Early eighteenth century London was a city more dangerous and corrupt, yet also more intimate and communal, than its modern-day counterpart. Petty crime abounded; so too did harsh punishment - and public hangings were a part of daily life. The Thieves’ Opera is the gripping story of two men who inhabited this world, who were as famous in their time as Dick Turpin, and who, like so many, were to meet their end on the scaffold .
Jonathan Wild, the self styled ‘Thief-taker General’ of London, dominated the city’s criminal underworld. His reputation and credibility were such that in 1720 he was consulted by the Privy Council on how best to deal with the rising incidence of crime in the capitol. In fact it was largely Wild’s own nefarious dealings which had aggravated the criminal activity that became endemic to the city.
Jack Sheppard, by tradition the model for Tom Idle in William Hogarth’s ‘Industry and Idleness’ series, was indeed the archetypal idle apprentice. He spent his free time drinking, gambling and whoring in Covent Garden, until inevitably he fell into a life of crime. He was also one of the great folk heroes of his time, celebrated for his intrepid, and increasingly extraordinary, prison escapes.
Eventually, Wild’s and Sheppard’s paths crossed. But mutual admiration soon degenerated into acrimony, and what ensued was to contribute to the demise of both men.
Beautifully illustrated with engravings by Hogarth, filled with both entertaining anecdote and fascinating historical detail, The Thieves’ Opera is an elegantly written, tremendously engaging book of popular history which brings eighteenth-century London to life.