Tag Archives: jonson

The Milford Lane Bermudas

The major problem with the historical slang discussed in the previous post is that our main source for it, the canting vocabularies, cannot be taken as proof of what was actually voiced. Not only do contemporary dictionaries dramatically transform the aural into the written, but for these lexicons we cannot be sure that their terms were widely used, or even used at all, or that they had the meaning prescribed to them. Their motives, whether to titillate a reader or inform a magistrate, make them still more opaque, as does their cannibalizing, copying and  reuse, with all the slips and mistakes that introduces.

Consequently, one needs to find examples of use, preferably in material that hasn’t been ‘worked up’ for an audience. Although plays have been a useful source for cant phrases, and although there is a connection between the theatre players and vagabondage, they are at root artistic works intended to be performed publicly, quite contrary to the purposes of argot.

Criminal records, especially depositions and testimony, may be a more fruitful source for the spoken language of the time. For example, the extract below is taken from the Middlesex calendar of the sessions records, 1616:

Francis Bradshawe of St. Clement Danes, gentleman, brought to the Court for abusing John Blanksby and John Cawcatt, constables of the Duchy, when they came with a warrant to apprehend one Captain Stokes for suspicion of murder, by virtue of Mr. Michell’s warrant, “and when they commanded him in the Kinges Matles name to goe with them he would not but in scoffing manner willed them in the Kinges name to goe with him.” Committed for default of sureties and afterwards handed in bail until the next Sessions to Oliver Smith of St. Clement Danes, tailor, and Ralph Garrett of Holborn, gentleman, to be of good behaviour, and to do his best endeavour to apprehend the said Captain Stokes, who escaped by means of the said Francis “out of the Barmoodoes in Milforde Lane”

(source: British History Online)

‘Barmoodoes’, ‘Bermudas’ in modern orthography*, was defined by Grose as “A cant name for certain places in London, privileged against arrests.” The modern lexiographer of slang Eric Partridge considers it to mean a specific area, around Drury Lane. Willey, in Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable (2009), combines both definitions, calling it “the name for certain no-go areas where criminals hid themselves away and the authorities were not inclined to pursue them. It was applied in particular to the lanes and passageways running near Drury Lane, and to parts of Southwark.” (p.40)**

But here it is used to refer to Milford Lane, running south from the Strand to the Thames, as can be seen from the map below.

Milford Lane in the 17th century

Milford Lane in the 17th century

Milford Lane wasn’t a sanctuary in the sense that it had any particular rights attached to it, as Whitefriars or Southwark Mint had. According to Thomas Powell‘s 1623 guide to the sanctuaries of London, it was held more or less by force of arms:

THe next is Milford lane, to which certaine Captaines and their companies being long since cashiered, betooke themselues, and liking the situation of it, did there erect diuers workes, both to the land-side and the water for their ensafing.

As they came in by conquest, so they hold it by the sword; and howsoeuer their title hath beene much disputed heretofore, yet they haue now commuted the matter, proued plantation, pretended the first discouery: and withall haue reduced it to a most absolute Hanse and free towne of it selfe without dependency.

Ben Jonson, who appears to have been the first to use Bermudas in this sense, in print at least, may well have been referring to Milford Lane in his poem Underwoods (published 1640), implying that the inhabitants were debtors turned pirates:

But these Men ever want: their very Trade
Is borrowing; that but stopt, they do invade
All as their Prize, turn Pyrates here at Land,
Ha’ their Bermudas, and their Streights i’ th’ Strand

So perhaps there was another resonance to the term Bermudas, as a haunt for pirates. Note that it was a Captain that was being pursued in the testimony above!

* A use of this spelling to mean the Bermudas proper, can be found in Horne’s 1666 Brief Description of the Province of Carolina.

** Interestingly, the Brewer’s Dictionary of 1894 gives a different meaning, although still referencing the alleys around Drury Lane and Covent Garden:

To live in the Bermudas, i.e. in some out-of-the-way place for cheapness. The shabby genteel hire a knocker in some West-end square, where letters may be left for them, but live in the Bermudas, or narrow passages north of the Strand, near Covent Garden.

See also the undated edition at archive.org combining the cheapness motif with that of sanctuary.

The Language of Alsatia: Cant, Analogy and Toponyms

‘Alsatia’ was not only a name for Whitefriars and a generic term for places outside the law, but also an example of a linguistic practice of ‘toponymic analogy’: bestowing a foreign place name upon a local area on the basis of presumed similarities. There are a significant number of examples of  this in the ‘Rogues’ cant’ of the early modern period, the slang probably spoken by the inhabitants of the such spaces, and the poorer sort in London generally.

