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London’s Opera

The exploits of Jack Sheppard proved how intense could be the excitement aroused in London by the adventures of a criminal. The most notable painter of the day, Sir James Thornhill, visited him in 1724 in order to complete a portrait which was then sold to the public as a mezzotint.

Nine years later, in 1732, Thornhill’s son-in-law, William Hogarth, made a similar journey to Newgate; here he sketched another famous malefactor, Sarah Malcolm, herself held in the condemned cell. She had strangled two elderly parties, and then cut the throat of their maid, the recklessness of the crimes lending her notoriety among the London public. She was very young—only twenty-two—and very composed. At her trial she declared the blood on her shift to be the issue of menstruation rather than of murder and, after the sentence of death had been pronounced upon her, confessed that she was a Roman Catholic. Hogarth painted her sitting in her cell, her rosary beads before her, and announced in the public press that his print would be ready within two days. It was an advertisement of his skill as well as a tribute to the notoriety of his subject. In her biography of Hogarth, Jenny Uglow describes how Sarah arrived at her hanging, by the scene of her crimes according to custom, “neatly dressed in a crape mourning hood, holding up her head in the cart with an air, and looking as if she was painted.” After she had been cut down, it was reported that there was “among the rest a gentleman in deep mourning, who kissed her, and gave the people half a crown.”

Here are all the elements of drama and intrigue which rendered memorable such rituals of crime and punishment in London. Hogarth himself could not resist the lineaments of the condemned. When in 1761 Theodore Gardelle was about to be hanged at the corner of Panton Street and the Haymarket, Hogarth captured his countenance of despair “with a few swift strokes.”

It is of some interest, then, that in February 1728 Hogarth attended and enjoyed The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay. In this drama the “low” criminal life of London is presented in bright theatrical guise. A true London production, part burlesque and part burletta, it was a parody of fashionable Italian opera, as well as a satire upon governmental cabal. With its main characters of Macheath, a highwayman, and Peachum, a receiver of stolen goods, it aspired to be a spirited representation of the London criminal world appropriately completed by the portrait of Lockit, the keeper of Newgate.

The dramatic scenes within Newgate itself confirm two of the city’s most permanent images: the world as a stage and the world as a prison. There are other aspects of London life within the drama. Its constant references to commerce and to currency, together with its tendency “to treat people and relationships in commodity terms” according to John Gay’s latest and best biographer, David Nokes, mark the powerful and possibly corrupting atmosphere of trade and finance which lingers over all the activities of the city. How else is it possible that the characters from the London streets should reach so casually and easily for “mercantile metaphors”? These people “are invariably valued in trading terms, that is, according to how much may be ‘got’ by them.” Here is the true spirit of city commerce, but it has an interesting and significant ramification. This trading activity is pursued by both “high” and “low,” by courtiers as well as highwaymen, so that the gaiety and exuberance of the “opera” are in part based upon its implicit denial of all distinctions of rank and class. It is the egalitarian—one might almost say, antinomian—instinct of the London populace, represented upon the stage in a colourful and spirited form.

In turn, Gay himself was accused of glamorising thieves and receivers of stolen goods, as if in the act of equalising the activities of the beggars and their “betters” he was somehow lending vulgar distinction to the more disreputable elements of London life. It was reported by one contemporary moralist that “several thieves and street robbers confessed in Newgate that they raised their courage at the playhouse by the songs of their hero Macheath, before they sallied forth in their desperate nocturnal exploits.” If that was indeed the case, then we see in the fervent and fevered context of London that street life feels no compunction in taking on the lineaments of dramatic art.

That is the significance of Hogarth’s admiration for The Beggar’s Opera. This quintessentially London artist saw the possibility of channelling his own genius through it. He painted the same scene from the play on six separate occasions, in the process, according to Jenny Uglow, “bursting into life as a true painter.” It is not hard to understand how this intense depiction of London life invigorated and animated the artist, since in his subsequent work he reveals his own vital engagement with the scenic possibilities of street life. In fact he creates his own tradition of London villains, in the characterisation of “Tom Nero” in The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751) and “Thomas Idle” in the Industry and Idleness series (1747); both end as murderers, suspended on the gallows, but the course of their fatal careers is given a lurid and sensational aspect by being placed within the context of the streets and “low” haunts of the city.

