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Wrong Side of the River: London's disreputable - page 5 / 25





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of the "multitudes of poor in base tenements and houses of unlawfull and disorderly resort in the suburbs" led to repeated efforts -- largely in vain -- by the government to check unrestrained building. A royal proclamation of 1580 forbade "any new buildings within three miles of the gates of the City"; a statute of 1593 went a step further, and directed against "converting great houses into several tenements"; and in 1603 a proclamation called for the outright razing of houses and rooms in the suburbs of London, primarily as a precaution against the spread of plague by  "dissolute and idle persons."24 Concern over the new slums seems to have reached a peak in James I's reign, during which time royal proclamations for the restraint of building in and around London averaged about one every other year. In spite of

these efforts, however, Southwark remained a predominantly poor and crowded area, and for this reason proved to be an ideal breeding ground for plague during the outbreaks of 1577-78, 1603, 1625, 1635, 1636-37, and 1641.

Hand in hand with poverty, of course, went vagrancy. Vagrants were generally considered to be willfully idle to avoid honest labor, men who "used to loyter, and woulde not worke." In the official view, the only occupations such people engaged in were as

"Dauncers, Fydlers and Minstrels, Diceplayers, Maskers, Fencers, Bearewardes, Theeves, Common Players in Enterludes, Cutpurses, Cosiners, Maisterlesse servauntes, Jugglers, Roges, sturdye Beggers, &c."25 More realistically, vagrants were often demobilized soldiers, generally penniless, starving and desperate. In 1550 the presence in London of soldiers demobilized after the war with France was so unsettling that it was decided that two aldermen should ride around the City each night during the hours of two and five in the morning to see that the common watches were doing their duty; by 1589 vagrancy was so widespread a problem that the government ordered that provost marshals be appointed in every county. The situation in Southwark was serious enough that in 1596 the Court of Aldermen, spurred on by the Privy Council, appointed William Cleybrooke as Marshal for the borough to apprehend "all manner of rogues, beggars, idle and vagrant persons within the Borough of Southwark and the liberties thereof."26 There was, too, the ever-present official view -- however unjustified in reality -- that vagabonds were seditious and rebellious, a threat to the very existence of the state. After all, as A.L. Beier suggests, an Anabaptist, a White Rose conspirator, a peasant rebel, or a Catholic plotter might easily

go about in the guise of a vagrant. Southwark, again, was not immune to such associations. In a 1594 letter to William Waad, William Gardiner reported on his search for "masterless men, out of service -- Irishmen, Papists, and such like, lately come from beyond the sea, and from the service of her Majesty's enemies." He stated that he had only apprehended four suspects, but that he was "informed by the constables and other inhabitants that they abide for the most part about Southwark, where they give much trouble."27 It is hardly surprising that proclamations issued over the course of the late

Tudor and early Stuart reigns which command vagabonds to leave London occur in numbers suggestive of a national campaign.28

The official view that the preponderance of vagrants in London in general, and in Southwark in particular, was a threat to the existing political order probably did not greatly contribute to popular censure of the southern borough. Or, if it did, it was seen as a comparatively minor threat compared to the social and moral menace that vagrancy entailed. It is certainly the latter peril which is most emphasized in the wealth of contemporary comment produced by preachers, ballad- makers, pamphleteers, and even the government. In the popular view, men of no fixed address were always assumed to be potential if not actual thieves. Indeed, vagrancy was virtually synonymous with roguery and even

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