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.

G. W. M. Reynolds on Robin Hood

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

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

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

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

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

A bloated, gluttonous strumpet. [1]

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

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

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

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

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

The Royal Bluebeard. [5]

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

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

Charles II was:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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.

John Dryden’s “A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour”

But see where artful Dryden next appears,
Grown old in rhyme, but charming ev’n in years,
Great Dryden next, whose tuneful muse affords
The sweetest numbers, and the fittest words.
Whether in comic sounds or tragic airs
She forms her voice, she moves our smiles or tears.
If satire or heroic strains she writes,
Her hero pleases, and her satire bites.
From her no harsh unartful numbers fall,
She wears all dresses, and she charms in all.
How might we fear our English poetry,
That long has flourish’d, should decay with thee.
– Joseph Addison, Account of the Greatest English Poets (1694)

John Dryden
John Dryden (1631-1700)

John Dryden (1631-1700) is a significant figure in the literary history of the seventeenth century, and was counted by Joseph Addison (1672-1719) as being the best poet throughout the whole of English history. He lived through one of the most tumultuous centuries in English history, witnessing the English Revolution and Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell (1642-1659), the Restoration of Charles II, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw James II ousted from the English throne in favour of William of Orange and his wife, Mary.

Dryden’s own career was affected by the changing political scene in Britain. He worked in an administrative capacity for the Protectorate, and had a certain degree of admiration for Cromwell, having authored the poem Heroick Stanzas in his honour. He was, however, able to see which way the wind was blowing. Upon the Restoration he allied himself with the returning Stuarts. He became one of their most loyal supporters, and was appointed as Poet Laureate by Charles II in 1668. But after the ascension of William and Mary in 1688, his position as Poet Laureate was rescinded and he had no choice but to concentrate on dramatic works and translations.

Dryden exhibited a high degree of interest in England’s medieval past. He wrote the highly successful play King Arthur; or, The British Worthy in 1691, which was accompanied with an elegant musical score by the composer Henry Purcell. He also translated some of the works of Chaucer in his Fables: Ancient and Modern (1700). But Dryden also kept an eye on the popular culture of the day, and to this end, in partnership with the printer Jacob Tonson, he published several volumes of Miscellany Poems which appeared in 1684, 1685, 1693, and 1694, and were reprinted repeatedly until a full six-volume edition in 1716, the sixth part of which was published posthumously after Dryden’s death in 1700.

Miscellany title page
Title Page to The Sixth Part of Miscellany Poems (1700)

It is in the sixth part of the Miscellany Poems that the ballad A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour appeared. A commentary on the actual content of the ballad has been undertaken for TEAMs by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren, rendering a further discussion unnecessary here. It is rather the significance of the ballad appearing in the sixth volume that I want to briefly discuss.

Too often we tend to view the literary history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through the works of a number of ‘great’ writers such as Dryden himself, Addison, Richard Steele, and Daniel Defoe. Yet these were works of high literature, and were not read by people every day. Instead, the various collections of Miscellanies which were published throughout the period tell us what was popular at the time for readers. In the words of one critic:

They were the form in which many ordinary people would have read poetry in the eighteenth century, and offer insights into readers and consumers of the past […]they represent a particularly important and popular mediation of poetry in the eighteenth century.

Miscellanies (and there were many more apart from Dryden’s collections) tended to reflect the popular culture of the moment. There must have been a temporary vogue among readers in the early eighteenth century for pieces of light pastoral poetry. Pastoral poetry and plays derive from the classical tradition and tend to represent simple country life, in the vein of Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1631), in which Robin, instead of being an outlaw, is ‘Chief Woodsman of the Forest’ who gathers together ‘all the shepherds and shepherdesses of the forest’ together for a feast. The Robin Hood ballad which is published in Dryden’s collection is not marketed as a popular ballad, even though it was available in contemporary broadsides. Instead, it is presented as a piece of ‘pastoral poetry’, indicated by the volume’s preface:

There is no sort of poetry, if well wrought, but gives delight. And the pastoral perhaps may boast of this in a peculiar manner. For, as in painting, so I believe, in poetry, the country affords the most entertaining scenes, and most delightful prospects.

Hence a ballad of Robin Hood, which details life in the forest, fits perfectly inside a volume dedicated to celebrating pastoral poetry.

Indeed, if it is accepted that Miscellanies contain pieces of poetry which were popular with readers at the time, this would seem to complicate Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren’s remarks about this ballad. They say that:

This ballad was moderately well-known, with three versions surviving from the seventeenth century, that in the Roxburghe collection seeming earlier than the two collected by Pepys, and therefore the basis for this text. It appeared in three eighteenth-century collections before Ritson, but is not included in the early garlands, which may suggest it is less than fully popular in its distribution.

My argument to that is that the ballad can hardly have been ‘moderately well-known’ given the fact that, out of all the Robin Hood ballads which were available to contemporaries, the editor of the Miscellanies chose this ballad to reflect popular contemporary works.

