‘This ain’t the shop for justice’: Crime in Dickens’s London

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From his childhood acquaintance with London, when he feared he might become 'a little robber or a little vagabond', Charles Dickens was fascinated by crime. His novels all include criminal activity of some kind as he investigates criminal psychology and the causes of crime. Dickens lived through a period of considerable development in society's treatment of criminals: the foundation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, the Detective Force in 1842, the same year as the New Model Prison opened at Pentonville; the ending of transportation and of public executions; the word 'penology' was first used in 1838, the year he began to publish Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens engages with these issues very fully, both in his fiction and in his journalism, as this talk will explore.

This is the first lecture as part of the "Literary London Crime" Mondays at One series.

The other lectures in the series include the following:
The Postmodern Detective: Contemporary London Crime Fiction
The Dark Eyes of London

"A Stout Heart in the Great Cesspool": Arthur Conan Doyle and London

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11 June 2012

'This Ain't the Shop for Justice'
Crime in Dickens's London

Dr Tony Williams

The quotation I have included as part of the title for this talk comes from chapter 43 of Dickens's novel Oliver Twist, first published in monthly instalments in Bentley's Miscellanybetween February 1837 and April 1839. The character who is given the words is Jack Dawkins, more famously known as the Artful Dodger, a foremost member of Fagin's gang of young criminals, on the occasion of his trial for the theft of a silver snuff-box. Dickens makes this, his final appearance in the novel, into a bravura performance.

It was indeed Mr. Dawkins, who, shuffling into the office with the big coat sleeves tucked up as usual, his left hand in his pocket, and his hat in his right hand, preceded the jailer, with a rolling gait altogether indescribable, and, taking his place in the dock, requested in an audible voice to know what he was placed in that 'ere disgraceful sitivation for.

"Hold your tongue, will you?" said the jailer.
"I'm an Englishman, ain't I?" rejoined the Dodger. "Where are my priwileges?"
"You'll get your privileges soon enough," retorted the jailer, "and pepper with 'em."
"We'll see wot the Secretary of State for the Home Affairs has got to say to the beaks, if I don't," replied Mr. Dawkins. "Now then! Wot is this here business? I shall thank the madg'strates to dispose of this here little affair, and not to keep me while they read the paper, for I've got an appointment with a genelman in the City, and as I'm a man of my word, and wery punctual in business matters, he'll go away if I ain't there to my time, and then pr'aps there won't be an action for damage against them as kep me away. Oh no, certainly not!"
At this point, the Dodger, with a show of being very particular with a view to proceedings to be had thereafter, desired the jailer to communicate "the names of them two files as was on the bench." Which so tickled the spectators, that they laughed almost as heartily as Master Bates could have done if he had heard the request.
"Silence there!" cried the jailer.
"What is this?" inquired one of the magistrates.
"A pick-pocketing case, your worship."
"Has the boy ever been here before?"
"He ought to have been, a many times," replied the jailer. "He has been pretty well everywhere else. I know him well, your worship."
"Oh! you know me, do you?" cried the Artful, making a note of the statement. "Wery good. That's a case of deformation of character, any way."
Here there was another laugh, and another cry of silence.
"Now then, where are the witnesses?" said the clerk.
"Ah! that's right," added the Dodger. "Where are they? I should like to see 'em."
This wish was immediately gratified, for a policeman stepped forward who had seen the prisoner attempt the pocket of an unknown gentleman in a crowd, and indeed take a handkerchief therefrom, which, being a very old one, he deliberately put back again, after trying it on his own countenance. For this reason, he took the Dodger into custody as soon as he could get near him, and the said Dodger, being searched, had upon his person a silver snuff-box, with the owner's name engraved upon the lid. This gentleman had been discovered on reference to the Court Guide, and being then and there present, swore that the snuff-box was his, and that he had missed it on the previous day, the moment he had disengaged himself from the crowd before referred to. He had also remarked a young gentleman in the throng, particularly active in making his way about, and that young gentleman was the prisoner before him.
"Have you anything, to ask this witness, boy?" said the magistrate.
"I wouldn't abase myself by descending to hold no conversation with him," replied the Dodger.
"Have you anything to say at all?"
"Do you hear his worship ask if you've anything to say?" inquired the jailer, nudging the silent Dodger with his elbow.
"I beg your pardon," said the Dodger, looking up with an air of abstraction. "Did you redress yourself to me, my man?"
"I never see such an out-and-out young wagabond, your worship," observed the officer with a grin. "Do you mean to say anything, you young shaver?"
"No," replied the Dodger, "not here, for this ain't the shop for justice; besides which, my attorney is a-breakfasting this morning with the Wice President of the House of Commons; but I shall have something to say elsewhere, and so will he, and so will a wery numerous and 'spectable circle of acquaintance as'll make them beaks wish they'd never been born, or that they'd got their footmen to hang 'em up to their own hat-pegs, 'afore they let 'em come out this morning to try it on upon me. I'll-"
"There! He's fully committed!" interposed the clerk. "Take him away."
"Come on," said the jailer.
"Oh ah! I'll come on," replied the Dodger, brushing his hat with the palm of his hand. "Ah! (to the Bench) it's no use your looking frightened; I won't show you no mercy, not a ha'porth of it.You'll¯pay for this, my fine fellers. I wouldn't be you for something! I wouldn't go free, now, if you was to fall down on your knees and ask me. Here, carry me off to prison! Take me away!"
With these last words, the Dodger suffered himself to be led off by the collar; threatening, till he got into the yard, to make a parliamentary business of it; and then grinning in the officer's face, with great glee and self-approval.
Dickens had foreshadowed this scene in an earlier essay, originally called 'The Old Bailey', published in 1834 and re-titled 'Criminal Courts' when it appeared in Sketches by Boz in 1837. In it, Dickens covers a range of material and attests to 'the indescribable feeling of curiosity' which attends anything to do with crime, criminals and the law. Some parts of the essay are very dark indeed and then he provides the final scene of the trial of a juvenile offender who, as the Dodger is later to do, challenges the authority of the court by insisting on his innocence and blaming the fact of his getting into trouble on his 'having a twin brother, vich has wrongfully got into trouble, and vich is so exactly like me, that no vun ever knows the difference atween us.' Humour aside, this is a reminder of the plight of young offenders in the early nineteenth-century: he is, we are told 'a boy of thirteen' tried for picking pockets and is sentenced to seven years transportation.

