Thursday 28 May 2009


This is the real Jack Sheppard (1702 - 1724)
WHERE'S JACK? the 1969 movie is a good mix of fact and fiction that stars Tommy Steele as Jack Sheppard and Stanley Baker as Jonathan Wild.
Set in the London of the 1720s the movie, directed by James Clavell, tells the story of an apprentice locksmith who takes up housebreaking to prevent his brother, Tom, from hanging.
Against him is Jonathan Wild, the thief taker and a man who's testimony can prevent Tom Sheppard from the gallows.
It soon becomes clear that Wild is not all on the side of law and order but as big a thief as anyone he turns in. It is not long before Wild realises that Jack Sheppard is not only a rival but a threat to his position.
Jack Sheppard is arrested and locked up in Newgate Prison - but not for long as he escapes. Jack Sheppard becomes the reason for a wager amongst the aristocracy that results in The Lord Chancellor losing his sumptious London home to Lady Darlington. Once again, Jack Sheppard winds up in chains in Newgate Prison - and escapes.
King George the First now wagers that Jack Sheppard could steal his Lord Chancellor's chain of office. Jack Sheppard takes up the challenge but falls into a trap laid by Jonathan Wild. Back to Newgate but no chance to escape this time except by the hangman's noose.
The final scenes are reminiscent of George Cruikshanks' illustrations to the novel 'Jack Sheppard' by William Harrison Ainsworth.
Tommy Steele gives an excellent performance as Jack Sheppard. With his cockney accent and the humour in both his face and lines he really does bring Jack Sheppard to life. As an antagonist Stanley Baker makes Jonathan Wild a fearsome character.
I have a feeling that this film never made it to VHS and there is not a DVD available.
The background to this story began in 1720 with the bursting of The South Sea Bubble which brought about a financial meltdown. The banks made heavy losses, firms went out of business, unemployment rose sharply and the Government of the time was found to be full of corrupt politicians. (Does this scenario sound familiar? History repeating itself).
Thieving became the main occupation and something had to be done about it.
Enter Jonathan Wild who had been born in Wolverhampton in 1683. He had done time in the Debtor's Prison and re-paid his debts by dubious means and was an expert thief. Who better to 'police' London? Jonathan Wild set himself up as the Thief Taker General of London and was paid £40 a head for every thief that he brought to justice. This bounty eventually rose to £140 a head mainly at his instigation - a good price to pay seeing as Wild was making a name for himself and taking the attention away from the current Government problems.
Wild was a thief - he bought from thieves and returned stolen goods to their owners for reward.
Jonathan Wild was the most feared man in London.
The real Jack Sheppard was born in 1702 in Spitalfields in London's East End. Son of a carpenter, he was apprenticed to be one too. London even in the best times was a hard place to live and it was not long before he was making easy money by thieving. He also found himself a 'wife' Elizabeth Lyon known as Edgworth Bess and a partner in Joseph 'Blueskin' Blake.
Yet Jack Sheppard did not make his name as a thief but for his exploits. When first captured he was imprisoned in St. Giles from where he escaped. When he was recaptured both he and Edgworth Bess were imprisoned and, because they were husband and wife, shared the same cell from which they escaped. This had to have taken some doing for Jack Sheppard was only 5'4" and slim build while his wife made two of him and taller. A few more robberies later and Jack was in Newgate and out again to commit further crimes that put him back into Newgate and out again to go on a holiday with Bess.
Quiet days in the country were not for Jack Sheppard for within a couple of weeks he was back causing havoc.
The thing is that Jack Sheppard was becoming something of a legend that was not doing much good for the feared theif taker, Jonathan Wild's, reputation. Jack's antics were an embarassment to Wild.
Jack Sheppard was taken back to Newgate and placed in an open cell and chained with a 24 hour watch. The next time he left Newgate, Jack Sheppard went straight to Tyburn and hanged. He hung for 15 minutes before he was cut down. Hanging in those days was a straight slow strangulation - not the kind where the knot was strategicly placed so that the neck snapped causing almost instant death.
When Sheppard was cut down the crowd took control of the body intending to save him and passing the body to where it was hoped that surgeons would revive him. A riot broke out as troops tried to move the crowd. When the streets cleared all that were left were the unrecognisable, mutilated remains of Jack Sheppard who's body was buried at St. Martin's in the Field. Or was it?
Is the end of the film 'Where's Jack?' fact - or fantasy.
In 1725 Jonathan Wild was hanged for theft and the evidence against him came from two men that he had hanged. One was Joseph 'Blueskin' Blake and the other - Jack Sheppard.
The life of Jack Sheppard was chronicled in The Newgate Calendar and books by Daniel Defoe and William Harrison Ainsworth - the latter, when serialised, upset Charles Dickens who saw interest in his serialised 'Oliver Twist' wane as readers sought out the adventures of Jack Sheppard.
Defoe also wrote about Jonathan Wild as did Henry Fielding author of 'Tom Jones'.
Jack Sheppard even gets a mention in Bram Stroker's 'Dracula'.
Tom Sheppard, Jack's brother, was sent for transportation to Virginia in the USA.
It is interesting that when the outlaws Frank and Jesse James wrote to the 'Kansas City newspaper they signed their letters 'Jack Sheppard'. While two of the original members of the James-Younger gang were George and Oliver Sheppard.
Sandra and I went to St. Martin's In The Fields to see if we could find Jack Sheppard's last resting place only to be told 'it is not his remains that were buried here.'
So - where's Jack?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good yarn, Ray. Stories of the Jack Sheppard/Jonathan Wild variety are as fascinating as any western. Back in the 1950s, the weekly Sun Comic used to run a large number of western strips and even adaptations of movies like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. On the back cover was a series called Highway Days. It was about a fictionalized Dick Turpin, his girl companion Moll Moonlight -- and the wicked Jonathan Wild as the villain.

Sample of dialogue:

"Stand! Stand I say! Stop the coach, fellow, or it will be the worse for you!"

"Zounds! A hightobyman!"

Delightful stuff. I could be tempted to revive the genre!