London crime superstars: Jack Sheppard, a hero of the people.

Welcome, one and all, to the first of our new, month-long, content-rich blog spectaculars, which will be full of what we’re hoping will be informative, interesting and amusing stuff that contextualizes the world shown our books, aspects of the great city of London in general, and the life of Harry Hawkins in particular.

This month we’ll be dealing with a whole host of colourful characters, dangerous nutters and other reprobates connected to the history of London/UK crime and various aspects thereof. We’ll be starting this week with some pre-20th century types; next week we’ll focus on some of the big gangland names of the 20th century; the week after that we’ll look at some of the best-known and most successful blags (translation: spectacular robberies) in British crime history, and we’ll finish up the month with our pick of the British crime movies. Then we’ll do something else the following month.

First up: the (once) legendary Jack Sheppard – not the well-known actor, interesting as he is, but the notorious 18th century thief, robber and escape artist, at one time was a genuine hero of the London populace.

Jack was born in Spitalfields in 1702, and began his career in burglary and robbery in the early 1720s. He got himself imprisoned four times in 1724 alone, but what brought him to the attention of an increasingly adoring public was his tendency to escape from whatever gaol the authorities put him in – thereby becoming a sort of symbol of freedom and a refusal submit to incarceration for a poor population living in very hard times. The criminal as folk-hero. His arrest by the infamous Jonathan Wild, the ‘Thief-Take General’ (we’ll get to him another time) added further lustre to the great adventure.

Jack’s spectacular career lasted only two years; he was hanged at Tyburn in 1724, following a great procession through London (it has been estimated that 200,000 people, or one-third of the entire population, were in attendance). A supposedly autobiographical ‘Narrative’ of his exploits, probably ghost-written by Daniel Defoe, was sold at his execution, initiating a cottage industry of writing and plays about him. His most celebrated appearance came in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), which secured his legendary status for a hundred years, and in 1840 William Harrison Ainsworth wrote Jack Sheppard, a novel with illustrations by George Cruikshank. Even at that remove, Jack was so potent a symbol that the London authorities refused to license any plays with his name in the title or advertising for a further forty years.

You can read a more detailed piece about Jack, with some cracking illustrations, here:

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