Today in London radical herstory, 1611: thief, performer, libertine, fence Moll Cutpurse arrested, for cross-dressing

“Though no remarkable thing happened at her nativity, such as the flattering sooth sayers pretend in eclipses, and other the like motions above, or tides, and whales, and great fires, adjusted and timed to the genitures of crowned heads, yet, for a she politician, she was not much inferior to Pope Joan ; for in her time she was superior in the mystery of diving in purses and pockets, and was very well read and skilled too in the affairs of the placket among the great ones.”
(‘Mary Frith, otherwise Moll Cutpurse, The Complete Newgate Calendar, Volume I’)

Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse, also known as the Roaring Girl: thief, adventurer, fence, stage performer, also possibly highwaywoman…

The facts of Moll or Mary’s life are extremely confusing, with many exaggerations and myths attached to her name. Sensationalised biographies and stage plays written both during her life and after her death helped to create and perpetuate many of these myths; to distort the reality of an already interesting life.

Mary Frith was born around 1584-85 to a shoemaker and a housewife, possibly in or around Aldersgate Street. She was commonly said to have, as a young girl, rejected what were then seen as a women’s dress, role and place: all accounts of her life emphasise how she cut her hair short, dressed in men’s clothes & hung out in taverns smoking a pipe, drinking and swearing.

A popular pamphlet claiming to recount her life claimed “She was above all breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig or hoyden, and delighted only in boys’ play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls… She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels. Her headgear and handkerchief (or what the fashion of those times was for girls to be dressed in) were alike tedious to her…” (The Complete Newgate Calendar)

But the swirl of myths that grew up around Mary’s life partly evolved to enable male commentators to pigeonhole her in one or more boxes; pretty much all with the aim of fitting her back into the gender stereotypes that were expected – whether moral and conforming to social mores, or immoral and transgressing them. Not only were published accounts of her life written by men, but those men ‘adapted’ the facts to fit their prejudices, and to follow the stereotyped patterns criminals were supposed to conform to in fictional biography. In Mary Frith/Moll Cutpurse’s case this amounted attempting to represent her cross-dressing as indicating she was a “sexual aberration, a prodigy, a monster”, anything from a transvestite usurping male power, as a “hermaphrodite transcending the borders of human sexuality, as a virago, as a tomboy, as a prostitute, as a bawd, and even as a chaste woman who remained a spinster.” On top of this, writers tried to jemmy her into other clichéd narratives of the era – the royalist rebel fighting puritan Parliament, or the righteous thief defending the poor against the rich.

“the mythmaking process of transmuting the historical figure of Mary Frith into the mythic Moll Cutpurse… the main strategy the author(s) pursued was to integrate scanty historical records into the preexisting parameters of criminal biography as they had been evolved for male criminals and, if need be, to transcend or invert the pattern…  As a result of this transmutation… the historical figure, who already in her lifetime had gone through a mythologising process, was reduced to a depersonalised entity.”

Debate about the sexual and gender identity of Mary Frith has also been popular in recent decades. What did her cross-dressing indicate? Gender rebellion or role reversal? transgressive sexuality?

The traditional picture of Moll has mainly been drawn on her fictional representations as the Roaring Girl in such plays written about her while she lives, The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day, 1610 (the text of which is now lost) and Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, as well as anonymously published biographies, notably ‘The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse. Exactly Collected and now Published for the Delight and Recreation of all Merry disposed Persons…’ and
‘The Womans Champion; or The Strange Wonder Being a true Relation of the mad Pranks, merry Conceits, Politick Figaries, and most unheard of Stratagems of Mrs. Mary Frith, commonly called Mall Cutpurse, living near Fleet-Conduit; even from her Cradle to her Winding-Sheet.’

In her teenage years Mary Frith became a cutpurse, robbing people’s purses in the street:

“I had but very little choice, so I listed my self of another Colony or Plantation (but who neither sow nor reap) of the Divers or File-clerks. A cunning Nation being a kind of Land Pirates, trading altogether in other men’s Bottoms, for no other Merchandises than Bullion and ready Coin, and keep most of the great Fairs and Marts of the world. They are very expert Mathematicians, but excellently good at Dialing; as also they are rare Figure Flingers, and most dexterous at the Tactics; they had been long incorporated, and had their Governors and Assistants as other Worshipful Companies; and had a good stock for the maintenance of their Trade.”
(The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse)

Her career as a purse snatcher began for certain in her teens; in 1600, she, Jane Hill, and Jane Styles, all three ‘spinsters dwelling in the City of London’, were indicted by the Justices of Middlesex for having, on 26 August 1600, snatched a purse kept in a breast pocket and containing 2s and 11d in cash, from an unknown man at Clerkenwell. However, it is suggested that the trial jury found her not guilty of this offence.

“The petty crime that led to the arrest of the fifteen-year-old Mary Frith reveals that in her formative years as a delinquent she was plying her craft with two female partners. She was obviously working in a small female gang to reduce the risk of detection. Partnership with two women is likely to have been less combative than a partnership with men as regards dividing the loot into equal shares…”

Potential pickpockets tended to drift into delinquency at an early age. Thus all the members of a gang of nineteen “cutpurses” whom Simon Forman, in 1598, “had in Examination abought” the theft of his “purse” were between fifteen and twenty years old. The youngest, Jeames Harborte, was fifteen, that is, Mary’s age, Roger Goth was sixteen, and the oldest, Jhon Tucke and Robarte Frenche, were twenty years old. There were academies specialising in introducing boys into the art of stealing. Such a “schole howse” for pickpockets was denounced to Lord Burghley in 1585. It had been “sett upp” by one Wotton, gentleman and former merchant at Smart’s Quay near Billingsgate, “to learne younge boyes to cutt purses.”

On 18 March 1602, cordwainer Thomas Dobson and the silktwister William Simons, both of the parish of St. Giles outside Cripplegate, gave evidence to Middlesex magistrates, that “Marya FFrithe” should appear at the next session of gaol delivery on suspicion of having taken “a purse with XXVs of Richard Ingles.”

In 1608, Mary seems to have turned accuser: on 13 May that year, “Maria Feith de Southworke,” spinster, and John Clementes, servant to Edward Carrell, of Hastings, Sussex, (both men being soldiers), accused Edward Welles and Gilbert Dadson of felony.

Facsimile engraving from a 17th century original  of Moll

1609 On 8 September 1609, “Maria ffrythe,” living in the parish of St Olave, Southwark, “Spinster,” was alleged to have burgled the house of Alice Bayly in St Olave by night and stole 7 [pounds sterling] 7s in money, “twoe angells of gold,” “one twentie shillinge peece of gold,” “twoe half crownes of gold,” a gold ring rated at 6s, and “twoe cristall stones sett in seluer” valued at 20d.

Again, it seems Mary was found not guilty (in March 1610). This does not necessarily mean that she did not break into the house: she may have come to an arrangement with Alice Bayly, who was present at the hearing, to return part of the stolen goods. Such deals with victims were common, because recovered stolen goods, in the event of a conviction, would be confiscated by the crown.

‘Moll’ was recorded as having been burned on her hand four times, a common punishment for thieves.

Cross-dressing in male attire and a high-profile ‘debauched’ lifestyle, however, got her into as mch trouble as thieving, but may have helped her gain a kind of profile that enabled her to escape petty thievery and set up independently in business, as a fence.

How early she took to cross-dressing is unknown – the assertions in the sensationalist biographies and theatrical portrayals, that she dressed as a boy from an early age, may or may not be accurate. There is a tradition that relatives embarrassed either by her criminal activities or her unorthodox social behaviour tried to ship her off to the early colonies in New England: She had an uncle, brother to her father, who was a minister, and of him she stood in some awe, but not so much as to restrain her in these courses ; so that seeing he could not effectually remedy that inveterating evil in her manners, he trepanned her on board a merchant ship lying at Gravesend, and bound for New England, whither he designed to have sent her. But having learned to swim, she one night jumped overboard and swam to shore, and after that escape would never go near her uncle again.”

“Among the rest Tobacco was grown to be the great Mode, and much in use, and a sect of Swaggerers there were which from thence were denominated the Puffers and high Huffers; I was mightily taken with this vanity, because of its affected singularity; and no Woman before me ever smoked any, though I had a great many to follow my example…”
(The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse)

‘Moll’ was notorious for frequenting the tobacco shops and smoking: almost as much as transvestism, pipe-smoking became crucial to her image in her youth. Her stage portrait on the 1611 title page of The Roaring Girl shows her smoking a pipe.

Smoking was not only the latest fashion, but also had become associated in popular culture with music, and lecherousness. It “became a stage convention about 1599 to poke fun at the gallants who affected smoking tobacco and playing the ‘bass viol da gamba’ to ensnare women. The foppish Fastidius Brisk in Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour (1599) plays on the viol while smoking and courting Saviolina.(35) Gregory Gudgeon, the city lecher in Thomas Middleton’s The Family of Love (1602), keeps “a viol da gambo and good tobacco.” “

Mary Frith was not the first female smoker in England: by 1589 “men & women were indulging in the new custom of smoking earthernware or silver pipes. By 1615 smoking was “commonly used by most men & many women.” But Mary was unusual and pioneering for a woman, in hanging out in tobacco shops, generally the exclusive haunts of men.  This may be the aspect of her smoking that caused civic and ecclesiastical authorities outrage: a lower-class woman frequenting the tobacco shops suggested to them an infringement of both gender boundaries and of class privileges.
“The authorities considered smoking as becoming the upper classes but as unbecoming to the lower orders. King James in his proclamation issued on 17 October 1604 levied a heavy custom on the weed and distinguished between “the better sort” of people who “have and will use the same with Moderation to preserve their Health,” and “a number of riotous and disordered Persons of mean and base Condition, who, contrary to the use which Persons of good Calling and Quality make thereof, do spend most of their time in that idle vanity.”

Another of Moll’s alleged feats (as claimed in her later ‘Confession’) was her ride between the London boroughs of Charing Cross and Shoreditch on the famous performing horse Marocco while wearing male attire, in order to win a wager from the horse’s owner, William Banks. She carried with her a banner and a trumpet to give her ride a dramatic air and related how she caused a riot in the streets after she was recognised, some of the crowd clamouring for her to be pulled from the horse and others cheering her on.

Perhaps Mary Frith’s most notable aspect was her wearing of clothes marked out for men.

Her notoriety as a cross-dresser, dating from some point between 1602 and 1610, had already led to her becoming a public figure, early in her life.

So much so that her name and her cross-dressing entered literature, while she was still in her 20s. Two works were written about her in 1610-11. First the 1610 drama or poem, The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day, the text of which is now lost. Another play (that has survived) came a year later by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl. Both works dwelt on her scandalous behaviour, especially that of dressing in men’s attire. Both portrayed her as gender-nonconforming to an extent, such as her assertion in The Roaring Girl that she will never marry.

Not only was she portrayed on stage, she herself performed – at least a few times of stage, and possibly in the street.

The Epilogue of Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cut-Purse, published in 1611, famously promises the Fortune Theatre’s audience,
“The Roaring Girl herself, some few days hence, / Shall on this stage give larger recompense”.

And a few days later in April 1611, ‘Moll’ did indeed make her stage debut at the Fortune playhouse “in mans apparell & in her bootes & with a sword by her syde.” She later told the Bishop of London that “there vppon the stage in publique viewe of all the people there presente in mans apparrell,” she “playd vppon her lute & sange a songe” and made “some other immodest & lascivious speaches,” for about half an hour, the average length of an afterpiece.

