron in 1873. Sentenced to 12 months hard labour. (c) National Archives 5348 (PCOM 2/291)

Individual stories from The Boys of England were rarely picked up on, but there were many instances in court when the magazine appeared in the dock. For example, in 1872 thirteen-year-old Samuel Hoy was indicted for poisoning his stepmother with arsenic. At his trial it was said that amongst his possessions were copies of The Boys of England.[10] And the press usually made sure to point out whether a particular juvenile offender had on his person at the time of his arrest a copy of a penny dreadful. When thirteen-year-old Alfred Saunders was arrested for stealing £7 from his father, The Times reported that:

His pockets were crammed with copies of The Pirates League, or The Seagull, the Young Briton, Sons of Britannia and The Boys of England.[11]

Reading The Boys of England, along with other penny dreadful tales, made youths delinquent because it corrupted their morals, according to moralists in the Victorian press. For example, a headmaster in 1874 wrote that:

The hero in these periodicals, read openly in the streets, devoured, I should say, by the thousands of errand and work boys, is he who defies his governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters, and is the leader of the most outrageous acts.[12]

It is doubtful whether those who complained about penny dreadfuls ever actually took the time to read them, The genre as a whole was often condemned in blanket statements such as those seen above, while picking on one or two titles in particular.

It is not the intention here to discuss whether these magazines actually drove youths to crime or not. The supposed links between violent entertainment and criminal acts have raged since Victorian times. But I think the study of penny dreadfuls highlights some of the problems associated with Robin Hood scholars’ ideas of ‘gentrification’. A gentrified Robin Hood text is any text in which Robin is the Earl of Huntingdon. Scholars tend to assume, as in the case of Anthony Munday’s sixteenth-century plays, that if Robin is a lord then he is also a highly moral character. Yet surely this idea of gentrification is complicated if the vehicle in which these stories appeared was widely condemned in the press? Contemporaries did not view these tales as gentrified, and denounced them as ‘pernicious trash’. In light of this, are such tales really gentrified?


References

[1] Anon cited in Juvenile Literature and British Society: The Age of Adolescence, 1850-1950 ed. by Charles Ferrall & Anna Jackson (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 12.
[2] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 9 March 1883, p.25.
[3] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 13 April 1883, p.105.
[4] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 11 May 1883, p.171.
[5] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 20 April 1883, p.122.
[6] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 8 June 1883, p.233.
[7] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 23 March 1883, p.57.
[8] Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).
[9] John Springhall, ‘Pernicious Reading? The Penny Dreadful as Scapegoat for Late-Victorian Juvenile Crime’ Victorian Periodicals Review 27: 4 (1994), pp.326-349.
[10] Robert J. Kirkpatrick, Children’s Books History Society, Occasional Paper XI: Wild Boys in the Dock – Victorian Juvenile Literature and Juvenile Crime (London: Children’s Books History Society, 2013), p.17.
[11] Kirkpatrick, Wild Boys in the Dock, p.9.
[12] Kirkpatrick, Wild Boys in the Dock, p.25.

Judging Robin Hood: Negotiating Outlawry in Nineteenth-Century Texts

Paper Read at Plymouth University Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference 23-24 June 2016.


Abstract. Robin Hood needs no introduction. He is the noble outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor, living a merry life in Sherwood Forest. Yet people often forget that Robin Hood was a criminal. Indeed, Robin Hood Studies are often seen as a class apart from traditional legal and criminal histories, perhaps because of their ‘popular’ nature. Undoubtedly, by the nineteenth century, Robin Hood emerged as a national hero, partly due to his glorification by Romantic-era writers such as Sir Walter Scott. Yet as my paper will show, there was always uneasiness in some Robin Hood texts between judging Robin’s good deeds on the one hand, and his criminality on the other. Writers explained this in various ways. Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1819) disapproved overall of Robin’s outlawry, but concluded that his actions were necessary for the safeguarding of the nation. Thomas Love Peacock in Maid Marian (1822) gave Robin an a detailed backstory, explaining that he was outlawed only because he was guilty of resisting oppressive Forest Laws, and hence there was justification for his criminal career. Pierce Egan, in Robin Hood and Little John (1840), chose not to portray Robin as an outlaw at all, but as a radical political fighter. Yet in these texts also, other outlaws who are not part of Robin’s band are depicted as murderous brutes. My paper thus argues that these moral judgments (and sometimes the absence of any type of judgment) upon Robin Hood’s outlawry were a way of separating one of England’s foremost national heroes, who was ultimately a criminal, from the ‘criminal class,’ a notion which gained currency during the nineteenth century and held that there was a certain underclass in society which was responsible for the majority of crime.


In the recent television series Arrow (which tells the tale of a superhero who is a skilled archer, dresses in green, wears a hood, and in some instances steals from the rich and gives to the poor) it is said that: ‘People forget that Robin Hood was a criminal’. [1] It was no different during the nineteenth century. Whilst there was a general understanding that Robin was an outlaw, he is usually represented in nineteenth-century literature, not as a common cut-throat but as a patriotic social bandit.[2] He is loyal to the King, opposes the schemes of ‘bad’ Prince John who plots to take the English throne from Richard the Lion-heart, thereby upholding the true order.

chapter 1st
Ivanhoe (1819 – 1871 Edition)

If one studies representations of Robin Hood solely in canonical nineteenth-century texts such as Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822), and Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840), as this paper argues, Robin’s status as an outlaw was often downplayed. This was to distinguish him – England’s great national hero – from the regular criminals. This discussion is needed because, despite the fact that nineteenth-century novelists depicted Robin favourably, less-canonical texts were still ambivalent towards the legendary outlaw.

