Robin Hood of the Anti-Corn Law League

By Stephen Basdeo

While physical archival research remains the “bread and butter” of the work of any historian, the rise of online repositories of primary sources have proved to be of invaluable use to many a historian over the years. This is particularly the case when you want to investigate what, say, the Victorians thought about a person like Robin Hood. A simple key word search will bring up a number of results from often quite obscure places. And I came across a rather interesting commentary on a Robin Hood ballad, titled Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford, which was reprinted in Toby Veck’s Facts and Figures: Ten Tables Telling Tales of My Landlord and the Church (1846).

Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford is one of the more humorous songs of Robin Hood that was first printed in the seventeenth century. Robin and John meet with the bishop (The earliest surviving text is in the so-called Forresters manuscript (British Library Additional MS 71158), which dates to the 1670s). The song sees Robin and Little John, disguised as shepherds, poaching in an area of the forest which they know the bishop will pass through. The Bishop does indeed see them and demands that they come with him to face the king’s justice. The outlaws scoff and Robin, blowing his horn, summons his soldiers who surround the bishop and his men. The outlaws tie the bishop to a tree and force him to sing Mass for them; they then hold a feast for which, harking back to earlier Robin Hood tales such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (1495), the bishop is compelled to pay.

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Anti-Corn Law League Membership Card. Note how membership comprised the middle and working classes.

The Bishop of Hereford soon became an integral character in the Robin Hood legend. His encounter with the outlaws was featured in Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1719) and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734). He is also an integral character in Robert Southey’s unpublished Robin Hood novel Harold; or The Castle of Morford (1791), while variants of the ballad were given in Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795). In the Victorian era, the Bishop of Hereford was also a rather comic villain in Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838–40).

When Egan was writing, the price of bread was kept artificially high because of the Corn Laws. After the Napoleonic Wars, or the “first” World War, the British industrial and agricultural sectors were on their knees. When the war ended in 1815, British landowning elites, who had done very well out of the war, feared that, with the opening of the continent to British trading again (it had of course been cut off under Napoleon’s Continental System), the price of grain, and their incomes, would be slashed. As the government of the day was dominated by an aristocratic oligarchy for whom few could vote, the ruling class naturally legislated for something that in their narrow party interests against the benefit of the British people-at-large. So tariffs were placed upon imports of grain. The ruling class was happy.

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A meeting of the “Leaguers” in the 1840s

This policy hurt both the middle-class tradesman and the poorer labourer. Everyone had to eat, and everyone had to pay the same high price for bread.

Much opposition to the tariffs, or the “Corn Laws” as they became known, was voiced by radicals and reformers in the press, and the policy even had a few enemies among MPs. Yet it took a while for opposition to the laws to coalesce into a firm, united front. While the tariffs had been legislated for in 1815, it was not until 1836—almost in tandem with the emergence of the Chartist movement—that one of Britain’s most successful pressure groups was formed: The Anti-Corn Law League.

The Anti-Corn Law League certainly alarmed the Tories, whose policy it was. By 1836, the middle classes could now vote and even stand for parliament providing they owned or leased land or property worth over 40 shillings. One response by the league, which was backed by some big names of the day such as Richard Cobden and John Bright, was to donate a 40 shilling freehold to friendly would-be MPs and field them as candidates for parliament in by-elections where “protectionists” stood.

And they wrote, and they printed, and they mobilised mass support among the working classes through large rallies. Much of the opposition came from the industrial towns while support for the laws came from Tory and Whig landowners. But so successful was the Anti-Corn Law League that they even managed to convince the Tory Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, of the necessity for ending the Corn Laws and, by all accounts, even secured the backing of Queen Victoria herself!

It is in one such Anti-Corn Law League pamphlet where we find our “free trade” Robin Hood: the aforementioned work Ten Tables by Toby Veck. The name was a pseudonym, for Toby Veck is a character who appears in Charles Dickens’s The Chimes (1844). When reading Veck’s work, we find him making numerous appeals to an idealised Anglo-Saxon past in which, so he believed, Englishmen enjoyed political liberty and did not starve under the benevolent rule of the various Anglo-Saxon kings.