Merely appearing on the stage itself was transgression – women were barred officially from performing in plays (Never forgetting however, that cross-dressing for men was a staple of the theatre – boys played female parts, since women were generally barred from the stage). If she did also perform in the street, she may well have been breaking the strict licensing rules around performance – unlicensed playing in taverns and streets went against the 1606 regulations issued by the company of musicians in the interest of public order. Offenders were fined 3s. 4d. for each infringement to the regulations.

Gustave Ungerer suggests that Mary Frith created a public persona as a cross-dressing performer, inventing her own professional signature, “a commercially and professionally motivated ploy to increase her income”, to get ahead in the cut-throat entertainment business of Southwark and the City of London. Possibly with a scheming eye towards rising from the lowest rungs of the social ladder – from cutpurse, to performer, through to businesswoman.

For obvious reasons, ‘Moll Cutpurse’s’ dressing ‘as a man’ opens up questions around her sexuality and attitudes towards sex and gender; however, women’s transvestism of the time could also be turned towards crime, as much as a “quest of her sexuality”. There was a notable transvestite scene in the capital, which had appeared in the 1570s and was to reach its peak in the 1620s.

Women wearing men’s garb seems to have been increasingly notable in that period: this caused a stir among the socially conservative, who fretted that this was an ‘affront to nature’ as well as being irreligious and a danger to the norms of society. In the years after ‘Moll’s’ famous stage debut, the controversy reached a height, and led to the publication Hic Mulier, a pamphlet attacking cross-dressing women.

For since the days of Adam women were never so Masculine: Masculine in their genders and whole generations, from the Mother to the youngest daughter; Masculine in Number, from one to multitudes; Masculine in Case, even from the head to the foot; Masculine in Mood, from bold speech to impudent action; and Masculine in Tense, for without redress they were, are, and will
be still most Masculine, most mankind, and most monstrous.” (Hic Mulier, 1620)

The author of Hic Mulier slams women dressing as men and appeals to their menfolk to intervene and correct them! Also, hilariously, identifying God as the first fashion designer: Remember how your Maker made for our first Parents coats — not one coat, but a coat for the man and a coat for the woman, coats of several fashions, several forms, and for several uses — the man’s coat fit for his labor, the woman’s fit for her modesty. And will you lose the model left by this great Workmaster of Heaven?”

The implication in the text is that this ‘fashion’ extended to various classes of society: part of the problem as usual was that what was stylish, if a bit risqué and exciting among the upper classes couldn’t be allowed to spread to the lower orders, as this might make it subversive and threaten stability.

Interestingly, a riposte to Hic Mulier, Haec Vir, published in 1620, partially refuted the charges: the characters Hic Mulier (manly Woman) and Haec Vir (Womanly Man) debate feminity and masculinity, with Hic Mulier here accusing her opposite of being effeminate and blaming masculine women on ‘soft’ men, but veering a bit into proto-feminist self-determination as well… It’s a fascinating mix, part dig at the male courtiers around alleged bi- or homosexual king James, part assertion of female autonomy, part complaint about metrosexual guys nicking yer earrings & eyeliner … Whether as a moral or to evade the censor, the two agree to go back to gender-appropriate clobber at the end.

What is partly being attacked in Hic Mulier appears to be women dressing in a sexually dominating way, or in clothes which emphasise overt sexual desire and autonomy. This was associated with whores, but also feared and hated by men who held sexual autonomy, desire, action, to be a male prerogative, to be denounced and pushed down when it came to women.

King James – generally keen to spread misogyny whenever he could – also intervened in the debate in 1620, commanding the clergy to teach, “against the insolencie of our women, and their wearing of broad brimmed hats, pointed dublets, their hair cut short or shorn, and some of them stilettoes or poinards, and such other trinckets of like moment.”

There was a relationship between transvestism and crime. Quite apart from any rebellion against rules and social codes, transvestism was also used to commit and disguise theft.

Were her street performances, her appearances in male garb, her posing in tobacco shops, at least partly a smokescreen to distract an audience, while accomplices robbed them?

According to London diarist John Chamberlain, Mary “used to go in mans apparell,” and thereby “challenged the fetid of” the town fops. Male performers and fops used to strut the streets displaying their fine clobber, helpfully providing a target for pickpockets.

In Moll’s examination by the Bishop of London in January 1612, she acknowledges that her new career as a public figure dressed up in male attire was designed as a commercial joint venture between herself and a gang of footpads. Thus, she “confessed” to having “vsually associated her selfe with Ruffinly swaggering & lewd company as namely with cut purses, blasphemous drunkards & others of bad note & of most dissolute behaviour.” The examination also confirms that while mounting her street and floor shows she was deftly practising her light-fingered art: she “confesseth” to the Consistory of London that “she is commonly termed Ma[ll] Cutpurse of her cutting of purses.”

Moll “voluntarily confessed that she had long frequented all or most of the disorderly & licentious places in this Cittie as namely she hath vsually in the habite of a man resorted to alehowses, Tavernes, Tobacco shops and also play howses there to see plaies & pryses.” Needless to say that these haunts, the theatres included, were an ideal hunting ground for a criminally minded pack of thieves waiting for Mary Frith’s beck and call. What better “pryses,” that is, presses, crowds, to relieve of their purses than guests in taverns, befuddled by drink and dazzled by Moll playing on her lute and singing a bawdy song and most likely performing a jig, or guests in a tobacco shop mesmerised by Moll smoking a pipe. pickpockets thrived under the screen cast by the music of popular entertainers.

But her Cross-dressing may also have become a performance in itself: challenging the gallants and fops on their own turf, making a name for herself… as well as asserting her own control over her image, a partial refutation of the rumour, myth and dismissal in the male-strom.

“…She let it be known in unmistakable words that she was not a transvestite, nor a hermaphrodite, nor a sexually ambiguous character of any kind. She addressed the audience of the Fortune Theatre, some 2,340 spectators, telling them unashamedly and disarmingly “that she thought that many of them were of opinion that she was a man, but if any of them would come to her lodging, they should finde that she is a woman.” This declaration was classified by the ecclesiastical judges as “immodest & lascivious speaches” that she “also vsed at that time.” There was, however, nothing lascivious about the reaffirmation of her womanhood. Her disclosure may also have been meant as a rejection of Middleton and Dekker’s fictional representation of her as a hermaphroditic ideal.”

However, Moll’s appearance at the Fortune was with the consent of these two authors, after the scripted play about her life was performed, suggesting all parties were to an extent co-operating for the purposes of making money, with a healthy dose of publicity thrown in to enhance everyone’s rep. On Moll’s part this may have contained some ambivalence, or not. Was she eying a more permanent move from street cockiness & performance for criminal purposes, into the theatrical life (marginally less illegal and marginal, though only just, at the time) ?

Gustave Ungerer suggests that crucially her performance demonstrated how she “appealed to the lower classes, the groundlings of the Fortune Theatre, and also drew the middle-class audiences, the gallants she used to challenge in their own field.” She had honed her art in the streets, taverns and tobacco shops, absorbing the subversive and irreverent oral tavern culture, and developing a mashup of bawdy, bantering comic give n take standup and burlesquing musical interlude. In her twenties, probably at the peak of her creative ability, ripe for a sideways move onto the boards, already having an image readymade (the male attire).

“In her promotion of this view, her male dress or playing apparel had become, as it were, her signature as a popular entertainer. A graphic demonstration of the costume change is afforded by the unauthorised woodcut of the original edition of The Roaring Girl. It shows the image of a woman dressed up in male clothes, brandishing a sword, smoking a pipe, but not playing the lute. The caption, printed lengthwise on the left-hand margin, reads: “My case is alter’d, I must worke for my liuing.” The wording sealed the demystification of Mary Frith’s sexual and gender ambiguity, signaling her desire to legitimate her profession and to earn her livelihood as a cross-dressed entertainer.”

However, if this was Mary’s aim, it was to be stymied by the City authorities.

A woman in male dress (in breach of the sumptuary laws) entertaining an audience in a public theatre, was provocation enough; her history of dress violations, outdoor pranks, and unlicensed entertainments must have also been noted. However, another not unimportant factor was the crowds any repeat of the show had the potential to draw in: uncontrollable throngs with the chance of disorder, not to mention the gangs of cutpurses (whether in deliberate league with Mary or not!)

“an adversary of mine, whom I could never punctually know, cited me to appear in the Court of the Arches, where was an Accusation exhibited against me for wearing indecent and manly apparel…”

Mary Frith was arrested in April 1611, shortly after the Fortune show, and committed to the Bridewell, the not-quite-prison/proto-workhouse, an institution dedicated to containing and attempting reform of Londoners seen by the authorities as living immoral or troublesome or unruly lives. This included prostitutes, the destitute, poor orphans, those who outraged social conformity and people living on the margins. The Bridewell had started life as a royal palace, become disused and been pressed into service first as a kind of hostel for relief of the urban poor. This rapidly evolved into a correctional facility; the kind of moral improvement by force developed here laid the groundwork for four centuries of the workhouse and poor laws.

Released after a short stay, Moll’s card was now clearly marked. She was arrested again for being dressed indecently, on 25 December 1611, and accused of being involved in prostitution. She was picked up “in Powles Church,” obviously St. Paul’s Walk, near the cathedral, “with her peticoate tucked vp about her in the fashion of a man with a mans cloake on her to the great scandall of diuers persons who vnderstood the same & to the disgrace of all womanhood.” The constable who apprehended her sent her back to Bridewell, where she spent Christmas and the next few weeks locked up,

She was then interrogated by the Bishop of London on 27 January 1612. The Bishop of London reprimanded her for her habits – for the wanton pleasure of smoking and for making music in public – both activities seen to be inventions of the devil, made to inflame the passions of the addicts and of the listeners and to entice them to fall into debauchery.

In her interrogation Mary did confess to being still “associated … with cut purses” and to frequenting the “lewd company” of “blasphemous drunkardes & others of bad note & most dissolute behaviour.”

While ‘Moll’ in her theatre performance had asserted that her crossing of gender boundaries was NOT transgressive, disruptive, immoral or reprehensible, and thus not punishable, this didn’t wash with the guardians of public morality. The Bishop accused her of being a prostitute, since a cross-dressed woman was implying the assuming of the sexually active role of man, which according to the contemporary moral prism suggested a whore. While women entered prostitution and employed cross-dressing for social, economic, and security reasons, there is no evidence available to prove that Mary Frith was a cross-dressed prostitute.

In reply to the bishop pressing her “to declare whether she had not byn dishonest of her body & hath not drawne also other women to lewdnes by her perswasions & by carrying her selfe lyke a bawde”, Mary “absolutly denied that she was chargeable with eyther of these imputacions.”

The bishop, unable to pin the charge of prostitution, nonetheless, “thought fit to remand her to Bridewell … vntill he might further examine the truth of the misdemeanors inforced against her without laying as yet any further censure vppon her.”

Like all Bridewell inmates, Mary would have undergone the regular punitive regime of reform consisting of corporal punishment and hard work, a process that used to last two or three months, especially if inmates showed no tendency to be ‘reformed’. Inmates were dressed in blue garments and ordered to beat hemp and flax; and regularly beaten themselves. In compliance with the rules of the governors, she had to account to them, in their weekly routine sessions, for her misbehaviour and immorality.