Many people will be familiar with the Scott’s Ivanhoe and Peacock’s Maid Marian, but just a few months prior to Ivanhoe an anonymous author published Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819). [3] Robin is no ordinary bandit in this novel, and in the lengthy introduction there is a deliberate effort to ensure that readers think Robin is better than ordinary highwaymen and banditti, declaring that he was ‘an innocent and harmless freebooter’. [4] The plot sees Robin cheated out of his Huntingdon estate by his villainous cousin, and left homeless. He subsequently becomes the leader of a band of men living in the forest. The circumstances of his outlawing are out of keeping with both the ballad tradition and novels that would come afterwards: he is outlawed because he interrupts a wedding and stops a bride marrying somebody she does not want to. For this deed Robin is seized by soldiers and reluctantly outlawed by his friend, the Sheriff of Nottingham. In another part of the novel, after he has been outlawed, Robin declares that the word ‘robber’ had ‘become hateful to his thoughts’. [5]

In Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, the outlaw Robin of Locksley appears in only ten out of forty-four chapters in the novel, although he is to all intents and purposes its hero. In the preface to the novel, Scott declares that England should be as proud of its historic outlaw as Scotland was of Rob Roy:

The name of Robin Hood, if duly conjured with, should raise a spirit as soon as that of Rob Roy; and the patriots of England deserve no less their renown than the Bruces and Wallaces of Caledonia. [6]

It is as a patriot that Scott wished Locksley to be seen, rather than an outlaw. Scott links Robin to a conservative agenda. He is now a man who is loyal to the King, and he is never depicted committing any criminal act. Indeed, Locksley is rarely called an outlaw in the text. He is called ‘a stout well-set yeoman, arrayed in Lincoln green’, [7] or simply as a ‘yeoman’, [8] ‘Locksley the yeoman’, [9] or ‘captain’. [10]

Scott is hesitant to name Robin as an outlaw, and there are only two scenes where Locksley is addressed as such. The first is when he is negotiating a ransom for Isaac’s daughter, Rebecca, [11] and towards the end of the novel. Even in these scenes, however, he is not robbing anybody. This may explain why Scott chose to call his character Robin of Locksley: throughout the novel, the reader is never told that Robin of Locksley is the same outlaw as Robin Hood. Readers may have suspected it, but it is not confirmed until the end of the novel, when Richard (who has been disguised as the Black Knight for the majority of the novel) and Locksley reveal their true identities to each other:

“Call me no longer Locksley, my Liege, but know me under the name, which, I fear, fame hath blown too widely not to have reached even your royal ears – I am Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest.”
“King of Outlaws, and Prince of good fellows!” said the King, “who hath not heard a name that has been borne as far as Palestine? But be assured, brave Outlaw, that no deed done in our absence, and in the turbulent times to which it hath given rise, shall be remembered to thy disadvantage.” [12]

Even after Locksley has revealed to the King that he is the famous outlaw, Robin Sherwood, Scott allows Richard to effectively nullify his entire criminal career by pardoning his former misdeeds.

Despite Robin’s reconfiguration as a patriot in Ivanhoe, Scott did try to provide some balance. Whilst Richard I displays nothing but unqualified admiration for the outlaws, the jester Wamba gives a more nuanced assessment of the outlaws’ morality: he says that, however much good the outlaws may have done for Richard, ‘those honest fellows balance a good deed with one not quite so laudable’. Richard asks Wamba to elaborate upon what he has said:

The merry men of the forest set off the building of a cottage with the burning of a castle – the thatching of a choir against the robbing of a church – the setting free a poor prisoner against the murder of a proud sheriff; or, to come nearer to our point, the deliverance of a Saxon Franklin against the burning alive of a Norman baron. Gentle thieves they are, in short, and courteous robbers; but it is ever the luckiest to meet with them when they are at their worst. [14]

It is as though Scott is partially continuing the conventions of eighteenth-century criminal biography by allowing Locksley to be portrayed as a hero, yet simultaneously critiquing his actions. Scott highlights the outlaws’ heroism on the one hand, and their negative traits on the other. In Charles Johnson’s eighteenth-century account of Robin Hood’s life, for example, Robin is a ‘a very bold man, of a charitable disposition, generous and open to the last degree’, at the same time as being described as having lived ‘a mispent [sic] life’ and engaging in ‘unlawful practices’. [15] It is known that Scott owned and read Charles Johnson’s The History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) and owned several other criminal biographies which must have undoubtedly influenced his tale. [16]

Despite his attempt to provide some nuance, some reviewers were less than impressed with his portrayal of Robin Hood. A reviewer in The Monthly Review said that the Robin Hood of Ivanhoe comes across as nothing more than one of ‘the lower orders’ who has taken to the road because he ‘disdained the regular pursuits of industry’. [17] Similarly, in 1820 Henry Crabb Robinson wrote that Scott:

Has failed, however, in rendering Robin Hood acceptable – the delightful hero of the old popular ballad is degraded in the modern romance into a sturdy vagrant’.[18]

Nevertheless, despite Scott’s skilled and complex portrayal of Robin Hood, it is the vision of a patriotic English freedom fighter that has succeeded through to twenty-first century portrayals, and any nuances in Robin’s morality have been jettisoned.

