Matthew Beaumont | Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London | Verso | March 2015 | 37 minutes (10,129 words)

Below is a chapter excerpted from Nightwalking, by Matthew Beaumont, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky. In this excerpt, Beaumont describes the complex and transgressive act of nightwalking in London during the 16th & 17th centuries. He paints a vivid picture of the city at night and explains what nightwalking revealed about class, status, and the political and religious leanings of those who practiced it. The plight of the jobless and homeless poor in this era, which also witnessed the birth of capitalism, are dishearteningly familiar today.

Beaumont draws on a variety of compelling sources, which have been linked to when possible, such as Beware the Cat, a puzzling English proto-novel that features a man who attains cat-like superpowers, The Wandring Whore and The Wandring Whore Continued, and A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursetors, Vulgarly Called Vagabonds, which defines, among other things, the 24 types of vagabond. 

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Noises in the Night

On the night of Sunday, 21 January 1543, inhabitants of the City of London were disturbed by a violent commotion. It was an hour or so after the curfew, which had been rung out from St Mary-le-Bow at 8 p.m. The city’s streets around Cheapside, London’s principal marketplace, were dark. This was the time of “shutting-in,” when the more diligent and prosperous householders, who had lit lanterns outside their houses at dusk, extinguished the tallow candles that guttered in these slitted metal cylinders. Even thoroughfares like Cheapside itself were no more than dimly lit by candle lanterns left burning outside the more prominent houses to provide a point of navigation. Most respectable citizens were already in the beds they shared with their spouses or even servants, their rooms still half-lit by the embers from the fireplace.

On this particular night, there was shouting in the streets, and the unsettling noise of people running and laughing; then the ominous and distinctly uncommon sound of breaking glass, an expensive commodity in the sixteenth century. This was not some ordinary nighttime disturbance. The noises were too redolent of violence. After an intemperate but largely inaudible exchange, several voices cried out for the nightwatchmen, who arrived in a panic a minute or two later, to be greeted with abuse and laughter. Presumably a gang of drunken apprentices had got into a fight.

Some of the inhabitants of the city might nervously have recalled the murder that had taken place nearby at 4 a.m. one night in November 1536, little more than six years earlier, when the prominent evangelical Robert Packington, a respectable burgess, was shot dead as he crossed Cheapside to attend early-morning mass at the Mercers’ Chapel. Few would have felt inclined to leave their homes and go out onto the streets to investigate, even if there hadn’t been the threat of violence. Apart from the inconvenience of the soft, stinking mud of the streets, there was the danger of the night air, which was popularly believed to contain noxious vapours. Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Dekker referred to it as “that thick tobacco-breath which the rheumaticke night throws abroad.”

Eventually the night no doubt settled back into an uncomfortable silence, interrupted by infants’ cries and the intermittent barking of dogs; and those in bed buried themselves deeper under the covers against the cold. If one had preternatural hearing, one might have been able to hear sounds from the countryside surrounding the nearby city walls. In Beware the Cat (1553), William Baldwin’s bizarre proto-novel, the protagonist Geoffrey Streamer develops a supernatural ability to hear the manifold sounds emitted at night within a hundred-mile radius of London. Holed up in a house at the end of St Martin’s Lane, close to the city wall at Aldersgate, Streamer achieves this extraordinary acoustic sensitivity to the “many noises in the night which all men hear not” by cooking, then eating, a cat, a fox, a hare, a hedgehog and a kite, and by performing an obscure ritual with various parts of their bodies, especially the ears and tongues.

In a passage that must count as the finest exercise in onomatopoeia in the English language, Streamer enumerates the “commixed noises” that he is able to separate and isolate:

barking of dogs, grunting of hogs, wailing of cats, rumbling of rats, gagling of geez, humming of bees, rousing of bucks, gagling of ducks, singing of swains, ringing of panns, crowing of cockes, cackling of hens, scrapling of pens, heeping of mice, trulling of dice, curling of frogs and todes in the bogs, churking of crickets, strutting of wickets, scratching of owls, fluttering of fowls, routing of knaves, snorting of slaves, farting of churls, sisling of girls, with many things else; as ringing of bells, counting of coins, mounting of groins, whispering of lovers, springling of plovers, grouting and spinning, baking and brewing, scratching and rubbing, watching and shrugging.

Baldwin’s list is a rich orchestration of the barely audible susurrations of the mid-sixteenth-century city after dark, from the intimate bodily noises of animals and humans to the discreet sounds of nocturnal industry; and it offers a hypnotic sense of London’s relentless restlessness at night.

Breaking of Glass Windows

On Monday, 22 January 1543, the morning after the commotion in Cheapside, everyone was talking about the night’s vandalism, especially once the damage done to property had become evident. It transpired that respectable citizens had been abused; incautious apprentices who happened to encounter the mysterious culprits had themselves been shot at; and, most sensationally, the windows of a number of merchants’ houses, as far away as Fenchurch Street, as well as those of some churches, had been smashed. In Milk Street, off Cheapside, glass had been shattered on the façade of the expensive house belonging to Sir Richard Gresham, a trader and usurer who had been lord mayor of London in 1537.

There were also reports that, after causing all this casual destruction in the streets of the city, those responsible had headed to the banks of the Thames and commandeered a couple of boats. From the river, they had shouted obscenities and fired stones at the prostitutes congregated on Bankside (these women were making use of a final opportunity to trade their bodies at night with impunity, before the opening of parliament on the Monday morning rendered it illegal once again for the duration of the parliamentary session). The uproarious noises, it seemed, had only completely died out at about 2 a.m.

Who were the perpetrators of these acts? It was assumed by many that they were either vagabonds or inebriated apprentices. But, to everyone’s shock, a Knight of the Garter, then still in his mid twenties, admitted that he had led this riotous parade through London. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was a distinguished poet. He had been the protégé of Thomas Wyatt, who had died the previous autumn, and their translations and imitations of Petrarch had introduced the Italian sonnet form to England. So he could scarcely have been a more civilized and refined product of the reign of Henry VIII. But, like other poets of his time, including Philip Sidney, he was also a distinguished soldier – and one who had a relatively violent reputation.

In 1542, Surrey had been imprisoned for starting an altercation with another courtier in response to rumours that he was disloyal to the throne. He was subsequently released from the Fleet Prison so that he could be sent north with his father, the Duke of Norfolk, to fight the pro-French and papist Scots. Then, after an unsatisfactory military campaign on the borders, at the end of 1542 he had headed back to London. As his most recent biographer writes, “His instinctive aggression, always simmering near the surface, had been unleashed by the authorized hooliganism that was the Scottish campaign, but not sated by it.” He was looking for trouble, and the arrivistes of the city constituted a tempting target for his anger.

