Sturdy Beggars, Crossbiters and Thieves

by K.J. Maitland

During the reigns of Elizabeth and James, scores of sensational books and pamphlets such as A Caveat for Common Cursetors, 1567 by Thomas Harman, warned the naive visitor of the perils of falling prey to thieves and confidence tricksters in the wicked cities. And while some of the cant words for the various types of thieves that Harman and others listed may have been the inventions of the authors, their scams were well known to the courts.

In London, St Paul’s Cathedral was notorious for the tricksters, or crossbiters, who preyed on the gullible there, fleecing them with ancient scams like thimble-rig – the three cups trick – or steering them into rigged gaming houses. Playhouses, bear-baiting rings and even the London law-courts were the hunting grounds of nips or nippers, children trained by older gang members using purses which had been strung on lines rigged with bells, until they could steal the contents without making a sound. A common trick where pickpockets operated right under the noses of the authorities was for a gang member to call out to the crowd to check their valuables because there were cutpurses in the area. This immediately had people patting their hips, or where ever they had concealed their purses, to check that they were still safe, showing the sharp-eyed thieves exactly where to strike.

Gangs of professional criminals operated in most cities. In Bristol in 1606, where my novel The Drowned City is set, thieves, cut-throats and beggars occupied the semi-ruined castle, which was owned by the Crown. The civil authorities had no jurisdiction over it, because it was a royal property. Sir John Stafford had been appointed constable of Bristol Castle in 1602, but he had delegated all responsibility to a corrupt deputy who had permitted 49 families, around 240 people, to take up residence in the castle from where they preyed on the local people. In March of that year, the mayor petitioned Elizabeth to have Stafford removed, but no action was taken, and the thieves continued to operate knowing once they were safely back inside the castle, the law could not touch them.

Anything that could be stolen and sold, from bees to buckets, was fair game to Elizabethan and Jacobean thieves. Opportunists snatched clothes left out to dry and chickens from gardens, but other thefts were elaborately planned. One man regularly claimed to be renting a room for his master, and would ‘borrow’ sheets and pillowcases from the new landlady to move his master’s possessions, which he sold. Bed linen was stolen by ‘anglers’ too. Thieves dangled hooks on the end of rods through the windows of houses and ‘fished’ for whatever they could catch – a jug, necklace or a shirt. Some worked at night, others in daylight, fishing through upper casements at the back of the house, when the household were occupied downstairs.

Thieves had their own specialties such as bat-fowling. They would target a shop where only one apprentice was serving, as the light was fading, but before the lamps were lit. A respectably-dressed woman or elderly man, would pretend to have dropped something small and valuable in the street outside and ask the apprentice to bring a lantern for them to see by. The thief would either grab what they could while the light was being fetched, or would wait until the apprentice returned and beg them to come outside to help look, keeping them occupied, while their accomplice sneaked into the shop.

Dishonest innkeepers, chamber maids, thieves and fortune-tellers often worked together to defraud visitors. The landlord or chamber maid would chat to the guest to discover a few pieces of personal information. They would also make it easy for the thief to get inside to rob him. They then advised the victim to consult a fortune-teller who would prove she had ‘the gift’ by revealing the personal information which had been fed to her by the staff. He would pay her to ‘divine’ where his stolen possessions were, usually in the hands of a fence, who would sell them back to him. Since consulting a diviner was illegal, the victim dared not complain.

But the scourge of towns and villages was the horse thief or 'prigger'. A common stunt was for priggers to steal a horse, dye it and then sell it back to the same unsuspecting owner who was now in need of a mount. Some priggers used the ancient blacksmith’s trick of the two oils – a drawing or calling oil which would attract and calm horses, and a jading oil that would repel them. The drawing oil could be used to catch a horse running loose in a field, because the smell would attract the animal from a long way off or could make a horse quietly follow a stranger out of a stable without resisting and arousing attention. Other priggers used jading oils to steal travellers’ horses and even their carts out on the open road. The thieves sprinkled these repellent oils or powders onto the track or a tree trunk, causing a horse to stop dead at that spot or veer aside straight into an ambush.

The law requiring written proof of ownership in order to sell a horse was intended to prevent the trade in stolen animals. But this only generated a whole new opportunity for forgers or 'jarkmen'. There was already a flourishing black-market industry in producing forged travel papers, and in fake licences to beg or to work as a street entertainer. The entertainers’ licences had to be signed by two Justices of the Peace. The cost of bribing clerks and paying fees, in addition to the time involved, was more than most could afford, so despite the severe penalties, it was easier and cheaper to pay for a forgery, and beggars too used fake licences.

Beggars or vagabonds were as much a problem to the authorities as the thieves. In 1593, William Lambarde complained that the country was being ‘overspread with swarms of unpunished idle rogues and counterfeit soldiers.’ By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, the vagrancy laws which had allowed beggars over the age of 14 to be whipped and have an inch-wide hole burned through the cartilage of their ear, had been replaced with a series of Poor Law Acts compelling parishes to house the poor and infirm. The Act of 1601 required overseers in every parish to buy stocks of hemp, flax, iron and other materials to provide work for the ‘sturdy’ poor. Those who did not produce work of sufficient standard or quantity would receive no money and risked being sent to a house of correction. But many of Lambarde’s ‘idle rogues’ did not find the prospect of compulsory labour appealing and continued to beg.

Licences to beg were granted to discharged or wounded soldiers; seafarers trying to fund their journey home; or those who had been held captive by ‘foreign infidels’, and fake beggars took advantage of this. 'Rufflers' claimed to be discharged soldiers. Others, pretending to be mariners, told lurid tales of being shipwrecked or tortured by blood-thirsty pirates. And some on-lookers may have felt the tales themselves were entertaining enough to warrant a coin.

'Mumpers' were beggars who feigned disability or disaster to obtain money. They usually begged aggressively, often in groups, intimidating female servants or the elderly, and becoming violent if they were refused. 'Abram-men' specialised in feigning madness, amusing the crowd with bizarre dances, nonsensical songs or pretending to believe they were King Arthur, and were tossed a few coins for making people laugh, this being a time when people would pay to see the patients in Bedlam for entertainment. But some Abram-men worked in criminal gangs, providing distraction while purses were cut or a house was burgled.

But fake beggars and thieves did not only operate in the wicked cities, you were just as likely to be robbed on the highways. A common trick was to feign injury, collapsing in front of a traveller. If the traveller stopped to help, and, often they were forced to stop to avoid their horse crushing the person, they would be robbed. But the creature most feared on a lonely road was the highwayman. One of the most notorious was Gamaliel Ratsey, known as the hobgoblin, because of his grotesque mask. It was rumoured he could steal two hundred pounds from his victims in a single night. His reputation grew after he was arrested and escaped by walking out of the prison under the very nose of his gaolers. Ratsey had a great sense of humour and when was finally hanged in 1605, he forced the executioner and crowd to wait in the rain while he spoke at length to the sheriff. He finally admitted that he did not want to tell the sheriff anything, but he had seen the storm approaching and wanted to watch everyone get soaked!