At the end of his work, he decided to share a little anecdote.

He told readers that when he was a boy, he knew “a fine old English gentleman”—a farmer—who could sing from Robin Hood’s Garland for six hours straight! (Slight exaggeration here, most likely—that’s a tall order for any singer, then or now). Of all the ballads this farmer sung to him, he recalled Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford.

He reprinted the ballad in full and then commenced upon a short explanation.

The Bishop in the ballad was definitely a Tory, so Veck reasoned: he was against the “free trade” in venison, which Veck assures us was a catch-all term which included not only meat but also bread (a reach, certainly, but definitely not the wildest appropriation of a Robin Hood character I’ve seen).

Robin Hood, on the other hand, was a medieval Anti-Corn Law Leaguer: his attempt to go a poaching on the Bishop’s land represented the good Saxon Englishman’s yearning for free trade. Veck even gave his readers a useful key to the antiquated terminology used in the ballad:

Explanations.—“Bishop of Hereford and Company,” the Protectionists and their leader; “ven’son” means cheap corn; six of his men, Repealers in the disguise of conservatives; “Lives away,” to turn ‘em out; a Tree, “public opinion;” “a thorn,” the League; “the horn of Repeal,” three score and ten Leaguers; “cut off his head,” immediate Repeal; “staying at Barnsdale,” delay of three years during which they are in a state of alarm; and at the expiration of that period comes “the reckoning.”

So, let us try and work out that allegory in full now Veck has given us the key to decipher this seventeenth-century rant against the nineteenth-century Corn Laws:

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Late Victorian illustration of Robin Hood’s meeting with the Bishop of Hereford.

Robin Hood is an Anti-Corn Law Leaguer who with “six of his men” ventures into the Tory Bishop’s lands to poach and steal and really put free trade into full practice for they are Repealers disguised as Tories who are venturing into the hostile land of protectionism when all they want is cheap “venison”/Corn—whatever! When the Bishop tries to prevent Robin’s exercise in forest free trade he sounds the horn of Repeal at which many other Repealers flock to his side. Little John, the more hot-headed Repealer, wants to immediately cut off the Bishop’s head and gain an immediate repeal of protectionist forest laws; but the Bishop has by this point been tied to the “tree” of public opinion and just a little stay longer will make the Bishop see the wisdom of forest free trade too! And of course, soon would then come the reckoning: the floodgates of repeal would burst open and there would be forest free trade for all!

While amusing to us, this was not satire: the Corn Laws meant that many poorer families did indeed go hungry due to the high price of bread. Usually, Victorian medievalists were a little more subtle in their appropriation of the Norman Forest Laws to serve different political causes. Thomas Miller’s Chartist novel Royston Gower (1838) is particularly good in this respect, being a novel in which the outlaws seek a “Forest Charter” to reclaim their ancient rights. Robin Hood fans will also be pleased to know that Sir Walter Scott, the author of Ivanhoe (1819),opposed the Corn Laws.

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Sir Robert Peel, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1846

Repeal finally came in 1846, when Prime Minister Robert Peel used the votes of the opposition to carry through the measure. Yet it split the Tory Party: the “Peelites” broke away and joined with the Whigs and the Radicals in Parliament, and formed the Liberal Party. The Tory party limped on and remained practically on its deathbed for a few years until it was popularly revived under the leadership of Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli.

Read and download Veck’s pamphlet: Anti-Corn Law League Robin Hood

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Commemorative Banner celebrating an end to the hated Corn Laws (c) Manchester Archives+

Further Reading

Dickens, Charles, The Chimes (London: Chapman and Hall, 1844)

Miller, Thomas, Royston Gower; or, The Days of King John, 3 vols (London: Henry Colburn, 1838)

Turner, Michael, ‘The “Bonaparte of free trade” and the Anti-Corn Law League’, The Historical Journal, 41: 4 (1998), 1011–34

Veck, Toby, Ten Tables Telling Tales of “My Landlord” and “The Church” (London: Longman, 1846)

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The Politics of Victorian England’s “Vicious Republican”: G. W. M. Reynolds (1814–79)

By Stephen Basdeo

It’s quite possible that you’ve never heard of George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814–79). His prolific writing career has been overshadowed somewhat by his contemporaries such as Charles Dickens, whose writings, while they manifested a bit of a social conscience, were hardly radical. Reynolds’s name, by contrast, was, in Dickens’s words, ‘a name with which no Lady’s, and no gentleman’s, should be associated’.

