‘The Wrongs and Crimes of the Poor’: the Urban Underworld of The Mysteries of London in Context

The cover of G.W.M. Reynolds and Nineteenth-Century British Society
G.W.M. Reynolds and Nineteenth-Century British Society, edited by Professors Anne Humpherys and Louis James (London: Ashgate, 2008). The cover shows a portrait is of Reynolds from the first number of Reynolds’s Miscellany, November 7, 1846.

In his literary memoir of 1852, Lions: Living and Dead, John Ross Dix attributed the prodigious popularity of The Mysteries of London to the fact that the penny serial ‘ministered to the depraved appetites of the lower classes,’ while ‘murders, seductions, robberies, horrors of all sorts, spiced with the abuse of the upper orders, formed the staple of the story’ (Dix 284). Dix did acknowledged some skill on the part of the author, Mr. G.W.M. Reynolds, who wrote ‘like a steam engine,’ but concluded that ‘as a writer his works will not perpetuate his name, for none of them have a vitality sufficient to reserve them from the rubbish of the cheap and nasty school of literature’ (Dix 282, 288). This final prophecy has largely been fulfilled.  Reynolds does not even make it into Malcolm Elwin’s Victorian Wallflowers (1934), a study devoted to ‘unjustly neglected’ popular Victorian writers (Elwin 14) (1). Critically, Reynolds has always resided in an underworld of sorts, but, given the mise-en-scène of The Mysteries of London, ‘a labyrinth of dwellings whose very aspect appeared to speak of hideous poverty and fearful crime,’ where else could he be? (Reynolds vol I 4)

The nineteenth century London underworld, that subterranean social space intimately connected with urban poverty and crime, has been usefully defined by Kellow Chesney as the realm of ‘certain classes of people whose very manner of living seemed a challenge to ordered society and the tissue of laws, moralities and taboos holding it together’ (Chesney 32). In 1832 (a year after Reynolds sets the opening of The Mysteries of London), Fraser’s Magazine warned of a new and dangerous urban underclass, ‘a distinct body of thieves, whose life and business it is to follow up a determined warfare against the constituted authorities, by living in idleness and on plunder’ (Anon, Frasers 521 – 522). This ‘criminal club,’ or ‘underworld,’ was ruthless, organised, and in many ways paralleled the society in whose shadow it dwelt, with its own black economy, apprentices, craftsmen and leaders.

Reynolds stages almost half of The Mysteries of London in this criminal underworld, contributing to a body of writing that attempts to represent and define this growing urban underclass. Such underworld writing can be fact or fiction or both; it can originate from within, for example James Hardy Vaux’s Memoirs of a Transport (1819), or from those merely visiting. The latter group can be tourists, such as Pierce Egan, writers of romance like W.H. Ainsworth and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, serious novelists, most notably Charles Dickens, or social investigators from home and abroad, such as Henry Mayhew and Flora Tristan. The Mysteries of London, however, includes aspects of all these writers’ approaches to the urban Other. Reynolds’ epic serial – much more than merely the copy of Eugene Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1843) often supposed – reads more like Tristan’s London Journal at its most polemic, with a Newgate plot by Ainsworth and Bulwer-Lytton, and additional dialogue by Pierce Egan. It is political gothic, a radical melodrama, and a penny blood that cites official statistics, anticipating both the autobiographical statements of Mayhew’s street folk, and Dickens at his darkest and most Manichean.

In his guide Life in London (1821), Pierce Egan set many of the narrative rules for future writers in the nineteenth century underworld, including Reynolds. Egan presented the city as a vast cultural text, its delights available to anybody willing to decipher its secrets: ‘The Metropolis is a complete CYCLOPÆDIA’ (Egan 50). Like Reynolds, Egan defined by contrasts: ‘EXTREMES in every point of view, are daily to be met with’ (Egan 50), and, also like Reynolds, Egan was not overly concerned with the honest poor. His underworld was largely the realm of thieves, drunks, whores and bare-knuckle fighters, a glamorous demographic and no mistake. Although Egan’s exploration of the underworld offered a new language of representation, this was not accompanied by social commentary. His was a Regency innocence, not yet the Victorian experience that Reynolds would bring.

In decoding the dark side of London, Egan made much use of the Enigma code of the underworld, flash slang, which, once cracked, allowed the traveller full access. Considering himself something of a social explorer (he is more of a dandy on safari), Egan claimed linguistic authenticity, using ‘the [strong] language of real life’ himself because his intention was to report, without embellishment, ‘living manners as they rise’ in an audio/visual reading of London as topographical epistemology (Egan 110 – 111).

‘Literary’ flash stuck, becoming a staple of underworld representation.  Ainsworth used it liberally (‘Jigger closed! We’ll be upon the bandogs before they can shake their trotters!’ Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 23); Thackeray sent it up mercilessly (‘Nuffle your clod, and beladle your glumbanions!’ Thackeray, Vanity Fair 59); and Dickens rejected it as part of the unrealistic criminal romance, not the ‘miserable reality’ of the underworld. ‘I endeavoured, while I painted it in all its fallen and degraded aspects,’ wrote Dickens of the Saffron Hill of Oliver Twist, ‘to banish from the lips of the lowest character I introduced, any expression that could possibly offend’ (Dickens, Preface to Oliver Twist).

