‘Beaks, buzgloaks, and knucks in quod’: Romance, Realism, and the Language of the Nineteenth Century Underworld

It was the London-Irish Regency sporting journalist Pierce Egan who first made the flash the fashion – the linguistically deviant slang anti-language of the Daffy Clubs, the Fancy, the street-folk, and the criminal underworld, which he had acquired ringside and used to great effect in his coverage of illegal bare-knuckle boxing matches for the Weekly Dispatch.  By hanging around with the clientele, Corinthians, swells, half-swells, nib sprigs and tidy ones, hard cases, head cases, drag fiddlers, doxies and dashing prigs, sneaksmen with their nuttiest blowens by their side, rollicking romanies, bookies, buggers, bloods and buzgloaks, hempen widows, the occasional murderer, and the Prince Regent, Egan had mastered, by necessity, their deliberately obscure and exclusive language.  Had he not become quickly bi-lingual around that lot, he might’ve been taken for a beak or a maw-worm and never lived to write Boxiana or Life in London, and in these situations you don’t fool around.

Egan took it beyond the Prize Ring with the brothers Robert and George Cruikshank in the summer of 1821, with the launch of their epic illustrated serial, 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, the title of which says it all really.  Life in London adopts the familiar form of the uninitiated tourist following the sophisticated guide, and chronicles the urban adventures of three friends and flâneurs, Corinthian Tom, his country cousin Jerry Hawthorne, and the Oxonian wag Bob Logic – ‘the sport in view’ a Gonzo safari of often edgy, confrontational journalism and participant observation with little attempt to conceal that the worldly wise rake Corinthian Tom was George Cruikshank, Jerry his brother, and Bob Logic, Egan.  Egan was immensely proud that he talked the talk and walked the walk.  He understood immediately that both were related, and he was highly respected for doing so by a criminal underclass that had denounced one of their own, James Hardy Vaux, for blowing the gaff.  Vaux had appended to his autobiography, Memoirs of a Transport, published a couple of years previously, a glossary of an arcane language specifically intended to obscure rather than reveal.  But while Vaux was accused of grassing by fellow criminals, what Egan demonstrated was admiration.

And Egan wanted to invite everyone to the party.  With the clarion call of ‘Seeing Life,’ Egan, an outsider like his audience, brings to his writing the sheer delight of cracking the Enigma code of the urban Other, while presenting and interpreting an exotic, sexy space inhabited by equally exotic, sexy characters.  Although he wants to share his privileged knowledge, Egan, as a social explorer, isn’t much interested in any down-and-out that is not down-and-in – he prefers cool criminals when out on a bit of a spree.  He does, nonetheless, argue his corner as a social realist, based upon his unique linguistic verisimilitude and commitment to widening participation.  In replying to the accusation that he uses ‘a little too much of the slang’ he explains that: ‘I am anxious to render myself perfectly intelligible to all parties.  Half of the world are up to it; and it is my intention to make the other half down to it.  LIFE IN LONDON demands this sort of demonstration,’ because, ‘A kind of cant phraseology is current from one end of the Metropolis to the other.’  In fact, he uses what he calls ‘the (strong) language of real Life’ himself because his intention is to report, without embellishment, ‘living manners as they rise’ (Egan 110 – 111).

'Tom and Jerry
‘Tom and Jerry “Masquerading it” among the cadgers in the “black slums” in the holy land’ by George and Isaac Robert Cruikshank, Life in London (1821)

Because it was just so much fun, Life in London became the seismic literary event of the next decade, its weird language further disseminated through dozens of knock-offs and unlicensed theatrical adaptations.  What Egan had done was to make flash  fashionable, and thus common cultural currency well beyond its original social boundaries.  In his Roundabout Paper ‘De Juventute,’ even Thackeray admits to receiving a clip round the ear from a school master for reading Life in London while pretending to study his Greek dictionary, the St. Giles’ variant being much more interesting (Thackeray, ‘De Juventute’ 63).

Five years after the Life in London craze had run its course, another series of articles ‘representing living manners as they rise’ began in the Morning Chronicle: Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, tellingly subtitled Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People.  In his preface to the first collected edition of the Sketches, Dickens explains that, ‘His object has been to present little pictures of life and manners as they really are; and should they be approved of, he hopes to repeat his experiment with increased confidence, and on a more extensive scale’ (Dickens, preface to Sketches by Boz).  He does, of course, go on to repeat and refine the experiment for the rest of his life.  In common with Egan, a popular writer of the preceding age who was well worth emulating, Dickens’ Sketches are also about ‘seeing life.’  Dickens, however, is already signalling a level of social realism which is largely absent in Egan (who loves bad guys the best), with the exception of the latter’s commitment to demotic London-speak.  Contemporary commentary on the Sketches tends to repeatedly focus upon Dickens’ range and realism as something very original:  ‘The observation shown throughout is nothing short of wonderful,’ wrote John Forster, continuing that, ‘Things are painted literally as they are … it was a picture of everyday London at its best and worst,’ (Forster, Life of Dickens 76 – 77), while Walter Bagehot said that Dickens wrote of London ‘like a special correspondent for posterity’ (Bagehot 1858).

