The Newgate Controversy Part Two

In the conclusion of his article, Stephen Carver recounts how Dickens overcame his critics, notably Thackeray, to achieve lasting fame as a champion of the poor and vulnerable.

Ainsworth followed Rookwood with a more conventional historical novel, Crichton, in 1837. This was only a moderate success, and public pressure and financial problems meant that he desperately needed another bestseller. His brief period as Scott’s literary successor in the eyes of the press after Rookwood had also given way to Dickens’s meteoric rise, a literary superiority to which Ainsworth cheerfully deferred, writing to a friend in Manchester, ‘I need not enlarge upon the merits of Mr Dickens; as, by common consent, he has been installed in the throne of letters, vacated by Scott’ (Ainsworth, letter to Hugh Beaver, December 12, 1838). The answer to his problems was to return to the Newgate Calendars, serialising the exploits of the Georgian thief John ‘Jack’ Sheppard, briefly famous in the days of Defoe for several daring prisons escapes before being finally hanged in 1724 at the age of twenty-two.

Jack Sheppard began its serialisation in Bentley’s Miscellany (then edited by Dickens) in January 1839, overlapping with Oliver Twist. When the latter serial came to an end, Dickens broke his now much-regretted contract with Bentley and Ainsworth replaced him as editor of the magazine. As both stories were about young boys drawn into the criminal underworld and had a similar look courtesy of George Cruikshank’s illustrations, they became implicitly linked in the minds of their common audience. Bentley published Jack Sheppard as a triple-decker novel in October, ahead of the serial’s conclusion, sales eclipsing that of Oliver Twist, which Bentley had published the previous year. ‘For a time’, recalled the journalist and publisher Henry Vizetelly in his autobiography, Glances Back Through Seventy Years, ‘Dickens’ star paled’ (Vizetelly: 1893, I, 143). Eight theatrical versions hit the London stage, which Ainsworth and Cruikshank publicly endorsed, despite receiving no income from the plays. By far the best-loved of these was J.B. Buckstone’s at the Adelphi starring the legendary Mrs Keeley (Mary Anne Goward) as Jack Sheppard, largely because of the astute inclusion of many of the flash songs from Rookwood. Each performance concluded with a raucous encore of ‘Nix My Dolly, Pals’ by the full cast and the audience. As Sir Theodore Martin later wrote in his preface to the 1904 edition of The Bon Gaultier Ballads:

‘Nix my dolly, pals, fake away!’ 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 so popular with the organ-grinders and German bands as Sullivan’s brightest melodies ever were in a later day. It clanged at midday from the steeple of St. Giles, the Edinburgh Cathedral … it was whistled by every dirty guttersnipe, and chanted in drawing-rooms by fair lips, little knowing the meaning of the words they sang (Martin: 1904, ix).

As ‘Bon Gaultier’, Martin and collaborator Professor William Aytoun set out to ‘open people’s eyes to the dangerous and degrading taste of the hour’. Thus were Wordsworth and Shelley adapted:

Turpin, thou shouldst be living at this hour,
England hath need of thee…

Great men have been among us, —Names that lend
A lustre to our calling; better none;
Maclaine, Duval, Dick Turpin, Barrington,

Blueskin and others, who called Sheppard friend…

‘My name is Chubb, who makes the Patent Locks;
Look on my works, ye burglars, and despair!’ (Martin: 1904, xiv – xv).

Thackeray similarly used satire in the first instance, contributing a serial to Fraser’s called Catherine, A Story four months after Jack Sheppard commenced in Bentley’s under the pseudonym ‘Ikey Solomons, Esq., Jr’ (Ikey Solomons, Esq., Snr being a notorious Regency fence lately transported). The story was based on the Newgate Calendar favourite, Catherine Hayes, who had manipulated her son and her lover into murdering her husband in 1726. (Hayes was burned at the stake, as killing your husband was deemed petty treason.) Thackeray frequently interrupts the narrative with polemics about the current fashion for criminal romance:

And here, though we are only in the third chapter of this history, we feel almost sick of the characters that appear in it, and the adventures which they are called on to go through. But how can we help ourselves? The public will hear of nothing but rogues; and the only way in which poor authors, who must live, can act honestly by the public and themselves, is to paint such thieves as they are: not dandy, poetical, rosewater thieves; but real downright scoundrels, leading scoundrelly lives, drunken, profligate, dissolute, low; as scoundrels will be. They don’t quote Plato, like Eugene Aram; or live like gentlemen, and sing the pleasantest ballads in the world like Jolly Dick Turpin … or die white-washed saints, like poor ‘Biss Dadsy’ in ‘Oliver Twist’ (Thackeray: 1920, 24).

At its conclusion, the serial becomes a literary essay on Dickens and Ainsworth; there is also a companion article – ‘William Ainsworth and Jack Sheppard’ – which suggests that the novel and its manifold theatrical adaptations could turn impressionable boys to a life of crime.

