Title: The Road to Tyburn
Author: Christopher Hibbert
Genre: Biography / History
Read: Feb 18, 2011
Summary: Really fun glimpse into a sordid little world.
In the last 2-3 weeks I’ve read at least 8-10 books on 18th century London, many on the criminal element of said city. Lest one think I’ve got an unnatural fascination with antique crime this is research for my new novel (more on that here). This book, however, was a standout, and despite being long out of print is well worth mentioning.
It’s short (160 pages), and very lively, reading as fast as a novel. It does a very good job characterizing the bizarre underworld of 1720s London, pretty much that which is depicted in the engravings of William Hogarth. London of this time was a city unique on earth, transitioning out of the 17th century’s religious zealousy and into the head long rush toward industrialization. It was a place of great freedom, great crime, great industry, and an infrastructure and society nearly overwhelmed by change. Pretty damn fun, and why I chose it for my novel.
Jack Sheppard — not to be confused with the protagonist of Lost — is a colorful character I hadn’t previously encountered. More or less just a charismatic young house burglar, he entered the public eye in a huge way — foreshadowing today’s media fascination with crime and criminals — by being a prison breaker of staggering talent. Nothing could keep the guy down, tied, barred, locked, or whatever. He broke out of the notorious Newgate prison no less than three times! (and several others as well).
As a working class, non-violent, handsome, achem… thief, seemingly able to escape punishment at will, he captured the hearts and minds of his fellow Londoners. For me, one of the book’s great moments is the description of his insanely daring and audacious fourth escape, known even then as the “Great Escape.” The guy used only a single bent and rusty nail to extract himself from a huge pile of irons, fetters, and chains, broke open a masonry chimney, climbed up, picked and opened five heavily fortified prison doors, leapt across rooftops, and descended great distances on a rope made of bedding. If anyone ever earned an escape, it was this guy!
Too bad they hung him when they caught him the last time. But he seemed to enjoy the attention and show.
The book does a great job telling Jack’s life story intermixed with really vivid and quick background sketches. The story of the the infamous Jonathan Wild, self proclaimed “Thief-taker General of Great Britain and Ireland” is also an eye-opener as to the origins and history of organized crime. As the book states, no other criminal mastermind in 300 years has ever had London crime (a pretty notorious city) so well organized!