So how about linguistic realism?  In Egan’s sense, largely absent.  Dickens does, on occasion, represent an accent: ‘S’elp me God, gen’lm’n, I never vos in trouble afore – indeed, my Lord, I never vos,’ prates the pickpocket in ‘Criminal Courts’ for example, but apart from the single usage of the term ‘prigging,’ this little John Dawkins prototype don’t use no flash at all, guv’nor, and no mistake (Dickens, Sketches 233). And as for the equally famous ‘Hospital Patient,’ she speaks in perfect RP.  The Athenaeum reckoned that The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which overlaps with the final Sketches, contained more than a ‘dash of grammatical Pierce Egan,’ but they just meant Sam Weller’s Cockney accent (Anon, Athenaeum).  Dickens does not, at this point, appear to have any particular public objections to flash, but neither is he a dedicated follower of fashion.

The next author to seriously engage with flash creatively was the Lancashire Novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, in his breakthrough novel of 1834, Rookwood, starring the Georgian highwayman Dick Turpin.  It is important to note that Lytton’s Godwinian highwayman Paul Clifford predates Ainsworth’s Turpin by four years, but where Ainsworth’s outlaw hero differs from his predecessor is in his language.  Of course, Ainsworth’s Gentleman of the Road is no more historically accurate than Lytton’s Schilleresque romantic hero, but he sounds better, Turpin’s verbal authenticity being largely a result of his author’s desire to use flash poetically.  In his preface to the 1849 edition of Rookwood, Ainsworth explains his original project:

It is somewhat curious, with a dialect so racy, idiomatic, and plastic as our own cant, that its metrical capabilities should have been so little essayed … We (the English) have scarcely any slang songs of merit.  With a race of deprecators so melodious and convivial as our highwaymen, this is the more to be wondered at … The barrenness … is not attributable to the poverty of the soil, but to the want of due cultivation.  Materials are at hand in abundance, but there have been few operators (Ainsworth, preface to Rookwood).

The only recent and, indeed, decent exponent of what Ainsworth calls a ‘genuine canting-song’ are to be found in the ‘effusions of the illustrious Pierce Egan.’  (But Egan was Irish.)  Ainsworth is very pleased with the flash songs of Rookwood, especially ‘Jerry Juniper’s Chant’ AKA ‘Nix My Dolly, Pals,’ being one of thirty original songs mostly belted out by a half-drunk Dick Turpin and/or his very drunk ‘Canting Crew.’  ‘I have written a purely flash song,’ Ainsworth states with obvious pride, ‘of which the great and peculiar merit consists in its being utterly incomprehensible to the uninformed understanding’ (Ainsworth, preface to Rookwood).

But was Ainsworth, like Egan, down with the Canting Crew?  Well, no.  In an interview given to the World magazine in 1878, Ainsworth answered the question, ‘Did you interview thieves and Gypsies to gain authentic knowledge of “flash patter”?’ by admitting that he:

Never had anything to do with the scoundrels in my life. I got my slang in a much easier way. I picked up the Memoirs of one James Hardy Vaux a returned transport. The book was full of adventures, and had at the end a kind of slang dictionary. Out of this I got all my ‘patter’ (Yates 1878).

Authentically acquired flash or not, critics lined up to praise the revelation that was Rookwood.  Ainsworth’s songs were quoted at length in Fraser’s Magazine and hailed as the most original feature of the book, towering in standard over the efforts of Lytton in Paul Clifford because Lytton had ‘no sense of humour’ (Anon, Fraser’s) (1).  Such critical accolades were not quite unanimous however – John Forster writing in the Examiner that: ‘The author has, we suspect, been misled by the example and success of ‘Paul Clifford,’ but in ‘Paul Clifford’ the thieves and their dialect serve for illustration, while in ‘Rookwood’ the highwayman and his slang are presented as if in themselves they had some claim to admiration’ (Forster, Examiner 323) (2).

