Tag Archives: milford lane

The Language of Alsatia: earliest uses

When was the word ‘Alsatia’ first applied to Whitefriars? Cunningham’s Handbook of London (1850) states:

“ALSATIA. A cant name given before 1623 to the precinct of Whitefriars, then and long after a notorious place of refuge and retirement for persons wishing to avoid bailiffs and creditors. The earliest use of the name is contained in a quarto tract by Thomas Powel, printed in 1623, and called “Wheresoever you see mee, trust unto Yourselfe, or the Mysterie of Lending and Borrowing.” The second in point of time is in Otway’s play of The Soldier’s Fortune, (4to, 1681), and the third in Shadwell’s celebrated Squire of Alsatia (4to, 1688) ….”

Today, due to mass digitization, accurate searching, and hopefully accurate transcription as well, we can say that the first use in print was in 1676 – August 29th, according to the license declared on the cover – in a satirical tract ‘The Character of an Honest Lawyer‘, signed by one ‘H.C.’ According to this, such a paradigm of rectitude never

maintains any correspondence with the Knights of Alsatia, or Ram-ally-Vouchers ….

A brief mention, coupled with ‘Knight’ rather than the squire more common later, and with ‘Ram Alley vouchers.’ Ram Alley was a sanctuary in the precincts of the Temple, abolished along with Alsatia by the act of 1697; a ‘voucher’ was a witness-for-hire.

Before continuing with the chronology of the term, it’s worth considering where and when it wasn’t used. Powell’s 1623 guide to London’s sanctuaries, contrary to Cunningham, did not use it, and Whitefriars is mentioned only obliquely. Similarly, Brome’s play A Mad Couple Well-Match’d, dating from before the civil war but first published in 1653, has the lines:

I need no more insconsing now in Ram-alley,
nor the Sanctuary of White-fryers , the Forts of Fullers-rents,
and Milford-lane, whose walls are dayly batter’d
with the curses of bawling creditors. My debts are payd;
and here’s a stock remayning of Gold, pure Gold harke
how sweetly it chincks.

There’s a clear opportunity to use the term Alsatia here, especially given the explicit mention of Whitefriars. That it is not used implies that it hadn’t yet been coined. Furthermore, its absence implies that Whitefriars hadn’t become the epitome of sanctuary. From the literary evidence, that was not to come until the 1670s, after the Civil War, Plague and Great Fire of London.

The next use of Alsatia in its sense of refuge is a few months after ‘H.C.’, in the prologue to Settle’s play Pastor Fido, licensed December 26th 1676. Although used in passing, it is  the first appearance of the squire:

Another keeps a Miss the modish way;
And when poor Duns, quite weary, will not stay,
The hopeless Squire’s into Alsatia driven;
Yet pretty Charming Sinner is forgiven.

Around this time, there’s a crop of passing mentions. Aphra Behn – once a debtor herself – refers to ‘New Alsatia’ in The Debauchee (1677), her adaptation of Brome’s play. Rawlins has a character as ‘foul mouth’d as a decayed sinner in the lower Alsatia’ (Tunbridge Wells, 1678); Otway’s The Cheats of Scapin (1677) and L’Estrange’s Citt and Bumpkin (1680) also make brief use of it.

It’s not until Otway’s The Soldiers Fortune (1681) that Alsatia and its denizens move out from the wings, with the squire’s portrait being fleshed out:

‘Tis a fine equipage I am like to be reduced
to ; I shall be ere long as greasy as an Alsatian bully ;
this flopping hat, pinned up on one side, with a sandy,
weather-beaten peruke, dirty linen, and, to complete
the figure, a long scandalous iron sword jarring at my

Then in 1686 Alsatia becomes one of the settings of  Aphra Behn’s The Lucky Chance. Bredwel describes the garrett of the debt-ridden aristocrat Gayman, who has sought refuge in Whitefriars:

I was sent up a Ladder rather than a pair of Stairs; at last I scal’d the top, and enter’d the inchanted Castle; there did I find him, spite of the noise below, drowning his Cares in Sleep.

‘Tis a pretty convenient Tub, Madam. He may lie a long in’t, upright, there’s just room for an old join’d Stool besides the Bed, which one cannot call a Cabin, about the largeness of a Pantry Bin, or a Usurer’s Trunk; there had been Dornex Curtains to’t in the days of Yore; but they were now annihilated, and nothing left to save his Eyes from the Light, but my Landlady’s Blue Apron, ty’d by the strings before the Window, in which stood a broken six-penny Looking-Glass, that shew’d as many Faces as the Scene in Henry the Eighth, which could but just stand and then the Comb-Case fill’d it.

Two years later, Shadwell’s The Squire of Alsatia (1688), containing the first glossary to collect the term, made the fullest use of both the place and its Dramatis Personae. But by bringing the sanctuaries to the authorities’ attention, and inveighing strongly against such areas, it may have paved the way to the legislation of 1697 that stripped most of them of the right of refuge. It may therefore have a better claim to be one of the last, not first uses, of the term Alsatia.

Addendum: I’ve just discovered the Historical Thesaurus of English, which erroneously dates Alsatia to 1688. More interestingly, it also cites the personification ‘Alsatian’ to 1691, and places ‘Minter’, after the inhabitants of Southwark Mint, to circa 1700 – 1723.

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.