I say ‘probably’, because our sources for this spoken language are invariably printed, meaning that what we know of it is mediated. Most lexicons of ‘the vulgar tongue’ such as that by Grose, were written by and for those who did not speak it. That such dictionaries frequently, and inaccurately, copied each other further confuses the issue. Those compiled by those involved in the justice system, whether J.P.s or criminals, may be more reliable. The literary evidence may be also be closer to the source. The vagabondage of travelling players and the number of authors prosecuted for debt connects the daily use and the artistic performance of cant. Whitefriars, and its near neighbour the liberty of Blackfriars, hosted some of London’s first theatres. But still, we cannot be sure what was poetic invention.

How much was this language used? A quick search shows that neither ‘ragamuffin‘ nor ‘Alsatia’ can be found in the materials hosted by either the Old Bailey Online or English Broadsides Ballads websites. ‘Punk‘ is used once in its slang sense in OBO (the other two uses are to refer to firewood and a surname), but is used in eleven ballads. Much more research is needed in this area.

The dictionaries reveal  a concern that language could be dangerous, especially when spoken by the dangerous classes. One of the earliest, A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursetors (1567) by sometime Whitefriars resident Thomas Harman, had as its explicit purpose the exposure of roguery, so that the “indecent doleful dealing and execrable exercises may appear to all as it were in a glass, that thereby the Justices and Sheriffs may in their circuits, be more vigilant to punish these malefactors[.]” By translating their language, their plots and schemes are revealed. This connecting of disorder with language was an important theme in the early modern period. John Locke devoted two chapters of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding to the imperfections and abuses of words, and another to remedying them. Abused words were a concern of Locke’s in the monetary debates of the 1690s, a matter that very much concerned debtors and creditors, stating that money was “thought to be a great Mystery” but only because “interested people …. wrap up the secret they make advantage of in mystical, obscure and unintelligible ways of Talking[.]” (Some Considerations) In the early eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift railed against ‘playhouse and Alsatia cant‘, making a clear connection between roguery and the theatre, as a corruption of both language and christianity. (See also Tale of a Tub.)

This language was as disordered and outside social norms as the sanctuaries and their inhabitants. The practice of renaming one place after another can be seen as a particular canting practice, that by confusing different places and drawing sardonic parallels embodies roguery. Toponymic analogy generally renamed dangerous localities with overseas names, generally one that was exotic, distant and with perilous resonances. For example, Wapping, site of the last, and shortest-lasting, sanctuary, was known as ‘Little Barbary.’ On the other side of the Thames, South London – specifically Lambeth, Southwark and Rotherhithe – was known as the ‘Turkish Shore.’ An exception to this is Newcastle, nicknamed the ‘Black Indies’ after the “rich coal mines prove an Indies to the proprietors”, according to Grose. Fortune-making replaces insecurity, but perhaps a sense of hazard lurks behind it.

For Whitefriars, the Alsace region was a suitable parallel in three ways. It was contested, first by the French and the Habsburgs then later between the French and Germans; ravaged during the Thirty Years War; and to some extent autonomous due to the tortuous treaties negotiated around it and the independence of some of its towns. ‘Alsatia the Lower‘ was also used to refer to Southwark Mint.

Other parts of London were similarly renamed. The area around St Martins In The Fields and Chandos Street was known as the Carribees from, says Thornbury, its “countless straits and intricate thieves’ passages.” Grose has this as the origin of ‘Cribbys‘:

Blind alleys, courts, or bye-ways; perhaps from the houses built there being cribbed out of the common way or passage; and islands, from the similarity of sound to the Caribbee Islands.

Similarly, ‘The Bermudas’ was used for the area around Drury Lane to signify difficult navigation, and perhaps also to it being a place of refuge for debtors, just as the actual Islands were a destination for them. Grose claims it was used indiscriminately of all sanctuaries, but Partridge disagrees. Ben Jonson refers to them twice, in Bartholomew Fair as ‘where the quarrelling lesson is read’, and The Devil is an Ass:

But, these same Citizens, they are such sharks!
There’s an old Debt of forty, I ga’ my word
For one is run away, to the Bermudas,
And he will hook in that, or he wi’ not do.

Newgate prison had a cell reserved for debtors called Tangier, perhaps drawing a sardonic parallel with the pirates of the barbary coast, on account of their holding captives for ransom, just as debtors were held until they could pay their debts, or referring to the unwholesome air and general poor hygiene. The inmates were nicknamed Tangerines. There may also have been a Tangiers Tavern nearby, where the famed and dashing highwayman Claude Duval lay in state after his execution; but all the references I have found to it have been in connection with this moment, so it may be an oft-repeated embellishment.

This type of renaming is also found outside London, though the only examples I have found date to the nineteenth century. In Wolverhampton there was an area inhabited by Irish migrants and worked by prostitutes known as The Caribees. In Merthyr Tydfil (all roads lead to Merthyr) there was a notoriously lawless district called ‘China‘, possibly named so at the time of the first opium war.

This practice goes on today: Anna Minton reports that a poverty-stricken area of Edinburgh is known as ‘Bosnia.’ (Minton, Ground Control, p.111.)