This is really the crucial point.  Ainsworth neither understood nor exploited the potential hidden behind the green door that Egan had opened, whereas Lytton, and, as we shall see, Dickens, emphatically had.  Ainsworth, like Elvis, always claimed that he was just an entertainer, with, he confessed, ‘an eye rather to the reader’s amusement than his edification,’ and his use of flash in his fiction reflected a genuine enthusiasm for seductive, legendary outlaws, crossed with straightforward commercial acumen.  Rookwood was one of the most successful novels of the nineteenth century, and it made its author famous.  Once again, flash was simply fun, and Rookwood was close enough to the days of Tom and Jerry to still catch their wave.

This was not so when Ainsworth returned to the Newgate Calendars five years later, serialising the exploits of the Georgian criminal Jack Sheppard, briefly famous in the days of Defoe for several daring prison escapes, before being finally hanged in 1724, poor bastard.

Jack Sheppard began its serial run in Bentley’s Miscellany in January 1839.  Dickens’s serial Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress was at this point coming to a conclusion in the same magazine, and for four months both appeared together.  As both stories concerned young boys being drawn in to the criminal underworld, sharing the graphics of George Cruikshank, they became implicitly connected in the minds of their original, and massive, audience, as well as to many of their critics, most notably Thackeray.  By the end of October there were eight theatrical versions of Jack Sheppard running concurrently in London.  At the Adelphi, J.B. Buckstone had astutely included many of the flash songs from Rookwood, each performance concluding with a raucous encore of ‘Nix My Dolly, Pals’ by the full cast and audience.  Sir Theodore Martin (‘Bon Gaultier’) later wrote of this period:

Nix My Dolly travelled everywhere, and made the patter of thieves and burglars ‘familiar in our mouths as household words.’  It deafened us in the streets, where it was as popular with the organ-grinders and German bands as Sullivan’s brightest melodies ever were in later days. It clanged at midday from the steeple of St. Giles … it was whistled by every dirty guttersnipe, and chanted in drawing-rooms by fair lips, little knowing the meaning of the words they sang (qtd. in Ellis I.366).

The principal cast of Jack Sheppard at the Adelphi lead the chorus of 'Nix My Dolly Pals'. Sketched by George Cruikshank (1839)
The principal cast of Jack Sheppard at the Adelphi lead the chorus of ‘Nix My Dolly Pals’. Sketched by George Cruikshank (1839)

Once more, the flash was the fashion.  But times and tastes and morals had changed since Rookwood, and Egan had now also fallen from grace, dismissed as obscene according to the new, early-Victorian taboos of representation.

Thackeray struck early with his satirical ‘anti-Newgate’ novel Catherine, A Story in Fraser’s.  ‘The public will hear of nothing but rogues,’ he laments, considering Lytton, Ainsworth and Dickens to be equally guilty of romanticising crime (Thackeray, Catherine 24).

When Jack Sheppard was released as a novel in October, the Athenaeum published a long article on contemporary literature and the condition of England under the heading of a review of Ainsworth’s novel.  Much like Forster’s view of the merits of instruction over entertainment, the Athenaeum invokes Fielding and Gay as examples of the morally and aesthetically appropriate way to use criminal biography in a work of literature, although the general reader is assumed to be too thick to appreciate the difference:

[W]ithout a prompt and exercised intelligence in the reader, without a familiarity with the noble and the beautiful, the irony is lost, the spirit is overlooked, the Beggar’s Opera becomes a mere Tom and Jerry, and Jonathan Wild another Jack Sheppard (Anon, Athenaeum) (3).

Note the connection between Egan and Ainsworth here.  Oliver Twist is exempted from the Newgate school, but concern is expressed as to whether it might be popular for the wrong reasons, Dickens’ readers excited by his ‘strong flavour’ rather than his ‘undercurrent of philosophy.’  The polemic ends with a lengthy quotation of pure flash dialogue easily extracted from Jack Sheppard, beginning: ‘“Jigger closed!”  Shouted a hoarse voice in reply.  “All’s bowman, my covey.  Fear nothing.  We’ll be upon the bandogs before they can shake their trotters!”’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 17).  ‘Such is the “elegant and polite literature” which leads authors on their way to fortune and to fame in this the middle of the nineteenth century,’ concludes the anonymous reviewer with an audible sigh (Anon, Athenaeum).

