The undeserving poor: ‘rich beggars’

Brodie Waddell

Fear and hatred of the ‘undeserving’ poor pollutes our thinking about poverty. The shadows of scroungers, fraudsters and cheats who falsely claim to need our help loom over every conversation about benefits and over every new welfare policy.

Rich beggar (2013) Evening StandardHeadlines about workshy swindlers march across the front pages of our papers almost every day. A quick online search reveals over 10,000 news stories on ‘benefit fraud’, reported both in the nation’s most popular newspapers and in local papers like the Bromley Times and Coventry Telegraph.

Such stories are part of our deep anxiety about those who get something for nothing. We worry that our taxes, our donations, our hard-earned money is being spent on people who don’t need it. The public believes that fraud accounts for over one in every four pounds in Britain’s welfare budget, when in fact it is well under one in a hundred. Such fear and fury are not confined to any particular class – they are common enough among the wealthy and educated as well as the working class. You have, I’m sure, occasionally heard examples of this from family and friends, just as I have. Sadly, if you pay careful attention, you’ll probably find it sometimes lurks in your own thoughts too.

As every student of early modern England knows, this anxiety is not new. By the sixteenth century, it was widespread among educated Englishmen. Many law-makers, preachers and pamphleteers loudly and frequently denounced the ‘undeserving’ poor as ‘vermin’, ‘caterpillars’, and ‘children of Belial’. Their primary target was ‘vagabonds’ and ‘rogues’ – ‘masterless’ young men who wandered around the country begging and thieving when they should have been working.

However, these ‘masterless men’ were not the only beggars in early modern England. As has been seen in previous posts, many of those who asked for alms were not demonized and many more were neither young nor men. But even for those poor individuals who were clearly not a physical threat, some people remained doubtful about whether they truly ‘deserved’ relief.


One source of these suspicions was the story of the ‘rich beggar’. There must have been many such tales circulating at the time, but the most famous was that of the blind beggar of Bethnal Green. According to legend, the thirteenth-century knight Henry de Montfort lost his sight in battle and spent the rest of his life begging at a cross-roads, only to reveal his great riches when a wealthy knight proposed marriage to his supposedly penniless daughter. By the seventeenth century, this had become the subject of a popular ballad about The Blind Beggars Daughter of Bednall-Green which was regularly reprinted. Another ballad of the period described The Stout Cripple of Cornwall, who ‘crept on his hands and knees up and down’ the roads, begging each day and thieving each night, whereby he gathered £900 before being caught and hanged.


Such stories seem ridiculous – yet a handful of real cases from this period must have made them appear much more credible. In 1562, for example, authorities at Norwich confiscated the possessions of a woman called Mother Arden who daily went ‘beggying in the strettes’. The officers discovered that amongst her meagre stock she had hidden away £44 3s. 5d., equivalent to many years income for most labouring people at the time.

More than two centuries later, in early nineteenth-century Ireland, a ‘miserly beggar’ by the name of Adam Mond was caught. He was blind and so spent most of his time asking for alms in the countryside around his ‘despicable hovel’. Yet, he was overheard speaking in his sleep about a stash of money and a search by some suspicious neighbours revealed more than £100 squirrelled away. When they money was confiscated and he was offered merely a reasonable pension, Mond went mad with grief and ‘never recovered’, dying seven months later.

Amidst the receipts and disbursements cluttering up the pages of the overseers’ accounts of Great Gransden in Huntingdonshire, I came across another extraordinary ‘rich beggar’. On 1 December 1680, a cold Wednesday morning, ‘An Old Beggar Man was found Dead in one of the Closes at Leccott’ by a carpenter who discovered his body under a haystack. Four parish officers ‘went up to Leccott to view the Body & Turning it over they Soone found a Parcell of money which was put into an old Cloath & lay under his Arme’. The next day, a coroner and jury viewed the body, soon concluding ‘that the man died with Cold & Hunger & want of Necessaryes, which he would not allow Himselfe although he had Money & Cloths Sufficient in his Pack yet Hee had not the Heart or good minde to make the Best use of them’. The beggar ‘was Buried decently’ later that day.

But what made the Leccott beggar so worthy of note was the fact that he didn’t merely have enough money to buy some bread, for in his ‘old Cloath’ they found ‘Three Pounds Eight Pence Farthing’. This may not be as incredible as Mother Arden’s fortune, but £3 was still an impressive sum. A farm labourer earned about 10d. per day by this time, meaning that the beggar had tucked away savings worth more more than ten weeks of wages.

