“Emulative of the character of Robin Hood”: The Highwayman Thomas Rainford in the “Second Series” of The Mysteries of London (1844–48)

By Stephen Basdeo

This post discusses a character in Reynolds’s masterpiece The Mysteries of London, although I do not focus on the oft-studied and well-known “First Series” but instead on the little-studied and unfairly neglected “Second Series” (and Reynolds scholars should indeed study the second series; there is absolutely no evidence to say that the first serial was more widely read than the second). As much as I like Richard Markham and adore Ellen Monroe in the first serial—I also have a sneaking admiration for the “Old Hag”—Reynolds created a number of characters in the second serial who were just as fun and interesting. In another life, I am also a historian of highwaymen, the first character who struck me on reading the Second Series was the highwayman Thomas Rainford alias Tom Rain, alias Charles Hatfield. Hatfield’s career and character bears a passing resemblance to that of another, more famous outlaw from medieval times: Robin Hood.

Image 1: “Tom Rainford Robbing on the Highway” (personal collection)

            The first volume Reynolds second serial is perhaps more of a Newgate novel, in the style of William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834), rather than an urban gothic tale like Reynolds’s first Mysteries series. Set during the 1820s we are introduced to two ladies, one Lady Hatfield and a Miss Mordaunt, travelling in a carriage late at night. Suddenly a highwaymen—dressed just as we expect, in a great coat and top hat, with a black mask over his face—stops the carriage and relieves the ladies of both of their purses, although Lady Hatfield feels like the highwayman’s voice is familiar. Rainford is of course destined to play a major part throughout the whole of volumes three and four. Although he was abandoned to gypsies as a baby and raised by them, Rainford was born to rich parents but as a result of the machinations of the villain “Old Death”—a character similar to Jonathan Wild—received not a penny. Rainford therefore gets his revenge on Old Death by stealing the treasure he had hoarded in his underground vaults.

Image 2: “Old Death reveals where his treasure is buried” (personal collection)

            When we first meet Rainford when he is what we would call a “good” outlaw; it emerges, however, that he was no saint in his past, for it transpires that sixteen years earlier he had actually raped Lady Hatfield. From a modern point of view, it seems weird that Lady Hatfield eventually falls in love with her former rapist and marries him after he resolves to mend his ways and become a good citizen. The marriage to Lady Hatfield allows Hatfield to rise into the ranks of the aristocracy, a plot point which likewise recalls the words of Joseph Ritson in 1795 who said of Robin Hood:

[Robin Hood’s] extraction was noble … he is frequently stiled [sic] and commonly reputed to have been Earl of Huntingdon; a title to which, in the latter part of his life at least, he appears to have had some pretension.

Like Robin Hood, it is only in “the latter part of his life” that Rainford, who assumes the name of Hatfield, had any pretension to nobility.As Reynolds stated in the novel, Hatfield truly is “emulative of the character of Robin Hood.”

            Finally, just as with Robin Hood, and many fictional highwaymen since him, it is a woman who causes Hatfield’s death. In the original legend of Robin Hood a nun, due to some grievance she long nursed against the outlaw, kills Robin Hood while he is on his sick bed. Rainford had drawn the enmity of a woman named Perdita who delivers a threatening message to Hatfield while he is on his deathbed, the shock of which kills him.

            Of course, there are many parts in this Second Series where Hatfield’s actions depart considerably from those of Robin Hood, and this is to suggest that Reynolds took the outlaw’s story as a very loose guide. We know that Reynolds must have been fond of the Robin Hood legend. He was much taken with the “Robin Hood” figure of Robert Macaire, who was the subject of one of his early novels. And not only had his good friend Pierce Egan the Younger written a long-running penny novel earlier in 1838 titled Robin Hood and Little John, but also in the Second Series we find almost three pages of literary criticism on Walter Scott’s Robin Hood novel Ivanhoe (1819) incorporated into two characters’ dialogue:

Several minutes however elapsed before the beauteous creature was sufficiently nigh for Mrs. Mortimer to address [Agnes]; because she not only advanced slowly, but stopped two or three times when she met with a passage of more than ordinary interest in the work she was reading. It was the novel of “Ivanhoe” that thus rivetted her attention; and she was in the midst of the exalting scene of the combat between Brian de Bois-Gilbert and Wilfred of Ivanhoe […]“You are engaged in the perusal of one of the finest tales in the English language.”

Reynolds next three pages are taken up with two characters discussing the merits of Scott’s classic and what they love about each of the characters. It is important to tease out the literary works which Reynolds evidently enjoyed, especially as he has left us little in the way of diaries and journals which might provide further insight into his life.

Further Reading:

Egan, Pierce, Robin Hood and Little John (London: F. Hextall, 1838)

Reynolds, G.W.M. The Mysteries of London, Second Series, 2 vols (London: G. Vickers, 1846–48)

———, Robert Macaire in England, 3rd edn (London: John Dicks, 1884).

Ritson, Joseph. Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, 2 vols (London: T. Egerton, 1795)

Image Credits (personal collection):

Image 1: Tom Rainford robbing on the highway

Image 2: Old Death reveals where his treasure is buried


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