Kicked out of English literature after the Newgate Controversy of 1839 – a moral panic concerning the pernicious effects of criminal romance on the lower classes – flash continued to be a verbal signifier of supposedly authentic underworld dialogue in the pages of popular paraliterature, as well as on the streets (it can often be heard in Mayhew). In the opening chapter of Sue’s Mysteries of Paris, Rodolphe gains access to the underworld by first besting Chourineur with his fists, then pattering flash ‘like a family man,’ (Sue vol I 15) while all Reynolds’ criminal characters speak flash fluently, though whether the dialogue of Reynolds’ underworld is a matter of realism or romance is one of the many mysteries of The Mysteries of London.

When the Costermongers talk to Henry Mayhew about their taste in reading in London Labour and the London Poor, their enthusiasm for Reynolds offers a contemporary insight into his location within the Newgate/gothic tradition:

What they love best to listen to – and, indeed, what they are most eager for – are Reynolds’s periodicals, especially the ‘Mysteries of the Court’. ‘They’ve got tired of Lloyd’s blood-stained stories’, said one man, who was in the habit of reading to them, ‘and I’m satisfied that, of all London, Reynolds is the most popular man among them. They stuck to him in Trafalgar-square, and would again. They all say he’s “a trump”, and Feargus O’Connor’s another trump with them’ (Mayhew 25).

The Mysteries of the Court of London was published by Reynolds and John Dicks between 1848 – 1856 after a dispute with his original publishers (George Vickers and George Stiff) led to Reynolds abandoning The Mysteries of London. Reynolds’ sequel lacks the political edge of the original, concerned as it is with intrigues in the court of George IV. Politics are present, but diluted through the archaic setting. It is a sexy serial, but there are no more polemical Prologues. Henry Mayhew’s reflections on ‘The Literature of Costermongers’ concludes that:

The tales of robbery and bloodshed, of heroic, eloquent, and gentlemanly highwaymen, or of gipsies turning out to be nobles, now interest the costermongers but little, although they found great delight in such stories a few years back. Works relating to Courts, potentates, or ‘harristocrats’, are the most relished by these rude people.

While ‘sermons or tracts,’ by the way, ‘gives them the ’orrors’ (Mayhew 27). The costermongers are not, apparently, reading Dickens either.

Reynolds is very much the successor of Edward Lloyd’s penny bloods, as well as an inheritor and refiner of the Regency magazine ‘Tale of Terror.’ Compare, for example, the sensational sensations of the condemned Bill Bolter’s death-dream in The Mysteries of London with stories such as Ainsworth’s ‘Half-hangit’ (1822) and Henry Thompson’s ‘Le Revenant’ (1827). Like Signora Psyche Zenobia, Reynolds knew how to write a Blackwood’s article, while bringing the codes and devices of the by now rather tired literary gothic to the streets of England. In The Mysteries of London the medieval, European and Catholic settings of the eighteenth century gothic were exchanged for the dark urban labyrinths of nineteenth century London.

But these were not Reynolds only obvious influences. He also followed in the more recent wake of the middle class Newgate novelists, writers of criminal romances briefly in vogue in the 1830s and named from the infamous London gaol. Mayhew’s ‘gentlemanly highwaymen’ refers to Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1830), and Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834), and Jack Sheppard (1839), as well as their popular imitations. But the likes of Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard have passed from the popular imagination, having been replaced by the more tangible figures of O’Connor and Reynolds as the working class find a political voice in Chartism. They also liked the pictures.

Ainsworth’s contribution to the gothic had been essentially to shift it to the English city with Rookwood, although he kept it well in the past, combining Eganesque linguistic and sub-cultural codes with the gothic through the legend of Dick Turpin. Rookwood followed Paul Clifford, but Bulwer-Lytton had resisted the gothic underworld in favour of a marriage of romance and radicalism, his highwayman paraphrasing Godwin from the dock in order to critique the Bloody Code and the plight of the poor: ‘I come into the world friendless and poor – I find a body of laws hostile to the friendless to the poor! To those laws hostile to me, then, I acknowledge hostility in my turn. Between us are the conditions of war’ (Bulwer-Lytton 200). Clifford also states that he was unjustly imprisoned as a youth, and that while inside he was subject to the ‘corruption of example’ (Bulwer-Lytton 200). A similar argument is offered by Reynolds’ underworld characters. Politics is where Reynolds and Bulwer-Lytton meet, but never plot. If Reynolds, and indeed Sue, were influenced by a criminal romance, it was mainly by Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, which anticipates the underworlds of The Mysteries of both Paris and London, linguistically, melodramatically, and above all gothically.

While the fashion for Newgate fiction was on the wane in literary fiction (Ainsworth never wrote another, nor did his reputation recover, Victorian critics often dismissing him alongside the Regency, and therefore equally deviant, Egan), it lived on in the new marketplace. Reynolds takes from Ainsworth exactly the features that had made him both popular and such an easy target for moral outrage: the flash, the sex, and the violence.

Reynolds’ unorthodox treatment of fallen women also mirrors Ainsworth. Ellen Monroe, admittedly a middle class women impoverished by circumstance (one of Eugene’s dirty deals), rather than born into squalor, successfully negotiates both city and text with her illegitimate child, even as unrepentant, sexually powerful prostitutes Edgeworth Bess and Poll Maggot are the only underworld characters left standing at the conclusion of Jack Sheppard. La Goualeuse, it will be remembered, does not survive The Mysteries of Paris, despite her noble origins. But Reynolds raises the stakes even higher than this, and completely politicises the underworld.