On returning to the capital, Surrey and his companions rented rooms in St Lawrence Lane, Cheapside, from one Millicent Arundel. His retinue included several reprobates, notoriously keen on gambling and drinking, and his servant, William Pickering, who some six years later was accused “of breaking the curfew and bearing a ‘light and evil demeanour’ towards the city’s constables.” At about 9 p.m., it transpired, Surrey and four other men, among them the son of Sir Thomas Wyatt, set out from Mistress Arundel’s guesthouse. They wore cloaks against the cold and carried stonebows – weapons built like crossbows that fired stones rather than bolts.

Almost immediately, they marched to Milk Street, a few minutes’ walk to the west – the home to “many fair houses for wealthy merchants,” as John Stow put it half a century later. There, Surrey and the others fired their stonebows at Gresham’s house. A good deal of class resentment probably informed this action, as Gresham was a successful merchant and a financial agent for Henry VIII, who had profited handsomely from the Dissolution of the Monasteries. No doubt the arrogance of an aristocrat on the defensive both at court and in the city – rather than mere youthful high spirits, as another biographer has indulgently claimed – partly explains the attacks of Surrey and his friends on the apprentices and prostitutes too.

When the Privy Council examined the events of this night, Mistress Arundel testified (a little inaccurately) that Surrey had “tarried forth after midnight,” and added with a certain insouciance that “next day was great clamour of the breaking of glass windows, both of houses and churches, and shooting of men in streets, and the voice was that those hurts were done by my Lord and his company.” Henry VIII, increasingly insecure at this time, felt threatened by the rumours that Surrey had been discussing the succession to the throne, so he and the bishop of Winchester conspired to have him charged both with “eating of flesh” during Lent, which associated him with Lutheranism, and “a lewd and unseemly manner of walking in the night about the streets and breaking with stonebows of certain windows.”

Surrey denied the first charge but confessed to the second. He was duly sent back to the Fleet Prison, where he remained for a month.

Photo by Marc Roberts
Photo by Marc Roberts

Secret Silence of the Night

It was in the Fleet that Surrey wrote his “Satire against the Citizens of London,” a poem that, though still in manuscript form, was used some three years later as evidence against him when he was tried for conspiracy and treason, and finally executed.

“London! Has thou accused me / Of breach of laws?” In these arresting, accusatory tones, the “Satire” begins. It is an extraordinary poem, at once prophetic and ironic, which challenges both London and Londoners with unprecedented urgency and vehemence. It starts out as an attempt to exculpate the poet’s destructive behaviour in the metropolis on the night of 21 January. Surrey argues angrily and energetically, though not entirely convincingly, that it was precisely his loathing of the “dissolute life” seething inside the city’s “wicked walls” – perhaps the adjective “dissolute” is intended to evoke the Dissolution – that led him to express his “hidden burthen” against those that “work unright”:

In secret silence of the night
This made me, with a rechless breast,
To wake thy sluggards with my bow:
A figure of the Lord’s behest;
Whose scourge for sin the Scriptures shew.

He thus identifies himself as the agent of divine justice, visiting retribution on the envious, the gluttonous, the lecherous, and on all the city’s sinners: “To stir to God this was my mind.” He reserves particular contempt, implicitly, for the city merchants who, enriched by the dissolution of monastic property, hoped to discipline and humiliate him. “And greedy lucre live in dread,” he writes, “To see what hate ill got goods win.” In the glottal, monosyllabic aggression of these strangely congested lines one can imagine the imprisoned Surrey spitting and choking with rage.

The poem ends up as an apocalyptic denunciation of the city. In language derived from the Book of Revelation, it condemns London as a “shameless whore,” a “member of false Babylon,” and predicts that famine, plague and ruin will destroy it. The city’s “proud towers, and turrets high” will be beaten “stone from stone,” and its iniquitous idols burnt. None shall bemoan its fate. It is tempting to interpret Surrey’s barely controlled outburst in terms of what Freud calls a reaction formation – that is, an excessive, even obsessive reaction that represses its private complicity with the phenomenon it publicly rejects. It is as if Surrey denounces the sins of the metropolis so intemperately, so incontinently, because he is secretly conscious that he has internalized them. So if in this poem a “new model of prophet-poet is born,” as Surrey’s most authoritative biographer has announced, then he is an oddly tortured, compromised prophet-poet. Perhaps all prophet-poets, though, are thus compromised and tortured.

Surrey’s fulmination against the citizens of London is far too emotionally confused and full of self-hatred for him to resemble some forerunner of William Blake, the mightiest prophet–poet in the city’s history. But the poem makes a significant contribution to the tradition of portraying the nocturnal city as the site of, or inspiration for, apocalyptic scenes – a tradition that runs through Oliver Goldsmith and others in the eighteenth century to Charles Dickens in the nineteenth.

Blades that Roar

It was not uncommon for aristocrats to roister around London after dark in the early modern period. James Shirley, in The Gamester (1633), a tragi-comedy set in contemporary London, refers to

the blades, that roare
In brothells, and breake windowes, fright the streets
At mid-night worse [the] Constables, and sometimes
Set upon innocent Bell-men …

Confronting class supremacism of this sort, Gerard Winstanley was surely right to argue, in the final Digger pamphlet in 1650, that – in a properly just society – gentlemen as opposed to the itinerant poor should be punished as “persons who wander up and down idly.”

In “The Night-Walkers; or, The Loyal Huzza”, a broadside printed in 1682, there is evidence, in the more aggressively libertine culture of the Restoration, of a sort of roisterers’ manifesto:

The Town is our own,
when the Streets are all clear;
We manage the humour,
and laugh at all fear;
Then down goes the Bully,
The Heck, and Night-Walker;
The whispering Cully 
every loud Talker:
The Constable flies,

and his Club-men withdraw;
When they hear the fierce cries
of the dreadful Huzza.

These brutal, over-bred upper-class oafs – “The Wine in our heads, / and the Sword in our Hands” – resemble the seventeenth-century equivalent of members of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club.

Printed in the year of the Rye House Plot against Charles II and his brother James, in a period of violent political reaction, this broadside’s slogans go on both to glorify the monarch and his heir and to defy the Whigs “and those who’d change Kings / without Reason or Law.” Acts of reckless hedonism, especially after the Civil War, constituted a declaration of Royalist allegiance. The roisterers of “The Night-Walkers” boast about beating up lawyers, priests and captains, as well as the plebeian types identified in the opening verse. The bullies and “hecks” are clearly male victims, and so by implication are the nightwalkers derided alongside them. But the title of the broadside hints that, in a perverse and spiteful act of appropriation, these roisterers are determined to identify themselves too as nightwalkers. They seem to constitute a band of elite nightwalkers committed to terrorizing and tormenting the city’s common nightwalkers.