But why was Reynolds’s name so dangerous to a man like Dickens? After all, in their fictional works, they both railed against the injustices of the poor law and the workhouse, the oppression of the working class, and the exploitation of children. They should have been natural bed-fellows. But Reynolds was a committed radical, democrat, and borderline revolutionary who sought a fundamental change in society’s constitution, and importantly not a racist (evident by his comments in Grace Darling, published in 1839, in which he criticises those who believed that black people were inferior). Dickens, who had questionable views on race, was a paid-up man of the establishment who merely argued that the upper classes should be philanthropic where possible. Not without justification did Reynolds call him

“That lickspittle hanger-on to the skirts of Aristocracy’s robe—‘Charles Dickens, Esq.’ —originally a dinnerless penny-a-liner on the Morning.”[i]

(The Morning refers to Dickens’s work for the conservative Morning Post newspaper, which was taken over by The Telegraph in the 1930s). Reynolds maintained a firm and unshakeable belief in the rights and sovereignty of the people. His influences in this regard were writers such as Thomas Paine—the intellectual force behind both the American and French Revolutions—and, having spent the early part of his career as a struggling journalist in France, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. This naturally entailed a belief in the sanctity of the ballot and truly universal suffrage, which for Reynolds also included women—something which would not be achieved until after Reynolds’s death:

“Every community has the right to choose its own institutions, its own form of government, and its own rulers.”[ii]

Of course, in the early Victorian era, few could vote. It is true that the ‘Great’ Reform Act was passed in 1832, which extended the franchise to large sections of the middle classes, or those who either rented or owned property worth 40 shillings. But for the Chartists, this was not enough and they kept on campaigning for vote, and neither should the people accept anything less than full universal suffrage, according to Reynolds.

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Title page to Reynolds’s crime novel: The Mysteries of London

But who were ‘the people’? Interestingly, Reynolds only infrequently uses the term ‘working class’ in his novels and newspaper articles, and opts instead for a much wider term: ‘the industrious millions’.[iii] While Reynolds was a passionate advocate for working-class political enfranchisement, evident through his significant involvement with the Chartist cause, most of the time ‘the oppressed’ or ‘industrious millions’, a term which he uses in The Mysteries of London (1844–48), comprises both the working and middle classes. They occupy a place beneath royalty and aristocracy, as he maintains in the same novel, in which a character named ‘the Republican’ declares that:

“I only strive to arouse the grovelling spirit of the industrious millions to a sense of the wrongs under which they labour, and to prove to them that they were not sent into this world to lick the dust beneath the feet of majesty and aristocracy!”[iv]

Reynolds probably saw something of himself in his republican character. This idea of aristocracy against the people (working and middle classes) is a constant theme throughout his journalism. Both his fiction and his journalism were melodramatic; he had to present a clear ‘bad guy’ or evil class of people, while the industrious millions he depicted as a saintly yet passive oppressed people. It was the aristocracy, in Reynolds’s view, who were responsible for every social ill: poverty, crime, injustice.

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The original incarnation of Reynolds’s Newspaper entitled Reynolds’s Political Instructor. This edition features William Cuffay, the famous Chartist activist, on its front page.