Ellen Monroe as a figurante, drawn and engraved by George Stiff. Reynolds, Mysteries of London, Vol. I, Chapter LXXXVIII.
‘Dressed like a sylph, with rouge upon your cheeks, and surrounded by the blaze of light, you would be altogether a different being.’ Ellen Monroe as a figurante, drawn and engraved by George Stiff. Reynolds, Mysteries of London, Vol. I, Chapter LXXXVIII.

In the ‘city of fearful contrasts,’ Reynolds’ London, ‘The most unbounded wealth is the neighbour of the most hideous poverty; the most gorgeous pomp is placed in strong relief by the most deplorable squalor; the most seducing luxury is only separated by a narrow wall from the most appalling misery’ (Reynolds vol I 1). This is, of course, the recognisable duality present in all urban writing, but with the additional language of class war. In the Prologue to The Mysteries of London, the city is socially, topographically, morally, and textually doubled:

There are but two words known in the moral alphabet of this great city; for all virtues are summed up in the one, and all vices in the other: and those words are


(Reynolds vol I 1)

In the opening of The Mysteries of London, it is not, however, poverty that occupies the author’s attention but crime, and crime in relation to politics. What is contrary about Reynolds in the underworld is the relationship between portrayal and politics. As the Prologue has equated poverty with virtue and wealth with vice, ‘The Old House in Smithfield’ of the opening chapters hardly sets up the moral fable, the ‘Condition of England Question,’ that the Prologue has suggested. An apparently upper class youth gets lost in a ‘horrible neighbourhood,’ takes shelter from a storm in a spooky but apparently empty house, lightening illuminating an ominous trap door in the floor, reminding him (and us) of ‘fearful tales of midnight murders’ (Reynolds vol I 3 – 4). A brace of flash-slinging villains then arrive, boozing and planning a robbery. We have entered the ‘labyrinth of narrow and dirty streets’ for the first time, and the space is immediately gothic (a stormy night, the old dark house) and menacing (Reynolds vol I 3). The locals may be ‘dressed like operatives of the most humble class,’ but they are far from honest labourers (Reynolds vol I 4). By page seven they’ve tossed the young man through the trap door. This is a sensational hook, but hardly the expected social critique. The doubling of the text therefore is not so much between rich and poor as plot versus Prologue.

Identity is similarly doubled; pretty much every central character has at least one alter-ego, then often doubled again – gender is unstable from the first chapter – and, as a policeman tells Richard Markham, ‘If I arrested all impostors, half London would be in prison’ (Reynolds vol II 4). Trefor Thomas sees such things as a ‘self-conscious mockery of Gothic motifs’ (Thomas xvii). But is this satire or sadism? Probably both, another textual doubling. As always, the text is as ambivalent as the identity of its characters, and its author. As another policeman tells Richard Markham, who has just escaped from The Resurrection Man and his ‘Mummy’ and is trying to explain the horrors of their Spitalfields slaughterhouse, ‘This is London, you know – and it is impossible that the things you have described could be committed in so populous a city’ (Reynolds vol I 130). We get the gallows humour. The Resurrection Man’s house contains something arguably worse than the gallows, his own ‘infernal invention’ for concealing murder (even death goes in disguise) where victims are strung up like beefs in a meat locker and drowned, head first, in a bucket, so as not to get too much water in the lungs and thus give at least a cursory impression of death by natural causes. The corpse is then allowed to ripen a bit, so that it ‘might not appear too fresh to the surgeon to whom it was sold!’ (Reynolds vol I 124). There is also an accompanying illustration. When the police storm the gaff, the Resurrection Man detonates the place (he has a precautionary habit of mining his hideouts), spraying Bird-cage Walk with blackened body parts. In The Mysteries of London, Reynolds has escalated the violence already present in Ainsworth’s underworld, and, in a sense, out-gothicked the gothic.

'The Resurrection Man next handed up the tools to his companion, who threw him down a strong cord.' Tony Tidkins goes about his business, drawn and engraved by George Stiff. Reynolds, Mysteries of London, Vol I, Chapter CVIII.
‘The Resurrection Man next handed up the tools to his companion, who threw him down a strong cord.’ Tony Tidkins goes about his business, drawn and engraved by George Stiff. Reynolds, Mysteries of London, Vol I, Chapter CVIII.

As Reynolds’ labyrinthine multi-plot unfolds, this over-the-top underworld continues, invariably depicted as criminal, rather than simply poor. In the parallel narrative, the wealthy, from the mercantile to the aristocratic are, as promised, thoroughly dissolute. Only in the manner of their crimes and punishments do the social classes differ. When the young man from the Old House in Smithfield is later revealed to be Eliza Sydney, and the thugs from Smithfield return to rob the villa where she is staying, George Montague (the protean Eugene Markham, brother of the hero, Richard) fights them off, but then tries to take advantage of the terrified and vulnerable woman. Only by defending her honour with a dagger concealed beneath a pillow does Eliza avoid being raped by Eugene. The contrast between wealth and poverty in this context is no contrast at all, and scenes alternate between high and low society, both being as bad as each other.