150px-Maid_Marian_by_Peacock
Maid Marian (1822)

Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822) followed after Ivanhoe, and is a lighter work than Scott’s. The novel begins very dramatically with soldiers interrupting the Robert of Huntingdon’s and Marian’s wedding, declaring him an outlaw, a swordfight then ensues, and Robin and his men escape to the woods. Robin is not outlawed due to having committed any heinous crime – he is simply outlawed because he had fallen into debt. He gathers around him a band of men who are described, not as cut-throats, but:

A band of disinherited prodigals, outlawed debtors, excommunicated heretics, elder sons that have spent all they had, and younger sons that never had anything to spend; and with these he kills the king’s deer, and plunders wealthy travellers of five-sixths of their money; but if they be abbots or bishops, them he despoils utterly. [19]

Whilst there are elements of social banditry in Locksley’s character in Ivanhoe, it is in Maid Marian that Robin fully emerges as one. Peacock develops the themes of the outlaw code found in the A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450). [20] Robin’s merry men live according to noble principles, displaying ‘Legitimacy, equity, hospitality, chivalry, chastity, and courtesy’ in everything that they do. [21] Robin’s band is also commanded that:

All usurers, monks, courtiers, and other drones of the great hive of society, who shall be found laden with any portion of the honey whereof they have wrongfully despoiled the industrious bee, shall be rightly despoiled thereof in turn; and all bishops and abbots shall be bound and beaten, especially the abbot of Doncaster; as shall also all sheriffs, especially the sheriff of Nottingham’. [22]

Just as a true social bandit does, Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor. [23] Despite the worthy maxims of social banditry contained in Maid Marian, as with so many texts in which Robin and Marian are portrayed as Lord and Lady, the reader is never allowed to forget that these two are merely playing at being outlaws. [24] Marian expresses boredom in the domestic sphere, and longs to be liberated from ‘tapestried chambers and dreary galleries’. [25] When she joins Robin Hood and commences living in the forest with him, all that she is doing is swapping one bourgeois world for another. Tuck, Little John, and Will Scarlet, for instance, are all described as ‘peers of the forest’. [26] The main characters in Peacock’s novel, then, were people who essentially from the same world as the novel’s middle-class readers – a world of tapestried chambers and galleries, and ‘green tea and muffins at noon’. [27] Robin and Marian’s exploits in the novel are presented as an aristocratic frolic for Lord and Lady Huntingdon.

Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or The Days of King John (1838) and Pierce Egan the Younger’s novel appropriate the outlaw to serve a radical message. Miller imitates Scott, making Robin a supporting characters who allies with the protagonist Royston Gower – a Saxon – who experiences ‘a radical awakening’ after his Norman master asks him to kill a Saxon woman in cold blood, which he refuses to do. Gower, Robin Hood, and the other Saxon characters subsequently fight on behalf of the oppressed who suffer under ‘the tyranny of the Norman forest laws’. [28] Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood is no robber either, and instead is portrayed as a man who fights for the political rights of the Anglo-Saxon serfs. [29] Egan places Robin in a class apart from the other outlaws that existed during the period, and he acknowledges that both past and present criminals, for the most part, are indiscriminate in whom they rob. [30] A Review of Egan’s novel in The Westminster Review, in an article entitled ‘Modern Perversions’, says that

“Robin Hood and Little John” by Pierce Egan the Younger! Truly this is too bad’.[31]

The reviewer goes on to state that England’s national hero has become nothing more than:

A thorough-bred cockney of the year of grace 1839 […] in the region of undying glory occupied by Tom and Jerry, Black Sall, and Dusty Bob’. [32]

‘Tom and Jerry’ is a reference to Egan the Elder’s Life in London (1823), while Dusty Bob was a colloquial term for a parish dustman. [33] The same reviewer, however, still gives Egan credit for making Robin Hood ‘far above Jack Sheppard’, [34] which, given the contemporary furore surrounding William Harrison Ainsworth’s eponymous novel published in 1839, [35] was at least a grudging compliment. Thus it is clear that nineteenth-century authors downplayed Robin’s criminality, but when certain authors attempted to critique his actions, reviewers were ever ready to criticise a writer who might present Robin Hood as anything less than an English patriot.

Pierce Egan the Younger pic
Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880)

Thus far the view of Robin that has been given is the canonical view of Robin Hood, who was appropriated to serve nationalist, patriotic, and even radical ends. Books written for children insisted that:

Though Robin Hood was a robber, which, to be sure, is a bad thing, he behaved himself in such a manner as to have the good word and good wishes of all the neighbourhood. He never loved to rob anyone except people who were very rich, and who had not lived to make good use of their riches. [36]

But not everybody believed that Robin was a class apart from most criminals. Henry Walter in A History of England (1828) said that Robin was

Neither more nor less than a highway robber of notoriety’ in his lifetime, being ‘the hero in many an idle song, in the mouths of the dissolute. [37]

Charles Macfarlane in The Lives and Exploits of the Banditti and Robbers of all Nations (1833) says that Robin’s life was a series of ‘predatory exertions of power’. [38] An anonymous correspondent in The Times made no distinction between Robin Hood and Little John ‘and their dingy imitators in this metropolis described by Dickens and Ainsworth’. [39] This article from the 1850s is especially interesting: nothing distinguishes the greenwood outlaws of old from the Fagins of the nineteenth century because

The same man passes from one form into another – developing, according to the changes in society, from a forester to a mountaineer, thence to a highwayman, thence to an instructor of pickpockets and the receiver of their day’s work in St. Giles. [40]

By the time that Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time was published, he was no ordinary robber. Instead he was portrayed in various manners such as a freedom fighter or dispossessed aristocrat. If authors attempted, like Scott, to portray Robin as a complex character, they were criticised by reviewers. People wanted to believe that Robin was not a regular criminal. Yet despite the image that the canonical texts put forth, there is a certain school of thought in non-canonical texts which saw no issue in placing Robin alongside other less respectable thieves such as Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, the highwaymen of the eighteenth century, or the Fagins described by Dickens in Oliver Twist. Thus there is a dichotomy between the representation of Robin Hood in novels, and his reception amongst lesser-known writers.


