The Prodigal Brother: Edward D. Reynolds

By David T. Dixon

In July 2022, I shared research that revealed a lasting friendship between George W.M. Reynolds and English Garibaldian Hugh Forbes. Further inquiries into their social circles uncovered important facts about Forbes’s eight years in Paris while adding additional context to Reynolds’s time on the Continent.[1]

Numerous scholars cite an 1848 British Home Office dossier wherein Reynolds’s former guardian, Dr. Duncan McArthur, described his charge as “guilty of every species of fraud and immorality.” McArthur accused George of pilfering jewelry to settle a hotel bill in London, conspiring with brother Edward to flee their Calais hotel without paying, being arrested for playing with loaded dice, and languishing in a Paris jail. Contemporary sources lend credence to McArthur’s claims, for Hugh Forbes was not the only close confidant of George Reynolds running from the law.[2]

Edward Dowers Reynolds, a professional criminal, was part of a loose confederation of gentlemanly fraudsters who plied the gaming dens of London, Paris, Brussels, and Baden-Baden, plundering flush worthies to support their lavish lifestyles. London scandal rag The Satirist hired correspondents to follow Reynolds and his fellow “greeks”, expose their crimes, and attempt to bring them to justice.

‘The Hazard Room’ – a 1792 painting by Thomas Rowlandson.

Public craving for stories of dissipated notables and the criminal predators who exploited them not only inspired voluminous penny blood fiction, earning George W.M. Reynolds fame if not fortune, but it also sold newspapers. The Satirist ran a series of thirty bi-weekly feature articles titled, “Confessions of a Greek,” in which a former gang member regaled readers with lurid reports of accomplished villains and their gullible victims. Upper world criminals in the Forbes circle became public celebrities with flashy nicknames like Rees “Leetle Duello” Gronow, Hugh “Bully” Forbes, Drummond “Bruiser” Baring, and Edward “Ringlet” Reynolds.[3]

Edward Reynolds became a protégé of Forbes and dandy Rees Howell Gronow, leaders of a Paris-based transnational crime syndicate. Cheating at horse racing, écarté, hazard, and other games of chance had been endemic in Europe for hundreds of years, feeding on the aristocracy’s insatiable appetite for gambling. Edward Reynolds mastered them all. When George’s literary efforts and expensive tastes forced him into bankruptcy, he fled to Calais with his wife and brother, was arrested, and forced to work off his debts. The three returned to England desperate and broke.

The Reynolds brothers were not long in London before they found a “flat” or “dupe” who might aid them in their pecuniary predicament. Together with James Brooke Irwin and Samuel Bamford Hamer, they implemented a well-practiced swindle. They invited William Henry Leathley to dinner at Fricour’s Hotel in St. Martin’s Lane on May 10, 1837, got him drunk on wine, then persuaded him to wager at cards. By early morning, Leathley had lost more than five hundred pounds. He signed bills for the debt and, failing to pay, was thrown into Queen’s Bench prison. The gang’s plan backfired when hotel staff informed authorities of the ruse, landing Edward Reynolds in jail. By the end of the year, George Reynolds had declared bankruptcy in England.[4]

Edward returned to Paris in 1838 to rejoin Forbes, Gronow, and Co. and, for the better part of four years, enjoyed what The Satirist called “a roaring trade among the flats.” Leaders divided profits equally, assigning themselves specific hotels and gaming establishments throughout western Europe where they enforced their territory at the point of gun or dagger. Cheating accusations frequently resulted in duels, but few dared to challenge the honor of these desperados. Gronow was heralded as one of the finest shots in Europe, while Forbes was a pupil of renowned Paris fencing master Bertrand. Most dupes settled their debts but a few committed suicides. The Forbes gang was so successful that Edward Reynolds and other members ran their own horses at courses all over the Continent. With multiple syndicate-owned animals entering a single race, results were predictable.[5]  

By the Fall of 1846, Forbes, Reynolds, and their fellow “greeks” had achieved such widespread notoriety that they rarely showed their faces in gaming circles. Edward Reynolds presumably rejoined his brother in London at this point in George’s attempt to forge an honest living.[6]

What do the criminal exploits of these brothers tell us about the life and literary efforts of George W.M. Reynolds?