Sightings of the honest poor are rare. After Richard Markham is collared at the ‘hell’ (a gambling house), he observes how the genuinely underprivileged (in one of their few appearances in the text) are treated at the Station House. A beggar is obviously a ‘rogue and a vagabond,’ who’ll therefore automatically get ‘three months on the stepper’ (the treadmill), while a street-seller is nicked for obstructing the way and creating a nuisance – he’ll go to prison, his family to the workhouse (Reynolds vol I 36). Because of his ‘standing in society,’ no charges are initially bought against Markham (Reynolds vol I 36). But these are minor injustices in the overall scheme of the narrative, and such ordinary unfortunates are peripheral at best. Reynolds cannot help but be constantly drawn towards the dramatic possibilities of the criminal underworld.

The opening scenes in Smithfield are pure Newgate. Dick Flairer and Bill Bolter are well down with the flash patter: brother thieves are ‘blades,’ alcohol is ‘lush’ and ‘bingo,’ and houses, whether hideouts or targets, are always ‘cribs.’ This sets the standard for the underworld slang of The Mysteries of London, which even includes flash songs – such as ‘The Thieves’ Alphabet’ in Chapter XXIII – a la Rookwood. Even their names are flash – to bolt, to do a runner, remains a common slang term, but originally meant an escaped convict, or wanted man, which is Bolter’s destiny in the plot, while to flair was to pick a pocket like lightening. What is most significant, however, is the ‘Old House’ itself, the history of which is discussed by the gang:

‘I say, Bill, this old house has seen some jolly games, han’t it?’
‘I should think it had too. It was Jonathan Wild’s favourite crib; and he was no fool at keeping things dark.’
‘No, surely. I dare say the well-staircase in the next room there, that’s covered over with the trap-door, has had many a dead body flung down it into the Fleet’ (Reynolds vol I 5).

This recalls Jonathan Wild’s murder of Sir Rowland Trenchard, whom he chucks down a well in Jack Sheppard.

Reynolds also makes use of an even more contemporary source of local legend. In the same month that The Mysteries of London commenced publication, October 1844, the Journal of the London City Mission Society had published a first-hand account of the area around Chick Lane (where Reynolds’ places the Old House) by Andrew Provan, including the history of such local ‘thieves houses.’ Thomas Beames cites this in his chapter on Saffron Hill and Clerkenwell in The Rookeries of London (1850):

In the thieves’ house were dark closets, trap-doors, sliding panels, and other means of escape.  In shop No. 3, were two trap-doors in the floor, one for the concealment of property, the other to provide means of escape to those who were hard run; a wooden door was cleverly let into the floor, of which, to all appearance, it formed part; through this, the thief, who was in danger of being captured, escaped; as immediately beneath was a cellar, about three feet square, from this there was an outlet to the Fleet Ditch, a plank was thrown across this, and the thief was soon in Black Boy Alley, – out of reach of his pursuers … In one corner was a den or cellar concealed by a wall besmeared with soot and dirt, to prevent detection (Beames 57).

Beames, following Provan, in a wonderful flourish of romance and realism, states that ‘Among the inhabitants have been at different times, Jonathan Wild, Jack Sheppard, Jerry Abershaw, and Richard Turpin’ (Beames 59).

By the time of The Mysteries of London, however, these buildings had gone, demolished when New Street was opened between Farringdon Street and Clerkenwell.  Bill and Dick comment on these future (to them) plans, but ‘don’t we know other cribs as good as this – and just under the very nose of the authorities too?’ (Reynolds vol I 5). They also suggest the place might be haunted, Bolter boasting that he wouldn’t be frightened, even if ‘every one wot has been tumbled down these holes into the Fleet, was to startup, and –’ but the image remains incomplete, as Eliza then makes him jump and he refuses to be left in the dark while his mate investigates (Reynolds vol I 5). Such is the quintessential underworld space of The Mysteries of London: traditionally gothic, a locus suspectus in the most Otrantoesque sense of secret passages and trap doors, while also a symbol of underworld organisation, slightly out of date, yet bizarrely accurate. Bolter’s fantasy also leaves us with the perfect underworld metaphor of the sewer overflowing in a kind of undead return of the repressed.

Bolter and Flairer represent the overture of The Mysteries of London. They introduce the underworld themes of crime, anti-language, and violence, and they are the first to invade the bourgeois surface (Mr. Stephens’s villa), returning to once more threaten Eliza Sydney, although driven back by the much more dangerous Montague. These characters have a little more stage time after the Station House episode, as the action shifts to ‘a den of horrors’ in the heart of Smithfield and Saffron Hill, continuing the textual/topographic contrast of wealthy scene/location then underworld. The language of the introduction is initially that of the social investigator: ‘There were then but few cesspools; and scarcely any of those which did exist possessed any drains … As if nothing should be wanting to render that district as filthy and unhealthy as possible, water is scarce’ (Reynolds vol I 43). The description, however, becomes increasingly lurid:

A short time ago, an infant belonging to a poor widow, who occupied a back room on the ground-floor of one of these hovels, died, and was laid upon the sacking of the bed while the mother went out to make arrangements for its interment. During her absence a pig entered the room from the yard, and feasted upon the dead child’s face!

