Dead white men

Brodie Waddell

There has been rather a lot discussion on this blog of two pioneering historians: E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm.

For those of you who are keen to hear more about these two, I’d like to mention a couple of events that will be of interest. For those of you who are tired of me blathering on about dead white men, I can promise that both of these events are actually focused on the impact of Thompson and Hobsbawm’s ideas – rather than on the men themselves – and that after this post I’ll shut up about them for a while.

The first event was a panel on the legacy of Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). The talks and discussion were recorded, and the podcasts are now freely available here. I believe the slides will also be available for download at some point soon.

There were three panellists. Professor Sander Gilman (Emory) focused on the ‘Englishness’ of The Making and the problematic place of Jews in this story. Professor Jane Humphries (Oxford) presented a wonderfully incisive look at the how the ‘sentimentalist’ and ‘pessimistic’ interpretation of the Industrial Revolution has been recently reinvigorated by rigorous quantitative research, including her own book on Childhood and Child Labour British Industrial Revolution (2011). Last, and definitely least, I expanded on some of the ideas that I had presented in my earlier piece on the future of ‘history from below’, drawing on the wider discussion in our online symposium, particularly the contributions from Mark Hailwood and Samantha Shave.

Hobsbawm image_previewThe second event I’d like to mention is the huge conference on ‘History after Hobsbawm’ that will be held at Birkbeck at the end of April. It’s going to be quite an occasion – I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many big-name ‘Munros’ from the world of history on a single programme. Although the event will partly be a celebration of Hobsbawm’s legacy, it also promises to be a forum for leading historians to tackle big issues such as nationalism, protest, class, environment, and so on. I won’t attempt to list all the speakers except to say that I’m particularly looking forward to the panels on ‘the crisis of the 17th century’ (Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Geoffrey Parker, John Elliott), on ‘Marxist and post-Marxist social history’ (Andy Wood, Jane Whittle, Lucy Robinson), and on ‘Frameworks of historical explanation’ (Peter Burke, Joanna Innes, Renaud Morieux). I hope to see some of you there.

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Mary Stevens, vagrant, age 101

Brodie Waddell

On the fourth of April 1692, the city fathers of Winchester assembled at one of their splendid quarterly courts to judge criminals, hear disputes and resolve pressing civic concerns. As was often the case, one of the poor souls who found herself standing before them was an alleged vagrant. The magistrates probably examined dozens of vagrants in a typical year, but this one was a bit different – she was over 100 years old.

From Wenceslaus Hollar, ‘Men and Women Beggars’ (1625-77)

From Wenceslaus Hollar, ‘Men and Women Beggars’ (1625-77)

The clerk described her as ‘Mary Stevens a Vagrant aged about 101 yeares’ and noted that she swore ‘upon her oath that she was born neare the College of Winchester (as she often had heard her Father say)’.

In other words, this was a woman had apparently been born sometime around 1591, in the final decade of the reign of Elizabeth I, only a few streets away from the court where she now stood. She had outlived four monarchs and Oliver Cromwell. She had survived a decade of civil wars, another decade of republican rule, the country’s last great visitation of the plague, and then yet another revolution only three years earlier. And, given her description as a ‘vagrant’, she had probably spent many months or years on the road and seen the effects of these upheavals with her own eyes. Yet here she was, back in Winchester.

So why had she come back? The examination does not tell us. Perhaps she had come on her own accord. Or perhaps had been sent back from somewhere further afield, whether a neighbouring village or halfway across the country.

This wouldn’t have been unusual. Beggars and paupers were regularly seized by the constables and brought before the local Justices of the Peace. If they were accused of ‘vagrancy’ – a criminal offence usually defined as ‘wandering and begging’ – they could be punished by whipping or imprisonment in the local house of correction, before being expelled to their place of birth. In other cases, they might be defined as one of the ‘deserving poor’ and escape punishment, but still be sent to a ‘home’ they had long-since abandoned.

What we do know is that once Mary Stevens had arrived back in the area, she was then sent back and forth between the city of Winchester and the parish of ‘little St Swigins’ (St Swithuns) next to Winchester College, presumably just outside the city’s jurisdiction. Neither the city nor St Swithuns wanted to pay the cost of supporting her.

We can only hope that the new order issued by the Winchester authorities – sending her to St Swithuns ‘to be provided for and setled according to Law’ – was the conclusion of this petty jurisdictional argument. There she may have finally become a ‘lawfull & settled Inhabitant’.

With luck, Mary Stevens’ days of ‘wandering and begging’ were over. At age 101, she deserved a rest.

Mary Stevens, vagrant, age 101 IMG_3977Source
Hampshire Record Office, W/D3/1, fol. 79: examination of Mary Stevens, 4 April 1692

Some Further Reading
A.L. Beier, Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640 (1985)
Steve Hindle, On the Parish? The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England, c. 1550-1750 (2004)
David Hitchcock (ed.), ‘Poverty and Mobility in England, 1600-1850’, Rural History, 24:1 (April 2013), special issue.
Tim Hitchcock, Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London (2004)