Everything there conspires to engender dreadful deeds. In The Four Stages of Cruelty the life of the city itself is the true engine of that cruelty; as Hogarth put it in his disquisition on these prints, the work was done “in hopes of preventing in some degree that cruel treatment of poor Animals which makes the streets of London more disagreeable to the human mind, than any thing what ever, the very describing of which gives pain.” In one scene outside Thavies Inn coffee house in Holborn, along the main route to Smithfield from the rural areas of Islington and Marylebone, the driver of cab number twenty-four is mercilessly belabouring his horse while a sheep is being clubbed to death in the foreground; a child unnoticed falls under the wheel of a brewer’s cart while on the wall there is a poster advertising a cock-fight.

At the execution of Thomas Idle, the drunken and violent rabble beneath the gallows act as a mirror of his existence and are an emblem of it. Recognisable figures are also part of the Tyburn crowd—Tiddy Doll, the eccentric seller of gingerbread, Mother Douglas, the fat and drunken procuress, and, on the gallows itself, half-witted “Funny Joe” who amused the populace at executions with his jokes and speeches. A suggestive biblical motto, from Proverbs, at the bottom of the print announces that “then they shall call upon God, but he will not answer.” Hogarth is depicting a pagan society from which these criminals have ineluctably emerged.

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If John Gay was intent upon turning thieves or receivers into dramatic heroes or characters, then he was himself following a distinguished London tradition. In the four years before The Beggar’s Opera had appeared on stage there had been other theatrical representations of Harlequin Sheppard and A Match in Newgate, the former suggesting a remarkable link between pantomime and crime. More than a century earlier Beaumont and Fletcher, in The Beggar’s Bush, had given dramatic currency to the tricks and slang of London criminals—again with the powerful insinuation that they were behaving no worse than those “betters” who ruled them. In 1687 Marcellus Laroon similarly depicted in elegant style and form “the Squire of Alsatia,” a notorious thief and confidence man, called “Bully” Dawson, who is nevertheless posed in Laroon’s print in the manner of a great fop and gentleman. The theatrical manner, and disguise, are emblematic of the contrasts and variety of the streets. All these various works manifest in turn a strange fascination for the life of the vagrant and the outcast, as if the conditions of London might propel anyone into a state of need or outlawry. Why else should the streets of London so haunt Hogarth’s own imagination?

The tradition continued in the sensational accounts of the lives of famous criminals, whose exploits were every bit as melodramatic as the characters upon the stage. “You cannot conceive,” wrote Horace Walpole in the latter part of the eighteenth century, “the ridiculous rage there is for going to Newgate, the prints that are published of the malefactors, and the memoirs of their lives set forth with as much parade as Marshal Turenne’s.” Swift satirised that “rage” some decades earlier with his description of “Tom Clinch” being driven to the scaffold:

The maids to the doors and the balconies ran,

And said, “Lack-a-day! he’s a proper young man.”

In the nineteenth century an essay was written on “Popular Admiration for Great Thieves,” in which it is noted that in the previous century Englishmen were no less “vain in boasting of the success of their highwaymen than of the bravery of their troops.” Hence the widespread popularity of The Newgate Calendar, the general title given to a succession of books which began to emerge at the end of the eighteenth century; the first was The Malefactor’s Register or New Newgate and Tyburn Calendar, and its popularity was such that it can be compared to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in the mid-sixteenth century or perhaps the ubiquitous legends about saints of the medieval period. It might even be compared to the vogue for fairy tales emerging in the early nineteenth century. The ambiguity of the genre is further compounded by the school of the “Newgate novel” which emerged in the same period, with such celebrated practitioners as Harrison Ainsworth and Bulwer Lytton. It is perhaps significant that in Newgate itself the inmates were addicted to “light literature … novels, flash songs, plays, books.” Everyone was copying everyone else.

The content of these various publications was equally ambiguous, hovering somewhere between celebration and condemnation. In similar fashion skill and cunning, disguise and stratagem, were commonly admired as the dramatic expedients of street life. There was the infamous “Little Casey,” a nine-year-old pickpocket whose skills made him the wonder of late 1740s London. There was Mary Young, known as Jenny Diver, who practised in the same streets some forty years before; she would dress up as a pregnant woman and, hiding a pair of artificial arms and hands beneath her dress, opened pockets and purses with ease. She, in turn, was celebrated by the London populace for her “skills of timing, disguise, wit and dissimulation.”

At a later date there emerged Charles Price or “Old Patch”; he committed sophisticated forgeries, and passed off his bank-notes in a variety of elaborate disguises. He was a “compact middle-aged man” but typically would dress as an infirm and aged Londoner, wearing “a long black camlet cloak, with a broad cape fastened up close to his chin.” He had a large “broad-brimmed slouch hat, often green spectacles or a green shade.” He dressed up, in other words, as the “old man” of stage comedy.