Other cross-dressing women had already been subject to this process: Joanna Goodman, who in 1569 was whipped for dressing as a male servant, and Mary Wakeley, who in 1601 was detained for her misconduct as a transvestite…

Katherine Cuffe suffered the same fate, in February 1599, for cross-dressing as a boy and “for her wicked lyfe and great offence” committed within the boundaries of the Inner Temple. She confessed to the court which met in Bridewell on 13 February 1599 that Ambrose Jasper, the cook of the Inner Temple, had asked her “to come in boyes apparrell” to his room “for that he would not haue her come in her owne apparrell least that she should be espyed.” In compliance with her lover’s cunning strategem, she turned up in male disguise, flouting the rules of an all-male academic institution. She “laye” with Jasper “allnight” and he “had th’vse and carnall knowledge of her bodye a little before Christmas last.”

Depictions, Moralism, Myth

As with many figures, both real and imagined, Moll Cutpurse’s life and image was co-opted to reinforce prejudices or sell tickets/pamphlets, sometimes both. In Moll’s case this process began in her own youth with the staging of The Roaring Girl and other literary representations, but as with many another historical figure layers of myth and moralising were alter laid on top, until the ‘real’ Mary was buried under legend. It was not unusual in the 18th and 19th centuries for more or less accurate hack biographies/fake autobiographies to be rushed out on the occasion of a celebrity death (with execution literature a speciality); often ‘facts’, legends or anecdotes from one life would be pasted into another for sensationalist appeal. Much as woodcuts made for one purpose would be re-titled and used for another.

Moll’s various depictions are early examples; how much of the ups and downs of her life are true to life is uncertain. An added layer of mystification is added, as she was clearly at least partly party to the myth-making about herself; when others were out to profit by inventing her life, she might as well do it herself, and slyly profit from the jumble of moralising, titillation, and projection.

Do clothes make the Man?

There is a strong link between ‘Moll’s notorious cross-dressing early career and her later rise to businesswoman: clothing. From offending against the ‘sumptuary laws’ regulating appropriate attire for her sex and class, she moved into a trade where clothing was itself a popular commodity, and stolen cloth and apparel was often altered to be unrecognisable when sold on (if it couldn’t be profitably returned to its former owner). It’s worth reading Natasha Korda’s The Case of Moll Frith: Women’s Work and the “All-Male Stage” here, where the links between both costume and its creation/repair, and the fencing and secondhand trade in clothing and the theatre, are pointed out. Korda emphasises how workers in the theatre also doubled as clothing-dealers – notably around the Fortune Theatre, where Moll made her appearance – showing individuals moving between the two,  as economic necessity dictated. But stage performance and the performance of trading, dealing, fronting up a gang, are also linked: Mary Frith created Moll as a character, in many ways, although others wrote some of the scripts, she cannily played the role when she needed to. And if the fame it brought was double-edged, she was able to turn it to her advantage to continue to make a good living.

The 1611 ‘Roaring Girl’ play also can be read to be expressing concerns about clothing (among other things), and how much clothing makes the person, more specifically, does male clothing makes a man a man, and make Moll a man for wearing it? This is expressed throughout the play in jokes and comments, and, as Marjorie Garber observes, the multi-layered sex/gender costuming (two women, played by young boys, dressing as men, one later revealing herself as a woman, the other (Moll Frith) asserting her continued femaleness though in male dress). Obviously also theatre didn’t just involve ‘dressing-up’, wearing a costume, but the idea that disguising by changing clothing actually altered Moll’s ‘case’ is definitely thrown up. Pre-saging some current 21st century debates about the nature of gender… However, how much the real ‘Moll’ bought into any of this is speculation.

The Roaring Girle, was not Frith’s only on-stage representation. Later in 1611, Nathan Field’s play Amends for Ladies was performed, very much a riposte to the Middleton/Dekker play, and Moll appears as a subversive, transgressive personality, parading the sins of thieving and lust, But clearly introduced only as condemnation. Such subversive attitudes must be punished and so Moll is put in the pillory as an emblem of everything seen as wrong with the over-independent female.

In Mary Frith’s case the Bridewell treatment failed to change her ways:
‘They might as soon have shamed a Black Dog as Me, with any kind of such punishment; for saving the reverence due to those who enjoined it, for a half-penny I would have Traveled to all the Market Towns in England with it, and been as proud of it as that Citizen who rode down to his Friends in his Livery-Gown and Hood: or that Parson who being enjoined to wear the Surplice contrary to his will’

On 9 February 1612 Mary was required to do a penance for her “evil living”, standing in a white sheet at St. Paul’s Cross (the scene of her transgression) during the Sunday morning sermon. A letter from John Chamberland, a keen observer of town and court life, to Dudley Carlton, noted that “last Sonday Mall Cut-purse a notorious bagage (that used to go in mans apparell and challenged the feild of divers gallants),” had done penance in public; Chamberlain noted she was later suspected of having been “maudelin druncke.” “She wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but it is since doubted she was maudlin drunk, being discovered to have tippled of three-quarters of sack”.

Ungerer suggests the severity of her treatment in the Bridewell may have influenced her to give up the public performance aspect of her life, as it was attracting too much repressive attention, and turned to ‘brokerage’ as an alternative career… By the time of her marriage she was already fencing goods on her own account.

According to the (admittedly dubiously accurate) biographies of ‘Moll’, doing penance in the pillory didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for cross-dressing: “this penance did not reclaim her, for she still went in men’s apparel, very decently dressed”. If anything she or her mates may have turned the pillory appearance to advantage, as allegedly many in the attending crowd had their clothes slashed (or got pockets picked?): “Besides, many of the spectators had little cause to sport themselves then at the sight ; for some of her emissaries, without any regard to the sacredness of the place, spoiled a good many clothes, by cutting part of their cloaks and gowns, and sending them home as naked behind as Aesop’s crow, when every bird took its own feather from her.

A Lawless Vocation yet bordering between illicit and convenient, more advantageous by far to the injured, then the Courts of Justice and benefits of the Law, and more equal to the wrong-doers, who by such an hazardous seizure have as thems”
(The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse)

By 1614 (possibly), and by the 1620s certainly, Mary Frith was, according to her own account, working as a fence and a pimp.  It appears from a Star Chamber bill of 1621 that by 1621 Mary Markham, alias Mary Frith, alias Mary Thrift, alias Mal/Moll Cutpurse, was running a licensed fencing business or lost property office in the city of London; probably around Fleet Street. The Bill of 1621 locates Moll’s brokerage and receiving house in Fleet Street, as does The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. She was still living in this area at her death nearly 40 years later.

Elsewhere she is said to have rented a shop in Shoe Lane (the southern end of the notorious Saffron Hill rookery), which ran down to meet St Bride Street, slightly north of Fleet Street.

“she turned fence that is to say, a buyer of stolen goods ; by which occupation she got a great deal of money. In her house she set up a kind of brokery, or a distinct factory for jewels, rings and watches which had been pinched or stolen any manner of way, at never so great distance, from any person. It might properly enough be called the Insurance Office for such merchandise, for the losers were sure, upon com position, to recover their goods again, and the pirates were sure to have a good ransom, and she so much in the gross for brokage, without any more danger, the hue and cry being always directed to her for the discovery of the goods, not the takers.”

Her old connections among street-thieves and cutpurses would have served her well in the ‘brokerage’ business – doubling as a fence and also a recoverer of stolen goods on behalf of the owners – for a fee. This kind of industry was to be perfected by figures like Jonathan Wilde a century later: combining effectively running gangs of thieves and selling stolen goods, (but dobbing them in to the authorities if it was profitable) and returning goods to the robbed for a price.

Fencing stolen goods was a not uncommon way, in those times, for independent women to make a living. Largely excluded as they from any skilled, paid work regulated tightly by the male-only urban Guilds – run by men and dominated by the powerful masters in various trades – early modern working women found work where they could in London’s black economy of unregulated crafts and trades, becoming second-hand clothing dealers, pawnbrokers, peddlers, hawkers, tipplers, victuallers, and so forth. These ‘disorderly’ commercial practices were as common as they were frowned on by the guilds and City authorities: increasing guild restrictions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on female labour only pushed more women into this sector. The famously litigious Guild structures were generally keen to prosecute women who imposed on their male only rules (as well as non-Guild men who tried to set up in regulated businesses, and the Guilds’ own journeymen who attempted to combine collectively to fight for better conditions and pay). In this sense, as Natasha Korda points out, women’s work in the era Mary lived in should probably be seen as a spectrum from legal to illegal – criminal ways of making a living were hardly less heavily punished in many cases than legal methods when a woman took them up.

Selling of secondhand and stolen goods – a huge business, with the distinction between the two at most times loose at best – operated on this spectrum on the edge of legality; much of the merchandise in question often being clothes, fabric, household items. Women were often movers and shakers in this trade, as well as its offshoot –  quasi-official activity in the return or custody of stolen goods, and thence to emergent ‘thief-taking’.

The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith (allegedly auto-biographical, though this may be utterly untrue) describes her operation:

“In my house . . . I set up a kind of Brokery or a distinct factory for Jewels, Rings and Watches, which had been pinched or stolen. . . . I might properly enough call it the Insurance Office for such Merchandize, for the Losers were sure upon Composition [i.e. payment of a fee] to recover their Goods again, and the Pyrates were as sure to have good ransome, and I so much in the Grosse for Brokerage [i. e. a percentage of the whole for acting as agent] without any more danger; the Hue and Cry being always directed to me for the Discovery of the Goods not the Takers. A Lawless Vocation yet bordering between the illicit and convenient, more advantageous by far to the injured, then the Courts of Justice and benefits of the Law, and more equal to the wrong-doers. . . . My House was the Algiers where they traffiqued in safety . . . and publiquely exposed what they got without the danger of Inquisition. . . . I may be said to have made a perfect regulation of this thievish Mystery, and reduced it to certain rules and orders, which during my administration of the Mistressship and Government thereof, was far better managed then afterwards it was. . .”

The fight to stay alive being what it was, many combined several trades, from necessity, so for instance alehouse owners might move into buying and selling goods, already having premises; broadening your options was generally useful.

The markets in second-hand and stolen goods and clothing merged and morphed: frippers (used clothing dealers) worked as pawn-brokers (and vice versa), pawnbrokers as receivers of stolen goods, and receivers as “thief-takers.” ‘Brokers’ with knowledge of criminal networks could return stolen property to its owners, others altered the goods beyond recognition for resale, or sold “the stolen goods vnto duchmen, Scotts and French Brokers,” as a letter from the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London to the Queen’s Attorney General complained in 1601.

My case is altered

As Natasha Korda points out, the caption of the woodcut used to illustrate Middleton & Dekker’s Roaring Girl, “My case is alter’d, I must worke for my liuing”, contains sexual innuendo – ‘case’ was commonly used as slang for female genitalia. The play repeatedly suggests that Moll’s anatomical sex has been altered by her male apparel, as when Sir Alexander Wengrave declaims “Heyday, breeches! What, will [my son] marry a monster with two trinkets?”

