Orange is the New Jacobite

Really enjoyed reading this post.

The Social Historian

The Glorious Revolution, 1688.

James II should have been one of Britain’s best kings.

His brother Charles had brought stability after the Civil Wars. Christmas was back, soldiers had gone. Puritans had shut the hell up and were allowing everyone to play football again. A trade boom had left the Crown with more money than you could shake a sceptre at (and Charles had a famously long sceptre).

For once, an Englishman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman could walk into a bar without killing each other. It was a golden age for British comedy.

Admittedly, there were some ominous signs. People were drinking coffee and reading newspapers, which made them opinionated and excitable (until they needed the loo). Quakers and other dissenters were being persecuted, and people worried – still – about where the limits of the King’s authority were and how far he could ignore Parliament like the rest…

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Kew Gardens threatened by British government

Dear Kitty. Some blog

This video is about Kew Gardens in greater London, England.

From the World Socialist Web Site:

Job cuts threatened at UK’s Kew Gardens

The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) says 125 jobs are at risk at the world-famous Kew Gardens as a result of funding cuts proposed by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs.

The PCS says the cuts would threaten the world-renowned scientific research carried out at Kew.

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Thief Takers, House-Breakers, and Highwaymen: Jonathan Wild and Organised Crime in Early-Georgian London


Organised crime is generally considered to be a modern phenomenon, yet it appears that it has existed further back in history than is generally assumed (Galeotti, 2009, p.1). London in the early-eighteenth century was a period in which Thief Takers, house-breakers and highwaymen flourished. Jonathan Wild (c.1682-1725) built one of Britain’s first organised crime networks. An examination of the way that he operated indicates that organised crime did indeed exist in early-eighteenth century London, and that it is far from being a modern phenomenon.

Organised crime has proven to be difficult to define. There is no single definition upon which policy-makers and academics agree. This is because ‘this “thing”, this phenomenon known as organised crime, cannot be defined by crimes alone…Any definition, must address and account for the elusive modifying term organised’ (Finckenaur, 2005, p.64). Many crimes are organised, in that they require a degree of organisation to be carried out, but not all crimes count as ‘organised crime’ (Finckenaur, 2005, p.76). Galeotti defines the term as, ‘a continuing enterprise, apart from traditional legal and social structures, within which a number of persons work together under their own hierarchy to gain power and profit for their private gain through illegal activities’ (Galeotti, 2009, p.6). Thus for a criminal gang to be classed as an organised crime network there has to be a structure or hierarchy within which its members, acting under instructions, engage in illegal acts for the sake of profit.

Just as people today receive their understanding of organised crime through the media and films such as The Godfather (1972) it was no different in the early-eighteenth century. Indeed ‘crime has always been a sure-fire topic for the entertainment of the public’ (Cawelti, 1975, p.326). Plays such as The Beggar’s Opera (1728) featured criminals as their heroes. Publications such as The Newgate Calendar supposedly gave contemporary readers ‘a true, fair and perfect narrative’ of the lives and trials of condemned criminals (Emsley, Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2013). In addition, there was a thriving trade in ‘Last Dying Speeches’ of criminals. These single-sheet pages containing short biographies and ballads were often sold at public executions (HLSL, 2013). Novels and criminal biographies such as Smith’s The History of the Most Noted Highway-Men, House-Breakers, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714) presented embellished accounts of the lives of criminals. Often their lives are presented as one in which, through a life of sin and vice, they eventually ended up at the gallows (Faller, 1987, p.126). The readership for this literature came primarily from ‘men and women of small property’ (Langford, 1989, p.157). By depicting the story of how criminals eventually ended at Tyburn by becoming involved in crime, the stories served a didactic purpose. By heeding the lessons in the biographies, readers could supposedly avoid the same fate (McKeon, 1987, p.98). Regarding Jonathan Wild himself there are several sources. Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) likely penned one pamphlet entitled The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). Probably the most famous account of Wild’s life comes from the mid-eighteenth century novel The Life of Jonathan Wild, the Great (1743) by Henry Fielding (1707-1754). Despite the fact that many such accounts were often embellished, they nevertheless offer fascinating glimpses into the ways in which eighteenth-century criminals, in particular Wild himself, operated.

In what type of a society, then, does organised crime emerge and flourish? English society was very unequal in the eighteenth century. Most of the working population lived below the breadline, and the top 1.2 per cent of the population controlled 14 per cent of the wealth of the nation (Porter, 1982, pp.14-15). For the most part, ‘the poor were regarded as a class apart; to be ignored except when their hardships made them boisterous’ (Williams, 1960, p.129). Additionally, the laws were often seen as weighted in favour of the rich against the poor. The law, made by those at the top of society, ‘allowed the rulers of England to make the courts a selective instrument of class justice, yet simultaneously to proclaim the law’s incorruptible impartiality and absolute determinacy’ (Hay, 1975, p.48). In The Beggar’s Opera there is a scene in which a group of highwaymen are gathered in a tavern. One highwayman asks of the other, ‘Why are the Laws levell’d at us? are we more dishonest than the rest of Mankind?’ (Gay, 1728, p.25). Moreover, London was not a pleasant place in the early-eighteenth century. In the literature of the time, the recurrent motifs of London were often ‘squalor, pestilence, ordure, [and] poverty’ (Rogers, 1972, p.3). Pickard states that, ‘the average poor family lived in one furnished room, paying a weekly rent of perhaps 2s, less for a room in the cellar…the house itself might be old…or it might be new, run up out of nothing in back alleys’ (Pickard, 2000, p.64). In this squalid environment, with its ever growing alleyways and rookeries, there was virtually no organised system of law enforcement. In fact, London did not have a professional, paid police force until 1829 with the passage of the Metropolitan Police Act. Organised crime usually emerges ‘out of the vacuum that is created by the absence of state [law] enforcement’ (Skaperdas, 2001, p.173). That is to say, that the state is either unwilling or unable to enforce its own laws. Yet eighteenth-century contemporaries appeared quite contented with this state of affairs. Jealous as they were of their hard won liberties since the Glorious Revolution of 1689, they were resistant to the idea of having a uniformed and professional police service. It seemed tyrannical, and more suited to despotic foreign states whose monarchs were absolutists (Porter, 1982, p.119). One of the most serious crimes during this period was the theft of property, as private property was deemed to be sacrosanct (Hoppit, 2000, p.480). By 1751 robbery and theft were deemed to have reached such hellish proportions that Henry Fielding felt compelled to write a pamphlet entitled An Enquiry into the Causes of the Great Increase of Robbers, &c. in which he said that:

The great Increase of Robbers within these few years…[will make] the Streets of this Town, and the Roads leading to it…impassable without the utmost Hazard, nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous Gangs of Rogues among us, than those which the Italians call the banditti (Fielding, 1751, p.1).

Thus to Fielding the increasing numbers of various criminal gangs operating in and around London was an issue which he felt deserved action.

Before Fielding established London’s first law enforcement agency in 1749 called the Bow Street Runners, the prosecution of crime was left to the victim. The victim paid the court to bring a prosecution against an offender. Part-time and unpaid parish constables usually arrested criminals if they caught them ‘red-handed’, or as the result of their capture through the ‘hue-and-cry’ (Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2006, p.1). One result of this haphazard system of crime prevention was that many victims bypassed the expensive judicial system by going to see their local Thief Taker. An interview would be held with the victim of the crime, ascertaining what items were stolen. For a fee thief takers would then arrange to miraculously recover the said stolen items (Hoppit, 2000, p.486). Thief Takers were individuals who appear to have occupied a hazy position on the borders of both the ‘upper-world’ and the ‘underworld’. As Moore says, usually they were:

Receivers of stolen goods, or fences, whose knowledge of the criminal world provided them with unique access to criminals…by the 1710s thief taking had become a complex trade involving blackmail, informing, bribery, framing and organisation of theft (Moore, 1997, p.60).

Despite their often obviously corrupt ways of operating, however, it should be noted that these individuals did play an important part in early-modern law enforcement, for without them ‘too much crime would go unpunished’ (Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2006, p.3). Hence the inadequate system of law enforcement in the early-eighteenth century gave figures such as Thief Takers a degree of legitimacy.

Jonathan Wild occupied a simultaneous position as both Thief Taker and underworld crime lord. He was born in Wolverhampton to honest and hard-working parents. He had a wife and bore a son, but unable to make it in his chosen trade as a buckle maker, he abandoned his wife and child and went to London. In London he fell upon hard times and found himself in the Wood Street Compter for debt (Defoe[?], 1725, pp.77-79). It was here that he first became acquainted with the criminal underworld. After he was released from the Compter, he set up an establishment in the St. Giles area of London, and it quickly became a favourite haunt of thieves, prostitutes, and highwaymen. The St. Giles residence was the first time that Wild tried his fortunes as a receiver of stolen goods. He was originally in the employ of another prominent Thief Taker, Charles Hitchin (c.1675-1727). However, Wild gradually moved to oust Hitchin from the business altogether, and achieved this partly by penning a tract exposing Hitchin’s homosexuality (Moore, 1997, p.85). Hitchin was subsequently disgraced, and Wild proclaimed himself ‘Thief Taker General of Great Britain’. He thus became both thief taker (in his legitimate line of work) and thief maker (as the head of an organised crime network) (Moore, 1997, p.84).