References

[1] Arrow S1E09 ‘Year’s End’, dir. John Dahl (The CW Television Network, 2012) [DVD].

[2] See Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits 2nd Edn. (London: Penguin, 1972).

[3] See Stephen Basdeo, ‘Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time’ in The Cambridge Guide to the Eighteenth-Century Novel Ed. April London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) [Forthcoming]. See also Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 147-150.

[4] Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time 2 Vols. (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1819), 1: 54.

[5] Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, 2: 103-4.

[6] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1819 repr. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1871), 12.

[7] Scott, Ivanhoe, 84.

[8] Scott, Ivanhoe, 89, 110, 144, 145,148, 194.

[9] Scott, Ivanhoe, 193.

[10] Scott, Ivanhoe, 125-126.

[11] Scott, Ivanhoe, 338-339.

[12] Scott, Ivanhoe, 419-420.

[13] Scott, Ivanhoe, 414.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Anon. The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood, and His Merry Companions. Written by Capt. C. Johnson. To Which are Added, Some of the Most Favourite Ballads from an Old Book, Entitled Robin Hood’s Garland (London: J. Bonsor, 1800), 20.

[16] In Scott’s last written work Reliquiae Trotcosienses or, The Gabions of the Late Jonathan Oldbuck Esq. of Monkbarns (1832), which is a guide to Abbotsford and its collections, Scott picks out Charles Johnson’s The History of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) as being of especial interest, and indeed it seems he was familiar with several of the anonymous criminal biographies from the early eighteenth century such as The History and Lives of the Most Notorious Pirates and their Crews which is probably just a reprint of Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724). See Walter Scott, The Pirate Eds. Mark Weinstein & Alison Lumsden (Edinburgh: Constable et al, 1832 repr. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), 490n.

[17] Anon. The Monthly Review Jan 1820, 71-89 (82)

[18] Henry Crabb Robinson, ’Diary Entry by Henry Crabb Robinson, 21 Jan. 1820’ in Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and their Writers Ed. E. J. Morley, 3 Vols. (London: Dent, 1938), 1: 238.

[19] Peacock, Maid Marian, 46.

[20] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 129.

[21] Peacock, Maid Marian, 88.

[22] Peacock, Maid Marian, 89.

[23] Peacock, Maid Marian, 126.

[24] This is the point made by Liz Oakley-Brown in regards to Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington, and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon. See Liz Oakley-Brown, ‘Framing Robin Hood: Temporality and Textuality in Munday’s Huntington Plays’ in Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-Medieval Ed. Helen Philips (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005), 113-128 (115).

[25] Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.

[26] Peacock, Maid Marian, 82.

[27] Peacock, Maid Marian, 5.

[28] Thomas Miller, Royston Gower, or, The Days of King John (1838 repr. London: W. Nicholson [n.d.] c.1890?), 5.

[29] Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, Volume 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo & Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), 48-65.

[30] Pierce Egan, Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1840 repr. London: W. S. Johnson, 1850), 12.

[31] Anon. ‘Modern Perversions’ The Westminster Review Vol. XXXIII (London: Henry Hooper, 1840), 425.

[32] Ibid.

[33] See Brian Maidment, Dusty Bob: A Cultural History of Dustmen, 1780-1870 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).

[34] Anon, ‘Modern Perversions’, p.425.

[35] See Lauren Gillingham, ‘Ainsworth’s “Jack Sheppard” and the Crimes of History’ SEL Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 49: 4 (2009), pp.879-906.

[36] Anon. Tabart’s Collection of Popular Stories for the Nursery: Newly Translated and Revised from the French, Italian, and Old English Writers (London: Tabart & Co., 1809), 151.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Charles Macfarlane, The Lives and Exploits of the Banditti and Robbers of all Nations 2 Vols. (Philadelphia: R. W. Pomeroy, 1833), 2: 75.

[39] Anon. ‘Editorial: Talk of Robin Hood and Little John’ The Times 22 June 1855, 6.

[40] Ibid.

Edgworth Bess, a Prostitute (fl. 1723-24)

This is a blog post written for my friend, Dr. Kate Lister, and her ‘Whores of Yore’ project.

All illustrations featured in the article are from original nineteenth-century books in my personal collection.


The two thieves which feature most on this blog are, of course, Robin Hood (supp. fl. c.1190s), and Jack Sheppard (1702-24). Robin was not the only thief to have been enamoured with a woman, however, for Sheppard was also. The name of Sheppard’s woman was Elizabeth Lyons alias Edgworth Bess. What little we know of Bess’ life is gleaned from the contemporary criminal biographies about Sheppard. She was born, apparently, in the county of Middlesex in the early eighteenth century, was the reputed wife of a soldier but also a prostitute, having led ‘a wicked and debauched life’. [1] She was ‘a large masculine woman’, and of her personal character we are told (from second-hand, highly-embellished sources) that she was fond of strong drink, and often beat her lover Sheppard when she quarrelled with him. [2]

Sheppard Fortescue
Jack Sheppard in Newgate. From Lincoln Fortescue’s The Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard (1845) [Scanned Image – Personal Collection]

To contemporary journalists, she was a temptress: ideas about criminality in the eighteenth century were not related to social class; instead of a sociological explanation of crime, the Georgians held to a theological explanation. Anyone in the eighteenth century was capable of becoming a criminal because all men were sinners. [3] People instead were ‘tempted’ into a life of crime through small sins which multiplied and hardened their hearts against God. As Andrea McKenzie explains:

