Saturday, June 19, 2010

Highwayman Literature

Highwayman literature crossed the boundaries between high and low literature. In the thirties and forties the penny-a-liner and the acclaimed literary author vied for the same audience, using the same subject matter. Each exerted a similar mutual organic influence on the other, leading on the one hand to the Newgate novel, and on the other to G. W. M. Reynolds’s “Mysteries of London” and Thomas Prest’s “Posthumous Notes of the Pickwickian Club.”

Highwayman literature was described in the Athenaeum in 1870 as “”vulgar, but not indecent. The Highwayman Literature, the Black Bess, Turpin, or Sixteen-String Jack books, the Jack Sheppard adventures, still had, and have, their public. The highwayman, who, with the rope round his neck, swore that a gallop across a common by moonlight was delicious, is a hero now, when commons and highwaymen no longer exist as of old, but are far enough off to have a stirring poetry and rough romance in their details.”

The first known work of highwayman literature in England was about the life and execution of Elizabethan highwayman Gamaliell Ratsey who disguised his features with an owl mask while carrying out his criminal endeavors. Two pamphlets were published shortly after Ratsey's death in 1605; “The Life and Death of Gamaliell Ratsey,” and “Ratseyes Ghost.” The trade in broadsides and chap-books increased mightily in the years that followed. No sooner was a highwayman caught and convicted than his exploits became the subject of a “Life,” usually hawked to the crowds while the miscreant was nervously standing under the noose pondering his last moments on earth. Jack Rann, commonly called Sixteen-String Jack, was the subject of an illustrated “Life” the same year he was caught and hanged in 1774, William Hawke, also in 1774, Claude Duval in 1669, James Hind in 1652, and Henry Simms in 1747.

Various criminal anthologies collected the lives of highwaymen. Captain Alexander Smith wrote “A History of the most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads and other Thieves” in two volumes in 1714. Charles Johnson produced “History of Highwaymen, Murderers &c.” in 1734. “An Account of Highwaymen” was written by William Jones in 1774 and Charles Whitehead’s “Lives and Exploits of English Highwaymen” appeared in two volumes in 1823.

For the educated classes there was ample highwayman material to be found in “The Newgate Calendar; or Malefactors’ Bloody Register,” published about 1774 and running to five volumes. Between 1824 and 1826 Knapp and Baldwin, attorneys-at-law, issued four volumes of “The Newgate Calendar comprising interesting memoirs of the most notorious characters,” and followed up with six volumes of “The New Newgate Calendar.”

The highwayman was not exclusive to Britain. French highwaymen like Duval, Cartouche, Louis Mandrin, and Macaire were celebrated in pamphlets and chap-books in England and on the continent. Italy suffered the banditry of Il Birarro and Fra Diavolo, Germany had Schinder-Hannes, whose real name was John Buckler, Spain hosted Jose Maria de Hinojosa and Polinario. “The Life and Actions of Lewis Dominique Cartouche who was Broken Alive on the Wheel at Paris,” attributed to Daniel Defoe, was published in 1722. “Authentic Memoirs of the Remarkable Life and Surprising Exploits of Mandrin” was published in 1754 and cost one shilling. G. W. M. Reynolds wrote “Robert Macaire in England” in 1840.

In 1830’s Britain the onerous stamp duty, or “taxes on knowledge,” imposed on any publication dispensing “news,” led many of the penny publishers to diversify with weekly miscellanies, comic periodicals, political pamphlets, song-books and sensational criminal literature. The visual use of front-page caricatures, portraits, and sensational woodcuts helped many of the penny periodicals to outsell their more expensive mainstream rivals.

The penny “blood” has often been presented as following closely in the footsteps of gothic literature but whatever influence there was would appear to be minor. Thomas Frost, who wrote bloods for Edward Lloyd and George Purkess explained the genesis of such literature in Forty Years’ Recollections: “It was the connecting link between the Monmouth Street Ballads and ‘last dying speeches,’ lives of highwaymen, and terrific legends of diabolism which constituted the favourite reading of the masses fifty years ago, and the more wholesome refined literature enjoyed by them at the present day.” And W. E. Adams wrote, in Memoirs of a Social Atom: “Mr. Lloyd was the legitimate successor of the old Alnwick printer -- Catnatch of the seven Dials. He began business as the printer of sheets that were hawked and sold by the “flying stationers” -- records of prize-fights, of murders, of executions, and of what purported to be “last dying speeches and confessions.””

In London in 1832 John Duncombe published “Lives and Adventures of the Most Remarkable Highwaymen, Footpads, Notorious Robbers, and Other Daring Adventurers,” an eight-page penny parts weekly with a front-page woodcut illustration. The publisher’s description promised “illustrated popular accounts of crimes that are narrated in a sensational manner,” and the pamphlet was re-issued in 1833.

