Histories of London, c.1650-1800: Institutions, Work, Poverty and Crime

[In this post, Brodie Waddell sets out another response to the issues raised in the opening post on Integrating Histories of London.]

The history of early modern London cannot be written without the people who are often neglected in sweeping national histories. Whereas monarchs and politicians still receive the most attention in conventional textbooks of early modern history, it is the merchants, shopkeepers, craftspeople, criminals and beggars who populate the pages of metropolitan histories, especially those that focus on the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

So, why were these ‘ordinary’ – or even ‘marginalised’ – people so important to development of London at this time?


Six people one might encounter on the streets of London: British Library.

As a historian whose research has wandered recklessly around early modern England, I have no unique expertise on the capital. Yet, the richness and accessibility of the sources held at the London Metropolitan Archives and freely available online at London Lives has encouraged me to spend more time working on the city’s history since arriving at Birkbeck in 2012. More importantly, working here has meant that I’ve benefitted hugely from the chance to learn from nearby colleagues who know much more about this field than I do. I’ve been able to read or hear a wonderful range of London-focused scholarship through conferences, seminars and supervisions as well as publications. Specifically, the impressions I set out below emerge mostly from what I have gleaned from Vanessa Harding, Jerry White, Mike Berlin, Matthew Davis, Sarah Birt, Charlie Taverner, Anna Cusack, Laura Gowing, Jenny Bishop, Richard Bell and the others at the workshop.

To my mind, if we are trying to understand how people outside the ruling civic elite fit into the ‘grand narratives’ of the metropolis, what we are really talking about is agency and structure. The question of the balance between agency and structure is one that features every historical subfield, but I think it has been especially important to recent work on London.

Before going any further, I know that this terminology is rather old-fashioned and simplistic, but simplicity can be useful when thinking about grand narratives. Moreover, obviously neither agency nor structure were all encompassing. The balance between them is always situational and historically contingent. This is precisely what makes it an interesting question for historians.

How much agency did different people have in ‘late’ early modern London (c.1650-1800)? There were clearly differences across the period, with various structures growing stronger or weaker over time. There were also differences among individuals, most notably between men and women as well as rich and poor. Finally, and very importantly, there were differences between London and elsewhere, such as provincial towns, rural villages or non-English cities. I’ll return to all of these differences in what follows, but I’d like to focus on some specific issues rather than writing in generalities.

Three issues stand out to me: corporate institutions; working life; poverty and crime. This is mostly just because of my own interests, but I also think these have been particularly important to recent innovative work on the history of the metropolis.


Corporate Institutions

By ‘corporate institutions’, I mean the manifold structures of London’s civic government, its companies and guilds, its wards and parishes, but also the informal or alternative institutions in its midst.

Recent scholarship has returned to questions that were first asked decades ago with fresh perspectives and new evidence: How accessible and participatory were these institutions? How much did they influence the lives of ordinary people?

Women’s ability to engage with (or avoid) the City and the Companies is being investigated by Sarah Birt, Laura Gowing and Amy Erickson, among others. The importance of officeholding as a source of status and identity has been shown in Jenny Bishop’s work on company clerks and Jonah Miller’s on magistrates. Meanwhile, the relative ‘freedom’ of the ‘unfree’ (i.e. non-citizens) is being explored in Charlie Taverner’s research into street food sellers and Claire Benson’s on the porters and watermen. The illumination provided by Richard Bell of prisoners’ semi-licit organisations and by Emily Vine of non-conformist religious communities has shown that many London institutions emerged outside the formal civic structures.

When we consider this research as a whole, it offers a very pointed challenge to any narrative of metropolitan change that focuses too closely on the formal powers of the privileged male civic elite. However, we need to know more about how much this unconventional ‘freedom’ depended on specific places and spaces. Studies of London almost always consider divisions between the City and the suburbs, sometimes disaggregating these to account for differences between, for instance, Westminster, Southwark and the East End. But what about comparisons to the institutions found elsewhere such as provincial towns, rural parishes and manors? How ‘unique’ were the metropolis’s various ‘corporations’? We also need to know more about much this changed over time. Much of the scholarship on this topic has focused on the sixteenth century, but the traditional assumption of institutional decline in the seventeenth and eighteenth century is – at best – partly true and fails to account of the many new types of organisations that sprang up in London.


Working Life

Studies of metropolitan employment, apprenticeship, wages and occupational identity are multiplying quickly, revealing new aspects of these topics that were never addressed in traditional economic histories. We are learning much more about how ‘service’ in its broadest sense was shaped by negotiation and individual agency. This is particularly evident in the scholarship on women’s work mentioned above by Birt, Gowing and Erickson, but Sonia Tycho’s research into ‘consent’ using London records also stands out. Judy Stephenson has already transformed our understanding of the complex relationship between labour, contracts and supposed ‘wages’ through her investigations of the metropolitan building trades. Likewise, many of those already mentioned (e.g. Birt, Gowing, Erickson, Taverner, Benson) have directly or indirectly discussed the nature of occupational identity for workers who failed to fit the stereotype of the London ‘craftsman’.