The overseer resentfully noted that the apparent windfall did not last long.

“It was Hoped that there would have been some money left to have beene given to the Poor of Gransden aforesaid, in Memory of the Begger, but the Jury men and those that went to Leccot demanded pay for their Pains, And spent all their money at the Ale House, So the Beggers mony was all spent in two days Time, which was lik[e]ly He Begged many Years for & Denied himselfe Necessaryes for his Life.”

So here we have a surprisingly sympathetic account of a ‘rich beggar’, in which the old wanderer’s savings are seen as the product of an unsound ‘minde’ rather than devious trickery. The real villains in this telling are the jurymen and other locals who diverted the money from charity for their own enjoyment.

We never hear from the Leccott beggar himself, just as we don’t hear directly from Mother Arden or Adam Mond, so we will never know how they would have explained or justified themselves. But my own sense is that few people – then or now – undergo the discomfort and degradation of a beggar’s life by choice. If they continue begging even when they have enough money to escape that hard road, it is probably not greed that drives them on.

Huntingdonshire Archives, HP36/12/1, p. 112: Great Gransden Overseers' Account Book, 1664-1701

Huntingdonshire Archives, HP36/12/1, p. 112: Great Gransden Overseers’ Account Book, 1664-1701

15 thoughts on “The undeserving poor: ‘rich beggars’

  1. We still see this in modern day of people who live a very limited life because they are scared they will not have enough money to support themselves. Certainly the majority are not begging but they do without and it is only when they pass on it is found they had more than adequate money to have lived a life with a few more comforts.

    • Yes, I suspect the Leccott beggar’s inability to use his money to support himself is an extreme example of a more common anxiety among people with little economic security. Some hoard away every spare penny out of fear that they might soon need it to survive.

      • Enjoyed this, as ever, Brodie!

        The cultural historian in me wonders about putting a spin on these rich beggars along the lines of how powerful and enduring the cultures that people grow up in can be on their future behaviour.

        My grandmother, for instance, came from a large Yorkshire family who were not the poorest, but did have to be very careful with their cash.

        She never changed her attitude to money.

        In the years before she died, she often complained about not having sufficient income. Luckily, she had the support of her family to care for her towards the end. But when she did die, imagine the surprise among her relatives to discover she had a huge amount of money in her current account…

        Of course I’m not suggesting that there are loads of beggars or benefit recipients today who secretly hoard huge fortunes, but I do think it casts your real cases of these rather tragic rich beggars in an interesting light.

  2. We have a lot of these now:

    . Beggars – People that beg money for whatever. Could be need, but I have never met one of these. Usually is drink & drugs, and easy living.

    . Pro Beggars – These are business/conmen that are taking advantage of generosity and the gaga trusting of some public. You will see the same ones doing their rounds of the churches on Sundays. These are the full ‘props’ & ‘costumers’, on their ‘stage’, with every heart tugging string idea in their ‘show’.

    . Cloaked begging – Street papers, or pencils, that you aren’t expected to take, but bung them a tenner anyway. Another good earner for no work. I think that most people know what this money is for, and why they are still there, or a new ‘patch’, 15 years later.

    Begging can make enormous amounts of money, more than most chief executives, all tax free, so once this is embarked upon, it is a one way ticket that can never be left.

    • I’ve decided to allow this anonymous comment to stand as it is an interesting modern example of the sort of ‘rogue literature’ common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

      Much like Thomas Harman in his *Caveat for Common Cursetors* (1566), this comment presents a list of supposedly sophisticated types of fraudsters, each one more specialised than the last. It tries to give the impression of ‘insider knowledge’ by including some allegedly ‘cant’ terms such as ‘cloaked begging’ and by claiming to report specific ‘tricks of the trade’. However, it becomes increasingly ridiculous as it moves from merely gross generalisation (e.g. ‘easy living’ as the ‘usual’ motive for begging) to complete fantasy (e.g. beggars ‘can make enormous amounts of money, more than most chief executives’).

      So, optimistically, this comment may be an interesting – admittedly not very amusing – satire.

      • Dear Brodie

        I am terribly sorry that I have upset you on this subject.

        The posting name, RoughSleeper, is that, that I use right across all newspapers in the UK, where I post on this subject, and other subjects related to this. The reason will become obvious, once that I publish my observations.

