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Can You Spare a Little Something?

The most visible manifestations of poverty came to London in the form of mendicants and beggars. They were arguing with each other at the end of the fourteenth century. “John Dray in his own person denied the charge, and said that on the day and in the place mentioned he and the said Ralph were sitting together and begging, when John Stowe, a monk of Westminster came by and gave them a penny in common. Ralph received the penny, but would not give Dray his share. A quarrel arose and Ralph assaulted him with a stick.” Such a scene could have occurred centuries before, or centuries after. Where else could a beggar find a better plot than London itself, filled with people and according to legend replete with money? There were religious mendicants, or hermits, mumbling in stone alcoves beside the principal gates of the city; there were lame beggars on street corners; there were prison beggars, calling out for alms from the gratings which held them; there were old women begging outside churches; there were children begging in the street. In the early twenty-first century some of the principal thoroughfares are lined with beggars, young and old; some lie huddled in doorways, wrapped in blankets, and stare up with imploring faces with the customary cry, “Spare any change?” The older of them tend to be drunken vagrants, existing altogether out of time; which is as much to say that they uncannily resemble their counterparts in previous ages of London’s history.

Sir Thomas More recalled the crowds of beggars who swarmed around the gates of the monasteries of London, and in the late medieval city it was common practice for servants of great houses and institutions to gather up the broken bread and meat of a public feast in order to distribute them to the supplicants begging for dole outside the doors. In one of his English works More wrote: “I se somtyme my selfe so many poore folke at Westmynster at the dolys … that my self for the preace of them haue ben fayn to ryde another waye.” But though he would have preferred to ride in another direction, avoiding the press and the smell of them, he alighted and spoke to one of them. When More praised the generosity of the Westminster monks, he drew the retort that it was no thanks to them, since their lands had been given to them by good princes. The beggars were desperate, but not destitute of resentment or a certain type of moral clarity; the position of a beggar in London is that of a supplicant but through the ages it has always been compounded by bitterness or anger at the condition to which he or she has been reduced. Citizens gave them money out of embarrassment as much as pity.

There were already “shamming” beggars, who counterfeited deformity or sickness, but it was not yet a trade of shame. Some of their names have come down to us from the twelfth century, among them George a Greene, Robert the Devil and William Longbeard. Reputed to be the king of London beggars, in the reign of Henry II William Longbeard sought sanctuary in St. Mary le Bow after causing disturbances in Cheapside. Eventually he was smoked out by the officers of the court, but he was one of those early outcasts whose dispossession was a mark of pride. They were people wedded to poverty and isolation, who therefore became symbols of unaccommodated humankind. “Doe we not all come into the Worlde like arrant Beggars without a rag upon us?” Thomas Dekker wrote in the early seventeenth century. “Doe we not all go out of the Worlde like Beggars, saving an old sheete to cover us? And shall we not all walke up and downe in the Worlde like Beggars, with an old Blankett pinned about?” If God made humankind in His own image, then what curious broken-down divinity did these men and women display? This was the superstitious awe which the beggars provoked in those who passed them.

In the sixteenth century first emerged “brotherhoods” of beggars, who went by such names as the Roaring Boys, the Bonaventoes, the Quarters and the Bravadoes. They collected in Whitefriars and Moorditch and Hoxton, the field of Lincoln’s Inn and the porch of St. Bartholomew the Great; the last two locations are still used by vagrants today. All of them smoked pipes, as an emblem of their status, and were well known for their violence and their drunkenness. In Coplande’s Hye Way to the Spitel Hous (1531), he depicts beggars dolefully singing along the approach to St. Paul’s from the east, and reports one beggar asking him to “make this farthyng worth a half-penny, for the fyve joyes of our blessed lady.” Thomas Harman published accounts of London beggars in pamphlet form, emphasising their more sensational attributes and exploits. Of one Richard Horwood, a Londoner, he writes: “Well nigh eighty years old, he will bite a sixpenny nail assunder with his teeth, and a bawdy drunkard to boot.” In the spring of 1545 Henry VIII issued a proclamation against vagrants and beggars who haunted “the Bancke, and such like naughtie places”; they were to be whipped, or burned, or imprisoned upon a diet of bread and water. But nothing could stop their coming. The pace of enclosures in the countryside left many unemployed and homeless, and the return of soldiers from foreign wars increased that turbulent element. To these were added the native unemployed or unemployable, “maisterless men” as they were called, to denote very firmly the fact that they were not part of the social fabric established upon hierarchy. In 1569 some thousands of “maisterless men” were imprisoned, and in the same year the citizens manned their gates in order to prevent the entry of any groups of beggars; all the barges from Gravesend, and other likely points of departure, were searched. From this period may date the doggerel

