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The Victorian Underworld [Hardcover]

Donald Thomas
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

29 Sep 1998
Here, through the eyes of its inhabitants, Donald Thomas portrays the nineteenth-century underworld - one of 'night houses' and cigar divans, of street people and entertainers. The underworld was sheltered by an underclass, united with it in a hatred of the police. In its rookeries and padding-kens, gin shops and taverns, hard by the fashionable West End, thrived thieves and beggars, cheats, forgers and pickpockets, preying on rich and poor alike.

Thackery wrote that the wonders of the Victorian underworld 'have been lying by your door and mine ever since we had a door of our own. We had but to go a hundred yards off and see it for ourselves, but we never did.' Her Donald Thomas pushes open that door to reveal a world at once both strange and strangely familiar.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 346 pages
  • Publisher: New York University Press (29 Sep 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0814782388
  • ISBN-13: 978-0814782385
  • Product Dimensions: 24.2 x 16.3 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,234,662 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description


'The author has a practised eye for the best anecdotes and presents amazing characters, some of whom come equipped with names that sound positively Dickensian ... a wonderful profile of Victorian London' (The Spectator )

'A fluent account of a subject which still has the power to elicit shivers of delighted disgust' (Daily Telegraph )

'Thomas writes with a historian's ironically neutral eye about brothels, pornography, forgery and serial killers, and includes a gripping account of the London-to-Paris mail train robbery, in which a gang got away with a quarter of a ton of gold bullion' (The Guardian )

'A wonderful profile of Victorian London' (The Spectator ) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Donald Thomas is the author of seven biographies, including 'Cardigan of Balaclava' and his best-selling life of 'Cochrane: Britannia's Sea Wolf'. He is also a respected novelist and has won the Gregory Award for his poems 'Points of Contact'. He was born in Somerset, educated at Queen's College, Taunton and Balliol College, Oxford. He holds a personal chair at the University of Wales, Cardiff. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reveals the under side of the victorian era. 22 Dec 2003
By mr_ska VINE VOICE
Much of what we are often told about the victorians makes them out to be hyper-virtuous, thoroughly industrious, and particularly progressive. This book shows the other side of the coin, exposing the rampant hypocrisy of the middle classes, and delighting in the details of life on the seedy side of the street.
We are treated to descriptions of many of the various con tricks and sharp practices that criminals developed to fleece the wealthy or just plain gullible that crossed their path. The extent of prostitution that is revealed almost boggles the mind, and the same people that were most often to be found proclaiming their own virtue and that of their peers were far too often found in the arms of one prostitute or another. Although what truly shocks is the prevalence of child prostitution and the great effort that was required to secure the principle of the age of consent in law, and even then at a frighteningly low age.
After reading this informative and often entertaining book you will be able to raise a wry smile the next time you hear politicians extolling the virtues of the victorians and crying out for a return to 'victorian values'. It makes you wonder just which values they mean.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very, very interesting 14 Dec 1998
By A Customer
This is a thin volume and there are bigger volumes available and probably more detailed studies. Thomas has written his book very well, with great skill and he is able to make the book accessible to all readers, without slipping into slang, jargon or complicated terms that put a lot of readers off. The book is riveting and I found it immensely enlightening
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Look At Little-Known Victoriana... 12 Jan 2000
By H. Callaghan VINE VOICE
This book was a fascinating insight into a vanished world, complete with not only the safecrackers and prostitutes (the staples of criminal Victoriana) but also featuring a thousand and one trades of ill-repute, all with exotic sounding names, that simply do not exist anymore - running patterers, costers, etc. The section on the Great Train Robbery is absolutely riveting, and more appealing, in many ways, than the bowdlerised film version starring Sean Connery.
The sweeping variety of scams and con tricks featured generally in the book is also breathtaking, and the history of the debate on obscene publications in an eye-opening insight into this same debate today. Anyone interested in the period, particularly any novelists who need research, would do well to consult this. Very attractive cover too. I enjoyed this immensely.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars history alive 1 Mar 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
An excellent book - history made alive. The truth of the Victorian underworld brought before the readers eyes - factual yet exciting.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This is a brilliant introduction to crime in Victorian England. It does draw rather heavily on Mayhew's 'London Labour and the London Poor', but, given that I hardly ever open my copy of the original, anything that summarises key points is appreciated.

The book starts by laying out the geography of the London underworld, a world of 'rookeries' and 'penny gaffs'. We meet the costers and are introduced to their interminable war with the police moving through the lowest strata of society via the prostitutes and the tramps, to the conmen, the safe breakers and the murderers.

Thomas's narrative veers here and there with side trips to take in music halls and race meetings, but though he often skims the surface of many of his subjects, he seems to have a remarkable understanding of his subject matter and the work is referenced with detailed footnotes.

The mix of sociological analysis and anecdote make this excellent background reading for anybody who wants to familiarise themselves with the world of the Victorian underclass.
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