As we might expect from a collection of essays illustrative of life in the metropolis, Sketches by Boz includes other treatments of crime. There is an essay called 'The Prisoners' Van' and another describing 'A Visit to Newgate'. This last includes an account of the structure and layout of the prison and a terrifying insight into the workings of the mind of a man in the condemned cell as he imagines being able to escape his inevitable fate.

The night is dark and cold, the gates have been left open, and in an instant he is in the street, flying from the scene of his imprisonment like the wind. The streets are cleared, the open fields are gained and the broad, wide country lies before him. Onward he dashes in the midst of darkness, over hedge and ditch, through mud and pool, bounding from spot to spot with a speed and lightness, astonishing even to himself. At length he pauses; he must be safe from pursuit now; he will stretch himself on that bank and sleep till sunrise.

A period of unconsciousness succeeds. He wakes, cold and wretched. The dull, gray light of morning is stealing into the cell, and falls upon the form of the attendant turnkey. Confused by his dreams, he starts from his uneasy bed in momentary uncertainty. It is but momentary. Every object in the narrow cell is too frightfully real to admit of doubt or mistake. He is the condemned felon again, guilty and despairing; and in two hours more will be dead.

This essay also presents three other condemned men, Robert Swann, a guardsman convicted of robbery with menaces who had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and John Smith and John Pratt who were the last men in England to be executed for homosexual practices, on 27 November 1835, 22 days after Dickens had made the visit to Newgate which he describes in the essay.

It was late in 1822 that the Dickenses moved to London, another work-induced transfer for John Dickens. Charles was ten years old, removed from the school which had been blissful for him, and the family took up lodgings in Bayham Street, Camden Town. Dickens arrived in London in 1822, as an intelligent, observant, imaginative and sensitive, and therefore very vulnerable, ten year old. He was not to return to formal education for almost two years. Taking into account Dickens's frequent visiting, working, and staying in London once he moved to Gad's Hill from 1860, it is true to say that Dickens and London is a relationship lasting from 1822 to 1870, a period of 48 years, almost half a century. And he rests in Westminster Abbey.

To speak of 'Dickens's London' therefore, as if it was one constant thing is misleading, since his experience of it extended through a period of enormous change, with the Regency city of the 1820s turning into the modern city of the later nineteenth century. George IV was succeeded by William IV in 1830 and he then in June 1837 by Victoria. What we witness when we read Dickens is very much the growth and development of the modern city, with all its associated problems. Tracing that growth shows us how his attitudes developed, and the city, far from being a background or setting for the events and characters he creates, becomes a central presence, a character in the novels in its own right.

The first thing that we should note is the expansion of the population of London. It was a city of just under a million at the beginning of the nineteenth century, increasing to 1.5 million by the 1820s when Dickens moved there. By the mid-century, the year of The Great Exhibition of 1851, it had increased to 2.5 million, and by the early 1870s was heading for 3.5 million. It more than doubled its population, therefore, during the (almost) half a century Dickens was intimately linked with it. For all the horrors we know to be true of infant mortality and outbreaks of cholera in the nineteenth century, the general demographic trend was for an increase in births greater than that of deaths, but a very large part of the population increase was due to migration, from other parts of England, of the United Kingdom, especially Ireland in the hungry 40s, and from Europe. The Dickens family themselves were one such group of migrants, and it is interesting to note how often he returns to the idea of his characters entering London for the first time.

One other significant change which happened in London during Dickens's time was the establishment of the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829, seven years after his arrival. Later, in 1842, the Detective Police was established and Dickens's interest in the way the force operated, and especially his friendship with and admiration of, Inspector Charles Field, led to his making nocturnal explorations of the city in company with Field and his officers, visiting dens of vice and crime. I want to return to Inspector Field later.

