In an episode of the radio program This Sceptred Isle there’s an excerpt of a letter sent to Robert Peel in 1824 calling for the abolition of gibbeting:
I am sure you will overlook the intrusion of a letter from a private individual calling your notice to the longer continuance of the revolting spectacle exhibited on the bank of the Thames, and which excited feelings of disgust in the breasts of numerous voyagers to Ramsgate, Margate, France, the Netherlands, &c. &c. I allude to the scare-crow remains of the poor wretches who long since expiated by death their crimes, now hanging upon gibbets. It is said that “persecution ceases in the grave.” Let these poor remains find a grave, and the remembrance of their offences pass away. I have heard many ladies anxiously inquire if the boats had passed the gibbets, and not until then would they come upon deck. I have heard seamen say “What honest man would like to have a halter held up to him in menace, and why should they (following their lawful and honest employ) have the hint thus ingeniously prolonged to them?”
…Tyburn, Kennington, Hounslow, Wimbledon are all freed from the sad practice: why should it be perpetrated to the disgrace and nuisance of the Port of London? The offences were not, if I remember rightly, peculiar to that Port, but merely the Admiralty jurisdiction is here held. The remains of mortality is a sad sight under any circumstances; under such circumstances it is revolting, disgusting, pitiable, dishonorable to the law’s omnipotence, and discreditable to the administrators of the law.
And the author of this? One ‘William Sykes’, which, since I heard it on the radio first, sounds indistinguishable that noted Dickensian scoundrel Bill Sikes. (Even the genealogy websites list Sykes/Sikes interchangeably). But it makes sense. A serious look at the criminal justice system was being taken in those decades, particularly spurred on by Dickens’ work. So it’s quite plausible that Sikes, knowing that one day he might fall foul of the law, could write letters urging for more lenient treatment of convicts before he becomes one himself.
Assuming Oliver Twist takes place in 1837, when Sikes is approximately “five-and-thirty”, he would have written the letter at the age of twenty-two. Although his early life isn’t explored in the book, there’s a sense that Sikes had been a villain for many years before Oliver shows up, so writing letters in 1824 isn’t implausible. In fact, Sikes would have lived to see the success of his efforts, since gibbeting ended in London in 1834.
The only difficulty with this theory is that the letter sounds nothing like Sikes in the book. His speech is short, brusque and rarely without a threat: the man who says things like “Cause the government, as cares for the lives of such men as you, as haven’t half the pluck of curs, lets a man kill a dog how he likes,” is unlikely to write in such a different style to Robert Peel.
But games like these bear a considerable resemblance to creating conspiracy theories; there’s always an explanation if we search hard enough. There seem to be few Sikes of consequence in the nineteenth century, but Sykes is another matter, including two newly-minted aristocratic families: the Basildon Sykes and the Sledmere Sykes, both ennobled in the 1780s. It’s easy to imagine a wayward scion of one of these families who, not long before 1824, abandons or is thrown out of his family. At first he launches a round of letter-writing to find another wealthy family to support him; after that fails, he writes urging prison reform.
There are two other William Sykes of any note in this era, and coincidentally both were born around the Peak District in 1827, just forty miles apart. Nancy is by no means Sikes’ only paramour, and in 1827 Sikes might have had enough residual funds to support two mistresses. One of these sons, the one born in Rotherham, attacked a gamekeeper while poaching, and was transported to Australia. He would have been completely forgotten by history except that his letters were discovered by the social historian Alexandra Hasluck, and his biography formed the spine of her study on transported convicts, Unwilling Emigrants.
There’s even less information on the one born in Stockport. He became a chaplain and went out: to the Crimea in 1855, and wrote letters to the War Office deploring the state of his lodgings. It’s also intriguing that, although Snape’s book devotes just two paragraphs to Sykes’ life, he includes this line: “Sykes was also attentive in his duties for the military prison, visiting prisoners in their cells and holding four services each week, three of them on weekdays.”
So while Bill Sikes never existed outside the realm of fiction, I find it fascinating that both of his potential progeny carry these suggestions of Sikes’ influence on their lives.
William Sykes’ letter to Robert Peel is excerpted in This Sceptred Isle vol. 9: Regency and Reform. The text appears in, among other places, English Historical Documents, 1783-1832 by A. Aspinall.
William Sykes, the chaplain, is briefly mentioned in The Royal Army Chaplains’ Department, 1796-1953: Clergy Under Fire, by Michael Francis Snape. This Sykes is presumably the same chaplain listed in Classified digest of the records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1701-1892, though it doesn’t give more than his date and place of birth.
William Sykes, the convict, has his own Wikipedia page here. Alexandra Hasluck’s book Unwilling Emigrants is now on my to-read list.