The Harlot’s Progress (BBC4) and The Georgian Underworld: A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England by Rictor Norton

PerdidoStreetStation(1stEd)Historical fiction–speculative or otherwise–is a challenge for a number of reasons, but probably the biggest challenge is the problem of texture: how to get the texture of that alien historical world right? This is what impressed me about China Miéville’s depiction of Bas-Lag in Perdido Street Station (a book I discussed here a decade ago): sure, as one friend commented, it reads like someone’s AD&D adventure… but the world is so utterly textured, so rife with details. It feels like a real city at some grungy, nasty moment in its history, like the festering horror-show that was London in an era that we all have forgotten, but which somehow seethes in the spirit of modern London.

It’s easier to fake London in the 1850s, say, than the 1730s, at least for an audience that doesn’t know much about the Victorian era… because most of the Engish-speaking world has, at least, been forced to read something from the time, but also because collective, cultural memories of the period–however skewed, however misinformed–linger. The reader can draw upon them, and the author can rely upon the reader to do so… poorly.

The Georgian century, though, is rather different. People don’t really have a sense of it, and it’s rare the person who reads Pope or Fielding today. Everyone knows Robinson Crusoe, but nobody reads the actual book nowadays: we get our Defoe and our Swift mainly from TV adaptations, and we sense that that moment in history must be different from the Victorian era, but most of us have no idea quite how. I’ve commented time and again, I see many more parallels with how places in Asia–places that have not really fully “modernized” in all the ways we in the West take for granted–than in any of the received notions that are popular about what our history in the English-speaking world was like. 1730s London feels like a crazy mix of contemporary Seoul, and contemporary Saigon, and the English Renaissance. The systems that are simply fundamental to modern, first-world societies (or which we assume are, or which have been grafted on in monstrous form, when you’re looking at a first world society like that in Seoul) don’t exist yet, except in nascent form.

In Perdido Street Station, texture is build out of language, work, and politics: there are pamphleteers, and dock workers, and artists, and mages, and so on. But what are the professions that dominate in Georgian London–or, rather, what are the professions of interest that dominate in Georgian London during the Gin Craze? I have a cast of “straight” characters–brewers and distillers whose professions are, handily, among the first to start ramping up in scale into full-fledged mass-production… modern industry. There are the small businesspeople (and, importantly, businesswomen) of the ale houses, and the hop sellers and the rag pickers and ratcatchers and so on; I have a cunning woman, and some political conspirators, and alchemists… but somehow London was feeling hollowed out, missing something important.

Which led me to the ebook by Rictor Norton, titled The Georgian Underworld: A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England. I’m unfamiliar with Norton’s work, but he seems to be a major independent scholar of literature and history–specifically, of queer literature and history–but he also has a few works that are of more general scope, and The Georgian Underworld is one of them. I’m not sure why–surely, with a little judicious editing, the book could have found a publisher?–but Norton has chosen to make the book freely available on his website. You can read it here.

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It’s not a perfect text: at points, Norton opts to basically drowns the reader in detail, such as in a passage like this one from Chapter 2, “Crime Waves”:

Street robbery involving violence or the threat of violence – that is, robbery ‘on the highway’ other than picking pockets – seems to have been especially frequent in late summer and early autumn when days were long, even though contemporaries regarded it as crime more typical of the winter months when days were short. According to reports from The Weekly Journal; or, British Gazetteer in 1728, for example, during the first week of August, two ladies going in a chariot from Beckingham to Bromley were robbed by a single highwayman; Rev. Mr Uvedale’s wife and another gentlewoman were robbed by three highwaymen while coming over the Chase to Enfield in a coach; two footpads robbed several persons near Pancras Lane, including three coming in a coach from Highgate; Mr Lewis Hays of Wanstead, with his lady, were robbed in their chariot in Epping Forest, near Woodford Road, by one highwayman (while another kept a lookout under a bush); a gentleman’s servant, coming from Islington over the Fields, was stopped by two footpads, one of whom brandished a knife; a coach-maker was pursued by a highwayman in Windsor Forest, and fired upon; a tailor was set upon by three street robbers in Little Drury Lane, one of them stopping his mouth to prevent his calling the watch. In the second week of August, a painter was set upon near the new church in the Strand by two street robbers, who clapped a pistol each side his head. In the third week of August, two gentlewomen in a hackney coach were robbed between the Pindar of Wakefield and the end of Gray’s Inn Lane; a man was set upon by footpads at North End near Hampstead, who stripped him of his clothes and robbed him of five shillings; three men presented a pistol to the breast of a gentleman in Fleet Street and demanded his money; a gentleman passing in a coach through Fleet Street was attacked by a gang of four or five rogues, who made off down Water Lane with £50; a man was knocked down by two footpads near the Old Spa in Islington Fields, who took his hat, wig and money; a school-master was attacked by four street robbers while returning to his home in Wardour Street, Soho; two gentlemen in a hackney coach going through Queen Street, Holborn, were robbed by a gang of four men; a robber forced his way into a hackney coach in Hosier Lane, Smithfield, at which the passenger jumped out and was fired at, but escaped; a gentleman and his lady were robbed by a single highwayman while their coach was crossing Harrow on the Hill; and a gentleman in a hackney coach was robbed at Hyde Park Corner, Knightsbridge. In the last week of August the stage-coach from Hitchin, Herts, containing one man and five women, was held up at Brown’s Well near Highgate by a single highwayman (who dismounted and fled into the woods when two men from his previous robbery a short time before came up in hot pursuit); three footpads robbed, first, a gentleman on horseback and, second, a chariot, near the turnpike on Tottenham Road; a man was robbed by a rogue near Stationer’s Hall, who knocked him down and left him speechless; and a gentleman was set upon by four street-robbers at the corner of Bowling Alley, White Cross Street, who broke his head in two places before others came to his assistance. The newspaper reported 30 robberies during September, including a publican robbed while riding in his chaise on the road from Hampstead to Highgate; two men in a chaise on the Hammersmith–Kingston road; a ship’s captain while his coach ascended Highgate Hill; a tradesman knocked down in the Mall, St James’s Park; and a gentlewoman and her footman attacked and robbed by three highwaymen while going to Highgate (the footman fled, but returned to his post after his mistress was ransacked); a hackney coachman who was stopped by three footpads in Old Street, and when they found no passenger inside the coach, they robbed the coachman of his day’s takings and stripped him naked; a man bringing rabbits to London on horseback who was robbed near Shoreditch Church by five footpads; and there were further robberies near Hampstead, Holborn, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the Strand, Hyde Park Corner, Ludgate Hill, Thames Street near Coldharbour, the Royal Exchange, in Kensington and Knightsbridge and even near Buckingham House. During the last week of September, two footpads stopped ‘an old mumper’ on the footpath between Kentish Town and Pancras, and took what little money she had.

Crime wave indeed… one almost drowns in it, on that page! But of course, Norton is attempting to drive home the epidemic nature of highway robbery–and why the phrase “highway robbery” has such an enduring presence in the English language, I suppose?–since all those cases are taken from a single week in August 1728.

He  has certainly convinced me of what’s missing not only during my protagonist’s trip to the Stourbridge Hop Fair (a nasty encounter on the road there, or the road home, or maybe both?), but also what’s missing before it (namely, a good deal of trepidation on his part, and perhaps fretting on his wife’s).

In any case, Norton has also demystified a bit of bullshit that was tacked onto the end of the otherwise interesting–albeit obviously untrustworthy–(BBC) Channel4 2006 adaptation of William Hogarth’s famous series of engravings, A Harlot’s Progress:


The film takes Hogarth’s brilliant visual satire–an important popular example of what we now call “sequential art”–and turns it into a rather ridiculous and excessively maudlin (though, yes, entertaining) sort of tragic romance between William Hogarth and the prostitute upon whose life Hogarth seems to have based the narrative of the engravings.

