Fear and hatred of the ‘undeserving’ poor pollutes our thinking about poverty. The shadows of scroungers, fraudsters and cheats who falsely claim to need our help loom over every conversation about benefits and over every new welfare policy.
Headlines about workshy swindlers march across the front pages of our papers almost every day. A quick online search reveals over 10,000 news stories on ‘benefit fraud’, reported both in the nation’s most popular newspapers and in local papers like the Bromley Times and Coventry Telegraph.
Such stories are part of our deep anxiety about those who get something for nothing. We worry that our taxes, our donations, our hard-earned money is being spent on people who don’t need it. The public believes that fraud accounts for over one in every four pounds in Britain’s welfare budget, when in fact it is well under one in a hundred. Such fear and fury are not confined to any particular class – they are common enough among the wealthy and educated as well as the working class. You have, I’m sure, occasionally heard examples of this from family and friends, just as I have. Sadly, if you pay careful attention, you’ll probably find it sometimes lurks in your own thoughts too.
As every student of early modern England knows, this anxiety is not new. By the sixteenth century, it was widespread among educated Englishmen. Many law-makers, preachers and pamphleteers loudly and frequently denounced the ‘undeserving’ poor as ‘vermin’, ‘caterpillars’, and ‘children of Belial’. Their primary target was ‘vagabonds’ and ‘rogues’ – ‘masterless’ young men who wandered around the country begging and thieving when they should have been working.
However, these ‘masterless men’ were not the only beggars in early modern England. As has been seen in previous posts, many of those who asked for alms were not demonized and many more were neither young nor men. But even for those poor individuals who were clearly not a physical threat, some people remained doubtful about whether they truly ‘deserved’ relief.
One source of these suspicions was the story of the ‘rich beggar’. There must have been many such tales circulating at the time, but the most famous was that of the blind beggar of Bethnal Green. According to legend, the thirteenth-century knight Henry de Montfort lost his sight in battle and spent the rest of his life begging at a cross-roads, only to reveal his great riches when a wealthy knight proposed marriage to his supposedly penniless daughter. By the seventeenth century, this had become the subject of a popular ballad about The Blind Beggars Daughter of Bednall-Green which was regularly reprinted. Another ballad of the period described The Stout Cripple of Cornwall, who ‘crept on his hands and knees up and down’ the roads, begging each day and thieving each night, whereby he gathered £900 before being caught and hanged.
Such stories seem ridiculous – yet a handful of real cases from this period must have made them appear much more credible. In 1562, for example, authorities at Norwich confiscated the possessions of a woman called Mother Arden who daily went ‘beggying in the strettes’. The officers discovered that amongst her meagre stock she had hidden away £44 3s. 5d., equivalent to many years income for most labouring people at the time.
More than two centuries later, in early nineteenth-century Ireland, a ‘miserly beggar’ by the name of Adam Mond was caught. He was blind and so spent most of his time asking for alms in the countryside around his ‘despicable hovel’. Yet, he was overheard speaking in his sleep about a stash of money and a search by some suspicious neighbours revealed more than £100 squirrelled away. When they money was confiscated and he was offered merely a reasonable pension, Mond went mad with grief and ‘never recovered’, dying seven months later.
Amidst the receipts and disbursements cluttering up the pages of the overseers’ accounts of Great Gransden in Huntingdonshire, I came across another extraordinary ‘rich beggar’. On 1 December 1680, a cold Wednesday morning, ‘An Old Beggar Man was found Dead in one of the Closes at Leccott’ by a carpenter who discovered his body under a haystack. Four parish officers ‘went up to Leccott to view the Body & Turning it over they Soone found a Parcell of money which was put into an old Cloath & lay under his Arme’. The next day, a coroner and jury viewed the body, soon concluding ‘that the man died with Cold & Hunger & want of Necessaryes, which he would not allow Himselfe although he had Money & Cloths Sufficient in his Pack yet Hee had not the Heart or good minde to make the Best use of them’. The beggar ‘was Buried decently’ later that day.
But what made the Leccott beggar so worthy of note was the fact that he didn’t merely have enough money to buy some bread, for in his ‘old Cloath’ they found ‘Three Pounds Eight Pence Farthing’. This may not be as incredible as Mother Arden’s fortune, but £3 was still an impressive sum. A farm labourer earned about 10d. per day by this time, meaning that the beggar had tucked away savings worth more more than ten weeks of wages.
The overseer resentfully noted that the apparent windfall did not last long.
“It was Hoped that there would have been some money left to have beene given to the Poor of Gransden aforesaid, in Memory of the Begger, but the Jury men and those that went to Leccot demanded pay for their Pains, And spent all their money at the Ale House, So the Beggers mony was all spent in two days Time, which was lik[e]ly He Begged many Years for & Denied himselfe Necessaryes for his Life.”
So here we have a surprisingly sympathetic account of a ‘rich beggar’, in which the old wanderer’s savings are seen as the product of an unsound ‘minde’ rather than devious trickery. The real villains in this telling are the jurymen and other locals who diverted the money from charity for their own enjoyment.
We never hear from the Leccott beggar himself, just as we don’t hear directly from Mother Arden or Adam Mond, so we will never know how they would have explained or justified themselves. But my own sense is that few people – then or now – undergo the discomfort and degradation of a beggar’s life by choice. If they continue begging even when they have enough money to escape that hard road, it is probably not greed that drives them on.