It was a commonplace of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thought (if by no means new or unique to the period) that sin was both addictive and progressive. Contemporary moralists warned that from such little acorns as childhood raids on orchards and the pilfering of ‘Farthings and Marbles’ grew great oaks of iniquity. [4]

Temptation could come from bad associations also, which is an echo of the Bible’s command at 1 Corinthians 15: 33 which says that ‘bad company corrupts good morals’. And it was usually through a prostitute that unsuspecting good youths could be led astray down a bad path. This was the case with Jack Sheppard, who was enticed by Edgworth Bess into a life of crime. Speaking of Sheppard, Charles Johnson says in Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) that:

The history of this unfortunate man affords another to the many examples of already given in this volume, that the company of profligate women have plunged men into scenes of dissipation and vice. [5]

In a biography attributed to Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731) entitled The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), we are told how Sheppard was essentially a good lad when he first started his apprenticeship as a carpenter:

The lad proved an early proficient, had a ready and ingenious hand, and soon became master of his business, and gave entire satisfaction to his master’s customers, and had the character of a very sober and orderly boy. [7]

In all of the accounts of Sheppard’s life, it is his fateful meeting with Edgworth Bess which leads him astray, however, and it is narrated by Defoe in a truly dramatic way:

Alas, unhappy youth! Before he had completed six years of his apprenticeship he commenced a fatal acquaintance with one Elizabeth Lyon, otherwise known as Edgworth Bess […] Now was laid the foundation of his ruin! [8]

In his own confession, printed by John Appleby in 1721, Sheppard himself (or more likely the Ordinary of Newgate who attended to him before his execution) blames Bess for his misfortune:

I may justly lay the blame of my temporal, and (without God’s great mercies) my eternal ruin on Joseph Hind, a button-mould-maker, who formerly kept the Black Lyon alehouse in Drury Lane; the frequenting of this wicked house brought me acquainted with Elizabeth Lyon, and with a train of vices, that before I was altogether a stranger to. [9]

But how, exactly, was Bess responsible for bringing Jack to a life of crime?

Firstly, she convinced him that ‘they must cohabit together as man and wife’. [10] She also convinced Sheppard to steal items for her on multiple occasions. At first they were small items, but having introduced Sheppard to other thieves in the Georgian underworld such as Joseph Blueskin Blake, his robberies became greater in number (crime, remember, was ‘addictive and progressive).

FullSizeRender(17)
Jack Sheppard in the Georgian Underworld. From: Anon. Jack Sheppard, or, London in the Last Century (1847) [Scanned Image: Personal Collection].

The pair’s first brush with the law came when Sheppard and Bess stole a watch from a gentlemen as they were passing through Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square). The hue and cry was raised and Sheppard was captured, but Bess got away. Sheppard was consequently detained in St. Ann’s Roundhouse in Soho. When Bess went to visit him the next morning, she too was arrested, having been implicated in the robbery the day before.

Remarkably, however, Sheppard and Bess managed to escape. With a file, Sheppard sawed off his and Bess’ fetters, cut an iron bar out of the window, and descended 25 feet down the walls of the prison by fastening a blanket to the remaining iron bars and lowering himself and Bess down. [11]

As soon as he was out, Sheppard turned again to robbery:

Sheppard, not warned by this admonition, returns like a dog to his vomit. [12]

Sheppard managed to escape from gaol a further four times, and once with Bess’ help, when she visited him in gaol and secretly gave him the tools with which to carry out his escape.

Sheppard was hanged on 16 November 1724. It is not known if she attended the execution of her lover, and history is silent in all particulars of Bess’ life after that. There was an Elizabeth Lyons who gave evidence in a trial at the Old Bailey on 16 April 1740, [13] and then there is an Elizabeth Lyons listed as a defendant in a trial at the Old Bailey on 28 April 1742. [14] It is unknown, however, if these two Elizabeth Lyons are the same person as the prostitute with whom Jack Sheppard was enamoured.

Whatever the circumstances of her later life, Bess did enjoy a ‘literary afterlife’. This came in the next century with William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard (1839). In this novel, she comes across as quite a mean-spirited character: changeable, indifferent to Jack’s fate. Ainsworth’s novel was plagiarised several times: in Lincoln Fortescue’s Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard (1845); in the anonymously authored penny serial Jack Sheppard; or, London in the Last Century (1847); and in The Real Life and Times of Jack Sheppard (c.1850). In addition to these novels, she also appears in entries on Jack Sheppard in the numerous reprints of The Newgate Calendar (1825) and Camden Pelham’s The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar (1887). All of these publications presented Bess in the same way that Defoe and Ainsworth had done: a treacherous, wicked woman.

An altogether more positive portrayal of Bess came in the little-known movie Where’s Jack? (1969). However, while the movie is certainly an entertaining watch, the producers were liberal with the truth. Bess is not a sex worker in the movie, and far from being a temptress, she actually tries to steer Jack away from a life of crime.

As of yet there is no scholarly biography of Bess’ life, and likely there never will be due to the lack of evidence surrounding her life. This post has merely endeavoured to shed light on the life and actions of an historic sex worker.


References

[1] Daniel Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild Ed. Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), 6.
[2] Charles Johnson, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), 182.
[3] 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), 54.
[4] Andrea McKenzie, Tyburns Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), 59.
[5] Charles Johnson, Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734 repr. London: T. Tegg, 1839), 367.
[6] Perhaps not written by Daniel Defoe. See P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: Hambledon, 1994).
[7] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 5.
[8] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 6.
[9] Daniel Defoe, ‘A Narrative of all the Robberies and Escapes, etc. of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild Ed. Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), 51.
[10] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 6.
[11] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 10.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Anon. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 16 April 1740 (t17400416-37) [Internet http://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?div=t17400416-37 Accessed 12 March 2016].
[14] Anon. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 28 April 1742 (t17420428-14) [Internet http://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?id=t17420428-14 Accessed 12 March 2016].