Next, when Jack Sheppard was released as a novel, The Athenaeum published a long article on contemporary literature and the condition of England under the heading of a review: ‘in the present age’, argued the anonymous reviewer (possibly the editor, Charles Wentworth Dilke), ‘writers take their tone from the readers, instead of giving it; and pains are taken to write down to the mediocrity of the purchasing multitude ¼ Jack Sheppard, then, is a bad book, and what is worse, it is a class of bad books, got up for a bad public’ (Anon: 1839, 803).

Forster then picked up the baton, penning a similarly damning review in the Examiner the following month. Jack Sheppard, he wrote, was ‘in every sense of the word bad’, as were the plays, especially W.T. Moncrieff’s version at the Surrey Theatre, ‘the very worst specimen of rank garbage thus stewed up’. (Moncrieff had produced unlicensed versions of The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby despite objections from the author, and Dickens and Forster loathed him.) But it was not just the perceived vulgarity that troubled him; like Maginn’s attack on Lytton, Forster feared that these plays – more easily accessed by a working-class audience than the expensive novel – could incite copycat juvenile delinquency. ‘Poisonous work is done by means of more cunning doses,’ he wrote, ‘nor are the ways of licentiousness, for those classes into whose hands such a book was in that case likely to fall, paved with such broad stones.’ (Forster: 1839, 691).

A moral panic, the so-called ‘Newgate Controversy’, was escalating. Even though it initially did Ainsworth’s sales more good than harm, his name was becoming increasingly linked with the wider debate on crime and the new urban working class, his novel a convenient scapegoat for the plays that were believed to be disseminating moral corruption to the masses. As Henry Mayhew would later report in his epic social study, London Labour and the London Poor:

It is impossible to contemplate the ignorance and immorality of so numerous a class … without wishing to discover the cause of their degradation. Let anyone curious on this point visit one of these penny shows, and he will wonder that any trace of virtue and honesty should remain among the people. Here the stage, instead of being the means for illustrating a moral precept, is turned into a platform to teach the cruellest debauchery. The audience is usually composed of children so young, that these dens become the school-rooms where the guiding morals of life are picked up (Mayhew: 1851, I, 40).

Unfortunately for the beleaguered Ainsworth, this theory was considered to be borne out when on May 5, 1840 Lord William Russell, former Member of Parliament for Surrey, was murdered by his valet, François Courvoisier, who, it was claimed, had stated that the idea for the crime had come to him while reading Jack Sheppard. Though this claim was never substantiated, the Examiner returned to Forster’s original review, which had foretold such a disaster, and ran a smug editorial which again denounced Jack Sheppard:

In Courvoisier’s second confession … he ascribes his crimes to the perusal of that detestable book, ‘Jack Sheppard’; and certainly it is a publication calculated to familiarize the mind with cruelties and to serve as the cut-throat’s manual, or the midnight assassin’s vade-mecum.

‘If ever there was a publication that deserved to be burnt by the common hangman’, he concluded, ‘it is “Jack Sheppard”’ (Forster: 1840, 402).

The book continued to sell, while its author became a literary pariah, blackballed at the Trinity Club and forced to withdraw his candidacy for the Athenaeum because of the likelihood of defeat and further public humiliation. His planned projects on the lives of Dick Turpin and fellow highwayman Claude Duval were never realised, and he prudently moved away from Newgate and into the realm of the more conventional historical novel. Despite continuing to maintain a strong public base, literary London deserted him. Critics were still decrying Jack Sheppard a generation later, and its stigma poisoned everything Ainsworth subsequently wrote.

While many reviewers were careful not to tar Oliver Twist with the same brush, there was concern expressed, for example in the Athenaeum review of Jack Sheppard, that readers may be attracted to Dickens’ novel for the wrong reasons, excited by his ‘strong flavour’ rather than his ‘undercurrent of philosophy’. Thackeray, however, went further. Since Catherine, he had considered Lytton, Ainsworth and Dickens to all be Newgate novelists, throwing Jack Sheppard and Oliver Twist together in Mr. Punch’s ‘Literary Recipes’:


Take a small boy, charity, factory, carpenter’s apprentice, or otherwise, as occasion may serve – stew him well down in vice – garnish largely with oaths and flash songs – boil him in a cauldron of crime and improbabilities. Season equally with good and bad qualities – infuse petty larceny, affection, benevolence and burglary, honour and housebreaking, amiability and arson – boil all gently. Stew down a mad mother – a gang of robbers – several pistols – a bloody knife. Serve up with a couple of murders – and season with a hanging-match.

N.B. Alter the ingredients to a beadle and a workhouse – the scenes may be the same, but the whole flavour of vice will be lost, and the boy will turn out a perfect pattern – strongly recommended for weak stomachs (Thackeray: 1841, 39).

He also sent a direct message to Dickens in a piece for Fraser’s entitled ‘Going to see a man hanged’:

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: 1840, 154 –155).

The man being hanged was Courvoisier. When the drop fell, Thackeray admitted that he looked away.

Dickens, meanwhile, kept his head down and his powder dry. Reputations had already been destroyed, and he had worked too hard to lose everything now. In private, however, he was more inclined to vent, writing to his friend R.H. Horne that:

I am by some jolter-headed enemies most unjustly and untruly charged with having written a book after Mr. Ainsworth’s fashion. Unto these jolter-heads and their intensely concentrated humbug, I shall take an early opportunity of temperately replying (Dickens, letter to R.H. Horne, February 1840).