        I know nothing of the literature that you speak, and from here, am not in a position to read them.

        I am deeply embedded in this life, and see what the public, and your good-self, doesn’t see. This is not a brag of superior knowledge, just a fact.

        I assure you, that these people do exist, and this is not anti poor rhetoric.

        There is no, or wasn’t meant to be, a hierarchy in my list, just an observation of what I have seen for all these days.

        I don’t try to “give the impression of ‘insider knowledge’ by including some allegedly ‘cant’ terms such as ‘cloaked begging’ and by claiming to report specific ‘tricks of the trade’”. I am there, on the ground, and see the ones not begging, die, because they wont beg, and look less of the cliche stereotypical part, than the beggars. Each death, I record, in text and photos.

        “However, it becomes increasingly ridiculous as it moves from merely gross generalisation (e.g. ‘easy living’ as the ‘usual’ motive for begging) to complete fantasy (e.g. beggars ‘can make enormous amounts of money, more than most chief executives’).”

        Not my figures. The links to the daily, & yearly earnings, are already out there, just a lot of Googling, using such terms as pro beggars. I wouldn’t say that they spend the money as wisely as a chief executive, but the turnover of money is staggering, for the wrong things. The same money could go very far in the hands of the non beggars.

        I am saddened that you chose to slag off my, and others, observances from the ground, before trying to contact me, to hear what we see from here.

        (9.0120 x 10K hours expertise, Boots on the ground, 3755 Days, @ 1.4967 pence/day)

        Until this gets updated, hopefully soon, there are some photos in support of me being here.

        Best Regards

      • RoughSleeper: Apologies for mistaking your post for satire and for my condescending reply. My only defence is that it reminded me very strongly of the sort of anti-poor rhetoric that is so popular in the Daily Mail and other right-wing media, so I leapt to conclusions.

        I’ll take your word that you have much more contact with today’s beggars than I do. I’m sure that’s true, given that I have very little. Your project of recording the deaths of the poor seems like a potentially very important and brave aim.

        I don’t think it would be helpful to get into an argument here about the motives or earnings of today’s beggars, especially as I’m not sure how it would be possible to get reliable information on this. Begging – like all marginalised and criminalised activities – is extremely difficult analyse systematically.

        My point in this post was simply to say that there was a widely held perception in early modern England that some beggars were actually ‘rich’ and thus did not deserve any charity, and this this assumption remained popular today. I found one particular case (‘the Leccott beggar’ of 1680) of a beggar who – although definitely not penniless – was also not a fraudster or fake as he died of hunger and cold. He was in fact probably mentally ill.

        This suggested to me that maybe even those who seemed to beg ‘by choice’ should not be stigmatised and punished, because they might actually need other forms of support. I may well be wrong about this, but I think I’d rather err on the side of generosity.

      • Hi Brodie

        I can see that you are a good person, and that your interest is in protecting ‘us’, the ‘Poor’, from the rhetoric of the right wing trash papers.

        The problem lies in the grouping of us, formed by such papers, and it’s acceptance by the public, as that of Poor, Foodless, Waterless, RoughSleepers, Homeless, Beggars, Pro Beggars, Cloaked beggars, Druggies, Drunks, Violent, Dirty, Thieves, Shoplifters, Scroungers, Unemployed, Mentally ill, as being one entity.

        One infers the other, so can be used ubiquitously in place of each other, and no-one notices.

        Most public have fallen into this trap, and the people that defend us, therefore, feel a need to defend all other terms in the group, as if we do one term because of anther term.

        We don’t.

        We are not one.

        These are all individual characteristics, that can be totally unconnected, or connected in smaller sub groups. Just as the list: blacks, Asians, Dwarfs, Footballers, Males, Females, Vegetarians, Professionals, or any other such list, can be.

        On our subject, I have tried to put these in sub groups and represent them with names, but ran into a numbers problem. If there are 20 terms, the combinations(nCr) would be: 20C20 + 20C19 + 20C18 + ………….+ + 20C2 + 20C1, which is probably a bigger number that I have lifetime to categorize. Initially I thought of putting them in overlapping ven diagrams, but this was obviously not possible. So I have been struggling on how to put us ‘poor’ into some type of diagrammatic or numeric representation, so that the whole truth is told simply, and proportionately.