Mary’s true motives are hard to read and impossible to pin down at this distance. What if any gender bending was actually involved here? The temptation to put 21st century labels on her should probably be resisted (though Ellen Galford’s 1984 novel ‘Moll Cutpurse, Her True History’ turns her life into an enjoyable lesbian romp)

It’s not really a reliable clue, since the ‘auto’ bit of the autobiographical The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith might well not be gospel, but in it ‘Moll’ makes pains to separate herself from at least one other ‘cross-dresser’:
“There was also a fellow a cotemporary of mine, as remarkable as my self, called Aniseed-water Robin: who was clothed very near my Antic Mode, being an Hermaphrodite, a person of both Sexes; him I could by no means endure, being the very derision of natures impotency, whose redundancy in making him Man and Woman, had in effect made him neither, having not the strength nor reason of the Male, nor the fineness nor subtlety of the Female: being but one step removed from a Natural Changeling, a kind of mockery (as I was upbraided) of me, who was then Counted for an Artificial one. And indeed I think nature owed me a spite in sending that thing into the world to Mate and Match me, that nothing might be without a peer; and the vacuum of Society be replenished, which is done by the likeness and similitude of manners: but contrariwise it begot in me a natural abhorrence of him with so strange an Antipathy, that what by threats and my private instigating of the Boys to fall upon, and throw Dirt at him, I made him quit my Walk and Habitation, that I might have no further scandal among my Neighbours, who used to say, here comes Malls Husband.”

Aniseed-water Robin seems to have been a well-known seller of aniseed-water who was indeed said to be hermaphroditic, and appears in various verses and accounts, in some of which s/he was claimed to have impregnated him/herself…!

If this is genuinely Mary or really represents her views/acts, there could be all sorts of reasons for her distinguishing herself from ‘Robin’ –The dislike of a cunning operator for competition in the cross dressed local celeb stakes? A transvestite for self-promotional gain fearing a more genuine intersex outsider? Or was it “here comes Malls Husband.” she objected to? – still refusing to countenance even the mocking suggestion of marriage?
Her contempt for Robin could of course be an insertion from a dubious biographer with his own dodgy agenda… This does echo the arguments in the ‘Haec Vir’ pamphlet somewhat…

Stephen Orgel suggests that the Mary shown in the surviving sources was essentially conservative, with “middle class aspirations”, or at least seeking a socially & economically stabile position, if through ‘edgy’ means; “a wit, a trickster, an outlaw, though on the whole not dangerous”. The contemporary sources do tend to emphasise her fundamental support for royalty, law and society, while provoking and at the boundaries of what was acceptable in her own interest, or at least learning early from her run-ins with law and order to cunningly operate in the hinterlands…

Although she was portrayed as a ‘sexual aberration’, and despite the theatrical assertions that she ‘would never marry’, in fact in March 1614, she DID marry – to one Lewknor Markham, an ‘esquire of Nottingham’. However, this may well have been a marriage of convenience, giving Moll useful legal cover in the case of actions against her for fencing stolen property. Moll’s criminal and then notorious theatrical past had laid on her a reputation as anything from monster, to sexual aberrant, to hermaphrodite; marriage conveyed status, respectability, cultural normalcy. She also used the marriage and her old and new names cunningly to outwit legal pursuit over the dubious origin of the goods she sold:

“Mary Frith took advantage of her rise in status as a married woman in claiming to be, as the case required, either a feme sole, a single woman, or a feme covert, a married woman under coverture whose legal identity was covered by her husband. As feme sole, she could pose both as a spinster, as Mary Frith, and as a married woman, as Mary Markham, who with respect to property and business was as independent of her husband as if she were unmarried. As feme covert, however, she could not contract and was liable to lose her right for independent action with regard to property and real estate as well as her right to sue and be sued on her own behalf. Thus, in 1624 when Richard Pooke, hatmaker, sued “Mary Frith alias Markham of London, Spinster,” for some unpaid beaver hats, the attorney warned Pooke not to sue her as feme sole under the name of Mary Frith, for she had already defeated other complainants by claiming that she was feme covert, married “to one Markham.” She did, indeed, resort to this legal double game in defending herself against Pooke’s complaint, arguing “that she is Maryed to the same Markham and soe being a feme Covert, she cannot be ympleaded as feme Sole”

Mary probably entered her marriage on condition that she had the right to run a business on her own account, and the couple certainly had not lived together for several years prior to her 1624 court appearance. Either her view on marriage had evolved from the time of Middleton and Dekker’s play, or she always took a flexible approach to matrimony, with her own interests in mind, and the social (and legal!) advantages to the forefront of her thoughts… From pickpocket she had risen socially, carefully building herself a position of intermediary between thief and victim, between law and crime – a fertile and profitable hinterland (as Jonathan Wilde was to later prove).

Fertile, profitable, but still unstable. A fence sat always on the fence, between abetting the underworld and acting for the lawful. When prosecutions were largely private, litigation against a receiver of stolen goods was often on the cards. In 1621, Mary was indited by Richard Dell and his wife Margaret, after apparently naming them as having robbed Henry Killigrew, gentleman, relived of “certen peeces of gold and some seales and other thinges” by a prostitute he was dallying with, down Blackhorse Alley. Killgrew had been advised to seek Mary’s hep with recovering his valuables, and she had fingered the Dells, confirmed by Killigrew identifying Margaret Dell as his sometime night-time companion.  Margaret Dell was committed to the Compter prison.

Richard Dell labelled Mary Markham as “a notorious infamous person, and such a one as was well knowne & acquainted with all theeves & cutpurses.” Mary retorted that she had a royal commission to examine thieves, and threatened that if the Dells “gaue her any ill wordes or language, she … might and did giue them some reply in some tart or angry manner agayne.”

Such murky dealings cemented Mary Frith’s reputation as a somewhat dubious broker, which lasted until her death in 1659. Merlinus Anonymus, a mock almanac by the royalist Samuel Sheppard, published in 1653, has the following calendar entry for 11 March: “Mrs. Frith tax’d for conivance and acquitted by a Jury of pick pockets’.

In Merry Mad Queries for the People’s Information (1659), a copy of which was acquired by the publisher George Thomason on 13 June 1659, a week after Mary Frith had signed her will, one query reads: “Whether Mrs. Mary Frith commonly called by some Mall Cut-purse, having formerly done so good service at the Bear Garden, and many other things for the good of the Nation, being now aged and having no children of her own body lawfully begotten, as ever I heard of, might not do a pious Act to appoint one to succeed her to help the people to their purses again when she is gone?”

And in Sir John Berkenhead’s Libri Theologici, Politici, Historici, Nundinis Paulinis (una cum Templo) prostant venales … Done into English for the Assembly of Divines (1651/52) Berkenhead couples William Lilly, the astrologer of the Parliament, and Mary Frith, the retriever of stolen goods, listing a spoof joint book venture of Lilly and Frith; “Pancirolla Medela. A way to find out things lost and Stoln; by the said William Lilly. With a Claris to his book, or the Art of his Art. By Mistris Mary Frith.” Berkenhead was seemingly poking fun at both Lilly’s dubious divinations and on the impotence of Mary Frith to beget children, though dressed as a man.

Being recouered of their former sences

In the early 1640s Mary Frith was declared insane and hospitalised in Bethlehem Hospital. The administration, the running of the asylum, and the vicious and inhuman ‘treatment’, (generally beating and punishing the inmates), lay in the hands of the governors of Bridewell, subsidised by the City parishes. How had Moll Cutpurse ended up there? Sectioned after some arrest and committal to the Bridewell? Pretending madness in order to avoid the political turmoils and survive the economic disruption of the civil war?

She is recorded as being released after being cured of insanity: the Bridewell governors meeting on Friday, 21 June 1644, “thought fitt & ordered … that Gilbert Stopford, Katherine Killingham alias Killigrew, Anne Parrett, Mary Frith, Margery Houghton, Robert Crockett and Mary Thornton shal bee delivered & discharged out of the Hospital of Bethlem, London, being recouered of their former sences & may bee kept & provided for in any other place as well as in the hospitall of Bethlem. And that they bee every of them respectively sent to the severall Parishes from whence they came.”

One of the most famuous tales recounted of Moll Cutpurse, is that in her 60s she robbed Parliamentary Civil War supremo General Fairfax “of two hundred and fifty jacobuses on Hounslow Heath, shooting him through the arm for opposing her, and killing two horses on which a couple of his servants rode, a close pursuit was made after her by some Parliamentarian officers quartering in the town of Hounslow, to whom Fairfax had told his misfortune. Her horse failed her at Turnham Green, where they apprehended her, and carried her to Newgate.” From where she is said to have escaped, or bribed her way out…

Is this true though? It’s a great story, which we’d love to believe just because it so outrageous; but doubt has been cast on it. It runs somewhat against the patterns of her life, and of petty crime generally, for a London-bred thief and fence to ‘go out on the roads’. The publisher George Horton, who put out the 1662 account, The Womans Champion; or The Strange Wonder Being a true Relation of the mad Pranks, merry Conceits, Politick Figaries, and most unheard of Stratagems of Mrs. Mary Frith, had a specifically anti-parliamentary agenda, being a dedicated royalist with a penchant for ensuring an anti-republican slant was overlaid on works he sponsored. Cocking a snook at parliamentary general Fairfax was not the only apparent royalist attitude this work attributes to Mary – whether accurately or not is anyone’s guess.

She had lived for some time before at a house in Fleet Street, possibly around the site of the present no 133 Fleet; dying there aged around 78 on 26 July 1659 of ‘dropsy’ (oedema, or fluid retention).

She was buried in nearby St Bride’s Church, in an unmarked grave.


Some good reading on Moll/Mary:

Gustave Ungerer, “Mary Frith, Alias Moll Cutpurse, in Life and Literature.”

The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith

Mary Frith, Otherwise Moll Cutpurse in The Complete Newgate Calendar, Volume I

Natasha Korda,  The Case of Moll Frith: Women’s Work and the “All-Male Stage”

See chapter 6 in Linda Woodbridge, Woman and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womanhood, 1540-1620

Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl

Ellen Galford,  Moll Cutpurse, Her True History’  (historical novel)


Today in London musical history, 1707: Jack Hall hung for burglary at Tyburn… But he Gets Immortalised in Song

‘Up the ladder I did grope,
That’s No Joke, That’s No Joke’

(From the popular song ‘Jack Hall’ later ‘Sam Hall’)

“Sam Hall’ is an old English folk song which prior to the mid-nineteenth century was called ‘Jack Hall’, remembering a burglar and thief who was hanged in 1707.

Jack or John Hall was born of poor parents who lived in a court off Grays Inn Road, London, who sold him for a guinea at the age of seven to be a ‘climbing boy’. Such boys and girls were sent to climb up inside chimneys to clean them. Young Jack Hall very sensibly soon ran away from this horrible occupation, and started to make a living as a pickpocket. Later he turned to housebreaking, for which he was whipped in 1692 and sentenced to death in 1700. He was reprieved, then released, but returned to crime and was re-arrested in 1702 for stealing luggage from a stagecoach. This got him branded on the cheek and imprisoned for two years.

Finally, after he was captured in the act of burgling a house in Stepney, he was hanged at Tyburn, on 17 December 1707.

In the style of the time, Jack’s exploits made him a celebrity, half folk hero and half folk-devil. Like many another petty (and not so petty) crim through the centuries, his story was quickly marketed and sold, in the form of cheap ballads and longer ‘confession’. There were sold in the streets and pubs, often whipped out fast enough to be flogged at the hanging of the condemned.