Hark hark the dogges do bark

The Beggars are coming to Town!

In a city of wealth, the insurrection of the poor is that which is most feared. In 1581 Elizabeth I was riding by Aldersgate Bars towards the fields of Islington when she was surrounded by a group of sturdy beggars “which gave the queen much disturbance.” That evening the Recorder, Fleetwood, scoured the fields and arrested seventy-four of them. Eight years later a band of five hundred beggars threatened to sack Bartholomew Fair; at the same time they held their own fair, Durrest Fair, where stolen goods were sold.

By 1600, it was estimated that there were 12,000 beggars inhabiting the city: a large group of disaffected people who alternately cajoled or threatened the other citizens. One method of assault was the “whining chorus,” complete with wooden clappers and doleful songs such as

One small piece of money—

Among us all poor wretches—

Blind and lame!

For His sake that gave all!

Pitiful Worship!

One little doit!

Their technique depended upon their terrible appearance and their whining words.

Yet the city can harbour many forms and many disguises. In the middle of the seventeenth century Thomas Harman observed one vagrant, Genings, who begged about the Temple. He described how “his body lay out bare, a filthy foul cloth he wear on his head, being cut for the purpose, having but a narrow place to put out his face … having his face from the eyes downward, all smeared with blood, as though he had new fallen, and had been tormented with his painful pangs, his jerkin being all bewrayed with dirt and mire … surely the sight was monstrous and terrible.” Harman, suspicious of his manner, hired two boys to watch and follow him; they discovered that after his day’s work at the Temple he would return to the fields behind Clement’s Inn where he “renewed his stains from a bladder of sheep’s blood and daubed fresh mud over his legs and arms.” Apprehended by the parish watch, he was found to have a large sum of money on his person; he was forcibly washed and “seen to be a handsome stalwart with a yellow beard and astonishingly fair skin.” His genius for disguise served him well, in a city enthralled to spectacle and enamoured by appearances; how else could he make his mark upon the swiftly passing scene without being theatrical to the highest degree?

There emerged beggars who posed as madmen, otherwise known as “lurkers on the Abram sham.” They would stand on street corners, showing the mark of Bedlam—ER—upon their arms. “Master, good worship, bestow your reward on a poore man that hath lyen in Bedlam without Bishopsgate three years, four moneths, and nine days. Bestow one piece of your small silver towards his fees, which he is indebted there.” They would stick pins and nails into their flesh as a symbol of their lunacy; they would roar imprecations, or speak madly of themselves as “poor Tom.” Characteristically they wore the same garment—a jerkin with hanging sleeves—with their hair tangled in knots; they carried with them a stick of ash-wood, with a piece of bacon tied to the end of it. This in turn suggests that their mad medley became something of a theatrical routine, and that their presence on the London streets became an integral part of its scenery of suffering. Yet mingled with them also were the genuinely mad.

It has been supposed that the beggars’ brotherhoods of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were quite formal affairs with their own rites of initiation, ceremonies and rules of procedure. Each beggar was given a nickname on joining their fellowship—Great Bull, Madam Wapapace, Hye Shreve and so on—and recited a list of beggar commandments. These included such admonitions as “Thou shalt share all winnings” and “Thou shalt not divulge the secret of the canting tongue.” This tongue was not in fact unknown to Londoners, who incorporated some of its terms into Cockney, but it was unique nevertheless. It was composed of various tags and terms from other languages—Welsh, Irish, Dutch, Cockney and Latin among them— so it was in one sense an international argot. In “canting speech” “pannass” was bread and “patrico” a priest, “solomon” an altar and “prat” a buttock. “Chete” was variously applied to different things, so “crashing chetes” were teeth, “grunting chetes” were pigs and “lullaby chetes” were children. Life itself, it might be said, was a chete. The canting tongue was “said to have been invented somewhere about 1530 and its originator to have been hanged.”