In that densely populated neighbourhood that we are describing hundreds of families each live and sleep in one room. When a member of one of these families happens to die, the corpse is kept in the close room where the rest still continue to live and sleep. Poverty frequently compels the unhappy relatives to keep the body for days – aye, and weeks. Rapid decomposition takes place; – animal life generates quickly; and in four-and-twenty hours myriads of loathsome animalculae are seen crawling about (Reynolds vol I 43).

The moral tone here increasingly fractured by sensationalism, anticipating the ‘terrible discovery’ stories that were a staple of The Illustrated Police News a generation later. The effect is ambivalent, destabilising – is this hardcore realism, or another gothic frame? Although he continues ‘The wealthy classes of society are far too ready to reproach the miserable poor for things which are really misfortunes and not faults’ (Reynolds vol I 43), Reynolds is actually setting a scene for a violent crime that is, as Himmelfarb puts it, ‘so gratuitously sadistic that even the most sympathetic reader would have trouble attributing it to any “misfortunes” of poverty’ (Himmelfarb 439).

In a gothic inversion of family, the ragged children of Bill and Polly Bolter are returning home from a day’s begging, to be beaten mercilessly by their mother for having made so little. The parents dine (well, they are far from destitute), and Polly raises the possibility of blinding their daughter because ‘There’s nothin’ like a blind child to excite compassion’ (Reynolds vol I 45). The son, meanwhile, will soon be able to help his father burgle, being small enough (like Oliver Twist) to ‘shove through a window’ (Reynolds vol I 45). Bolter goes down the boozing ken, then returns home, gets into a fight with Polly and beats her to death in a very dark pastiche of the death of Nancy from Oliver Twist, her head striking the corner of a table so that ‘Her left eye came in contact with the angle of the board, and was literally crushed in its socket’ (Reynolds vol I 51). Bolter bolts, and ends up hiding out in the dungeon of the Old House in Chick Lane. Dick Flairer brings him supplies. When the police arrive, he assumes, quite wrongly, that his friend has sold him out and stabs him to death. (It was actually the Resurrection Man. There is none of the honour among thieves that Ainsworth had introduced in his Newgate novels.) In a characteristic doubling of narrative, he is sentenced to death at the same time that Markham is being tried for forgery.

'Mother's hurt herself.' Bill Bolter surveys his handiwork while his children beg him not to leave them alone with the corpse. Drawn and engraved by George Stiff, Reynolds, Mysteries of London Vil. I, Chapter XIX.
‘Mother’s hurt herself.’ Bill Bolter surveys his handiwork while his children beg him not to leave them alone with the corpse. Drawn and engraved by George Stiff, Reynolds, Mysteries of London Vol. I, Chapter XIX.

Bolter’s execution is fascinating in its intertextual contrariness. There are echoes of ‘A Visit to Newgate’ from Dickens’ Sketches by Boz (later recycled and refined as ‘Fagin’s last night alive’ in Oliver Twist), as the bells of St. Sepulchre’s toll and the clock counts down. There is also a quasi-religious nightmare of death by hanging and the descent into hell, reminiscent of a late-Georgian Tale of Terror, and even a dash of the eleventh plate of Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness, ‘The Idol ’Prentice Executed at Tyburn,’ as the ghoulish crowds gather for the ‘grand national spectacle’ and the local pubs ‘drove a roaring trade throughout the day’ (Reynolds vol I 102). Finally, there is a polemic against capital punishment:

But the Law is vindictive, cowardly, mean, and ignorant. It is vindictive because its punishments are more severe than the offences, and because its officers descend to any dirtiness in order to obtain conviction. It is cowardly, because it cuts off from the world, with a rope or an axe, those men whose dispositions it fears to undertake to curb. It is mean, because it is all in favour of the wealthy, and reserves its thunders for the poor and obscure who have no powerful interest to protect them; and because itself originates nearly half the crimes which it punishes. And it is ignorant, because it erects the gibbet where it should rear the cross (Reynolds vol I 101).

'Spectres, clad in long winding sheets - cold grisly corpses, dressed in shrouds, seemed to move nioselessly through the dungeon.' Bill Bolter tormented by his demons. Drawn and engraved by George Stiff, Reynolds, Mysteries of London, Vol I, Chapter XXVIII.
‘Spectres, clad in long winding sheets – cold grisly corpses, dressed in shrouds, seemed to move nioselessly through the dungeon.’ Bill Bolter tormented by his demons. Drawn and engraved by George Stiff, Reynolds, Mysteries of London, Vol I, Chapter XXVIII.

This both recalls and raises the abolishionist language of Dickens in Barnaby Rudge, where ‘this last dreadful and repulsive penalty … never turned a man inclined to evil, and has hardened thousands who were half inclined to good’ (Dickens Barnaby Rudge 383). Himmelfarb reads this as Reynolds seeking to ‘legitimize the outlaw by illegitimizing the law,’ suggesting that the author here outdistances all of his reform-minded, even radical contemporaries by not sympathising with the dangerous classes, but giving them ‘the same moral status as the rest of society’ (Himmelfarb 444). Reynolds does sensationalise, true, but not sentimentalise.

