“Ballad of Robin Hood” (1846)

Research into the Robin Hood tradition has hitherto tended to focus upon canonical texts and poems, especially those from the fifteenth century. Obviously the Robin Hood tradition did not stop there but evolved over the centuries. In the seventeenth century he became Robert, Earl of Huntingdon in Anthony Munday’s plays. In the eighteenth century he was a wicked criminal. It is only really during the nineteenth century that Robin is firmly established within the bounds of respectability. This occurred largely as a result of three texts: Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822).

It is Stephen Knight in Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (2003) who made the later tradition a valid area of scholarly enquiry. His wide-ranging survey of the legend covered various incarnations of Robin Hood from his medieval incarnations to the twentieth century.

But the way scholars do research has changed since Knight wrote his study. The digitisation of many primary sources, and in particular Victorian periodicals, has meant that scholars can now uncover many more previously unknown literary works. Robin Hood was featured in a number of minor poems during the nineteenth century. Some were good, and indeed some were bad. The piece I have transcribed below is taken from Bentley’s Miscellany in 1846. The periodical was started by Richard Bentley in 1836, who invited Charles Dickens to be its editor. Some very famous novels were first serialised in the magazine: Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) and William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (1839) made their debuts here.

As people are unlikely to have read this particular poem before, I therefore leave it for readers without providing any commentary or argument upon it – though any thoughts people have are welcome in the comments.

I have found quite a few of these minor poems, and in the coming weeks will be uploading more of them.

W. H. C. W. ‘Robin Hood and his Merry Men’

Bentley’s Miscellany, July 1846, p.246

Under the merry greenwood tree
With me who likes may roam;
And there, although we shall be out,
We’ll make ourselves “at home;”
And, by your leave, beneath its leaves
Will we conn o’er again
The quips and cranks, and merry pranks,
Of Robin Hood and merry men.

To Sherwood Forest Robin Hood,
Real Earl of Huntingdon,
An outlaw fled, and there, ‘tis said,
Was join’d by Little John,
Who was a great man, as they say,
At drawing well the strong bow;
And as his shaft went a long way,
No doubt he drew the “long bow!”

Bold Robin Hood was so beloved,
His band increased in haste,
As also Friar Tuck’s, the fat,
Who never would see waste
In any thing that he conceived
The inner man might succour:
He bib’d the wine, and if ‘twas wrong,
Twas but a bib and Tuck-er(r).

A useful member to the band
Was Tuck at Feast or fire;
The deer they took ‘twas wrong to cook,
So in conscience kept a friar.
Though ven’son then, as now, was dear,
This vantage they could reap –
Just like their means the game was near,
And so they got it cheap.

The chieftain as the chief of darts
Contentedly down sat him;
But couldn’t ‘scape sly Cupid’s arts,
Or shafts he levell’d at him.
Maid Marian was made Robin’s queen,
Queen of the greenwood shade,
Annd kindly kept his cave well swept,
Because he’d no house made.


That Robin was a robber bold
May well be understood;
In every joke you saw he told
That he was Rob(b)in(g) Hood.
We’re told Tell was a telling shot,
(Nice even to a hair,)
And because he shot the apple,
Tell and Hood are deem’d a pair.


Let this opinion current go,
From monarch to the pedlar;
Who’d spoil them of their sweet deserts,
A most obnoxious meddler!
Long may the fame of Robin Hood,
And all his merry men,
As merry make all merry hearts,
Who’d merry make again!


Jack Sheppard (1702-1724)

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

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

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

Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A most virulent and libellous attack upon my romance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one youth told Mayhew that:

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

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

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

Dick Turpin (1705-1739)

TrialDick Turpin (1705-1739) is perhaps the most famous highwayman in English history after Robin Hood (fl. 12th-13th centuries). He is remembered today as a heavily romanticised noble, gallant figure, having allegedly rode his horse from London to York in one day upon his trusty horse, Black Bess, the real Dick Turpin, as you would expect, was a wholly different man. This post gives a brief overview of his life and the legend which grew around him.

Dick Turpin was born in East Ham, in Essex, and received quite a good education, learning how to read and write. It was this good education which, as we will see, proved to be his ultimate downfall. At a young age he was apprenticed to a butcher, and having learnt a trade, established his own business after completing his term as an apprentice. It was when he set up his own business that he began to act as a receiver of stolen livestock for a gang of poachers called the Essex Gang. Although the exact details of Turpin’s involvement with the Essex Gang are unclear, it seems he became ever more deeply involved with them, and some historians have implicated him in the robbery of William Mason’s house – a farmer who lived in Essex – during which his daughters were raped.

