Moll Cutpurse (BL)

What were the King of the Gypsies and Cock Lorel doing in the Devil’s Arse?

They were meeting in the Derbyshire cave with the memorable name to concoct a new language, the tongue of crime and criminals. The Gypsy King of the 1520s and 30s was Giles Hatherley and Cock Lorel was the mythical head (cock) of the rogues (lorels). Mostly referred to as ‘Cant’, the secret speech they allegedly created would last for centuries and some of its words are still spoken today.

Cant was a fluid amalgam of criminal codewords and street slang of the past and present, enriched with Romani and Parlary. Robert Copland’s Highway to the Spittal-House, published around 1536 contains the first record of this tongue. It included bousy cove, meaning a man under the influence of alcohol, a meaning still preserved in some slang. Another cant term that survived the centuries was patrynge (pattering) cove, meaning one who lived by some line of verbal deceit or other dubious activity. Others did not last so well, including dell for a virgin, pek for eat and jere for shit.

A dictionary of cant by ‘B.E. Gent.’ was published in the late 1690s under the exhaustive title A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of theCanting Crew, in its Several Tribes, of Gypsies, Beggars, Thieves, Cheats, &c. with an Addition of Some Proverbs, Phrases, Figurative Speeches, &c. Useful for all sorts of People, (especially foreigners) to secure their Money, and preserve their Lives; besides being very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly new. This early example of multi-marketing by whoever the gentlemanly ‘B E’ might have beenechoed the speech of a vast underworld of vagabondage, thievery and deception. A New Dictionary, and the many publications like it, were mostly written to pander to the insecurities and curiosities of the literate classes and so often exaggerated aspects of the lives and language of conny-catchers and sturdy beggars.

Another early example of this publishing fad was The Third and Last Part of Conny-Catching. With the new devised knavish art of Foole-taking by ‘R G’, Robert Greene, which tells a number of cautionary tales of those who have fallen victim to the wiles of ‘this hellish crew’ who ‘cheate, cosen, prig, lift, nippe and such like tricks now used in their Conie-catching Trade’. The book ends with the warning ‘let each take heed of dealing with anie such kind of people’. There were no police forces at this time, so the honest citizen was generally responsible for his or her own safety and security. Similar works such as Thomas Harman’s A Caveat or Warening for Common Cursetors (1566), The Defence of Begging by ‘Cuthbert Cunny-catcher’ (1592) and Thomas Dekker’s The Belman of London (1608), among many other similar titles allow us to hear this tongue and know something of the lives and crimes of those who spoke it.



The Tudor period experienced increasing numbers of masterless men and other vagrants wandering the roads. By the time of Elizabeth’s reign, vagrancy and crime had become major issues for society and government. The poor – which meant the vast majority of the population – were seen as a possible source of disaffection and political violence. This was held to be especially so of those who would not or could not work, preferring instead a life of crime and, it seemed to the authorities and the respectable classes, of dissipation. In 1596 an Order by the Privy Council to the Justices of the Peace of Middlesex described the activities of such people:

a great number of dissolute, loose and insolent people harboured and maintained in such and like noysom and disorderly howses, as namely poor cottages and habitacions of beggars and people without trade, stables, ins, alehowses, tavernes, garden howses converted to dwellings, ordinaries, dicying howses, bowling allies and brothell howses. The most part of which pestering those parts of the citty with disorder and uncleannes are either apt to breed contagion and sicknes, or otherwize serve for the resort and refuge of masterless men and other idle and evill dispozed persons, and are the cause of cozenages, thefts, and other dishonest conversacion and may also be used to cover dangerous practizes.

Almost twenty years earlier the author of a polemical pamphlet had made similar complaints aimed at “Dauncers, Fydlers and Minstrels, Diceplayers, Maskers, Fencers, Bearewardes, Theeves, Common Players in Enterludes, Cutpurses, Cosiners, Maisterlesse servauntes, Jugglers, Roges, sturdye Beggers, &c.”

These light-fingered (from at least the 1570s) Canting Crews involved themselves in a bewildering variety of criminal specialisms and sub-specialisms. Cozenage was an Elizabethan version of the con trick, from the name that such people gave to their prospective victims, cousins or cozens. To prig was to steal, also used as a term for the stealer. To liftwas to steal goods from a shop, as in shoplifter, or to practice a form of robbery in which the lifter assumed the identity of a servant to gain access to luggage or other belongings. The nippe was a form of cutpurse thief who stole purses by slicing them from their owners clothing with a knife. A more refined nippe was the foyst, who used pickpocket skills to achieve the same ends.

From the sixteenth century Conie-catching also referred to deceptive practices, conie (conny, connie) being a term for a rabbit or, as we might say today, a bunny, who is caught by a con man. These swindles involved the catchers making the acquaintance of their intended conie, winning his trust then cheating him of his money or other possessions. In one variant or another the word has had a continuing presence in criminal tongues. In the nineteenth century a coney, coney dealeror coniacker was one who dealt in counterfeit money and the term eventually produced con man in all its English-speaking variations during the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth and the twenty-first. These include con artist,con game, con girl, con woman, con head, con mob, con job, con racket and simply a con.

