Criminal Canterbury

Dr David Hitchcock, Canterbury Christ Church University

This past November I got a chance to take part in the AHRC and British Academy’s Being Human Festival. The festival is an enormous event that sponsors free, research-informed workshops, talks, cultural events, concerts, and screenings across the UK. There was even – and I would have loved to attend this – a masterclass on how to ‘end a life’ in crime fiction.

I work on the social and cultural history of early modern vagrancy and wanted to plan an event that destabilised contemporary views of Canterbury’s past. My research has led me to some surprising places over the years and I was sure that the event could encourage participants to see the cityscape in a different light.

If you’ve ever been to Canterbury, you will know the town is gorgeous: all carefully preserved heritage, cobbled high streets and quiet tourist attractions, overseen by a splendid cathedral and filled to the brim with student tour groups. I wanted to highlight Canterbury’s seamier side, its troubles, its brushes with crime, and the fate of poorer people often obscured by the looming shadows of period architecture and religious magnificence.

The most direct way I could think of to do this was by walking through the walls of the old city. Moving from the Westgate tower (formerly one of Canterbury’s most infamous prisons), to the site of an old nineteenth century house of correction and new poor law workhouse, which is now part of Christ Church’s university grounds. The route would allow us to talk through some of the city’s criminal histories and material remnants as we went.

I was lucky to be working as part of a great team. From the Centre for Kent History and Heritage came Sheila Sweetinburgh, who is an expert on Canterbury’s late medieval and early modern history. Sheila drew on her expertise to discuss the city’s overlapping criminal jurisdictions and some of the spectacular executions carried out in them. She highlighted “how different places near prisons, in public thoroughfares, were repurposed as a deliberate strategy to make examples of perceived malefactors, to draw the community together and to provide a visual warning to those beyond these boundaries.” Together we talked about the notorious Arden of Faversham murder case and the suspected locations where Alice Arden might have been burned at the stake for petty treason.

Another of the surprising places that my research has led me is into early modern popular music, or ‘ballads’.

As it happens, one of my Arts Faculty colleagues, Chris Price, runs a fantastic brace of choir groups and himself researches nineteenth-century ‘catch’ songs and clubs (I reckon this is how I got him interested). Chris was enthusiastic and the results are, I think, a testimony to the potential of creative collaboration as well as his students. Another colleague put me in touch with the professional period musicians ‘Greymalkin’, and finally and very anti-climatically at this point, there was me, a social and cultural historian of vagrancy.

We filmed all five of our Being Human events and the music overlaying the video below (which covers all five events) features three of the ballads I selected. One, ‘A trick for Tyburn’, was performed by Greymalkin with accompaniment and the other two were performed by ‘Top Voices’ from the Caterbury Christ Church University Music programme. Chris even wrote an original ballad composition of his own, called ‘The Hanging Tree’, and in the acoustics of the prison the effect was powerful and haunting. All these performances were absolutely wonderful and are well worth a watch and a listen, here. The walk really did end on a high note, as it were, with these double performances inside the old prison and house of correction.

I hope this experience left a pleasant but slightly haunting echo in the minds of our participants. Of course, it is always tricky to calculate the impact of any event like this. But emails from Shelia and Chris after the event summed the whole thing up wonderfully. Sheila wrote that

“[Imagining] ‘being human’ as a criminal outsider who was often punished, even possibly executed, in former times, was a fascinating way to walk through Canterbury. Moreover, the use of actual cases from the city’s records, the broader context of the national picture and the adapting of an oral tradition of songs and accompanying instruments was a heady mix that hopefully brought the early modern period to life for our audience – a cultural experience that the weather most definitely helped to capture!”

Perhaps it helped that it was typically miserable and rainy that day in November. Reflecting on his experience, Chris wrote:

“We don’t do enough of this sort of thing. We burrow down ever deeper into our own little silos, rarely peeping out to see where ours sits in relation to everything else. Walking down the street with Shelia, I found out for the first time just how very many separate jurisdictions exercised power in the city, and realised afresh where I ought to be looking to find out what happened to some of my more badly-behaved cathedral musicians when they’d been found guilty of disgraceful behaviour or thrown into the Westgate for debt. I think it was probably good for the music students, too, to see how this slightly odd music fitted into the real, lived lives of the people who made and performed it. Yes, we should more of this sort of thing.”

Having seen what can come of collaborations like this, I enthusiastically agree.


Read another Social History Exchange post by David Hitchcock


About the Author: Dr David Hitchcock is a Senior Lecturer in History at Canterbury Christ Church University. He works on the social and cultural history of vagrancy in the early modern period. He is the author of Vagrancy in English Culture and Society, 1650-1750 (London: Bloomsbury, 2016) and is working on a new book on the history of ‘ending’ poverty in the British Atlantic world, c. 1600-1848.

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