In the film, Hackabout is rather beautiful and clearly cultured, though possessed–at least by her own admission–of a defective character, and a bit of a temper. She seems bent on becoming a “kept woman,” even if it kills her, but before it inevitably does, Hogarth (in ridiculously dramatic fashion) falls in love with her and gets her pregnant, something he could never achieve with his apparenly “barren” wife. Hogarth’s involvement in the first orphanage–a house of “foundlings”–is credited to the idea that he fathered a son with the whore, and lost both.

All in all, from the very little I know of Hogarth’s life, it seems a bit silly, and perhaps a bit demeaning: his art must have been inspired by love for a prostitute, his charity for foundlings finding expression because his own love-child almost ended up being one… but it was interesting to see Hogarth played upon the screen, and fun to see Henry Fielding get a couple of brief cameo appearances. (As he must: he was later to found the first modern public police force, as Norton discusses in his book, and it seems certain he did so precisely because of his life in that milieu.)


What I found most interesting about the film, though, was its attempt to draw parallels between early Georgian England and our own time: the music is a weird mix of pseudo-Georgian folk music and hip-hop, which seems to attempt to convey some parallel between the kind of vice and violent crimes we now think of as occuring in “the ghetto” and the similar crime that seethed and bubbled beneath the surface of London in the early 1700s; likewise, a radio report about a woman dying of AIDS and being supported by her child (who has gone into prostitution) is juxtaposed with the scene in which Hogarth discovers that Kate Hackabout is dying of some stew of diseases–“the pox” and perhaps tuberculosis, as well as probably syphilis. There are interesting touches like that, just at the transitions into and out of the ads, that gave it a funny kind of… I’ll call it anachronistic potency.

The effect is interesting, and certainly echoes some of what I realized I’d been doing unconsciously: drawing upon experiences of disorder in places like  Jakarta, and Saigon, and Bangkok, and Luang Prabang, and Siem Reap, and even in a lot of ways Seoul, while trying to hammer together a sense of this alien London that isn’t exactly “modern,” that lacks the kind of functional systems most of us in the developed world take for granted in a modern city. London in 1736 is a place where heart-shattering absolute poverty existed (sizeable numbers of people actually starving to death in the streets, or being worked to death); where there was both rampant crime and a police force that didn’t think of crime prevention but only reaction-to-crime; where standardized, integrated systems of management and public safety simply hadn’t yet been developed; and where large numbers of young women, lacking any other recourse, really could fall into the career track depicted in Hogarth’s engravings out of desperation and a simple lack of other options… or, as some women in the business have argued, simply because it pays better than any other job most women in a deeply misogynistic society could ever achieve. Kate Hackabout, in the TV adaptation of A Harlot’s Progress, similarly claims it is a defect in her character that led her to her life of crime… but that doesn’t eliminate the fact of context, neither for the harlots nor for the other criminals in those rough circumstances (whether in Georgian England or in any city today).

I’m not sure what Norton would have to say about all that: he emphasizes how plenty of working class people obeyed the law, though there are just enough references in his book to the people who seemed to be pushed into it; to people who were dispossessed by fire, crime, ill luck, or some other tragedy, and turned to crime to make ends meet… though, surprisingly, the courts were lenient on those who stole out of desperation. (Sometimes judges and juries even put together a collection to ease the suffering of the family of a man acquitted of theft out of pity, and as the 18th century wore on, leniency reached the point where even people who were obviously guilty of theft–and repeat offenders–got off because the juries simply preferred not to see people hanged.)

But the “bullshit” I mentioned earlier comes at the end of the film, when it’s admitted that the whole thing is a historical fiction, and that Hogarth “never revealed” whether Moll Hackabout was based on a real woman. It feels like those TV shows that end with, “You decide” when it comes to things that should be decided based on, you know… evidence.