Jack’s actual criminal career was nothing madly special, but a canny songwriter turned his tale into a catchy song, which became hugely popular and lasted through the centuries, to be still sung today. Jack Hall’s defiance in face of the rope in the ballad made him the archetype of the condemned man who ‘died game’.

Did he sing at his execution? “the said Sam being a rogue of the deepest dye, who growled blasphemous staves, over the back of a chair, on the eve of his execution.”

The ballad Jack Hall was probably written around the time of his death, but in broadsides and passed down orally, the song survived for centuries. It was reprinted as a broadside in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, mutating, altering, as folks songs tend to do, producing different versions.

In the 1840s music hall singer W. G. Ross altered the song, changing the name to Sam Hall in the process. [Ross used to be a popular singer of the long descriptive songs of that day — some of his songs took half-an-hour to execute and detailed the entire plot of a novel or a drama.]

On 10 March 1848 Percival Leigh noted the following account of an evenings entertainment in an early Music Hall:

‘After that, to supper at the Cider Cellars in Maiden Lane, wherein was much Company, great and small, and did call for Kidneys and Stout, then a small glass of Aqua-vitae and water, and thereto a Cigar.  While we supped, the Singers did entertain us with Glees and comical Ditties; but oh, to hear with how little wit the young sparks about town were tickled!  But the thing that did most take me was to see and hear one Ross sing the song of Sam Hall the chimney-sweep, going to be hanged: for he had begrimed his muzzle to look unshaven, and in rusty black clothes, with a battered old Hat on his crown and a short Pipe in his mouth, did sit upon the platform, leaning over the back of a chair: so making believe that he was on his way to Tyburn.  And then he did sing to a dismal Psalm-tune, how that his name was Sam Hall and that he had been a great Thief, and was now about to pay for all with his life; and thereupon he swore an Oath, which did make me somewhat shiver, though divers laughed at it.  Then, in so many verses, how his Master had badly taught him and now he must hang for it: how he should ride up Holborn Hill in a Cart, and the Sheriffs would come and preach to him, and after them would come the Hangman; and at the end of each verse he did repeat his Oath.  Last of all, how that he should go up to the Gallows; and desired the Prayers of his Audience, and ended by cursing them all round.  Methinks it had been a Sermon to a Rogue to hear him, and I wish it may have done good to some of the Company.  Yet was his cursing very horrible, albeit to not a few it seemed a high Joke; but I do doubt that they understood the song.’

WG Ross performs As Sam Hall

WG Ross made his fortune singing this song, becoming a huge attraction in early Music Halls all over England.

The main difference between different versions of ‘Sam Hall’ is between the more mournful and simpler number, and a generally longer and more defiant song, in which the singer Damns all those who condemned him, those watching him die, and the hearers. Perhaps the less angry and more subdued version originated in the more moralistic Victorian era, when penitent crims were more the fashion, not unbowed and abusive rebels.

The British melody of the song was taken from the song “Captain Kidd”, aka “Robert Kidd”, written shortly after the execution of William Kidd in 1701, but this also appeared to be based on the tune “Ye Jacobites by Name” (Roud # 5517), whereas the version more common in the USA (“My name it is Sam Hall, T’is Sam Hall…”) is a variant of the tune to “Frog Went A-Courting”

An example of the more defiant version

Oh my name is Sam Hall, Sam Hall
Oh my name is Sam Hall
And I hate you one and all
You’re a gang of muckers all
Damn your eyes.

Oh, I killed a man they said, so they said
Yes, I killed a man they said
For I cracked him on the head
And left him there for dead
Damn his eyes.

So they put me in the quad, in the quad
Yes, they put me in the quad
With a chain and iron rod
And they left me there, by God
Damn their eyes.

And the parson he did come, he did come
And the parson he did come
And he looked so ******* glum
With his talk of Kingdom Come
Damn his eyes.

And the sheriff he came too, he came too
And the sheriff he came too
With his boys all dressed in blue
They’re a gang o’ muckers too
Damn their eyes.

So it’s up the rope ye go, up ye go
So it’s up the rope ye go
With your friends all down below
Saying “Sam, I told you so”
Damn their eyes.

Saw my Nellie in the crowd, in the crowd,…
She was looking stooped and bowed,
So I hollered, right out loud,
“Hey, Nellie, ain’t you proud?
God damn your eyes.”

So this’ll be my knell, be my knell
So this’ll be my knell
Hope God damns you all to hell
An I hope you sizzle well
Damn your eyes.

And now I goes upstairs, goes upstairs
And now I goes upstairs
Here’s an end to all my cares
So tip up all your prayers
Damn your eyes.

The more subdued version:

Oh my name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep, chimney sweep
Oh my name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep
Oh my name it is Sam Hall and I’ve robbed both great and small
And my neck will pay for all when I die, when I die
And my neck will pay for all when I die

I have twenty pounds in store, that’s not all, that’s not all
I have twenty pounds in store, that’s not all
I have twenty pounds in store and I’ll rob for twenty more
For the rich must help the poor, so must I, so must I
For the rich must help the poor, so must I

Oh I went up Holborn Hill in a cart, in a cart
Oh I went up Holborn Hill in a cart
Oh I went up Holborn Hill, where I stopped to make my will
Saying the best of friends must part, so must I, so must I
Saying the best of friends must part, so must I

Up the ladder I did grope, that’s no joke, that’s no joke
Up the ladder I did grope, that’s no joke
Up the ladder I did grope and the hangman pulled the rope
And ne’er a word I spoke, tumbling down, tumbling down
And ne’er a word I spoke tumbling down

Oh my name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep, chimney sweep
Oh my name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep
Oh my name it is Sam Hall and I’ve robbed both great and small
And my neck will pay for all when I die, when I die
And my neck will pay for all when I die

The third verse of the song recounts travelling in the condemned cart up Holborn Hill, the steep hill up the side of the Fleet River valley, from the old Holborn Bridge (before the Holborn Viaduct was built).

This was a central section for the ritual journey from Newgate Prison to the hanging tree at Tyburn, as today’s Marble Arch. Holborn Hill was known as ‘the Heavy Hill’ – going up the  Heavy Hill became slang for being hung (joining a teeming rich list of terms for this punishment, a nexus of eighteenth century life.)

The song migrated to Ireland, and an Irish version was sung, where instead of Holborn Hill, the singer recounts being taken to ‘Coote Hill’ –  Cootehill in County Cavan – to die.

From England and Ireland, ‘Sam Hall’ crossed the Atlantic, and produced US versions… Black folk singer Josh White, country legend Tex Ritter, and later Johnny Cash, sang this version:

Well, my name, it is Sam Hall, Sam Hall
Yes, my name, it is Sam Hall, it is Sam Hall
My name it is Sam Hall, and I hate you, one and all
And I hate you, one and all
Damn your eyes!

I killed a man, they said, so they said
I killed a man, they said, so they said
I killed a man, they said, and I smashed in his head
And I left him layin’ dead
Damn his eyes!

But a swinging I must go, I must go
A swinging I must go, I must go
A swinging I must go while you critters down below
Yell up: “Sam, I told you so”
Well, damn your eyes!

I saw Molly in the crowd, in the crowd
I saw Molly in the crowd, in the crowd
I saw Molly in the crowd, and I hollered, right out loud
“Hey there, Molly, ain’t you proud?
Damn your eyes!”

Then the Sherriff, he came, too, he came, too
Ah, yeah, the Sherriff, he came, too, he came, too
The Sherriff, he came, too, and he said “Sam, how are you?”
And I said, “Well, Sherriff, how are you?
Damn your eyes!”

My name is Samuel, Samuel
My name is Samuel, Samuel
My name is Samuel, and I’ll see you all in hell
And I’ll see you all in hell
Damn your eyes!

Tex Ritter’s howlingly excellent version (1935)

Here’s another version, sung by Richard Thompson with a fun call and response

And a personal fave – a version by the mighty Frank Tovey (Fad Gadget)


‘The parson he did come
And he looked so fucking glum,
And he talked of Kingdom Come
Kingdom Come. Kingdom Come,
He can stick it it up his bum,
Damn his Eyes!’



There’s a hugely comprehensive examination of the evolution of the song song and the tune in Bertrand Bronson’s Samuel Hall’s Family Tree (California Folklore Quarterly, I (1) 1942) where he relates he English tune to the same tune as “Stand up now, Diggers All” written by the True Levellers at St George’s Hill… possibly by Gerard Winstanley himself. But the tune goes back even further, to the fifteenth century…


Just a couple of Jack’s arrests:

“John Hall , of the Parish of Stepny , was indicted upon three Indictments; the first, for that he the 7th Day of December last, feloniously did steal 10 Holland-shirts, 12 Neckcloths, 3 Pair of Sleeves, 3 Pair of Thread-Stockings, and other Goods, the Goods of a Person unknown ; the second, for that he at the same Time and Place, feloniously did steal a Hair Portmanto-Trunk, a silk Night-Gown, a silver Watch, 5 Guineas, and divers other Goods of John Edwards ; the third, for Stealing at the same Time, a Hair-Trunk, a Parchment Deed in writing, a Perriwig, and 5 Guineas, and other Goods of Gilbert Cale . It appeared by the Evidence, that the Goods were put in the Trunks, and sent to the Bristol-Coach, at the 3 Cups in Bread-street, and the Coach going out early in the Morning, the Coach-man stopt in St. Giles’s to call for 2 Passengers, that he was to take in, and in the mean while he was gone, the Prisoner, with 2 more, took the Trunks, and put them into a Hackney-Coach, and carried them to Ratclif High-way, where they stopt at an Alehouse, and 2 of them went their ways, and left the Prisoner with the Goods; but the Man of the House mistrusting they were stole, gave notice to the Headborough, who sent his Beadle before, and the Prisoner seeing the Beadle come, ordered the Coach to drive down Old Gravel-lane, which he did, and stopt at another Ale-house, where the Headborough seized him, and the Goods: At first he said, That they were his Masters, but at last confest the whole matter. He denied it all at his Tryal, saying, He met some of his Ship’s Crew, in the Morning, in Monmouth-street, who gave him a Pint of Brandy, which intoxicated him; and said, that if he would go with them to Wapping, they would treat him; but this being but a feigned Excuse, for he could not prove it, the Jury found him guilty of the 2 last Indictments; and there being no Evidence to the first, he was acquitted of that.”

(Newgate Calendar, 15th Jan 1703)

An account of the crime that got Jack stretched:

“John Hall, Richard Low, Stephen Bunch.
Theft: burglary.
10th December 1707


John Hall , Richard Low and Stephen Bunch , were all three Indicted for breaking open the dwelling House of Captain John Guyon of the Parish of Stepney , between the Hours of one and two at Night, on the 25th November last, and taking from thence a blue Cloth Wastcoat, a pair of Cloth Breeches, 3 Suits of Lac’d Head-cloaths, four Yards of yellow Ribbon, four Yards of green Ribbon, two Silver Spoons, and a Dram Cup, the Goods of the said John Guyon . The first Witness was Madam Guyon, who depos’d, That on the 25th of November, about one or two a Clock at Night, she heard a noise of Thieves in the House, and got up and alarm’d the Neighbours; that on a sudden three Men rush’d into the Room, two Men came up to her, and said, Damn you, deliver your Mony; and gave her a blow on the Face, and bid her go to Bed, That she repl’d, that she had no Mony there, but what she had was in the next Room; upon their going to which Room she lockd the Door upon them, Being ask’d, whether she knew any of them? Reply’d, That the Person that struck her was a tall Man, much of the Stature of Low, but she could not swear to any of their Faces; she viewing them by no light than that of the Moon. The Maid’s Evidence was much the same with her Mistress, except in this particular, That Hall holding a Pistol at her Breast, and a Candle in his Hand, gave her the perfect knowledge of his Countenance, so that she swore positively against Hall.

