Post-Medieval London, Pt. IV – Social History, contd.

Another in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …

Social History contd.

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From various accounts, it appears that the population of London was of the order of 60,000 in the 1520s; 80,000 in 1550; 120,000 in 1583; 200,000 in 1630; 460,000 in 1665; and 360,000 in 1666, after the “Great Plague”: it is evident that it took until 1550 for the population to recover following the “Black Death” of 1348-9.  The population of the large “East End” parish of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney in 1606-10  was estimated by the haberdasher and pioneer demographer John Graunt in 1663  to have been approximately 13280, based on the multiplication of the number of – non-plague – deaths of 145 by a factor of 32.    The death rate among native Londoners continued to exceed the birth rate, significantly so during outbreaks of Plague (note in this context that life expectancy in the city’s poorer  parishes was only 20-25, around half the national average, and that even that in the  wealthier parishes was only 30-35).    The city’s population could only be maintained and grown by immigration.  In 1541, 652 out of 3,433, or 19%, of assessments for tax purposes were of “aliens” or “strangers”; and in 1582, 1,358 out of 5,900, or 23%.  And in the parish of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney in 1606-10, 84 out of 2620, or 3%, of burials were of “immigrants”. 

Interestingly, persons of colour (“Blackmoors”) were present in some numbers in London by Tudor to Stuart times, and indeed may be  demonstrated  by surviving records  to have  come to constitute 5% of the population of the conspicuously ethically diverse parish of St Botolph-without-Aldgate.  Among them were John Blanke, a court-musician to  Prince Arthur’s –  and later King Henry VIII’s – wife Catherine of Aragon, possibly  originally from “Moorish” Spain; Reasonable Blackman, a silk-weaver of Southwark during the reign of Elizabeth I, possibly a refugee from the former Spanish Netherlands; Mary Fillis, a maid-servant to the Barker family of Mark Lane also in Elizabethan times, originally from Morocco, and a Muslim, who converted to Christianity; and Anne Cobbie, a “Tawny Moor with Soft Skin”, and  courtesan of Westminster,  in the Jacobean era. 

John Blanke (Westminster Tournament Roll)

Rather remarkably, there is a surviving portrayal of the aforementioned John Blanke – in  a turban, trumpeting – on the “Westminster Tournament Roll” of 1511, which resides in the Royal  College of Arms.  Elizabeth I wrote in 1596,  in an open letter to her  Lord Mayors: “[T]here are of late divers blackmoors brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already here too many, considering how God hath blessed this land with great increase of people of our own nation … , whereof many for want of service and means to set them on work fall to idleness and to great extremity. Her majesty’s pleasure therefore is that those kind of people should be sent forth of the land”.  She went on to write, in 1601, in a draft Royal Proclamation: “Whereas the Queen’s majesty … : hath given a special commandment that the said kind of people shall be avoided and discharged out of this her majesty’s realms; and to that end and purpose hath appointed Casper van Senden, merchant of Lubeck, for their speedy transportation … ”.     It appears, though, that this was proclamation was never actually acted upon, and that no deportations of persons of colour ever actually took place.

The Braun & Hogenberg map of London of 1572

The unprecedented rise in population in the (late) Tudor and Stuart periods made London one of the first true world-cities, alongside Madrid, Lisbon and Amsterdam, and was accompanied for the first time by significant growth beyond the old City wall, especially westward along the Thames towards Westminster.  The growth beyond the City wall took place  even despite the issuing of “Proclamation of Queen Elizabeth against new buildings in and about London”, in 1580; and of further such,  by the succeeding Stuart Kings.  The area between the Cities of London and Westminster became a particularly fashionable one in which to live in  the post-Medieval period.  Also at this time, the  many high-status Bishops’ Inns in the area were appropriated by the Crown, and either became Royal residences, or else  disbursed among the aristocracy.  These included those  of the Bishops of Ely and Lincoln on Holborn; those of the Bishops of Salisbury, Exeter, Bath & Wells, Llandaff, Chester and Worcester on the Strand; and that of the Archbishops of York on Whitehall, which became  Whitehall Palace.  Well-heeled  suburbs also began to nucleate around elegant purpose-built squares in the west-central districts of Covent Garden and Bloomsbury in the early to mid seventeenth century.