The militant republican John Milton, in Book 1 of Paradise Lost (1667), wrote with admirable contempt of the ascendant nocturnal culture of the aristocracy, which flared into life like the artificial lights of a court masque as the sun set on the English Revolution: “And when night / Darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons / Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.” Belial, whose sons resided in courts and palaces and decadent cities, was “the proverbial devil for aristocratic vice,” as one historian puts it, “and during the English Revolution his name was synonymous with the Cavaliers.” The subjects of “The Night-Walkers; or, The Loyal Huzza” are precisely the sons of Belial Milton has in mind.

And when night / Darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons / Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.

In opposition to this broadside’s Royalist, ruling-class appropriation of the night for libertine purposes, Milton sought to redeem it as a time of spiritual contemplation. “Il Penseroso” – a nocturne composed, like its companion piece “L’Allegro,” in approximately 1631 – is the clearest expression of this. The melancholic thinker of the poem’s title, ambling alone among oaks in the moonlight, his lamp dimly visible, covertly reclaims the night from the Cavalier revellers who colonized it as a time of aristocratic sociability and celebration:

I walk unseen
On the dry smooth-shaven green,
To behold the wandering moon,
Riding near her highest noon,
Like one that had been led astray
Through the heaven’s wide pathless way;
And oft, as if her head she bowed,
Stooping through a fleecy cloud.
Oft on a plat of rising ground,
I hear the far-off curfew sound.

The apparently errant character of the moon’s drifting motion is no more than superficial, for she is in fact calm and chaste. The thinker, hidden from “day’s garish eye,” enjoys the intimacies and the gentle ecstasies of strolling in what the poet later describes as “a dim religious light.”

Milton also battles against this decadent culture of the night in Comus (1634), his masque in celebration of chastity. There he proposes that, for the spiritually enlightened, night is not a time of darkness but of inner light: “He that has light within his own clear breast / May sit i’ the centre, and enjoy bright day.” The obverse is also the case. For the spiritually unenlightened, night is an internal condition, and hence one from which they cannot escape: “But he that hides a dark soul and foul thoughts / Benighted walks under the mid-day sun; / Himself is his own dungeon.” Hell is within. Nightwalking is in this sense a state of the soul, as well as merely a symptom of spiritual corruption. To paraphrase Paradise Lost (1667), the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a night of day, a day of night.[ad]

The seventeenth century, in spite of the interruption represented by the Revolution, was the era in which the social life of the monarch and his court increasingly centred on baroque spectacles that were dependent for their dazzling effects on the ostentatious illumination of the night. The architects of Stuart masques orchestrated fireworks, flaming torches and thousands of flickering candles, in order to stage the monarchy’s brilliant authority against a background of darkness and ignorance. If there was husbandry in heaven on these nights of courtly celebration, to use Shakespeare’s phrase, there was profligacy on the sets designed by Inigo Jones and others. “This nocturnalization of political symbolism and everyday life at court,” as Craig Koslofsky argues, “arose to strengthen and supplement established symbols of spiritual and political sovereignty undermined by the confessional fragmentation of Western Christendom.”

Only from the end of the seventeenth century, when London, like other European cities, became more systematically illuminated at night, did nightlife filter onto the streets and into the emergent culture of the bourgeoisie. In the first instance, it was about the spectacular representation of power as much as about forms of aristocratic recreation – gaming, whoring and roaring in the streets.

Witty Extravagants

Surrey’s rampant appropriation of the metropolitan night in the mid sixteenth century might be interpreted as an incipient sign of this culture of nightlife, whose official expression at this time was the nocturnal entertainments staged at the court of Henry VIII. But his conviction for “walking in the night about the streets” in an unseemly manner was an unrepresentative one; and not simply because, in contrast to so many of the sons of Belial anathematized by Milton, he was imprisoned for it. Poor people, not rich people, were in general charged with nightwalking. The propertyless, not the propertied, were usually accused of attacking merchants.

“The greatest offence against property,” as E. P. Thompson puts it, in this period as in subsequent ones, “was to have none.” And to have none was to make oneself susceptible to criminalization. Perhaps the most telling detail of the story about Surrey is the assumption among respectable inhabitants of the city that the damage to property had been caused by either vagabonds or apprentices. For the authorities tended to accuse vagrants and (to a lesser extent) apprentices and prostitutes of this crime. These subalterns inhabited a city that, in contrast to the dramatically illuminated one of court masques or aristocratic parties, remained distinctly obscure. They made ideal scapegoats for the offence of sabotaging the city’s peace and security at night.

Apprentices, many of whom had originally migrated from the countryside in search of regular wages, just like those who ended up as vagrants, were for their part regarded as a significant agent of social disruption at night in the early modern period. These young men, who fiercely defended their rather limited rights, tended to be central to political and religious demonstrations in the capital. They were also often responsible for social disturbances that had little to do with principled challenges to authority, both individually and collectively. In 1517, for example, apprentices were responsible for the Evil May Day Riots, a xenophobic demonstration inspired by a preacher at St Paul’s Cross (and dramatized by Shakespeare and others in Sir Thomas More [c. 1592]). The authorities, which suppressed this outburst with troops, punished the perpetrators severely: they arrested 400, and, once they had hanged, drawn and quartered the leaders, gibbeted their remains.

By 1600 roughly 30,000 apprentices – comprising approximately 15 per cent of the city’s population – filled London’s proliferating workshops and warehouses. They tended to be unmarried male adolescents from the outlying regions of London who hoped, after their seven-year tenure, to rise through the lower ranks of metropolitan society and become shopkeepers or master craftsmen. In return for being trained in a trade – as drapers or grocers or mercers or skinners – they were paid a limited stipend and accommodated with their master’s family.

But many of these apprentices, not least those with a predilection for alcohol, chafed under the imposition of their masters’ domestic discipline. Popularly depicted as “idle,” they were often prosecuted for acts identified as “vagrant” (almost three-quarters of the Londoners whose occupations were listed in the records of Bridewell between 1597 and 1608 were apprentices). The night-time – when they were freed from their duties to their employer but were nonetheless expected to remain indoors – was their particular domain. They had a reputation for unpredictable, violent behaviour in the night – specifically, as Peter Ackroyd states, for victimizing “foreigners, ‘night-walkers’, or the servants of noblemen who were considered to take on the airs of their superiors.”