Sensing blood in the water, Forster wrote a damning review of Jack Sheppard in the Examiner the next month, moving the argument from one of taste and literary merit to what we would now recognise as the Effects Theory of popular culture, concern being expressed that unlicensed theatrical adaptations could be disseminating moral corruption amongst the working classes, inciting copycat juvenile delinquency.  Public decency, concluded Forster, had not been so threatened since ‘the time of Tom and Jerry’ (Forster, Examiner 691).  All hell finally broke loose the following year when Lord William Russell was murdered by his valet, François Courvoisier, who had allegedly stated that the idea for the crime had come to him while reading Jack Sheppard.  After the killer was condemned, The Examiner returned to Forster’s original review, which foretold such a disaster and ran a smug editorial which again denounced Jack Sheppard as, ‘calculated to familiarize the mind with cruelties and to serve as the cut-throat’s manual,’ concluding that, ‘If ever there was a publication that deserved to be burnt by the common hangman it is “Jack Sheppard”’ (Anon, Examiner 402). You couldn’t buy publicity like this.  The book continued to sell, while the so called Newgate Controversy raged, and its author became a literary pariah.  Ainsworth never wrote another flash Newgate narrative, although his preface to the 1849 edition of Rookwood does not exactly indicate repentance.

It is significant that when the early-Victorians torpedo Ainsworth, they are already convinced that the once hugely popular Egan was equally their enemy: someone to define their own writing, morality, and, indeed, generation against.  When the Victorians wanted to attack an author, they would invariably draw comparisons with the Regency Egan.  The sea change can be easily observed in Thackeray’s concluding remarks in ‘De Juventute,’ where he returns to Life in London in the British Library as a responsible adult, finding the book that inspired him as a youth to now be poorly written and very vulgar (Thackeray, ‘De Juventute’ 71).

It is Thackeray’s voice that is most prominent in the formulation of a new Victorian literary theory of morality and representation.  In his Fraser’s article ‘Going to see a man hanged’ (Courvoisier), he sends Dickens the following message:

Boz, who knows life well, knows that his Miss Nancy is the most unreal fantastical personage possible; no more like a thief’s mistress than one of Gessner’s shepherdesses resembles a real country wench.  He dare not tell the truth concerning such young ladies … not being able to paint the whole portrait, he has no right to present one or two favourable points as characterising the whole: and therefore, in fact, had better leave the picture alone altogether (Thackeray, Fraser’s).

When the drop falls, Thackeray, of course, turns away.  Thackeray developed this argument the following month in the Times, while reviewing a new edition of Fielding’s Works, asserting that:

The world does not now tolerate such satire … and the world no doubt is right in a great part of its squeamishness … It is wise that the public modesty should be as prudish as it is; that writers should be forced to chasten their humour, and when it would play with points of life and character which are essentially immoral, that they should be compelled, by the general outcry of incensed public propriety, to be silent altogether (Thackeray, Times).

These two essays offer a Gordian, if not downright paradoxical proposition, apparently calling for a literary realism denuded first of any subject which might cause offence to the public morals.

Dickens’ champions, such as the formidable R.H. Horne, argued that only their man had actually been able to perform such a representational miracle.  In his 1844 collection of essays on contemporary writers, The New Spirit of the Age, Horne explains Dickens’ originality thus:

Mr. Dickens is one of those happily constituted individuals who can ‘touch pitch without soiling his fingers’; the peculiarity, in his case, being that he can do so without gloves; and, grasping its clinging blackness with both hands, shall yet retain no soil, no ugly memory.  That he is at home in a wood – in green lanes and all sweet pastoral scenes – who can doubt it that has ever dwelt among them?  But he has also been through the back slums of many a St. Giles’s (Horne I.13).

On the matter of any superficial similarity between Dickens the moralist and satirist and the author of a ‘flash Newgate Calendar hero,’ Horne patiently explains that Dickens’ ‘secret’ was ‘grievously misunderstood, except in the matter of dialect, by Mr. Ainsworth in his “Jack Sheppard,” which was full of unredeemed crimes’ (Horne I.14).  This secret, according to Horne, is to depict human violence and depravity realistically when needs must, unflinchingly in fact, but always only for an illustrative, moral purpose.

Note that Horne’s only positive nod in the direction of Ainsworth is an acknowledgement of his linguistic realism, his fiction having no identifiable moral centre.  Dickens himself went further, in his public response to his critics, the preface to the third edition of Oliver Twist in 1841, which emphatically rejects romantic ‘canterings upon moonlit heaths’ (a clear reference to Ainsworth’s highwaymen), in favour of the ‘every-day existence of a Thief’ (Dickens, preface to Oliver Twist).  Oliver Twist is therefore absolutely not the Newgate romance that Thackeray never tired of accusing it to be, but Dickens’ ‘humble attempt’ to ‘dim the false glitter surrounding something which really did exist, by shewing it in its unattractive and repulsive truth.’  His attitude to flash, which has been irrevocably yoked to the unrealistic portrayal of criminality in popular fiction, is now very much part of his rejection of the criminal romance – the linguistic accuracy of the Newgate novel must be divorced from the realistic depiction and investigation of the criminal class in what he calls its ‘miserable reality,’ therefore, he explains:

No less consulting my own taste, than the manners of the age, I endeavoured, while I painted it in all its fallen and degraded aspects, to banish from the lips of the lowest character I introduced, any expression that could possibly offend; and rather to lead to the unavoidable inference that its existence was of the most debased and vicious kind, than to prove it elaborately by words and deeds.  In the case of the girl, in particular, I kept this constantly in view (Dickens, preface to Oliver Twist).