In time, most of the members of the Essex Gang had been captured and executed, or sent for Transportation. It was after this, in 1735, that he turned to crime. He spent a brief career upon the road with two other highwaymen called Matthew King and Stephen Potter, and with them he committed several robberies, and, it is rumoured, even a murder.

King died, and Potter was later arrested, and so Turpin fled north (but not, as the legend would have you believe, in one day). Arriving in the East Riding of Yorkshire, he posed for a time as a horse trader under the assumed name of John Palmer. However, it is almost as though he could not help himself but engage in criminal activities; despite having a fresh start, he got caught stealing chickens from a farm, was arrested and placed in York Gaol. Whilst in Gaol, he wrote a letter to his brother-in-law in Hempstead asking for assistance. His brother-in-law did not collect the letter, and the letter remained at the post office, and the handwriting on the envelope and the letter was recognised as being none other than that of the wanted highwayman, Dick Turpin.

Dear Brother,
York, Feb. 6, 1739.
I am sorry to acquaint you, that I am now under confinement in York Castle, for horse-stealing. If I could procure an evidence from London to give me a character, that would go a great way towards my being acquitted. I had not been long in this county before my being apprehended, so that it would pass off the readier. For Heaven’s sake dear brother, do not neglect me; you will know what I mean, when I say,
I am yours,

Turpin was sentenced to death at York Tyburn, but he apparently gave a good show to spectators in his last few moments, bowing to them in the cart as he passed by. When he climbed the scaffold the York Courant reported that: ‘with undaunted courage looked about him, and after speaking a few words to the topsman, he threw himself off the ladder and expired in about five minutes’.

William Harrison Ainsworth's Rookwood (1834).
William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834).

It is only later that legends began to build up around him, and the construction of the legend, and its longevity, is surprising. In his own time, not much was written about him. He had a couple of entries in various editions of The Newgate Calendar, and none of those seem to have portrayed him in a good light. In fact, in the eighteenth century, the real criminal heroes were highwaymen like Claude DuVall, James Hind, Jack Sheppard, and James MacLean.

It was only in the next century when a novelist named William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) that Turpin’s legend really took off. Ainsworth wrote the novel Rookwood (1834). It was in this novel that the conventions of gothic romance and criminal biography converged; Ainsworth’s preface explained that he:

Resolved to attempt a story in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe [who wrote the Gothic romance The Mysteries of Udolpho]…substituting an old English squire, an old English manorial residence, and an old English highwayman, for the Italian marchese, the castle and brigand.

The novel begins with the death of Sir Piers Rookwood who has two sons. The firstborn, Luke, is supposedly illegitimate and has no right to the estate. The other son, and hitherto legitimate, heir is Ranulph Rookwood. It is revealed that Luke is actually legitimate by way of a clandestine first marriage of Sir Piers and a Catholic woman and stands to inherit the Rookwood estate. The novel becomes a battle between the two brothers and their respective families to inherit the estate. Moving the plot forward is a jovial character that goes by the name of Jack Palmer, who is Luke’s friend, and it turns out that this character is the famous highwayman Dick Turpin.

The Real Dick Turpin - Modern Police eFit based on contemporary descriptions [Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/north_yorkshire/8154929.stm]
The Real Dick Turpin – Modern Police eFit based on contemporary descriptions [Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/north_yorkshire/8154929.stm]

In this novel Turpin is a true gentleman; a romantic, courageous, daredevil figure, elegantly clad and handsome, in contrast to the real Turpin, whom, says Gillian Spraggs, was a ‘pock-marked thug’. In fact, one of the reasons why the reading public may have warmed to Turpin in this novel is because throughout the whole novel, we never actually see Turpin robbing anybody at all. Instead the members of the aristocratic Rookwood are the real criminals because they continue their murderous ways until they each fall victim to their own schemes.

Ainsworth’s novel, moreover, was an exciting scene, and Turpin gets all of the best scenes, such as the now infamous ride from London to York in one day upon his loyal horse, Black Bess:

It was then, for the first time, that the thoughts of executing his extraordinary ride to York flashed across him…his pursuers were now within a hundred yards, and shouted him to stand…the whole of the neighbourhood was alarmed by the cries, and the tramp of horses…suddenly three horsemen appear in the road; they hear the uproar and din. “A highwayman! A highwayman” cry the voices: “Stop him! Stop him!” But it is no such easy matter. With a pistol in each hand, and his bridle in his teeth, Turpin passed boldly on. His fierce looks – his furious steed – the impetus with which he pressed forward, bore down all around him.

The ride to York is simply a legend, and was attributed to at least two other highwaymen before it settled upon Turpin; Daniel Defoe in A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1727-1727) attributes the feat to the highwayman William Nevison.