Another considerable piece of Evidence, was that of one Briggs, a Boy of eleven Years Old, at the Green Man near Billingsgate, who depos’d, That six Men came to his Father’s House, about four a Clock in the Morning, and being near, had the opportunity to see and hear what pass’d, which was after this manner, (Viz.) That one of them pull’d a Dram Cup out of his Pocket; and another, out of a Handkerchief, took a Wast-coat trim’d with Silver-Thread, and Buttons, with three Head-dresses, with Knotts, which agreed exactly, with those that the Prosecutor lost. That he heard Bunch say, We have made a pretty good Hand on’t too Night; and Hall reply’d, that he hop’d they should make a better Hand on’t to Morrow Night. Being ask’d, how he could distinguish one from another? reply’d, that when they spoke aloud, they call’d one another Brother Stitch, but when they spoke softly, they call’d one another by their proper Names. That before they went away, they made an Appointment to meet at the Three Fighting-Cocks in Bun-hill Fields, between Five and Six a Clock that Night; and this Evidence acquainting his Father with it, he suspecting them to be ill Persons, acquainting some stout Men with it, they engag’d to go to the place to take them, but not finding them in the House, as they came away they met them going thither; in their pursuit, the Prisoners fir’d several Pistols at them, but at last they apprehended them.

Low took the Fact upon himself, to excuse the other two: But the Evidence being very clear, and the Prisoners Old Offenders, the Jury found them all Guilty of the Indictment.

[Death. See summary.]”

(Newgate Calendar, 10th Dec 1707)

Read a copyright free version of a supposed (unlikely, really) autobiography of Jack Hall, published in 1708, titled Memoirs of the Right Villanous Jack Hall.

Housing vs Open Space: The Wanstead Flats campaign of 1946

Infill Me… Infill Me… They’ve All got it Infill Me..

Amidst a crisis of genuinely affordable housing in London, with huge rent inflation, a shortage of social housing, and property as commodity speculation causing homelessness, poverty and hardship…

… Pressure has been growing for new housing to be built, often in places where there is little space for it. In particular, existing Council estates are being touted as the place to expand social housing stock – whether by building over small green spaces or garages, or by adding floors to existing blocks.

In many places these ‘infill’ proposals have arose fierce opposition, usually from residents on these estates facing losing green areas next to their homes, more overcrowded and shadowed cramming around them, and in B some cases, blatantly unsafe ideas of what can be stuck on top of their homes.

Advocates of infill accuse these residents of being ‘NIMBYs’  – Not In My Backyard – opposed to social housing, or just wanting it built elsewhere. Some councillors proposing infill have resorted to anonymous trolling of campaigners to try to shout them down; moral blackmail and names are thrown at campaigners to try shame then into shutting up.

NIMBYISM exists, but that’s not what we’re seeing here… In most cases, infill takes place where councils have also entered into hand in glove partnerships with developers to allow the to build private flats, often too replace demolished social housing. Many estates facing infill have often also experienced managed decline over decades. Campaigners generally support new social housing being built, but are asking the questions – why do we with little space have to lose it and face greater crowding; why was social housing given up in neighbouring areas? Do the most overcrowded estates deserve less space or have less say? Do they automatically have to pay the price for decades if catastrophic housing policy, for years of councils enthusiastically championing social cleansing, moving more well to do people in and dispersing the less ell off? and enabling the profits of large housing builders ? For councillors and c propagandists for infill, it’s a case of Yes – In YOUR Backyard…

More power to housing campaigners regarding to lie down, be labelled Nimbys and accept second class status because their tenure should not mean that they have no say in their environment…

The debate on whether to preserve open space or build social housing over it is not a new question. The conflict between housing for all and green space for all has been fought before, with similar dynamics and accusations. The campaign to preserve Wanstead Flats from development after World  War 2 is worth examining here…

Wanstead Flats had seen a campaign of protest and direct action against fences erected by the Lord of the manor in 1871, preventing it being built on. Along with much of the rest of Epping Forest, it had been preserved as land for public access in the late 19th century.

However, the huge need for public housing after World War Two resulted in pressure to build new homes on the Flats. This led to a dispute between advocates of social housing, and campaigners protesting that open green space was also very much needed.

Saving the Flats: The Wanstead Flats campaign of 1946

75 years after the attempted enclosure of Wanstead Flats by Henry Wellesley, Earl Cowley in 1871, another campaign was launched 75 years later, against the compulsory purchase of around half of Wanstead Flats for housing development immediately after the Second World War. 

B24FABA2-A73E-42F5-B8AA-5D506E2F7E3B.jpgLying immediately to the north of Forest Gate, the Flats was a popular destination for Eastenders, not only for just wandering, picnicking and hanging out, but for more organised events like fairs, bands and music hall performance at the bandstand, boating and fishing on the lakes and sport such as football and cricket. The crowded East End, with mainly working class people living in often run-down housing and working long hours, had a long and strong tradition of use of open spaces further east and north, and parts of Epping Forest or outlying places were important destinations, Fairlop Oak, Chingford Plain, as well as the Flats, were traditional gathering places…

Wanstead Flats had been recognised as a vital green space or “wedge” by the London County Council (LCC) in 1935 and the City of London, as Conservator of Epping Forest, organised a conference held at the Guildhall in 1939 to develop proposals for improvements on the Flats.

The outbreak of war in September 1939  put these ideas on hold, and instead Wanstead Flats itself hosted a variety of civilian and military uses during the War. These included allotments, anti-aircraft gun batteries, barrage balloons and bomb shelters. The bandstand was used as a collection point for salvaged wood from bomb damaged buildings and surplus food grown on the allotments. Later, parts of the Flats were closed off for use as a troop assembly point before and during the D-Day invasion of France in 1944. The area was also used as a German Prisoner of War camp.

By 1945, Wansted Flats were also being used for housing. Under emergency wartime powers, 102 “hutments” were already housing West Ham residents on the area north of Capel Road. East Ham borough authorities also proposed temporary housing between Manor Park and Aldersbrook.


The wider context has to be appreciated here. The terrible destruction wreaked on East London during wartime bombing had made an already appalling housing situation across the East End much worse. Before the war the quality of much East London housing had been bad, and the war had not only seen mass destruction, but the sacrifices people had made had resulted in a build-up of expectation. People demanded improvements in their daily lives, and weren’t prepared to go back to the austerity of the 1930s.  A demand for better homes was a major part of this, symbolised un 1946 by the development of the mass squatting movement. The new Labour government felt under pressure to come up with solutions, and fast.

The Second World War obviously affected all across the country, but had a serious impact on the housing stock in East London in particular, and dockland areas had suffered the heaviest bombing. West Ham had been severely damaged during World War Two. The Royal Docks and associated industry had been primary targets (Target A), for the Luftwaffe air raids. During the London Blitz of 1940-41 thousands of high explosive and incendiary bombs had fallen on the area. Later, 68 V1 flying bombs and 33 V2 rockets hitting the area added to the destruction. In total 14,000 houses were destroyed and many more were damaged within West Ham. By 1945 23 % of West Ham was designated as severely war damaged and was described as an area of “rubble strewn gaps and patched houses.”

The population of the borough of West Ham had declined from a high of around 320,000 people in the mid 1920s, but some 50,000 people were expected to return from evacuation or military service at the end of the war. By 1946 West Ham council had over 10,000 people awaiting homes, and many homeless people were crowded into unsuitable housing or living in temporary “Rest Centres”, some of them in local schools which were imminently to be returned to educational use. Other people were forced to live outside of the area splitting up families and friends.

With little on offer, some people locally took to squatting; as elsewhere, initially in disused army buildings. In the Summer of 1946, West Ham council reported that squatters had taken over former military huts on Wanstead Flats.

Responsibility for delivery was divided between the Ministries of Health, Works and Town and Country Planning, but housing itself would in fact be built by local authorities, ultimately co-ordinated under Aneurin Bevan, leftwing MP for Ebbw Vale, and Minister of Heath in the newly elected Labour Government. Bevan could see that housing would be a defining issue for the government, and had pledged to build 200,000 houses a years. He was determined to provide new housing quickly for the war weary population and expressed frustration with any delays. But like many in the Labour hierarchy, he saw planning as a centralised affair and harshly disapproved of people trying to improvise collective solutions for themselves. he authorised repression and obstruction for many of the squatters’ initiatives.

Proposed housing development on Wanstead Flats had already been backed by Bevan. He had little time for conservation of open space: in January 1946, speaking in a debate in the House of Commons about the emergency housing situation in East Ham, he declared:

“The people must have shelter… The Commoners of Epping Forest must surrender to the overwhelming needs of the people.”

The 1944 Town and Country Planning Act introduced by the wartime coalition government led by Winston Churchill had given local authorities sweeping powers to deal with “blitz and blight” through reconstruction and redevelopment. To alleviate the housing situation West Ham council was determined to quickly provide better housing for the post-war population. It had already launched the “Homes Now” campaign to pressure the government over delays in providing finance and materials for housing.

A Map of the area proposed for the Compulsory Purchase

In March 1946  West Ham council decided to make an application under the Town and Country Planning Act to compulsory purchase 163 acres of Wanstead Flats, lying between Capel and Aldersbrook roads. Homes would be built here to house around 7000 people. The majority of this land lay outside of the West Ham borough boundaries; West Ham council noted that the London County Council (LCC) had already made applications for land in Chingford and Chigwell for housing outside of its own boundaries.
West Ham council favoured the idea of self contained cottage estates located away from heavy industry, a pattern that had been set by interwar developments further east, like Becontree. The trend was for population shift from the more heavily damaged areas in the south to the north of West Ham, and the open land of Wanstead Flats was an obvious target for development

However, the West Ham proposals were not universally popular. They were opposed by the Corporation of London, who had oversight of Epping Forest including the Flats, and all the other neighbouring local councils. Lord Mayor of London Sir Frank Alexander wrote personally to Bevan criticising the proposals.

Stanley Reed

On the ground, a vocal campaign was organised locally. Stanley Reed, a West Ham schoolteacher who lived on the Lakehouse Estate. became secretary of the Wanstead Flats Defence Committee, a broad based coalition of over 160 organisations including trade union branches, religious groups, political parties and sports organisations who came together to oppose the proposals. The committee organised public meetings, house canvassing, letter writing campaigns and lobbied local politicians.