Administration and Governance

The   City of London  remained  at least in part self-governing, under the Corporation and its officials, namely the Mayor, Sheriffs, Aldermen and Common Councilmen.  And the Corporation continued to be responsible for the education of the populace, and the maintenance of the law. 


Benefactors continued to found educational establishments.    

Site of Christ’s Hospital School (Newgate Street)

Christ’s Hospital School was  originally founded by Edward VI  in 1552 on the site of the former conventual buildings of the Greyfriars Priory, subsequently  burned down in the Great Fire, and rebuilt, and eventually relocated to Horsham in Sussex in 1902.    The Merchant Taylors’ School was originally founded by  the Merchant Taylors’ Company in 1561, on the site of the former estate of the Dukes of Suffolk, and subsequently relocated to Northwood.  Gresham College was originally founded in 1597 through the benefaction of the financier Thomas Gresham, on the site of his house on Bishopsgate, and subsequently relocated initially to Gresham Street, and eventually  to Barnard’s Inn.  The  College of Physicians was originally founded in 1518, at Amen Corner, subsequently burned down in the Great Fire, and rebuilt, and eventually relocated to Regent’s Park.  The Choir School attached to Westminster Abbey was founded in the sixteenth century.

The Law

Arms of Inns of Court

The law of the land continued to be maintained locally; and legal training, to be provided by the Inns of Court.    “Revels”  are known to have been held on a number of occasions  for the entertainment of the lawyers and student-lawyers in the Inns, for example in 1561, 1594/5, 1616 and 1617/8; the famous lawyer, statesman, philosopher, “natural philosopher”, writer, and all-round Renaissance Man Francis Bacon (1561-1626) being involved with the organisation of the 1594/5 ones.  Note also that  Shakespeare’s plays were performed in his lifetime in certain of the Inns’ Halls, and that  “Twelfth Night” premiered in Middle Temple Hall   in 1602. 

The Inns of Court, incidentally, played a formative, if  little-known, role in the founding of the United States of America.   The aforementioned Francis Bacon, who was of those instrumental in the creation of the first English colonies in the Americas in the seventeenth century, and is  widely regarded as one of the “founding fathers” of the United States, received his legal training in Gray’s Inn.   Later, many of the court  officers  who worked on the establishment of the legal infrastructure in the colonies in  the period prior  to the Revolutionary War in the eighteenth century also received their initial training in the Inns (as noted by as William Taft, the sometime Chief Justice and President).  Some have even suggested that the principles of secession originated in the Inns.  Certainly, Peyton Randolph trained in Middle Temple, before going  on to become the first President of the Continental Congress in 1774; as did John Dickinson, before going on to help draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776; and John Rutledge, before going on to chair the committee that drafted  the Constitution in 1787.  And a number  of Templars were signatories to one or other, or both, of the aforementioned documents.

The law continued to be upheld through a judicial system that placed particular emphasis on punishment as a deterrent to crime.  The least serious or petty crimes continued to be  punishable by fines or corporal punishment; more serious ones by deportation to the colonies in the Americas, once founded, in the early seventeenth century  (deportation to Australia did not begin until after the loss of the colonies in the Americas in the American War of Independence in the late eighteenth century); and only the perceived most serious by capital punishment.  And imprisonment continued to be used essentially as an expedient rather than as a punishment per se.

Corporal punishment might include  the  use of the pillories and stocks, which restrained convicted criminals and allowed them to be harangued or to have missiles thrown at them by the general public (Daniel Defoe, who was  perceived to have been unjustly convicted, was garlanded with flowers).   It also might include the nailing of one’s ears to the pillory, as in the cases of John Daye and of an unnamed surgeon, who had been convicted of “seditious words”, the former “speaking of the Queen’s Highness”, and the latter “speaking of the preacher at the sermon at Paul’s Cross”, in 1553 (“and when they had stood onn the pillory 3 houres the nails were pulled out with a pair of pincers”).   Or whipping, sometimes “at a cartes arse”, as in the case  of Hugh Weaver, who had been convicted  of “misusing the mayor … and strykinge his officer”, in 1545.  In  1612, John Chamberlain wrote: “This last Sunday Moll Cut-purse, a notorious baggage (that used to go into man’s apparel and challenged the field of diverse gallants) was brought to [Paul’s Cross], where she wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but it is since doubted she was maudlin drunk. Being discovered to have tippled off three quarts of sack before she came to her penance”.  Moll Cut-purse, whose real name was Mary Frith, was  the model for Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton’s “The Roaring Girle”, written in 1611.

