Detecting the Villainous in Georgian London

Country folk visiting Georgian London and returning unscathed with their purse or their virtue intact was a rare thing. It was easy for gullible country visitors to be taken advantage of by nefarious crooks who sought to obtain a country person’s hard-earned cash or to despoil an innocent virgin and turn her into a whore. Moreover, country visitors could not readily tell whether a person was good or bad. A Londoner’s clothing was no clue as to who was good or bad because quacks dressed like physicians wearing great wigs, sharpers pretended to be gentleman in fancy waistcoats, and procuresses always dressed in the best finery.

Cartoon villain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Concern over how to recognize those in London who might wish to do a country visitor harm, resulted in a publication titled, The Countryman’s Guide to London, Or Villainy Detected. It cost a shilling and listed a number of “villainous” characters with tips about how to spot or avoid them. Among the villains that country visitors were advised to avoid in Georgian London were bawds, bullies, duffers, fortune tellers, gamblers, hangers on or spungers, highwaymen or scamps, intelligence-officers, kid-layers, money droppers, pickpockets, procuresses, puffers, quacks, setters, sharpers, trappers, waggon-hunters, and whores or jilts.

Bawds. These women were said to be “infamous and destructive beyond description.” In Georgian London bawds kept houses or brothels that were constantly graced by at least “three or four painted harlots.” Her job was to seize unwary country gentlemen and introduce them to life a debauchery. Bawds supposedly caused the ruin of many a country gent.

Bullies. For anyone patronizing a brothel or a common whore, it was fairly common to meet one of these “lewd blustering fellows.” Bullies “rendered themselves unfit by a complication of vicious actions for the society of sober, rational persons, [and to have thrown themselves upon the contributions of]  bawds and whores.” They also enforced and ensured whores were paid or that exorbitant or unfair bills charged at brothels were satisfied. If a person decided not to comply, the bully would “not only force from you your property, but tumble you out neck and heels, and probably do you much hurt.”


Georgian London by William Hogarth, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Georgian London by William Hogarth. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Duffers. These villainous cheats operated in public places in Georgian London. They preyed on innocent country folk by telling them they had “foreign commodities” that they needed to dispose of for half price. They would then conduct the person to a back alley, dark lane, or obscure path and try to sell (or rather extort) money for “handkerchiefs, silk and cotton stockings, remnants of old silk, etc.” If the country bumpkin refused to buy anything then abuse was heaped upon the person to such an extent, it was said to be rare that anyone escaped their clutches without making a purchase. Moreover, when a purchase was made and change was required, the purchaser usually received no change.

Fortune Tellers. Using astrology or claiming to have a prescience or knowledge of the future, fortune tellers, such as Mrs. Williams or the great cartomancer, Mademoiselle Lenormand, told people their fate. They had plenty of business from well-known people like the princesse de Lamballe. However, fortune tellers were often dishonest and took advantage of the credulous for profit. One person summed them up as “repositories of fate [that] daily repair the credulous, the inquisitive, the desponding, and the doubtful.” Visiting a fortune-teller was considered risky because patrons supposedly had their minds “affected.” In fact, in some cases, visitors became so depressed with their “ill-fated predictions” they reputedly sank into despair or killed themselves.

Gamblers. These people were “versed in most games practised by men of principle for diversion only.” Georgian London gamblers were the type that could be found at gaming house and wagered on things such as tennis, bowling, cockfighting, horse racing, or billiards. Gamblers also used various methods of “cheating, trapanning, and deluding the unwary, and the inexperienced; and [it] began with the morning diversion of Tennis.” which allowed gamblers to let their victims in on a secret: “They insinuate to him that ’tis all even and odd, a perfect lottery; that he may venture his money on either side, for the players … are … equally matched.” They then make sure he wins a small amount, and, thus “assured by success,” another game begins. Eventually, however, a sham quarrel would occur, the odds were adjusted, and the unsuspecting mark was “drawn on from set to set, and from small bets to great ones, till [he was stuck] … as they call it.”