In the late nineteenth century Charles Peace was also celebrated as a master of disguise and manipulation; the son of a file-maker, he conducted an ordinary life as a suburban householder variously in Lambeth and in Peck-ham. Yet “by shooting forward his lower jaw he could entirely alter his appearance. He had been a one-armed man, the live limb being concealed beneath his clothes … The police declared that he could so change himself, even without material disguises, that he was unrecognisable.” He even designed a folding ladder eight feet long which folded down to a sixth of that length, fifteen inches, and could be concealed under the arm. He had once been a street musician and had a great love for fiddles; he even contrived to steal them, although on occasions they furnished an awkward addition to his “swag.” After his death on the scaffold, his collection of instruments was put up for auction. Yet in a city of character and spectacle, it was his ability to disguise himself which exerted the most fascination. In the “Black Museum” of Scotland Yard there used to be exhibited the pair of blue goggles “he was accustomed to wear in his favourite character of eccentric old philosopher.”

He was also a callous criminal, who murdered anyone who got in his way, and so the celebration of disguise is tempered by disgust at the nature of his crimes. This indeed was a feature of The Newgate Calendar itself, as in “A Narrative of the horrid Cruelties of Elizabeth Brownrigg on her Apprentices.” She was a midwife chosen by the overseers of the poor of St. Dunstan’s parish “to take care of the poor women who were taken in labour in the workhouse.” She had several penniless girls working as her servants, at her house in Fleur-de-lis Court off Fleet Street, and she systematically tortured, abused and killed them. As she was led to her death, in the autumn of 1767, the London mob shouted out that “she would go to hell” and that “the devil would fetch her.” Her body was anatomised, and her skeleton displayed in a niche of Surgeon’s Hall.

After such events came the trade in “Last Dying Confessions.” Some were genuinely composed by the felons themselves—who often took great delight in reading their “Last Speeches” in their cells—but customarily it was the “Ordinary” or religious minister of Newgate who wrote what were essentially morbid and moralistic texts. The city then became a stage upon which were presented spectacles for the delight and terror of the urban audience.

There is a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle concerning Sherlock Holmes’s exposure of what were then known as “fraudulent mendicants.” In “The Man with the Twisted Lip” Neville St. Clair, a prosperous gentleman living in the suburbs of Kent, travelled to his business in the City every morning and returned on the five fourteen from Cannon Street each evening. It transpired, however, that he had secret lodgings in Upper Swandam Lane, a “vile alley” to the east of London Bridge, where he dressed up as a “sinister cripple” called Hugh Boone who was well known as a match-seller in Threadneedle Street with his “shock of orange hair, a pale face disfigured by a horrible scar.” This tale was published in 1892, as part of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Twelve years later there was a beggar who sold matches in Bishops-gate; he was well known in the vicinity, since he was “paralysed … He could be seen dragging himself painfully along the gutter, his head hanging to one side, all his limbs trembled violently, one foot dragged behind him and his right arm limp, withered and useless. To complete the terrible picture his face was most horribly distorted.” This account was written by a chief detective inspector of the City police force, Ernest Nicholls, in Crime within the Square Mile. In the autumn of 1904 a young detective constable from that force decided to “tail” the match-seller; the policeman discovered that the beggar would drag his paralysed body into Crosby Square and then “make his exit at another corner as a nimble young man.” He turned out to be a gentleman, by the name of Cecil Brown Smith, who lived in “the genteel suburbs of Norwood” and who earned a prosperous living from the charity of those who passed him in Bishopsgate. It is a curious coincidence, if no more, and may be accounted as one of the many strange coincidences which life in the city creates.

In the same book of police cases, there is the story of a bloodstained razor being discovered behind the seat of a bus; the young man who found the blade hesitated a few days before giving it to the police, because some years before he himself had slashed the throat of his “sweetheart” with just such a murder weapon. It is as if the city itself brought forth evidence from its own history. The stories of the mendicant beggars may imply that Cecil Brown Smith had read Conan Doyle’s story of London vagrancy, and had decided to bring it to life; or it may be that certain writers are able to divine a particular pattern of activity within the city.

In any case that connection of fact and fiction, in the realm of crime, was not wholly lost in the twentieth century. Tommy Steele played Jack Sheppard in Where’s Jack, Phil Collins was “Buster” Edwards in Buster, Roger Daltrey was John McVicar in McVicarand two performers from Spandau Ballet enacted the Kray brothers in The Krays. The tradition of The Beggar’s Bush and The Beggar’s Opera continues.

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