Dickens's depiction of crime draws special force and power from his own experiences, particularly those as a child when he was sent out to work at the age of eleven or twelve, living in lodgings whilst his family were in the Marshalsea Prison in 1824 as a result of his father's debts. This was not generally known until Forster's Life appeared after Dickens's death, but the intensity of the experience made a powerful impact on the young adolescent's personality. Dickens writes, recalling those days of agony, shame, misery and hopelessness, of seeing his future only as 'a little robber or a little vagabond'. It was a period when he spent much time wandering the streets of London, seeing things which appalled and fascinated him. The sights which he saw in those rookeries, in St Giles, or at Seven Dials, led him later to exclaim "what wild visions of prodigies of wickedness, want and beggary arose in my mind out of that place." It was Forster who identified the power of the "attraction of repulsion" which drew Dickens to the dark side of life, especially life in London.

At another point in Sketches by Boz, in A Visit to Newgate, an exploration of the unknown for most of his readers, he stresses the approach he has taken:

"…we do not intend to fatigue the reader with any statistical accounts of the prison; they will be found at length in numerous reports of numerous committees, and a variety of authorities of equal weight. We took not notes, made no memoranda, measured none of the yards, ascertained the exact number of inches in no particular room: are unable even to report of how many apartments the gaol is composed….We saw the prison, and saw the prisoners; and what we did see, and what we thought, we will tell at once in our own way."

What we get from him is not a statistical report nor invented fiction but a reality intensified by the vision of the creative artist. Thus, when we use the term 'Dickens's London' we should remind ourselves that this is not an invented, fictional city which exists only in the pages of Dickens's writing, but a place which draws very powerfully on the reality of the world around him. It is one of the ways in which he discharges his role, as Walter Bagehot put it in 1858, of being 'a special correspondent for posterity'.

I am suggesting that, in dealing with crime in London, Dickens brings the skills of a creative genius to the depiction of a reality with which he was intimately and personally involved, and which carried deep personal resonances for him. I am also suggesting that he is opening up for his readers an awareness of places and social levels of which they were unaware, and which sit uncomfortably alongside contemporary complacency and self-congratulation. He is also doing this from a very early stage of his career, but with a darkening vision as time went on.

One can never go very far in Dickens's output without encountering prisons: the Fleet, the King's Bench, the Marshalsea, Newgate, and his near neighbour when living in Doughty Street, the Middlesex House of Correction. Prisons haunt his consciousness, as they haunted that of the criminal inhabitants of London's underworld. He gives us juvenile crime in Oliver Twist, and a world of pickpockets, burglars, cracksmen, fences, prostitutes and eventually murderers.Oliver Twist is a rich seam to mine for this theme and I want to return to it. We get devious financial operations almost everywhere in the novels, bank theft (Hard Times) embezzlement, forgery, and massive large-scale fraud in Merdle (Little Dorrit) and the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company (Martin Chuzzlewit). These are high profile frauds, where the underworld takes over the other world. Transportation in Great Expectations;the opium dens in Edwin Drood (another murder); death by duelling in Nicholas Nickleby and lots more dodgy finance and gambling (also in Old Curiosity Shop). There's grave robbing in A Tale of Two Cities, and robbery from bodies "found" in the Thames in Our Mutual Friend. That novel in particular creates a riverside underworld of great impact and vividness, with characters like Rogue Riderhood.

It would, therefore, be possible to read Dickens for his creation of criminal underworlds, and create a total vision, simply from the range of material in the fiction. It would be a world where some criminals are recognisable, like Bill Sikes or Magwitch, or where they are not, like Merdle or Compeyson. It would therefore be a world which asks us to review our moral certainties, just as Rogue Riderhood does when he asserts that one cannot rob a dead man. It would be a world which seems to function on a financial basis of great uncertainty, where cheating and exploitation, gambling and forgery seem to control things. It would be, to borrow his own phrase from Our Mutual Friend, "a dismal swamp". The forces of law and order, the vast array of lawyers (some of them equally dubious), the prison and the gallows exist in this world to provide control and punishment.

Oliver Twist was Dickens's second novel and it offers a complete contrast to the England ofPickwick Papers, which had presented a predominantly bright and sunny picture though it does have its own prison sequence. Oliver Twist presents a dark and sinister world. It was Dickens's first novel for the reign of the new young Queen Victoria. The world it presents is terrifying. It exploits melodramatic techniques by creating a concealed identity for Oliver and setting all right at the end but the real power of the novel must lie in its creation of the criminal underworld, which seems to occupy almost all of London. Fagin has "lairs" everywhere, broken-down, rotting houses, offering capacity for concealment, and he moves around the city like some strange disembodied force and his influence is all-pervasive.