        I think that representing most hardship and need, could be taken from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, and a table made from this. With the most important need, that makes the other needs irrelevant, first, and the luxuries, last.

        I will work on this.

        Anyway back to the post.

        I think that you may have found my links by now, and so verified my ‘Boots on the ground’. The Boots, are my posting avatar.

        I have nearly finished a superior set of photos, extended and bigger, which will be placed in the dropbox, soon.

        The ‘sign off’ that I do on all of the posts re ‘expertise’, is so that people can see that the numbers change daily, and are so genuine. Not for self importance.

        Most ‘ordinary’ beggars are useful to the RoughSleepers, because they give us the unwanted by-product of their begging, as a thankyou for not competing for ‘their coin’. We eat because of them. Some are very nice people, albeit wasteful.

        The distinction that I make from Beggars, to Pro Beggars, is covered in 2 more stories today, from ‘our’ point of view. Here:

        The stories here of gangs of Pros threatening genuine RoughSleepers off their ‘patches’ is standard policy.

        I have seen, and recorded, much more than these stories tell. One Pro, in a very nice house, with 2 costume bicycles, 28 different rucksacks, some with sewn in pans, countless different costumes & props, 3 names, and more heartpull stories, than a novelist, is directly responsible for 4 deaths that I know about to date, and may be for many more than this that have gone missing. Even when the RoughSleeper doesn’t beg, he sees them as a threat to ‘his coin’, in ‘his town’, and runs them out. Because the public may well give them food or money directly, even when not begging. That would represent a loss of potential earnings for him. He usually holds them up against a wall, takes all of their money, gives them a few slaps, and tells them to get out of town by midnight or worse will happen to them. He comes at 1 minute past midnight, to check that they have obeyed him. He takes the discarded skipped supermarket food, and destroys it, usually squashed wherever they sleep, so that they cannot eat, or sleep here. You probably have seen the photos by now.

        This is the difference between Beggars, and Pro Beggars. The latter are evil.

        “I may well be wrong about this, but I think I’d rather err on the side of generosity.”

        A very commendable attitude.

        Just an idea: If you give food, it is of no use to the pros, and the beggars will give us it. We are in the libraries, art galleries, museums, etc, until the pros have gone home. We are the ones actually on the benches at night. The pros arrive in the morning to pretend that they slept there.

        Thankyou again, for trying to do right by us.

        (9.0168 x 10K hours expertise, Boots on the ground, 3757 Days, @ 1.4959 pence/day)@

  3. ‘The public believes that fraud accounts for over one in every four pounds in Britain’s welfare budget, when in fact it is well under one in a hundred.’
    And that belief is encouraged by the corporate news media who delight in publicising such stories. Far more serious, and socially damaging is the disgrace of large corporations paying little or no tax; and the scandalous profiteering of the financial sector.

    • Part of the reason I posted this is because I’ve been so disgusted by the way most of the British newspaper press portrays the poor and marginalised. It is dangerous to make direct analogies between the early modern period and today, but sometimes the rhetoric is so strikingly similar that it is hard to ignore.

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  5. I really enjoyed this piece by Brodie.

    I’ve recently edited early Stuart Irish warrants between 1623 and 1639 for the Irish Manuscripts Commission (due to be published in a matter of weeks now). Warrants may seem a little dull but they shed fascinating light on a broad range of aspects, particularly in regard to learning about early modern society.

    For example, there is one warrant from c.1634 which makes reference to man found guilty of issuing counterfeit begging passes. The sentence imposed on the criminal stated that he was to be placed on the pillory at the next market day where he would have his ears cut off. Unfortunately for the criminal, the appointed officer wounded him so badly ‘in the head and face’ that Dublin Castle had to issue a warrant not to put him on the pillory again until Lord Deputy Wentworth made the order. Talk about setting an example!

    The nature of the warrant suggests that counterfeit begging passes was common practice in Ireland. Indeed, there are a number of other examples which specifically state that begging passes issued to individuals could only be used for a particular period – usually 6 months. The warrants explicitly note that the passes are only to be used in that period and no longer, hinting that some people tried to exploit the generosity of the government.

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  7. Thanks for this timely post Brodie. The cultural disassociation of ‘various sorts of people’ that Keith Wrightson identified in his masterful work on Poverty in Terling is alive and well unfortunately. It is sad that as a collective society, we are still susceptible to this divide and rule nonsense.

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