Reynolds’s radicalism evidently looks back to earlier, more bourgeois forms of it which were influenced by the likes of Paine and various French thinkers from the 1830s. So, while Reynolds does often criticise capitalist society and its attendant social ills, he has no advanced theory of the existence of a ruling class and the class conflict between them and the industrious millions. The best he can do is to map his criticisms of capitalism on to older discourses of ‘Old Corruption’. The idea of Old Corruption held—with much justification—that a narrow oligarchy of aristocrats elected by only a very small proportion of the population pursued their own landed interests at the expense of the people-at-large. In Reynolds’s worldview, in spite of the rise of capitalism, it was still the aristocracy who held sway over the people, as he wrote in 1851:

“As I have often said, England is in reality a despotism—this despotism consisting, not of an autocrat, but of an oligarchy—not of an individual, but of a few hundreds of aristocratic families.”[v]

The caveat for Reynolds was the aristocracy consolidated its power by more often than not allying themselves with the capitalists. In some of his later writings we find references to two types of aristocracies: the aristocracy of birth and the aristocracy of money:

“The Birth Aristocracy sees that the helm is escaping out of its hands; and therefore, rather than allow the slightest chance for the infusion of a democratic element into the system, it will enter into political partnership with the Moneyocracy. This arrangement will be for the perpetuation of tyranny and class-legislation; and the two Aristocracies of Birth and Money will unite with the common object of riveting the chains about the industrious millions.”[vi]

We have to remember that Reynolds’s most biting political commentary came before the first English publication of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels’s The Communist Manifesto (1848). The first English translation of this was published in the Chartist magazine, The Red Republican, but it would not be until the 1870s, which was the decade that Reynolds died, before a fully-fledged English socialist movement would emerge. It would not be until the writings of Marx and Engels’s found their way into mainstream radical thought in Britain after the 1850s that the idea of class conflict between two classes—a bourgeoisie and a proletariat—would be clearly articulated. Thus, Reynolds’s radical philosophy was an early attempt to diagnose the social ills of modern industrial society while taking into account earlier forms of aristocratic, oligarchical oppression.

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Reynolds’s Newspaper

If we are viewing Reynolds’s politics through a modern lens, we might fall into the trap of thinking that he was what we might call left wing today. Some of his views do indeed correlate with those espoused by prominent members of the left. However, where he would have differed from today’s so-called radicals is in his views on taxation. He was an advocate of what we would now call a low-tax society. One of the primary reasons for this is that he hated the idea that taxes went to fund an idle and profligate monarchy and aristocracy. In an editorial for Reynolds’s Newspaper in 1851, he asked how it could ever be just for the taxes of the working poor should

“Swell the coffers of the Illustrious Beggars and Serene Paupers of Saxe Coburg Gotha.”[vii]

Now, taxes in the Victorian era were, if we look at it objectively, not too onerous. Income tax was first levied during time by the Tory government of Sir Robert Peel at a rate of 7d in the pound. The tax threshold was an income of £150 per year which exempted almost all the working class. Direct taxation was somewhat unpopular in Victorian Britain and some chancellors toyed with the idea of abolishing income it; however, it proved too convenient and lucrative. Yet Reynolds hated all forms of tax: in the middle of many of his novels, he often broke the narrative to enter into a political rant. Perhaps the best articulation of his opposition to all forms of taxes comes in The Days of Hogarth; or, The Mysteries of Old London (1848):

Taxation is a vampire that loves to feast on the blood of a nation’s heart, and prey upon the vitals of an industrious population. It is an avaricious, grasping, griping fiend that places its finger on every morsel of food which enters into the mouth, on every article of clothing which covers the person, and on everything which is pleasant to behold, hear, feel, taste, or smell! It interferes with our warmth—our light—our locomotion—the very printed paper which diffuses knowledge! It roams over the land to claim its share of the produce of our fields and manufactures and it awaits on the [quays] of our seaports for the unlading of vessels bringing things from abroad. The moment the industry or intelligence of man originates something new, the fiend Taxation overshadows it with its loathsome, hat-like wing. It plunges its hand into the rich man’s dish and the poor man’s porridge … Oh! Insatiate is that fiend, for he attends at the death bed when the will is made, and in the spiritual court when it is proven:—he has his share of the price paid for the very marble which covers the grave of the deceased:—and it is only there—in the grave—that the victim of Taxation can be taxed no more![viii]

In sum, Reynolds was a democrat; the people—the working and middle classes—should be granted the vote. They are prevented from achieving political equality due to the machinations of the aristocracy who conspire with the interests of big capital to oppress the industrious millions. And he hated all forms of tax: it made food more expensive; it restricted the exchange of knowledge through the Stamp Act; and it stifled commercial and industrial innovation.