Good characters live out of the city, like Mr Brownlow in Pentonville, then a middle-class suburb, or the Maylies out at Chertsey. The city becomes the underworld: Field Lane, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Bethnal Green. Jacob's Island – all identifiable locations. When Oliver is brought into the city he is guided by the Artful Dodger through the twists and turns of labyrinthine ways. The Dodger's knowledge is necessary for him to be able to evade anyone who might be observing him. At the end of this journey is Field Lane, and Fagin. When Oliver is rescued from the police court by Mr Brownlow, he is taken by a similar route. One turning right or wrong is enough to plunge the unwary traveller back into the underworld, as happens when Oliver takes a wrong turning and is recaptured by Sikes and Nancy.

It is a novel which provides plenty of underworld creation through description. The London of this novel has this evil disease at its heart which seems to be destroying it from within. It creates it by language, the underworld slang which the characters use, and which gained Dickens a reputation as 'Regius Professor of Slang'.

It is also a novel which explores the plight of those like Nancy. Drawn into a life of crime from which she is unable to extricate herself. He gives her these words when she speaks to Rose Maylie in chapter 40:

When ladies as young, and good, and beautiful as you are," replied the girl steadily, "give away your hearts, love will carry you all length- even such as you, who have home, friends, other admirers, everything, to fill them. When such as I, who have no certain roof but the coffin-lid, and no friend in sickness or death but the hospital nurse, set our rotten hearts on any man, and let him fill the place that has been a blank through all our wretched lives, who can hope to cure us? Pity us, lady- pity us for having only one feeling of the woman left, and for having that turned, by a heavy judgment, from a comfort and a pride, into a new means of violence and suffering."

Oliver's descent into the underworld is close to that which Dickens feared was to be his own fate as "a little robber or a little vagabond" and it is this which lends the novel particular power. Oliver is saved, as was Dickens: many were not as fortunate. His purposes in Oliver Twistare set out in the Preface he wrote for the 1841 edition and show a novelist, early in his career, combining creative fiction with a strong social purpose, and insisting on the reality of what he is doing in trying to remove any trace of romance or excitement attaching to a life of crime.

What we have with Dickens, though, is more than the novels. He was a journalist, and particularly in Household Wordsin the 1850s and its successor All The Year Roundin the 1860s, made other forays into the underworld. The 'Dickens Journals Online' project, based at the University of Buckingham, has made the contents of those journals and other allied publications, available on the internet at no cost and accessible to all levels of user. It also offers an analysis of the journal contents and identifies some 474 different articles in some way or other connected with crime and associated topics. Some of these are instalments of serial fiction with strong interests in criminal activity, like Great Expectations, but most are articles on aspects of crime and punishment. 71 of these articles are also identified as being by Dickens himself or in co-operation with other writers. Some of them took their inspiration from actual cases, like that of the poisoner William Palmer which inspired Dickens to write 'The Demeanour of Murderers' in reaction to newspaper reports praising Palmer's composure at the trial. Or there was 'Pet Prisoners' attacking the system of solitary confinement introduced into the new model prison at Pentonville. There was an accompanying factual digest published monthly between April 1850 and December 1855 called the Household Narrative of Current Events.One of the regular monthly categories included as 'Law and Crime', providing accounts of arrests and cases brought to trial.

All these examples show us Dickens the journalist drawing his social concerns to the forefront, exploring the dark places, making his audience aware, as a preliminary to arguing for change. But change, as Dickens knew, was often a slow thing to achieve, and there was a need for more immediate attention to such problems.

That came in the form of policing and controlling. Dickens's lifetime saw the establishment of a Police Force, initially (1829) in the metropolis, and then in boroughs (1831) and counties (1839), the detective force (1842) and controlled police inspection (1856): all a far cry from the Bow Street Runners, presented in Blathers and Duff in Oliver Twist. Charles Field had joined the newly-established police in 1829, became an inspector in 1833 and Chief of the detective department in 1846. He and Dickens established a friendship, and he accompanied Dickens on a number of nocturnal tours through the worst of the criminal areas of London. Once, in 1839, Dickens, Forster and Maclise were on one such excursion when there was a brawl and the gentlemen had to be got away fast! On another such visit Longfellow was of the party. These nightly visits were called by Dickens his "field-days". Field is thought to have been in part the original of Inspector Bucket in Bleak Houseone of the earliest fictional detectives.

There are several articles describing the work of the Detective Police, one called just that, A Detective Police Party, Down With the Tide, but the one I want to look at is called On Duty With Inspector Field(Household Words, 14 June 1851).

In this piece the London underworld is explored. From St Giles (recently 1847 cut through by New Oxford Street, about which Dickens has much to say), and Rat's Castle in Dyot Street, they cross the Thames to the Old Mint in the Borough. Then back to Ratcliffe Highway, then to Whitechapel, and finally to Holborn Hill.

In all of these places Field rules supreme: he can find his way around, identify those who engaged in criminal acts. All those he meets seek to keep on the right side of him. Anyone so foolish as to set themselves in opposition to him cannot expect support from their fellows. It is a piece of writing asserting the power and success of Field and those like him, in keeping the underworld under control. In that sense it is reassuring to readers.

