Monday, December 2, 2013

Low-Life of Elizabethan London

by Deborah Swift

Whilst researching my character Zachary Deane, I researched the late Elizabethan and Jacobean underworld to find out about what sort of ways a penniless person could cheat, lie, steal or embezzle to make a living in 1609. Most of this information comes from a book called The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado - a book I highly recommend.

Diogenes Looking for an Honest Man - Caesar Van Everdingen 1652

The Righteous Beggar

The Reformation had cast out many friars and pardoners and made them into itinerant beggars. In the eyes of the law these were now vagrants, but the general population had quite a lot of sympathy for them, as they were seen as former 'holy men.'  Impersonating a monk became a lucrative way of begging.

Many soldiers and sailors in the wars against Portugal and Spain had not been properly paid and when the campaign was over were discharged onto the streets. A common begging ruse was to claim you had been with Drake in the expedition against Portugal (1589), and the sympathetic public would donate thinking you were a patriotic sailor. These righteous beggars were called 'rufflers'. There were also what were known as 'upright men', who were discharged soldiers who would knock on your door and demand food, lodgings or money. In the world of the beggar, the 'upright man' was King and carried a truncheon or 'filchman' to enforce his authority over other less brazen beggars. Click on the picture below to see just how much information can be gleaned about beggars just from this one drawing.

"Beggar in a Large Coat" Adriaen van Ostade

'Whipjacks' were men who has supposedly been shipwrecked or lost everything at sea. Men who had really been at sea were given a licence to beg, but these were often counterfeited by unscrupulous beggars, 'these fresh water mariners, their ships were drowned in the plain of Salisbury' (Thomas Harman). Other beggars faked diseases such as epilepsy by chewing soap to make their saliva froth.

Church and Conman

Surprisingly enough, one of the hot-beds of crime at the turn of the 16th century was St Paul's Church (Cathedral as it was later known after its rebuilding). In 1561 one of the bishops complained about the uses it was put to; 'the south alley for popery and usury, the north for simony, and the horse fair in the midst for all kinds of bargains, meetings, brawlings, murders, conspiracies, and the font for the ordinary payment of money.'

Cutpurses and pickpockets or 'nips' and 'foists' abounded, often working in groups or pairs, and attempting to cheat out-of-towners of their money. A common ruse was to faint and then when someone came to help, to cut away their purse. The playhouses as well as the church were fertile grounds for thieves. Cloak-snatchers and handkerchief snatchers were common in the Church and the theatre, as were confidence tricksters known as 'coneycatchers'.

Rigging the Odds

Dice and Cards were the principal games at which you could gamble and cheat. There were no less than fourteen different kinds of rigged dice, including 'fullams' - dice loaded with lead, and 'bristles'with a hair set in one side to stop the dice landing that way up. 'Gourds' were dice hollowed on one side to weight them one way or the other. Of course sleight of hand was necessary to substitute the dice, but this could be learned easily with practice. Rigged outcomes were common at bowling alleys, bear-baiting and anywhere where gambling was undertaken.

Another great source of information about the female cutpurse and cheat can be found in The Roaring Girl - a play by Middleton and Dekker from about 1607, about a woman called Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse, though admittedly she did dress as a man for many of her exploits as can be seen on this pamphlet of the time.

Thanks for reading, hope I haven't given you any ideas! Here are my books, the cutpurse Zachary Deane features in A Divided Inheritance.


  1. A bit of a hackneyed comment from me but that post was truly fascinating Dee - thoroughly enjoyed it and the book is now in my Must have pile!

  2. Hi Anita - it is a great book, and invaluable to get a sense of the sheer numbers of the dispossessed - not just ruffians, but also the genuinely needy, and the lengths that some people would go to just to get fed.

  3. Reminds me of the beggars in Slum Dog Millionaire.

    1. Wherein the schmuck director became a genuine millionaire (solely by reason of the writers' clever plot) and the cast members simply returned to their godawful poverty

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  4. Love this, great fun post. The Roaring Girl - such a fantastic title. I have an odd woman dressed as a man in my Lucy Morgan Elizabethan series, based on exactly that kind of character. I also think there's a lot of mileage for great fiction in the area of gambling cheats. So much dynamic energy about these anecdotes. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Hi Victoria, love the sound of your character - must check that one out.


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