As for Hogarth’s series of engravings, Norton has done sufficient homework to not only point out that one Kate Hackabout is the obvious and notorious basis for Hogarth’s Moll Hackabout, but also to shed light on what sort of woman Kate Hackabout was. And, the sort of woman she was, (unsurprisingly) was absolutely nothing like the lovely, demure, sweet-but-tragic woman in the film:

Primarily as a result of this 1730 campaign [to crack down on “disorderly houses”], Sir John Gonson entered public consciousness as ‘the harlot hunter’. In Plate 3 of Hogarth’s series The Harlot’s Progress (published in 1732), Gonson, accompanied by two watchmen carrying their truncheons, is shown entering the harlot’s room to make the arrest. Hogarth gave his harlot the name Moll Hackabout, derived from the real Kate Hackabout, one of the whores whom Gonson had rounded up in a raid on the disorderly houses along Bridges Street on 3 August 1730. More than a dozen men and women were sent before the Justices, though most were discharged as first-time offenders. However, four of the women, including Kate, who had been exposing their nakedness on the street and soliciting men with filthy expressions, were sent to Bridewell and put to hard labour. The Daily Post and Grub Street Journal reported that Kate Hackabout was well known in the Hundreds of Drury, ‘for being a very termagant, and a terror, not only to the civil part of the neighbourhood by her frequent fighting, noise, and swearing in the streets in the night-time, but also to other women of her own profession, who presume to pay or pick up men in her district, which is half one side of the way in Bridges-street’. Kate’s brother, Francis Hackabout, who had been before the court the previous year, for stealing Canary birds, and had been acquitted of a robbery in 1722, was convicted for two robberies in March 1730, and was hanged at Tyburn on 17 April.

Also fascinating is Norton’s observation of the way a vast number of criminals who were hanged constantly claimed to have reached the gallows by way of harlots, strumpets, and whores: Hogarth’s “Rake’s Progress” (another famous engraving series) wasn’t simply a story: it was the story of how a man fell into a criminal life for many Georgians, and crucial to that consensus narrative was the whore, to whom a man became beholden financially, finally turning to crime in order to keep his beloved prostitute. As one man about to be hanged is quoted as saying, “The strumpet is the highway to hell.” (Yep, when you’ve made nothing but bad choices… might as well go on ahead and blame women.)

There’s a funny parallel to that in what I’ve already written–a man believing a woman–though not a harlot, this one–has led him, through temptation, into mortal (and moral) peril… but I now have something to bounce that against, a cultural concept of great import to the people of the time (and to my protagonist). That, in part, is what I like about Norton’s book: how much work he does trying to get into the mindset of Georgian Englanders. to understand how they thought about and talked about things. He blasts silly history across the political spectrum, insisting on trying to figure out not only what happened, but also what people thought about what was happening all around them. That is invaluable stuff.

In any case, anyone interested in the seedy underworld of Georgian London, Norton’s book is a great read. I’m only 15% of the way in, approximately, but it’s a real goldmine, and I’ve realized what my London was missing: the rampant, insane crime, the riots, the disorder. There was filth and rats already, and gin-sodden losers, but there was no highway robbery, and the harlots were too far offstage, and the footpads and counterfeiters… well, all that was missing… and all that seems to be linked by underground root-systems with the illegal gin trade.

Another piece of the puzzle falls into place.

Oh, and as a bonus, Norton has also compiled a lot of reports from the Grub Street Chronicles. A Miévillesque newspaper name, to be sure, but this was a Georgian newspaper, albeit one where delight was taken in reporting crime and news with a certain… flair.

There’s a vast number of articles, arranged by theme, but one of the collected clippings that stuck in my mind after, as something you might expect in The Weekly World News, I simply must share: a story about a woman who gained notoriety in 1726 by birthing rabbits… repeatedly, with doctors in attendance. (But actually, the rabbit birthings were verified, prior to their being debunked. I mean to say that yes, rabbits actually were seen to issue forth from her birth canal… how and why they got there is as weird as anything in the news today. Shudder.)

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