The Regency Underworld

Donald A. Low

Sutton Publishing 2005 [1982]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010
The Regency Underworld offers a lively description of the dark side of London in the three decades from 1800 to 1830.

The first two chapters focus on London's policing and the series of reforms — and failed attempts at reform — leading up to the creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1831. This was delayed by jealous guarding of local prerogatives, both by the City and the now urbanised parishes of broader London, and by widespread concern about the threat a police force posed to civil liberties.

Drawing on the evidence given to a series of Select Committees, among other sources, these chapters also touch on the extent of criminal activity and community fears, prominent events such as the Gordon Riots and the Ratcliffe Highway murders, key individuals such as Patrick Colquhoun, and the corruption of magistrates and officers. They also cover the state of prisons and prison hulks and attempts at reform there.

Low teases out some of the details of children's role in crime, using the evidence collected by magistrates, prison visitors and chaplains. They were often recruited by fences as thieves.

In "The Medical Underworld" Low describes the activities of the "resurrection men" who provided bodies for anatomical dissection, since the supply from executed murderers was insufficient. Burke and Hare, who murdered people to sell their bodies, were only the most extreme case. The Anatomy Act 1832 allowed for a more regular supply, from the bodies of paupers unclaimed by relatives.

The original Tom and Jerry were man-about-town Tom and his country cousin Jerry, the lead characters in sketches by Robert and George Cruikshank, with commentary by Pierce Egan, published as Life in London. Low examines this, and works written in emulation of it, in some detail.

Gambling was widespread at all levels, but Low focuses on its prevalence among the upper classes. High-rollers such as Beau Brummell and Scrope Davies ended up in exile on the Continent when they were unable to pay their debts. And William Crockford built London's most prestigious club, which had a Hazard table as its profit-making centre.

A final chapter looks at four notorious Regency figures. John Hatfield was a bigamist and swindler who faked identities and lured women into marriage. Mary Anne Clarke was a mistress of the Duke of York who claimed she had influenced his appointment of army officers. Henry Fauntleroy was a bank manager who stole investors' money to cover investment losses and fund personal extravagances. And Harriette Wilson was a society prostitute whose tell-all memoirs became extraordinarily popular.

The Regency Underworld emphasises text sources — Low is a professor of English — and highlights a few themes rather than attempting to be comprehensive. A useful pictorial complement is provided by twenty four pages of black and white photographs, mostly contemporary illustrations of people and street and social scenes.

The result is evocative but also informative, and should be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in the period or in English social history.

April 2010

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%T The Regency Underworld
%A Low, Donald A.
%I Sutton Publishing
%D 2005 [1982]
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0750940476
%P 216pp