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Wrong Side of the River: London's disreputable - page 6 / 25





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organized crime. Pamphleteers portrayed a Mafia-type underworld staffed by the

vagrant poor who lived on the labor of the respectable members of the community, either stealing or forcing citizens to give alms, and who, in spreading fear and disorder, posed a major threat to public order and safety. The special lure that the underworld had is evidenced by a whole literature of pamphlets dealing with rogues, vagabonds, and cony-catchers which became popular in the sixteenth and throughout the following century. Writers of this so-called rogue literature -- the most popular of whom was Robert Greene -- generally concluded that unless measures were promptly taken (the publicist usually

had his own recipe), immorality and anarchy would destroy the commonwealth.29 In any event, it is certainly the case that Southwark's distinctly low-brow population, the traditional privileged status of the borough (even after the City gained jurisdiction over the area, it was said that any wanted man had only to cross the river to find refuge),30 and the existence of a thriving criminal underworld there were all intertwined in the popular mind; Kent Street, Newington, and other areas around the borough had the reputation of being thick with thieves. Robert Greene, in The Second Part of Cony-Catching

(1591), describes a fraternity of "nips and foists" [cutpurses and pickpockets] who met weekly at the Kent Street house of Laurence Pickering -- "King of Cutpurses" and brother-in-law of no less a personage than Bull the Tyburn hangman -- where, amidst general feasting and merrymaking, serious items of news were exchanged regarding likely "prospects". The places of amusement, especially, provided ample opportunity for such individuals to exercise their trade on the unwary: "at the gaze of an interlude, or the bear-baiting at Paris Garden, or some other place of throng -- picked shall be his purse, and his money lost in a moment." Furthermore, because it was a suburb of dealers and small workshops which generally escaped the supervision of the authorities across the river, it was known as a place to dispose of stolen goods, especially those made of metal or leather. When Thomas Harman's great copper cauldron, "stamped with [his] cognizance of arms," was stolen from his back yard, his first action was to send one of his men to London, "and there [give] warning in Southwark, Kent Street, and Barmesey Street, to all the tinkers there dwelling, that if any such cauldron came thither to be sold, the bringer thereof

should be stayed."31

The Privy Council's Order of 1596 concerning the suburbs (discussed above) touches on all of these problems -- poverty, vagrancy, overcrowding, danger of contagion, crime. One additional point it particularly stresses, though, is the fear of disorder; if Southwark's population growth created an overcrowded suburb, the make-up of that population created a disorderly one. The borough's reputation for lawlessness was due not only to the number of "masterless men" who resided there, but also to the prevalence of apprentices, who, called out by their traditional rallying cry of "Clubs!", were prone to burst the bonds of occupational restraint and run riot, particularly on holidays and festivals. Sometimes, their activities were relatively harmless: in October 1582, the alderman was called upon to examine "certayn lewde persons who the last night dyd vearye dysorderlye dysguyse them selves and went up & downe the streete in the borough of Sowthworke allmost

starke naked, with theyre swordes drawen in theyre handes, makinge great noyses, shootinges and cryeinges to the great dysquyetinge of the inhabytantes theare, being then most of them at reste."32 Frequently, however, their activities were more destructive. Street brawls were common, and Frederick, Duke of Wirtemberg,  reported incidents of attacks upon foreigners carried out by "street-boys and apprentices."33 There were, too, the traditional Shrove Tuesday disturbances, which in March 1617, resulted in the destruction of a playhouse and several victualling houses and brothels north of the river.34 Nor were the activities of

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