[i] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’s Miscellany, June (1851), cited in Richard Maxwell, The Mysteries of Paris and London (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1992), p. 356.

[ii] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The Duty of the French Republicans’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 29 December 1850, 1

[iii] As he progressed throughout life, however, he does opt for the term ‘working class’ with greater frequency.

[iv] G. W. M. Reynolds, Mysteries of London, 2 vols (London: G. Vickers, 1846), I, p. 70

[v] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The Necessity for the Ballot’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 22 June 1851, 1.

[vi] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The People’s Rights’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 13 April 1851, 1.

[vii] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘A Word to the “Liberal Minority” in Parliament’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 16 March 1851, 1.

[viii] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Days of Hogarth; or, The Mysteries of Old London (London: John Dicks [n. d.]), ch.5.

Pierce Egan’s “Robin Hood Ballads” (1840)

This post is not one of my usual essay style posts, with an introduction and conclusion, etc., but more of a research note after having got hold of a first edition of Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood novel.

Pierce Egan the Younger was one of the most popular Victorian penny-a-liner authors. Although he was the son of the more famous Pierce Egan the Elder (1772-1849), very little is known of the son’s early life.[i] The younger Egan first came to public notice when he provided the illustrations to a work that his father had written entitled The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National (1838). In the same year that he collaborated with his father on the Pilgrims, he began writing Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. The novel is one of the best (in my opinion) Robin Hood novels published during the nineteenth century. It is also one of the longest: it was sold for a penny in weekly instalments over the course of two years, between 1838 and 1840.

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Title Page to Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood Ballads (1840)

The novel, targeted primarily towards working-class and lower middle-class adults, is filled with sex, violence, and radical politics, and is the story of Robin Hood’s life from his birth to his death. Egan is clearly acquainted with earlier Robin Hood works such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795); Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Egan’s novel went through several editions throughout the nineteenth century. As an appendix to the first edition in 1840, however, he included a collection of Robin Hood ballads.

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Egan’s collection is based upon eighteenth-century versions of Robin Hood’s Garland. These were anthologies of seventeenth-century Robin Hood ballads. And it is only the early modern ballads included in Egan’s collection, such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Jolly Pinder of Wakefield, Robin Hood and Allen-a-Dale, and Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford. The medieval poems such as A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin Hood and the Monk are, strangely, not included in Egan’s version.

The extent of his ‘editing’ of the texts is minimal. In fact, one might be forgiven for thinking that the appending of the ballad collection at the end of Egan’s novel was perhaps the publisher George Pierce’s idea. The preface included at the beginning is virtually plagiarised from Charles Johnson’s account of Robin Hood, with one or two notes from Joseph Ritson inserted towards the end, and there is no attempt to relate the ballads to the sequences and plotlines in Egan’s actual novel.

One contribution to the ballad collection that we can tell Egan did make, however, is in the illustrations he provided (he had also provided all of the illustrations to the novel in the first edition). Through his images, Egan did attempt to provide some continuity with his preceding novel. This is because the characters of Robin Hood and his men who appear in the novel look exactly the same as those which appear in this ballad collection. Furthermore, as the ballads accompany the first edition, and Egan often insisted on providing the illustrations to all of his first editions (later publishers incorporated entirely new illustrations in later editions), then there is no reason to suppose that these illustrations are not his.

First editions of Egan’s Robin Hood with the ballads are rare: more common is the 1850 edition, published by W. S. Johnson, which will still fetch approximately £100.


[i] To learn more about some of the facts I have managed to reconstruct about his early life from archival records clink this link.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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G W M Reynolds – Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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


References

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

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

[3] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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

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

Historic Yorkshire Criminals: William Knipe’s “Criminal Chronology” (1867)

The eighteenth century was the period in which criminal biography flourished, when men such as Charles Johnson were publishing books such as Lives of the Highwaymen (1734) alongside serialised publications such as The Newgate Calendar and The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

The genre did not die at the end of the eighteenth century, however, for during the nineteenth century two lawyers, Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, published a new five volume edition of The Newgate Calendar in 1824 and a revised version 1826. A cheaper penny dreadful version entitled The New Newgate Calendar was published in 1863. Charles Macfarlane also authored The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in All Parts of the World (1833) while in the following year Charles Whitehead published Lives and exploits of English Highwaymen, Pirates, and Robbers (1834).