The Victorian Underworld

nc4
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.


Introduction

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.

turpin1
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.

FullSizeRender(3)
Jack Sheppard (1702-1724)

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

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

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

The Nineteenth Century

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

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

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

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

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

Header - Oliver Twist

[Source: George Cruikshank, ‘Oliver’s reception by Fagin and the boys’ (1846), Eighth illustration, The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham) < http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/cruikshank/ot9.html>]

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

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

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

mysteries
Illustration from G. W. M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844-45) [Source: http://www.victorianlondon.org]

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

Thos Hopkinson Highway Robbery
Hopkinson, Thomas. The life and execution of Thomas Hopkinson, jun. :who suffered this day on the new drop, in front of the county gaol, Derby, for highway robbery.. [Derby] : G. Wilkins, printer, Queen Street, Derby., [1819]. HOLLIS ID: 005949713 [Reproduced with the permission of Harvard Library School of Law] http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4788375

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

graph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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.


References

1. Heather Shore, Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in Early Nineteenth-Century London (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1999) & London’s Criminal Underworlds, c.1720-c.1930: A Social and Cultural History (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015).
2. Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime, and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
3. Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900 (London: Longman, 1987)
4. Stephen Basdeo, ‘Dying Speeches, Daring Robbers, and Demon Barbers: The Forms and Functions of Nineteenth-Century Crime Literature, c.1800-c.1868 (Unpublished MA Thesis, Leeds Metropolitan University, 2014).
5. Cited in Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.x.
6. Anon. Newes from Newgate: or, a True Relation of the Manner of Taking Several Persons, Very Notorious for Highway-men, in the Strand; upon Munday the 13th of this Instant November, 1677 cited in Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 47
7. Horace Walpole, ‘To Mann, Wednesday 31 January 1750’ in The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, Eds. W. S. Lewis et al 48 Vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 20: 111-131 (111)
8. Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increases of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), p.1.
9. Emsley, Crime and Society, p.59.
10. John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera (London: John Watts, 1728), p.5.
11. Frederich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1848 repr. London: Penguin, 2009)
12. Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (London, 1838) [Internet << http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/olivertwist>&gt; Accessed 24 February 2016].
13. George William MacArthur Reynolds, The Mysteries of London: Containing Stories of Vice in the Modern Babylon (1845 repr. London, 1890), p.81.
14. The Life and Execution of Thomas Hopkinson (Derby: G. Wilkins, 1819).
15. G. W. M. Reynolds cited in Michael Diamond, Victorian Sensation: or, The Spectacular, the Shocking, and the Scandalous inn Nineteenth-Century Britain (London: Anthem, 2003), 193.
16. Dickens, Oliver Twist [Internet << http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/olivertwist>&gt; Accessed 24 February 2016].
17. W. T. Stead, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon: A Notice to Our Readers: A Frank Warning’ The Pall Mall Gazette 4 July 1885 [Internet <http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk/pmg/tribute/notice.php&gt; Accessed 24 February 2016].
18. W. Swift, Leeds Slumdom (Leeds, 1896), p.15.
19. Report of the Capital Punishment Commission (London: George E. Eyre, 1866), p.240.
20. Cited in Shore, Artful Dodgers, p.102.
21. Anon. The Morning Chronicle 11 August 1852, p.2.
22. Cited in Emsley, Crime and Society, p.57.
23. Emsley, Crime and Society, p.58.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid.
26. Emsley, op cit.
27. Tom Morgan and Martin Evans ‘Revealed: How Hatton Garden’s OAP raiders were cream of criminal underworld’ The Telegraph 14 January 2016 [Internet: << http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/12093096/Revealed-How-Hatton-Gardens-OAP-raiders-were-cream-of-criminal-underworld.html>&gt; Accessed 01 February 2016].
28. Dennis McShane, ‘Lord Ramsbotham Interview: There is No Accountability in Our Prisons’ The Big Issue 8 June 2015 [Internet: << http://www.bigissue.com/features/interviews/5293/lord-ramsbotham-interview-there-is-no-accountability-in-our-prisons>&gt; Accessed 01 February 2016].
29. Peter Hitchens, ‘The Great British Bobby is Dead’ Mail on Sunday 24 January 2016 [Internet: <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3413970/The-British-bobby-long-dead-one-chance-bring-writes-PETER-HITCHENS.html#ixzz3yvCdhsxo&gt; Accessed 01 February 2016.

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.

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] http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4788375
‘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].
HOLLIS ID:
005949713
[Reproduced with the permission of Harvard Library School of Law] http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4788375
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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  • McCormack, M. (2005). The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • McKeon, M. (1987). The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1747. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
  • Moore, L. (1987). The Thieves’ Opera: The Remarkable Lives and Deaths of Jonathan Wild, Thief-Taker, and Jack Sheppard, House-Breaker. London: Penguin.
  • Moore, L. ed. (2000). Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld. London: Penguin.
  • Paley, R. (1989). ‘Thief-Takers in London in the Age of the McDaniel Gang, c.1745-1754’. Policing and Prosecution in Britain, 1750-1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Porter, R. (1982). English Society in the Eighteenth Century. London: Penguin.
  • Richetti, J. (1996). ‘Introduction’. In Richetti, J. ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Cambridge: University Press.
  • Rogers, P. (1972). Hacks and Dunces: Pope, Swift, and Grub Street. London: Methuen Books.
  • Shoemaker, R. (2006). ‘The Street Robber and the Gentleman Highwayman: Changing Representations and Perceptions of Robbery in London, 1690-1800’. Cultural and Social History. 3(4) pp.381-405.
  • Shoemaker, R. (2008). ‘The Old Bailey Proceedings and the Representation of Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century London’. Journal of British Studies 47(3) pp.559-580.

