Nuffle your clod! Jonathon Green takes us back to the 1830s, and the luridly melodramatic Newgate Novels that were the precursors of the ‘penny-dreadfuls’…
In a box of the stone jug I was born,
Of a hempen widow the kid forlorn,
And my father, as I’ve heard say,
Was a merchant of capers gay,
Who cut his last fling with great applause,
Nix my doll pals, fake away
‘Jerry Juniper’s Chant’ in W. Harrison Ainsworth Rookwood (1834)
All is for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds; tight focus on publishing where all is worse still: quantity is on the down and as for quality, can the iTinies even spell it. The oxymoronic concept of popular culture holds all in sway, the slush pile – looped green ink and lined Basildon Bond – has taken the helm and next stop hyphens between the syllables.
It was always thus.
Let us return to the 1830s. The world of the Newgate Novel. I have mentioned this before, in the context of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, though of course the Inimitable was at pains to disavow the slightest adhesion to the genre, and frankly if Dickens wanted out, there were those less pernickety. The ultimate reference is to Newgate, the stone jug of the verses above (a.k.a. Akerman’s Hotel, Burrowdamp Museum and Whittington’s College), but the immediate link was to the accounts of criminals that appeared in the Newgate Calendar or The Malefactors’ Bloody Register, first published in 1774-8 and appearing in new editions up to 1841. (It was not the first such collection: the original aggregation of criminal biographies, the Tyburn Calendar, had appeared in 1705.)
The novels were sheer melodrama, precursors of the penny-dreadful (and thus the pulp fiction of a century later) and book-length successors to the tops (gallows-edge ‘famous last words’ as peddled by running stationers and born from top, to hang). Full of hair’s breadth ’scapes and derring-do, they also paraded much criminal slang, currently known as flash. In this the authors might have argued a sound pedigree. Walter Scott, in Guy Mannering (1815) and in The Adventures of Nigel (1822), used a good deal of the lowlife argot even if, in the former, after offering a good deal, he dismisses this ‘gibberish’ as not worth recording – and does not help the reader by offering a translation. The canonical Newgate novels, by such as Harrison Ainsworth and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, generally concentrated on the quasi-fictional exploits of popular villains-cum-folk heroes, such as Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard, even if Lytton’s Eugene Aram (1832) focussed on a notorious killer who had not been overlaid with the patina of public affection; though Judith Flanders, in The Invention of Murder (2011) has shown how Aram (executed in 1759) was recreated in the Victorian popular mind not so much as a murderer, but a tortured soul whose philosophizing in some way excused his crime. It was Lytton, of course, who gave us ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ and thus in time the prize for absurd openings that bears his name. The novels, already much criticized by moralists, slumped from favour subsequent to the murder, in 1840, of Lord William Russell by his valet Benjamin Courvoisier, who claimed in his unsuccessful defence that he had been influenced by Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (1839).
‘Newgate’ was essentially ripping yarns but in one way at least prefigured modernity, Not merely in placing villains at the heart of the plot, but like romans and films noir, in accepting moral ambiguities: the author refused to take on the black and white dichotomy of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Writing in a note to his own version, the supposed Newgate parody Catherine (1839) Thackeray was indignant. ‘Let your rogues in novels act as rogues and our honest men as honest men; don’t let us have any juggling and thimblerigging with virtue and vice.’ The rogues of Catherine would ‘have nothing that shall be mistaken for virtues’.
The novels were undoubtedly enlivened by their use of cant and flash, plucked from the canting dictionaries, even if the century-old setting of their stories ensured that much of it was anachronistic. Ainsworth even went so far as to compose his own set of canting songs for Rookwood (1834). Lytton claimed to have sought out gypsies and villains to find his vocabulary; Ainsworth preferred practicality: ‘Never had anything to do with the scoundrels in my life. I got my slang in a much easier way. I picked up the Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux – a returned transport. The book was full of adventures, and had at the end a kind of slang dictionary. Out of this I got all my “patter.” Having read it thoroughly and mastered it, I could use it with perfect facility.’ Possibly so: there are certainly many overlaps.
In 1846 an author styling himself ‘The Hon. F.L.G.’ produced The Swell’s Night Guide. This vade-mecum to London’s lubricious pleasures included one of the most artificial of all slang’s concocted ‘conversations’. Purportedly conducted by the Gonniff (from Yiddish, a thief), his girl the Shickster (from Yiddish shicksa and strictly speaking a female gentile) with interruptions from their pal the Cracksman, it represented flash taken to its limits. Thus:
Ve vas in a swanky ken, flashing the broads, nix of bevey an nanty denarly; in comes a green, multa beargred, flashes his skin of tin; we cops that; patters about his crib, we tumbles to the pitch; so we plants ripping Sall on the bloke, she flokessed his nibs, and hooked it off to his crib, unscrewed the drum, made the lob and scarpered
It was perhaps this that provided a source for Thackeray who parodied Newgate again in an episode called ‘The Night Attack’ – published in the serialised version of Vanity Fair but sadly removed from the book:
One, two, three! It is the signal that Black Vizard had agreed on.
‘Mofy! Is that your snum?’ said a voice from the area. ‘I’ll gully the dag and bimbole the clicky in a snuffkin.’
‘Nuffle your clod, and beladle your glumbanions,’ said Vizard, with a dreadful oath. ‘This way, men: if they screak, out with your snickers and slick! Look to the pewter-room, Blowser. You, Mark, to the old gaff’s mopus box! and I,” added he, in a lower but more horrible voice, ‘I will look to Amelia!’
 box: a cell; stone jug: a prison; hempen widow: the wife of a man who has been hanged; ‘merchant of capers . . . cut his last fling’, i.e. the body twitching on the gallows; nix my doll, never mind; fake away: carry on
 We were in a beer-house, playing cards, with nothing to drink and no money; in comes a sucker; he’s very drunk and showing off his purse; we noticed, chatted to him about his lodgings and worked out what to do: we put pretty Sal onto him, she gave him a Mickey Finn, then ran off to his place, unlocked the door, grabbed his money from the cashbox and left.
image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.