A slice of Cant from what is usually said to be its first record in print was written by Copland around 1536. While this is a contrived piece of verse conversation, it well suggests the difficulty of comprehending such talk for anyone not schooled in its complexities. The speaker is a porter of whom Copland has asked whether pedlars ‘with broken hose and breche’ pass this way:

Ynow, ynow; with bousy cove maund nace,

Teare the patryng cove in the darkeman cace

Docked the dell for a coper meke;

His watch shall feng a prounce’s nob-chete,

Cyarum, by Salmon, and thou shall pek my jere

In thy gan, for my watch it is nace gere

For the bene bouse my watch hath a coyn …

Copland admits that even he has difficulty understanding this ‘babble’, or ‘pedlyng frenche’.


The canting crews (BL)


1808 mermaid tattoo




The Tyburn Tree – the permanent gallows at Tyburn, which stood where Marble Arch now stands, about 1680

These evocative words all described execution by hanging, the frequent fate of the Elizabethan and Jacobean criminal. There were many other terms describing the same mode of exit, including to be tucked up, stretched and crapped, an indication that a criminal career in these times was likely to be short. But at least the victim went out in a blaze of glory, celebrated in excited gossip and street ballads like this canting song published in 1676:

But when we come to TyburnFor going upon the budge,There stands Jack Catch, that son of a whore,That owes us all a grudge.And when that he hath noosed us,And our friends tip him no cole,Oh then he throws us in the cartAnd tumbles us in to the hole.

The budge was stealing, or more generally any kind of criminal activity. Jack Catchis a variation of Jack Ketch, the generic name for the hangman and tipping him no cole refers to the friends of the condemned failing to bribe the hangman. The hole was the drop into eternity.
Public executions were a major form of entertainment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Known as Tyburn Fair or The Hanging Match, the day was often a ribald and intoxicated spectacle of death in which the sufferer was expected to play his, or sometimes her role, along with the topsman and the screeching mobcome to see the show. The executed would take the condemned procession to Tyburn or another tree by way of taverns for the traditional parting cup. Not surprisingly this final quaff often became another, then another, and many reportedly went to meet their maker in a state of inebriation.
Regardless of their sobriety they were expected to die game like a fighting cock and preferably to give a flowery and defiant final speech before being turned offto dance the Tyburn jig. The famous highwayman Dick Turpin played his role well, according to a contemporary report of 1739, behaving:

…in an undaunted Manner; as he mounted the ladder, feeling his right Leg tremble, he stamp’d it down, and looking round about him with an unconcerned Air, he spoke a few Words to the Topsman, then threw himself off, and expir’d in five Minutes.

Turpin was unrepentant and bold, an important factor in his status as a proper man, the term of approbation given by the crowd to those who died well. But many other malefactors chose to give dying speeches of repentance and cautioned others not to do as they had done. Early in the sixteenth century, if not before, the phrase to preach at Tyburnwas a widespread euphemism for being hanged. The opposite of dying well was dying dunghill, a term also derived from the language of the brutal custom of the cockfight in which a dunghill cock was one that would not fight.
But whether defiant or repentant, many others turned in notable final performances. And if, through alcohol or fear, they failed their final act, then the street literature and broadside publishers of the day had their final words already printed and ready for sale in the form of their last confessions and feisty ballads about their real and mostly imagined doings.
This ritual had its own elaborate street language. In a cart, the condemned was brought up to the gallows, known by many names such as the trining cheats or derrick. The hangman placed the rope halter or Tyburn tippet around the malefactor’s neck and the cart was driven out from beneath, leaving the condemned to swing at the end of the rope to dance the Paddington frisk or the hempen jig. Death was effectively by strangulation and often had to be assisted by relatives and friends either pulling down on the feet of the condemned or throwing heavy rocks at his chest to hasten the end. When the sufferer was done, the hangman cut down the body, often selling it to the surgeons keen to practice their anatomical skills. Occasionally the execution was so ineptly managed that the condemned, if removed quickly enough from the noose, might be brought back to life by friends administering whacks and alcohol in a local pub.
Another of the terms that evolved within this spectacle of death included nub, meaning to be hung. It had a number of variations, including nubbing cheat, as in one who escapes the gallows. This was in use from at least 1676 and was still spoken by convicts transported to Australia up to the middle of the nineteenth century. Other uses of the term were a nubbing ken, meaning the courthouse where the sentence of death was pronounced and the nubbing cove who was, naturally enough, the hangman.
Jack Ketch (also Catch) was still being publicly employed in the Victorian era until legislation of 1868 put an end to public executions. Before then a hanging match might attract tens of thousands of spectators who, even if a little better behaved than their earlier counterparts, still revelled in an air of festivity and anticipation. Food, drink and the still popular last lamentationsof the condemned were hawked through the crowds. These ballads and verses seem to have been even more profitable in the later era than previously. According to one ballad seller interviewed by Henry Mayhew in the mid-nineteenth century, the earlier practice of ‘sentence o’ Friday and scragging o’ Monday’ had not left the hacks and the printers enough time to supply the ready market. In the more enlightened practice of allowing a week or more between sentence and suffering, there was plenty of opportunity to churn out the required souvenirs for the enthusiastic crowds.
Among the keenest attendees of executions were criminals themselves. Public hangings were events where pickpockets filled their pockets from those of the gawpers. Large numbers of harlots, cadgers, thieves and youthful miscreants jostled their way to the front of the crowd in order to be as close to the gallows as possible. The attraction of public execution for those on the slippery slope of serious crime led many to conclude that these festivals of death had little or no deterrent effect. In response to this perception and the increasing distaste for the savagery of public executions, the gallows were eventually moved inside prison walls. Crime, of course, continued nevertheless.