William Harrison Ainsworth published his highwayman novel, “Rookwood A Romance,” in April 1834, the first use of the character Dick Turpin outside of the chap-books and penny periodicals. “The chief object I had in view was to see how far the infusion of a warmer and more genial current into the veins of Old Romance would succeed in reviving her fluttering and feeble pulses.”

George Augustus Sala (1828-1895) described “Rookwood” as an “interesting but unequal romance -- Turpin’s ride to York, as a piece of word-painting, has been rarely, if ever, surpassed in prose in the Victorian era.” Punch, the comic journal, called Ainsworth, “the greatest axe-and-neck romancer of his time.”

The publication of “Rookwood” had an immediate effect on popular culture. The penny dreadful and the melodrama worked arm in arm in popularizing the criminal hero and his steed, Black Bess. The Gentleman’s Magazine described Dick Turpin melodrama as “thieves’ literature dramatized.”

In December 1834 John Duncombe issued “Adventures of Famous Highwaymen and Other Public Robbers -- New Edition,” capitalizing off “Rookwood’s” popularity. In 1836 George Purkess published “The History and Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Murderers, Brigands, Pickpockets, Thieves, Banditti , and Robberies of Every Description” in 60 weekly parts. By the seventeenth number publishing was transferred to Edward Lloyd. “The History and Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads and Murderers” began Saturday, April 30, 1836 and ran until June 10, 1837 to a total of 60 weekly numbers. The material was borrowed from such works as “The Newgate Calendar; or Malefactors’ Bloody Register,” (c. 1774) and various criminal anthologies collecting the lives of highwaymen.

In 1837 William Clarke published “Annals of Crime; or, the Highwaymen of Old” in 59 nos. “Rookwood’s” popularity brought forth various penny parts works featuring Dick Turpin. George Purkess issued “Dick Turpin’s Ride to York” in 1839 and Henry Downes Miles wrote “The Life of Richard Palmer better known as Dick Turpin” the same year.

William Harrison Ainsworth’s “Jack Sheppard” commenced in Bentley’s Miscellany in January 1839 and came to a conclusion in February of 1840. Almost immediately there appeared a plague of Jack Sheppard melodramas. In 1839 the Examiner noted that “Jack Sheppard is the attraction at the Adelphi; Jack Sheppard is the bill of fare at the Surrey; Jack Sheppard is the choice example of morals and conduct held forth to the young citizens at the City of London; Jack Sheppard reigns over the Victoria; Jack Sheppard rejoices crowds in the Pavilion; Jack Sheppard is the favorite at the Queen’s; and at Sadler’s Wells there is no profit but of Jack Sheppard.” Schiller’s 1781 drama “The Robbers” was said to have had a similar deleterious effect on the youth of Germany.

Like Dick Turpin the boy burglar was celebrated on stage and in penny fiction. He was a major character in highwayman romances like“Edith the Captive; or, the Robber’s of Epping Forest” (1860) and “Blueskin: A Romance of the Last Century” (1863). He was re-imagined as “Charlie Wag, the New Jack Sheppard,” and as “Cartouche, the French Jack Sheppard.”

Mrs. Elizabeth Caroline Grey was the only known female author of highwayman bloods in the forties, although the attribution is questionable. “Claude Duval, the Ladies Highwayman” and “Paul Clifford” were attributed to her authorship. All her works were published by Edward Lloyd. Grey’s most popular title was “Gentleman Jack; or, Life on the Road,” which ran to 544 pages and featured Sixteen-String Jack, Dick Turpin, and Claude Duval operating in the same time period. “Gentleman Jack” was pirated by New York publisher Robert M. De Witt who published the entire serial in 100 page installments at twenty-five cents a volume.

Pierce Egan wrote “Captain Macheath; or, the Highwayman of a Century Since” in 17 numbers in 1842. “Cartouche: the Celebrated French Robber” was published in 3 volumes by R. B. Peake in 1844. James Malcolm Rymer wrote “Captain Hawke; or, May Boyes and the Shadow of Death” (1845) for Lloyd. George Purkess published a highwayman novel by Thomas Frost, “The Black Mask; or, the Mysterious Robbers.”

One of the most prolific authors of highwayman tales in penny parts was James Lindridge who wrote almost exclusively for George Purkess in 1845. He wrote “Tyburn Tree; or, The Mysteries of the Past,” “The Life and Adventures of Jack Rann, Alias Sixteen-String Jack the Highwayman,” and “Jenny Diver, The Female Highwayman.” “Tyburn Tree” was a mixed bag of characters, real and imaginary, featuring Blueskin, Jonathan Wild, Captain Jem Macleane, Captain Fury, Dick Flybynight and the Black Gang, Sal the Gonoff, Blackmoor, Captain Grawler, Gipsey Betty, Jenny Diver, Handsome Jack, Lawyer Doom, Beauty Ellis, Tramping Ned, Mother Sin, and the alchemist Dr. Trotter. “Tyburn Tree” was pirated in America by numerous publishers from 1850 to 1866 in 100 page volumes.