Crime was perceived as a problem during the eighteenth century, but it is only in the nineteenth century that the government actually decided to do anything about it. The creation of a professionalised police force in 1829 replaced the haphazard system of law enforcement involving thief takers and part time constables that had existed until that point. Gaols, which had previously been nothing more than holding centres until an offender’s trial, became large institutions where people stayed for a long time. The persistence of criminal biography as a genre is therefore a reflection of the ongoing public debate that was occurring in parliament and the popular press over reforms to the criminal justice system.

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William Knipe, Criminal Chronology of York Castle (1867)

Most of these collections detailing the lives of criminals were very London-centric, with little attention paid to criminals from outside the capital. In light of this, William Knipe authored Criminal Chronology of York Castle (1867). Knipes work gave a brief biography of almost every criminal executed at York between the fourteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century.

Like Johnson before him, Knipe intended his work to be read as a piece of moralist literature:

The numerous and melancholy examples which our pages record of persons hurrying on from one crime to another, till the awful hand of justice has required their lives, will, we trust, alarm and deter the young and inexperienced from an indulgence in those pursuits or company which tend to weaken their ideas of justice and morality, the sure and certain prognostic of future ruin.[1]

Despite the moral purpose behind his work, Knipe avoids the sensational style of writing that was characteristic of the work of Johnson. Knipe was an antiquary and wanted his discussion to appear more sober and detailed. While Johnson often just made things up (Johnson even gives us an account of the life of that notorious robber, Sir John Falstaff), Knipe’s work was ‘carefully compiled from prison documents, ancient papers, and other authentic sources’ according to the title page.[2]

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Micklegate, York in the 19th century

The gallows in York was first erected on 1 March 1379 in order to execute all those who had been capitally convicted in the County of Yorkshire,[3] and the first criminal to have the ‘honour’ of being executed at the ‘York Tyburn’ (so called after the more famous London Tyburn) was a man called Edward Hewison:

At the Spring Assizes of 1379, Edward Hewison, aged 20, a native of Stockton, near York, and a private soldier in the Earl of Northumberland’s Light Horse, was tried and capitally convicted for committing a rape upon Louisa Bentley, 22 years of age […] when Hewison saw her alone in the field on the footpath, he got off his horse and tied it to a tree. He then went into the field, threw the young woman down, and ravished her.[4]

While Knipe’s work is primarily a compendium of the lives of criminals, one thing which distinguishes his work from earlier works by Johnson et al is the fact that he includes political rebels. The three leaders of the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ during the reign of Henry VIII: Sir Robert Aske, Lord Hussey, and William Wode are all presented in his work. Aske got off lightly compared to the latter two, for he was merely ‘hanged in chains’ and his body left to hang in a gibbet.[5] Hussey and Wode, however, were hanged, drawn and quartered, and:

[Their] mutilated remains put into a coffin and given to their friends for internment.[6]

Whereas Johnson’s accounts of each individual criminal are quite lengthy, most of Knipe’s accounts of criminals who existed before the Victorian era are relatively short. This is all he says, for example, of two criminals from Leeds named John de Viner and Harris Rosenberg who were executed at the York gallows in 1603:

Saturday, March 30th, A.D. 1603. – Harris Roseberg, aged 56, a native of Florence; and John de Viner, aged 32, servant to the above, a native of Paris, were executed at the Tyburn without Micklegate Bar, for the atrocious murder of Mr. Millington, an innkeeper at Leeds, on the night of the 8th day of November last. These unfortunate men suffered death in the presence of a large concourse of spectators. Their bodies on being taken down from the scaffold were given to the surgeons for dissection, in accordance with the sentence passed upon them.[7]

The criminal who receives the lengthiest account in Knipe’s work is the famous highwayman Dick Turpin (1705-1739). For his account of Turpin, Knipe appears to have abridged an earlier account of Turpin’s life entitled The Genuine History of the Life of Richard Turpin (1739).