'Mr. Fagin and his Pupils recovering Nancy' by George Cruikshank, Oliver Twist (1838)
‘Mr. Fagin and his Pupils recovering Nancy’ by George Cruikshank, Oliver Twist (1838)

Dickens describes Nancy as a ‘prostitute’ in this preface, but he never calls her such in the main text – she also, as Dickens admits, has to be particularly well-spoken.  In fact, all the underworld dialogue is suitably tidied up – for example when Bill Sikes is introduced, ‘He then, in cant terms, with which his whole conversation was plentifully besprinkled, but which would be quite unintelligible if they were recorded here, demanded a glass of liquor’ (Dickens, Oliver Twist 137).  This is not to say there is no slang, but, as in the Sketches, there is little or no flash, and when underworld argot is sparingly used, it is largely the invention of the author, for example the wonderfully melodramatic oaths of Bill Sikes, such as: ‘Wolves tear your throats!’ and ‘Cut my limbs off one by one!’

But this is not on account of the censorship Thackeray seems to be advocating.  Quite the reverse.  Dickens doesn’t use flash when he describes the dark side of contemporary London, because this silly language is a distraction from the real issues of urban poverty and crime with which he wants his audience to intellectually engage and to witness.  Equally, the fad for flash instigated first by Egan, then revived by Ainsworth, has become central to the Newgate novel debate and forever associated with romantic eulogies to psychos, thieves and murderers.  If it all starts with Egan, as I believe it does, what Life in London achieved, especially through its language, was that it began the process of urban social investigation, frivolous though it undoubtedly was.  In these terms, Ainsworth contributes very little, although Jack Sheppard certainly sparks the debate which Dickens is about to win.  Thackeray’s apparent condemnation of all depictions of the underworld, whether too romantic or too realistic, a third way as it were, is ultimately of even less value in this context.  Dickens refuses to look away, instead he twists the heads of his bourgeois audience towards the squalor and depravation that surround them, demands that they look, and if at all possible, that they try and do something to alleviate all this bloody misery.

Dickens knows he is walking a tightrope – literary reputations have already been destroyed – nonetheless, ‘Truth’ remains the keyword in his preface to Oliver Twist.  Capitalised and multiply repeated in the final paragraph, Dickens positively bellows the word at his audience and critics, frustrated at having to explain what has been so obvious to him his whole life, and hammering his realism home through his justification of the depiction of Nancy:

It is useless to discuss whether the conduct and character of the girl seems natural or unnatural, probable or improbable, right or wrong.  IT IS TRUE.  Every man who has watched these melancholy shades of life knows it to be so.  Suggested to my mind long ago – long before I dealt in fiction – by what I often saw and read of, in actual life around me, I have, for years, tracked it through many profligate and noisome ways, and found it still the same.  From the first introduction of that poor wretch, to her laying her bloody head upon the robber’s breast, there is not one word exaggerated or overwrought.  It is emphatically God’s truth, for it is the truth … It involves the best and worst shades of our common nature; much of its ugliest hues, and something of its most beautiful; it is a contradiction, an anomaly, an apparent impossibility, but it is a truth.  I am glad to have had it doubted, for in that circumstance I find a sufficient assurance that it needed to be told (Dickens, preface to Oliver Twist).

So, the Newgate Controversy offers no reason for a literary novelist to abandon the subject of crime and social deprivation.  Ultimately, the moral panic that Dickens once feared could wreck his career had actually confirmed it.  Serious social investigation can now commence.

With regard to the Newgate Controversy and the literary application of the flash tongue, Thackeray finally puts it out of its misery with ‘The Night Attack’ in a false beginning to the sixth chapter of Vanity Fair, written in the manner of Jack Sheppard:

One, two, three! It is the signal that Black Vizard had agreed on.

‘Mofy! is that your snum?’ said a voice from the area. ‘I’ll gully the dag and bimbole the clicky in a snuffkin.’