Inspector Field is the bustling speaker. Inspector Field's eye is the roving eye that searches every corner of the cellar as he talks. Inspector Field's hand is the well-known hand that has collared half the people here, and motioned their brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, male and female friends, inexorably to New South Wales. Yet Inspector Field stands in this den, the Sultan of the place. Every thief here cowers before him, like a schoolboy before his schoolmaster. All watch him, all answer when addressed, all laugh at his jokes, all seek to propitiate him. This cellar company alone - to say nothing of the crowd surrounding the entrance from the street above, and making the steps shine with eyes - is strong enough to murder us all, and willing enough to do it; but, let Inspector Field have a mind to pick out one thief here, and take him; let him produce that ghostly truncheon from his pocket, and say, with his business-air, 'My lad, I want you!' and all Rats' Castle shall be stricken with paralysis, and not a finger move against him, as he fits the handcuffs on!

But it is also, being Dickens, disturbing in the vision it offers of the poverty and danger in this still present underworld. The problem might be controlled by improved policing in 1851 but it is still there, and there is no cause for complacency or self-congratulation.

Thus, we make our New Oxford Streets, and our other new streets, never heeding, never asking, where the wretches whom we clear out, crowd. With such scenes at our doors, with all the plagues of Egypt tied up with bits of cobweb in kennels so near our homes, we timorously make our Nuisance Bills and Boards of Health, nonentities, and think to keep away the Wolves of Crime and Filth, by our electioneering ducking to little vestrymen and our gentlemanly handling of Red Tape!

What I've tried to illustrate through these examples is the consciousness of criminal activity which is present in Dickens's writing, both in the range of fiction with which we are most familiar and the journalism which may be less well-known but which deserves a higher profile. It is not purely invention or fiction but is based on experience, though heightened and intensified in its impact through the quality of the writing and the power of the vision behind it.

It is against this background that I would now like to take a single case study of Dickens's involvement with crime and contribution he made to the development of criminal reform in the nineteenth century, by looking at the case of the Mannings, husband and wife murderers executed in 1849.

" Of an incident towards the close of the year, though it had important practical results, brief mention will here suffice. We saw the Mannings executed on the walls of Horsemonger Lane Gaol; and with the letter which Dickens wrote next day to The Times descriptive of what we had witnessed on that memorable morning, there began an active agitation against public executions which never ceased until the salutary change was effected which has worked so well."

Forster's description of this incident from 1849 in his Life of Charles Dickens (1872-4) is strangely restrained. Not only did Dickens's response add to an already powerful debate about public execution, but it drew him into expressing a modified response to his former abolitionist position, which in its turn led to a disagreement with his friend Douglas Jerrold. It also drew out some very vivid and dramatic written responses, once more demonstrating Dickens's status as a "special correspondent for posterity".

I propose to examine the circumstances of the Manning murder case, its narrative and consequences. I want then to explore Dickens's response to it, to place that in the context of his earlier statements about capital punishment, and to consider the reactions of his friends and associates, notably John Forster, as expressed elsewhere in his correspondence, William Makepeace Thackeray, and the Punch illustrator, John Leech. I hope to conclude by reminding us of some of the ways in which this issue had an impact on Dickens's fiction.

Marie, or sometimes Maria, Manning was born Marie de Roux in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1821. She came to England and entered domestic service, first as maid to Lady Palk of Haldon House in Devonshire and subsequently to Lady Blantyre at Stafford House. Lady Blantyre later became the Duchess of Sutherland, and Stafford House is better known as Lancaster House, the venue for grand government receptions and conferences. Marie de Roux married Frederick George Manning, a publican, and Great Western Railway guard until he lost his job on suspicion of having been involved in a mail train robbery, on 27th May 1847. Previous to her marriage she had been close to Patrick O'Connor, a gauger in the Customs service, a relationship which was continued after her marriage. O'Connor visited the married couple frequently at their home at 3, Minver Place, Bermondsey, now part of Weston Street. Mr Manning was tolerant of this friendship, particularly when he learnt that O'Connor had named Mrs Manning as a beneficiary in his will. One such visit by O'Connor took place on 9th August, 1849, when he was murdered and his body buried in quicklime under flagstones in the kitchen, according to a prearranged plan. Mrs Manning visited O'Connor's lodgings on the same day, and the next day repeated her visit in order to steal his money and documents relating to his bonds, valued at several thousand pounds. The police discovered O'Connor's remains on 17th August, having been alerted to his disappearance by his relatives, and pursued the murderers, who had hastily vacated their home. Manning was soon arrested in the Channel Islands, and Mrs Manning in Edinburgh. The trial took place on the 25th and 26th October. They were found guilty and were executed at Horsemonger Lane Gaol on 13th November 1849.

Beyond the basic facts of the case, there was much to excite public interest. Mrs Manning's personality was one facet, and her nationality was another. She had interrupted the trial proceedings several times with impassioned demands for justice and denunciations of the law, such as "There is no law nor justice to be got here! Base and degraded England!" She had behaved violently in prison, cursing the officers, and grew her nails long so as to be able to attempt suicide before her execution. The Times for 13th November 1849 described the action as "tightly grasping her throat, and forcing her nails into the windpipe."