In all the pamphlets and books of beggars, certain key individuals emerge as types or emblems of beggary. There was London Meg of Westminster who in the early seventeenth century became barmaid of the Eagle Inn, and was very soon notorious as a receiver of stolen goods and “protector of stray vagabonds.” She was the first of the “Roaring Girls,” one of a number of roistering and redoubtable females who walked a fine line between vagabondage, thievery and thuggery. She was “of quick capacitie, and pleasant disposition, of a liberall heart, and such a one as would be sodainely angry, and soone pleased.” She liked nothing better than at night to dress as a man, and wander through the streets of London in search of adventure; she became one of those pure urban types who are filled with the excitement and spirit of the city. The fact of her cross-dressing serves only to emphasise the crude theatricality of her exploits, in a crude and theatrical setting. In her life, however, the emphasis clearly shifts from beggary to criminality. The historians of the subject, led astray by contemporary pamphleteers, often fail to distinguish between vagrants and villains, thus compounding the original misperceptions which labelled every beggar a potential criminal.

The fact that not all beggars were villains, however, is suggested by the available records of the parish registers. “To a poore woman and her children, almost starved … For a shroude for Hunter’s child, the blind beggar man … given to a poore wretch, name forgot … to Mr. Hibb’s daughter, with childe, and likely to starve … to William Burneth in a sellar in Ragged Staff-yard, being poore and verie sicke.” On a statistical, as well as a personal, level the poverty and beggary of London “reached crisis proportions” in the 1690s. So the beggars filled the streets. It was no longer a question of “brotherhoods,” with sanctuaries in Cold Harbour or Southwark or White Friars, but something altogether more basic and desperate. A seventeenth-century report, A Discourse of Trade, noted that the poor were “in a most sad and wretched condition, some famished for want of bread, others starved with cold and nakedness.”

It has been suggested that the industrial expansion of the eighteenth century materially helped to lessen the number of beggars; more specifically, in the latter part of the century, changes in parish systems and the diminution of gin-drinking after the 1750s are supposed to have thinned their numbers. But there is no real evidence of this. There was simply a change in the nature of beggary itself. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the characteristic pattern was of beggars forming crowds, or groups, or settlements. In their place emerged the solitary or individual beggar, of which one fictional example was Moll Flanders. “I dress’d myself like a Beggar Woman, in the coarsest and most despicable Rags I could get, and I walk’d about peering, and peeping into every Door and Window I came near.” But Moll learns the lesson which is imparted in time to every beggar, that “this was a Dress that every body was shy, and afraid of; and I thought every body look’d at me, as if they were afraid I should come near them, least I should take something from them, or afraid to come near me, least they should get something from me.” What should they get from her? Abuse? Spittle? Or, more likely, disease? Beggars were the representatives of the city’s depths and the city’s dirt.

So although in the early nineteenth century there were still reports of bands or gangs of beggars roaming within the metropolis, particularly after the ending of the Napoleonic Wars, the general focus of interpretation was upon the individual figure. It is a strange reversal of the dominant mood, when “classes” were emerging from the heterogeneity of eighteenth-century London and when the whole emphasis came to rest upon the “systems” of the city; yet this process itself rendered the individual beggar more isolated and in a literal sense déclassé.

In 1817 J.T. Smith published Vagabondiana: or, Anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers through the streets of London; with Portraits of the most Remarkable drawn from the life, which emphasised the postures and expressions of the blind and the crippled. One example is that of “A Legless Jewish Mendicant of Petticoat Lane,” in which an aged patriarch with a battered hat sits in a kind of wooden cart upon wheels. Behind him is a wall with a graffito of a grinning man, or skeleton. A hundred years before, the hordes of vagrants would have defied individual representation.