If there were attempts to portray the battle as being between classes, that doesn’t seem to have been the case; not were Labour politicians all in tune with Bevan. Leah Manning the Labour MP for Epping was a vocal opponent of the proposed developments and presented Parliament with a 60,000 signature petition against the plans, attacking the plans during a Parliamentary debate as “vandalism.”. She spoke at many meetings against the proposals and was apparently prepared to sit down in front of the bulldozers…

Lewis Silkin, Minister for Town and Country Planning, and a former Chair of Planning for the LCC, ordered a public inquiry into the compulsory purchase, which opened on the 2nd December 1946 at West Ham Town Hall, Stratford (now the Old Town Hall). A leading argument against was that it was beyond the power of West Ham council to bid for compulsory purchase in the Forest. Wanstead Flats was undoubtedly a designated open space and was described as such in the Abercrombie’s Plan for London. However West Ham argued that it was attempting to follow government guidance to separate housing from industrial development.

The Inquiry lasted 4 days and saw some acrimonious exchanges. There were catcalls from the public gallery when the West Ham Town Clerk described the inquiry as a battle between “haves and have-nots” followed by cries of “shame!” when Wanstead Flats was described as an “unattractive open space.”

In April 1947 the inquiry ruled to reject the application. However Lewis Silkin did accept that the compulsory purchase was not “ultra vires” (beyond the council’s power) and the 1878 Epping Forest Act did not exempt the land from an attempt to compulsory purchase it.


Wanstead Flats remained, and remained, open space, enjoyed by 1000s.

West Ham Council went on to embark on a comprehensive redevelopment programme across the borough, and West Ham and East Ham councils jointly prepared proposals for development in the Pitsea and Laindon areas of Essex, although ultimately this development was undertaken by the Basildon Development Corporation.

The proposals by East Ham council for permanent development for schools on the Manor Park Triangle were eventually rejected following a later public inquiry in the early 1950s.


The City of London, West Ham, East Ham, Wanstead and Woodford and Leyton councils later formed a committee to look at development of Wanstead Flats, producing some proposals which were implemented during the 1950s and is still used today.

The tension between preservation and development was central to the defeated Wanstead proposals. There were compelling arguments on both sides – much needed housing, or open space, vital to East End leisure and relaxation. That there was fierce mass support for preserving the Flats as space for pleasure shows that there was a sense of desire not just immediate need, or at least a balance between the two.

Similarly current infill developments now contain genuine arguments about new housing, ways to solve the crisis, vs open space, the ability to breathe a bit, use of intricate slivers of ground that make estate life a little easier… Local councillors shouting at campaigners that they are nimbys don’t have the same excuse of war damage that gave the Wanstead proposals weight; on the contrary, some of the responsibilities for shortage of social housing lies at local authorities’ doors. In tandem with deliberate National  housing policies & the rise of property finance as vital component of the speculation economy… there has also been mismanagement, co-operation with right to buy & stock transfer… Officers and councillors often also think they know better, that collective suggestions from below should always be subservient to themselves as experts, officers (tho only the ones who agree with their position) or elected officials…

Who has a ‘right to the city’ – it’s a complex question. The city needs to be available to us all though, and a balance between housing & open space has to be struck. In contrast to authoritarian pen-pushing and smoothing the way for developers’ profits and social cleansing, we need a movement that puts collectivisation of the empty private flats; control of housing policy from below for need not profit; genuine decision-making for all at its heart…


The 1946 campaign was not the last contestation of open space on the Flats. A proposal to build temporary police prefabs there for policing the 2012 London Olympics was opposed by local campaigners under the banner of ‘Take Back Wanstead Flats’


A Light Shining in Hanwell: battles for open green space in West London

Residents of Hanwell, West London, have recently shown that if enclosure of open space is not just a historical process but an ongoing threat to public access to land, so too resistance is alive and kicking, and can win victories.

In the last decade two open spaces lying next to each other, Brent River Park and Warren Farm, have seen campaigners fight off attempts to fence off or sell off land people have been accessing for decades. These struggles have involved a whole range of tactics from investigation, petitioning, legal casework and sabotage. An inspiration to all those struggling in London (and beyond) to keep green space public, accessible and free.

But we shouldn’t be surprised Hanwellians show such determination- this area has seen resistance to enclosure before…

Brent River Park – ‘Fencegate’

In April 2019, residents of Hanwell in Ealing, west London, were dismayed that part of their park had been fenced off. St Margaret’s open space sits by the Grand Union Canal and is part of Brent River Park. The neighbouring landowner, the Hobbayne Trust, finding that part of the park is unregistered land, tried to nick it.

Section of Ealing Parks Map showing the fenced off land

What some campaigners have called ‘Fencegate’ began when the Hobbayne Trust fenced off part of St Margaret’s Open Space between Billets Hart Close and the Grand Union Canal on 25 April 2019. This annotated section of the Ealing Parks map shows the piece of the park which was fenced off.

In enclosing this land, the Hobbayne Trust effectively extended the boundary of the neigbouring William Hobbayne Community Gardens, which it has owned since 2014, to incorporate part of St Margaret’s Open Space.

Although Ealing Council owns most of St Margaret’s Open Space, the ownership of this small piece of land is unknown. It is unregistered land, which means that no-one has ever provided evidence of ownership to the Land Registry. However, it has been designated as Public Open Space by Ealing Council and been freely accessible to the public since the mid 1990s. Ealing council has treated it as part of the neighbouring park and has maintained it since the early 2000s. It is clearly marked as part of Ealing Parks on the council’s parks map, and also designated as a Grade 1 Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC).

The adjoining land on which the William Hobbayne Community Gardens now stand was previously owned by British Waterways, who registered the land on 13 October 2006. The lease on part of this land which became the William Hobbayne Community Gardens was gifted to the Hobbayne Trust by British Waterways in 2008.

The Hobbayne Trust bought the land from the Canal and River Trust, the successor body to British Waterways, for £80,000. In the sale documents the boundary of the land is clearly marked. It does not include the land fenced off in April 2019.

The Hobbayne Trust signed an agreement with Laing Homes, the company which which built neighbouring Billets Hart Close, and which still owns the freehold of the land under the road. This agreement gave the Hobbayne Trust vehicle access across Billets Hart Close. The Hobbayne Trust paid Laing Homes £3,500 for this access. None of the residents on Billets Hart Close were informed of this transaction.

As mentioned above, in April 2019 the Hobbayne Trust fenced off the piece of St Margarets Open Space. To see the extent of the new enclosure, compare this Google street view photo from summer 2018 with the one taken a year later. The orange bag caught in the tree makes it easy to do a before and after comparison.

August 2019 – Down With the Fence

The Hobbayne Trust’s fence was thus extended upstream, beyond the boundary of its land, to enclose part of St Margaret’s Open Space.

According to Ealing Council’s Local Plan, this land is designated as Public Open Space. It is listed as such on council documents available online dating from 2010. These, in turn, refer to plans dating from 2004. Residents have copies of conveyancing documents which list it as Public Open Space in 1996. It has therefore been Public Open Space and freely accessible to the public for almost a quarter of a century.

Section of Ealing Local Plan

In May 2019 number of residents contacted the Hobbayne Trust and Ealing Council challenging the enclosure of the land and asking the Trust and the Council to remove the fence.

On 27 June 2019 the Hobbayne Trust issued a statement which it distributed to nearby households and posted by the Grand Union towpath. It said:

“You may be aware that the Hobbayne Charity has recently fenced a small section of land to the north of the Community Gardens bordering the canal.“This action was taken so as to rectify a drafting error dating from 2006.”

2006 was the year in which British Waterways registered the land on which the Community Gardens now stand (see above).

The Hobbayne Trust claimed that British Waterways made a mistake in drawing the boundary when it registered the land – this, however, was not borne out by the available evidence. The north-western boundary of the land which now forms the community gardens has been there since 1996 according to the conveyancing documents (and memories) of those who have lived on Billets Hart Close since it was built. An Ordnance Survey map from 1960 also shows the boundary in exactly the same place as it was before the Hobbayne Trust moved its fence.

Section of Ordnance Survey map 1960

There is no evidence of any mistake being made here. When British Waterways registered the land that now forms the Community Gardens, its plan of the area reflected the boundaries that had existed for decades.

In the same statement, the Hobbayne Trust also said that it intended to put a gateway onto Billets Hart Close to provide a second access to the Community Gardens, in addition to the main one on St Margaret’s Road. This access would go from Billets Hart Close to the Community Gardens via the newly enclosed land. This would necessitate the removal of the railings and hawthorn hedge on St Margaret’s Open Space at the end of Billets Hart Close.

On 29 July 2019 the Hobbayne Trust applied to register its ownership of the fenced off land, claiming that it had been in possession of the land since 2008.

Local residents didn’t buy the trust’s explanation of the land’s history…

… Nor did the Land Registry, which rejected the trust’s claim of ownership on 1 August 2019.

Meanwhile, fed up with waiting for the trust or for Ealing Council to move the fence, some residents took the law into their own hands. Over the August 2019 bank holiday, they broke the new fence down.

Down with the fences!

In resorting to Direct Action to remove fences around enclosed land, the residents echoed long and proud traditions of defending open space not just by lobbying and campaigning, but practical measures.

In this case as so many others, their action proved a turning point in the dispute.

On 29 August 2019, sixteen households on Billets Hart Close again wrote a joint letter to the Hobbayne Trust’s chairman, challenging the enclosure of the land and asking that the fence be removed. The letter was copied to Ealing Council.

The letter made the following points:

Before the Trust fenced it off, the land had been freely accessible to the public since 1996.

It is designated as Public Open Space in Ealing Council’s Local Plan and has been described as such in numerous council documents. There are also documents from Laing Homes dated 1996 showing it as Public Open Space.

The land had been been maintained by Ealing Council, at public expense, since at least 2004.

The Hobbayne Trust had not provided residents with any evidence of its ownership of the fenced off land. It had not registered as the proprietor of the land at the Land Registry.

The north-western boundary of the Hobbayne Trust’s land is clearly marked on the transfer documents from when it bought the land from the Canal and River Trust in 2014. The same boundary is also marked on residents’ conveyancing documents from when Billets Hart Close was built in 1996-97.

The residents of Billets Hart Close were not informed about the erecting of the fence. The Hobbayne Trust made no attempt to consult or engage with local residents before erecting the fence.

The letter concluded:

“We call on the trustees to remove the fence around the piece of the park they have enclosed without further delay. This land is public space and the public would like it back.”

In response to the residents’ letter, the Hobbayne Trust called a meeting. Its representatives met with 20 local residents on 14 October 2019, saying that they wanted to rebuild trust with the local community.

At the meeting the Hobbayne Trust’s representatives confirmed that they did not own the land and had fenced it off without having any legal title to it. They said that they were in ‘a legal process’ to acquire the land and that the Canal and River Trust was in the process of establishing its ownership in order to transfer the land to the Trust. They failed to mention that their application to claim ownership of the land had been rejected by the Land Registry two months earlier…

Also, the Canal and River Trust had not made any attempt to register the land, nor did they ever claim the disputed area.

At the same meeting, the Hobbayne Trust’s representatives also re-stated their intention to put a gateway onto the disputed land to give access to the Community Gardens from Billets Hart Close. They were unclear about whether this was to be for pedestrians only or for vehicles. They denied all knowledge of the agreement signed on 20 July 2017 by the Hobbayne Trust, together with the payment of £3,500, for vehicle access to Billets Hart Close.

In a written statement presented at the meeting, the Hobbayne Trust said that it had informed the residents at the end of Billets Hart Close of its proposed action to enclose the land. However, no residents on Billets Hart Close received any such communication from the Trust.

