Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles




The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon :

Report of the Secret Commission

Originally published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885.

W.T. Stead

Edited and with annotations and an introductory essay by Antony E.Simpson.

Lambertville, NJ: The True Bill Press, 2007.

$65.00. 207 pp. Hardcover. ISBN-10: 0-9791116-0-9. ISBN-13: 978-0-9791116-0-0


Witnesses to the Scaffold :

English Literary Figures as Observers of Public Executions :

Pierce Egan, Thackeray, Dickens, Alexander Smith, G.A. Sala, Orwell

Edited, with annotations, commentaries, and an introductory essay

by Antony E. Simpson. 

Lambertville, NJ: The True Bill Press, 2008.

$65.00. 230 pp. Hardcover. ISBN-10: 0-9791116-1-7. ISBN-13: 978-0-9791116-1-7


Vicarious Vagrants :

Incognito Social Explorers and the Homeless in England, 1860-1910

Edited, with annotations and an introductory essay by Mark Freeman

& Gillian Nelson.Lambertville, NJ: The True Bill Press, 2008.

$65.00. 327 pp. Hardcover. ISBN-10: 0-9791116-2-5. ISBN-13:978-0-9791116-2-4



Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen


The implicit philosophy behind the excellent work done by Professor Antony E. Simpson’s (1) True Bill Press (2) is that nothing ‘speaks' like the original texts. In this of course the Press is fully in tune with modern trends in social, cultural and literary history: go back to the source whenever possible. Commentary is valuable – but the student should be encouraged to read the originals first when at all feasible. In spite of the wide availability of some 'classic’ texts on the Internet, many sources remain inaccessible however – if only for copyright reasons. A case in point here is George Orwell's ‘A Hanging', an essay first published in The Adelphi in 1931 – and reprinted in the two major anthologies of his works (3) – but not offered on the World Wide Web. It is the last text featured in Witnesses to the Scaffold, with a copious commentary by Simpson, ‘George Orwell and an Execution in Burma in the 1920s'. But even if some of the texts reprinted in the True Bill Press can be found elsewhere, Simpson’s thematic anthologies offer a most convenient way of comparing and contrasting them.

The three collections under review have a common point: they explore the lives (and deaths) of what we now politely (and somewhat hypocritically) call the underprivileged classes – the indigent, paupers, vagrants and ‘dangerous classes’ in the vocabulary of our Victorian ancestors. The books are built on slightly different formats: all three have a substantial introductory essay (by Simpson for The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon and Witnesses to the Scaffold; by Mark Freeman (4) and Gillian Nelson (5) for Vicarious Vagrants), followed by a variable number of texts, but only Witnesses to the Scaffold has an introductory commentary before each text, giving context and the information and explanations required to help the reader get a full appreciation of the text.

Since The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon is not an anthology proper, but an annotated reprint of W.T. Stead’s articles in the Pall Mall Gazette in the summer of 1885, Simpson's Introductory Essay, ‘Organized Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century England: Legal Campaigns & the Origins of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885', forms a general commentary for all the articles. With its excellent footnotes (far more convenient of course than endnotes), its additional material (e.g. the Labouchère amendment) and its up-to-date list of primary and secondary references in the Bibliography, the editorial work is remarkable, and it will be found extremely useful by those who discover Stead's Pall Mall Gazette articles for the first time. The only reservation – not a minor one, however – is that for an inexplicable reason the volume has no Index: none for the Introductory Essay, none for Stead’s texts, either. Fortunately, Simpson must have been made aware of this flaw in the first offering of his Press, since we do have a well-made Index in the other two volumes.

Witnesses to the Scaffold, the next book in the series, contains six original texts: three by famous writers, three by authors only known to specialists of the period. Appropriately following the convention among historians, Simpson presents the texts in chronological order: Recollections of John Thurtell (Pierce Egan, 1824); ‘Going to See a Man Hanged' (William Makepeace Thackeray, 1840); three ‘Letters to the Editor' [of The Daily News and The Times] (Charles Dickens, 1846-1849); ‘A Lark’s Flight' (Alexander Smith, 1863); ‘Open-Air Entertainments' (George Augustus Sala, 1852); ‘A Hanging' (George Orwell, 1931). The comments are most welcome, with perhaps a special mention for Simpson’s admirable decryption of Sala's ulterior motives: in fact, he may well have been a supporter of the death penalty, behind the posture of denunciation which he deceptively adopts in his (magnificently written) text.