‘Nuffle your clod, and beladle your glumbanions,’ said Vizard, with a dreadful oath. ‘This way, men; if they screak, out with your snickers and slick! Look to the pewter room, Blowser. You, Mark, to the old gaff’s mobus box! and I,’ added he, in a lower but more horrible voice, ‘I will look to Amelia!’ (Thackeray, Vanity Fair 59) (4).

When Thackeray revised the novel in 1853, this passage was omitted, the author considering it no longer relevant as a contemporary satire.  In 1849, a year after the publication of Vanity Fair, Henry Mayhew began his epic social investigation London Labour and the London Poor in the Morning Chronicle, while Pierce Egan, the man who may well have started it all, died peacefully at his home in Pentonville, aged seventy-seven.

Egan unwittingly created a scandal in the name of realism and verisimilitude, Ainsworth resurrected it by falling foul of emergent Victorian values, and as the debate expanded, it enabled Dickens to pursue a much more serious project of social investigation, with no more flash dialogue, but equally in the name of realism and verisimilitude.

One might well have seen George the Fourth at a bare-knuckle bout, but it would be inconceivable to bump into Victoria and Albert ringside.


Ainsworth, William Harrison. Rookwood, A Romance (1834). Works. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1880.

—. Jack Sheppard, A Romance (1839) Works. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1880.

Anon. Review of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Athenaeum December 3 1836.

Anon. ‘High Ways and Low Ways; or Ainsworth’s Dictionary, with Notes by Turpin,’ Fraser’s, IX, June 1834, 724-8.

Anon. Review of Jack Sheppard. Athenaeum, October 26 1839.

Bagehot, Walter. ‘Charles Dickens’ National Review vol 7 (October 1858).

Churchill, John. ‘High Ways and Low Ways; or Ainsworth’s Dictionary, with Notes by Turpin,’ Fraser’s, IX, June 1834.

Dickens, Charles. Sketches by Boz. London: John Macrone 1836.

—. Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (1841). Works. London: Odhams, 1897.

Dilke, Charles Wentworth. Review of Jack Sheppard. Athenaeum, October 26 1839.

Egan, Pierce. 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 (1821). London: John Camden Hotten, 1869.

Ellis, S.M. William Harrison Ainsworth and his Friends, 2 vols. London: John Lane, 1911.

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens (1872). London: Cecil Palmer 1928.

—. Review of Rookwood. Examiner, May 18 1834.

—. Review of Jack Sheppard. Examiner, November 3 1839.

—. Literary Editorial. Examiner, June 28 1840.

Horne, R.H. A New Spirit of the Age, 2 vols. London: Smith, Elder and Co, 1844.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. ‘De Juventute,’ (1860). Roundabout Papers. Works, vol XXII. London: Smith, Elder, & Co, 1887.

—. ‘Going to see a man hanged’, Fraser’s, August, 1840.

—. Catherine, A Story (1839), Works,

—. Vanity Fair (1848). London: Collins, 1949.

—. Review of Fielding, Complete Works. Times, September 2 1840.

Yates, Edmund. ‘Celebrities at Home. No. LXXXXIV. Mr. W. Harrison Ainsworth at Little Rockley,’ The World, March 27 1878.


  1. ‘High Ways and Low Ways; or Ainsworth’s Dictionary, with Notes by Turpin,’ Fraser’s, IX, June 1834, 724-8. Ainsworth’s Edwardian biographer S.M. Ellis believed this to be written by Thackeray, but in a reference to the piece in a letter to John Macrone dated June 2 1836 regarding his next novel, Crichton, Ainsworth attributes it to John ‘Jack’ Churchill, who had apparently also offered to ‘Fraserize’ Crichton.
  2. As Forster became The Examiner’s literary critic the year before, this review is assumed to be his work.
  3. As this is effectively an editorial within a literary review, it is possible that the author may be Charles Wentworth Dilke himself, editor from 1830 to 1846.
  4. This passage is generally omitted from the complete works.


Extract from Pierce Egan, 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 (1821), with explanatory notes by S.J. Carver

Taking ‘BLUE RUIN’ (1) at the ‘SLUICERY’ (2) after the ‘SPELL is broke up’ (3).