Ainsworth led readers to believe that the mounted highway robber was a special figure. A song which Ainsworth wrote and inserts into the novel entitled Nobody Can Deny celebrates the exploits of historical highwaymen, and ends with Turpin:

Of every rascal of every kind,
The most notorious to my mind,
Was the Cavalier Captain, gay Jemmy Hind
Which Nobody Can Deny
But the pleasantest coxcomb among them all,
For lute, oranto and madrigal,
Was the galliard Frenchman, Claude DuVall
Which Nobody Can Deny…
Nor could any so handily break a lock,
As Sheppard, who stood on Newgate Dock,
And nicknamed the gaolers around him his flock
Which Nobody Can Deny
Nor did the highwayman ever possess,
For ease, for security, danger, distress,
Such a mare as Dick Turpin’s Black Bess! Black Bess!
Which Nobody Can Deny.

The placing of Turpin at the end of this list of illustrious highwaymen is significant; towards the end of the novel, Ainsworth calls Turpin the Great Highwayman:

Turpin was the ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race, which (we were almost about to say, we regret) is now altogether extinct…with him expired the chivalrous spirit which animated successively the bosoms of so many knights of the road.

Broadside Ballad of O Rare Turpin from the Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads Archive
Broadside Ballad of O Rare Turpin from the Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads Archive

After Ainsworth’s novel, Turpin began to appear frequently on broadside ballads such as The Life and Death of Dick Turpin (c.1838), My Bonny Black Bess (c.1838), O Rare Turpin (c.1844), The Death of Black Bess (printed after c.1850), One Foot in the Stirrrup (c.1850), Poor Black Bess (c.1860).

It seems, however, that Ainsworth’s novel was the only foray into ‘high’ culture that the Turpin would make. After Ainsworth’s novel, Turpin appears in penny dreadfuls such as Henry Downs Miles’ The Life and Death of Richard Palmer, better known as Dick Turpin (1845). He also appears in the penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar (1863-1866), as well as the mammoth 254-part penny serial Black Bess, or, the Knight of the Road (1867-1868). He is also the subject of a number of comics in the early 1930s such as The Dick Turpin Library. Most of these penny serials were denounced as pernicious trash by commentators in the press, and indeed their literary quality is low compared to Ainsworth’s novel.

A Late 19th-Century Penny Dreadful Featuring Dick Turpin
Black Bess, or the Knight of the Road (1867-68).

It appears in the twentieth century, however, that his popularity has died down a little. He has been the subject of the eponymous TV series Dick Turpin which ran for a few season back in the late 1970s, but has not featured in a major way on television or on film. His name survives in the adage (peculiar, as far as I can ascertain, to Yorkshire) “Even Dick Turpin wore a mask”, which is used to express astonishment at the high cost of goods when buying something. Although York city centre makes much of Turpin’s legend to attract tourism (you can visit the cell where he was held at York Castle Museum), and they do have a grave there which is said to be that of Turpin’s, it seems that there is really only one criminal who bears a special place in the hearts and minds of English people: Robin Hood.

Highwaymen as Heroes and Social Critics: “Paul Clifford” (1830) by Edward Bulwer Lytton

This is yet another post on highwaymen…(see here and here) – I guess maybe I’ve become obsessed with them.

The title of this post, ‘The Highwayman as a Social Critic’ is borrowed from a book which has become my Bible over the past few years, Lincoln B. Faller’s Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (1987).

Title Page: Paul Clifford (1830) by Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton.
Title Page:
Paul Clifford (1830) by Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton.

Highwaymen were, according to the eighteenth-century press, a common and frightening occurrence on Britain’s roads during that period; Henry Fielding wrote in 1751 that the streets of London were become “impassable without the utmost hazard”. Yet as Robert Shoemaker has shown, by the 1830s, the figure of the highwayman had almost vanished from Britain’s roads. Various reasons are attributed to this; Gillian Spraggs, argues that urbanisation around London eroded many highwaymen’s favourite haunts, as rural areas around the capital were built over. This is in additon to the extension of the turnpike system, which made it difficult for highwaymen to move around unnoticed, along with passengers’ increased use of traceable bank notes. According to official records, the last mounted robbery took place in 1831.

