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Wrong Side of the River: London's disreputable - page 7 / 25





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the disorderly always indiscriminate: on 11 June 1592 a

street riot began in Bermondsey Street and Blackfriars, sparked by what was seen as the unjust imprisonment of a feltmonger's apprentice in the Marshalsea prison.35 Most alarming of all to official eyes, however, were politically motivated riots. On 6 May 1640, the day after Parliament had been dissolved, placards suddenly appeared throughout the

City urging the apprentices to rise and free the land from the rule of the bishops. At a great public meeting on St. George's Fields,36 the City apprentices and the sailors and dockhands, now idle through lack of trade, joined up with the glovers, tanners, and brewery workers of Bermondsey and Southwark who were on holiday for the May Day celebrations to hunt "Laud, the fox" [Archbishop William Laud]. Five hundred of this "rude rabble from Southwark" marched on Lambeth Palace, only to find that their victim had escaped. On the night of 14 May they broke open the prisons, and there was also a

move to attack the house of the Earl of Arundel, the recent commander of the army against the Scots, because (it was said) he had mounted guns in his gardens on the north bank of the Thames and turned them in the direction of the rioters' assembly place on St. George's Fields. Meanwhile, the night watch aroused the whole City, urging them to take up arms to

preserve their lives and property. As a result of the incident, the king issued a proclamation "for the repressing and punishing of the late Rebellious and Traiterous assemblies in Lambeth, Southwark, and other places adjoyning." Southwark, however, continued to be a haven for riotous activities, including political disturbances. Its lasting tradition as a place of assembly for the common people was exemplified more than a century later in the famous "massacre of St. George's Fields" in the Wilkite disorders.37

With its reputation for lawlessness and civil disorder, it is no coincidence that the district of Southwark had no less than five prisons -- the Clink, the Compter, the King's Bench, the Marshalsea, and the White Lion. On the other hand, the well-known inefficiency of officers of the law makes it unlikely that their presence in the borough assuaged the fears of the

rest of the London populace. Indeed, there are plenty of well- authenticated documents and incidents to prove that Dogberry, Elbow and Dull may have been the most realistic characters that Shakespeare ever drew, and we encounter their like again and again in drama and literature of the day. A letter from William Cecil, Lord Burghley to Sir Francis

Walsingham, describing the watches set to apprehend three members of Babington's conspiracy in 1586, points its own moral. While on the road to London, Burghley observed groups of watchmen standing near each village, by the roadside or

under a shed; he stopped near one group and asked why they were watching, and received the reply, "To take three young men." When asked how they should know these men, they answered, "By intelligence of their favour," and being asked what that meant, "Marry," said they, "one hath a hooked nose." Burghley demanded whether they had any more

information about the suspects, but received only a cheerful "No." He concludes his letter to Walsingham with a disgusted comment on the "negligence of the Justices in appointing such silly men."38 If this watch was set for a conspirator against the life of the queen, even excepting law enforcement at the grass roots level, how much less vigilance may we expect in regards to day-to-day municipal lawlessness? Nor is it certain, by any means, that the existence of the South London prisons did not enhance rather than assuage the borough's reputation for unruliness. The inmates of these places tended to be rowdy and create problems which the local officials could scarcely solve, and violence was never very far from the surface. In May 1639, the poor prisoners on the Common Side of the Marshalsea rebelled when the under-marshal ordered them not to abuse

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