Most penny bloods were “always in print” and most of the titles mentioned were still available throughout the entire decade of the fifties. A few new titles were “Jonathan Wild; or, The Thief-taker’s Daughter,” by Ambrose Hudson, and “Tom King, the Life and Adventures of the Highwayman,” published by Lloyd.

“Edith the Captive; or, The Robbers of Epping Forest,” by penny-a-liner James Malcolm Rymer, was published by John Dicks in 1860. Rymer’s previous employer Edward Lloyd had dropped penny bloods for newspaper publishing and after a fallow period Rymer began contributing penny dreadful romances to Reynolds’s Miscellany, also published by John Dicks. Rymer catered to a mixed audience of males and females, the title of “Edith the Captive” attracted women, while the serial contained enough blood and thunder to satisfy the male reader.

The hero of “Edith the Captive” was Captain Heron, riding a horse named Daisy, who, in company with Blueskin and Jack Sheppard took on the villainous Jonathan Wild. In 1861 “Edith” was adapted to melodrama, beginning at the Victoria Theatre and soon taking over most of the low theatres and penny gaffs. “Edith” was still being staged as late as 1866 at the Bower Theatre. Rymer followed up with “Nightshade; or, Claude Duval, the Dashing Highwayman” in 1863. Nightshade was Duval’s well-trained horse. In 1866 Rymer wrote “The Dark Woman; or, The Life and Adventures of Sixteen-string Jack,” which was published by John Dicks.

In 1863 Edward Harrison published the most famous highwayman penny dreadful of them all, “Black Bess; or, the Knight of the Road, a Tale of the Good Old Times,” which was published anonymously. Black Bess ran to 254 penny weekly numbers and 2028 pages, each number consisting of eight pages of eye-straining type. At its peak it was selling 30,000 copies a week. “Black Bess” ended in 1866 and was succeeded by a ‘sequel,’ “The Black Highwayman, Being the Second Series of Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road,” which ran for a further two years. “Black Bess” was attributed to Edward Viles in 1888 by Robert Louis Stevenson, who may have gained his information from Walter Viles, Edward’s younger brother who he met through publisher James Henderson. Lloyd’s editor Thomas Catling, however, who was much closer to the source, apparently told Andrew De Ternant he had seen John Frederick Smith, celebrated author of “Minnigrey,” working on the first fifty numbers in the office of Lloyd’s Weekly News at the rate of £3 10s. weekly. The style of “Black Bess” changes so much throughout its long run that it probably ran through the hands of many writers.

The highwayman romances were often serialized in story papers and if successful made the rounds in penny weekly parts. Rymer, writing as Malcolm J. Errym, wrote “May Dudley; or, The White Mask” for Reynolds’s Miscellany in 1863, again appealing to female readers with a highway-woman heroine. In 1865 “The King’s Highway, A Romance of The Road 100 Years Ago,” featuring a young Paul Clifford, was published in the Miscellany. The writer was Edward Ellis, author of “Rook the Robber.” In 1866 Ellis contributed “A White face and a Black Mask.” Edward Ellis wrote “Ruth the Betrayer,” which was by the author of “Charley Wag, the New Jack Sheppard.” “Edward Ellis” was probably the pen-name of collaborators Charles Henry Ross and a fellow civil servant named Ernest Warren.

The serials of Rymer, Ross and Warren were written for an audience of mixed gender and appealed to adults, young adults and children. As the sixties wore on a large group of publishers in Fleet-street began publishing sensational penny dreadfuls and boys’ periodicals which were aimed at boy readers and often featured boy highwaymen, boy pirates and boy detectives. The Newsagents’ Publishing Company published a number of titles in 1864-65 including “Black Wolf; or, The Boy Highwayman” “May Turpin, The Queen of the Road, a Romance,” “Dick Turpin, a Romance of the Road,” and “Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild.”

Percival Wolfe’s “Red Ralph; or, the Daughter of Night a Romance of the Road in the Days of Dick Turpin” was published for the London Romance Company by the Newsagents' Publishing Company. “Starlight Nell, Queen of the Highwaymen; or, The Scarlet Riders of Hownslow Heath” by William L. Emmett was published by Temple Publishing Company, a precursor to Hogarth House run by the Emmett brothers. The NPC’s “Tales of Highwaymen; or, Life on the Road” was a serial weekly anthology of various sensational highwaymen fictions. In “The Blue Dwarf, a Tale of Love, Mystery and Crime” (1884) by Percy B. St. John, the dwarf of the title, Sapathwa, was joined by Dick Turpin and Tom King with adventures ranging from London through Scotland, Ireland, New York and the American west. Jonathan Wild was a character as was Rob Roy.