Beginning in the 1830s, however, a new literary, and briefly lived, literary genre emerged: the Newgate Novel, named after the infamous London gaol. The heroes of these novels were usually highwaymen, from the eighteenth century, and they buried the now-all-but-vanished figure of the highwayman in a cloud of nostalgia (for it is easy to romanticise a dangerous robber like a highwayman when the threat of being robbed has all but disappeared). So Newgate Novels, such as William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834) glamorised highway robbers such as the now legendary Dick Turpin (1705-1739), and another of his novels glorified the boy thief, Jack Sheppard, and, indeed, all highwaymen, evident in the ballad Ainsworth included in Rookwood:

Frontispiece to Bulwer-Lytton's Paul Clifford (1856 edition)
Frontispiece to Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1856 edition)

Of every rascal of every kind,
The most notorious to my mind,
Was the Cavalier Captain, gay Jemmy Hind
Which Nobody Can Deny

But the pleasantest coxcomb among them all,
For lute, oranto and madrigal,
Was the galliard Frenchman, Claude DuVall
Which Nobody Can Deny

Nor could any so handily break a lock,
As Sheppard, who stood on Newgate Dock,
And nicknamed the gaolers around him his flock
Which Nobody Can Deny

Nor did the highwayman ever possess,
For ease, for security, in danger, distress,
Such a mare as Dick Turpin’s Black Bess! Black Bess!
Which Nobody Can Deny.

Ainsworth called Turpin the great highwayman and explained that:

‘Turpin was the ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race, which (we were almost about to say, we regret) is now altogether extinct…with him expired the chivalrous spirit which animated successively the bosoms of so many knights of the road.

Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803-1873)
Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803-1873)

But this is post is not about Ainsworth, whom I have written about many times before, but about another author, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803-1873), and his novel, Paul Clifford (1830). Bulwer Lytton was an MP and social reformer, and his philanthropic mindset (might we say, ‘bleeding-heart-liberalism’?) comes through in his work. The hero of the novel is a fictional highwayman called Paul Clifford, living in the late eighteenth century, although the Georgian setting is merely window-dressing, a veneer, through which Lytton, and his character, Paul, can critique contemporary society and its harsh treatment of the poor. As a youth Paul is sent to gaol for a crime he did not commit. He escapes from gaol, and is forced to rob to survive. At the end of the novel he is caught but manages to escape to the Americas with his sweetheart. Lytton’s point is that it was society’s fault that Paul became a criminal. He gave the character an eloquent speech in the scene where Paul is tried at the Old Bailey:

My lord…seven years ago I was sent to the house of correction for an offence which I did not commit; I went thither, a boy who had never infringed a single law – I came forth in a few weeks a man who was prepared to break all laws! Whence was this change? – Was it my fault or that of my condemners? You had first wronged me by a punishment which I did not deserve – you wronged me yet more deeply when (even had I been guilty of the first offence) I was sentenced to herd with hardened criminals…The laws themselves caused me to break the laws.

According to Gillian Spraggs, Paul in his trial is the mouthpiece for a wider critique of society’s harsh treatment of the poor through disproportionate laws and punishments, and ‘denounce[d] the injustice of a society in which laws [were] invoked relentlessly against the poor, punish[ing] the robber, but protect[ing] the frauds and hypocrisy of tradesmen and lawyers’.

A Scene from 'The Beggar's Opera' VI 1731 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Purchased 1909 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02437
A Scene from ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ VI 1731 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Purchased 1909 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02437

It is a social commentary that has its roots in the eighteenth century; in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), for instance, sees its protagonist, the highwayman Captain MacHeath, sing the following ballad:

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!

The essence of the argument is that laws are made by the rich, to protect the rich, and unjustly punish the poor.

The trial scene in Paul Clifford is the chance that Paul gets to fully lecture the judge and the jury on the current evils of society; trial scenes were all important in the Newgate Novel, creating a space for readers to reflect upon certain practices of the law, and to see for themselves how the application of the law in certain cases may lead to injustice. Indeed, the novel was published at a time when there had already been a twenty year campaign for the reform of the penal system. Lytton’s social commentary reflected ongoing contemporary debates, particularly over the correct treatment of juvenile offenders in the 1830s and 1840s. Paul Clifford displays an awareness of the ways in which the nineteenth-century criminal justice system could entrap youths from an early age into a life of crime; once youths had been inside an institution it was extremely difficult for them to find honest employment after their spell in gaol.

Another contemporary debate surrounded how young criminals should be punished once they had been sentenced. There was, as Heather Shore explains, ‘the problem of how to differentiate between “perishing” and “dangerous” juveniles’. Paul Clifford, having ‘never infringed a single law’ would have been a child worth ‘saving’ from the effects of being placed in ‘hardening punishment’. As Shore explains further, ‘the paradox of the situation was how to control the behaviour both of those children already labelled as criminal and those who were only on the periphery of the justice system’. In the novel it was Paul’s association with hardened criminals in prison that made him prepared to break the law, and this is what Lytton is trying to tell readers in his novel. Thus Lytton’s Paul Clifford presented the figure of the highwayman as both a hero and a social critic.