Such issues are also receiving much attention from non-London historians, thus helping us to consider the question of geographical differences. Jane Whittle, Alex Shepard, Mark Hailwood and the CamPop occupational structure project are making it increasingly possible to compare metropolitan and rural situations. But there is still much less known about working life in provincial towns than in London or in villages. Likewise, some big collections – such as the depositions at MarineLives – have only just begun to be used and could give a much better sense of the ‘maritime city’ that stretched along the Thames.


Poverty and Crime

This is a topic that has been near the centre of metropolitan histories for almost my whole academic career and, although there many reasons for this, the primary one is undoubtedly the success of the Old Bailey Online and its related projects. These huge and accessible collections have ensured that long-standing questions being revisited. For example, were paupers and criminals marginalised or members of their local communities? Obviously the work of Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker has presented a new angle on this, though so too is that of Jeremy Boulton, Andrea McKenzie, Janice Turner, Lena Liapi and – most recently – Richard Bell on debtors.

Cage for vagrant beggars (Seller, Punishments, 1678)

The circumscribed agency of two vagrants, as depicted in 1678?

Yet, whether or not they were marginalised, we still need to grapple more directly with the limits to their agency. Just how circumscribed was it? Were they pursuing tactical, short-time ‘survival strategies’ as part of the ‘economy of makeshifts’? Or was there room for more substantive ‘negotiation’, perhaps as seen in the ten thousand petitions to London authorities being analysed by Sharon Howard? Or, maybe we need to consider more fully the wider impact of brief moments of outright protest and collective action such as the Gordon Riots. Again, questions of geography and chronology are also important. There has been excellent recent work on non-metropolitan poverty and, perhaps less voluminously, on crime. But the influence of the Old Bailey Online and London Lives means that the metropolis from the 1670s onwards has enjoyed disproportionate attention, making comparisons more difficult.

* * *

I do not have enough expertise to set out a manifesto for future research on the history of early modern London, but you will have noticed a few problems or, more optimistically, opportunities that I have noted repeatedly above. My overall impression is we need to consider more carefully London’s typicality or exceptionality in this period. There are various ways to do this, though probably the most promising is to pursue more extra-metropolitan comparisons by reading or talking to the excellent scholars researching provincial towns, agricultural villages, industrial areas and of course other metropolises such as Paris, Venice or Amsterdam. Part of this also involves acknowledging the gravitational pull of the Old Bailey Online and putting more effort into investigating sources that fall outside its chronological and geographical remit, if only to contextualise its wonderful texts.

It would, nonetheless, be unfair to ignore the ways the current historians of London are also overcoming traditional boundaries. For instance, it is pleasing how many are ignoring the old barrier of formed by the events of 1640-60 and instead stretching their research across the seventeenth century and beyond. By purposely challenging such conventional geographical and chronological limits, new scholarship can not only rework the grand narratives of London history but also those of early modern history more broadly.

7 thoughts on “Histories of London, c.1650-1800: Institutions, Work, Poverty and Crime

  1. Pingback: Integrating Histories of London, c.1500-1800 | the many-headed monster

  2. Interesting, although I’m not really conversant with the capital.
    1 Oh dear, still no reference to Griffiths, Lost Londons.- essential for the ‘marginalized’ (and we don’t know enough about their support networks, although Griffiths tried hard).
    2 I prefer de Certeau on the difference between strategies and tactics, depending on ownership of power. Why aren’t UK historians getting to grips with de Certeau?
    3 Structure/agency – or structuration, either Giddens (no thanks) or Bourdieu (yes please).

    • Thanks, Dave. This post is about c.1650-c.1800, so Griffiths is not terribly relevant.

      Yes, de Certeau’s concept of strategy and tactics is really useful for thinking about this, and it influenced me strongly when I read him while doing my MA. I should probably have mentioned him!

      Regarding your comment below, Withington’s discussion of corporatism (though mostly focused on pre-1640) is great for thinking about provincial towns, but as I say in the post there has been very little direct comparison with London. One of things I’m trying to argue here is that we need much more discussion and comparison between those working on the metropolis and those working on provincial towns and on rural areas. It is starting, but there is much more that could still be done.

  3. Of course, Withington reckons a new cultural ethos of corporatism in provincial urban places in the late 17th cent. Different from London?

  4. On twitter, John Reeks asks: ‘Why are so many historians working on these issues: political persuasion or the ready availability of sources?’

    My reply: For me and (I think) many others, it is the sense that researching these issues can help to answer big, important questions about how metropolitan society worked/developed. That is to say, these are important historical questions in their own right, just as important as the traditional high political ones. I suppose that’s partly about the historian’s political persuasion, but there’s also plenty of underused sources that speak to these questions.

    Full thread here: https://twitter.com/Brodie_Waddell/status/1084746019856924672

    • Political persuasion: in the sense that my provincial loathing of London means that I would not engage with its history (except as a by-product of an interest in drama). For me, it retains that character cited by Jack Fisher: ‘a fat head’ compared with the rest of the ‘lean body’.
      On urban(e)/rural (bucolic): for John’s Bristol, of course, Carl Estabrook.

  5. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 3) | www.weyerman.nl

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