The murder had been brutal: O'Connor had been shot and then attacked with a crowbar. In his later confession, Manning said, "I never liked him… and I beat in his skull with the ripping chisel (crowbar)," (as quoted in Dickens's Pet Prisoners in Household Words, 27th April 1850).It is also worth observing that Manning, at one point in the trial, had the confidence to say that "when all that nonsense was over, and the thing wound up, he had an idea of establishing himself in the West Indies" (Dickens's The Demeanour of Murderers, in Household Words, 14th June, 1856). He claimed they had planned the murder six months in advance, by preparing the grave in the kitchen, which they concealed with a shutter and over which O'Connor had walked many times in his visits to his "friends." Manning's claim was that it had taken his wife six months to summon up the courage to kill the man. She had loaded two pistols, shot him with one and pointed the other at her husband, threatening him if he failed to help her dispose of the body. Mrs Manning never admitted her guilt. Each of the accused tried hard to place the responsibility on the other throughout the proceedings.

The police had demonstrated considerable skill in their pursuit and capture of the criminals and had also made use of new technology like railways and electric telegraph communication. In A Detective Police Party (27th July and 10th August 1850) Dickens presents thinly-disguised portraits of the detectives who had been involved in the Manning case and describes their methods. Philip Collins, whose account of the Manning case in Dickens and Crime still remains the best, fifty years on from its first publication, describes Field's arrest of Mrs Manning, tracked down to her lodging, as reported to the editorial staff of Punch: "It's only me – Charley Field – so just open the door quietly, Maria."

Mrs Manning in particular had made a striking figure, both at the trial and later at her execution. Her volatile foreign temperament, and the fact that she was a woman convicted of murder, seized the popular imagination, as did her refusal to admit her guilt, and her defiance of her accusers. Some thirty thousand people crowded the streets, with five hundred police to control them, around Horsemonger Lane Gaol to witness the first joint execution of a convicted husband and wife since 1700. Mrs Manning chose to dress, impressively, in black satin, tightly-corseted, making a striking picture to the end; and incidentally, making black satin an unpopular fashion fabric for some decades afterwards. There is a review of Albert Borowitz's book,The Woman Who Murdered Black Satin: The Bermondsey Horror (1981) in The Dickensianfor Spring 1983. The hangman, William Calcraft (1800-1879) notorious for his incompetence and grotesque caperings on the scaffold, appears to have behaved with untypical efficiency on this occasion, and the two convicted murders were despatched on 13th November 1849, each at the age of twenty-eight. The crowd, according to The Times of 14th November, "did not behave worse than other mobs under similar circumstances have done, and that is all that can be said of them."

There had been a good deal of self-satisfied reporting of the case in the Press. The woman was a foreigner, both she and her husband were of lowly origins, the newly-created Detective Police had, so swiftly and effectively, caught them, with the aid of new technology. It was "another great proof, if such were wanted, that justice in this country pursues its victims with footsteps swift and sure."

On 7th November 1849 Dickens wrote to John Leech, a former illustrator of his, and a current one for Punch, declining the suggestion that he should accompany Leech to this execution which was occupying the public interest so much. Evidently he changed his mind, because he wrote to Leech again on 12th November, telling him that "we have taken the whole of the roof (and the back kitchen) for the extremely moderate sum of Ten guineas or two guineas each." Houses near to the Gaol were places to get a grandstand view, much like international sporting events today. Horsemonger Lane Gaol stood on the site of what is now Newington Gardens in the Borough; Harper Street was Horsemonger Lane. The view from the end of Bath Terrace would have been good, for the well-to-do onlookers prepared to pay their two or three guineas, to enable them to watch "with opera glasses levelled." Enterprising occupants of the houses around were doing good business in hiring out seats on their roofs and even issuing printed tickets. Those on ground level were less fortunate: one was pressed to death in the crush and others injured. The Fair-like atmosphere had been building for some days beforehand.

In Dickens's party would have been John Leech, whose own creative response "The Great Moral Lesson at Horsemonger Lane Gaol, Nov. 13" appeared the following week in Punch, which held and pronounced very powerful views on the whole issue of capital punishment. Dickens's great friend and later biographer, John Forster, had also been present. His reactions were graphically-described in a letter to his friend, the novelist Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and are quoted by James Atterbury Davis in an article "John Forster and the Mannings" in The Dickensian for January 1971. Forster asserts that everyone ought to undergo the experience of witnessing an execution 'for his soul's sake'. Forster's reaction is deep and powerfully felt. It adds interest to the very restrained way in which he describes the episode in his later biography of Dickens, from which I quoted at the start.

Dickens's reaction was expressed in two letters to The Times. The first, published in the newspaper on the day following the execution, demands to be quoted in its entirety.


I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger-lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from daybreak until after the spectacle was over.

