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Response to Review no. 767

I’m grateful to Jacob Field for taking the time to read my book and put his thoughts about it into a review. That said, however, I must confess that I’m a little disappointed with what he has written. Not because any of it is unfair, mean-spirited, distorting, or mistaken. But because the critical comments in his 2,434 words do not get very close to the heart and spirit of Lost Londons: the nature of cities; the nature of perceptions; the nature of crime and disorder; material environments; street life; marginal women; the nature of prosecution and policing. There is some description of these things, but no real attempt to engage with them, something doubly disappointing in a review forum that likes responses from authors and is known for generosity when it comes to length.

The analysis in this review tends towards methods and sources rather than actual arguments, and, more than anything else, the maps and tables at the end of the book and how I generated what we see in them. The longish appendix of maps and tables rather came about by accident as I dug deeper and deeper and wondered what on earth should I do with these thousands and thousands of cases that popped up. It had never been my plan 15 years or so ago to saddle whatever book I wrote with reams of figures, but I’m glad that I did in the end. I’m no demographer, needless to say; quite the opposite if truth be told, I don’t always like how the lives of long dead people are handled by number crunchers. Nor am I a quantifier at heart; although I strongly believe that it is worth totting up crime statistics to get at the perceptions and policies behind them. I must confess that I have no idea what a choropleth map is, and putting things in percentages or graphs seems like crossing T’s and dotting I’s to me, and would not, I think, have altered a single argument one jot.

I think that the most important point about my methods is this one from early on in the book: ‘Perceptions spawned policies and prosecutions’. This is the sixty-four thousand dollar issue for me. It’s a leitmotif of mine that if we wish to come to terms with London all that time ago then we ought to make sure that we take seriously images and ideas of the city (and people whether they be insiders or outsiders or, perhaps more likely, both at once) from the time. This is what policy-makers were thinking of when they chose a course to cope with something that had caught their attention, and it is not of great concern to me on this score if their impressions now seem wide off the mark. What matters most is that in their admittedly recorded words they tell us why they acted in the way(s) that they did, not what our smart counting tells us today if we do not use it to get inside their minds. I could never have written these words:

There is also the question of scale – by the mid 17th century, London’s population had risen to around 375,000, meaning many of the totals in the tables are actually quite low in terms of proportion of the city’s population – especially when recidivists are taken into account. For example, the 541 vagrants prosecuted in the period 1653-7 (table 4a, p. 456) represents around 0.15 per cent of the total population of London.

This is vintage Steve Rappaport who wrote the following lines 21 years ago to take the wind out of Lee Beier’s sails after he claimed that an eightfold leap in the number of vagrants brought to Bridewell in the four decades after 1560 (total arrests in 1600–1 numbered 555) marked ‘a massive increase in London vagrancy’ (1) and that trouble followed vagrants like night follows day:

What Beier failed to consider is that relative to the size of the city’s population the figures suggest a very low rate of vagrancy. Using his estimates that 80–90,000 people lived in London in 1560 and 250,000 in 1605, the number of vagrants arrested in those years amounts to 0.1 and 0.2 per cent of the population respectively. True, this does show a real increase in vagrancy arrests, but the figure for 1600-1 – the terminal date of the ‘massive increase’ in vagrancy – equals one-fifth of 1 per cent of the entire population’.(2) (original emphases)

I thought that we had moved on from this dryness by now. Numbers games like these suck life and language out of the city and they are  one reason why I wanted to write Lost Londons in the first place. Beier’s ‘crowd’ of vagrants, Rappaport writes, ‘would barely have filled the Guildhall let alone the streets’.(3) Tell that to the rulers who sat in the Guildhall day-in-and-day-out who passed policy sure that London teetered on the brink of breakdown, and who since at least 1557 had issued one dire warning after another that vagrants ‘swarmed’ up and down streets all day long in ‘great multitudes’.(4) Their on-the-spot perceptions matter far more than parched percentages if we are ever to fully understand the nature(s) of this quick growing city.

A more interesting question of scope and scale for me at any rate is Bridewell’s place and reach. It was a little over the west walls with the Fleet River as its east border, and quite fairly Field raises an issue that I first raise in my book: that is to say that what we see in Bridewell’s caseload is skewed by its location in the busy western fringe and that this unevenness might warp my geographies of crime and policing. It’s worth remembering that Bridewell was called London’s house of correction (the one in built-up Middlesex opened its doors for the first time six decades after Bridewell took its first batch of inmates in 1555). This is one place in this review where the whole story does not get across. I got hold of a fair amount of other evidence from other places and jurisdictions (not brought up by Field) to back up my impression that London’s western parts were its biggest crime hot spot. My hunch is that Middlesex and Westminster sessions records (and I’ve gone through a stack of them) will tell us what we already know: that large stretches of London’s edges were red-light belts and thieves’ stomping grounds, and that the rowdiest ward of all was Farringdon Without straddling the west walls.

Lost Londons is a book on London not its house of correction, although readers of Field’s long last paragraph could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. A ‘problem’, he writes:

‘is the book’s large reliance on the Bridewell records. They are representative of one London, but are they representative of all ‘Londons’? Very different histories have been written, presenting London as stable, using different sources’.

The gist of these lines is that I immerse myself in Bridewell while others write and read early modern London from ‘different sources’. I got a pat on the back earlier on for putting a book together from a ‘staggering range’ of archival records, and in fact Bridewell gets only 19 lines in a bibliography of archival sources that runs to almost nine pages. It’s not possible to write a book on change, crime, and control from criminal records alone (I’m happy to admit, if that’s the right word, that crime, the shortest of the three parts of the book by some distance, leans most heavily on Bridewell). We do not get policies from judicial records on the whole. Nor should we write about policing from prosecution papers alone. What’s more the first place to turn for perceptions of the state of the city around the tables of policy-makers is their recorded words in the Repertories of the Court of Aldermen and Journals of Common Council (I’ve read through 59 volumes of the first of these and 31 Journals). So the point about me ‘using different sources’ to others who have written ‘very different histories’ rather took me by surprise. I can remember sitting in the same archives and reading the same sources as Archer, Boulton, Harding, Rappaport, Ward, and the rest (they’re all there in my bibliography), although I took along different concepts, methods, and questions with me and as you might expect came up with different slants on the city in the main. I think that Field’s point is that Bridewell somehow tilts my history for me. But my understanding of the city and how it did or did not work draws on all kinds of surviving sources: City, Westminster, Whitehall, ward, parish, judicial, guild, hospital, and ecclesiastical. Once more: we cannot write histories of London from Bridewell stories. London is many parts. And Bridewell, by the way, is ‘representative’ of not one but a score of them. Field asks: ‘Does London’s ambiguity make it impossible to draw any firm conclusions?’ There’s an obvious answer: ambiguity is a ‘firm conclusion’.

I’ll end with that. But, at the risk of making a plug, if anyone has any interest in following any of these matters any further, Histoire Sociale/Social History is publishing the papers from a lively roundtable on Lost Londons at the 2008 NACBS later on this year.


  1. A. L. Beier, ‘Social problems in Elizabethan London’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 9 (1978), 204.Back to (1)
  2. S. Rappaport, Worlds Within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London (Cambridge, 1988), p. 5.Back to (2)
  3. Ibid.Back to (3)
  4. See Lost Londons: Change, Crime, and Control in the Capital City, 1550–1660 (Cambridge, 2008), pp. 36–40.Back to (4)