Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Beggars CAN Be Choosers!

Book Review:
Hitchcock, Timothy.  Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London, 2nd edition paperback.  London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007.

Beggars can, indeed, be choosers.  Were beggars and the beggarly poor of eighteenth-century London, filthy sellers of ballads or bodies, shoe blacks, chimney sweeps, cinder sifters, errand boys, criers, or hawkers, active social agents?  Timothy Hitchcock explored the often misunderstood, urbanizing, and fast-paced London of this time starting with the bottom up to describe the poor as agents of choice.  He stated his purpose in writing Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London as an attempt to define the lower level of London society.  He wanted to tell who they were and where they slept, with little money and no connections – yet capable of making choices that determined their fate.  In his view, they even determined the future of London society.

Hitchcock spoke from experience.  This book stemmed from his personal exploration of human endurance and compassion.  For a decade, he hitchhiked on two continents.  He knew what it was to be hungry, to sleep rough, to live the poor life.  After these various personal experiences, he undertook a challenge to explore the paucity of records relating to the nameless portion of society.  Hitchcock performed this task admirably, producing a scholarly and literary work with London-based manuscript sources, the Old Bailey proceedings, ballads, poems, newspapers, novels, and various prints.

Old Bailey proceedings and other legal records generally indicated male defendants.  As Hitchcock makes clear, this was only a small percentage of the London beggar population.  London society understood females to be the weaker sex, the most likely sexual demographic to become beggars.  They often had children to feed, were often deserted by the men that they depended upon for sustenance, and more in need of support.  So, legal records reflected society’s condemnation of “worthless” male vagrants who, in their eyes, merely took advantage of poor laws and charity.  Matthew Martin’s 1796 Mendicity Enquiry Office records showed that of 2,000 beggars on that list, only 197 were male.  In contrast, of those arrested, over forty percent were male.  One Old Bailey record from 1744 demonstrated that Joseph Haughton tried to provide a female defendant with a character witness, but discredited himself when he admitted to being a “ballad-singer,” one of the pauper professions.  Women occupied the backstreets almost naturally and contributed to the abundance of charity and popular literature which Hitchcock used in this book.
In fact, accessibility stands as the greatest asset to his book.  Many of the stories told come from the poor themselves, not simply through the legal records, but from stories told by the beggars.  Hitchcock’s book, while originating from the Old Bailey online project, evolved into a smoother production that seemed more like literature than history.  He quotes from many popular sources, including John Gay’s Trivia, stories by Richard Steele, ballads by Henry Carey, and poems by Christopher Smart.  Francis Place spoke of poor women of Limehouse, St. Catherine’s Lane, and Rosemary Lane in the East End in personal descriptions.

Pictures of poor London women accompanied these many literary sources, provided by William Hogarth, certainly, but also Paul Sandby, Thomas Gainesborough, and others – thirty-nine of them in all.   Prostitutes similar to “Raggety Madge,” Mary Long, and Sarah Robinson in St. Giles are reflected in the many prints that Hitchcock provides.  One print showed a spirited girl riding a statue of a horse in Charing Cross, celebrating two hapless men in the pillory below.

Hitchcock showed that the poor took advantage of every opportunity.  The anti-Catholic sentiments expressed in the Gordon Riots in 1780 generated the use of similar tactics in the beggarly population.  When one showed up at Richard Stone’s, pulled off his hat, and said, ”pray remember the Protestant religion,” he immediately showed his impiety by demanding three times as much as he was given.  Scripture words became the most common type of language used by beggars to induce the benefits of Christian charity.  Humor and self-deprecation were also useful.

Still, were these attributes of London’s poor any more apparent than other eighteenth-century European towns?  He provided no data for comparison.  More so, Hitchcock desired to provide a history of the individual poor on the streets of London, an attempt to recover their lives and understand their experiences and options.  He also desired to make a point – that the members of London’s poor were able to hold their own, and more so, to influence the path of history.  Whether Hitchcock was successful or not remains to be seen.  He did show that Mary Cut-and-Come-Again maintained a sense of self-worth and independence, but her defiling of the justice system gained her only a date with the gallows.  The colorful method she used to show this defiance successfully illustrated her enormous self-worth.  Her public disrobing did not, however, suggest a successful strategy.  Most of the accounts were probably quite similar.  A literary history of the poor, Hitchcock created.  Whether that history compared in any way to another demographic or had an effect on the evolution of society as a whole was not so clear.

Another vexing comparison with con-artists of the modern day came from “a very singular man indeed,” Paul Patrick Kearney (131).  Hitchcock focused sharply on Kearney, who drained every last shilling that he could from the “murdering place” of a workhouse in St. Dionis Backchurch parish on Rose Lane (130).  After numerous hypochondriacal complaints of infirmity, disease, and parish corruption added to the numerous failed attempts at work and repeated extortions, he finally left.  While he drained the parish dry of funds for years, one final extortion of 40 shillings bought the parish’s freedom from Kearney.  Again, Hitchcock told that this was not unusual.  Indeed, almost everyone of adult age today has met someone like this.  It was just human nature at its worst.

Hitchcock told a colorful tale, but perhaps he did little more than this as far as historicity goes.  As a clump of popular, yet vulgar and ribald tales, his book reflected its origins as a mere collection, compiled typologically from numerous sources.  He successfully described London poor life in great detail, but lost his scholarly mantle in joyful populism.  His descriptions of prostitutes offering themselves in alleys, vagrants sleeping in obscure, dirty warmth, bunking in a watchhouse, or taking advantage of holiday compassion could be found anywhere.  Today, as then, these guys carry signs.  Beggars who offered work for charity on London streets seem rather familiar to anyone waiting at a stoplight in any urban area today.  Furthermore, Hitchcock’s assessment of Christmas begging as more prevalent in the eighteenth century than today seems rather arbitrary, as he was prone to be from time to time.

Hitchcock said it best, “a literary experiment that self-consciously plays with history as a genre” (233).  That phrase described this book perfectly.  Bold and daring, Hitchcock tried to mix text with context.  He experimented on the historical method itself.  Down and Out reads as wonderfully intriguing and occasionally shocking – tales of women showing themselves and beggars sleeping rough under the bulks.  Even the use of scripture to gain a handout, unlike the “truly pious” William McNamee, was not unusual among the world’s or today’s poor.  As a bold, new experiment, whether it demonstrates that the poor had any more significance in London than in any other town of the same time period remains to be seen.  The data required further analysis.  On the whole, Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London was most entertaining.  Much value can and has been gained from Hitchcock’s book and from the project that spawned it.  Hopefully, more will come.