Wild would have his various gangs of thieves and highwaymen bring their stolen goods into one of his several warehouses. Victims of crime, records Defoe, would then go to Wild with a description of what was “lost” and offer a reward for the items to be recovered (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). An article would then be published in the newspaper directing the “finder” (one of Wild’s gang) of the lost article to report to Jonathan Wild and return the items. This practice of using newspaper advertisements would obscure the fact that Wild was directing all events. The advertisements usually ran in a similar manner to this one:

Lost on Friday Night last, a Green Vellum Letter-Case…If the Person who hath found this Case and Tickets &c. will bring them to Mr. Jonathan Wild in the Old Bailey…he shall have Two Guineas Reward and no Questions asked’ (Daily Courant, Nov. 22, 1715, p.2).

Everyone would be content with the outcome. The victim recovered their valuables, and bypassed an expensive prosecution (should the thief even have been caught), the criminal received a fee for returning the items, and Wild received a reward from an all-too-grateful victim. Wild made himself indispensable to his criminal subordinates, for ‘[thieves] could not subsist but by the bounty of the governor [Wild]’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). His influence over criminals was so extensive that he found it necessary to divide ‘the town and country into so many districts, and appoint[ing] gangs for each’ (Warrant of Detainer, 1725, p.261). Yet legally Wild remained guiltless. Defoe records that he ‘received nothing, delivered nothing, nor could anything be fastened to him’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). He became popular with the general public. Defoe berated his readers for being blindly taken in by Wild’s schemes:

How infatuate were the people of this nation all this while! Did they consider, that at the very time that they treated this person with such a confidence, as if he had been appointed to the trade, he had, perhaps, the very goods in his keeping, waiting the advertisement for the reward, and that, perhaps, they had been stolen with that very intention? (Defoe[?], 1725, p.96).

Wild’s position as both Thief Taker and thief maker, therefore, required collaboration with many figures in the criminal underworld such as house-breakers and highwaymen. The Beggar’s Opera was based upon the story of Wild’s criminal network (Brewer, 2013, p.345). The character Peachum, a fence, has a register of the gang listing the various talents and contributions of the criminals in his employ. Crook Finger’d Jack, for example, brought into Peachum’s warehouse ‘five Gold Watches, and Seven Silver ones’ (Gay, 1728, p.7). However, Slippery Sam was to be given up to the authorities by Peachum because he wanted to start his own criminal organisation (Ibid). This was how Wild worked. Periodically, to divert any suspicion from himself, and to keep himself popular with the authorities, Wild would abandon some of his criminals ‘[to] the mercy of the government’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.106). This happened to several of Wild’s gang, especially if the reward money for the recovery of the stolen goods was considerable. In 1716 a young gentleman named Knap and his mother were robbed in Gray’s-Inn-Gardens. The mother went to Wild and gave them a description of the robbers. From this information, ‘Wild immediately judged the gang to be composed of William White, Thomas Thurland, John Chapman…Timothy Dun and Isaac Rag’ (Anon. 1774, p.89). For the sake of reward money, these members of Wild’s own gang were ‘soon after executed at Tyburn’ (Anon. 1774, p.92). Jonathan Wild was thus akin to a modern-day godfather, directing and controlling various gangs of thieves in his employ, and giving them up to the authorities once they had served their usefulness.

Moreover, Jonathan Wild and his criminal underlings were motivated solely by profit. Profit as the sole motivational factor behind organised crime is what distinguishes it from terrorism. Organised crime is non-ideological (Wright, 2006, p.11). Avarice and the pursuit of profit alone drove Wild throughout his career (Defoe[?], 1725, p.100). He amassed a fortune which amounted to approximately £10,000 pounds (H.D., 1725, p.217). Some thieves and highwaymen during this period did try to present themselves as having noble intentions. Linebaugh points to the case of one highwayman, Thomas Easter, who when he was robbing a gentleman in 1722 exclaimed, ‘I rob the Rich to give to the Poor’ (Linebaugh, 1991, p.187). It is true that many criminals during this period were popular with the public, especially the poor. Hobsbawm in the 1960s advanced the theory of social banditry. Social bandits, he said, ‘are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice’ (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.17). As a left-wing, Marxist historian, Hobsbawm was probably all-too eager to sympathise with any figure even slightly anti-establishment. The truth is, however, that for every gentlemanly Claude DuVall or Dick Turpin, there were enough highwaymen who were also nasty brutes. Fielding had a slightly more realistic idea of how highwaymen targeted rich and poor people. His novel Joseph Andrews (1742) depicts a scene where the penniless Joseph is set upon and robbed by a gang of highwaymen, whom he terms ‘ruffians’ (Fielding, 1742, p.46). Fielding probably had a more realistic concept of the ways in which criminal gangs operated from the time that he spent serving as Magistrate of Westminster. Indeed, it is in all likelihood the case that early-modern criminals such as highwaymen and bandits, ‘quite often terrorised those from whose very ranks they managed to rise’ (Blok, 2000, p.16). Nevertheless, highwaymen such as Dick Turpin, and house-breakers such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) continued to be popular figures throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth.

Perhaps these criminals were popular in the press in the same way that mobsters are in films today. Movies such as Goodfellas glorify and glamorise organised crime. For example, in Goodfellas, the narrating character Henry Hill starts off his story with the line; ‘as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster’ (Scorsese, 1990). As a child the character in that film admired the rich and flashy lifestyle of the mafia gangs that controlled his neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York. Similarly in the eighteenth century, ‘crime had about it an air (however illusory) of glamour, and brought with it the hope (however short-term) of liberty’ (Moore, 2001, xi). Thus despite the fact that these members of organised criminal gangs tried to present themselves as having noble intentions, their sole motivation was their own private gain.

Along with their apparently noble motives for robbing people, criminals in the eighteenth century allegedly behaved politely towards their victims. Their code of honour appears to have been polite gentlemanliness. Politeness in this period was a public code of conduct which emphasised good manners (Langford, 1989, p.1). Wild aspired to ‘live like a gentleman’ (H.D., 1725, p.203). Langford states that ‘the English criminal was credited with a certain sense of generosity and chivalry…Defoe described it as an “English way of Robbing generously, as they called it, without Murthering or Wounding”’ (Langford, 2000, p.p.145). This code of conduct was not restricted solely to Wild’s gang. Spraggs points to the case of other highwaymen later in the century. James Maclaine, the archetypal gentlemanly highwayman, once wrote a letter of apology to Horace Walpole after his pistol accidentally misfired when he robbed Walpole’s coach (Spraggs, 2001, p.185). As Captain MacHeath the highwaymen tells his fellow robbers in The Beggar’s Opera, ‘Act with Conduct and Discretion, A Pistol is your last resort’ (Gay, 1728, p.27). Similarly, the mafia today also are supposed to be men of honour and respect (Cottino, 2000, p.116). Nevertheless, lurking behind this gentlemanly façade was the threat of violence. The use of or the willingness to use violence is a characteristic of many organised criminal groups (Wright, 2006, p.12). Despite Wild’s pretensions to gentility, for example, he was still at heart a brutish man. This was evident when he fell into dispute with his second wife in London, Mary Milliner. Wild said that he, ‘would “mark her for a bitch”, and instantly drawing his sword struck at her, and cut off one of her ears’ (Anon., 1774, p.80). Additionally, despite the prevailing stereotype of highwaymen as polite gentlemen, Smith in 1714 recorded the case of a gang of highwaymen who mercilessly killed every male traveller in a stage coach (Smith, 1714, pp.3-4). Thus members of London’s eighteenth-century criminal underworld appear to have been more than willing to use violence against their victims.

Furthermore, another characteristic of any organised crime groups is that, despite the death of their leader, the group still continues to exist. Organised crime is said to be ‘a continuing enterprise’ (Galeotti, 2009, p.6 emphasis added). Wild was finally caught out by the authorities in February 1725 for attempting to help one of his gang members to escape from gaol (Moore, 1997, p.239). One by one, as the charges against him mounted, many criminals formerly in his employ turned evidence against him. He was finally executed on 24th May 1725. There is no conclusive evidence that Wild ever had a successor. However, Wild himself, in a pamphlet he allegedly authored entitled Jonathan Wild’s Advice to his Successor (1725) thought that someone would succeed him. This pamphlet laid out instructions for whoever would take over. An eighteenth-century organised crime lord should form ‘a proper connection with all the villains of the town…but if any overzealous officer of justice should happen to detect them, give them up to the law’ (Wild[?], 1725, p.264). Thief taking certainly existed after Wild met his end. Indeed, there is evidence that some thief takers were still recovering “lost” goods for victims of crime in the 1730s through ‘means not always clear and occasionally suspect’ (Beattie, 1986, p.56). If anyone did directly succeed Wild, perhaps he was simply more discreet. In any case, there is no doubt that during this period crime was perceived by the public and the government as having increased (Langford, 1989, p.155). Thus it is reasonable to suppose that, even if no one directly took over Wild’s business – though this is what he expected – different thief takers were still operating in the same ways as Wild.

In addition, the eighteenth-century world of organised crime was by no means exclusively male-gendered. Firstly, it was the fallen woman who was seen as first leading men astray into the criminal underworld. Wild’s first acquaintance with his second wife in London, Mary Milliner, led him into ‘wicked ways of living’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.6). Similarly, the infamous house-breaker Jack Sheppard was led into a life of organised crime because of meeting Edgeworth Bess. This meeting, records Defoe, ‘laid the foundation of his ruin’ (Defoe[?], 1724, p.6). Filch’s song in The Beggar’s Opera encapsulates this view of the role of women in eighteenth-century organised crime: ‘Tis Woman that seduces all Mankind, by her we first were taught the Wheedling Arts’ (Gay, 1728, p.6). Most male criminals were portrayed as sympathetic creatures on this account in their biographies. They were ‘at worst a person with a tragic fatal flaw – like MacHeath’s weakness for women…led [them] into making a tragic error of judgment’ (Brewer, 2013, p.351). Women often collaborated with footpads and robbers in the buttock-and-file method of robbing people. In this method, the woman, who was usually a prostitute, enticed a victim down a dark alley with the offer of sex. The male companion then attacked the unsuspecting customer and robbed him. The City Marshall’s Account of Jonathan Wild (1725) states that Wild and Milliner first started in this way (Anon., 1774, p.83). Thus the eighteenth-century world of organised crime was one in which both genders could play a part.