The former execution site on Tower Hill

Capital punishment might include  hanging, burning, or hanging, drawing and quartering.  Executions were  carried out in various parts of the city, most famously at Tower Hill and West Smithfield, and also at Tyburn.    Among those executed at Tower Hill were John Fisher, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Wyatt the Younger, Robert Devereux , William Laud and Harry Vane (on a macabre note, the headless bodies of Fisher, More and  Laud were temporarily buried in the church of All Hallows Barking  before being moved to their  final resting places – Fisher’s and More’s in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London).  Among  those executed at West Smithfield were John Forest, Anne Askew and John Rogers.  And among those executed at Tyburn were not only Elizabeth Barton, John Houghton  and Thomas Harrison, but also,   in 1499, Perkin Warbeck, for pretending to the throne; in 1541, Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham, for treason against the King’s majesty in misdemeanour with the Queen [Catherine Howard], and Rafe Egerton and Thomas Herman, for counterfeiting the King’s Great Seal; in 1564, three unnamed persons, for  “ye stelynge and receyvynge of ye Queens lypott [chamber pot] … and … other small ware out of hir chambar in her progresse”; and in 1610, John Roberts, a Catholic Priest, for  contravening the “Act Forbidding Priests to Minister in England” (the watching  crowd, who revered Roberts for the work he had done among them during an outbreak of  the plague in 1603, saw to it that he died by hanging and was spared  the suffering of drawing  and quartering: one of his finger bones is preserved as a holy relic in Tyburn Convent).  In  1660, the disinterred corpse of Oliver  Cromwell was ritually hanged and beheaded  there!  In 1661, a highwayman was hanged and gibbeted close to the scene of his crime on Shooter’s Hill, and Samuel Pepys wrote “and a filthy sight it was to see how his flesh is shrunk to his bones”.  Capital sentences could be commuted in the cases of those who could claim the “benefit of clergy”, by reciting a psalm that came to be known as the “neck verse” (“Miserere mei Deus secundum misericordiam tuam iuxta multitudinem miserationum tuarum dele iniquitates meas).  One such case was that of the playwright, poet, actor and bricklayer  Ben Jonson, who had killed a man – a fellow actor named Gabriel Spencer – in a duel in Hoxton, and was still able to get off “scot free”. 

Newgate Prison remained in use, going on to be rebuilt again in  1672, after having been burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, and yet again in 1782, after having been destroyed during the Gordon Riots of 1780.    Until 1783, condemned prisoners continued to be taken from Newgate to Tyburn to be executed.  On the day of the execution, the sexton from the nearby church of St Sepulchre would ring his handbell, and recite a brief prayer, ending with the words “And when St Sepulchre’s bell in the morning tolls, The Lord above have mercy on your soul”.

The executioner’s bell (church of St Sepulchre, Newgate Street)

The  handbell of 1605 may still be seen in the church.  From 1783 onwards, the condemned were executed in  the prison  itself, at first in public, and then, from 1868, in private.  The last execution here was in 1902, the year the prison was decommissioned (it was demolished in 1904, whereupon the present Central Criminal Court  – colloquially known as the “Old Bailey” – was built in its place).

Interestingly, there are indications that even as long ago as the Tudor period, crime was already becoming what we would now call organised.  In 1585, the Recorder of London, William Fleetwood, wrote in a letter to William Cecil, the 1st Baron Burghley: “[W]e did spend the daie … searching owt sundrye that were receptors of ffelons … .  Amongst our travells this one matter tumbled owt by the way, that one Wotton a gentilman borne, and sometyme a marchauntt man of good credyte, who falling by tyme into decaye, kept … neere Byllingesgate … a schole house sett upp to learne young boyes to cut purses.  There were hung up two devises, the one … a pockett, the other … a purse.  The pockett had yn it certen cownters and was hunge abowt with hawkes belles … ; and he that could take owt a cownter without any noyse, was allowed to be a … ffoyster; and he that could take a peece of silver owt of the purse … a Nypper.  Nota that a ffoyster is a Pick-pockett, and a Nypper a Pick-purse, or a Cutpurse”.