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Illustration of a criminal being executed from The Newgate Calendar

For criminals who existed prior to his own day Knipe avoids making any moral judgements upon their course of life. As he moves into his own era, the Victorian era, however, he begins to moralise more and more. While criminality in earlier periods can be explained by the fact that Englishmen’s manners and morals were not as refined as they were in his own day, the fact that criminals existed and were still being hanged in the Victorian period baffles Knipe. Take his account of a murder committed in Hunslet, Leeds in 1849:

Thomas Malkin. Saturday, January 6th, A.D. 1849. – Thomas Malkin was hanged on the new drop, in front of St. George’s Field, for the murder of Esther Inman, near Leeds. It is again our painful duty to record one of those brutalizing spectacles, of which England, that land of Bibles and privileges, can boast so many, viz., the public strangling of a fellow creature.[8]

This is a double-edged critique of Knipe’s own society – with Bibles and ‘privileges’ being plentiful in the Victorian era (Knipe does not say what these ‘privileges’ are), in theory there should be no criminals and no hangings.

Knipe’s accounts of criminals from before the Victorian era rarely carry any information about their trial. Likely this was down to lack of primary sources, but accounts of Victorian criminals are conspicuous in Knipe’s work with the inclusion of trial proceedings.

Knipe gives a lengthy account of the trial of Alfred Waddington from Sheffield who was executed on 15 January 1853 for the murder of his illegitimate child.[9] While most of Knipe’s accounts of pre-Victorian criminals concentrate upon the birth and upbringing of the offender, in the accounts of criminals from the mid-Victorian period sometimes all that Knipe gives the reader is details of the trial. This is the case in Knipe’s account of William Dove from Leeds, who was executed for murdering his wife Harriet on 9 August 1856.[10]

Eighteenth-century accounts of criminals presented criminality as something that was the result of original sin, and this contributed to an often sympathetic depiction of criminals. They were simply people who had succumbed to their sinful inclinations through a tragic fatal flaw. But the conception of criminality had changed by the Victorian era: criminality became associated with the rise of a criminal class – a class of people drawn from society’s poorest ranks and who were thought to be responsible for the majority of crime. At the same time, however, there were murmurings from middle-class reformers about the barbarity of the spectacle of public hanging. Some might even argue that society was collectively responsible for crime – as the saying by Emile Durkheim goes: ‘society gets the criminals it deserves’. Thus the wickedness and depravity of the offender was exposed with the inclusion of trial:

[When] publicity has shifted to the trial, and to the sentence, the execution itself is like an additional shame that justice is ashamed to impose on the condemned man.[11]

The criminal had failed society, and their guilt had been determined through being found guilty by a jury of their peers. They had been justly punished.

Knipe’s work does not appear to have been extremely popular, and only went through one edition. In contrast, Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen and The Newgate Calendar went through several editions during the Victorian era and are still being reprinted even today (the most recent edition of The Newgate Calendar was published by The Folio Society in 1993). The reason why Knipe’s work was not as successful, it might be speculated, is probably because it was too serious. It lacked Johnson’s acerbic wit and humour. Nevertheless, Knipe’s work is probably one of the most comprehensive accounts of crime in Yorkshire that has ever been published.


References

[1] William Knipe, Criminal Chronology of York Castle; with a Register of the Criminals Capitally Convicted and Executed at the County Assizes, Commencing March 1st 1379, to the Present Time (York: C. L. Burdekin, 1867), p.vii.
[2] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.i.
[3] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.1.
[4] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.1-2.
[5] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.4.
[6] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.4-5.
[7] Knipe Criminal Chronology, p.15.
[8] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.230.
[9] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.240-244.
[10] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.248-253.
[11] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison System (London: Penguin, 1975), p.9

UNLESS OTHERWISE STATED, ALL ILLUSTRATIONS ARE SCANNED IMAGES TAKEN FROM COPIES OF BOOKS IN MY OWN COLLECTION.