Ticket to the execution of Wild at Tyburn in 1725

Ticket to the execution of Wild at Tyburn in 1725

In conclusion, it is clear that organised crime existed in early-eighteenth century London. Jonathan Wild constructed a network around him of thieves, footpads, and highwaymen. He controlled and directed their activities. There were no lofty motives behind his actions. He was not, despite Hobsbawm’s theory of social banditry and social crime, striking back against the state. Indeed, when Wild was carted off, the crowd ‘treated [Wild] with remarkable severity…execrating him as the most consummate villain that had ever disgraced human nature’ (Anon., 1774, p.110). Profit was his driving force. Wild grew rich from the proceeds of crime. Moreover, his network, or one very similar to it, likely existed after his death. After all, robbers would have had to dispose of their stolen good somewhere. Nevertheless, Wild was able to flourish because of the society in which he lived. Many people lived on the breadline. The laws were perceived as unfairly weighted against the poor. Additionally, there was a lack of adequate law enforcement, and the judicial system made the victim of crime pay out of their own pocket to prosecute an offender who had wronged them, assuming the thief was ever caught. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that many people turned to thief takers to recover their stolen property, with no questions asked. Ultimately, therefore, organised crime is far from being a modern phenomenon.


Primary Sources

Anon. (1774). ‘Jonathan Wild’. In Birkett, N. ed. (1951). The Newgate Calendar. London: Folio Society

Daily Courant (1715) ‘Notices’. November 22nd pp.1-2

Defoe, D.[?] (1724). ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’. In Holmes, R. ed. (2004). Defoe on Sheppard and Wild. London: Harper

Defoe, D.[?] (1725). ‘The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild’. In Holmes, R. ed. (2004). Defoe on Sheppard and Wild. London: Harper

Fielding, H. (1751). An Enquiry into the Causes of the Great Increase of Robbers, &c. Dublin: G. Faulkner

Fielding, H. (1742). ‘Joseph Andrews’. Joseph Andrews & Shamela (1998). London: Everyman

Gay, J. (1728). ‘The Beggar’s Opera’. The Beggar’s Opera & Polly (2013). Oxford: Oxford University Press

H.D. (1725). ‘The Life of Jonathan Wild from his Birth to his Death’. In Rawson, C. ed. (2003). Jonathan Wild. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Smith, A. (1714). The History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highway-men, Foot-Pads, House-Breakers, Shop-Lifts, and Cheats, of both Sexes, for above Fifty Years Past. London: J. Morphew

Warrant of Detainer (1725). In Moore, L. ed. (2001). Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld. London: Penguin

Wild, J.[?] (1725). Jonathan Wild’s Advice to his Successor. In Moore, L. ed. (2001). Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld. London: Penguin

Secondary Sources

Beattie, J. M. (1986). Crime and the Courts in England, 1660-1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Blok, A. (2000). Honour and Violence. London: Polity

Brewer, J. (2013). Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century. London: Routledge

Cawelti, J. G.(1975). ‘The New Mythology of Crime’. Boundary 2 3(2) pp.324-357

Cottino, A. (2000). ‘Sicilian Cultures of Violence: The interconnections between organized crime and local society’. Crime, Law, and Social Change No.32 pp.103-113

Emsley, C., Hitchcock, T. & Shoemaker, R. (2013). ‘The Proceedings – Associated Records’ [Internet] Old Bailey Proceedings Online [20/09/2013]

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

Finckenaur, J.O. (2005). ‘Problems of Definition: What is Organised Crime?’ Trends in Organized Crime 8(3) pp.63-83

Galeotti, M. (2009). ‘Criminal Histories: An introduction’. In Galeotti, M. ed. (2009). Organised Crime in History. London: Routledge

Hay, D. (1975). ‘Property, Authority, and the Criminal Law’. Albion’s Fatal Tree. London: Verso

Harvard Library School of Law [HLSL] (2013). ‘Dying Speeches and Bloody Murders: Crime Broadsides Collected by the Harvard Law School Library’. [Internet] [28/09/2013]

Hitchcock, T. & Shoemaker, R. (2006). Tales from the Hanging Court. London: Hodder

Hobsbawm, E. (1969). Bandits. London: Penguin

Hoppit, J. (2000). A Land of Liberty? England 1689-1727. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Langford, P. (1989). A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Langford, P. (2000). Englishness Identified: Manners and Character 1650-1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Linebaugh, P. (1991). The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. London: Penguin

Moore, L. (1997). The Thieves’ Opera. London: Penguin

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

McKeon, M. (1987). The Origins of the English Novel 1600-1747. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

Pickard, L. (2000). Dr. Johnson’s London: Life in London 1740-1770. London: Phoenix

Porter, R. (1982). English Society in the Eighteenth Century. London: Penguin

Rogers, P. (1972). Hacks and Dunces: Pope, Swift, and Grub Street. London: Methuen

Skaperdas, S. (2001). ‘The political economy of organised crime: providing protection when the state does not’. Economics of Governance (2) pp.173-202

Spraggs, G. (2001). Outlaws and Highwaymen: The Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century. London: Pimlico

Williams, B. (1960). The Whig Supremacy 1714-1760. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Wright, A. (2006). Organised Crime. New York: Routledge

Visual Media Sources

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

Connell’s theory of “hegemonic masculinity” and its contribution to the “history of masculinities” – by Stephen Basdeo

The historian E. A. Rotundo, in his study American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (1993), remarked that, like all cultural inventions, manhood has a history (Rotundo, 1993, p.1). Indeed, while much of the research within the field of gender history is often perceived to be woman-centred, recently the subject of masculinity has begun to be addressed as a topic in its own right (Green and Troup, 1999, p.253). The word ‘masculinity’ is defined as ‘the possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 2013). With a particular reference to sexuality, and a review of some of the themes in the relevant literature, this essay discusses the reasons why historians should now be speaking in terms of the concept of masculinities.

The shift in gender history research from the history of masculinity to that of the history of masculinities is due largely to what Tosh has called ‘the fruitful enquiries of historians’ (Tosh, 2005, pp.14-15). Recent works regarding manliness have illustrated how the concept of masculinity has changed over time. Philip Carter, for instance, in Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, Britain 1660-1800 (2001), has illustrated the way in which, for the majority of the eighteenth century, the concept of manliness was intertwined with exterior politeness and refinement (Carter, 2001, p.1). Manliness was in this early period a code of behavior to be practiced within the public sphere. Additionally, Matthew McCormack in The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England (2005) explored the way in which, as the eighteenth century progressed into the nineteenth century, ‘exterior’ politeness was cast aside in favour of ‘inner’ manly simplicity (McCormack, 2005, p.207). Thus even a brief overview of some of the recent historiography in the history of manliness and gender has demonstrated that one form of masculinity can often give way to another form. It is, therefore, justified to speak of the history of masculinities.

It was the work of an Australian sociologist named R. W. Connell, however, that first provided the impetus for the new direction that research into the concept of masculinity and its history would take. In 1987 she published Gender and Power. In that work, she argued that there is no single, unchanging form of masculinity. There is in modern Western societies, rather, what is known as ‘hegemonic masculinity’. This, she said, was a culturally dominant form, or idealization of masculinity, which prevails over other forms. As Connell explained:

Hegemonic masculinity is constructed in relation to women and subordinated masculinities. These other masculinities need not be clearly defined – indeed, achieving hegemony may consist precisely in preventing alternatives gaining cultural recognition…confining them to ghettoes, to unconsciousness. The most important feature of contemporary hegemonic masculinity is that it is heterosexual, being closely connected with the institution of marriage; and a key form of subordinated masculinity is homosexual (Connell, 1987, p.61).

As Connell’s work implies, in a modern society, a man does not need to possess the qualities of the culturally dominant form of masculinity to be considered ‘manly’ or masculine. Homosexuality, as she shows, is simply a ‘subordinated’ form of masculinity, but a form of it nonetheless. This is despite the fact that, even in many modern Western societies, many people still regard homosexuality as the negation of masculinity (Connell, 1992, p.736). The only limitation to Connell’s theory is the emphasis which she places upon the role of mass media in sustaining hegemonic masculinity. This, Tosh says, limits the application of the theory prior to the 1880s. This is because it was only at that time, he says, that ‘the stage and the printed word began shaping gender identification (Tosh, 2005, p.44). Nevertheless, Connell’s thesis made it possible for historians to start studying the history of masculinities.