Trade and Commerce

Trade continued to prosper alongside religion, and the port to remain central  to it. 

The Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange in the City was built  by Thomas Gresham between 1566-7, and officially opened by Elizabeth I in 1570/1.  It was modelled on the “Bourse” in Antwerp, itself built  in 1513.  By Tudor to Stuart times, the port extended as far east as Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliff, Limehouse, Poplar and Blackwall on the north side of the Thames, and as far east as Bermondsey and Rotherhithe on the south side.  This is is evident not only from written but also from pictorial records, including a number of panoramas  and maps, and Marcus Gheeraerts’s  painting “A Fete at Bermondsey”, dating to  1569/70.   

Tombstone of “Honist Abraham Zouch of Wappin, Rope Maker” ( St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney)

Perhaps my favourite tombstone in all of London is the crudely fashioned and poignantly inscribed one in  the church of St Dunstan and All Saints in Stepney to “Honist Abraham Zouch of Wappin, Rope Maker”, who died in  1684.  In Shadwell and Ratcliff (“London’s Sailortown”), there were docks, wharves, roperies, and smithies, including, in a survey of 1650, in Stuart times, four docks and 32  wharves along a 400-yard section of river.  Tellingly, in 1606-10, 48% of the recorded working population of 250 were involved in “river and sea” crafts and 12% in shipbuilding, and the remainder in  provisioning and “land” and other crafts.  And in  1650, 53% were mariners, 10% ship-builders and 7% lightermen, and the remainder  carpenters, smiths, rope-makers and other ancillary tradesmen, tanners and, of course,  brewers. In Poplar, there were more docks, and sail-makers’ warehouses.  In Tudor times, Sir Thomas Spert and 54 mariners lodged here while sails were made for Henry VIII’s  great ship “Henri Grace a Dieu”  (which later saw action against the French at the Battle of the Solent, in which the “Mary Rose” sank;  and later still transported the King to the peace summit with the French at the Field of Cloth-of-Gold).  In Blackwall, there were still more  docks.  And in Rotherhithe, docks, wharves, and ship-building- and timber-  yards, where mast-makers,  anchor-smiths, coopers  and others plied their trades.  Annual exports – even excluding  “shortcloth” – were valued at approximately £700,000 at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  In modern terms, this equates to approximately £100,000,000  (according to  the National Archives “Currency Convertor”). 

Hugh Alley’s “A Caveatt for the Citty of London” of 1598 shows that by  this time there were open street markets selling fish on New Fish Street as well as Old Fish Street; meat on Eastcheap, at the St Nicholas Shambles on Newgate Street, and in Smithfield; and grain and general goods at Billingsgate and Queenhithe, on Cheapside, Cornhill, Gracechurch Street, Leadenhall Street and Newgate Street,  and in Southwark.  There were also  covered markets selling general goods on Leadenhall Street and at the Stocks.

Livery Companies

Arms of the twelve “Great” Livery Companies (arranged in order of precedence)

The Livery Companies continued to establish working practices and maintain standards, and to make money.    The Goldsmiths’ Company became so wealthy it even lent money to Charles II, in the 1660s, in exchange for promissory notes, and in effect became the first national bank (the Bank of England was not founded  until 1694).  In 1671, the Mayor’s Court in the  Guildhall ordered that defective spectacles discovered  in the possession of one Elizabeth Bagnall be “with a hammber broken all in pieces” by the Master of the Company of Spectacle-Makers “on the remaining parte of London Stone” (damaged  during the Great Fire five years earlier). 

Interestingly, the companies also played an important role in the Protestant Plantation of Northern Ireland (the “Ulster Plantation”), and the subjugation of the native Catholic population, in the early seventeenth century, which is how Derry came to be known as Londonderry.  The Livery Companies’ involvement  in the plantation began under James I in 1609, that is, shortly after Tyrone’s and O’Doherty’s rebellions;  and continued under Charles I, who at one point was evidently forced  to take action against the companies to ensure their continuing – if unwilling – co-operation. 