This was, moreover, an age in which gradually the works of native English authors were becoming respected; it is in the eighteenth century, for instance, that the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare first became thought of as ‘classics’. Sophisticated readers began to treasure the works, not only of Chaucer and Shakespeare, but of the ballad writers. We owe the survival of many seventeenth-century popular ballads, for instance, to the labours of Samuel Pepys, who collected and preserved a number of broadsides in his personal library. Alongside Pepys were other eminent men who collected and preserved ballads, such as John Selden, and John Bagford whose collections of ballads became the Roxburghe Collection of ballads. Thus it was not the plebeian classes who only enjoyed English ballads but those of higher stations in life as well.

Pepys
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) collected and preserved many broadside ballads.

Finally, the inclusion of A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour in Dryden’s Miscellanies confirms Liz Oakley-Brown’s argument that after c.1600 the Robin Hood tradition began to move away from being an oral tradition to being a predominantly textual one. In Dryden’s volume, this Robin Hood ballad was not something that would have been sung. Rather it was something that somebody would have read. It is therefore the appearances of Robin Hood ballads in pieces of literature such as this that allow us to chart the development of the Robin Hood tradition, seeing how it gradually became gentrified and respectable for an audience of readers.

As a fan of Dryden myself, it would please me greatly if it ever turned out that Dryden himself wrote the ballad, but that seems very unlikely.


Further Reading:

My post on Dryden’s King Arthur (1691) on The History Vault

The Digital Miscellanies Project

Full Text of the Sixth Part of Miscellany Poems on Google Books

Stephen N. Zwicker (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to John Dryden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

“The Railway Robin Hood” (1868)

"The Railway Robin Hood and Little John" Punch, 26 Sept. 1868, p.129.
“The Railway Robin Hood and Little John” Punch, 26 Sept. 1868, p.129.

‘Rail fares a rip-off,’ thundered the Daily Mail in an article of December last year. [1] Indeed, there seems to be a constant debate in the United Kingdom these days about what exactly the cost of rail travel should be, and whether it should be run for profit or as a public service. Yet as Chris Bowlby has recently pointed out in an article for History Today, the Victorians had the same concerns. Until the Cheap Trains Act of 1883 Victorian extra-parliamentary pressure groups and the rail companies seem to have perpetually been at loggerheads over the issue of rail prices. [2] Rail travel could be quite expensive for some commuters, and even the penny-per-mile cost of rail travel which the (supposedly laissez-faire) government demanded of rail companies on certain routes still meant that travel over long distances could be quite expensive. [3]

It is with this historic (and seemingly perpetual) debate over the price of rail travel in mind that I would like to direct your attention a humorous ballad entitled ‘The Railway Robin Hood and Little John’ which appeared in 26 September 1868 edition of Punch. The magazine was launched in 1841 by Henry Mayhew and Ebenezer Landells and was originally a radical, reformist publication, drawing attention to social ills through satire. [4] Most of the satirical pieces in the magazine were what we would consider ‘Horatian’ satire; clever, gentle, and light-hearted humour designed to poke fun at social and societal follies. The ballad itself is written anonymously, which was standard practice for many of the articles in Punch. We are not in the medieval period in ‘The Railway Robin Hood and Little John,’ however, for the second verse sets the premise of the ballad. It is a time when:

The Railways did their fares increase
Upon a certain daye;
Itt was a fytte of Robin Hood
To make the public pay. [5]

It goes without saying that the author is not too concerned with historical ‘authenticity’ here, as railways obviously did not exist in the medieval period, although it does seem that he wants to give and air of historicity, given that he uses some archaic spellings such as ‘itt’ and ‘fytte’.

The advent of the railway construction has, it seems, harmed Robin Hood’s and Little John’s revenue, and the two men discuss how to get more booty out of travellers now that the vast majority of people have taken to commuting by rail instead of road travel. They conclude that it is best to raise the price of rail travel:

As rogues for true men breeden bale,
Soe counsel Robin and John
Did take how folk, that go by rail,
They best mote put upon.
And soe on all that went by rail,
Whereon a holde they had,
The fares were raised by those two fellows:
Men swore it was too bad. [6]

It is not clear how Robin and John, as outlaws, manage to place themselves in such a position of authority whereby they might raise rail prices, but they do. Besides, I suspect the author of this ballad is not too concerned with explaining it, and the results of Robin’s policy of price hikes are:

And many took to going-a-foote,
Far over stock and stone,
They had liefer that than that Railwaymen,
Soe moche sholde stick it on.
But Robin’s and Little John’s plan to fleece poor commuters backfires on them:
A bad shoote Robin shote, and John,
With waste of might and mayne:
Men first-class carriages gave up fast,
And third to take were fayne.
These shooters with their long bend-bowe,
Their marke did overshoote:
Their gains do so fall off that now
They find they have missed their loote. [7]

And to close the ballad the author gives a warning to those railway bosses who would try and rob commuters with excessive fares:

Woe worth, woe worth, the knaves who would,
Fleece true men in such a degree,
And may they ever find all bale,
That boote they hoped wold bee. [8]

The ballad is significant because it is illustrative of the ways in which the earliest Robin Hood texts were familiar to people in the nineteenth century. ‘The Railway Robin Hood’ opens in the following manner:

When clouds be white and skies be blue,
And fields both dry and browne
It’s merry riding in the railway train
Going South out of Towne. [9]

There is similarity here with the opening to Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (c.1450):

Whan shaws beene sheene and shraddes full fayre,
And leaves both large and longe,
Itt’s merrye walkyng in the fayre forrest
To heare the small birdes songe. [10]

The author had to be reasonably confident that his readers would recognise the ballad that he was adapting to the circumstances of the present day, which ties in with the fact that a work such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795) was republished several times throughout the nineteenth century. Moreover, the ballad holds significance for students of medievalism. It belongs in the same category of medievalism as William Makepeace Thackeray’s Ivanhoe (1819) sequel entitled Rebecca and Rowena (1850). Whilst Walter Scott in Ivanhoe at least makes an attempt to recreate the medieval world of ‘merrie England,’ Thackeray is content for his medieval world to be full of glaring anachronisms. When Thackeray brings Robin Hood into his narrative, for instance, he says that Robin, after the events of Ivanhoe, has become a mean and hard-hearted magistrate. In his role as magistrate, Robin ‘sent scores of poachers to Botany Bay.’ [11] Transportation of offenders from Britain did not come about until the Transportation Act of 1718, allowing those guilty of capital offences an alternative to hanging. [12] Botany Bay, moreover, was not “discovered” until 1770 by Captain Cook, and it was in 1788 that Arthur Phillip established a penal colony there. It seems that in the nineteenth century there were two types of representations of the medieval period: the ‘authentic’ recreation of it as witnessed in works such as Scott’s Ivanhoe, and the heavily anachronistic type of representation such as ‘The Railway Robin Hood.’

In conclusion, ‘The Railway Robin Hood’ is a light-hearted mockery of what to the Victorians was the ever-increasing price of rail travel, a debate which is still ongoing in Britain today. The famous outlaws Robin Hood and Little John are equated with what was perceived to be the robbing rail barons of Victorian England. They ‘fleece’ their commuters. The ballad is an example of the ‘fun’ and less serious medievalism of the nineteenth century that was prevalent in the works of Thackeray and others, in contrast to the work of Sir Walter Scott.


References

[1] Martin Robinson, ‘Here comes the £5,000 for annual season ticket: Rail fares blasted a ‘rip off’ after latest 2.5% price hike’ Daily Mail 5 December 2014 [Internet <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2861854/Rail-fares-raised-2-5-January-record-numbers-pay-5-000-year-season-ticket.html&gt; Accessed 07/08/2015].
[2] Chris Bowlby, ‘Worried about the price of train travel? So were the Victorians: Chris Bowlby looks at the history behind rising rail fares’ History Today 27 December 2012 [Internet <http://www.historyextra.com/feature/worried-about-price-train-travel-so-were-victorians&gt; Accessed 07/08/2015].
[3] Ibid.
[4] A. J. Doran More Pick of Punch (London: The Folio Society, 2001), p.17.
[5] Anon. ‘The Railway Robin Hood and Little John’ Punch, or the London Charivari 26 September 1868, p.129.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Anon. ‘The Railway Robin Hood and Little John’ p.129.
[10] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. 1 (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.115.
[11] William Makepeace Thackeray Rebecca and Rowena (1850, London: Hesperus, 2002), p.13.
[12] Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker ‘Crime and Justice – Punishments at the Old Bailey’ Old Bailey Proceedings Online [Internet <https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Punishment&gt; Accessed 07/08/2015].

Penny Dreadful PDFs: The New Newgate Calendar (1863)

The New Newgate Calendar (1864) Special Colour Edition. [Scanned Image].
The New Newgate Calendar (1864)
Special Colour Edition.
[Scanned Image].

Here are the scans I’ve recently completed of the penny dreadfuls in my collection so far.

They were originally on my academia.edu page but I’m moving them here as I find that website a bit slow and “fiddly” at times.

This post will therefore be updated as and when I have the time to upload them, though I usually try to do one per week.

Enjoy!


New Newgate Calendar Saturday Oct 24th 1863

New Newgate Calendar Saturday Oct 31st 1863

New Newgate Calendar Saturday Nov 7th 1863

New Newgate Calendar Saturday Nov 14th 1863

New Newgate Calendar Saturday Nov 21st 1863

New Newgate Calendar Saturday Nov 28th 1863

New Newgate Calendar Saturday Dec 5th 1863

New Newgate Calendar Saturday Dec 12th 1863

New Newgate Calendar Saturday Dec 19th 1863

New Newgate Calendar Saturday Jan 2nd 1864

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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