The period from around c.1790 until c.1850 was one in which, politically and economically, the middle classes gained power and influence in nineteenth-century society (James, 2006, p.232). As a result of the middle classes thinking of themselves as increasingly ‘respectable’, in their minds the notion of a familial and godly home life was elevated (Gatrell, 2006, pp.425-426). Tosh’s work entitled A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (1999) studied the changing dominant masculine ideal between 1830, the heyday of domesticity, until c.1880, at which time the “flight from domesticity” occurred. It was in the latter period that manliness became associated with service to the empire (Thompson, 2005, p.97). Just as Connell stated that hegemonic masculinity in modern Western societies was closely connected to heterosexuality and the institution of marriage, it was no different in the Victorian era. ‘The home’ states Tosh, ‘was central to masculinity’ and it was through marriage and independence that ‘the man attained full adult status as householder’ (Tosh, 1999, p.2). In fact, it was said by Samuel Smiles (1812-1904), the author of the popular nineteenth-century book Self Help (1859) that, ‘a man’s real character…his manliness, is most surely displayed in the home’ (Tosh, 1991, p.44). Indeed, marriage and procreation during the Victorian period was the two defining pillars of Christian sexual morality (Oosterhuis, 2000, p.21). Consequently, it was perceived by nineteenth-century contemporaries that ‘the complete transition to manhood depended on marriage’ (Tosh, 1999, p.108). Despite Tosh’s admission that the concept of hegemonic masculinity has a limited historical application prior to the emergence of mass media in the 1880s, the theory does have some currency here. After all, Victorian men found the idealization of domesticity, of ‘home, sweet home’, embedded within mid-Victorian visual and material culture. It was found in ‘silver-framed photographs, genre paintings of family scenes, mugs and pots exuding cheerful domesticity’ (Hoppen, 1998, p.316). In effect, Victorian males saw the domesticated, hegemonic masculine ideal perpetuated around them. Tosh further illustrates that, during the mid-Victorian period when domesticity was at its height, heterosexual sex was important to masculinity, being viewed as ‘a rite de passage to manhood’ (Tosh, 1999, p.108). In fact, ‘manliness always presumed a liberal endowment of sexual energy…There was a strong tradition at all levels of society that, in young men especially, the libido should be released in full relations with the other sex’ (Tosh, 1999, p.112). This presents a contrasting view to how sex during the Victorian period is normally viewed. The word ‘Victorian’ for instance, often signifies to modern readers and scholars alike, a ‘repressive sexual puritanism’ (Weeks, 1981, p.19). For the majority of the nineteenth century, therefore, the hegemonic masculine ideal was an image of the heterosexual, respectable and domesticated middle-class male. This, as Mosse (1996, p.79) says, stood for the image that Victorian society liked to have of itself – godly, moral, and respectable.

Mosse further states that the ideology attached to manliness at any one time becomes the standard by which all other forms of masculinity are measured (Mosse, 1996, p.56). It follows, then, that men who were perceived as not measuring up to this ideal were regarded as unmanly. This was especially true with regard to sexuality – just as Connell intimated that many people in today’s society regard homosexuality as a negation of masculinity. The history of Victorian sexuality in general has often been thought of as the preserve of popular, sensationalist histories. However, in recent years, argued Halperin, it has evolved to become ‘a respectable academic discipline’ (cited in Cocks, 2006, p.1212). Much of the academic scholarship concerning sexuality has been the result of the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984). In his work The History of Sexuality (1978) he presented sexuality as a ‘conceptual, experiential, and institutional apparatus that modernity has built around the body and its erotic pleasures’ (Cocks, 2006, p.1211). In addition, Weeks states further that sexuality is ‘a peculiarly sensitive conductor of cultural influences, and hence of social, political and cultural divisions’ (Weeks, 1986, p.2). In particular, it was during the nineteenth century that sexuality became an ethical and moral debate (Ibid). Thus sexuality, and society’s attitudes towards it, has a history.

There has since Foucault emerged a fascinating body of literature dealing with gay history. It grew out of the public interest in the new gay “scene” of the 1970s (Weeks, 1991, p.5). Recently, Rictor Norton has written a lively and entertaining account of the eighteenth-century mollies in Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830 (1992). Research into the history of homosexuality has been further stimulated by the emergence of Queer Theory in the 1990s. This approach involves reading texts ‘against the grain’ in order to draw out their homosexual undercurrents, and past evidences of ‘difference’ and ‘deviance’ (Morgan, 2006, p.22). This is because, for much of history, there was not even a term by which to identify the homosexual. In fact the word ‘homosexual’ was only coined in 1869 (Searle, 2004, p.74). Foucault pointed out how, as the public discourse of ‘manliness’ was being emphasised in the nineteenth century, so the figure of the homosexual was also created (Foucault, 1978, p.43). Thus the influence of Foucault’s thinking has made scholars aware that, just as sexuality has a history, so too does homosexuality.

The cases which are usually focused upon for evidence of contemporary views toward the figure of the homosexual are usually the Vere Street scandals and the Oscar Wilde trial in the late-nineteenth century. Wilde was arrested in 1895 for ‘gross indecency’ under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (Edwards, 2004). What is interesting about Wilde’s case is that he was prosecuted as a homosexual. Previously, as in the eighteenth-century molly trials, it was the act, or ‘sin’ of sodomy that was tried and punished, not a person’s sexual orientation itself (Norton, 1992, p.107). As Foucault pointed out, the late nineteenth century saw the homosexual ‘become a personage, a past, a case study, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life’ (Foucault, 1978, p.43). As Searle states:

The turning point came with the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which by criminalizing ‘gross indecency’ between males even in private, went a long way towards creating (or ‘constructing’) homosexuality as a clearly defined condition…previously sexual relationships between men had generally been explained as a consequence of a superfluity of male sexual energy, not as a distinctive pathological condition (Searle, 2004, p.74).

It should be noted, however, that not all scholars agree fully with Foucault and Searle. For instance, Trumbach has argued that by the eighteenth century there was indeed a definitive homosexual type, in the person of the molly (Carter, 2001, p.7). Whatever the case, in Victorian society, which thought of itself as respectable, the countertype of the hegemonic masculine ideal – the homosexual, which was becoming certainly more visible – must have been unsettling. As Brady illustrates, ‘the existence of sex and sexuality between men created a dilemma in a society that placed so much emphasis on the family and the responsibilities and the expectations of individual male heads of households’ (Brady, 2009, p.25). Yet as Connell says, homosexuality is simply a form of subordinated masculinity (Connell, 1987, p.61). If the definition of masculinity employed in the introduction is correct, that it is ‘the possession of qualities’ associated with being male, then one can be both homosexual and masculine simultaneously. The homosexual man during the Victorian period was still a man in the biological sense of the word. In fact, in terms of sexuality and sexual practices, many homosexuals in the nineteenth century often assumed older, socially acceptable forms of manliness. Oscar Wilde, for example, promoted himself as a type of Regency dandy (Searle, 2004, p.579). The dandy in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, had been a perfectly acceptable form of polite gentlemanliness until it gave way to ‘manliness’ in the Victorian period (Tosh, 2005, pp.85-86). The figure of the homosexual represented merely the countertype to the hegemonic masculine type, and it is clear that two masculinities – the (dominant) heterosexual and the (subordinated) homosexual – could exist simultaneously. Thus in the nineteenth century there did exist masculinities instead of one single form of masculinity.

In conclusion, from the evidence above, it is clear that there is no single, stable and unchanging form of masculinity. Thanks to Connell’s work on the concept of hegemonic masculinity and the recent works of gender historians who have built upon her work, it has been illustrated that masculinity is a changing concept. Ideologies of manliness only achieve cultural hegemony through the subordination of other forms of masculinity. The cases studied in the essay have shown how the culturally dominant form of heterosexual and ‘manly’ ideals in the nineteenth century had in subordination to them the countertype of homosexual masculinity. Perhaps realising that dominant forms of masculinity are subject to change, and exist in relation to subordinated forms of masculinity can help to account for the so-called ‘crisis of masculinity’ discussed by sociologists. For, as Beynon said, if masculinity is subject to change, and it exists alongside other forms of masculinity, then surely masculinity to a certain extent is always in crisis (Beynon, 2002, pp.89-93). Thus historians should now be speaking, as many of them do, in terms of the history of masculinities.


Beynon, J. (2002). Masculinities and Culture. London: Open University Press.

Brady, S. (2009). Masculinity and Male Homosexuality, 1861-1913. Basingstoke: Palgrave

Carter, P. (2001). Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, Britain 1660-1800. Harlow: Pearson.

Connell, R. W. (1987). ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’. In Jackson, S. & Scott, S. eds. (2002). Gender: A Sociological Reader. London: Routledge.

Connell, R. W. (1992). ‘A Very Straight Gay: Masculinity, Homosexual Experience, and the Dynamics of Gender’. The American Sociological Review. 57(6) pp.735-751.

Cocks, H. G. (2006), ‘Modernity and the Self in the History of Sexuality’. The Historical Journal 49(4) pp. 1211-1227.

Edwards, O. D. (2004). ‘Oscar Wilde’. In The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. [Internet] [accessed 20/05/2013].

Foucault, M. (1978). A History of Sexuality, Volume One: Introduction. New York: Pantheon Books.

Gatrell, V. A. C. (2006). City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London. London: Atlantic Books.

Green, A. & Troup, K. eds. (1999). The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Hoppen, K. T. (1998). The Mid-Victorian Generation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McCormack, M. (2005). The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Morgan, S. (2006). ‘Introduction’. In Morgan, S. ed. (2006). The Feminist History Reader. London: Routledge.

Mosse, G. (1996). The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Norton, R. (1992). Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830. London: GMP Publishers.

Oosterhuis, H. (2000). Stepchildren of Nature: Kraft-Ebiong, Psychiatry and the Making of Sexual Identity. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

The Oxford English Dictionary Online (2013). ‘Masculinity’. [Internet] [Accessed 20/05/2013].

Rotundo, E. A. (1993). American Manhood: Transformation in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. New York: Basic Books.

Searle, G. R. (2004). A New England? Peace and War, 1886-1918. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, A. (2005). The Empire Strikes Back? London: Pearson.

Tosh, J. (2005). Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Harlow: Pearson.

