By Stephen Carver

Pen & Sword Books. 209 pages. £12.99. ISBN 978-1-52675-167-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

In many ways it’s difficult to generalise about a whole century. The nineteenth encompassed a wide range of social, political, moral and other concerns, not to mention all kinds of technical advances and changes in the structure of society. But there may be some discernible variations in how people behaved at certain times. It seems to be an accepted belief that the early part of the nineteenth century was marked by excesses in behaviour, at least among certain groups (and even then perhaps among only certain individuals in those groups), whereas later standards were set higher and a wider sense of propriety came into effect. I’m not convinced that this was the case. There have been numerous studies of the Victorian period which have shown that underneath a supposedly polite and polished surface there was a bubbling sewer of crime, sexual deviancy, and social disorder. It may have expressed itself in somewhat different ways to the Regency period, but it was still there.

Stephen Carver doesn’t attempt to survey every aspect of human activity in the nineteenth century, but rather chooses to focus on specific elements of it. One of his early chapters, “A Corinthian’s Guide to the Metropolis”, looks at the life and adventures of Pierce Egan, author of Life in London or the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn Esq., and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis, originally published in 1821. Popular in its day, and still seeing occasional revivals of one sort or another (it works well on the radio), it manipulated the reading public’s taste for accounts of low-life and particularly the slang that denizens of the “underworld” employed. It also, Carver suggests, put forward the view that the “underclass of society has all the fun”. It wasn’t true, of course, but it may have touched on the lurking suspicion that many people had (still have?) that their own lives lacked colour and adventure, and were consequently dull. Reading about those living dangerously on the fringes of society may have provided a voyeuristic thrill for the settled and safe in their homes.

Egan, whose early career is described as that of “a jobbing hack in the age of Austen, unconnected with fashionable society”, achieved some recognition in certain circles with his book, Boxiana, which purported to provide a mini-history of boxing. It was a brutal sport when Egan was writing about it, fought bare-knuckle style and with no limit to the number of rounds. The bout usually ended when one of the opponents was physically unable to carry on. Boxers died or were badly injured, but crowds gathered at venues where fights were about to take place, despite it often being illegal to do so. I would guess that Boxiana is rarely read these days apart from by historians of the sport.

Egan wasn’t the only writer to play around with the jargon and mischief of the underworld. Harrison Ainsworth, a hugely popular novelist in his day, though few of his books are remembered now, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, also ventured into this territory. What Ainsworth did was to almost glamorise criminals like Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin, whose actual personalities and exploits were really far less convincing than the fictional accounts implied. Things probably haven’t changed all that much when one thinks of the ways in which Hollywood has frequently given minor criminals a veneer of attractiveness they probably never possessed. Were the real Bonnie and Clyde anything like the characters that Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty portrayed in the film about them?  Was Billy the Kid a handsome hero and not the nasty psychopath he most likely was?  But in the nineteenth century, as now, people liked to hear about supposedly colourful villains. And even when the number of readers was relatively small, and cinema not even thought of, theatrical productions of varying quality, and doubtful authorship, toured the country, pulling in crowds, and providing exciting and highly imaginative versions of the lives of Shepherd and Turpin. Today, most people don’t read books and are content to watch chronicles of crime, fictional and real, on television.

With the growth of newspapers and magazines aiming at a newly-developing audience of working-class readers, real crimes could be reported almost as soon as they happened. Murder became a standard item. Carver chooses a few juicy items to investigate, including, perhaps inevitably, the murders attributed to Jack the Ripper. In its way, the Ripper “Autumn of terror” is more interesting than an account of a brutal killing as part of a robbery, or a poisoning for financial gain. It can be used to focus attention on the social problems encountered in Whitechapel. Poor housing, homelessness, unemployment and low-paid jobs when work was available, drunkenness, prostitution. The Ripper’s victims, and others who weren’t killed by him but died in similar circumstances, were women who had been driven to selling their bodies because of the need to find enough money to pay for cheap lodgings, food, and the alcohol they wanted to numb their senses to the awfulness of their situations. Diseases including syphilis, were rife, and easily spread.

Sex we are often told was a taboo subject in polite Victorian society, but it was present in many forms, including pornography in which there was a thriving trade. Under-the-counter publications catered for most tastes, with a particular demand existing for tales of flagellation, something often referred to as “the English vice”. Titles like The Whippingham Papers left no-one in any doubt as to what they were about. An intriguing aspect of nineteenth century pornography is that some quite well-known authors, writing under pseudonyms, produced work that could only be sold clandestinely. The poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne, is said to have written various pornographic works. Carver says that Dickens’ friend, the well-known journalist, George Augustus Henry Sale, co-authored The Mysteries of Verbena House, or, Miss Bellasis Birched for Thieving, “an erotic novel set in a girls’ school”. Carver also points to Teleny, a novel which throws some light on the gay underworld of London at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence. It has sometimes been attributed to Oscar Wilde, but it’s unlikely that he was involved in writing it, and it’s probable that it was the work of several authors, with the manuscript added to anonymously over time.

