Poor Man’s Crime

Ian Gilmour

  • The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the 18th Century by Peter Linebaugh
    Allen Lane, 484 pp, £25.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 7139 9045 7

Whatever may have happened recently to the Communist regimes Eastern Europe, Marxist historiography seems alive and defiant. Lenin’s tomb may be under threat, but the historical certainties of Marxism lie undisturbed. ‘Broadly speaking,’ Peter Linebaugh tells us, ‘the English Revolution was a conflict among three social forces. The bourgeoisie, led by Oliver Cromwell and organised in Parliament, aroused the English proletariat to make war against Charles I, the High Church and the aristocracy. Having vanquished them, Cromwell then turned against his erstwhile class ally, the many-headed multitude, which during the course of the struggle against the King had developed a movement of teeming freedom that was antithetical to the capitalist order that Cromwell and Parliament sought to impose.’ Even twenty-five years ago that would have been considered a little crude. Today, after the revisionist history of the last two decades, the claim that the English Civil War was a class one seems the historical equivalent of Stalinism.

But Marxists like Dr Linebaugh not only ignore the revisionist historians: they seem oblivious to recent events in Eastern Europe. Of course the final demise of Communism in the Soviet Union came too late for Linebaugh’s book, but earlier developments there and in the satellite regimes did not. The third act of the Marxist drama, the rule of the proletariat, has ended in farce at best; it would be truer to say that it has ended in the burning down of the theatre. Yet Marxist historians continue to write and play the first two acts as they did when events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe still seemed to them to be shaping as the master had prophesied. They do not have to give up ‘socialism’, or do anything drastic of that sort. The death of socialism has been proclaimed too often before to make it likely now. ‘One no longer talks of socialism,’ said Thiers not long after the defeat of the Commune. ‘We have got rid of it.’ Socialism in one form or another will doubtless survive: but, unless all the blame for the debacle in the USSR and Eastern Europe is to be piled on Lenin and Stalin, not, surely, in its Marxist form. And Marxist historians who have seen all history as class struggle culminating in a preordained end – ‘the proletariat,’ in Linebaugh’s words, ‘would bring to birth a new society from the ashes of the old’ – can’t plausibly go on writing as if nothing much has happened, even though the inevitable end has turned out to be a dead one, and a phenomenally false start.

In The London Hanged Linebaugh himself gets off to an unpromising start. He maintains that ‘the intensification of capital punishment has become a worldwide trend since the mid-Seventies,’ citing particularly its use by five countries: South Africa, Iran, Nigeria, China and the United States. Certainly there have been a lot of executions in most of those countries and many assassinations and death squads in a number of others. ‘The tendency to capital punishment,’ he writes, ‘has been clear, alarming and specific to a historical period that has been reactionary in every sense.’ The late Seventies and the Eighties may well have been reactionary years. Yet in a footnote Linebaugh concedes that ‘in opposition to this world trend’ towards capital punishment, the movement against it has grown, mentioning that no fewer than eighty countries have abolished it by law or in practice. How five countries, even very large ones, can constitute a world trend when eighty have moved in the opposite direction Linebaugh does not explain.

However, it is with capital punishment in London in the 18th century that he is concerned, exploring ‘the relationship between the organised death of living labour (capital punishment) and the oppression of the living by dead labour (the punishment of capital)’. Yet despite its Marxist mumbo-jumbo The London Hanged is an unusually enlightening and absorbing book which can be easily enjoyed regardless of its underlying theory. Carrying on from an essay he wrote some fifteen years ago, Linebaugh bases much of his book on The Ordinary of Newgate, His Account of the Behaviour, Confessions and Dying Words of the Malefactors who were Executed at Tyburn, which the Ordinary published to augment his rather meagre stipend. Linebaugh has discovered 237 different editions containing in all some 1200 biographies of those who were hanged at Tyburn. He has also used a large number of other sources, some of which establish that the Ordinary’s accounts were by and large accurate, and it is those accounts which have enabled him to paint a compelling picture of the hundreds who made the slow progress across London from Newgate prison to near what is now Marble Arch to be hanged on the ‘fatal tree’.