Building upon this foundation, Reynolds then politicises his narrative in an even more specifically class conscious way, anticipating the first-person statements of Mayhew’s subjects by giving underworld characters an opportunity to tell their own stories. As noted, this had been tried before by Bulwer-Lytton, but what Reynolds offers is a radical critique that was lacking in all the Newgate novels of the 1830s, as well as in Dickens’s response to the criminal romance, Oliver Twist, where Dickens’ acclaimed realism is as much melodramatic as authentic and offers no serious call for reform (Oliver is of noble, or at least middle class, birth, and the charity of both Brownlow and the Maylies Christian rather than political).

The most striking example of this technique can be seen in ‘The Resurrection Man’s History,’ where the prosaically named Tony Tidkins takes over the narrative and tells his story to the locals of the Dark House boozing ken in Brick Lane, Reynolds here revealing a hidden narrative, the personal biography of a criminal.

Tidkins’s father was arrested for petty smuggling, and his son watches his family destroyed while the local baronet, who controlled a vast contraband machine of which Tidkins Senior was a very small cog, was helped upon conviction by all the local gentry, eventually coming into a large inheritance which wipes his slate clean.  ‘I began to comprehend,’ muses Tidkins, ‘that birth and station made an immense difference in the views that the world adopted of men’s actions’ (Reynolds I 192). Damned by association, his Father’s conviction makes it impossible for him to find honest employment. Tidkins finally cracks when the baronet horse-whips him for not opening a gate. He fights back, and is rewarded with two years for assault. Upon his release, now a hardened criminal, he calmly goes to the home of the justice who passed sentence and torches it, killing his only daughter, before burning down the baronet’s castle: ‘And the upper classes wonder that there are so many incendiary fires: my only surprise is, that there are so few!’ (Reynolds I 195).

There are similar accounts from the Buffer, the Whipper-in and his (prostitute) wife, Cranky Jem, and the Rattlesnake (the Screech-Owl to Tidkins’s Schoolmaster). Origins differ, but the moral in each case is pretty much the same. In the chapter that picks up and develops the Resurrection Man’s history with other autobiographies, entitled ‘The Wrongs and Crimes of the Poor,’ Tidkins summarises (making a similar point to Paul Clifford): ‘Here we are, in this room, upwards of twenty thieves and prostitutes: I’ll be bound to say that the laws and the state of society made eight of them what they are’ (Reynolds I 202).

The Resurrection Man is the principal underworld villain of the serial, stalking Richard Markham and robbing, killing, and exhuming his way through the text, impossible to destroy until the finale. He is finally entombed by his own double, Cranky Jem, once a partner until Tidkins inevitably betrayed him. The Resurrection Man, blinded by his own powder, dies entombed alive by Jem in the manner of Ainsworth’s arch villain Alan Rookwood. Yet The Resurrection Man is also at times a revolutionary (and a much more interesting one than Richard Markham in Castelcicala), with a proactive terrorist agenda apparent in his non-profit making acts of revenge against his class enemies. Reynolds’s message regarding the arsonist’s revenge is unambiguous, the justice had it coming, let a complacent and corrupt establishment beware: ‘Crime, oppression, and injustice prosper for a time; but, with nations as with individuals, the day of retribution must come’ (Reynolds I 415).

'By the aid of the Resurrection Man and the burglar, the youth scaled the wall of the Palace Gardens.' Drawn and engraved by George Stiff, Reynolds, Mysteries of London, Vol. I, Chapter LVIII.
‘By the aid of the Resurrection Man and the burglar, the youth scaled the wall of the Palace Gardens.’ Drawn and engraved by George Stiff, Reynolds, Mysteries of London, Vol. I, Chapter LVIII.

The Resurrection Man even violates Buckingham Palace with the intention of stealing the plate (2) – the Palace no more to him than another crib to crack – initiating the Henry Holford story arc where voyeurism culminates with an assassination attempt on Prince Albert in an audacious, allegorically charged reworking two real events from 1840 (3). Reynolds’ symbolism would be obvious to the point of clumsiness if not for the sheer nerve of presenting Victoria as a character in his textual labyrinth, just another ‘harristocrat,’ ignorant of the conditions in which the majority of her subjects exist. If the ‘wrongs and crimes of the poor’ suggest that the underworld villains are more socially sinned against than sinning, then the Resurrection Man is the definitive ‘Nemesis of Neglect’ (4), a super-criminal of supernaturally horrific dimension, created by a hopeless, underclass upbringing for which the middle and upper classes take no responsibility. His anachronistic profession, in this context, is telling – as Marx wrote, ‘What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are their own grave-diggers’ (Marx 79).

'The queen and the prince seated themselves upon the sofa beneath which the pot-boy was concealed.' Drawn and engraved by George Stiff, Reynolds, Mysteries of London, Vol. I, Chapter LIX.
‘The queen and the prince seated themselves upon the sofa beneath which the pot-boy was concealed.’ Drawn and engraved by George Stiff, Reynolds, Mysteries of London, Vol. I, Chapter LIX.

Yet Reynolds’ politics have always been questioned. Dickens, appalled at the Trafalgar Square demonstrations of March 6, 1848, separated Reynolds from the ‘genuine working men who are Chartists,’ with whom he sympathised, and considered him an ‘amateur,’ and ‘a name with which no lady’s, and no gentleman’s, should be associated’ (Dickens, Letter to W.C. Macready, August 30, 1849). Political allies never quite trusted Reynolds either. Also referring to the Trafalgar Square incident, where Reynolds had spontaneously taken the chair of a leaderless meeting, the radical engraver James Linton dismissed him as ‘the tin kettle at the mad mob’s tail’ (Linton 65), while W.E. Adams said of him later that ‘it was rather as a charlatan and a trader than as a genuine politician that G. W. M. was generally regarded by the rank and file of Chartism’ (Adams 245).