An uncontainable mass of class contradictions, these cocky, drunken adolescents blustered about after dark, drinking and looking for trouble – “lying-out,” it was called. They picked on vagrants or nightwalkers because they were poor and weak, and on servants because they were lackeys to the rich and powerful. Like the upperclass roisterers they aped, they too were self-aggrandizing walkers in the night who aggressively persecuted common nightwalkers. In addition, again like their social superiors, they liked to humiliate London’s nightwatchmen, mocking them or beating them up. Some of them even styled themselves “masters of the night.” Hence Anthony Nixon’s advice to apprentices in 1613, which included the admonition to “please thy master, / And all the night keep close within his doors”; and to “Rove not about the suburbs and the streets / When he doth think you wrapped between his sheets.”

In The English Rogue (1665), the story of an idle, thieving apprentice by Richard Head and Francis Kirkman, the protagonist’s elderly master is characterized as “a man of so strange a temper, that he delighted to invert the course of Nature, lying in bed by day, and walking in the night, the rain seldome deterring him.” But if the master’s nightwalking is eccentric, the apprentice’s nocturnal activities are riotous and villainous. Head and Kirkman’s English Rogue steals from his master’s bedchamber when the latter “walk[s] abroad according to his custom at night.” This apprentice is identified in the book’s subtitle as a “witty extravagant.” If the noun “extravagant” indicates that the apprentice is “a wasteful person, a spendthrift,” then its etymological origin implies, according to the OED, that he is also “one who strays or wanders from a place; a vagrant, wanderer,” and, furthermore, “a fanatic.” Throughout its history, the nightwalker circulates between two identities, both inflected by class – those of the eccentric and the fanatic.

Advice to apprentices: ‘Please thy master, / And all the night keep close within his doors’; and ‘Rove not about the suburbs and the streets / When he doth think you wrapped between his sheets’.

Nightwalking Strumpets

Prostitutes were increasingly charged with being nightwalkers during the seventeenth century (and in certain contexts the words “walk” and “wander” were themselves no more than slang for strolling about with the intent of soliciting sexual custom). A court record from 1629 states that one Sara Powell’s “night walking and day walking got her noe good name and [that] she was accompted noe better than she should be.” By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as the Proceedings of the Old Bailey indicate, the term “common nightwalker” was in legal discourse associated exclusively with female prostitutes. But, partly perhaps because of the rising obsession with crimes against property, in an increasingly capitalistic society, even female prostitutes were rarely convicted as common nightwalkers after the Restoration.

Instead, women convicted of minor crimes against property might be identified as nightwalkers only incidentally. In 1697, for instance, a prostitute called Christian Callow was convicted not for soliciting but for pick-pocketing – the legal record simply notes in passing that she was “known to be a Common Nightwalker.” And in 1722 the phrase cropped up in a case of highway robbery, where the Proceedings record in evocative prose that, during the trial, Jonathan Wild, the “Thief-Taker General,” who was later exposed as a masterful criminal, took the common nightwalker Mary Floyd by the arm, and, “looking wishfully in her Face; said, he had an Information against her, for picking a Gentlemans Pocket of a Watch.” The term “common nightwalker” had by this time largely lost its legal signification, though it no doubt retained a social referent. It had gradually boiled down into a term of abuse.

In his Letters from the Dead to the Living (1702), the satirist Thomas Browne refers almost proverbially to the fright given by “the Bridewell Flog-Master to a Night-walking Strumpet.” In this colloquial sense, as in the legal sense that preceded it, the term “nightwalker” tended to be applied to common prostitutes, whose lives – in contrast to those of courtesans – were shaped by itinerancy and transiency. The Wandring Whore and The Wandring Whore Continued, which were published in rapid succession in 1660, contain for the reader’s titillation and convenience a “List of the names of the Crafty Bauds, Common Whores, Wanderers, Pick-pockets, Night-walkers, Decoys, Hectors, Pimps and Trapanners, in and about the City, and Suburbs of London.” Among the 180 or so names on this list, which include “Toothless Betty,” “Butter and Eggs,” “Mrs Love” and “Cock Birch,” a woman known as “Sugar-C” is the only one singled out as “a constant wanderer & night-walker.” But, as its title indicates, this is a guidebook to a population that was inherently mobile and unsettled – one that lived according to the mantra that “mony and Cunny are good Commodities.” Prostitutes classified in these terms rarely had regular relationships with clients; and they earned their wages, as John McMullan has put it, “on a mass production basis.”

A luridly detailed image of the prostitutes that peopled the city streets at night in the mid seventeenth century emerges in two poems by the Protestant reformer and constable Humphrey Mill – A Night’s Search: Discovering the Nature and Condition of all sorts of Night-walkers (1640) and The Second Part of the Night’s Search (1646). Mill, who embroiders these volumes’ authority with innumerable dedicatory and congratulatory verses, provides a pious but at the same time almost pornographic compendium of the nocturnal crimes he comes across while perambulating the city after dusk. Rambling in a double sense, the poems comprise sketches or case histories, in heroic couplets, of the vicious denizens of the London night, including “penniless letchers,” pimps and common prostitutes. Mill is at his most moralistic when condemning the latter, whom he holds responsible for corrupting both “country clownes” and susceptible gentlemen (though as a good Puritan he also loathes “the degenerate Nobility and new found Gentry”).[ad]

In the first Night’s Search in particular, Mill provides misogynistic and racist descriptions of the prostitutes whose presence he allegedly monitors and polices. The forty-eighth section, for instance, is a portrait of “a black impudent Slut that wore a dressing of faire hayre on her head.” “But couldst thou change thy skin,” he mocks in malicious tones, “then thou might’st passe / For current ware, though thou art nasty trash.” Most of these depraved women, he is gratified to report, end up incarcerated in Bridewell. This volume concludes with verses by other hands that pay handsome tribute to the moral achievements of Mill’s enterprise. The author of one of these congratulates him “on his exact description of the Night-walkers of our time,” and boasts that he himself “lately walk’d your round, took full survey / Of all.” Mill’s itinerary thus provides the template for a guided tour of the sins of the metropolis.

Noctambulants of this prurient sort, who appointed themselves the guardians of the nocturnal city’s morals, in spite of dubious motives for doing so, reappear in especially large numbers in the eighteenth century, as London becomes an increasingly rampant capital of the culture of consumption.

Vagrant and Wicked Persons

Mill’s poems, which castigate nightwalkers as “a brood of darknesses that do hate the light,” direct their vituperation at the idle and criminal poor as well as prostitutes. Here, in clumsy heroic couplets, is a typical scene from Mill’s second volume:

I Walk’d alone, my brain on Fancies fed,
The man i’th’Moone being newly gone to bed,
My light was all confin’d within my brest,
My eares were open, forward, still I prest,
Till at the last I spi’d a glimmering shine,
And heard a voice, which made my Muse incline
To tune her song anew.