Tosh, J. (1999). A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England. Yale University Press.

Tosh, J. (1991). ‘Domesticity and Manliness in the Victorian Middle Class: The Family of Edward White Benson’. In Roper, M. & Tosh, J. eds. (1991). Masculinities in Britain since 1800. London: Routledge.

Weeks, J. (1991). Against Nature: essays on history, sexuality and identity. London: Rivers Oram Press.

Weeks, J. (1986). Sexuality. London: Routledge.Weeks, J. (1981). Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Society since 1800. London: Longman.

The ideal of domesticity presented in this painting. Domesticity was a dominant form of masculinity between c.1830-c.1880

The ideal of domesticity presented in this painting. Domesticity was a dominant form of masculinity between c.1830-c.1880

An 18th Century Molly

A Discussion of “The Life of Olaudah Equiano”

The slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1807. However, it was during the late-eighteenth century that the Abolition movement in Britain gained momentum. In 1772, a judge, Lord Mansfield, had already ruled that slavery in England itself was neither ‘allowed nor approved by the law’ (Howell, 1816, p.82). Olaudah Equiano’s narrative of his life as a slave, published in 1789, was written to convince the public of the evils of the slave trade. This essay is an analysis of Equiano’s narrative which will particularly focus on the religious themes in his book, and how he used these themes to convincingly convey his message.

Equiano’s narrative places his birth in the year c.1745 in the Essaka region of Africa (Equiano, 1789, p.10). Carretta raised a debate concerning the validity of Equiano’s claim to having been a native of Africa. Carretta found that certain naval ships’ logs listed Equiano as a native of the American Carolinas (Field, 2009, p.16). Carretta argued that Equiano’s narrative was in fact a representation of various slaves’ experiences, embellished to further the cause of Abolition (Bugg, 2006, p.1426). However, in this review, the account of Equiano’s birth as a native of Africa will be taken at face value.

The narrative contained an account of Equiano’s life in Africa. The narrative then moved on, giving the account of how he was captured when he was a young boy and sold into slavery. In his life as a slave, Equiano witnessed and was subjected to ‘various interesting instances of oppression, cruelty, and extortion’ (Equiano, 1789, p.8). In the latter half of his narrative, Equiano detailed his conversion to Christianity, freedom, and his work in the Abolition movement. The intended audience of this narrative was the literate members of society in the middle and upper classes in Britain, particularly those who sympathised with the Abolitionists. The 1814 ‘Preface’ to Equiano’s narrative listed some of the subscribers to Equiano’s work. A large cross section of the elites of society is revealed. There are members of the royal family, the Dukes of Marlborough, Northumberland, and Bedford, and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism (Equiano, 1789, p.3). Additionally, Equiano dedicated his narrative to the House of Commons and the House of Lords, in the hope that when the matter of abolition was raised in Parliament, they would vote for it (Equiano, 1789, p.2). Thus Equiano had tried to reach as many influential members of society as was possible.

Equiano’s life was presented as a spiritual journey. The Christian tone is marked from the outset with a Biblical quotation on the first page; ‘Behold, God is my shepherd, I will trust and not be afraid for the Lord Jehovah is my strength’ (Equiano, 1789, p.1). Equiano’s frequent citation of Biblical texts supported his purpose of convincing his readers of the evils of the slave trade. Many times, simply to survive, Equiano found himself having to trust in ‘God’s providence’ (Equiano, 1789, p.97), or ‘call on the God of Heaven to assist [him]’ (Equiano, 1789, p.116). Furthermore, as Equiano was a Christian, was he not also, in the words of Wedgewood’s motto, a man and a brother? To emphasise the fact that black slaves were not sub-humans, Equiano quoted another scripture, Acts XVII: 26, which stated that God made ‘of one blood all the nations of men for to dwell upon the earth’ (Equiano, 1789, p.22). Equiano’s Christian journey was therefore included in his narrative to refute the prevailing racist ideology that endorsed slavery on religious and racial grounds (Corley, 2002, p.146). The religious language employed by the Abolitionists was powerful enough in people’s minds to eventually outweigh the economic arguments for the continuance of the slave trade. As Hilton has observed:

For a long time it was fashionable to suppose that the religious language used by anti-slavery campaigners was humbug, and that Britain took the lead in Abolition because its colonial sugar islands were no longer profitable…However, most historians today believe that Britain derived considerable and still increasing benefit from slave sugar (Hilton, 2006, p.120).

Equiano’s Christian message was conveyed to his readers in a direct manner. He wrote in the first person. Yet he was clear that although the narrative was his life story, he stressed that his story could be applicable to any of his countrymen. This was because he believed that although his sufferings had been great, when he compared his sufferings to those of his countrymen, they were nothing (Equiano, 1789, p.10). This style of writing was successful for sales of the book were high. Ultimately, ‘his first-hand account of the brutalities of the slave trade played a major role in informing and influencing popular opinion and became a roaring success’ (Hague, 2007, p.120). Thus an appeal to people’s Christian morals, combined with a direct way of conveying his message, was successful and achieved its intended purpose.

Unwittingly, Equiano’s narrative reveals certain aspects of pre-colonial African society. Men were allowed to practise plural marriage, yet adultery was illegal among African women, and the penalty for many crimes was to be sold into slavery (Equiano, 1789, p.11). Battles between the small African kingdoms were common. After these battles, prisoners of war on the losing side were often enslaved (Ibid p.11). These battles were probably in part fuelled by Europe’s demands for slaves. The prominent contemporary abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce blamed Africa’s internal instability on Europe’s slave traders. They held that the slave trade ‘plunged [Africa] into a chaos of gory internecine wars, and the responsibility for these endless wars and slave hunts lay with the Europeans’ (Abramova, 1978, p.22). Thus the prevalence of wars, slave hunts, and the frequent punishment of crimes with slavery, which Equiano described, can be attributed to the slave trade.

In conclusion, Equiano’s narrative is useful for studying the history of the slave trade, doubts about his origin notwithstanding. His narrative provides a convincing, first-person account of the evils of the slave trade. Additionally, it illuminates the way in which the Abolitionists, in many ways the first pressure-group, conveyed their message, namely, by an appeal to their readers’ morals. Finally, the narrative unwittingly illuminates aspects of pre-nineteenth-century colonial Africa.

Abramova, S.U. (1978). ‘Ideological, doctrinal, philosophical, religious and political aspects of the African slave trade’ in UNESCO (1979) The African Slave Trade from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century. Paris: United Nations Publications

Bugg, J. (2006). ‘The Other Interesting Narrative: Olaudah Equiano’s Public Book Tour’. PMLA 121(5) pp.1424-1442

Corley, I. (2002). ‘The Subject of Abolitionist Rhetoric: Freedom and Trauma in “The Life of Olaudah Equiano”’. Modern Language Studies 32(2) pp.139-156

Equiano, O. (1789). The Life of Olaudah Equiano 1999 Edition. New York: Dover Publications

Field, E.D. (2009). ‘“Excepting Himself”: Olaudah Equiano, Native Americans, and the Civilizing Misssion’. MELUS 34(4) pp.15-38

Hague, W. (2007). William Wilberforce. London: Harper

Hilton, B. (2006). The New Oxford History of England: A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? Oxford: Oxford University Press

Howell (1816). State Trials. Vol.20 Columns 1-6 pp.79-82

“Since Laws Were Made for Ev’ry Degree”


A sorrowful Captain MacHeath (played here by Roger Daltrey) in “The Beggar’s Opera” (1728) sings of how the rich often escape the worst consequences of the law, whilst those lower down the social scale in society are made to feel the full weight of the law.

I don’t often get involved in contemporary politics. However, think for a moment; so-called benefit cheats are prosecuted vehemently nowadays whilst rich bankers (who also steal tax payers’ money) get off scot-free…

The Imperialist Roots of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew – by Stephen Basdeo



The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew were founded by Princess Augusta (1713-1772) in the 1760s. In 1838 a Royal Commission was set up to inquire into the future of the gardens. The Commission concluded that, after years of official neglect, ‘the gardens should either be put on a professional footing or be closed’ (Blomfield, 1992, p.23). The government took the first option and throughout the rest of the nineteenth-century Kew gardens developed and expanded its activities. The following essay will account for the development of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew after 1840 by illustrating that three factors contributed to this. These factors were moves towards rational recreation among the middle classes, imperialism, and in the twentieth-century, conservationism.

In 1840 Britain was a changing society. The emerging middle classes during this period had at their disposal more wealth and more leisure time. This increase of affluence and leisure time coincided with a growing interest in horticulture and gardening among the middle classes (McCracken, 1997, p.74). This growing interest in gardening and horticulture blended with the prevailing nineteenth-century ideas of engaging in what was known as ‘rational recreation’. Along with the public city parks which were opening during this period, such as Derby Arboretum (1833), and Peels Park, Salford (1840), the Royal Botanical Gardens was established to help people ‘improve’ themselves. For example, botanical gardens such as Kew offered, ‘improvement through the findings of natural science’ (Clark, 1973, p.35). Judging by the number of visitors that the Royal Botanical Gardens were receiving, it is evident that many in the middle classes embraced this form of recreation. For example, by 1850 the gardens at Kew were receiving 179,627 visitors per year (Brockway, 1979a, p.81). Thus from the outset the gardens role as a place of rational recreation was popular with the public.