After a number of residents wrote to Ealing Council over the summer, the Council responded in November 2019, via separate letters and emails to local residents. It stated that:

The council did not believe the Hobbayne Trust had a legal entitlement to the land it had fenced off;

The fence had been constructed by the Hobbayne Trust without the council’s consent;

The Council believes that it has a greater claim to ownership of the land than any other party and is preparing to register its ownership of the land through adverse possession, on the grounds that it has occupied and maintained the land for the required period;

The council expects the Hobbayne Trust to remove its fence.

The removal of some of the panels enabled the public to reclaim its right of way across the land: the faint reappearance of the footpath (a desire line), quickly showed this right was being regularly exercised.

The council did not issued any enforcement notice (or, if it has, it hasn’t said so publicly) and the Hobbayne Trust did not remove the remains of the fence. Residents continued to fight for the complete removal of the fence and the return of the land to the public…

The job of removing the fence was eventually completed in March by the Canal and River Trust (CRT) when residents reported that the fence encroached on the Grand Union Canal towpath land.

Residents hope that in future Ealing Council will be more active in protecting such public open space. Early signs are encouraging: the council has said again that it will register the land.The ultimate aim of the local campaigners is to see the land become part of the statutory local nature reserve being proposed by the Brent River and Canal Society for neighbouring Warren Farm and its surrounding meadows.

The Warren Farm Campaign

Warren Farm, which lies just across the Brent River from the piece of disputed land on St Margaret’s open space above, has seen an even longer campaign to fight off the land being given into private hands by Ealing Council.

In the Elizabethan Period, Warren Farm was a tenancy of the Osterley Park Estate. The estate was owned by Sir Thomas Gresham, who opened one of Britain’s first paper mills, by the River Brent in the 1570s. Appropriately enough for this story, Gresham was also a pioneer of enclosure in this area: in 1576 his fencing off of common land caused riots.

In the Victorian period, Warren Farm was a working farm. Ordnance Survey maps from the early 1890s show a public footpath across the site. This right of way was diverted and a newer route runs along the railway.

In 1925, the Countess of Jersey sold Warren Farm to the London County Council (LCC) for sports usage, but the Depression and World War II disrupted these plans, but after the war Warren Farm was run as a farm by the local St Bernard’s Psychiatric Hospital until 1961, and the LCC and then ILEA (the Inner London Education Authority) used the land as a variety of sports pitches for schoolchildren and clubs. In the 1960s the changing rooms were erected and football, cricket, netball, tennis, shot-put and long jump pitches were on the site. When ILEA was dissolved in 1990, Warren Farm passed to the London Borough of Ealing (LBE). Later, a children’s day centre the Pride and Joy Child Care Nursery were based there.

By the 2000s Ealing Council claimed they did not have the funds to maintain the land. The site maintenance stopped. Changing rooms were vandalised and became derelict.In 2009 the London Borough of Ealing launched plans to rent Warren Farm to Queen’s Park Rangers (QPR) football club on a 200 year lease at a peppercorn rent. Effectively gifting Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) to a private company for 200 years. Under the plan there would have been no more public community access.

In opposition to this plan, the Save Warren Farm (SWF) group was founded in 2014. The group raised money and fought the QPR deal, seeking a Judicial Review against Ealing, on the grounds that the council had acted unlawfully in disposing of Warren Farm. The Judicial Review was turned down, however, and QPR were imminently expected to start works on Warren Farm.
No works began, however, and questions arose as to whether QPR could in fact afford to proceed with their plans.

Desire Lines on Warren Farm

In 2016, Save Warren Farm applied to register a footpath across Warren Farm as a Public Right of Way. Ealing Council refused the application. An appeal to the Planning Inspectorate was rejected the following year. In 2016, QPR had their Planning Permission extended by 4 years, with their original plans for Warren Farm scaled back and with the introduction of landfill planned across the site.
In 2017, Ealing Council introduced a new waste collection scheme which meant all households required new wheelie bins. The bins were stored on Warren Farm, but were set on fire twice that same year…By 2019, nature had reclaimed much of the abandoned Warren Farm site. QPR’s ecological surveys concluded that Warren Farm was ‘species poor’ and of ‘little to no ecological value’. A new campaign group, Hanwell Nature, gathered evidence which challenged this assertion. Fundraising began and a Judicial Review was now granted on the basis that Ealing Council failed to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). In 2020, Ealing Council pulled out of the Judicial Review hearing brought by the Hanwell Nature campaign, apparently not wanting to waste taxpayers money defending the Judicial Review. QPR’s extended planning permission had run out prior to the hearing and QPR had by now found an alternative site.

In the autumn of 2020, the Brent River & Canal Society (BRCS), a charity founded in 1973 whose aim is to protect and enhance Brent River Park (of which Warren Farm is part), released a new vision for Warren Farm Nature Reserve. Initially inspired by young conservationist Kabir Kaul, the BRCS forward-thinking vision asked Ealing Council to work with them in creating Warren Farm Nature Reserve, obtaining Local Nature Reserve (LNR) status for Warren Farm, Jubilee Meadow, Blackberry Corner, Trumper’s Field and Fox Meadow, with the future potential of adding the Imperial College London owned land and the Earl of Jersey’s Field. This would create one large Local Nature Reserve comprised of meadow habitats, with Warren Farm at its centre – preserving meadows for wildlife, humans and for future generations.

 sign the Warren Farm Nature Reserve petition here

Enclosures and Hanwell’s History

Hopefully locals’ plans to unite all the open space above into a Nature reserve will bear fruit… their stalwart defence of their green space should inspire us all.

But it is not surprising that these attempts by the Hobbayne Trust and Ealing Council/QPR to deprive people of open space have been so stoutly fought off. This area has form, as they say, for resistance to enclosures of land.

Common land was vital to the existence of many people before the industrial revolution, when most lived on the land, and worked on the land. Working people might own one or two animals, which they woud graze on commons; wood in common land was gathered for burning for fuel, as was turf; food stuffs were also there to be gathered. Access to commons could make the difference between survival and starvation, and the right to use them had grown up through centuries of struggle against landowners often keen to restrict what people could use. Through the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, local landowners increasingly tried to enclose land – fence it off for more intensive agriculture, denying poorer folk the resources previously available to them. Much of England’s land was enclosed by 1830. But this process was widely resisted, by legal campaigning, direct action like sabotage, by riots and revolts. Read more on this in the London area.

As noted above, parts of the Hanwell area were owned by the aristocratic residents of Osterley House, and Thomas Gresham had faced rioting and sabotage in response to his enclosing of common land to build Osterley Park. There were further troubles at Osterley Park over enclosure in 1614, when several women cut down trees belonging to Sir William Reade, who had inherited the house.

Hanwell itself saw a struggle by the wealthy to enclose Heathland, at the end of the 18th century. This sparked resistance, of which some mention has survived.

Moves to enclose the parish had been discussed by the parish vestry in 1792, but a meeting of tenants called by the vestry apparently voted against wholesale enclosure. This may have been due not so much to idealogical opposition as from fear of local reaction, as there are reports of local discontent and some threats to farmers, over regulation and restrictions in the local commons fields. Attempts by the vestry to cut back numbers of animals that could be grazed in the common had been met with objections, as customary use that had evolved over centuries allowed for more grazing than the new rules allotted. Through the 1790s, repeated orders issued by the parish officers regarding the restrictions were ignored; in 1796 the vestry appealed to the Lord of the Manor to punish the transgressors as they were powerless to enforce their rules. This constant stubborn resistance climaxed in August 1798 with the removal of a lock and  chain barring access to the ‘Common South Field’, which was partly owned by a farmer, Mr George, and the driving in to graze of a large crowd of livestock by local rebels.

Surveying land for enclosure

Attempts to survey the parish a few years later, a usual precursor to enclosure, may have met with a bit of theft… In 1803, the vestry voted to have the parish surveyed and mapped, and hired a professional land surveyor for the job. The parish surveyor Mr Grimault refused to co-operate with him however… despite this, the survey was carried out, and handed in to the vestry in November 1803. In June 1805, however, the document mysteriously went missing, “taken away, or misplaced.” Someone trying to slow the process down?

Despite all this, the Vestry managed to push through the enclosure in March 1813. Not without another act of defiance, however: in May, local youth arranged a cricket match on newly enclosed Hanwell Heath, and the constable was urged by the vestry to “use their utmost exertions to prevent the lads from this Village from assembling on the heath on Sundays.” Both the enjoying themselves on the Sabbath  and invading newly enclosed land being offensive to the authorities… Feelings of attachment to their common died hard.

In the wider area around Hanwell, access to Common land in this part of the old county of Middlesex was fought over for centuries.

The huge expanse of nearby Hounslow Heath was the arena for resistance to enclosure for several hundred years… Attempts to enclose common land in the Heston area about 1600 seem to have been defeated by a group of tenants led by Sir Gideon Awnsham. Complaints were also made in Heston in 1634 about recent enclosures of the common lands.

1834, Ickenham labourers dug up and allotted themselves several parcels of land, in defiance of manor courts who spent twenty years unsuccessfully trying to evict these latter-day diggers

An Inspiration

The area of land fenced off in St Margaret’s open space may be small – but small pieces of land can be dear to people. Councils, developers, landowners often think they can take spaces away without fightback – not this time. 

What has so far helped the Hanwell residents in their campaign has been a cunning use of direct action hand in hand with meticulous research. We love it! 

The Hanwell campaigns shine a light of inspiration to the many other local campaigners fighting off attempts to build on open space and close off access to land… 

Campaigners all over are fighting off attempts to enclose and develop small green spaces, especially land on council estates. Peckham Green was recently fenced off and built over by Southwark Council, despite local objections; on several Southwark estates, tenants are facing proposals to build over small green areas used by them but considered waste by council penpushers. The same story is beginning to crop up all over the capital. But the Hanwell story shows the faceless planners don’t always win…
If the council or another body wants your green space – get together! Research the real ownership, find out what your neighbours want – fight back! (The Open Spaces Society can often help)

Campaigners may feel lairy about what seem like extreme actions like pulling down fences; legally risky, chance of arrest… In this case, having the legal proofs of the land not belonging to the Hobbayne Trust gave the fence destroyers some security in their actions… With other spaces, legal ownership issues may be more clear cut the other way. However, direct action is a powerful weapon. And ownership of open space is often twofold – there’s legal title, yes, but counterposed to that is also how people who use the place feel about somewhere, are invested in it, feel like it is theirs. Access to places can go back centuries, but attachment to open space can build up over much shorter time; it is not easily dismissed. And how did the ‘legal’ owners of land get to own most of it anyway? Violent expropriation of everyone else, by force, lawyers, authority… 

How strongly people feel about a place has implications in how people are willing to fight for it…

The relationship of the St Margaret’s and Warren Farm campaigns with Ealing Council also show the contradictory and uncertain nature of the ownership of public land. Local authorities have been in charge of managing public space for a century and a half, by and large. But is been and up and down ride, especially in recent decades, with budget cuts and other pressures bearing on ownership of open spaces. Money is tight. The temptation to offload it (as Ealing tried to do with Warren Farm to QPR), to cross one headache off the budget list, is strong… (Or to close if off to many users by letting it be used for paying festivals much of the summer, as happens elsewhere).

But open spaces, vital as they are to people’s lives, belong to us all. The legal title of landowners and trusts is generally dubious, historically; the stewardship of local authorities need constant monitoring by us all from below…