The publishers who risked prosecution for bringing out pornography, and the booksellers who peddled it, were often curious characters.  Leonard Smithers backed a literary magazine called The Savoy, which printed work by writers (Ernest Dowson, John Gray, Lionel Johnson, Arthur Symons) associated with the so-called Decadent Movement of the 1890s, but he also did a steady trade in risqué material. John Camden Hotton, a “publisher and lexicographer”, was reputed to have written “a comic opera called Lady Bumtickler’s Revels”, though I can’t imagine that it ever had any public performances. And there was William Dugdale, “eldest son of a Quaker tailor from Stockport”, who published books with titles which, Carver says, “speak for themselves”: Intrigues in a Boarding School, The Confessions of a Lady’s Maid, The Confessions of a Young Lady, and The Wedding Night. Books like these didn’t come cheap, and were often printed in limited editions, so circulation must have been limited to a mainly middle and upper-class readership.

One of the dark sides of the Victorian sexual underworld was the use of children, both boys and girls, to satisfy the cravings of sexual predators, and a famous court case highlighted it. The journalist and editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, W.T. Stead, published a series of articles under the general title, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”, in which, among other things, he asserted that a young girl aged thirteen could be bought for five pounds. To prove his point, Stead did actually engage in such a transaction, though without any intention of claiming his right to molest her. He had a midwife standing by to check that the girl had not been touched. His campaigning, besides causing a sensation and selling papers, was designed to attack the government of the day for not raising the age of consent to sixteen. The fact that Stead’s reports prompted an outcry against the government, and that it was revealed that a prominent Tory MP who had opposed Stead’s call for reform had a close friendship with the owner of several brothels, seems to have prompted action by the establishment and Stead was charged with abduction and indecent assault (the midwife’s examination) and sentenced to three months in prison.  It really does appear to have been a case of him being victimised for rocking the boat.

Burke and Hare, the infamous body snatchers who made a living digging up fresh corpses and selling them to medical schools for dissection purposes, make an appearance. They weren’t the only ones involved in this macabre business, though they took it to new depths of depravity when they made up for a lack of ready-dead people by murdering a few so they could carry on meeting the demands for bodies. Carver paints a picture of gangs competing for corpses, armed guards at cemeteries, and the way in which the medical establishment turned a blind eye to where the dead came from. And the law was often reluctant to take action because stopping the body snatchers could lead to a lack of resources for medical students to use. Matters were only resolved when it was decided that the unclaimed bodies of dead prisoners and one-time inhabitants of workhouses could be used in the interests of research. Some might argue that it was another example of the poor always being exploited, even when dead.

And who was the real person behind Dickens’s villain, Fagin? Debate continues about whether or not his presence in Oliver Twist added to the stereotype of a Jew, and so incited anti-semitism. Was the basis for the character of Fagin a man called Isaac “Ikey” Solomon? He was a Jewish criminal who is described as being, “one of the most affluent and successful fences in London”, but who was eventually arrested, tried, and transported to Australia where, at the end of his life, he ran a tobacconist’s shop and died impoverished.

The public’s taste for the details of murders continued unabated throughout the nineteenth century. One that attracted a great deal of attention was the “Murder in the Red Barn”, the victim being Maria Marten who was killed in 1827 by her latest lover, William Corder. She wasn’t the innocent maiden widespread sentiment made her out to be. But her story became the basis for a popular melodrama which retained its interest long enough for it to be made into a film in the 1930s. The villain was played by Tod Slaughter, an actor who could strut around a stage, or film set, and leer in a suitably evil manner. He certainly impressed me when I saw the film at a local flea-pit in the 1940s.

It should be obvious from at least some of my comments that The 19th Century Underworld is highly entertaining. That’s perhaps a strange word to use when writing about a book that deals largely with murder, mayhem, and misery. But it’s a fact that we like to read about such matters from a safe distance, sitting in the comforts of our homes and knowing that nobody we come across  on the page is going to turn up to terrorise us. If people aren’t fascinated by the crimes of the past why is it that the obsession with the Jack the Ripper continues to occupy the minds of film-makers, novelists, social historians, and the people who watch the films and read the books?

Stephen Carver has written an account that manages to guide the reader through areas of the nineteenth century underworld in an easy-to-read manner. He’s done his homework, and there are plenty of notes, and a useful bibliography. I could say that he largely explores themes which are mostly well-known, but then it occurs to me that they may not be to readers unfamiliar with nineteenth century social history. How many people, apart from some of those around my age, will have heard of Maria Marten and the Murder in the Red Barn?