Popular history writer Terry Deary takes us on a light-hearted and often humorous romp through the centuries with Mr & Mrs Peasant, recounting foul and dastardly deeds committed by the underclasses, as well as the punishments meted out by those on the right side’ of the law. Discover tales of arsonists and axe-wielders, grave robbers and garroters, poisoners and prostitutes. Delve into the dark histories of beggars, swindlers, forgers, sheep rustlers and a whole host of other felons from the lower ranks of society who have veered off the straight and narrow. There are stories of highwaymen and hooligans, violent gangs, clashing clans and the witch trials that shocked a nation. Learn too about the impoverished workers who raised a riot opposing crippling taxes and draconian laws, as well as the strikers and machine-smashers who thumped out their grievances against new technologies that threatened their livelihoods. Britain has never been short of those who have been prepared to flout the law of the land for the common good, or for their own despicable purposes. The upper classes have lorded and hoarded their wealth for centuries of British history, often to the disadvantage of the impoverished. Frustration in the face of this has resulted in revolt. Read all about it here! This entertaining book is packed full of revolting acts and acts of revolt, revealing how ordinary folk – from nasty Normans to present-day lawbreakers – have left an extraordinary trail of criminality behind them. The often gruesome penalties exacted in retribution reveal a great deal about some of the most fascinating eras of British history.
When this book arrived from the lovely guys at Pen & Sword, I knew I had to dive on in right away. Growing up I was a massive fan of Deary’s Horrible Histories series so really wanted to see what this would be like – and I wasn’t disappointed. Despite the recent controversy over Deary’s comments on public libraries having ‘had their day’, it can’t be denied that he is a wonderful author who injects humour into his writing. It’s certainly authors like Deary who pull a reader in and kick start their interest in the subject.
This book then is a quick read and it’s chapters are full of short sharp snippets of particularly gruesome stories around the peasant class and the ‘crimes’ that they committed. We read about crimes from the Norman times right through to the Victorians, and there are certainly some very very interesting stories in there. One such example that springs to mind is the idea of ‘mob’ football…which had no rules really. No death allowed was one of the little rules of the game but that often seems to have fallen on deaf ears. We also have stories of witch hunts (Donald Trump could learn a thing or two here), poisonings and the ever so stylish Gentleman Robbers ala Dick Turpin. Except Dick Turpin wasn’t exactly the lovable rogue that legend has made him out to be.
One particular favourite of mine was the story of Murder in the Red Barn – in 1878 a grieving stepmother told the story that she saw the ghost of her daughter pointing to the barn. In the barn, when it was investigated, the body of the daughter was found. She had been murdered by her lover, it seems. But the step mother was also involved, having been involved with the daughters lover herself – she came up with the fantastic ghost tale to get herself off the hook and it worked. The lover was found guilty at trial and died by the hangman’s noose.
The only issue I really had with this book was that it seemed to jump about chronologically in a way that had me wondering what the link was between this story of the Normans and this one of the Georgians. As a reader I am used to big tomes set out chronologically so it took me a little bit of time to get used to the way this book jumped about a bit. This happens more during the early chapters of the book which are set out in more vague themes such as ‘wild women’ so it makes sense to tell stories from multiple eras in one chapter.
Despite that I did thoroughly enjoy this book. It was a quick read and gave a fascinating insight into crimes and punishments throughout history. The snippets of stories were easy to read and chock full of humour that had me, quite often, chuckling out loud. If you want an introduction to crime and punishment throughout history that isn’t a huge, dull tome, then this is certainly the book for you.
A huge thank you to Pen & Sword for sending me a copy of this book to review.