I do not address you on the subject with any intention of discussing the abstract question of capital punishment, or any of the arguments of its opponents or advocates. I simply wish to turn this dreadful experience to some account for the general good, by taking the readiest and most public means of adverting to an intimation given by Sir G. Grey in the last session of Parliament, that the Government might be induced to give its support to a measure making the infliction of capital punishment a private solemnity within the prison walls (with such guarantees for the last sentence of the law being inexorably and surely administered as should be satisfactory to the public at large), and of most earnestly beseeching Sir G. Grey, as a solemn duty which he owes to society, and a responsibility which he cannot for ever put away, to originate such a legislative change himself.

I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun.The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on Negro melodies, with substitutions of "Mrs. Manning" for "Susannah," and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly--as it did--it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgment, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

I have seen, habitually, some of the worst sources of general contamination and corruption in this country, and I think there are not many phases of London life that could surprise me. I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits. I do not believe that any community can prosper where such a scene of horror and demoralization as was enacted this morning outside Horsemonger-lane Gaol is presented at the very doors of good citizens, and is passed by, unknown or forgotten. And when, in our prayers and thanksgivings for the season, we are humbly expressing before God our desire to remove the moral evils of the land, I would ask your readers to consider whether it is not a time to think of this one, and to root it out."

For him, as for John Leech, "The Great Moral Lesson" was not that the Mannings had been punished for their crime with the utmost severity of the law, but the appalling effect of this theatricalising of the spectacle on those watching it. He might have added, also on those willing to pay for admission to grandstand seats to get a better view. The blunting of the human sensitivities, especially as it affected children, struck him with especial power.

Subsequent days brought letters in support of his case that executions should go inside the prison, and not be made a subject of such degrading and horrifying entertainment as he had witnessed. On 15th November he declined an invitation to attend a Public Meeting designed to call for the abolition of the death penalty itself. His apparent change of position brought him into conflict with his friend Douglas Jerrold, Editor of Punch and long-time abolitionist, and led to a temporary estrangement between them.

On 17th November he wrote again to The Times; the letter was published on 19th November. In it he expanded in more detail on the points his initial letter had made.

"From the moment of a murderer's being sentenced to death, I would dismiss him to the dread obscurity to which the wisest judge upon the bench consigned the murderer Rush. I would allow no curious visitors to hold any communication with him; I would place every obstacle in the way of his sayings and doings being served up in print on Sunday mornings for the perusal of families. His execution within the walls of the prison should be conducted with every terrible solemnity that careful consideration could devise. Mr. Calcraft, the hangman (of whom I have some information in reference to this last occasion), should be restrained in his unseemly briskness, in his jokes, his oaths, and his brandy. To attend the execution I would summon a jury of 24, to be called the Witness Jury, eight to be summoned on a low qualification, eight on a higher, eight on a higher still; so that it might fairly represent all classes of society. There should be present, likewise, the governor of the gaol, the chaplain, the surgeon, and other officers, the sheriffs of the county or city, and two inspectors of prisons. All these should sign a grave and solemn form of certificate (the same in every case) that on such a day, at such an hour, in such a gaol, for such a crime, such a murderer was hanged in their sight. There should be another certificate from the officers of the prison that the person hanged was that person, and no other; a third, that that person was buried. These should be posted on the prison-gate for 21 days, printed in the Gazette, and exhibited in other public places; and during the hour of the body's hanging I would have the bells of all the churches in that town or city tolled, and all the shops shut up, that all might be reminded of what was being done.

I submit to you that, with the law so changed, the public would (as is right) know much more of the infliction of this tremendous punishment than they know of the infliction of any other. There are not many common subjects, I think, of which they know less than transportation; and yet they never doubt that when a man is ordered to be sent abroad he goes abroad. The details of the commonest prison in London are unknown to the public at large, but they are quite satisfied that prisoners said to be in this or that gaol are really there and really undergo its discipline. The "mystery" of private executions is objected to; but has not mystery been the character of every improvement in convict treatment and prison discipline effected within the last 20 years? From the police van to Norfolk Island, are not all the changes changes that make the treatment of the prisoner mysterious. His seclusion in his conveyance hither and thither from the public sight, instead of his being walked through the streets, strung with 20 more to a chain, like the galley-slaves in Don Quixotte (as I remember to have seen in my school-days), makes a mystery of him. His being known by a number instead of by a name, and his being under the rigorous discipline of the associated silent system--to say nothing of the solitary, which I regard as a mistake--is all mysterious. I cannot understand that the mystery of such an execution as I propose would be other than a fitting climax to all these wise regulations, or why, if there be anything in this objection, we should not return to the days when ladies paid visits to highwaymen, drinking their punch in the condemned cells of Newgate, or Ned Ward, the London spy, went upon a certain regular day of the week to Bridewell to see the women whipped.

Another class of objector I know there are, who, desiring the total abolition of capital punishment, will have nothing less; and who, not doubting the fearful influence of public executions, would have it protracted for an indefinite term, rather than spare the demoralization they do not dispute, at the risk of losing sight for a while of their final end. But of these I say nothing, considering them, however good and pure in intention, unreasonable, and not to be argued with.

With many thanks to you for your courtesy, and begging most earnestly to assure you that I write in a deep conviction that I incurred a duty when I became a witness of the execution on Tuesday last, from which nothing ought to move me, and which every hour's reflection strengthens."