Of the total of 77 Livery Companies   in existence in London at the time of the Great Fire of 1666, 13 (17%) were involved in the cloth and clothing sectors of the economy; 12 (16%) in food and drink; 10 (13%) in construction and interior design; 10 (13%) in metal-working; 5 (7%) in wood-working (including shipwrighting); 4 (5%) in leather-working; 3 (4%) in arms manufacture; 3 (4%) in equestrian accoutrement manufacture;  3 (4%) in the medical profession; 2  (3%) in chandlery; 2 (3%) in the clerical profession; 2 (3%) in entertainment;  2 (3%) in transport; and the remaining 6 (8%) in sundry trades (author’s own analysis of data in Melling, 2003).  London’s economy was evidently still dominated by the manufacture of goods, rather than by services, at this time.

The Hanseatic League

The Hanseatic League continued to control  overseas trade with the ports on the coasts of the North Sea and Baltic, although the former privileges extended to the German merchants of the Steelyard  were revoked by Edward VI in 1551, and those  who stayed on after that date were expelled – albeit only temporarily – in 1598.  The Steelyard went on to be burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, and rebuilt  afterwards, only to be demolished in 1855, to make way for Cannon Street Station.   

Holbein’s portrait of George Gisze

It was in the Steelyard in 1532 that Holbein painted his portrait of the Hanse merchant Georg Gisze, from Danzig [Gdansk], which now hangs in the Staatliche Museen zu  Berlin.  The painting depicts a self-confident – possibly even self-important- man posing  in a fine white shirt, ruched pink silk doublet, and black velvet three-quarter-length overgown and matching cap.  Surrounding him in his wood-panelled office are some of the tools of his evidently lucrative trade: on the shelves in the background, a wooden box and chest, a bunch of impressive-looking keys hanging from a hook, weighing-scales, an account-book, and various papers, perhaps including  shipping contracts, bills of lading  and cargo manifests; and on the table  in the foreground, a gold ring bearing his seal, a pewter desk-set comprising a low circular storage box  cum   ink-pot, a  pounce-pot, and  two matching stands  holding quills and  a rod of sealing-wax, a letter-opener, a clock, and a pestle, all on a section of geometrically-patterned Anatolian carpet.  Also on the  table  is a Venetian glass vase of carnations, symbolising his recent engagement to Christine Kruger (the couple would go on to marry in 1535, and to have ten children).

Other Overseas Trade Links

Other ultimately immensely important overseas trade links became  forged through  the establishment by charter of the Muscovy or Russia Company, an outgrowth of the even more venerable “Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands”, or, in full, the “Mystery and Company of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places Unknown”, in 1555; the Levant Company, in 1581; the East India Company, in 1600; the Virginia Company, in 1606; and the Royal African Company, originally the “Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa”, in 1660.    By the middle of the seventeenth century, goods were being brought in from all over the New World as well as the old.  The so-called Cheapside Hoard, believed to have been buried on the eve of the Civil War, includes not only various types of jewel and jewelry from continental Europe, and Sinai, Iran,  Afghanistan, India and Sri Lanka in Asia,  but also heliodors from Brazil and emeralds from Colombia.  The hoard includes a carnelian intaglio  bearing the arms of William Howard, First Viscount Stafford, and therefore must date to some time  after his ennoblement in 1640.

The Muscovy Company, and later its semi-independent subsidiary the Greenland Company, came to dominate the lucrative whaling industry until the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  At this time, whale-oil was used for lighting and for  lubrication (and whale-bone for stiffening garments). 

The Levant Company dealt with trade with the Levant, that is to say, the eastern Mediterranean, at the time substantially under the control of the Ottoman Empire.  One of its London merchants  was the sometime Mayor John Gayer, whose life was spared by a lion in Syria on October 16th, 1643, and in whose honour the “Lion Sermons” are given on or around that day each year in the church of St Katharine Cree, where he is buried. 

The   East India Company had a monopoly on trade with the Indian sub-continent, and came to make a colossal fortune exploiting its resources, and indeed eventually effectively running it,  until after the “Indian Mutiny” or “First War of Indian Independence” of 1857. 

East India House (Leadenhall Street)

The Company’s London head-quarters was at East India House on Leadenhall Street. 