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: pierre-marteau.com]

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.

Conclusion

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.


Primary Sources

  • Anon. (1774). ‘Jonathan Wild’. In Birkett, N. ed. (1951). The Newgate Calendar. London: Folio Society
  • Daily Courant (1715) ‘Notices’. November 22nd pp.1-2
  • Defoe, D.[?] (1724). ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’. In Holmes, R. ed. (2004). Defoe on Sheppard and Wild. London: Harper
  • Defoe, D.[?] (1725). ‘The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild’. In Holmes, R. ed. (2004). Defoe on Sheppard and Wild. London: Harper
  • Fielding, H. (1751). An Enquiry into the Causes of the Great Increase of Robbers, &c. Dublin: G. Faulkner
  • Fielding, H. (1742). ‘Joseph Andrews’. Joseph Andrews & Shamela (1998). London: Everyman
  • Gay, J. (1728). ‘The Beggar’s Opera’. The Beggar’s Opera & Polly (2013). Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • H.D. (1725). ‘The Life of Jonathan Wild from his Birth to his Death’. In Rawson, C. ed. (2003). Jonathan Wild. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Smith, A. (1714). The History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highway-men, Foot-Pads, House-Breakers, Shop-Lifts, and Cheats, of both Sexes, for above Fifty Years Past. London: J. Morphew
  • Warrant of Detainder (1725). In Moore, L. ed. (2001). Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld. London: Penguin
  • Wild, J.[?] (1725). ‘Jonathan Wild’s Advice to his Successor’. In Moore, L. ed. (2001). Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld. London: Penguin

Secondary Sources

  • Beattie, J. M. (1986). Crime and the Courts in England, 1660-1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Blok, A. (2000). Honour and Violence. London: Polity
  • Brewer, J. (2013). Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century. London: Routledge
  • Cawelti, J. G.(1975). ‘The New Mythology of Crime’. Boundary 2 3(2) pp.324-357
  • Cottino, A. (2000). ‘Sicilian Cultures of Violence: The interconnections between organized crime and local society’. Crime, Law, and Social Change No.32 pp.103-113
  • Emsley, C., Hitchcock, T. & Shoemaker, R. (2013). ‘The Proceedings – Associated Records’ [Internet] Old Bailey Proceedings Online http://www.oldbaileyonline.org [20/09/2013]
  • Faller, L.B. (1987). Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late-Seventeenth and Early-Eighteenth Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Finckenaur, J.O. (2005). ‘Problems of Definition: What is Organised Crime?’ Trends in Organized Crime 8(3) pp.63-83
  • Galeotti, M. (2009). ‘Criminal Histories: An introduction’. In Galeotti, M. ed. (2009). Organised Crime in History. London: Routledge
  • Hay, D. (1975). ‘Property, Authority, and the Criminal Law’. Albion’s Fatal Tree. London: Verso
  • Harvard Library School of Law [HLSL] (2013). ‘Dying Speeches and Bloody Murders: Crime Broadsides Collected by the Harvard Law School Library’. [Internet] http://www.broadsides.law.harvard.edu [28/09/2013]
  • Hitchcock, T. & Shoemaker, R. (2006). Tales from the Hanging Court. London: Hodder
  • Hobsbawm, E. (1969). Bandits. London: Penguin
  • Hoppit, J. (2000). A Land of Liberty? England 1689-1727. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Langford, P. (1989). A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Langford, P. (2000). Englishness Identified: Manners and Character 1650-1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Linebaugh, P. (1991). The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. London: Penguin
  • Moore, L. (1997). The Thieves’ Opera. London: Penguin
  • Moore, L. (2001). ‘Introduction’. In Moore, L. ed. (2001). Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld. London: Penguin
  • McKeon, M. (1987). The Origins of the English Novel 1600-1747. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press
  • Pickard, L. (2000). Dr. Johnson’s London: Life in London 1740-1770. London: Phoenix
  • Porter, R. (1982). English Society in the Eighteenth Century. London: Penguin
  • Rogers, P. (1972). Hacks and Dunces: Pope, Swift, and Grub Street. London: Methuen
  • Skaperdas, S. (2001). ‘The political economy of organised crime: providing protection when the state does not’. Economics of Governance (2) pp.173-202
  • Spraggs, G. (2001). Outlaws and Highwaymen: The Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century. London: Pimlico
  • Williams, B. (1960). The Whig Supremacy 1714-1760. Oxford: Oxford University Press
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Visual Media Sources

  • Goodfellas (2005) Directed by Martin Scorsese. USA, Warner Bros. [DVD]

“Launched into Eternity”: Public Hangings and Last Dying Speeches in 18th-Century England

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

During the 18th century crime was the talk of the town in England. In 1751, the crime rate had reached such hellish proportions that the Magistrate of Westminster, Henry Fielding (the author of the novel Tom Jones), wrote a tract entitled An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c. with Some Proposals to remedy this Growing Evil (the Georgians were fond of long titles). He reported that:

I make no Doubt […] that the Streets of this Town [London], and the Roads leading to it, will shortly be 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.

The eighteenth century was the age of highwayman, when famous criminals such as Claude DuVall, James Hind, Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin roamed the roads leading to the capital in search of victims to rob.