The role of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, however, was to essentially be an agent of empire during the nineteenth century. William Thistleton-Dyer (1843-1928), the third Director of Kew gardens, penned a pamphlet in 1880 entitled The Botanical Enterprise of the Empire. In the pamphlet Thistleton-Dyer had summed up his vision of the gardens’ role in relation to the empire. He stated that Kew should be a ‘botanical clearing-house or exchange for the empire’ (Thistleton-Dyer, 1880, p.6). From the 1840s onwards Kew gardens received substantial government grants. This was because the British nation in general was in an expansive mood after their victory in the Napoleonic Wars and science and colonial activity was a high priority for the government (Brockway, 1979a, p.77). There came to be, therefore, ‘a close connection between imperial expansion and government support for science’ (Brockway, 1979a, p.77).

To further their aims in assisting the expansion of the British Empire, the Directors of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew took steps to ensure that the gardens became the nerve centre of a network of colonial botanical gardens. One of the aims of the gardens was to coordinate ‘the efforts of the many gardens in the British colonies and dependencies, such as Calcutta, Bombay, Saharanpur, the Mauritius, Sidney, and Trinidad, whose utility [was] wasted for want of unity and central direction’ (Brockway, 1979b, p.452). As the centre of a network of colonial botanical gardens, Kew trained up specialist botanists and sent them forth into different parts of the empire. Nathaniel Wilson (1809-1874) had served at Kew gardens and was subsequently appointed to the botanical gardens in Jamaica. He took with him to Jamaica various seed including mangoes and pineapples. The emphasis in this enterprise was upon ‘economic botany’. Economic botany was the planting of seeds and reintroduction of plants which had commercial value for the empire. The experiment in economic botany with pineapples in Jamaica was a success. So successful it was, in fact, that in 1897 it seemed that there was nothing which could prevent Jamaica from becoming, ‘for the quality, variety, and commercial value of its fruit, the most noted spot in the world’ (Fawcett, 1897, p.351). The successful experiment with pineapples in Jamaica has had effects which have lasted into modern times. In 2009 pineapples ranked among Jamaica’s top twenty exports, with the country now exporting over 21,368 metric tonnes per annum (FAO, 2010). Thus Kew gardens had successfully introduced a commercially valuable plant into one part of the British Empire, it thrived, and the effects of this enterprise are felt even today.

Two case studies follow which illustrate Kew’s policies of economic botany serving the needs of empire. The first study is that of the cinchona transfer. Malaria had claimed many a life of the British soldier serving in the tropical climates in the nineteenth century. Quinine, which is used to treat malaria, is extracted from the cinchona bark. The plant itself was originally native to South America. It was one of the region’s most valuable exports. The British government was spending £53,000 per year to purchase quinine for troops in India (Brockway, 1979a, p.113). The East India Company, which governed large areas of India, had previously rejected attempts to introduce cinchona into India. They stated that, ‘after the Chinese teas, no more important plants could be introduced into India’ (Desmond, 1995, p.214). In many ways the introduction of tea from China into India, as orchestrated by the East India Company, served as the model for the transfers of plants of economic importance which the Royal Botanical Gardens would initiate (Brockway, 1979a, p.28). However, in the wake of the Great Rebellion in India in 1857, the Indian government dropped its opposition to the introduction of cinchona. This was because the government had decided to increase the British military presence in the region and needed fit and healthy soldiers. Furthermore, cinchona grown on Indian, and therefore British, soil would be substantially cheaper than importing it from South America (Desmond, 1995, p.214). Botanists trained at Kew were sent out to South America to obtain cinchona seeds which could subsequently be replanted in plantations in southern India. Despite some initial failures, the introduction of cinchona into India was a success. Quinine became available in India for less than a penny per packet (Brockway, 1979b, p.457). However, the losers in this botanical enterprise were of course the newly independent South American countries. The combination of European scientific expertise and finance wiped the Latin American countries’ trade in cinchona off the market (Brockway, 1979b, p.458). Furthermore, the cheap quinine available in India rarely filtered down to the common Indian (Ibid). In spite of this, the cinchona transfer boosted the reputation of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew ‘by confirming its dominance in the botanical activities of empire’ (Desmond, 1995, p.215). Thus Kew gardens contributed to the overall strength of the empire by helping to supply medicine to Britain’s imperial soldiers.

The next study concerns the rubber transfer of 1876. The native habitat of the rubber plant is in South America. Yet in 1986, Malaysia, a former British colony, was the world’s chief supplier of rubber (Chapman, 1991, p.36). The plant’s introduction into Malaysia was the work of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. In association with the India Office, Kew sent out botanists to South America to smuggle out of Brazil seventy-thousand rubber seeds (Brockway, 1979b, p.458). Prior to this event, Brazil’s exports of rubber ‘seemed capable of supplying all the rubber which the world required’ (Rae, 1938, p.318). Once in Kew’s possession, the seeds were planted with some limited success in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), but they thrived in Malaya (Malaysia) (Brockway, 1979b, p.458). With the advent of the motor car, European plantation rubber was by 1938 fulfilling ninety-eight per cent of the world’s rubber requirements (Rae, 1938, p.318). Naturally, the loser in this botanical enterprise was Brazil. In contrast with the 1,090,000 tonnes of rubber which European plantations were exporting, Brazil – once able to fill the world’s demand for rubber – had a mere output of 14,000 tonnes (Brockway, 1979b, p.460). Thistelton-Dyer was enthusiastic about the results of the rubber exchange. The operation was, according to him, a brilliant example of what could be achieved through the proper organisation and coordination of efforts between the various botanical gardens of the empire (Desmond, 1995, p.258). Thus the network of the British Empire’s botanical gardens, with Kew at their head, had served to boost the wealth of the British Empire.

The imperial rivalry between the European powers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is often known as the era of ‘new imperialism’ (James, 1994, p.203). Additionally, an ideology of white racial superiority pervaded through this era. This was perhaps best exemplified in the poem of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) entitled The White Man’s Burden (1899). This poem propagated the idea that whites needed to civilise the so-called backward peoples of the world (Ferguson, 2003, pp.380-281). The case of the Royal Botanical Gardens assisting in smuggling out seeds from South American countries indicates that the people in charge of Kew gardens shared this ideology. For example, in 1899 one commentator noted that;

‘The Spanish Americans have accomplished nothing in the development of the knowledge of their own floras or vegetal products. The Anglo-Saxon blood…must originate and direct all exploitation and development’ (Underwood, 1899, p.75).

It is with justifiable reason, therefore, that the period of 1885 until 1945 has been subtitled as ‘Imperial Kew’ on the website of the Royal Botanical Gardens (Kew, 2008b). Thus the actions which Kew were participating in during the nineteenth century complemented the imperial ideology of the time.

It was ‘in 1945 [that] the gravediggers of empire commenced work’ (James, 1994, p.543). Kew gardens found itself seeking a new purpose. It was in this period that the Royal Botanical Gardens shifted its focus from economic botany, and the imperialist activities of the past, as ‘the conservation ethic came strongly to the forefront of Kew’s thinking’ (Kew, 2008b). From the 1970s until the 1990s, Kew gardens forged strong links with global plant conservation movements and the IUCN (World Conservation Union). Out of the four-hundred-and-fifty plants listed on the IUCN’s endangered species lists, four hundred of these have been proposed by Kew gardens (Kew, 2008a). Additionally, the Royal Botanical Gardens nowadays conduct their own research which attempts to save plants from all over the world from extinction. In 2010, the thermal lily, just one centimetre in diameter and native to Rwanda, had been extinct for two years. However, the plant was successfully regrown by scientists working at Kew and it is hoped that the plant flourish in Rwanda once more (BBC, 2010). Finally, there is Kew’s involvement with the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership. This association of conservationist bodies has, with Kew’s assistance, managed to ‘bank’ ten per cent of the world’s wild flowers (Kew 2009c). Whilst Kew gardens had also promoted conservationism in the nineteenth century, the institutions motives were still basically economic and colonial (Kew, 2009b). As has been illustrated above, though, these days Kew gardens focuses on rescuing plants which are most at risk from climate change and human the impact of human activities (Kew, 2009c). Thus from the second half of the twentieth century, especially with the loss of empire, Kew has successfully managed to transform itself into an institution where the conservation ethic is at the front of its thinking, in contrast with the colonial enterprises of earlier days.

In conclusion, it is clear that after 1840 the following factors account for the development of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Firstly, the establishment of Kew gardens was part of a wider move towards rational recreation in the nineteenth century. Secondly, Kew gardens developed and increased its activities to serve the needs of the expanding British Empire. It achieved this through the practice of economic botany and plant transfers. These actions complemented the imperial ideology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century. Finally, with the decline and fall of the British Empire, Kew gardens evolved into a conservationist institution. Thus these three factors accounted for the development of Kew gardens after 1840: ideas of rational recreation, imperialism, and conservationism.


BBC (2010). ‘Water Lily Saved from Extinction’. [Internet] [accessed 30/11/2011].

