In The 19th-Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption, historian and novelist Stephen Carver, drawing upon a wide range of archival and literary sources, takes us on a journey through the seedy courts and sinister alleyways of the criminal underworld which existed during the nineteenth century.
Abstract. Robin Hood needs no introduction. He is the noble outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor, living a merry life in Sherwood Forest. Yet people often forget that Robin Hood was a criminal. Indeed, Robin Hood Studies are often seen as a class apart from traditional legal and criminal histories, perhaps because of their ‘popular’ nature. Undoubtedly, by the nineteenth century, Robin Hood emerged as a national hero, partly due to his glorification by Romantic-era writers such as Sir Walter Scott. Yet as my paper will show, there was always uneasiness in some Robin Hood texts between judging Robin’s good deeds on the one hand, and his criminality on the other. Writers explained this in various ways. Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1819) disapproved overall of Robin’s outlawry, but concluded that his actions were necessary for the safeguarding of the nation. Thomas Love Peacock in Maid Marian (1822) gave Robin an a detailed backstory, explaining that he was outlawed only because he was guilty of resisting oppressive Forest Laws, and hence there was justification for his criminal career. Pierce Egan, in Robin Hood and Little John (1840), chose not to portray Robin as an outlaw at all, but as a radical political fighter. Yet in these texts also, other outlaws who are not part of Robin’s band are depicted as murderous brutes. My paper thus argues that these moral judgments (and sometimes the absence of any type of judgment) upon Robin Hood’s outlawry were a way of separating one of England’s foremost national heroes, who was ultimately a criminal, from the ‘criminal class,’ a notion which gained currency during the nineteenth century and held that there was a certain underclass in society which was responsible for the majority of crime.
The text of a little-known Robin Hood poem I found in the Victorian magazine “Bentley’s Miscellany” in 1846.
This is the text of a public talk given at Abbey House Museum, Kirkstall, Leeds on 1 March 2015 to complement their Crime and Punishment Exhibition.
The 19th-century criminal was an altogether different species of villain compared to the romantic highwayman a century previously.