Criminal underworlds in early modern England

"There were two somewhat distinct criminal underworlds in early modern England: That of wayfaring vagabonds and that of urban-based thieves. " Discuss In early modern England there was clearly a problem with crime, although a lot of it was petty theft. There was also a fair amount of organised crime, the more serious mainly in urban areas. Historians have put the high rate of theft down to the " rhythms of the pre-industrial economy" 1 as many people could only be provided with employment for a couple of months in the harvest season and would struggle to find any employment in the non harvest months.

These long periods of un-employment made unskilled labours of the working class population search for other means to supplement their income, many turned to petty theft or begging while a few opted for a life of crime and, some were urban based thieves others were wayfaring vagabonds moving from town to town. Clearly some of these criminals belong to underground organisations while others were independent and opportunistic.

To understand the extent of these 'underground organisations' we need to look more closely at the crime in this period. Historians have suggested the idea of a "criminal class" through out Western Europe at this time. 2 The formation of this so-called 'criminal class' is attributed to the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation that was taking place at this time in England. This is because it bought large groups of poor people together in a concentrated area and as a result of this criminal groups were formed.

It has been asserted that these groups lived "mainly of the proceeds of crime"3 and that their life styles were different to that of the other working class's in urban areas. Sharpe suggests that these criminal groups were organised in to a "unique social hierarchy"4 suggesting that there were indeed organised criminal underworlds in urban areas. It was not the case that all organised crime took place in urban areas. It is clear that there was also a large amount of organised crime in rural areas to. Poaching, smuggling and coining are all examples of organised crime in rural arras.

Sharpe talks of horse-thieves likening them to modern day "used-car dealers" changing stolen horses appearances likening it to "false number plates and a respray"5 so there is also evidence that there were organised criminals with large networks of contacts in rural areas as well as in urban areas. The many difference between the two types of criminal (urban and rural) is that the large majority of rural based criminals were highly mobile and were constantly on the move were as urban based criminal mainly stayed in the same county.

Dick Turpin is a good example of a criminal constantly on the move with crimes in Essex the midlands and Yorkshire, dabbling in all types of crimes. 6 As well as organised crime in early modern England there was un-organised crime; for the most part this was carried out by individuals and was opportunistic. In fact most of the people that were tried for theft and other crimes were not professional rouges as we are led to believe, but simple people who had left the home parish in search of work and had stolen some food to survive.

These people who left their home parish in search of work were know as vagrants or vagabonds. It has been suggested that these vagrants were not criminal out of choice, as they would turn to whichever method of getting buy that was available to them at the time, whether that be working, begging or stealing. 7 While most vagrants would opt to beg if the was no work to be had. Sharpe suggests that the vagrants would commit crimes, but the majority of these crimes would be "opportunistic and small scale thefts"8 such as stealing pigs, ducks and geese, which they would either eat or trade in exchange for a bed.

There were of course vagrants that would commit more serious crimes such as pick pocketing and other skilled theft related crimes, these vagrants would move from town to town and would constantly be on the move would tend to be skilled. There is some evidence that these vagrants occasionally worked in organised groups but they were not as professionally organised as the static urban-based thief's. Sharpe suggests that rather that being organised sub-cultures as with the urban based thief's these criminal vagrants or vagabond "enjoyed informal associations and knew where they could find support in the countryside through they passed.

"So the crimes that were committed by the majority of these vagrants were out of need and these people were not involved in sub-cultures or criminal underworld although there is evidence that there were to some extent some sub-cultures but these were no where near as well organised as the ones that you would find in urban areas. The most organised criminal that you would find in rural area would be that of a highwayman these would often planned and attack and work in tight knit groups. 10 Although criminals have been discussed, for what you could be arrested for has not.

In an act of 1531 states "any man or woman being whole and mighty in body and able to labour having no land master, nor using any lawful merchandise, craft, or mystery, whereby he might get his living… be vagrant and can give none reckoning how he doth lawfully get his living… then it shall be lawful… to arrest the said vagabonds and idle persons"11 so from this act you can see that it is confusing to understand what a criminal was in early modern England and so when reading texts on this period one must take in to account who was classed as a criminal.

The fact that you could be arrested simply for being a vagrant or vagabond with out actually committing a theft (or a crime as we would see it today) shows that while these wayfaring vagabonds would only normally commit small petty crimes which were normally unplanned and un organised were taken very seriously this was probably because they were seen as a threat to society and law and order.

So in conclusion it is clear that crime was ripe in early modern England, the crimes that were committed were not normally serious and they were normally committed out of need rather than out of want, this was due to the economic climate of the time as most jobs were only seasonal and one could only hope to secure labour for a few months at a time, then one would have to move on in the search of new employment. This often proved difficult and many people turned to theft or begging to survive.

While there were criminals that stole because they could not find any work, there were also professional criminals that chose crime as a way of life as they could make a constant living out of it. These criminals often belong to organised gangs or networks. These gangs would often be sub-cultures and would have there own hierarchy, structures and rules. These underground organisations would tend to be in urban areas and would be involved in skilled and well organised theft such as pick pocketing and smuggling.

There were also the wayfaring vagabonds that committed crimes in early modern England but these tended not to have sub-cultures or be underworld organisation although highway robbers are an exception to this, on the whole they were less organised and more opportunistic. So finally it is clear that there we two groups of criminals, the urban-based ones and the wayfaring vagabonds. However it would be untrue to suggest that there were two distinct criminal underworlds in early modern England.

It is far too complex to suggest the were only two as there were so many types of crime going on. The vagabonds on the whole did not tend to belong to underworld organisation but the urban-based criminals did tend to. So it could be asserted that there were two distinct types of criminal in early modern England: that of an opportunistic vagabond who stole out of need and that of a criminal who belonged to an organised gang who chose crime as a way of live and made a living out of it.


Burke, peter, Popular culture in early modern Europe, 1978 Fletcher & Stevenson, Order & disorder in early modern England, 1985, J. J Tobias, Crime and industrial society in the Nineteenth Century, Batsford, 1967 Salgado, g, the Elizabethan underworld,1930 Sharpe, J. A, Crime in Early modern England, second edition 1999.