Blomfield, D. (1992). The Story of Kew: The Gardens, the Village, the National Archives 2011 Edition. Kew: Leybourne Publications

Brockway, L. (1979a). Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. New York: Yale University Press

Brockway, L. (1979b). ‘Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens’. American Ethnologist. 6 (3) pp.449-465

Chapman, E.C. (1991). ‘The Expansion of Rubber in Southern Yunnan, China’. The Geographical Journal. 157 (1) pp.36-44

Clark, F. (1973). ‘Nineteenth-Century Public Parks from 1830’. Garden History. 1 (3) pp.31-41

Desmond, R. (1995). Kew: The History of the Royal Botanical Gardens. London: The Harvill Press

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Ferguson, N. (2003). Empire. London: Penguin Books

James, L. (1994). The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. London: Abacus

Kew (2008a). ‘The 1990s and the Conservation Ethic’. [Internet] [accessed: 02/12/2011]

Kew (2008b). ‘Timeline’. [Internet] [accessed 02/12/2011]

Kew (2009c). ‘Introducing the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership’ [Internet] [accessed: 02/12/2011]

Rae, G. (1938). ‘The Statistics of the Rubber Industry’. The Journal of the Royal Statistics Society. 101 (2) pp.317-325

Thistleton-Dyer, W. (1880). The Botanical Enterprise of the Empire. London: HMSO

Underwood, L.M. (1899). ‘The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew’. Science. 10 (238) pp.65-75

The Public School Ethos and Late Nineteenth-Century Juvenile Literature by Stephen Basdeo

A Discussion of the ways in which the values of the public school ethos were imparted to the readers of military biographies and juvenile literature within the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods

In 1888 a biography entitled The Life of General Gordon was written so that ‘the young can learn the beautiful lessons of obedience and humility, of loyalty to God and devotion to others’ (Hope, 1888, p.361). The writers of biographical and fictional works in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries sought to instil these values into young people’s minds. These were the values of what is known as the public school ethos. This essay shall examine the ways in which the values of the public school ethos were imparted to readers within such literature.

From the eighteenth until the mid-nineteenth century, it could arguably be said that empire did not occupy a prominent position within British society. Control of overseas territories was largely indirect and operated through the agency of trading companies like the East India Company. This method of indirect rule changed, however, with the advent of the era of ‘new’ imperialism which lasted between 1884 and 1914. During this time European powers took direct political control of virtually the whole of Africa (Pakenham, 1991, xxiii). Men with an imperial ethos were needed to run this empire. The public school system subsequently began to develop ‘distinctly militaristic features’ in order to produce the people such men (Searle, 2004, pp.36-37). Nor was this purely a manpower issue. Britain’s poor performance in the Boer War (1899-1902) highlighted what seemed to the establishment to be a case of ‘national deficiency’. One apparent example of this was the fact that approximately one third of British volunteers were turned away from enlisting for being too unhealthy (Searle, 2004, p.302). Additionally, the growing rivalry from other emerging great powers such as USA made the British establishment anxious that they would lose their preeminent international standing. The public school ethos, then, which stressed the values of sportsmanship, manliness and devotion to duty, sought to prepare boys for a life of imperial service (Searle, 2004, p.65). The end result of this ethos was intended to be ‘a Christian gentleman…who played by the rules, and whose highest aim was to serve others’ (James, 1994, p.207).

The attribute of sportsmanship can be found represented in the novel With Clive in India (1884) written by G. A. Henty. The schoolboy hero was central to all of his novels (Thompson, 2005, p.207). He was an ardent imperialist and his works usually celebrated the deeds and great men that had won the empire. The novel examined herein follows the life of a young boy named Charlie Marryatt living in the eighteenth century. He is forced to seek employment in the British East India Company after his father dies. His athletic ability is evident from the outset of the story. He was ‘slight in build…in all sports requiring activity and endurance he was always conspicuous’ (Henty, 1884, p.465). Athleticism was promoted from an early age beginning in the late-nineteenth century. It was seen as developing, not just physique and character, but an esprit de corps, discipline and fair play (Mangan & Hickey, 2002, p.84). Athleticism promoted endurance in the colonies, being seen as equipping young men with the stamina needed to work in what were often inhospitable climates. Charlie’s ability in the novel to undertake his duties in difficult terrain leads to him being selected for a mission requiring the surmounting of dangerous rivers, mountains and passes for its completion (Henty, 1884, p.570). In fact, his physical qualities are first noticed by one of the Company governors when he selflessly jumps overboard from a ship and swims to the rescue of a comrade (Henty, 1884, p.571). Thus athletic ability was imparted to young readers in Henty’s work by its representation as a quality that was likely to help a boy advance himself in the world.

However, sportsmanship as an imperial value often meant that war was treated as a game. Charlie finds himself promoted to command a small company of men. His company are out in the field and see a French force approaching. Charlie proceeds to rally his men as though he were speaking to them on playing fields; ‘Now lads’, he exclaims, ‘you ought to be grateful to the French…[for] giving you the opportunity of thrashing them’, at which point his men begin to laugh (Henty, 1884, pp.550-551). An example of how warfare was treated as a game can be seen at the public school which Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement, attended. The war memorials in Charterhouse College list the names of the dead from various colonial conflicts who ‘played up, played up, and played the game’ (Ferguson, 2003, p.262). Such a view of war was perhaps only possible in an era which, since 1815, was devoid of the experience of total war (Thompson, 2005, p.207). Thus while sportsmanship was presented as a valuable attribute in running the empire, it masked some of the more unpleasant experiences of conflict.

The training of boys on the playing fields of public schools was supposed to produce ‘manly’ men. Biographies of military heroes were ideal for presenting a picture of the idealised Christian gentleman. H. M. Stanley, for example, was distinguished for being ‘a brave man as well [as] by his courage as by his gentleness’ (Hope, 1902, p.1). These heroes were represented as being at the forefront of empire, spreading civilisation and Christianity to the ‘darker’ regions of the earth. Focused upon here is the representation of General Gordon (1833-1885) as the true Christian gentleman. He was appointed by the British government to manage a retreat from the Sudan in the face of the Mahdi rebellion. Instead, he disobeyed orders and decided to hold on to the city of Khartoum, resolved to ‘smash up the Mahdi’ (Ferguson, 2003, p.268). He was besieged for almost a year, until the Mahdi broke into the city and he was cut to pieces and killed. Eulogised in such works as The Life of General Gordon (1888), he was seen as embodying both ‘morality and military spirit’ (MacDonald, 1994, p.83). Gordon personified the Anglo-Saxon ideal of the ‘gallant Englishman…a brave hero [who] had…died a martyr’s death’ (Hope, 1888, pp.357-358). This connection of manliness with service to the empire confirms the view of Thompson (2005, p.97) that ‘manliness and empire confirmed one another, enhanced one another’. Thus the masculine ideal was imparted to young readers as being constituted with a life of service to the empire, and readers were given examples of it in the pages of biographies such as those of Gordon.

Furthermore, Anglo-Saxon masculinity was often presented alongside its supposed binary opposite. Gordon was said to be ‘loyal’ and ‘true’ (Hope, 1888, p.358). By contrast, his foreign enemies were presented as treacherous and deceitful. Faragh Pasha, one of Gordon’s supposed allies, was said to have betrayed him and opened the gates of Khartoum to the forces of the Mahdi. He was nothing but ‘a traitor, whose name will be forever covered with infamy’ (Hope, 1888, p.356). Another man, ‘Abou Saood’, was said to be ‘altogether untrustworthy’ (Hope, 1888, p.175). This depiction of native peoples as treacherous and cunning blends with what Said identified as the ‘orientalist’ discourse that was current in contemporary late-nineteenth British society. Oriental people were stereotyped as ‘gullible, “devoid of energy and initiative”, much given to “fulsome flattery”, intrigue, cunning…they are “lethargic and suspicious”, and in everything oppose the clarity, directness and nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race’ (Said, 1978, p.39). Such a stress, then, was placed upon developing ideal Anglo-Saxon masculinity in the public school system because it was thought that ‘prestige of race’ alone upheld British rule (James, 1997, p.307). As well as constituting a life of service to the empire, masculinity, therefore, was presented in biographical works as being the direct opposite of the racial attributes of ‘inferior’ subject peoples.

Additionally, the Anglo-Saxon man faithfully performed his duty to the empire. Emphasis upon duty has been a staple of many military biographies. Even in the early-nineteenth century Southey’s The Life of Nelson (1813), saw Nelson famously telling his men prior to the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) that ‘England expects that every man will do his duty (original emphasis)’ with Nelson in his autobiography urging readers to ‘Go Thou and Do Likewise’ (Southey, 1813: 1888, pp.11 & p.365). Of course, in Nelson’s era, duty and patriotism had a parochial focus, being intertwined with the nation, often specifically England (Colley, 1992, pp.284-285). Yet during the era of ‘new’ imperialism it was duty to both the empire and the nation which was emphasised within biographies and juvenile literature. For example, young Charlie Marryatt in With Clive in India is counselled by his uncle before setting off to India to ‘be steady, and do your duty to your employer’ (Henty, 1884, p.478). The ‘employer’ in this case being the East India Company, hence duty to his employer is duty to the empire. As well representing characters that carried out their service to the empire unflinchingly, there was another method by which Henty in his works tried to fire a zeal for the empire among his young readers. This was to ask them indirect thought-provoking questions. After some years serving in India, young Charlie returns to England with an Indian servant. The servant sees the amount English people and asks Charlie;

Why, when there were so many men, [had] England sent so few soldiers to fight for her in India; and for once, Charlie was unable to give a satisfactory reply…‘It does seem strange’ he said…‘that when such mighty interests were at stake, a body of even ten thousand troops could not have been raised and sent out’ (Henty, 1884, p.770).

The ‘mighty interests’ at stake in the novel was the existence of the East India Company, hence of the empire itself. At a time when Britain faced international rivalry for supremacy, Henty was exhorting younger readers to sign up to serve the empire, and to ensure that it lasted.