Four years later the French painter Théodore Géricault depicted two scenes of poverty and beggary on the streets; it was the year after he had exhibited The Raft of the Medusa in the Egyptian Hall off Piccadilly, and all the tenderness of his nature found expression in Pity the Sorrows of a Poor Old Man whose Trembling Limbs have Born him to Your Door and A Paraleytic Woman. In the first of them the helpless old man leans against a wall; he is accompanied by a dog, with an old twisted rope for a lead. The dog, the “bufe” in beggars’ cant, has always been the companion of the London outcast; its presence not only suggests a wandering life, but also marks a type of friendlessness and isolation. The dog is the beggar’s only companion in this world of need; it has connotations, too, of blindness and general affliction. In Géricault’s second sketch a young mother and child look back at the paralysed old woman, with a gaze both of pity and of apprehension. Once more her solitude is being emphasised, quite different from the solidarity and conviviality of the “beggar brotherhoods.” There is another aspect of this isolation, in the sense that no one wishes to come too close. The fear of contagion proves too strong; it is not just the contagion of disease, however, but that of fear and anxiety. What if I were to become like you?

The records of nineteenth-century street-life are filled with memories and recollections of these phantoms. “Perhaps some of my readers,” Mayhew once wrote, “may remember having noticed a wretched-looking youth who hung over the words “I AM STARVING” chalked on the footway on the Surrey side of Waterloo Bridge. He lay huddled in a heap, and appeared half-dead with cold and want, his shirtless neck and shoulders being visible through the rents in his thin jean jacket; shoe or stocking he did not wear.” The author of Highways and Byways of London recalled an old man who had a particular corner along Oxford Street—“feeble, pitiful, wizened, who carried an empty black bag, and stretched it out to me appealingly. The contents, if any, of the black bag I never discovered; but I often gave him a penny, simply because he was so unutterably pathetic. He is gone now, and his place knows him no more. But he always haunts my dreams.” There was a crippled beggar who always sat under the picture gallery in Trafalgar Square, his “frail body propped on a padded crutch” and his “lean long fingers fluttering the keys of an old accordion.”

Joanna Schopenhauer, the mother of the philosopher, published her account of London in 1816, and left her description of one remarkable beggar who was supposed to be the sister of Mrs. Siddons the actress. She had been brought low by misfortune, and perhaps madness, but was always greeted with a curious reverence on the streets of London where she preferred “to live on the charity of strangers. We often saw this curious apparition. She always wore a black silk hat, which left her face and features clearly visible, a green woollen dress, a large snow-white apron and a kerchief also white.” She was supported by two crutches, and never begged or asked for anything, yet still those who passed her felt “obliged, even driven, to give her something.” She was a native of the streets, a tutelary presence to which offerings had to be made.

Charles Lamb wrote an essay in the 1820s, entitled “A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis,” which remarked upon one of those sporadic and inconclusive attempts by the civic authorities to “clear the streets”; there have through the centuries been proclamations and policies, but the beggars always return. Lamb in elegiac mood, however, anticipated their passing. “The mendicants of this great city were so many of her sights, her lions. I can no more spare them than I could the cries of London. No corner of the street is complete without them. They are as indispensable as the ballad-singer, and in their picturesque attire as ornamental as the signs of old London.” The beggar somehow embodies the city, perhaps because he or she is an eternal type; like the games and songs of children, endlessly recurrent. As Lamb suggests, the beggar “is the only man in the universe who is not obliged to study appearances. The ups and downs of the world concern him no longer.” Beyond the fleeting appearances of the world he represents unchanging identity. So beggars became “the standing morals, emblems, mementoes, dial-mottos, the spital sermons, the books for children, the salutary checks and pauses to the high and rushing tide of greasy citizenry—look upon that poor and broken bankrupt there.” The example of the bankrupt is apposite; in a city devoted to the pursuit of money there is a dignity to be derived from complete impoverishment, and in his rags the beggar was a standing reproach to those intent upon “appearances.”

