Today (October 24) in London History – False Beggars, 1380

2,000 Years of London having an eye for the main chance, legally and illegally – this Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Douglas. Doctor Douglas Stevenson. Penny’s father. Remember him well. Remember him ever so fondly. 

And you’re going to need some footnotes for that introduction, so here you go. Penny is Mary’s best friend. Mary, as many of you will know, is my little English rose. 

Penny grew up in Bradford. In Yorkshire. She and Mary met at Arts, the London drama school where they trained as dancers.

Douglas – Doctor Stevenson – Penny’s much-loved dad was a Scot. Fond of his pipe and his two fingers of malt whiskey of an evening.

Douglas wasn’t fond of London. 

Bradford was as far south as he was willing to venture. Ask him about London, he’d have a puff on his pipe and a sip of his Glenfiddich and let you know that, “London, they’re all after your money down there.”

Well, Douglas wasn’t alone in that appraisal. That charge, with some justification, has been levelled against London from the year dot.

Right from London’s earliest beginnings. Archaeologists have found some 400 letters written on wax tablets –written by London’s first citizens. Almost all of them are hard as nails – business communications. One of the oldest – it’s been dated to possibly the first century and at the latest 160 C.E. – was written by Rufus, son of Callisunus. It’s date-lined Londinio. Rufus says, “Greeting to Epillicus and all his fellows. I believe you know I am very well. If you have made the list, please send. Do you look after everything carefully. See that thou turnest that slave girl into cash.”

You make sure you turn that slave girl into cash. It doesn’t get any more hard-headed than that. 

And that chord – make money, lots of it – do business – survival of the fittest – prey on the weak and the unsuspecting and country bumpkins should they come your way – that chord is sounded again and again in the annals of the London experience.

It runs like a gold thread down through English Literature. 

It’s pretty much the entire thrust of the famous mediaeval poem London Lickpenny. We know the poem was written about 1410. We don’t know who the author was. 

That probably to modern ears unfamiliar word in the title – Lickpenny – was a 15th-century epithet for London. London licks up the pence that come near it. And there, in that title, you have in concentrated form, the gist of the poem. A poor, simple Kentish husbandman has a legal grievance, a well-founded legal grievance, he comes up to London seeking legal redress. And of course he doesn’t get it, wherever he turns, whichever court he turns up at – doesn’t get it because, as we hear, over and over, it’s the last line of just about every stanza – it’s a 16-stanza poem – in the last line of every stanza but one, the simple country clodhopper – way out of his depths – repines, “for lack of money I may not spede.”

And it’s not just that the law wants nothing to do with him because of his limited means, he’s accosted wherever he turns by London costers and sharpers. Sharpers is self-explanatory. A coster is a street seller. And because he’s got little or no money all of tempting commodities that are thrust in his face are also beyond his mean. So all those goodies for our Simple Simon are also just another torment. Would that were all. In the very first stanza he goes to a man of law in Westminster and says, “For Mary’s love, that holy saint, have pity on the poor, that would proceed. I would give silver but my purse is faint.” Well, the Westminster man of law has zero interest in doing anything for the Kentish bumpkin. And we hear it there for the first time – it’s the last line of the first stanza – For lack of money, I may not speed.

And sure enough, he almost instantly is hit up by a London thief. The thief doesn’t pick his pocket, he light-fingers the hood off the country bumpkin’s head. It’s right there, the first two lines of the second stanza: As I thrust through-out the throng Amonge them all, my hood was gone. It’s very crowded. He’s trying to get out. And a London thief separates him from his hood.

Much later in the poem he goes over to Cornhill, where a lot of stolen merchandise is being fenced, and sure enough “I saw where hang myne own hood That I had lost in Westminster among the throng. Some Londoner will sell the greenhorn his own property, them’s the breaks.  Simple Simon says, “To be mine own hood again, me thought it wrong.”

And at the end of the poem – wiser and poorer – he goes home to Kent. To his plow. He says, “Jesus save London…For he that lacketh money, with them he shall not speed.”

Well that’s London in 1410. 

Hop, skip and a jump three centuries forward and John Gay is warning us to be careful – if you’re a greenhorn, if you don’t watch your step, you’re fair game for London sharpers. The Poem is called Trivia – or The Art of Walking the Streets of London.

Gay says you’ve got to especially careful at night.

Here, by way of example, is a Gay word to the wise about Lincoln’s Inn Fields. And he adds, be very careful about linkmen – the promise they hold out is to guide you through the inky black streets of London with their link – their flaming torch – but very often they’re in the pay of roughs – muggers we’d say today – they don’t take you to safety, they take you straight into the maw of danger where you’ll separated from your purse and other valuables.

Here’s the stanza:

Where Lincoln’s-inn, wide space, is rail’d around,

Cross not with vent’rous step; there oft is found

The lurking thief, who, while the day-light shone,

Made the walls echo with his begging tone:

That crutch, which late compassion moved, shall wound

Thy bleeding head, and fell thee to the ground.

Though thou art tempted by the linkman’s call,

Yet trust him not along the lonely wall;


In the midway he’ll quench the flaming brand,

And share the booty with the pilf’ring band:—

Still keep the public streets, where oily rays,

Shot from the crystal lamp, o’erspread the ways.

What Gay underlines is that Londoners can’t be trusted. They’re quick-changed artists. They beg by day and thieve by night.

So that’s a cool twenty centuries of London sharp practice – from Rufus in Londinium to Douglas in Bradford twenty centuries later not wanting to have anything to do with London because “they’re all after your money down there.”

And, what do you know, it’s by way of a preamble. The main act is a tale that’s date-specific. Specific to this date, October 24th.

October 24th, 1380. Just a few years before Geoffrey Chaucer started writing the Canterbury Tales.

This is an item from the City of London Letter-Book. It’s titled False Beggars, 1380.

Here we go:

[reads the entry]

Well, we’ll leave John Warde and Richard Lynham – you see what a corrupting effect London has on people – John and Richard were a couple of innocent country boys from York and Somerset, they come to London and get led astray, anyway, we’ll leave John and Richard languishing in Newgate – and we hope repenting their ways – we’ll leave them and get to Today in London – here’s your recommendation – let’s go seriously off piste – to the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art and Natural History. The first all encompassing museum to open in London in over a century. And talk about quirky – you’ve got human hair, you’ve got the cabinet of monsters, you’ve got dead pets.

You’ve got an absinthe parlour and tastings, you’ve got Dodo bones and McDonalds Happy Meal Toys and mad women’s doodles. All in a Hackney basement.

You heard it first from London Walks. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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