He also quietly deleted a footnote in Sketches by ‘Boz’ praising Rookwood in the 1839 edition. When he did temperately reply, he was devastating, addressing his critics publicly for the first time in a new preface to Oliver Twist added to the 1841 edition. His argument was that of realism over romance:

The greater part of this Tale was originally published in a magazine. When I completed it, and put it forth in its present form, it was objected to on some high moral grounds in some high moral quarters.

It was, it seemed, a coarse and shocking circumstance, that some of the characters in these pages are chosen from the roost criminal and degraded in London’s population; that Sikes is a thief and Fagin a receiver of stolen goods; that the boys are pickpockets, and the girl is a prostitute…


What manner of life is that which is described in these pages, as the everyday existence of a Thief? What charms has it for the young and ill-disposed, what allurements for the most jolter-headed of juveniles? Here are no canterings on moonlit heaths, no merry-makings in the snuggest of all possible caverns, none of the attractions of dress, no embroidery, no lace, no jackboots, no crimson coats and ruffles, none of the dash and freedom with which ‘the road’ has been time out of mind invested (Dickens: 1978, 33 – 35).

He does note the appeal of MacHeath’s lifestyle in The Beggar’s Opera as ‘rather to be envied than otherwise’, but he allows John Gay this figure, and also Lytton Paul Clifford, with some reservations, because of their political purpose. Similarly, Daniel Defoe’s Newgate biographies are cited ‘for precedents’. The damning reference to the romantication of ‘the road’ is therefore reserved solely for the work of old friend Ainsworth. Oliver Twist, he argued, was absolutely not the Newgate romance that Thackeray never tired of accusing it to be, but instead Dickens’ ‘humble attempt’ to ‘dim the false glitter surrounding something which really did exist, by showing it in its unattractive and repulsive truth’ (Dickens: 1978, 36). His attitude to Flash slang, which had been irrevocably yoked to the unrealistic portrayal of criminality in popular fiction, was now very much part of his rejection of the criminal romance. The linguistic accuracy of the Newgate novel had to be divorced from the realistic depiction and investigation of the criminal class in what he calls its ‘miserable reality’, therefore, he explained:

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: 1978, 36).

Dickens described Nancy as a ‘prostitute’ in this preface, but he never called her that in the main text. She also, he admitted, had to be particularly well-spoken. In fact, all the underworld dialogue was suitably tidied up, the fad for Flash has become central to the Newgate novel debate and forever associated with romantic eulogies to prostitutes, thieves and murderers and, indeed, Ainsworth. Further, the colourful language was another distraction from the real issues of urban poverty and crime that he wanted his audience to confront. And unlike Thackeray, Dickens refused to look away. Instead, he twisted the heads of his middle-class audience towards the squalor and deprivation that surrounded them, demanding that they look, and if at all possible, that they try and do something to help.

‘Truth’, therefore, was his clarion call; capitalised and multiply repeated in the final paragraph, Dickens positively bellowed the word at his audience and critics, frustrated at having to explain what had 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: 1978, 36 – 37).

Thus, Dickens concluded, the Newgate Controversy offered no reason for a literary novelist to abandon the subject of crime and social deprivation. Ultimately, the moral panic that he had feared could wreck his career had actually affirmed it, and he continued to write about the lot of the poor for the rest of his life.

And as Ainsworth moved on, Lytton revised Eugene Aram, downgrading his protagonist to an accessory rather than the murderer, and Dickens conquered the world, Thackeray laid the Newgate novel to rest in a false start to the sixth chapter of Vanity Fair called ‘The Night Attack,’ 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: 1949, 59).

When he revised the novel in 1853, this passage was omitted, Thackeray considering it no longer relevant as a contemporary satire. Of cause, the Newgate novel had not gone anywhere other than into popular as opposed to literary culture, and dandy highwaymen rode on in numerous penny dreadfuls and stage plays into the early-twentieth century, cowboy star Tom Mix notably playing Dick Turpin in the silent film of the same name produced by William Fox in 1925. Captain Jack Sparrow, meanwhile, is really just another incarnation of Ainsworth’s flamboyant outlaw, as is Han Solo, and a legion of charismatic Hollywood antiheroes. But that’s another story…

Dr Stephen Carver is the author of ‘The 19th Century Underworld’, and ‘The Author Who Outsold Dickens’, both published by Pen & Sword , and which we can recommend highly.


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Anon. (1839). ‘Jack Sheppard. A Romance. By William Harrison Ainsworth, Esq.’ Athenaeum, Saturday, October 26.

Bon Gaultier (William Edmondstoune Aytoun and Sir Theodore Martin). (1904). The Book of Ballads. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Son. (Original work published 1845).

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Thackeray, W.M. (1841). ‘Literary Recipes’. Punch, August 7.

Thackeray, W.M. (1920). Catherine: A Story. London: Caxton. (Original work published 1840).

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