And the Virginia Company established and controlled  trade with the Americas.  In 1606, the merchant-adventurer, Citizen of London, and Cordwainer Captain John Smith set sail, aboard the “Susan Constant”, from Blackwall, to found  the first successful English colony in the Americas, at Jamestown in Virginia, “from which began the overseas expansion of the English-speaking peoples” (an ultimately unsuccessful colony had earlier been founded at Roanoke in Virginia in the mid-1580s).  Smith later returned to London, and died here in 1631, and is buried in the church of St Sepulchre. 

Statue of Captain John Smith (Bow Churchyard)

There is a statue of him in nearby Bow Churchyard on Cheapside, and a memorial to all the “Virginia Settlers” on what is now Virginia Quay in Blackwall.    Incidentally, the   Algonquin  princess Pocahontas, who famously saved Smith’s life in the Americas in 1607, visited London in  1616-7, with her by-then husband the tobacco planter John Rolfe, staying at the “Bell Savage”  off Ludgate Hill.  She died in Gravesend in 1617.  In 1621, in response to a call from the Virginia Company, fifty-six “young and uncorrupt” women crossed the Atlantic to look for husbands among the settlers in Jamestown in Virginia, and to become “Jamestown Brides”.  Famously, in the previous year of 1620, the “Mayflower” had sailed from  Rotherhithe and  Plymouth with 102 passengers – including families – aboard to found the Plymouth colony in Massachussets.  Among the passengers or “pilgrims” were William Bradford, late of Leiden and of Aldgate in London, who went on to be the first Governor of the Plymouth Colony, and his wife Dorothy or Dorothea, nee May, who tragically drowned while  the “Mayflower” was moored off the coast of Massachusetts.  Four others  also died on the voyage, and a further forty-five during  the first harsh winter of the settlement.  Francis Bacon set out his utopian vision of how life might be in the English colonies in the Americas in his novelised book, “New Atlantis”, published, the year after his death, in 1627.

The “Slave Trade”

Part of the “London, Sugar & Slavery” exhibit in the Museum of London Docklands

To the City’s – and indeed the country’s – eternal shame, some of its trade from as long ago as the late sixteenth century onwards was in enslaved persons.  In 1562, John Hawkins took three ships from London or Plymouth (sources differ) to Sierra Leone, where he  seized 300 Africans, “by the sword”.   Then,  in the “Middle Passage”, he  transported them across the Atlantic to Hispaniola in the Spanish West Indies, where he sold them – as commodities – in order to purchase sugar, ginger and other goods.   And finally, he returned to London and sold his cargo to City merchants for a fortune, completing the repugnant triangle.  Hawkins’s venture  was backed by the Mayor of London, Thomas Lodge.  It was also  supported by the Queen, Elizabeth I, although apparently only after she had been – falsely – assured  that the enslavement was unforced.   She actually described forced enslavement as  “detestable”, as something that would “call down the vengeance of Heaven upon the undertakers”.   In 1567, Hawkins wrote to the Queen, requesting her permission for another slaving voyage, in part as follows: “The voyage I pretend is to lade negroes in Guinea and sell them in the West Indies in truck of gold, pearls and emeralds, whereof I doubt not but to bring home great abundance for the contentation of your Highness … .  Thus I … do most humbly pray your Highness to signify your pleasure by this bearer, which I shall most willingly accomplish”.    In 1619, under Elizabeth’s successor, the Stuart King, James I, the trade in enslaved Africans spread to the English Americas for the first time, with  “twenty and odd Negroes” being transported to Jamestown in Virginia, presumably to work on the tobacco plantations there.  Many more would soon be sent to back-breaking  toil under an  unforgiving tropical sun in the sugar plantations on St Kitts and Nevis, Barbados and elsewhere in the English West Indies (including, from the 1670s, Jamaica).  In the late 1640s and 1650s, one London merchant, John Paige, made a fortune transporting  enslaved persons from Guinea in West Africa  to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, which at that time was technically illegal.  Even when the captain of one of his ships, the “Swan”, died in the Bight of Biafra, and the ship, under the command of  mate, became “staved upon the seas” and “was utterly lost” at Rio del Rey, he was able to keep his losses within acceptable bounds by selling the nineteen enslaved persons who survived.