This is a fine sketch of real life … TOM is sluicing the ivory (4) of some of the unfortunate heroines with blue ruin … JERRY is in Tip Street (5) upon this occasion, and the Mollishers (6) are all nutty (7) upon him, putting it about, one to another, that he is a well-breeched Swell (8). The left-hand side of the Bar is a ‘rich bit’ of LOW LIFE; and also points out the depravity of human nature.  Gateway PEG (9) has just entered for her ninth glass.  This ‘lady-bird,’ (10) who has not only disposed of many an unruly customer (11) in her time, but buzzed (12) them into the bargain, is taking her drops of jackey (13) with OLD MOTHER BRIMSTONE, who has also toddled (14) in to have a flash of lightning (15) before she goes to roost.  Both these fair ones (16) (who are as leaky (17) as sieves, from turning their money as fast as they get it into liquor) are chaffing (18) at ‘FAT BET,’ in consequence of the pretended squeamishness of the latter to TOM, that she had a great objection to every sort of ruin, no matter how it was coloured, (19) since she had been once queered (20) upon that suit … Mother BRIMSTONE, an old cadger, (21) and a morning-sneak COVESS, (22) who is pouring some blue ruin down the baby’s throat to stop its crying, has borrowed the kid, (23) in order to assist her in exciting charity from the passing stranger in the street … The Cove and Covess (24) of the Sluicery, with faces full of gammon, (25) and who are pocketing the blunt (26) almost as fast as they can count it, have just been complaining of the wickedness of the times, and the difficulty of ‘paying their way.’  SWIPY BILL, a translator of Soles, (27) who has been out for a day’s fuddle, (28) for fear his money should become too troublesome to him, has just called in at the gin Spinners (29) to get rid of his last duce (30) by way of a finish, and to have another drop of blue ruin … Kit Blarney, who has just got rid of her sprats, which had been ‘up all night’ and rather the stronger (31) for the day or two she had had them in her possession, though she had assured her customers all the day they were as fresh as a nosegay, as she had just got them from Billingsgate, has dropped in for the purpose of lighting her short pipe, (32) to get a drap of the CRATURE, (33) and to get rid of the smell of the fish, which remained about her olfactory nerves!  The above scene may be nightly witnessed after the SPELL is dissolved, but in much more depraved colours than is here presented.  It is, however, LIFE IN LONDON.


  1. Gin.
  2. A gin shop – from the lower orders of society, and women of the town, sluicing their throats as it were with gin.  (Egan’s original note.)
  3. The saloon at Covent Garden Theatre, where Tom and Jerry have failed to score – ‘So termed for its attraction,’ says Egan, ‘A species of enchantment!’  (It’s full of ‘Lady-birds’ and their ‘rich friends’ – prostitutes, pimps, and the odd high class mistress.)
  4. Whetting the whistle.  (See also: to sluice one’s gob.)
  5. In funds, flush.
  6. A woman, especially a prostitute.  Not to be confused with a moll buzzer, a buzgloak who only picks the pockets of women.
  7. Very fond.  (Egan’s original note.)
  8. Pockets full of money.  (Egan’s original note.)  A Swell is a well dressed gentleman.
  9. To get, or make, the gate is to be released from prison.
  10. Prostitute.
  11. A victim of crime, or a prostitute’s client, usually both.
  12. To buzz, to pick a pocket.
  13. Gin.
  14. To toddle, to walk away, presumably from her patch and/or last unruly customer.
  15. A glass of gin.
  16. A euphemism for prostitute, rather than a flash term.
  17. Unable to keep a secret – Egan also double-punning on the amount of gin the ladies contain, and the other bodily fluids associated with their profession.
  18. Talking and teasing, although ‘chaffing’ can also mean deceiving, while to ‘chafe’ is to beat up.
  19. Whatever the mixer accompanying the spirit.
  20. Queer suck, or queer booze, is bad drink, often poisonous.
  21. A beggar, a thief of the lowest order.
  22. Thieves that, just as day begins to break, sneak into the passages of houses, if the servant maid has left the door open by accident, and take anything within their reach.  (Egan’s original note.)
  23. It is a very common practice in London for women to borrow young children to go out begging with.  (Egan’s original note.)
  24. The master and mistress of the house, &c.  (Egan’s original note.)
  25. Tricky one this:  gammon meaning insincerity, knowing the flash lingo, or being a criminal’s accomplice.  Egan is probably thinking of all three.
  26. Money.  (See also: to flash the screens; sport the rhino; show the needful; post the pony; nap the rent; stump the pewter; tip the brads; be down with the dust; get into Tip Street.)
  27. A cobbler that can vamp up old shoes to look like new.  A prime piece of deception; and those persons who purchase secondhand shoes soon find it out on a wet day.  (Egan’s original note.)
  28. Bender, to drink oneself stupid.
  29. A tavern, but not necessarily a sluicery.
  30. Twopence.  (Egan’s original note.)
  31. High, rotten.
  32. Steamer.
  33. ‘A drop of the creature’ – Originally an Irish expression for strong drink (the character, like Egan, being London Irish, as indicated by her comic surname, ‘Blarney’).