Admittedly much less vituperatively, this trend has continued in more recent attempts to reconcile the politics and plot of The Mysteries of London. Margaret Dalziel saw a contradiction between Reynolds’ republican rhetoric, and his rich, noble heroes, who represented ‘the pleasure of imaginative participation in the life of a wholly undemocratic society’ (Dalziel 141).

In the seminal Fiction for the Working Man, Louis James acknowledges that The Mysteries of London ‘show a social conscience lacking in almost all other popular fiction at this time,’ but that Reynolds’ abilities ‘fell to the lure of sensation and easy popularity.’ Ultimately, for James then:

His radicalism serves a dramatic rather than a genuinely social purpose, and is finally subject to the conventions of romance … The lower classes are made up of thugs, resurrection men, fences, prostitutes, or starving paupers.  The best of the working classes as they really existed – the courageous artisan overcoming his difficulties by hard work and determination – is never shown.  Reynolds’s social criticism is overbalanced by his sensationalism (James 197).

This position requires much of Reynolds as a popular author, although James is right concerning the absence of the decent working classes in the text. James’ reading is endorsed by Richard Maxwell: ‘To what end does Reynolds’s unveiling of secrets proceed, besides the exploitative one? Not revolution: revolutions happen in Italy, where Richard makes his illustrious career.  Reform seems equally distant’ (Maxwell 166). But as a costermonger (and representative of Reynolds’ working class audience) tells Mayhew, ‘Love and murder suits us best, sir … Macbeth would be better liked, if it was only the witches and the fighting’ (Mayhew 15).

Gertrude Himmelfarb offers an alternative reading: ‘Neither the conventions of the genre [gothic] nor the desire for popularity required him to express the views he did’ (Himmelfarb 450). This is a good point. Himmelfarb also challenges the demands critics make of Reynolds. ‘They are asking of him,’ she writes, ‘the kind of “social novel” that no radical of the time, not even Earnest Jones, ever wrote’ (Himmelfarb 450 ). Her conclusion, however, fails to convince:

If Reynolds created no such heroes among the poor, it was not necessarily, as his critics suppose, because he was insufficiently resolute and radical to withstand the temptations of sensationalism.  It may have been because his radicalism was of an entirely different order and because his idea of poverty was nihilistic rather than compassionate or heroic … If there was any social message to be drawn from The Mysteries of London, it was that violence and depravity, licentiousness and criminality, were the only forms of existence, and potentially the only means of redemption, available to the poor (Himmelfarb 451).

The problem is that any reading of The Mysteries of London is either reductive, or ambivalent, ultimately falling, like Reynolds’ Prologues, into the language of paradox. As Whittingham says to Mr. MacChizzle, ‘I’m bewildered in a labyrinth of mazes, sir’ (Reynolds vol I 134).

It is best to embrace the contradictions. As Anne Humpherys has convincingly argued:

Reynolds’ political understanding was more complicated than he has been given credit for by later critics … Reynolds’ politics as well as his editorial stance and the contents of his fiction reflected the inclusiveness of popular culture. His contradictions were the contradictions of the audience he was writing for … unless we take into account these contradictions in the popular mind, unless we are able to exercise our own negative capabilities as literary historians, we will not be able to understand fully either popular literature or popular politics (Humpherys, Victorian Periodicals Review 87 – 88).

To quote some wisdom from Ainsworth: ‘the truth is, to write for the mob, you must not write too weak. The newspaper level is the true line to take’ (Ainsworth, letter to James Crossley, April 7 1838). And Reynolds took it.

The underworld of The Mysteries of London is not nihilistic, at least not in the way Himmelfarb uses the term, neither are the politics of its representation simply a pose calculated to exploit the new mass market. Reynolds intends the London underworld to be a reflection of the early-Victorian city. From the Prologue, every social space has its shadow: ‘Crime is abundant in this city: the lazarhouse, the prison, the brothel, and the dark alley, are rife with all kinds of enormity; in the same way as the palace, the mansion, the clubhouse, the parliament, and the parsonage, are each and all characterised by their different degrees and shades of vice’ (Reynolds vol I 1). If there is epistemological confusion, it is a cultural response to the city itself. When Reynolds commenced the serialisation of The Mysteries of London in 1844, the population of London was approximately 2 million. By the completion of the second series in 1848 (the end of the original title published by Vickers), it had grown to 2.5 million – at a rate of growth of 146% from the beginning of the nineteenth century (5).

As Humpherys has argued, such a social upheaval was crucial to the development of the mysteries novel:

The mysteries novel could not come into being until the modern city itself was visible, until the effects of rapid expansion and change were evident in the disappearance of the old and construction of the new, until the unavoidable and startling differences between classes of people and places that resulted from rapid growth were a commonplace, and, most importantly, until the institutional structures which were to manage growth and control its results were a recognised part of urban life (Humpherys, Victorian Studies 456).