By the mid-century, when all forms of urban existence were under intense scrutiny, the beggar became the object of research and record. The growth of social control and system in mid-Victorian London, for example, covered the phenomenon of beggary. A “Mendicity Society” was established in Red Lion Square, where all the beggars of the metropolis were classified and described. Charles Dickens was in many respects a generous benefactor to the poor, but he was never slow to “report” an apparently shamming beggar, or begging-letter writer, to the society.

Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytic Engine and “father of the computer” as well as the author of Tables of Logarithms, made a systematic study of London beggars. He records that, walking home “from the hot rooms of an evening party” he was often followed “through a drizzling rain” by “a half-clad miserable female, with an infant in her arms and sometimes accompanied by another just able to walk” begging for a little charity. He asked for details of their circumstances, and discovered that they lied to him. He was once introduced, in a dense fog, to “a pale emaciated man” who in the words of the owner of a common lodging house “has tasted nothing during the last two days but water from the pump on the opposite side of the street.” Babbage gave him some clothes and a little money, and the young man said that he was about to accept a situation “of steward in a small West Indiaman.” But again he was lying. “He had been living riotously at some public-house in another quarter, and had been continually drunk.” So Charles Babbage brought him before the magistrates. He was remanded for a week, duly lectured and discharged.

What are we to make of these examples of London beggars? They were the outcasts of the city, first seen in drizzling rain or dense fog like exhalations of the lead and stone. They lived upon the margins of existence and, in all cases, seemed doomed to an early death. The stages of emaciation and drunkenness, in the young man, followed quickly upon one another. They were persistent cheats and liars because they had no connection with the ordered and comfortable society which Babbage represented; their reality was so precarious that they had nothing left to lose. They were living in a different state of human existence. Only London could harbour them.

One fear behind these attempts at survey and statistic was that which touched upon the most primitive impulse. What if the beggars were multiplying out of control? “The crop,” one late nineteenth-century writer put it, “has kept pace with the increase of the population.” That was the great fear, the engendering of a species clinging so closely to London that it could not be distinguished or removed from it. It was also feared that the changes in urban society would reproduce themselves in the nature of beggary itself, so that, as Blanchard Jerrold put it, “the cheat has developed, the vagrant has become a systematic traveller, the beggar has a hundred stories … which the rascal of old could not employ.” There were “disaster beggars,” for example, which included “shipwrecked mariners, blown up miners, burnt out tradesmen, and lucifer droppers.” The unfortunate mariner “is familiar to the London public in connection with rudely executed paintings representing either a ship wreck, or more commonly the destruction of a boat by a whale in the North Seas. This painting they spread upon the pavement, fixing it at the corners, if the day be windy, with stones.” There were generally two men in attendance, and in most cases one of them had lost an arm or a leg. Curiously enough, the nineteenth-century handbooks on beggary are very much like their sixteenth-century counterparts; there is the same emphasis upon the dramatic ability of the beggar, together with the repertoire of his or her favourite tricks and dodges. It is almost as if a separate race had indeed perpetuated itself.

Like any native population they had their particular beats or districts, and were identified by such. There were the “Pye street beggars” and the “St. Giles beggars” while individuals did their own particular “runs.” “I always keep on this side of Tottenham Court Road,” a blind beggar confided to an investigator in the 1850s. “I never go over the road; my dog knows that. I am going down there. That’s Chenies-street. Oh, I know where I am; next turning to the right is Alfred-street, the next to the left is Francis-street, and when I get to the end of that the dog will stop.” So London can be mapped out through routes of supplication.

The beggars also learned the temperament of their fellow dwellers in the city. The rich and the middle class gave nothing at all, on the assumption that all beggars were impostors; this was of course the theme of official and quasi-official reports, which they willingly and gladly accepted. In a city beginning to be ruled by system, systematic prejudice also emerged. “If the power of reasoning were universally allotted to mankind,” wrote John Binny, the author of Thieves and Swindlers, “there would be a poor chance for the professional beggar.” The more affluent sort of tradesmen were also immune to appeal. But beggars were successful “amongst tradesmen of the middle class, and among the poor working people.” Their particular benefactors were the wives of working men, which corresponds to the testimony of others that the London poor were charitable to the poor whose need was greater than their own. It suggests also that, contrary to public opinion, not all beggars were impostors; there were some who summoned up fellow feeling.