The noctambulant, nurturing the flame of spiritual enlightenment in his breast, picks a solitary path through the pitch-black city, his senses sharpened by the moral imperative he obeys. He is like a knight on a journey through some darkened forest haunted by those Shakespeare calls “night wanderers.”

The “glimmering shine” that Mill glimpses in the distance signals no more than another example of the benightedness and corruption of the urban poor. Approaching it, he comes across three “mandies,” or professional beggars, who are removing their costumes and makeup after a day spent importuning passersby (“His arme’s restor’d, his sores were made by Art,” he comments about one of them). He sees them apportioning their ill-gotten gains, and also overhears them dividing up the locations in which they plan to beg the next day – “Fleet-street shall be thine, / Turn-style is his, the Temple-lane is mine.” But it transpires that, in reality, they lead positively comfortable lives, for when they return to their homes, as one of them brags, “I am no beggar then. / What e’re I ask, I have for my delight.” This discovery inspires a violent diatribe from Mill: “So do this brood of vermine, baske all day / To suck the spoyle; at night they part the prey.” They are parasites, sucking the life from the industrious, virtuous city that prevails in the daytime, and conspiring, after dark, to tear it apart.

Most people prosecuted for nightwalking in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries either lacked dependable, stable employment or had no occupation at all. These were the vagabonds and rogues of early modern England, some of whom had started out as apprentices but later resorted to petty crime because of the collapse, for one reason or another, of the master-servant relationship in which they had been indentured. They were among the most visible victims of the emergence of agrarian capitalism, which entailed the abolition not only of common land but of the customary rights that had hitherto shaped it. As one historian has commented, they were “the complete obverse of all that was acceptable.” In The Poore Mans Hope (1635), to give an example of the standard attitude to these economic migrants among the respectable classes, John Gore condemned vagrants as “the very Sodomites of the land, children of Belial, without god, without magistrate, without minister; dissolute, disobedient, and reprobate to every good work.” These sons and daughters of Belial, in contrast to those at the opposite end of the social scale – the ones Milton castigated in Paradise Lost – were not “flown” or flushed with insolence, as he put it, so much as forlorn.

Displaced from the countryside by the enclosure of land, and impelled to the city by the hope of employment, rural labourers found themselves forced, throughout the early modern period, to compete in a market that, as food prices, rents and taxes rose and real wages declined, simply failed to accommodate them. The problem was exacerbated by additional demographic shifts, caused for example by Henry VII’s abolition of private armies and the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. Injured and unemployed soldiers and sailors, on the one hand, and cooks, gardeners and launderers, on the other, ended up in London, attracted by the promise of higher wages in the metropolis but probably ill-prepared for both the poor employment prospects there and the paucity of secure accommodation. In spite of the high number of deaths from disease, especially the plague, London’s population thus leaped from approximately 85,000 in 1565 to 140,000 in 1603, largely as a result of migration from the countryside. At a time of depression in the wool trade, when England suddenly found itself competing with countries across Europe, all these factors created the conditions for mass unemployment.

A large number of these jobless, mobile people, if they were not actually homeless, were forced to find temporary footholds in poorly built and collapsing buildings in London’s slums and suburbs. In pursuit of profits, landlords brutally subdivided these boarding houses, which were made from little more than lath and plaster, and rammed them full of tenants. In 1582, for instance, a survey of St Margaret’s, Westminster, discovered that one building in Tothill Street, which might formerly have been an inn, had been divided into seventeen tenements containing fifty-three lodgers in total. The hasty construction of new buildings, in addition to the partition of existing ones, led in 1592 to an Act of Parliament which asserted that “great Infection of Sickness and dearth of Victuals and Fuel hath growen and ensued and many idle vagrant and wicked persons have harboured themselves there.” This was creative destruction, of an especially chaotic and exploitative kind, on an unprecedented scale.

Nursery of a Naughty and Lewd People

At night, except when a full or gibbous moon shone, London’s densely populated, dirty and disease-ridden “sinks” escaped illumination almost completely. These Stygian precincts, especially the foggy, tangled alleys close to the Thames, seemed even more deadly to outsiders after nightfall than they did in the day. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries lighting regulations were gradually introduced. Individual householders were required, on nights either side of the new moon, to provide candles overlooking the street between dusk and the nine o’clock curfew. But these candles, which were often of inadequate size or quality, produced a dirty, smoky, guttering flame. And, in any case, at other times of the month, when the moon was not “dark,” there was rarely a requirement to illuminate the streets at all. So on cloudy nights even the main thoroughfares of London were pitched into darkness soon after 9 p.m.

The capital’s slums also acquired a toxic reputation for being thieves’ colonies. The most notorious of these during the early modern period was Whitefriars, the dangerously overcrowded area between Fleet Street and the Thames that, in a laconic reference to the territory fought over by France and Germany on the continent, was known as Alsatia. This region, which had once been the domain of mendicant monks, as its original name suggested, and which for a time had then been the domain of nobles, stood outside the city’s secular jurisdiction. It was the most anarchic of London’s “liberties.” It therefore became popular as a refuge from the law in the seventeenth century, even after it was ravaged by the Great Fire of 1666. Daniel Defoe, accused of sedition, fled there in 1692 after seeing posters detailing his appearance pasted up in Fleet Street taverns.

Alsatia was a rotten honeycomb of dilapidated hovels that – in spite of repeated government proclamations intended to prevent precisely this happening – had been hastily constructed by speculative builders and partitioned into impossibly small rooms. Its alleys and foot passages pullulated with the poorest, most renegade members of society (including, after the Restoration, revolutionaries from the 1640s who had been forced underground). In The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), a novel set in the early seventeenth century, Walter Scott depicts the place as “abound[ing] with desperadoes of every description,” including “bankrupt citizens, ruined gamesters, irreclaimable prodigals, desperate duellists, bravoes, homicides, and debauched profligates of every description.” They were all busy “devouring each other for very poverty,” he observes.

Walter Scott depicts the place as ‘abound[ing] with desperadoes of every description’.

Some of the suburbs to the south of the River Thames, particularly Southwark, along with places like Cripplegate and Newgate, and the precincts of Westminster Abbey, rivalled the reputations of the inner-city slums. These areas too consisted of “small and strait roomes and habitations” crammed with “idle, indigent, dissolute and dangerous persons,” as a parliamentary stricture from 1603 put it. Collectively, Sir Stephen Soame condemned them in 1601 as “the nurcery of a naughty and lewd people, the harbour of rogues, theeves and beggars, and maintainers of idle persons.”

