Surviving on the streets of Early Modern England: The story of Maud Preece

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Loretta Dolan, University of Western Australia


In 1599, a young girl of no more than twelve years of age called Maud Preece, told a Chester magistrate who was interviewing her about the theft of a hat, that she had been brought to the city four or five years previously.  She could not remember how old she was at the time of arriving in Chester but stated that she was of a ‘very tender age’. Whoever had brought Maud to the city had then left without taking her with them. The examination of Maud by the Chester magistrate sheds light on the survival strategies of children like her who were abandoned in towns and cities of Early Modern England.

Maud had to provide for herself in various ways. She survived by receiving the alms from charitable people and living in a number of strange households. Firstly, she lived in the house of John Morgan, secondly in the house of Elizabeth O’Bryne who had since married John Taylor, and most recently in the house of Margery Hancock. Sometimes she lived with Margaret ap Shone Goughe at her sister’s house near Chester Castle. Maud was exploited in at least one of these houses and used as a petty thief. She explained to the magistrate that she had stolen the hat that was in her possession from John Morgan’s house under the instructions of Margaret ap Shone Goughe who, according to Maud, had enticed her and encouraged her to steal it. Margaret had told the girl to bring her all she could steal and Maud admitted to taking things from the houses of two other men. In exchange for the ill-gotten gains, Maud believed that Margaret would give her food and lodgings from time to time, a story hotly disputed by Margaret who said she knew Maud only by sight. The only thing that Maud had brought her, Margaret told the magistrate, was an iron hook that Maud had found on a midden.

What is obvious here is the mobility and uncertainty of Maud’s living arrangements. It is not even clear that the person who took her to Chester in the first place was a parent and it is possible that she had been abandoned outside the city and brought in by an adult to help them beg. Once there, she had to rely on the charity of people she did not know and move from house to house, each household varying in its residential makeup. We have no record of what happened to Maud after her examination by the magistrate and only her word for how she lived up until then. What we do know is that she remained under the radar of the authorities and there must have been many like Maud in Chester and other cities in Early Modern England. The underlying implication here is the perceptions of life stages that the authorities had of these children. If Maud had been under four or five years of age, she would most likely be cared for by the parish, but above this age, children could fend for themselves.

Materially, Maud had to provide for herself by stealing and foraging in return for basic necessities. Stealing, for poor children like Maud, was just another skill that would have been taught to her by adults and could be considered as part of a child’s informal education. It was how poor children survived in a world that would see them in a negative light. It is obvious from her testimony that Maud was street-wise and exercised some agency in her situation. She moved from one house to the next, working out how to survive and forming relationships with adults along the way. However, the adults with whom Maud lived did not take her in out of charity: their interest lay in Maud’s usefulness to them.

Maud’s situation was not unique in Tudor England as is shown by the description given in Thomas Harman’s rogue literature, A Caveat for Common Cursitors. Known as Dells, these young girls take to the streets after the death of their parents or through fleeing from service due to the severity of their mistress.  Once on the street, the girls then come to the attention of ‘the upright man’, a con man who survives by exploiting others and criminal acts. John Morgan, in whose house Maud said she first lived, may have been an ‘upright man’, and we could surmise that the other households in which Maud lived were connected with the underworld. In reality though, there is scant evidence to suggest that crime was organised to such a degree in English cities during the sixteenth century. The actions of Maud and her companions were part of a survival strategy that at other times included begging and working when the opportunity arose.

If we consider Maud’s experiences, we can argue that some children in Early Modern England were instrumental in providing for their own nurture even to the point of moving from one town to the next, either by themselves or in the company of unrelated adults. They also knew how to solicit charity from local people in order to survive. What was lacking though, was the provision of emotional and social bonds that come from having family and friends. Children like Maud therefore, mistook the actions of adults as having a caring interest in them despite the obvious exploitation in these relationships.

There are further details about Maud, as well as those of other children in Early Modern England, in Nature and Neglect: Childhood in Sixteenth-Century Northern England. The book analyses childhood and childrearing practices and their effects on children’s life experiences including child marriage, education and apprenticeship.

 

Nurture and Neglect: Childhood in Sixteenth-Century Northern England (2016), is published by Routledge

 

About the Author: Loretta Dolan is an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Humanities and the Graduate School of Education at the University of Western Australia (UWA). Her publications include ‘Irregular Schools and Schooling’ in O’Donoghue T. (ed.), Schools as Contested Sites, Vol. 2 of Handbook of Historical Studies In Education: Debates, Tensions, Directions. Singapore: Springer, (2020); Nurture and Neglect: Childhood in Sixteenth-Century Northern England, Abingdon: Routledge, (2017), and ‘Child Marriage in Sixteenth-Century Northern England: The Emotional Undertones in the Legal Narratives’ Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies, 20.3, (2015).

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