Typically, a bandit’s career, says Eric Hobsbawm, on the roads lasts about two years before they are finally captured. In the 18th century there was no police force as the public feared that if such a force was introduced, it would become an instrument of state tyranny and oppression. So a proliferation of criminals, whilst unfortunate, was the price that the public were willing to pay to safeguard their civil liberties. In the absence of a police force, the state turned over 200 previously minor misdemeanours into capital felonies.

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]

When highwaymen were captured in London, they were taken to be hanged at Tyburn, the triple tree upon which a number of felons could be executed at once. These hangings were big public spectacles, whereby tickets could be procured to get the best view of the hanging.

Hangings functioned as both divine justice in action and public entertainment. We shouldn’t judge the Georgians for enjoying a good hanging, distasteful as it is to us today. We may think it’s violent, but as argued by the historian John Carter Wood, the concept of “violence” did not emerge until the early nineteenth century. The hanging was thus a piece of theatre.

And like visiting the theatre today, you could also buy a souvenir program from the event, or as contemporaries called it, a “Last Dying Speech”. These were single-sheet publications, often with an image of a hanging that was re-used on several occasions, that told of the birth, parentage, life and crimes of the person who stood upon the scaffold. Usually the account of the life would also include “A Copy of Verses” found by the supposedly contrite criminal in his cell, or a copy of a letter written by the felon to a loved one.

William Harley's 'Last Dying Speech' (Early 1800s)
William Harley’s ‘Last Dying Speech’ (Early 1800s)

These publications were once dismissed by historians as ‘ephemera catering to the vulgar instincts of the vulgar many […] falling below the dignified historian’s line’. However, a study of them can illuminate the different ways that people in the eighteenth century thought about crime and the causes of criminality.

These days, it suits the media and the public at large to believe that crime is committed ‘by other people’ who are not representative of the great part of society. Sometimes crime is spoken of in class and/or ethnic terms; as though it exists only in the sink estates of Britain, peopled by, if you were to believe the Daily Mail, immigrants and those on benefits, whilst the suburbs of the middle classes are relatively free from crime and criminals.

In the eighteenth century, however, anyone could become a criminal. The reason for this was that, as all men were sinners, anyone could potentially become a criminal. This is why broadsides recounting people’s dying speeches set much store, and the narratives contained in all of them followed a similar formula. The sinner usually had a good start in life, as the cases of Jack Sheppard (d. 1724) and Thomas Thomas Hopkinson (d. 1819), testify. Jack Sheppard:

Jack Sheppard (Thief and House-breaker. Source: executedtoday.com)
Jack Sheppard (Thief and House-breaker. Source: executedtoday.com)

A youth both in age and person, though an old man in sin […] received an education sufficient to qualify him for the trade his master designed him, viz., a carpenter […] But alas, unhappy youth! Before he had completed six years of apprenticeship he commenced a fatal acquaintance with one Elizabeth Lyon [a prostitute] […] Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!

In Sheppard’s case, in an echo of the Bible passage at 1 Cor. 15: 33, it was bad associations which spoiled good character. Hopkinson’s case almost 100 years later was similar:

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 first engaged, gradually, led him on to bolder and offences: his mind became so familiarized with guilt, that he scarcely seemed sensible of  its depravity; and thus, in the natural progress of iniquity, he was led on ’til he was driven away with his wickedness’

The role of sin and its relation to criminality in the 18th century cannot be overstated. The two were linked together. Hence the reason that some broadsides began the account of the crime with phrases such as ‘[Mr – ], having not the fear of God before his eyes…’. Crime and sin in the eighteenth century, the historian Andrea McKenzie says, was both ‘addictive and progressive’. From petty pilferings at the workplace the sinner would then lead on to bolder offences. There are echoes of this type of thinking, she says, in the UK’s current attitude towards drug use and the law. These people in the Georgian period were not “inherently criminal” (an attitude which we today still retain from the Victorian period regarding certain types of crimes), instead they were, as John Brewer says, people with a tragic fatal flaw.

Thos. Hopkinson - Executed in 1819 for Highway Robbery
Thos. Hopkinson – Executed in 1819 for Highway Robbery

Lastly came the account of the criminal’s death, the moment that the condemned person was “launched into eternity”. Even though the State had ordered the execution, it was not the job of the state to publicly carry out the sentence. Various parts of the procession to the gallows were ‘outsourced’ or ‘privatised’ to the Church, gaol keepers (prisons were run as private enterprises in the 18th century). This was the reason that statements such as ‘launched into eternity’ or ‘ceased to live’, which effectively sanitised the death sentence, were used. Instead the punishment was divine retribution for a sin against, not simply the offender’s society, but also God. The hanging, as Vic Gatrell says, mended the tear in the fabric of society which the sinner’s crime had created, and through his/her death, restored the offender to the fraternity of the righteous.

These ‘Last Dying Speeches’ were, admittedly, simple publications written by hack authors seeking to make a fortune out of another man’s misery. They were formulaic, but they do illuminate small aspects of the way that people in the viewed and conceived of the world around them. Crime was not down to a person’s class, or race, as certain right-wing newspapers would have people believe. Instead anyone might become a criminal.


Scanned copies of all the broadsides used in this blog can be accessed from Harvard Library School of Law’s Dying Speeches and Bloody Murders project.

Further reading:

Brewer, J. The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture  in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 1994).

Faller, L. B. Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Gatrell, V. A. C. The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1775-1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Hobsbawm, E. Bandits (London: Pelican Books, 1969).

McKenzie, A. Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (Continuum Books, 2007).

Moore, L. ed. Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld (London: Penguin, 2001).