Last month Kevin K. O’Neill described some of the nefarious exploits by various criminals operating in the dim anonymity of early 19th century London. Body snatchers, thieves, beggars, conmen and other inhabitants of the rookeries, or slums, all operated relatively freely, opposed only by a few private organizations before the formation in 1829 of the Metropolitan Police by Sir Robert Peel, the original ‘Bobbie.’ This month we delve into more aspects of crime and the social ferment that characterized London at that time.
The Upper Class, Gambling, and Blackmail
The English upper class was no stranger to the indulgences and excesses practiced openly by the lower classes. Indeed many had a morbid fascination with the danger and debauchery of their lives. Steering clear of the Rookeries, the well to do often frequented the Flash Houses and successors to the 18th century ‘Hellfire’ clubs located in safer areas for reasons of gambling, gin, and women. Many young men met social demise via alcohol, venereal disease, predatory usury, or blackmail, as they were considered easy prey. Even those that gambled their fortunes away in the higher-class clubs often turned to moneylenders of ill repute.
The Original Tom and Jerry
The allure of the well to do with the dark underbelly of London is well portrayed by Pierce Egan’s ‘Life in London or, the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorne, Esq. and his elegant friend, Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their rambles and sprees through the Metropolis.’ Released monthly at a shilling a copy in 1821, this slice of life serial proved wildly popular. Spin off serials and plays were penned while behavior such as ‘Tom and Jerry Frolics,’ became part of the linguistic landscape. The two main protagonists were from opposite ends of British society with Tom being the elegant ‘Swell’ searching for excitement, and Jerry the unworldly country bumpkin searching for the good life. Their pugnacious and bawdy exploits were eagerly read by all social classes and the pervasive slang used was popular enough to inspire the publishing of a glossary. Egan, a sports writer with a knack for satire, crisscrossed the social boundaries of London with Tom taking Jerry to fancy nightclubs for elegant affairs and Jerry taking Tom for riotous nights of gin, easy women, and street boxing
Vivid illustrations by the Cruikshank brothers were a large part of the success of ‘Life in London’ with their appeal withstanding the test of time more than the text. One of the foremost political cartoonists of the day, George Cruikshank, also illustrated many of Charles Dickens’ works under the direction of Dickens. The influence he had on Dickens’ writing, especially Oliver Twist, is debated to this day.
The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, Impetuous for Change
In December of 1811 murder most foul was committed in two separate attacks in the Wapping area of the Ratcliffe Highway. Seven people from two families were bludgeoned to death by a shipwright’s maul in what can only be described as a frenzied attack. While violence was common along the notorious Ratcliffe Highway, these murders were singular in that they were ‘break and enter’ murders against relatively upstanding citizens. An unfortunate soul, John Williams, and several others, were suspected and thrown in jail on little evidence.
Williams ultimately ‘cheated the hangman’ in what was deemed a suicide by the authorities, causing them to put the dead man on trial. Williams’ suicide being the main indicator of guilt in the prosecutor’s mind, he was convicted. The Ratcliffe murders were spread to the public through the ‘Penny Press,’ with the gruesome details both appalling and enthralling the public. John Williams’ burial procession was followed by a huge crowd with estimates of up to 180,000 people attending his macabre burial. Unqualified to be buried on consecrated ground because he committed suicide, Williams was buried head down in a small grave to insure discomfort in the after life, at a crossroads to confuse his soul should it wander, and with a stake through his heart. It seems likely though, that he was not the murderer; he was convicted to appease an upset populace. Whether his suicide was staged to cover up the real murderer is still not clear.
In this period, punishment was freely dealt out with, what may appear to the modern person, an almost fiendish glee. Debtors prisons, death for petty thievery, and horrible internments were all part of the penal system in early 19th century London. Deportation, usually to Australia in the years after the American Revolution, was also used to alleviate the growth of crime in England. By the early 19th century there was a backlog of prisoners to be ‘transported’, as the official sentence of deportation was termed. These boys and men were sent to ‘The Hulks.’ Established in the middle of the 18th century, the Hulks were ships used as prisons as they were no longer seaworthy. Many sunk in the mud of the River Thames, while they were cold, damp, and rotting, with prisoners packed like sardines in their own filth. New prisoners started at the bottom and slowly graduated up through the three levels to where, if they were lucky or nasty enough to have survived, they reached the top level and were transported. Prisons, such as the ‘Stone Jug’, as Newgate Prison was known, were only slightly better than the Hulks with staged fights, trials of those that broke unwritten codes, and priestly absolutions of those to be hanged.
Another ghastly aspect to the penal system were treadmills. Essentially, they were human hamster wheels, originally developed to apply human power to industrial machinery. Found inefficient in industry these ‘shin breakers’ were relegated to the prisons to break incorrigible prisoners. The number of crimes punishable by hanging stood at around 200 early in the century and included such minor transgressions as pick pocketing and stealing food. Hangings were public and often festive; however the severe punishment of trivial offenses, such as food theft at a time of great poverty, often caused riots as public unrest at injustice broke out.
Metropolitan Police and Reforms
In 1822 Sir Robert Peel became Home Secretary. In 1829, with the Ratcliffe Highway and Burke-Hare murders still fresh in the public’s minds, Sir Robert was able to generate enough political will to establish a unified police force, despite the long standing misgivings of the populace. The people feared a unified armed force that could be used to suppress protest or maintain an unpopular government. Peel addressed these concerns with the “Peelian Principals”, a code for an ethical police force that included elements such as personal identification for officers, no bounties or rewards for arrests, public order and low crime rates as indicators of success, and total accountability to the people. Termed ‘policing by consent’ it is followed to this day by many free countries’ police forces. In 1823 Sir Robert lowered the number of crimes punishable by death to around 100.
It is difficult today to look back on London at this time without a certain amount of distaste at the casual injustices and misery. Even so, it should be remembered that London was one of the first cities to become industrialized, with massive unplanned urban growth being a major factor in the civic confusion that defined the era. Out of this societal chaos good men, such as Sir Robert Peel, created laws and a political ethos that defines much of the free world today.
Want to read more on this subject? Well, you can read about Charles Dickens and poverty here.
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The Maul and the Pear Tree, Critchley and James, 1971
Thieves’ Kitchen, Donald Low, 1982
Engravings by George and Robert Cruikshank from the 1869 reprint of Life in London, Pierce Egan, John Camden Hotten, Piccadilly, 1869. Image source here.