While, she continues, ‘“Mysteries” refers linguistically to the fragmented and hence incoherent experience of the modern city as well as the resulting feelings of disconnectedness’ (Humpherys, Victorian Studies 456). In The Mysteries of London, this disorientation is topographical, moral, and textual. As W.E. Adams concluded, Reynolds (whose urban vision anticipates the Postmodern) was, indeed, ‘before his time’ (Adams 244).

Such a demeanour of strangeness suggests, ultimately, a new form of urban gothic – not in the traditional sense of bourgeois cultural anxiety, but a political gothic, aimed at the same audience it is, in part, dramatising, and seeking to energise. As Thomas Beames wrote a few years later: ‘Yet who were they whom the vast array of the 10th of April were in arms to resist. Were they not the inhabitants of our Rookeries? Did not each poor quarter of the town pour forth its multitudes to swell the great gatherings on Kennington Common? And … so the Rookeries of London were the nuclei of the disaffected’ (Beames 255 – 256).

Reynolds was also at Kennington Common in 1848 – the year of European Revolution, and the conclusion of The Mysteries of London – taking the chair in O’Connor’s absence. Greeted by prolonged cheering, he spoke, reported The Illustrated London News, ‘at considerable length,’ under a banner that read ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God’ (Anon, The Illustrated London News, April 15, 1848). Had he not been blinded, entombed and dead, the Resurrection Man would have loved that.


Adams, W.E. Memoirs of a Social Atom (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1903).

Ainsworth, William Harrison. Jack Sheppard Collected Works (1839 London: George Routledge and Sons, 1880).

Ainsworth, William Harrison. Unpublished letter to James Crossley, April 7 1838. Crossley Papers, (Archives Section, Local Studies Unit), Central Library, Manchester.

Beames, Thomas. The Rookeries of London: Past, Present, and Prospective, 2nd ed (London: Thomas Bosworth, 1852).

Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. Paul Clifford, Collected Works (1830 London: George Routledge and Sons, 1863).

Chesney, Kellow. The Victorian Underworld (London: Penguin, 1991).

Dalziel, Margaret. Popular Fiction One Hundred Years Ago: An Unexpected Tract of Literary History (London: Cohen and West, 1957).

Dickens, Charles, Barnaby Rudge, Works (1841 London: Odhams, 1897).

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

Dickens, Charles. Letter to W.C. Macready, August 30, 1849. In Graham Storey and K.J. Fielding eds, The Letters of Charles Dickens vol V (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1981), 603.

Dix, John Ross. Lions: Living and Dead, or Personal Recollections of the Great and the Gifted (London: Tweedie 1852).

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).

Elwin, Malcolm. Victorian Wallflowers (London: Jonathan Cape, 1934).

Evans, Eric J. The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain (London: Longman, 1983).

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (London: Faber & Faber, 1984).

Humpherys, Anne. ‘G.W.M. Reynolds: Popular Literature and popular Politics,’ Victorian Periodicals Review 16 (1983).

Humpherys, Anne. ‘Generic Strands and Urban Twists: The Victorian Mysteries Novel,’ Victorian Studies 34 (4) (Summer 1991).

James, Louis. Fiction for the Working Man (London: Penguin, 1973).

Linton, William James, James Watson: A Memoir (Manchester: 1880).

Marx, Karl. The Revolutions of 1848: political Writings Vol I, David Fernbach ed (London: Penguin, 1973).

Maxwell, Richard. The Mysteries of Paris and London (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992).

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor Vol. I (1851, London: Frank Cass & Co., 1967).

Reynolds, G.W.M. The Mysteries of London 4 vols (London: George Vickers, 1846).

Sue, Eugene. The Mysteries of Paris, anon. trans (1843 New York: M.A. Donohue, 1900).

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair (1848 London: Collins, 1949).

Thomas, Trefor. ‘G.W.M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London: An Introduction.’ In G.W.M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London (1844, Keele: Keele University Press, 1996).

Weintraub, Stanley. Victoria (London: John Murray, 1996).


  1. Malcolm Elwin, Victorian Wallflowers (London: Jonathan Cape, 1934).  Elwin’s ‘unjustly neglected’ writers are: John Wilson (‘Christopher North); William Maginn; R.H. Barham (‘Ingoldsby’); W.H. Ainsworth; John Forster; Wilkie Collins; Ellen Price (Mrs. Henry Wood); R.D. Blackmore and Marie Louise de la Ramée (‘Ouida’).
  2. When Henry Holford does not immediately return from the Palace, Tidkins breaks in himself to find the loot. Reynolds, I, 185.
  3. This episode was founded upon two real events: the pot-boy Edward Oxford taking a shot at the royal couple on Constitution Hill, and Edmund Jones breaking into the Palace, where, said he, ‘I sat upon the throne, saw the Queen and heard the Princess Royal squall.’ Quoted from Stanley Weintraub, Victoria (London: John Murray, 1996), 151.
  4. The figure of crime as cultural response envisioned by Punch during the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders.  Punch, September 29, 1888.
  5. Source: Eric J. Evans, The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain (London: Longman, 1983).

Louis James and Anne Humphreys, eds, G.W.M. Reynolds and Nineteenth-Century British Society: Politics, Fiction and the Press (London: Ashgate Press, 2008).

Reproduced by kind permission of the editors and publishers.


Copyright © SJ Carver 2008, 2013

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