Thompson (2005, p.103) asks, ‘how far, then, did children’s literature “instil…the qualities of courage, justice, and fair play that had made and would keep Britain great?”’. There are theories by imperial historians which could be adapted to answer such a question. Porter says that an understanding of people’s attitude to empire must be considered in relation to their social class (Porter, 2004, p.311). The most receptive audience for such literature does appear to have been upper-middle class public schoolboys (Thompson, 2005, p.102). Additionally, Thompson states further that the working-classes read such fiction primarily for entertainment and a sense of adventure, since they rarely ventured far from their homes (Ibid). Yet in the opinion of the writer of this essay, such a view of working class indifference to this imperial ethos is hard to maintain. If young working-class boys were reading this literature in c.1900-1905 they were probably among the ones which enthusiastically enlisted for service to King and country in 1914. Indeed many people from all classes, both men and women, were taken in by ‘khaki fever’ in the early months of World War One (Searle, 2004, p.782). Perhaps the answer to Thompson’s question, then, is that the reception of these messages between different social groups was uneven. Consequently, if the reception of the messages between classes was complex, then so too was its reception within classes (Thompson, 2005, p.102).

However, what can be said with perhaps more certainty is that these public school values of masculinity did not retain their currency for very long. In the aftermath of World War One, many of the ideals of the Victorian age came in for reassessment. After all, a ‘stiff-upper lip’ mentality could hardly be maintained in the face of mass bodily dismemberment and mental scarring. If the Victorian ideal of manliness was relevant in 1914, then by 1918 one recent dissertation has concluded that in the space of four years, the concept of what constituted manliness changed irrevocably (Cairns, 2012, p.29). Nor by 1918 was the reputation of the Victorian hero still sacred. Strachey, in his work Eminent Victorians (1918), described Gordon in the following way; ‘alien to the subtleties of civilised statesmanship…unamenable to official control… [and] incapable of the skilful management of delicate situations’ (Strachey, 1918:2002, p.255). This is a far cry from Hope’s description of him as ‘a gallant and skilful leader…to be trusted with the great interests at stake in Shanghai’ (Hope, 1888, p.80). Thus despite the repeated idealisation of such men and their public school qualities in biographies and fiction, these ideas began to lose their relevance in a post-1918 England.

In conclusion, the late-Victorian and Edwardian public school ethos of sportsmanship, manliness, and duty were imparted to young readers through fictional works and military biographies. These values were personified in the representations of both current and historical heroes of empire. Imperial heroes and schoolboy characters embodied the ethos. It was, as far as historians have been able to gather, the boys of the upper and middle-classes who provided the most receptive audience for this type of literature. The working-classes attitude towards it, however, is much less easier to determine. Finally, despite the fact that there were many similar works to those of Henty and Hope, these ideas began to decline in relevance after World War One.
Word Count: 2,197

Primary Sources

Henty, G. A. (1884) ‘With Clive in India’. British Empire Adventure Stories (2005). London: Carlton Books.

Hope, E. (1888). The Life of General Gordon. Edinburgh: W P Nimmo.

Hope, E. (1902). Stanley and Africa. London: Walter Scott Press

Southey, R. (1813: 1888). The Life of Nelson. London: George Bell & Sons

Strachey, L. (1918:2002). Eminent Victorians. London: Continuum Books

Secondary Sources

Colley, L. (1992). Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837. Yale University Press

Ferguson, N. (1993). Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Penguin.

James, L. (1994). The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. London: Abacus.

James, L. (1997). Raj: The Making of British India. London: Abacus.

MacDonald, R. (1994). The Language of Empire: Myths and Metaphors of Popular Imperialism, 1880-1918. Manchester: MUP

Mangan, J. A. & Hickey, C. (2002). ‘Missing Middle-Class Dimensions: Elementary Schools, Imperialism and Athleticism’. European Sports History Review 4 pp.73-90

Pakenham, T. (1991). The Scramble for Africa. London: Abacus

Porter, B. (2004). The Absent-Minded Imperialists. Oxford: OUP

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. London: Penguin

Searle, G. R. (2004). A New England? England 1886-1918. Oxford: OUP

Thompson, A. (2005). The Empire Strikes Back? London: Pearson

Unpublished Dissertations

Cairns, T. (2012) ‘Tommy has the jerks mum, but don’t worry I’m ok’ Personal reflections of combat, emotions and dismemberment during the Great War, 1914-1918. [Unpublished Dissertation: BA Hons]. Leeds Metropolitan University

Changing Representations of Crime in the Eighteenth Century

By Stephen Basdeo


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’ (Fielding, 1751, p.1). 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; ‘the one common view to which all parties could subscribe was that crime was increasing’ (Langford, 1989, p.155). This essay explores the extent to which contemporary representations of criminals over the course of the ‘long eighteenth century’ (c.1689 – c.1837), particularly of highwaymen and thieves, 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 (Borsay, 2002, p.193). 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 (Emsley, Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2013). 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 (Emsley, Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2013b). Stage plays such as The Beggar’s Opera (1729) by John Gay (1685-1732) featured criminals as their heroes. Finally, criminal biographies and novels such as Moll Flanders (1722) by Daniel Defoe, told the stories of criminals through ‘a graduated series of steps downwards, away from the social norm toward ever greater sin’ (Faller, 1987, p.126). There was, therefore, no shortage of genres within eighteenth-century print culture in which eighteenth-century people could see criminals represented.

It is generally assumed that early-eighteenth century society was a somewhat lawless society. Rogers says that it was a society filled with ‘violence and aggression’ (Rogers, 1972, p.4). It was a society in which crime had ‘the upper hand’ (George, 1925, p.29). A consequence of the perceived crime wave was that there was a ‘century-long debate over how to respond to the apparently ever-rising tide of criminality’ (Shoemaker, 2008, p.580). 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 (Emsley, 1987, p.11). 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 them the idea of the state patrolling its citizens was tyrannical (Porter, 1982, p.119). Perhaps 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’ (Gay, 1729:1961, p.16). Contemporary notions of ‘the “independent man” emphasised ‘the basic libertarianism of the freeborn Englishman who refused to be pushed around’ (McCormack, 2005, p.83). 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 (Brandon, 2001, ix). As 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’ (Moore, 2000, xi). Indeed, for many of the lower orders, the only alternative to a life of hardship was a life of crime (Ibid). Many highwaymen even represented themselves as Robin Hood figures, claiming moral justifications for their crimes such as robbing the rich and giving to the poor (Shoemaker, 2006, p.383). However, the reality of the Robin Hood-type highwaymen was in all likelihood less true than the popular representations of the figure in the contemporary literature. The concept of ‘social crime’ developed by Thompson here goes some way to explaining popular support for the highwayman among the lower classes. Perhaps they ‘represented a challenge to the status quo’ although it is doubtful that many highwaymen saw themselves as striking a blow against authority (Brandon, 2001, viii). Additionally, the main victims of highway robbery were usually members of the middle and upper classes, and they reportedly treated their victims with courtesy and respect, which earned them a reputation for politeness and civility (Langford, 1989, p.157). Highwaymen were thus treated of as 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 (Shoemaker, 2006, p.383).

Nevertheless, by the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries 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 (Loftus, 2011). 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 (Brandon, 2001, x). 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 (Emsley, 1987, p.11). 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 (Porter, 1982, p.141). Moreover, increasingly crime began to be reported in newspapers, and the victim became the central figure in newspapers’ often brief representations of crime (Foyster, 2007, p.10). In contrast to criminal biographies, newspapers omitted lengthy explanations and justifications of why criminals had turned to a life of crime, and this left many readers with the feeling that crime was often savage and opportunistic (Ibid). Furthermore, newspapers were often broadly supportive of new policing and legal reforms (Ibid). Hence by the 1790s highwaymen appeared to have ‘lost their former magnanimity’ (Shoemaker, 2006, p.402). Faller says that during this period the highwayman went through three gradations; from hero, to brute, to buffoon (Faller, 1987, p.127). 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 (Combe, 1813, p.12 emphasis added).


Rowlandson, T. (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.

Rowlandson, T. (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.

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. These footpads, or common street robbers, were reviled throughout the century as being of the lowest order of criminals (Shoemaker, 2006, p.387). As support for policing and legal reforms grew, therefore, so the popularity of criminals such as highwaymen began to wane.



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 (Gatrell, 2006, p.421). In the early part of the century literature such as the Proceedings and the Ordinary’s Account were described as something which ‘gentlemen’ read (Shoemaker, 2008, p.565). 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 (McKeon, 1987, p.98). 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 ‘at worst [as] a person with a tragic fatal flaw’ (Brewer, 2013, p.351). It was 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 (Defoe[?], 1724, pp.5-6).

Similarly, Defoe built upon the moralist undertones 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’ (Defoe, 1722:1991, p.4). Indeed, it was not solely in literature that the middle classes felt that they could identify and sympathise with the lives of criminals. As Moore states, people of all classes attended public executions, and Sheppard himself found his procession to the gallows strewn with well-wishers offering their support (Moore, 1997, p.220).
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 (Paley, 1989, p.302). As such, the people who held the posts were often corrupt. The real-life Jonathan Wild, 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 (Linebaugh, 1991, p.27). So it was that Fielding portrayed Wild as ‘the most pernicious…the most contemptible of all the Works of Creation’ (Fielding, 1743:2003, p.181). The middle classes by this point, it seems, no longer wished to identify with the actions of criminals (Shoemaker, 2006, p.402). 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 (Richetti, 1996, p.7). 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 were big affairs with large gatherings. 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 (Gatrell, 2006, p.24). 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.

In conclusion, it is evident that representations of eighteenth-century criminals did reflect changing attitudes to crime and criminality. At the beginning of the century, 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, so support for such figures declined. Complementary with 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. 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’ (Dickens, 1838:1936, p.13). Consequently, in subsequent representations of criminals, gradually the dominant figure became, not the criminal, but the man pursuing him’ (Moore, 2000, xv).


Primary Sources

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