It was these pockets of anarchic poverty, where constables and watchmen were scarce, which appeared to give credence to the rumours of an “anti-society” of rogues, with its own elaborate rules and hierarchies, that were sponsored by the authors of so-called “cony-catching” pamphlets such as Robert Greene and Thomas Harman. These tracts reinforced the idea that vagrants were sexually promiscuous, politically subversive, and organized along professional lines. In A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, Vulgarly Called Vagabonds (1566), for example, the Kentish justice of the peace Harman defined no less than twenty-four types of vagabond, each with a specialized criminal skill. These included “counterfeit cranks,” who pretended to have the falling sickness, and “anglers” or “hookers,” who used a staff to pilfer people’s houses from the road (opportunistic thieves still employ this method in London, inserting a fishing rod through the letter box in order to reel in the resident’s house keys). In truth, most urban crime involved casual and relatively disorganized theft for the purposes of subsistence.

But if many unemployed or chronically underemployed people were forced to inhabit dangerously overcrowded, jerry-built accommodation, a substantial number of the itinerant poor simply ended up homeless. In “The Highway to the Spital-House” (1535–1536), a poem organized as a dialogue with a porter, Robert Copland complained about “beggars and vagabonds” who go about “Loitering and wandering from place to place.” During the summer, people of this sort “keep ditches and busks [bushes] … But in the winter they draw to the town, /And will do nothing but go up and down / And all for lodging that they have here at night.”

Vagabonds arrived in the capital in particularly large numbers during the winter months, in part because the opportunities for labour in the countryside were more restricted then, and in part, presumably, because the social opportunities and sociability of the city made it slightly easier to resist a cold, hostile climate, especially at night. In his comments on the city, Copland marvelled “that in the night so many lodge without,” and boasted of finding them beside brick walls, under stalls, and in porches, sheepcotes and church doors. Sheepcotes were especially popular because, as in meat markets such as Smithfield, the bodies and breath of the closely packed animals produced desperately needed heat. Copland’s porter is scornful of these “michers” – that is, petty thieves and sneaks – “that live in truandise.” “Hospitality doth them always despise” is his complacent dismissal of them.[ad]

The list of burials from parishes like St Botolph’s, in Aldgate, in the 1590s, with its references to nameless, homeless vagrants who had died in the street, still delivers a shock more than four hundred years later (not least because, in a city that still suffers from pervasive homelessness, it remains all too resonant). “A young man vagrant having no abiding place,” it reads at one point, “who died in the street before the door of Joseph Hayes, a brazier dwelling at the sign of Robin Hood in the High Street.” “He was about 18 years old,” the author of the list adds; “I could not learn his name.” One maid, of no address, is recorded as having died in the street near the postern. Other individuals, even more poignantly, are identified only by the clothes in which their bodies were found.

The men and women who suffered this sort of fate were of course illiterate, and the archives of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries consequently contain few testaments from the victims of epidemic unemployment. The voices of vagrants are only to be found in what the medievalist Jacques Le Goff has called “the archives of silence.” The historian is therefore forced to imagine the desolate conditions in which they lived on the streets, or fought for life at least, and died: the cold; the loneliness; the days filled with people, pressing against one another, competing to subsist; the nights filled for the most part with emptiness, though never with complete silence; the sour smell of dirt; the sweeter smell of shit, animal and human … In the city, daily and nightly, derelicts of one description or another were unceremoniously deposited, as if by night-men, on the dust-heap of an ascendant capitalist system.

Photo by Clarence Ji
Photo by Clarence Ji

Enemies to the Common Weal

In a legal sense, vagabonds in early modern England were defined as the able-bodied, as opposed to disabled, poor. They were “sturdy rogues,” or “sturdy beggars,” in the language of the time. The first poor law of the sixteenth century, the Act of 1531, established the template. It built on earlier legislation against aliens and beggars, including the Egyptians Act of 1530, which sought to expel “outlandish people calling themselves Egyptians,” or gypsies. The language of the Act of 1531 distinguished a vagabond as “any man or woman being whole and mighty in body and able to labour, having no land, master, nor using any lawful merchandise, craft or mystery whereby he might get his living.”

No fewer than thirteen poor law acts between 1560 and 1640 reinforced this distinction between “aged and impotent poor people” and poor people who were physically fit but idle. The former were to receive charitable relief, the latter to be apprehended and punished. According to the “Acte for the punishment of Vacabondes” of 1572, for example, those “Roges Vacaboundes and Sturdy Beggars” caught “wandering, and mis-ordering themselves” were “outrageous enemies to the common weal” who, once convicted, should be “whipped and burnt through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron, manifesting his or her roguish kind of life.” Who were these rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars? In general, “all and everye persone and persones beynge whole and mightye in Body and able to labour, havinge not Lord or Maister, nor using any lawfull Marchaundize Crafter [sic] or Mysterye whereby hee or shee might get his or her Lyvinge.” More specifically, those “adjuged and deemed” to be vagrant included “Fencers Bearewardes Comon Players [i.e. unlicensed actors],” as well as “Juglers Pedlars Tynkers and Petye Chapmen.”

This Act did make some slightly more humane concessions: it identified certain legitimate circumstances, including discharge from service, which temporarily excused the able-bodied unemployed from punishment; and it introduced the so-called “poor rates,” in order to provide assistance at parish level for the deserving poor. But the cumulative effect of this legislation, at a time of rising population and deepening unemployment, was to make itinerancy, and signs of inactivity, morally and socially unacceptable. Technically, even the death penalty could still be used against vagrants until 1597. Wandering by day and walking by night were both in practice outlawed.

Those ‘Roges Vacaboundes and Sturdy Beggars’ caught ‘wandering, and mis-ordering themselves’… should be ‘whipped and burnt through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron, manifesting his or her roguish kind of life’.

Respectable Londoners, and those who aspired to be respectable, were distinctly alarmed by the presence of the mobile unemployed in the capital. During the Tudor period, the City of London – in contrast to developments to the east and west, which were less cramped and more uniform in social terms – teemed with people from the wealthy, the middling and the poorer classes. The physical proximity that these quite different sorts of citizens enjoyed or endured created the sense of chaotic excitement at which foreign visitors to the English capital frequently stood in amazement. Frederick, Duke of Wirtemberg, for example, observed at the turn of the seventeenth century that “it is a very populous city, so that one can scarcely pass along the streets, on account of the throng.” But the collision of bodies also reinforced class tensions. Specifically, it generated fear and misunderstanding of the unemployed among the middling and wealthy. “The jobless, hanging about church steps and street corners, roaming the streets and alleys at night, were regarded as vagrants and potential criminals,” as two historians of the city have recently observed, “masterless men and women who, by dropping out of the Chain of Being, threatened the social order.”

