Charley Wag, Jack Rann, and the Wild Boys of London – Penny Dreadful Boy Thieves

Charley Wag [Source: Yesterday's Papers].

Charley Wag [Source: Yesterday’s Papers].

Penny bloods were cheap pieces of serialised fiction which offered a chance for young working-class readers to indulge in ‘carnivalesque’ entertainment; they allowed their readers to indulge in mocking authority. Their subject matter was crime-related, and they typically featured stories of eighteenth-century criminals, in particular highwaymen and thieves.

The idea of the carnivalesque was propagated by Mikhail Bakhtin in his study of medieval folk culture entitled Rabelais and His World. The medieval carnival was a period of permitted license in which peasants could openly mock the authority of the Church and the state; a time of feasting during which ‘the world turned upside down’. At the end of the festival on Shrove Tuesday or Mardis Gras, a mannequin of King Carnival was given a mock trial and execution, after which the revelers returned to the world of seriousness and order. Bakhtin’s analysis centered on France, but Britain had its tradition of holding fairs. The antiquarian John Timbs wrote a short history of the Bartholomew Fair in 1865. The fair was instituted in 1123 and held annually. However, by the 1850s it had become ‘an irruption [sic] of strange figures and faces; every tavern was the scene of riot and revel’. Cavendish illuminates some of the further reasons why the fair was abolished:

The fair’s loutishness, drunkenness and vulgarity, however, aroused growing middle-class disapproval. It was attracting too many thieves and muggers, and the City imposed increasingly stringent restrictions. By the 1840s it was a shadow of its old self and it made its last bow in 1855.

At London’s fairs ‘the carnivalesque reigned’, and the fairs were increasingly suppressed in the Victorian period because the respectable middle classes viewed the event in an increasingly less than favourable light.

Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque can be applied to nineteenth-century working-class print culture. In 1865 a penny blood entitled Charley Wag, or the New Jack Sheppard was published anonymously. Jack Sheppard was a famous 18th-century housebreaker and highwayman, and the author was probably trying to draw upon the name to promote this story. In fact, the biographies of Sheppard and Charley share many similarities. Charley, like Sheppard, has a harsh life. He is abandoned on the shores of the Thames, but he soon grows up to become ‘the most successful thief in London’. He is also gallant and courageous. In between carrying out daring robberies, he rescues an aristocratic Lady from a burning building, and an Earl’s son from drowning. The penny blood depicts him evading the clutches of the police, and like his namesake Jack Sheppard, escaping from gaol several times. Charley Wag is similar to the other boy thief characters which appeared in an anonymously-authored penny dreadful between 1864 and 1866 entitled The Wild Boys of London. It has been suggested by Mr. Adcock that both Charley Wag and the Wild Boys shared the same author. The latter title was deemed to be so subversive to authority that copies of it were seized by police. Quite why it was subversive seems to be unclear to Adcock who comments that:

[While] there is some nudity and a scene of flagellation…the boys are petty criminals…but they are also decent, engaging high-spirited lads with a moral code of their own. They are always ready to help a waif escape from child-stealers or rescue a woman from drowning in the Thames.

In Charley Wag, the young thief makes a mockery of the police by constantly evading their grasp. These scenes were apparent in both the text and the accompanying images. The police in the early Victorian period were viewed by the public as rather inept. They were widely criticised by the public for the handling of the murder committed by Benjamin Courvoisier upon Lord William Russell, and in 1840 The Satirist remarked that ‘the prevailing opinion seems to be that they have been very remiss in doing the things that they ought to have done’. Radical and working-class newspapers in addition would often use every unsolved murder or tale of police incompetence as ‘a stick with which to beat the police [and]…there was, unfortunately, a lot of material to hand’. As evident from the illustration above, they are incapable of even catching a boy thief.

Charley is not afraid to use force when he deems it necessary, and he often comes to physical blows with members of the police, at one point stamping his foot ‘on the head of a policeman’. This is the case in the Wild Boys, and John Springhall suggests that The Wild Boys was suppressed by police in 1870 due to a similar episode which involved the characters having a fight with the police. Whilst Charley Wag was not suppressed by the authorities, working-class Charley’s blows against the police force are significant. The police were viewed with suspicion by the working classes in the early years of the Victorian era. They were seen as a force which was there for the protection only of the middle classes, and a force which attempted to impose ‘middle-class norms of behaviour on every class’. Robert Storch concludes that the police were seen by the working classes as ‘a bureaucracy of official morality…guard[ing] St. James by watching St. Giles’. The opposition to the new police force in the early Victorian period appears to stem from ‘the [unwanted] interventions of the police in the daily lives and recreational activities of the working classes’. Hence working-class readers may have taken silent pleasure in seeing a member of the police abused in such a way.

A Late 19th-Century Penny Dreadful Featuring Dick Turpin

A Late 19th-Century Penny Dreadful Featuring Dick Turpin [Source: Wikipedia]

Be that as it may, just as King Carnival endured a mock trial and execution at the end of the carnival celebrations, the thief in the penny blood also underwent a trial and execution. In James Lindridge’s The Life and Adventures of Jack Rann (1845), the brave highwayman, Jack, ultimately feels the punishment of the law:

Tyburn is reached, and the fatal tree looms forebodingly in the distance… ‘Friends,’ said Jack Rann… ‘I beseech you to be honest, for honesty is the sure road to happiness…Turn you away from the path of sin and vice’…After a few moments Jack Rann ceased to exist.

Similarly, in Henry Downes Miles’ The Life of Richard Palmer, better known as Dick Turpin (1839), the final scene recorded Turpin’s last moments. He flings himself from the ladder and ‘the mob shouted,- a jerk – a spasm – a choking sob – a convulsive shudder, and the soul of the daring highwayman flew to its awful doom’. These two passages are reminiscent of the final scenes which the execution broadsides depicted. The criminal is led to the gallows. It is then hoped that his life should serve as a warning to others. Through means of a euphemism such as the phrase ‘ceased to live,’ the final moment of the criminal is then represented. The ‘carnival’ in the book ends and the working-class reader would then have been reabsorbed into the world of order and seriousness.

Thus some penny bloods such as Charley Wag, and especially those featuring thieves, provided young working-class readers with a ‘carnivalesque’ opportunity to mock authority. The police – the one symbol of authority that the poorer classes might have daily encountered – were openly mocked and assaulted in these stories. In the finale of these stories, however, the thief (in place of ‘King Carnival’) was put to death and readers would then have had to retreat from the fantasy world.

Bibliography/Further Reading

Anon. (1865). Charley Wag, or the New Jack Sheppard. London: United Kingdom Press.

Adcock, J. (2008). ‘The Wild Boys of London’. Yesterday’s Papers [Internet] http://yesterdayspapersarchive.blogspot.co.uk/2008/03/wild-boys-of-london.html [Accessed 19/08/2014]

Flanders, J. (2011). The Invention of Murder. London: Harper

Lindridge, J. (1845). The Life and Adventures of Jack Rann. London: G. Purkiss

Miles, H.D. (1839). The Life of Richard Palmer, better known as Dick Turpin. London: Thos. White

Springhall, J. (1999). Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics: Penny Gaffs to Gangsta Rap, 1830-1996. London: Palgrave MacMillan

Storch, R. (1975). ‘The Plague of Blue Locusts: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840–57’. International Review of Social History 20(1)

Storch, R. (1976). ‘The Policeman as Domestic Missionary: Urban Discipline and Popular Culture in Northern England, 1850-1880’. Journal of Social History 9(4)

Categories: History

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