The book’s thesis is that ‘the Tyburn hangings were the central event in the urban contention between the classes, and indeed were meant to be so.’ Capitalist exploitation was the cause of the various forms of criminal activity, and in turn that criminal activity produced major changes in capitalism. ‘People became so poor that they stole to live,’ and there was little if any distinction between the ‘criminal’ population and the poor as a whole. The condemned were representatives of ‘an 18th-century working class’ (Linebaugh’s italics), and their hanging was ordered by ‘men of a ruling class who had studied the applications of death throughout human history and had power to apply that knowledge’. Executions both united the several parts of government and rammed home the lesson: ‘Respect private property.’ Hangings therefore represented a conflict ‘of the powerful and the propertied against the weak and the poor’.

To a large extent, of course, punishments of crime always do. Crime is largely an activity of the poor, partly because the rich usually decide what crime is – William Godwin defined crime as ‘those offences which the wealthier part of the community have no temptation to commit’ – and partly because of the social conditions under which they live. In the 18th century those conditions were so bad that the novelist and magistrate Henry Fielding, no softie on crime, was surprised that there were not far more criminals.

The other day, in a reference to the recent riots in Newcastle, the Archbishop of Canterbury, after mentioning that in the late 18th century some children were employed in mines or mills for six days a week, quoted the Bishop of Chester as saying in 1785 that on Sundays children were ‘too apt to be idle, mischievous and vicious’, and added that ‘the bishop was right to recognise our sinfulness, but he no doubt ignored that human wrongdoing is inextricably linked to social deprivation, poverty, poor housing and illiteracy.’ That simple statement of an obvious truth produced howls of rage from right-wing hacks on the Daily Mail and elsewhere, and the Archbishop’s theological and Christian credentials were impugned. In saying what they did, his critics were, of course, impugning their own. ‘Crime’ is more prevalent among the poor than among the rich: so unless it is believed that the poor are inherently more sinful than the rich, which would be clean contrary to the Christian message as well as to common sense, human wrongdoing must be ‘linked to social deprivation, poverty, poor housing and illiteracy’. That does not excuse the Newcastle rioters: apart from anything else the people they damaged – poor shopkeepers and others – had done them no harm and were in no sense to blame for their grievances. But it goes some little way to explaining their behaviour.

Poverty with its attendant evils was similarly at the root of much 18th-century crime: as Linebaugh points out, the wages paid in London were often below subsistence level. He devotes many engrossing pages to social conditions in the capital and to the peculiarities of various occupations: butchers, tailors, watch-makers, weavers, sailors, coal heavers and dockyard workers. He seems to have mastered the intricacies of all these trades. When their income from work stopped, some took to crime (according to Linebaugh butchers were particularly prone to becoming highway-men). And when they were caught, they were liable to be hanged, often for trifling offences. In 1725 Bernard Mandeville compared ‘the droves that are carried to Tyburn for slaughter’ with the cattle that was sent to Smithfield for the same purpose, and the slaughter was not abated later in the century. The Gentlemen’s Magazine lamented in 1783 that more people were executed in England than ‘in all Europe’.

Most of those hanged were poor, most had committed minor property crimes, and the rich were content with the system. That much of Dr Linebaugh’s case is virtually common ground. The question is whether the more distinctive bits hold water. In what sense can the Tyburn hangings be considered ‘the central event in the urban contention between the classes’? Linebaugh is uncritical of the multitude of criminals that appears in his book, but his particular hero is Jack Sheppard whose ‘dazzling feats were to provide an example of resourcefulness and freedom’ to the labouring poor. Sheppard was certainly more attractive than many of his peers. He was brave; he refused, unlike his brother, to betray friends and accomplices, and he had a genius for escaping from prison. Yet he was a thief, two of whose victims were a draper who had looked after his mother and had taught Jack to read and write, and a carpenter to whom he had been apprenticed and who had always treated him well, even waiving his right to the usual apprenticeship fee.

Sheppard therefore was no more a Robin Hood robbing the rich to give to the poor than he was a city Hampden fighting tyranny and oppression. In that respect, he was fairly typical of most criminals. Linebaugh mentions a number of conspicuous targets of crime: the Dukes of Ormond and Marlborough, the Royal Chapel in Whitehall and the crown jewels in the Tower. And there were many others. ‘Butcher’ Cumberland, Horace Walpole, Lord North, Charles Fox, the Younger Pitt and Edmund Burke were among those who were robbed or shot at. Yet the victims of crime were rarely prominent people: small shopkeepers and the middling sort were the principal sufferers. The law was not just an engine of the rich for use against the poor. At Essex Quarter Sessions between 1760 and 1800, more than 20 per cent of the prosecutions for felony were brought by labouring men, and in assault cases the percentage was higher.