By the end of the nineteenth century the beggars complained that their lives and careers were being threatened by the twin forces of the new police and the Mendicity Society, but there is no sure way of discovering whether their numbers were significantly diminished. Certainly contemporary statistics and descriptions would suggest that they were still “swarming,” to employ a favourite term, over the metropolis. Indeed it would be sensible to suggest that, the larger the population, the greater the number of beggars.

Memoirs of the early twentieth century do not report bands or troupes of beggars, but specific individuals who customarily made a pretence of selling matches or lozenges as a cover for begging. They were required to own a “hawker’s licence,” which cost five shillings a year, and then they selected their “patch.” One, on the corner of the West End Lane and Finchley Road, used to wind up a gramophone; another used to wander along Corbyn Road with a single box of matches; there was an organ-grinder called “Shorty” who used to “work” Whitechapel and the Commercial Road; there was Mr. Matthewman who used to sit outside Finchley Road Underground Station with a “pedlar’s pack” and a tin mug. These are all stray cases, but they impart the flavour of London begging between the wars. The author of London’s Underworld, Thomas Holmes, remarks: “it is all so pitiful, it is too much for me, for sometimes I feel that I am living with them, tramping with them, sleeping with them, eating with them; I become as one of them.” It is the sensation of vertigo, of being drawn to the edge of the precipice in order to throw oneself down. How easy it must be to become one of them, and willingly to go under. This is the other possibility which the city affords. It offers freedom from ordinary cares, and all the evidence suggests that many beggars actually enjoyed their liberty to wander and to watch the world.

The sellers of bootlaces and matches have gone and in their place, in the twenty-first century, have come “the homeless” who sleep in doorways; they carry their blankets with them as a token of their status. Some of them have all the characteristics of their predecessors; they are slow-witted, or drunken, or in some other way disabled from leading an “ordinary” existence. Others are shrewd and quick-witted, and not unwilling to practise the old arts of shamming. But such cases, perhaps, form the minority. Others find that they are genuinely unable to cope with the demands of the city; they fear the world too much, or find it difficult to acquire friends and form relationships. What will the world of London seem to them then? It becomes a place which the dispossessed and homeless of all ages have experienced: a maze of suspicion, aggression and small insults.

The vagrants have always had to accommodate themselves to the hardness and incuriosity of Londoners. In his poem “The Approach to St. Paul’s” James Thomson is jostled by anxious crowds whose

heart and brain

Were so absorbed in dreams of Mammon-gain

That they could spare no time to look upon—

To look upon what? Those who had fallen along the way. It happens “only in so large a place as London,” Samuel Johnson suggests, “where people are not known.”

This unseen world exists still in the early twenty-first century, although it has changed its outward form. The close-packed tenements of Stepney have gone, but the high-rise estates have taken their place. The “hereditary casuals” have been replaced by those seeking “benefit.” The shelters of London have become the homes of the dispossessed, marked by what Honor Marshall describes in Twilight London as “mental disorder, family disruption, in particular the broken marriage; chronic ill health, recidivism, prostitution, alcoholism.” In Wellclose Square there was a mission designed to harbour “the people nobody wants,” the rejected and the discarded who would otherwise simply fade into the streets. They fade because nobody sees them. There are certain busy places of London, like the forecourt of Charing Cross Station, where lines of people queue for soup from a Salvation Army mobile canteen; but for the crowds hurrying past them, it is as if they were not there at all. A beggar can lie immobile among happy crowds of people drinking outside a pub, unacknowledged and unregarded. In turn these dispossessed people gradually lose all contact with the external world; and in London it is easier to go under than in any other part of the country. A recent survey of a night shelter in central London, reported in No Way Home by S. Randall, revealed that “four fifths of young people … were from outside London and most were recent arrivals”; the city is, as ever, voracious. A quarter had been “in care,” half had already “slept rough,” and nearly three-quarters “did not know where they were going next.” They were characteristically in ill health, with inadequate clothing and no money. This night shelter was at Centre-point, beside the site of the old rookery of St. Giles where previous migrants to London had lived in rags.

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