The Chain of Being, or scala naturae, was the religious ideology of hierarchical degrees, running from God, through angels, humans of all classes, and animals, to the minerals of the earth, that the Elizabethans had inherited from the Neoplatonists. In Troilus and Cressida (c. 1602), Shakespeare’s Ulysses, a slippery politician, presents a potent, if disingenuous, image of disruption to the Chain of Being when he describes commotions of all kinds that “rend and deracinate / The unity and married calm of states / Quite from their fixture.” In 1602, the year in which Shakespeare probably wrote Troilus and Cressida, a government inquiry estimated that there were as many as 30,000 vagrants in London. No doubt this was a considerable exaggeration, but they comprised an army of the unemployed all the same, and were therefore far too numerous to ignore. As “servants to nobody,” these people were not merely “anomalies,” as Christopher Hill puts it, but “potential dissolvents of the society.” Like the planets that “in evil mixture to disorder wander,” as Ulysses puts it, these errant itinerants threatened to undermine the elaborately calibrated social order of communities and cities.

The “impudent” as opposed to “impotent” poor, the Devil’s as opposed to God’s poor, vitiated the discipline both of productive labour, centred in the guilds, and the patriarchal family, along with the religious doctrines that underpinned these spheres. In The Poores Advocate (1654), Richard Younge expressed his distaste for the “horrible uncleanness” of “vagrant Rogues,” and explained that “they have not particular wives, neither do they range themselves into Families: but consort together as beasts.” They didn’t fit into the hierarchical categories of an agrarian capitalist regime – which, in contrast to the feudal regime it was transforming, had little respect for poverty. Nor, transparently, could they keep pace with the rapid economic shift according to which the city was becoming a centre of finance capital dominated by successful merchants who had set up overseas trading companies. At night, furthermore, often forced to roam or loiter aimlessly in the streets, the unemployed undermined the stable rhythms of the labouring day and, more broadly, the urban economy.

To dismiss these itinerant men and women as “idle,” as official discourse did, and to criminalize them, as the courts did, was to declare that the accelerating process of modernization had already discarded them. In time, during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their rootlessness, and their relative lack of kinship ties, would make them ideal soldiers in the industrial army; for the moment, though, there was no economic mechanism that could exploit these qualities on a mass scale.

Bellman’s Cry

If the destitute were conspicuous enough in the day, they attracted especially dubious attention after nightfall. The activities of the poor were popularly assumed to be more suspicious after dark, as the medieval nightwalker statutes had indicated. Moreover, respectable citizens, if not asleep, tended like most people to be more apprehensive in the night, when the slightest noise – a heavy footfall, the murmur of voices, or the sinister tinkle of breaking glass – created an ominous sense of tension.

Magistrates certainly adopted a more punitive attitude to people who were apprehended at night. “The law is not the same at morning and at night,” wrote the poet George Herbert in a collection of proverbs in 1652. As in the Middle Ages, the night was in effect an “aggravating circumstance,” to use Jean Verdon’s formulation: “Malefactors were not merely infringing the rules of public order; acting under cover of darkness, they were demonstrating their evil intentions, their deep perversity, and premeditation.” And, until the mid eighteenth century, the moral and even mythological associations of the night in the cultural imagination, its innately malign connotations, were reflected in the fact that the principal police forces in Europe’s cities, if they can be called police forces at all, were the nightwatches. Certainly, they comprised “the centerpiece of London law enforcement.”

’The law is not the same at morning and at night.’

The watchmen, or “bellmen,” who operated under the supervision of “constables of the night,” were organized according to local wards. They worked in pairs, so that one could patrol the streets while the other remained in the watch-house or “watch-box.” These men, whose professional hours were between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. in the winter months and 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. in the summer, were expected to perform a number of duties, including calling the hours, announcing the state of the weather, preventing the spread of fires, checking locks, clearing the taverns and – most importantly – deterring or pre-empting criminal activity.

Of these tasks, perhaps the least pressing, and the most curious, was that of calling the hours. A characteristic example of a watch- man’s chorus can be found in Thomas Dekker’s “The Bellman’s Cry” (1608):

Midnight feastings are great wasters,
Servants’ riots undo masters.
When you hear this ringing bell,
Think it is your latest knell.

Another one is recorded in Thomas Ravenscroft’s City Rounds (1611):

Give ear to the clock,
Beware your lock,
Your fire and your light,
And God give you good night.
One o’clock!

Cries such as these, repeated at hourly intervals throughout the night, combined time-keeping, which was undoubtedly useful in an age when most people had no clocks, with ritualized and rather pointless advice about either domestic security (as in Ravenscroft’s example) or moral welfare (as in Dekker’s). People who weren’t used to this ritual, such as those who had recently arrived from the countryside, complained vociferously about the interruption to their sleep. For their part, seasoned inhabitants of the city presumably became inured to these habitual disturbances. In either case, it is difficult to understand why the cries were deemed necessary.

“To whom did officers address their cries?” the historian Roger Ekirch asks with comic emphasis; “Who possibly could have been listening in the late hours of the evening?” He offers two explanations: first, that “the calls were designed to verify that the watchmen had not themselves drifted asleep, slumped in some alley”; second, that fitful sleep of the kind produced by these interruptions “heightened people’s vigilance to perils of all sorts, including enemy attacks, criminal violence, and fire.” I prefer the former reason (in part because the deleterious effect of these cries on people’s ability to labour productively during the day renders the latter reason rather implausible). The watchman’s calls were phatic; that is, instead of communicating information, they simply imparted a minimal sense of the community, almost subliminally reinforcing the idea that someone was policing it.


The Compleat Constable (1692) set out the primary commitment of the nightwatchmen in these terms: “You shall do your best endeavour that the Watch in your Town be duly kept, and that Hue and Cry be duly pursued according to the Statutes; and that the Statute made for punishment of Rogues, Vagabonds, and Night- Walkers, and such other idle wandring Persons coming within your Liberties be duly put in execution.” In particular, then, watchmen were expected to apprehend nightwalkers, prostitutes and others who loitered or straggled in the streets. “You shall comprehend all vagrom [or vagrant] men; you are to bid any man stand, in the Prince’s name,” Dogberry instructs the Second Watchman in Much Ado About Nothing (1598), congratulating him for being “the most senseless and fit man for the constable of the watch.”

According to a recognizance, these idle, wandering persons could be bound over to keep the peace not because there was proof that they had committed a crime but simply because their appearance was suspicious. “Persons apprehended late at night by the watch were often bound over if they were unable to ‘give a good account’ of themselves,” as a scholar of petty crime in the period has explained. This generally meant that the watchmen or constable detained the defendants in the watch-house for the remainder of the night, and conveyed them to the justice of the peace the next morning, possibly housing them in the counter – the prison attached to the court – in the meantime. It was from there that they could be consigned to a house of correction such as Bridewell.