One reason for the longevity of the publics’ interest in Dick Turpin and the other knights of the road was explained by a writer on penny dreadful in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1882:

“Probably no living novelist has been rewarded by so extensive a circulation as is easily obtained by the boys “penny dreadful.” Many newsagents find the sale of these fictions the most lucrative portion of their trade. They keep files of back numbers, whereas with ordinary publications back numbers must be made the subject of a special order. There is a fortune in such books as that from which I have quoted. Some publishers grow rich on them. A good thieves’ romance will run through almost innumerable editions. “Blueskin,” “Black Bess,” and certain others, have been re-issued at the interval of a few months for over twenty years, and they are all of them announced for re-issue now.”

The highwayman dramas, which were staged as far back as the days of “The Beggar’s Opera,” had the advantage of spectacle with the use of real horses on the stage, even in the lowest of the “penny gaffs.” In 1859 the mare Beda played Black Bess in “The Life and Death of Dick Turpin,” “May Dudley; or, The White Mask,” introduced the celebrated horse, Black Eagle, “Cartouche, the French Jack Sheppard featured “a stud of beautiful and highly trained horses.”

“Cartouche”was the most successful of the continental highwaymen in the penny dreadfuls. The first version was published in the sixties by the Temple Publishing Company. In the eighties “Cartouche” was serialized in Fox’s “Boys’ Standard” and then issued in penny numbers by Charles Fox as “Cartouche, the French Jack Sheppard.” Collector Henry Steele wrote that it “may have been by Frank Mercer,” which was the pen-name of Walter Percy Viles, younger brother of Edward Viles.

In 1881 Alfred J. Isaacs and Sons, who were one of the publishers of the notorious ‘Anonyma’ series, issued “Ned Kelly: the Ironclad Australian Bushranger,” which was written by James Skipp Borlase. Occultist Arthur Edward Waite famously described the serial as “a Flatulent Farrago of Fatuous Fiction.” “Ned Kelly” veered widely from fact with the ironclad hero running into both Lola Montez and Charles Peace the burglar. Writing as J. J. G. Bradley Borlase had contributed “Bluecap the Bushranger the Australian Dick Turpin” to the “Boys’ Standard” in 1876.

How far did penny bloods penetrate onto the continent? The Journal des Debats noted in 1846 that “Mr. G. W. M. Reynolds’s “Mysteries of London” (First Series) have been reprinted in America; and translations have been published in four languages of Europe: namely, French, Spanish, Italian and German. The German Edition has sold to the extent of 8000 copies, of which great numbers have found their way into Russia in spite of the vigilance of the police. The book is literally devoured in Russia, and large sums are given for merely the loan of it.”

A late contribution to the penny dreadful was “Dashing Duvall; or, The Ladies’ Highwayman,” circa 1895, featuring Turpin, Tom King, Paul Clifford, Captain Blood and Van Vaughan the Vampyre. Illustrations were by the son of Robert Prowse, Robert Prowse Jr. The last substantial publishers of highwayman literature were the Aldine Publishing Company and George Newnes. Aldine’s “Dick Turpin Library,” which began in April 1902, ran 182 issues ending in 1904. Alfred Sherrington Burrage wrote the majority as ‘Charlton Lea,’ others were authored by Stephen Agnew. The painted cover illustrations were by Robert Prowse Jr.

The Aldine’s immediately began publishing a “Black Bess Library” which was taken over by George Newnes in January 1921. Newnes published a “Dick Turpin Library” which lasted from 1922 to 1930. The last of the Dick Turpin series was published by Pearson’s in 1935. They were reprints of the Aldine/Newnes material and lasted only six issues.

The highwayman never completely faded away, Dick Turpin and Claude Duval were picked up by British comic publishers, men who probably read the Aldines in their youth, and Ned Kelly and Dick Turpin were the subjects of motion pictures, but there is very little interest in highwayman literature today except among historians and penny dreadful collectors. Highwayman literature was a sub-genre of criminal literature from 1605 until 1935, a total of 330 years. The highwayman continues to appear sporadically in comics and literature but he is unlikely ever again to return to the level of popularity achieved in the nineteenth century.

*My thanks to Frederico Pagello for inspiring me to compile this brief incomplete history.


  1. Great post! Really, this is a chapter o a book.

  2. Thank you! I've been searching for information on the stories of the highwaymen and penny gaffs to use as background in a work of fiction, and your post really fit the bill.

  3. Did my Masters Thesis on Highwaymen of 18th century England. Title "Robbery With Dialogue." My wife keeps on at me to 'publish & be damned!' Does anyone think there would be a market for it? Better still, anyone know of a publisher I can approach?