The trade in enslaved persons was to continue to grow further, and faster, after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, when Spain was compelled under the terms of the  Treaty of Utrecht to grant to Britain the “Asiento”, or – exclusive – “Contract … Allowing …  the Liberty of Importing Negroes into the Spanish America”.  The trade  was only finally abolished throughout the British Empire in 1843.  By this time, 3351 slaving voyages had begun in London, which had become the fourth  largest centre involved in the trade in the world, after Rio de Janeiro, Bahia and Liverpool.    Shockingly, given that each vessel could accommodate  anywhere between 250-600 enslaved persons, those 3351 voyages beginning in London would have transported, in round numbers, between 850,000 and 2,000,000 persons; of whom, again in round numbers, between 100,000 and 250,000 would have died (assuming an average  mortality rate of 13%).

Wealth and Poverty

The rich remained rich, and the poor, poor, and deprived of any opportunity of mobility; and indeed,  if anything, the divide  between the wealth classes widened during the “price revolution” of the sixteenth century, which witnessed a four-fold increase in the cost of living.  There continued, though,  to be an  informal  system of  charitable patronage and donation from the churches,  other rich institutions such as the Livery Companies, and rich individuals, to the poor.  As John Stow wrote: “Sir Thomas Roe, Marchant Taylor, Mayor, 1568, gave …  lands or Tenements, out of them to bee given to ten poore men, Clothworkers, Carpentars, Tilars, Plasterers, and Armorers, 40 pounds yearely, viz., 4 pounds to each, also 200 pounds to bee lent to 8 poore men”.  The rich and poor continued to live rather uneasily together, although there continued to be concentrations of wealth in the wards in the centre of the  City, and of poverty in those around its margins, and without the walls.   In the sixteenth century, as indicated by the subsidy rolls of 1541 and 1582, the wards containing the highest number of householder tax assessments in the highest bracket were Bread Street, Broad Street, Cheap, Cordwainer, Cripplegate, Tower and Walbrook; the ones containing the highest number of assessments  in the lowest bracket, Aldersgate, Aldgate, Castle Baynard, Cripplegate, Farringdon Within and Farringdon Without.  It is interesting that Cripplegate falls into both categories, Cripplegate Without being “where the noble, the rich and the famous lived … because they wanted space, which had become scarce within the walls”; Cripplegate Within, home to a more mixed community.

After the passage of the  “Old Poor Law” in 1601, there was a formalised further charge on ratepayers to provide for relief at the level of the local parish. This saw the  “impotent poor” cared for in alms-houses; the “able-bodied poor” either put to work   in “Houses of Industry” (the fore-runners of work-houses) in exchange for board and lodging,  or else provided with “out-relief” payments or payments-in-kind; and the “idle poor” sent to  “Houses of Correction” (essentially prisons).   Trinity Hospital in Greenwich, founded in 1613, would admit into its alms-houses only  “a man that is decayed, and is become poor by casual means, and not through his own dissolute life, and one that  hath always lived in honest name”.  And “No common beggar, drunkard, whore-hunter, haunter of taverns nor ale-houses nor unclean person infected with any foul disease, nor any that is blind, or … not able, at the time of his admission, to come to prayers daily … nor any idiot, nor any other that is not able to say, without book, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments”.

Indidentally, after  the  passage of the  “New  Poor Law” in 1834, the – “deserving” – impotent poor continued to be cared for in alms-houses, and the – “undeserving” – idle poor  to be sent to “Houses of Correction”.  However, the – “deserving” – able poor were now refused “out-relief”, and made  to work in work-houses, where conditions were quite deliberately made sufficiently inhumane  as to deter extended stays.  The work-house system was only finally abolished as recently as 1930, and indeed many former work-houses remained in use until 1948.

It might seem incongruous to discuss poverty and poor relief in what is now the – at least outwardly – conspicuously wealthy City of Westminster.  However, throughout much of its long history, including the Medieval and post-Medieval periods, Westminster was at the poverty-blighted ragged outer edge of the built-up area of London.  Tothill Fields Bridewell was built here in 1618; the Palmer alms-houses,  in 1656 (and the St Margaret’s Work-House, in 1692).

The surviving gate-way of Tothill Fields Bridewell (Little Sanctuary)

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