Thursday, July 5, 2012

Theatre Thurs: Cut-purses in the Elizabethan Theatre District

Market Scene with a Pick-pocket by Louise Moillon, (1610-1696) from the first half of the 17th century (a little late in time, I know, but it was a brilliant representation and I wanted to use it!) Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Like any major city today, 16th century London had its fair share of crime. Elizabethan London was full of cut-purses, many of whom worked in organized bands. 

In the year 1585, it was discovered that a school to train young cut-purses was being run at a tavern in Billingsgate. The school was being run by a Mr. Wotton, an ex-merchant turned criminal mentor (think of him as a 16th century Fagan).

One of the ways Mr. Wotton honed his aspiring criminals skills was by having them practice lifting coins from a purse that had bells sewn onto it, without ever making a sound. When the junior cut-purses could do this successfully, they were ready to be released into the wider world, preying upon wealthy theatregoers in the playhouses. These boys "nipped a bung" in the city, which was criminal slang for cutting a purse.

The City of London from Southwark in Elizabethan Times. The drawing is from the second edition of The History of London (1894) by Sir Walter Besant. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Mr. Wotton, like the other men (and women) who trained bands or criminals, found that small boys made good cut-purses because they could move through the packed crowds in and around the theatre virtually unnoticed. As an added bonus, their small fingers caused minimal to no disturbances when pilfering coins or cutting purse strings!