‘Nix My Dolly Pals Fake Away!’ by William Harrison Ainsworth, from Rookwood: A Romance (1834), with explanatory notes by S.J. Carver

“Nix My Dolly Pals Fake Away” Music from the Romance of Jack Shepard by G.H. Rodwell, (1839)

In a box (1) of the stone jug (2) I was born,

Of a hempen widow (3) the kid forlorn,

Fake away (4).

And my father, as I’ve heard say,

Fake away.

Was a merchant of capers (5) gay,

Who cut his last fling with great applause,

Nix my doll pals, fake away (6).

Who cut his last fling  with great applause (7),

To the tune of a ‘hearty choke with caper source’ (8).

Fake away

The knucks in quod (9) did my schoolmen play,

Fake away.

And put me up to the time of day;

Until at last there was none so knowing,

                                    Nix my doll pals, fake away.

Until at last there was none so knowing,

No such sneaksman (10) or buzgloak (11) going.

                                    Fake away.

Fogles (12) and fawnies (13) soon went their way,

                                    Fake away.

To the spout (14) with the sneezers (15) in grand array.

No dummy hunter had forks so fly;

                                    Nix my doll pals, fake away.

No dummy hunter (16) had forks (17) so fly (18),

No knuckler (19) so deftly could fake a cly (20),

Fake away.

No slour’d hoxtor (21) my snipes (22) could stay,

Fake away.

None knap a reader (23) like me in the lay.

Soon then I mounted in swell-street high.

Nix my doll pals, fake away.

Soon then I mounted in swell-street high,

And sported my flashiest toggery (24),

Fake away.

Firmly I resolved I would make my hay,

Fake away.

While Mercury’s star shed a single ray;

And ne’er was there seen such a dashing prig (25),

Nix my doll pals, fake away.

And ne’er was there seen such a dashing prig,

With my strummel faked in the newest twig (26).

Fake away.

With my fawnied famms, and my onions gay (27),

Fake away.

My thimble of ridge (28), and my driz kemesa (29);

All my togs were so niblike (30) and flash,

Nix my doll pals, fake away.

All my togs were so niblike and flash,

Readily the queer screens I then could smash (31);

Fake away.

But my nuttiest blowen (32), one fine day,

Fake away.

To the beaks (33) did her fancy man betray,

And thus was I bowled out at last.

Nix my doll pals, fake away.

And thus was I bowled out at last (34),

And into the jug for a lag was cast (35);

Fake away.

But I slipped my darbies (36) one morn in May,

Fake away.

And gave to the dubsman (37) a holiday.

And here I am, pals, merry and free,

A regular rollicking romany (38).

Nix my doll pals, fake away.



  1. Cell.
  2. Newgate Prison, London.
  3. A woman whose husband has been hanged.
  4. ‘Carry on stealing.’
  5. A dancing-master.
  6. ‘Never mind my friends, carry on stealing.’
  7. He did the ‘dance without music’ – the kicking at the end of a rope, he was hanged.
  8. This is a pun on the name of a meal: ‘choke’ also means ‘to strangle,’ while ‘caper,’ a berry used to season food, also means ‘to dance.’
  9. Thieves in prison.
  10. Shoplifter.
  11. Pickpocket.
  12. Silk hankerchiefs.
  13. Rings.
  14. Pawnbroker (often ‘fence,’ a receiver of stolen goods).
  15. Snuff boxes.
  16. Pickpocket.
  17. The two forefingers used in picking a pocket.
  18. Deft, artful, cool – a word still used today.
  19. Pickpocket.
  20. Pick a pocket.
  21. An inside pocket, usually fastened.
  22. Scissors.
  23. To steal a wallet/pocket book.
  24. Best-made clothes.
  25. Thief.
  26. With my hair dressed in the latest fashion.
  27. With several rings on my hands.
  28. Gold watch.
  29. Laced shirt.
  30. Gentlemanly, gentlemanlike.
  31. I could therefore easily pass forged bank notes (because I looked so respectable).
  32. Favourite mistress.
  33. Police and/or magistrates – the authorities.
  34. A cricketing metaphor: ‘bowled out’ is like being ‘struck out’ in baseball.  In this case, ‘caught’ or ‘arrested.’
  35. Thrown in prison to await transportation (a sentence when the convicted felon was sentenced to working exile in some far-flung colony, many white Australians were originally descended from transported convicts).
  36. Fetters, chains.
  37. Turnkey, prison officer.
  38. Gypsy.

Previously unpublished, paper originally presented at the Victorian Criminalities conference, University of Exeter, April 2005

Copyright © SJ Carver 2005, 2013


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