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Wrong Side of the River: London's disreputable - page 12 / 25





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hypocrisy of respectable society.54 Undoubtedly, not all of the employment arranged in alehouses

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was strictly legal, and there are numerous cases of petty crime being planned or initiated there. However, one must be wary

of exaggerating -- as critics of these establishments certainly did -- the importance of the alehouse as a center of organized

criminality. Despite allegations by Robert Greene, Thomas Harman, Thomas Dekker, and others that tippling houses were

often the full-time headquarters for professional gangs of criminals, almost all of the available evidence would indicate that

the criminal activity centered on alehouses was amateur, small-scale, and sporadic.55 At the other extreme, alehouses could

sometimes (though rarely) be the scene of more lawful activity: when, in November 1688, a young German boy was

apprehended in the borough for the possession of "fire-balls" (an incendiary), it was determined that he should be brought

before the Justice in St. Olave's parish for questioning; when it was discovered that the Justice was not at home, and had

instead gone to a nearby alehouse, the prisoner was promptly carried thither, where (as it seems) the examination took


Perhaps the most serious charge against alehouses, however, was that it bred sedition and opposition to Church and State.

"When the drunkard," John Downame cried, "is seated upon the ale-bench and has got himself between the cup and the wall

he presently becomes a reprover of magistrates, a controller of the state, a murmurer and repiner against the best established

government."57 In spite of this feared threat to the political order, however, and its implied connection with the kind of

political agitation which typically manifested itself in the Surrey fields, the alehouse never really became a medium for

mobilizing popular radicalism. Admittedly, a few of the more extreme sects like the Ranters may have met in taverns in the

1650s, and certainly in the turbulent days of the constitutional crisis of 1640-42 alehouses were alive with the latest political

gossip; in December 1641 it was reported that "every tinker and tapster called for justice" against the king. But it would be

dangerous to give too much credence to Henry Wilkinson's claim in 1646 that "alehouses generally

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are the Devil's castles, the meeting places of malignants and sectaries."58 In general, the Puritans' fears about the threat

posed by the alehouse to respectable society, to public order, and to established cultural and political values were indeed

exaggerated, although the basis for their assumptions -- the proliferation of establishments and the kinds of activities that

went on there -- remained, in Southwark as much as elsewhere. And despite the beginning of statutory regulation of

alehouses since the time of the borough's incorporation and more effective administrative control over drinking

establishments outside the metropolis, attempts by the City (and, more sporadically, suburban authorities) to tighten up the

licensing system and to suppress unlicensed and disorderly premises remained rather ineffectual until the early eighteenth


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