The night watch was originally the civic duty of all able-bodied and respectable citizens, who could be indicted for not serving their community in this capacity. Later, as popular concern about rising crime in the metropolis increased across Europe over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it became a salaried role. If it became professionalized, though, this did not necessarily make it more efficient. It simply meant that the task of policing the city was subcontracted to people who, generally recruited from the lower orders, were paid a minimal, if not derisory, sum for performing their duties.

These incumbents, who often had a job in the daytime too, tended to be desperate for any kind of employment. They were by no means qualified or trained to patrol the streets. And they didn’t have a uniform. Instead, they put on thick, dark cloaks or coats to insulate them from the cold, and shrouded their heads in hats or long pieces of rag. Furthermore, though some of them carried halberds or staffs, they were often armed with no more than candle-lanterns. At least before the introduction of public lighting in the main thoroughfares of London, which took place from the mid 1680s, they had inadequate means of illuminating the streets of the city – especially those in which crime was most likely to be committed, or to which criminals were most likely to retreat. It is therefore not a complete overstatement to claim that public order in the metropolis at night in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries depended on elderly, infirm, often inebriated, occasionally nefarious individuals – in short, on Dogberries.

In a letter of 1620, James Howell, the author of Londinopolis (1657), bragged to a friend about “the excellent nocturnal government of our city of London.” His claim was no doubt exaggerated; but, as Paul Griffiths has argued, even though the city’s administration, finances and lighting all became considerably more effective in the eighteenth century, “the essential elements of the night-watch were performing competently by the middle of the seventeenth century.” I have no reason to doubt his claim, but if the night watch in the early modern period was indeed competent, it seems scarcely more than miraculous. It was a poorly paid and haphazardly organized form of employment. And its incumbents were frequently criticized for sleeping and drinking on duty, and for proving broadly inadequate to the task of policing the streets.

For these lapses they were popularly abused. Sometimes they were also beaten, or even killed. “It would be difficult to exaggerate the extent of popular contempt for nightwatchmen,” Ekirch writes. Certainly, there were plenty of commentators in the early modern period who thought them incompetent. Or corrupt. Shakespeare is probably typical of public opinion when he depicts Dogberry advising his watchman that “the most peaceable way for you, if you do take a thief, is to let him show himself what he is, and steal out of your company.” For Shakespeare’s constable, “stealing” is a matter not of thieving but, rather more positively, of escaping. Peaceableness, not the prevention of crime or the detention of criminals, is his priority.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the extent of popular contempt for nightwatchmen.

Unscrupulous watchmen, as opposed to simply supine ones, operated at the profitable interface between crime and law enforcement. They fenced stolen goods, or confiscated them and secretly sold them on. And they used and exploited prostitutes. In Act V of Microcosmus: A Morall Maske (1637), Thomas Nabbes, who shortly after contributed a dedicatory verse to Humphrey Mill’s A Night’s Search, introduced a whore who has fallen on hard times and is consequently forced to consort with “inferiour customers.” This “desperate piece of neglected mortality” confesses that “Night-walking” – in the sense of soliciting sex on the streets – “supply’d me, whil’st I had any thing to pleasure a constable, or relieve the mortified watch with a snatch [or hasty sexual act] and away.” Some of the watchmen probably pimped prostitutes too. Others abused their authority in order to assault women. In 1705, to give a later example, a constable called Thomas Bayly was bound over to appear at the Westminster Quarter Sessions, where he was accused of using one Elizabeth King “in an Undecent manner of rudeness,” which entailed “having taken her upp for a common Nightwalker and … offering to put his hand up her coats.”

Watchmen also accepted money in exchange for certain deals and dispensations, including unimpeded access to the streets at night. In Samuel Rowley’s play When You See Me, You Know Me (1603–1604), the legendary criminal known as Black Will, who is subsequently co-opted by Henry VIII into becoming a soldier, has cut a deal with the corrupt watchmen, and is therefore at liberty to walk through the streets of London at night: “Doe but walke with me through the streetes of London, and let mee see the proudest watche disturbe us,” he boasts. Semi-professional, watchmen were also semi-criminal.


In Londinopolis, Howell neatly polarized the denizens of London’s night in terms of nightwatchers and nightwalkers: “To this Prison,” he wrote of the Tun, “the Night-watchers to this City, committed not only Night-walkers, but also other persons, as well spiritual as temporal, whom they suspected of incontinency.” In practice, however, there was no simple opposition between these groups of people. Those who watched at night were often confused with those who walked at night. Both were routinely identified as spies or eavesdroppers. In her study of late medieval and early modern court records, Marjorie McIntosh notes that, in the sixteenth century, the term vigilator was used in legal discourse to signal someone who watched and walked at night, and comments that it “implied a destructive inversion of the responsible role played by those who maintained the official night-time patrol of the community, known as the vigilatio.”

The dictionaries and glossaries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries testified to this persistent confusion of identities. The Latin term tenebrio, for example, was sometimes translated as “night watcher,” as in Richard Huloet’s Dictionary (1552), and sometimes as “micher,” a thief who skulks about or keeps out of sight, as in Charles Hoole’s An Easie Entrance to the Latin Tongue (1649), published a century later. In both cases, watching and walking at night are darkly intertwined.[ad]

A similar ambiguity obtains, long after the Renaissance, in the definitions of various nocturnal activities included in the seventeenth volume of the Encyclopaedia Londinensis (1820). A “night-walker,” according to the authors of this Enlightenment dictionary, is “one who roves in the night upon ill designs.” A “night- watcher,” meanwhile, is “one who watches through the night upon some ill design.” In both cases, an inversion of the role played by the authorities is once more apparent. To nightwalk is to enact a malign parody of the watchman’s patrol; to nightwatch is to enact a malign parody of his supervision or surveillance of the community and its individuals.

The watchman was regularly guilty of malign or corrupt behaviour, or of acting from dubious motives, so he often collapses into his opposite. His nightwalking, his nightwatching, was often quite as nefarious as that of the itinerants and prostitutes he was supposed to apprehend. Required for official reasons to be suspicious of other people, the watch was also, in a more colloquial sense, suspicious – that is, suspect. Here is an early instance of that entanglement of the identities of detective and criminal that is characteristic of noir cinema and fiction in the mid twentieth century. On the mean streets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before the introduction of public lighting, but perhaps right up to the introduction of a professional metropolitan police force in the early nineteenth century, nightwalkers and nightwatchmen, dressed alike in tattered, ragged clothes, could be hard to discriminate.

* * *

From Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, copyright © 2015 Matthew Beaumont. Published by Verso Books. Purchase the book.