The whole experience clearly had a powerful and long-lasting impact on Dickens. In a letter dated 29th December 1849, he describes himself feeling "almost as if I were living in a city of Devils" when he reflects on what he saw. "I feel, at this hour, as if I could never go near the place again." In Household Words, 30th October 1852, in an essay called Lying Awake, his reminiscence is vivid and disturbing:

The balloon ascents of this last season. They will do to think about, while I lie awake, as well as anything else. I must hold them tight though, for I feel them sliding away, and in their stead are the Mannings, husband and wife, hanging on the top of Horse- monger Lane Jail. In connexion with which dismal spectacle, I recall this curious fantasy of the mind. That, having beheld that execution, and having left those two forms dangling on the top of the entrance gateway - the man's, a limp, loose suit of clothes as if the man had gone out of them; the woman's, a fine shape, so elaborately corseted and artfully dressed, that it was quite unchanged in its trim appearance as it slowly swung from side to side - I never could, by my uttermost efforts, for some weeks, present the outside of that prison to myself (which the terrible impression I had received continually obliged me to do) without presenting it with the two figures still hanging in the morning air. Until, strolling past the gloomy place one night, when the street was deserted and quiet, and actually seeing that the bodies were not there, my fancy was persuaded, as it were, to take them down and bury them within the precincts of the jail, where they have lain ever since.

In terms of the development of Dickens's social agenda, the Manning episode marks a significant change. He had been, back in 1840, to see another execution, that of Francois Benjamin Courvoisier, on 6th July 1840. Courvoisier had been tried for the murder of his employer, Lord William Russell, and convicted. Another vast crowd, this time of some forty thousand, is estimated to have attended the execution. Thackeray and Dickens were present.

Both writers were appalled by what they saw. Thackeray's response appeared as an article called Going to See a Man Hanged in Fraser's Magazine for August 1840. The sense of disgust at "nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes" led Thackeray to the conviction that it was a conclusive argument against capital punishment. When he describes himself coming away from the experience, he recounts himself filled with disgust for murder "but it was for the murder I saw done."

Dickens's earlier views about Capital Punishment are expressed in a series of letters he wrote in the Daily News, which he was editing, dated February 28th,March 9th,13th and 16th 1846. He advocates "the total abolition of the Punishment of Death". By the time we reach the Manning case in 1849, he has modified that position to one of ending the public execution of that punishment. It was to take a further nineteen years for that change to come about. "An Act to provide for carrying out of Capital Punishment within Prisons", dated 29th May 1868 appears on the Statute Books cited as "The Capital Punishment Amendment Act" and specifies that "judgement of death shall be carried into effect within the walls of the prison in which the offender is confined." There seems to have been no comment from Dickens on the achievement of the aim for which he had argued so strongly and eloquently.

The last person to be executed in public was a twenty-seven year-old stevedore called Michael Barratt, who was hanged at Newgate on Sunday 6th May1868. Newgate Gaol was demolished to make way for the new Central Criminal Court buildings at the start of the twentieth century. Horsemonger Lane Gaol was closed in 1878 and demolished the next year. The orison bell is now in the nearby Church of St George the Martyr,Borough, which stands not far from the site of the Marshalsea Prison, so important in the story of Charles Dickens.

One cannot go very far in Dickens's work without coming up against murder, other crimes, prisons and punishments. They bulk enormously largely in his imaginative life, as aspects of them bulked large for his life in reality. Mrs Manning makes another appearance as Hortense, the passionate and later murderous French maid of Lady Dedlock in Bleak House; it may also be possible to see elements of her recreated in Madame Therese Defarge in A Tale of TwoCities. The horrors of the Courvoisier execution must have had a strong influence on the writing of Barnaby Rudge, coming so soon after and giving such emphasis to the gallows. But it is hard to know where to stop: Jonas Chuzzlewit, Bill Sikes, Bradley Headstone and Rogue Riderhood, and the ever-fascinating uncertainties surrounding John Jasper in Edwin Drood. The "attraction of repulsion" which is so much a part of Dickens's psychological make-up (so much a part of everyone's) and of his writing, is a strong element in his return to this horrifying fact in the contemporary penal code. He lived through a period when the number of capital offences was significantly reduced and when the earlier "bloody code" was effectively dismantled. His lifetime saw the official ending of transportation in 1868, though it had effectively died out some years before and of imprisonment for debt in 1869. His involvement in the debate about capital punishment and other matters of penology (a new term first used in America in 1838), show him as always an aware, thoughtful human being with an understanding of the impact of all aspects of life on his fellow-citizens and fellow-human beings. That his views altered, modified, developed, is no surprising thing. What is important is the way in which his writings, both fictional and non-fictional, show him always willing to grapple with the burning issues of the day, and keep his writing firmly rooted in the context of its times.

© Dr Tony Williams 2012

This event was on Mon, 11 Jun 2012


Dr Tony Williams

Tony Williams taught English in secondary schools from 1969 to 1997 when he took early retirement. From 1999 to 2006 he was Joint General Secretary...

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