A thief who had been dead for more than a century caused a moral panic in the theatres of Victorian London.
On 16 November 1724 Jack Sheppard was hanged at Tyburn. Where Marble Arch now stands, thousands witnessed the 22-year-old Londoner’s agonising end as plans to save him dissolved in chaos. While Sheppard’s brief career in burglary had not been especially notable, by the time he was brought to the gallows by the infamous thief-taker Johnathan Wild, a run of seemingly impossible jailbreaks meant this 18th-century Houdini was the talk of the town. Drawn by the court artist Sir James Thornhill and memorialised in print by Daniel Defoe, the adventures of the carpenter’s apprentice-turned womanising thief were quickly transferred to the Drury Lane stage and told, embellished and retold in countless ballads and chapbooks.
Nor was Sheppard’s celebrity a passing one. From the dashing Macheath of The Beggar’s Opera (1728) to brightly painted Staffordshire figurines made more than a century after his death, the eternally youthful Sheppard was fixed firmly in the popular imagination. He was just the subject for the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, whose bestseller, Rookwood (1834), had traded largely on its account of Dick Turpin and the ‘flash’ behaviour of his romantically criminal kind.
First appearing in the middle-class pages of Bentley’s Miscellany, where in the spring of 1839 it ran alongside the final instalments of Oliver Twist, Ainsworth’s next work, Jack Sheppard, mixed convoluted melodrama with William Hogarth’s series of prints on Industry and Idleness. In a neat example of cultural looping, Sheppard inspired the bad apprentice Tom Idle, who in turn inspired Sheppard. Illustrated by George Cruikshank, Ainsworth’s ‘Hogarthian novel’ was released as a book in October and enjoyed instant critical and commercial success.
Yet, in a strikingly modern controversy over copycat crime, within months of Ainsworth’s triumph his work was being linked to both an alarming surge in juvenile theft and the murderous actions in Mayfair of a Swiss valet called François Courvoisier. In the first mass media age, Ainsworth had revived an old story but could not then control it: it slipped its intended middle-class audience via numerous penny rip-offs and plagiarisms and the unprecedented number of theatrical adaptations that followed. By the politically troubled autumn of 1839 Jack Sheppard was ubiquitous. In the ‘flash’ songs heard in the streets, or in the pick-locks and files sold in ‘Sheppard-bags’, Jack Sheppardism was running riot. Though Courvoisier’s claim that he slit his master’s throat in imitation of Sheppard was at best doubtful – a point forcefully made by Ainsworth – the mere suggestion of malign influence was more than enough to damn his book.
To understand why Sheppardism appeared so threatening we need to consider the moment of its inception: one of economic downturn, Chartist risings and escalating crime. Mid-Victorian ‘equipoise’ was still some way off. We must also note the effect a rapidly expanding population – young, urban, increasingly literate and culturally self-conscious – was having on a social and political establishment determined not to be pushed into further change so soon after the reforms of 1832. In itself the Sheppard craze was not especially political – Shakespeare-loving Chartists had little time for it – but its context inevitably made it so.
Here we can follow Sheppard’s remarkable progress through theatreland. At its height at least eight versions of his life were being performed nightly to all manner and kind of people, but mostly the poor and the young. To read or hear of Sheppard was one thing, but for so many of the untutored to see him on stage was quite another. As a journalist friend of Ainsworth later observed, Sheppard only became a problem when ‘low people began to run after him at the theatres’.
The best-known version playing that autumn was at the Adelphi, a well-regarded West End playhouse attracting a broad and enthusiastic mix of patrons. Skilfully adapted by J.B. Buckstone, and basing its visuals on Cruikshank’s illustrations, the role of Sheppard was taken by the talented actor Mary Anne Keeley. Rather than opting for pantomime, in Keeley’s portrayal the slightly built hero gained added fragility and lightness. Fully committed to the part, Keeley also learned some basic escapology and thrilled audiences by escaping from handcuffs. Laced with memorable songs, including Rookwood’s ‘Nix My Dolly, Pals Fake Away’ (fake means ‘steal’), the production also contained an inflammatory ending – quite literally. Subverting both the historical record and Ainsworth’s novel, in the final scene the crowd block Sheppard’s passage to Tyburn and the house of the hated thief taker, Johnathan Wild, is burned to the ground. Sheppard looks on as his nemesis perishes in the flames.
Meanwhile at the recently opened City of London theatre, Eastenders were seeing another female Sheppard successfully elude the authorities, while south of the river at the Surrey, a venue that often displayed a radical populist edge, Sheppard was performed with pistol-sporting manliness by E.F. Saville. Again the ending carried the possibility of escape. Wherever and however he was played, nothing it seemed could keep Jack down.
Eventually the authorities intervened. Following Courvoisier’s execution in July 1840 the Lord Chamberlain’s Office moved to prohibit further stagings of the Jack Sheppard story. Kept from the legitimate stage by the censor, an action made easier by legislation passed in 1843, Sheppard entered the world of unlicensed penny gaffs and saloons, where he continued to worry social investigators, such as Henry Mayhew.
Retitled and slightly reworked, Jack Sheppard was allowed back to the Adelphi in the calmer climate of the 1870s. By the following decade he was in the hands of the Gaiety Theatre’s star comedienne Nellie Farren. Now gently burlesqued, this was Sheppard finally tamed.
As with all fads, Jack Sheppardism was quickly played out. Even before the Lord Chamberlain’s intervention, his once ubiquitous presence on stage was fading. Equally, however, its significance should not be neglected nor underestimated. The moral panic the Sheppard phenomenon briefly engendered reveals the generational tensions that press upon densely layered urban societies, particularly at moments of political uncertainty and rapid change. From her settled position within the cultural establishment, Mary Russell Mitford was not alone in thinking the Sheppard craze ‘more dangerous than all the Chartists in the land’. And in April 2021 with theatres still dark, or at least closed to live performance, it is good to be reminded of their power to provoke, disturb and entertain.
Stephen Ridgwell researches Victorian and Edwardian cultural history.