It is difficult to see the poor wretches hanged at Tyburn as contenders for their own or any other class. It is even harder to see their alleged class adversaries envisaging or using Tyburn as the appropriate stadium for a struggle between the classes. Surprisingly, Linebaugh does not provide a description of that last journey or a detailed account of the execution ceremony at Tyburn. Admittedly he has to some extent already done so in his essay ‘The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons’ in Albion’s Fatal Tree edited by Douglas Hay, himself and others: so that his austerity now is understandable. But the omission of the final rites from an immensely detailed study of capital punishment in 18th-century London does make his book a little like Hamlet without the prince and the gravediggers.

In any case, executions at Tyburn were not a solemn demonstration of the awesome power of the state and the rich. They were so frequent that they had largely lost the power to shock and had degenerated into entertainment. They were more a festival of defiance than a ceremony of deterrence. So little overawed by the hangings was the mob that executions frequently led to violence, and revenge was sometimes taken on the prosecutors of the hanged men: their houses were attacked and their furniture burned. If Tyburn really had been ‘the central event in the urban contention between the classes’, the ruling élite would surely have taken steps to see that the battle was more decorous and that it rammed home the proper lesson.

The procession to Tyburn was abandoned in 1783, but that was largely due to 18th-century Nembyism – no executions in my backyard. The new residents of Marylebone objected to the riotous scenes at Tyburn and to the incursions of the mob. After 1783, criminals were hanged outside Newgate, where the crowds were still huge and their behaviour little better. Certainly the rich showed a callous indifference to the treatment of criminals, and no doubt if the rich had themselves suffered in noticeable numbers the system would have been immediately reformed. But that is not the same as class ‘contention’. Nor had capitalism a great deal to do with it. As the author admits, there were far more hangings in Elizabeth’s day, in proportion to the population, than there were under the Hanoverians.

Linebaugh is not always entirely reliable on detail. It is not, I think, true that the hangman William Marvell was beaten to death by the mob after bailiffs served a writ on him for debt in Holborn, while he was accompanying three condemned men to Tyburn. He was, however, so badly beaten that he had to be left behind. When the rest of the procession reached Tyburn, the under-sheriff asked for a volunteer executioner. A bricklayer stepped forward, but he was immediately set upon and almost killed. With no other volunteers forthcoming, the three malefactors had to be returned to Newgate and were eventually reprieved. Marvell survived, but he lost his job and was succeeded by a bailiff.

Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, is criticised by Linebaugh for favouring the Royal prerogative, for benefiting financially from some of his cases and for adapting a legal system ‘that had arisen in feudalism to the requirements of a ruling class aspiring to world conquest and indebted to merchants and capitalists’. He was therefore a ‘leading exponent of British imperialism’. Most of that is arguable, and Mansfield was a man to whom it is difficult to be fair. He was nevertheless the judge in Somersett’s case, which decided that slavery in England was illegal. Yet Linebaugh welcomes the Somersett judgment without mentioning that Mansfield was the judge.

Finally Linebaugh claims that Edmund Burke’s efforts to avoid a judicial massacre after the Gordon Riots were successful. In fact, Burke only succeeded in having the executions distributed around the capital, instead of concentrated at Tyburn. Believing that the chief culprits had not been discovered and that most of those condemned were ‘a poor thoughtless set of creatures, very little aware of their offence’, Burke favoured mercy and the execution of at most six of the worst offenders. But that was too sensible for Lord North’s ministry, and the Government hanged 25 men, women and children. In general, though, Linebaugh’s accuracy is impressive. After a bit, too, even his Marxist jargon – ‘the proletariat of mercantilist production depended on the organisation of demographic reproduction,’ or ‘capital punishment was part of the preparation for a new organisation of reproduction in the London labour market’ – takes on a certain period charm. All the same, the introduction of both capitalist production and capitalist reproduction into Eastern Europe surely now requires Linebaugh to introduce some nuances into his Marxism. Better still, he might take it back to the drawing board.