In contrast the ten offerings in Vicarious Vagrants all come from authors only known to specialists – thus making the accompanying comments even more welcome. At forty pages, the Introductory Essay in itself could form a pamphlet or Occasional Paper in an academic series (though, curiously, there is no Bibliography as such – only copious references in the footnotes). In it, the two Editors justify their choice of dates by the fact that ‘the period 1860-1910 was the heyday of the undercover social investigator’, and they explain that their title was adopted with reference to A Vicarious Vagabond, published by 'Denis Crane' – the journalist Walter Thomas Cranfield – in 1910, the last year of their chosen period. This Introductory Essay discusses the ten texts in succession, with occasional comparisons between them. Each text of course has its own footnotes, and once again a chronological order has been adopted: ‘A Night in a Workhouse' (James Greenwood, Pall Mall Gazette, 1866); A Night in the Casual Ward of the Work-House, in Rhyme (‘M.A.' [Unidentified author], 1866); The Female Casual and Her Lodging (J.H. Stallard, 1866 [first 79 pages]); ‘The Tramp's Haven' (F.G. Wallace-Goodbody, Gentleman’'s Magazine, 1883); On Tramp (James Greenwood, 1883); ‘A Night in the Workhouse' (C.W. Craven, 1887); The Casual Ward System: Its Horrors and Atrocities. Being an Account of a Night in the Burnley Casual Ward, Disguised as a Tramp (J.R. Widdup, 1894); ‘The Tramp Ward' (‘Viatrix' [i.e. Mary Higgs], Contemporary Review, 1904); The Spike (Everard Wyrall, 1909); (6) A Vicar as Vagrant (George Z. Edwards, 1910). The general line of these testimonies is probably best summed up in C.W. Craven’s stark conclusion:

    My impression of the general treatment of vagrants is that the system is much too severe. Making every allowance for the shortcomings of the class constituting them, I am of opinion that the lowest of mankind deserve better treatment than that accorded to pigs, dogs, and other animals of creation. The food furnished was scarcely fit for these last mentioned, whilst about the harsh treatment the less said the better. It is a disgrace to any civilized country.

It goes without saying that all these texts – in all three volumes – are of considerable interest for the modern student of ‘the lowest of mankind’ in the period covered. The books are beyond the means of most private individuals, but all three are unreservedly recommended to University Libraries – the sturdy laminated boards used in the bindings were evidently designed with this market in mind. The clear, jargon-free style used by the Editors and the most helpful annotations make them ideal reading even for undergraduates.


(1) Professor Emeritus at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Former librarian at this College and faculty member on the Ph.D. program in Criminal Justice of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Cf. his Ph.D. thesis, New York State University, 1984, ‘Masculinity and control : the prosecution of sex offences in 18th century London’.  back

(3) Angus, Ian & Orwell, Sonia [Editors]. George Orwell : The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. Vol.1 : An Age like This. London : Secker & Warburg, 1968 (Penguin : 1970). Davison, Peter [Editor]. The Complete Works of George Orwell. Vol. 10 :  A Kind of Compulsion : 1903-1936. London : Secker & Warburg, 1998.   back

(4) Lecturer in the Department of Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow.  Author of Social Investigation and Rural England, 1870-1914. Royal Historical Society Studies in History. Woodbridge : Boydell & Brewer, 2003.   back

(5) Tutor for Level One Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow. Currently writing a Ph.D. thesis at that university, ‘Covert ethnography in Britain since the 1880s’.   back

(6) ‘The Spike’ is the tramp’s name for the Casual Ward (Everard Wyrall’s note).  back





All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.