It is clear from Reynolds’s intimate association with knaves like Forbes, Irwin, Edward Reynolds, and others that the young novelist participated in conspiracy, fraud, dueling, and other illegal activity from 1832 to at least 1837. Historians who discount the retrospective testimony of Duncan McArthur as malicious should reevaluate their conclusions based on this new evidence. George Reynolds may have been merely an accessory to the schemes of his more notorious companions, but he was no angel. He was certainly too busy with literary pursuits to spend inordinate hours “at play.”

Scholars may wish to reexamine early Reynolds works like The Young Imposter, Grace Darling,and The Mysteries of London for parallels between the fictional exploits of key characters and the criminal upper world he was knew so well. If Reynolds had muses, we might consider brother Edward one of them.[7]

Finally, the timing of Reynolds’s conversion to teetotaling in 1840, his absence from bankruptcy court for eight years afterwards, and his apparent distance from shady characters and business beginning in 1838 suggests a possible moral awakening for the married journalist with children.[8]

My accidental introduction to George W.M Reynolds uncovered a previously unknown chapter in the life of Hugh Forbes, exposing him as a career criminal before he became a minor hero of the Italian Risorgimento and the drillmaster of American abolitionist John Brown. The strange careers of Reynolds and Forbes raise important questions concerning the role of organized crime in nineteenth century social protest and political revolution, topics that add texture and depth to my forthcoming Forbes biography. Thanks, George!

[1] David T. Dixon, “Radical Rakes: The Friendship of G.W.M. Reynolds and Hugh Forbes,” G.W.M Reynolds Society (blog), July 13, 2022, Radical Rakes: The Friendship of G. W. M. Reynolds and Hugh Forbes – G. W. M. Reynolds Society (

[2] Anne Humpherys and Louis James eds., G.W.M. Reynolds: Nineteenth Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2008), 2. Stephen Basdeo and Mya Driver, Victorian England’s Best-Selling Author: The Revolutionary Life of G.W.M. Reynolds (Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Books, 2022), 12, 18—19.

[3] The Satirist (London), Mar. 31, Apr 7, 14, 21, 28, May 12, 26, June 9, 23, July 7, 14, Aug. 11, 25, Sept. 8, 22, Oct. 6, 27, Nov. 17, Dec. 8, 1839, Jan. 12, 26, Feb. 9, Mar. 22, Apr. 19, 26, May 17, July 5. Aug. 2, 9, 16, 1840.

[4] The Satirist, Aug. 6, 1837.

[5] The Satirist, Dec. 23, 1838. L’Independence Belge, July 4, Aug. 23, Sept. 1, 1839. Le Messenger de Gand, Sept. 2, 27, 1839. This brief post contains a small sampling of Edward Reynolds’s illicit activities.

[6] The Satirist, Jan. 5, Apr. 6, Aug. 26, 1845, Aug. 23, 1846. Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser, Aug. 26, 1845. Cork Examiner, Feb. 24, 1845. Morning Examiner, Sept. 8, 1846.

[7] Particularly relevant here in Stephen Basdeo, “’That’s Business’: Organised Crime in G.W.M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844 —1848),” SOLON Law, Crime and History Vol. 8, No. 1 (2018), 53 —75.

[8] Basdeo and Driver, Victorian England’s Best-Selling Author, 24—48.

One thought on “The Prodigal Brother: Edward D. Reynolds

  1. Interesting piece. Edward must have gone through a similar “epiphany” as George, I assume, though somewhat later. His new-found respectability seems to be fully accepted by the time he takes over responsibility for Reynolds’s Newspaper upon GWMR’s death, and Edward’s obituaries in the press seem far more generous than those afforded to George. Edwards survived until 1894?


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