Hangers On or Spungers. Noted to be “sottish indolent wretches,” Hangers On and Spungers pretended to be people who had “a taste for literature and a knowledge of the humours of the town [and] by virtue of these qualifications, they think themselves companions for the best gentlemen … and will be sure, upon the smallest invitation, to crowd themselves upon [those they meet].” However, the goals of these scammers were usually innocent in comparison to many of the Georgian London criminals. Hangers On or Spungers wanted to obtain nothing more than an enjoyable night — “a bawdy song or two, a few drunken healths, and a half a dozen dull puns.”

Highwaymen or Scamps. These were criminals who appeared to be gentlemen and were accustomed to living the high life and catering to “lewd women.” They made relationships with ostlers and landlords to obtain intelligence about travelers. The information they gathered included such things as how much cash a traveler had, where the traveler was heading, and what roads the traveler might use. With such intelligence, it was easy for them to rob or waylay travelers. It was also said of them that they “generally cross you before they salute.”

Highwayman. Author’s collection.

Intelligence-Officers. These villains were anything but intelligent as most were illiterate. Supposedly, their only “recommendation [was] a tolerable coat, a powdered wig, and a consummate effrontery.” They filled their shop windows with “fictitious wants” to draw in customers, and then they survived by making false promises. For instance, they might offer to help dispose of a person’s encumbrances, suggest a good servant, or promise to help you raise money. Instead, they provided no services and offered information they gleaned about country visitors to Bawds, Procuresses, or Pimps.

Kid-layers. These Georgian London cheats operated primarily after dark and their goal was to steal baggage or packages. One kid-layer would travel on one side of the street and another on the other side. Thus, when they spied a country gentleman “with a portmanteau, box, or bundle, they follow[ed] him until he rest[ed].” One of the kid-layers would then approach and offer to give him a shilling to carry a letter to a nearby house. When the country gentleman agreed and left his belongings, the other kid-layer would then “pike off with the booty [and thus the poor country bumpkin would be left in a lurch].”

Kidnappers. Kidnappers were sly and said to be “lazy vagrants of ruined characters.” Their goal was to trap the ignorant or the unsuspecting and sell them into the service of a merchant, or during a time war, into the army or navy. Victims were generally found at “night-houses, pretty ale houses, and [on the outskirts of town].” One method regularly used was to find a gentleman born into a trade and tell him that as a soldier he would enjoy fortune and have every benefit that a gentleman enjoyed but “without the drudgery of menial life.” They often got the person drunk and had two or three fellows attired in sergeant’s uniforms hanging around who would attest to the truth of all that had been said, and in the morning if the drunken mark objected, witnesses would claim he had joined of his own free will. “Thus the poor, harmless honest man is trappaned either into a state of slavery … or obliged to purchase his deliverance at an extortionate rate.”

Money Droppers. These petty cheats of Georgian London patronized the “most popular part of the town, such as Moorfields, Covent Garden, and other public places between Westminster-Hall and Temple-Bar.” Their game was to cheat a visitor out of money. They used a rather sophisticated and complex method that involved manipulation and lies. It usually involved three Money Droppers who would get an unsuspecting country gentleman (called a Cully) to accompany them to a tavern. They did this by one of them dropping a guinea, discovering it, and offering to share the windfall on drinks with the Cully at a nearby tavern. At the tavern, the Money Droppers would soon entice the Cully into some sort of game and use either a trick deck or loaded dice. By such methods they would cheat the Cully out of his money. If their methods failed, Money Droppers were not above knocking the Cully down, rifling him, and picking his pocket.

Pickpockets. These cheats were usually trained from a young age in the art of pickpocketing. Georgian London pickpockets tended to operate in large crowds and could be found at events, such as Sunday worship, public events, parades, fights, or processions. They often worked in groups and a group might involve a whole family, including the children. Their usual method was to have a pickpocket jostle the victim and then pass the plunder, usually to a woman, who then made off with it. Pickpockets were said to be “the most difficult of all cheats to guard against in London; because they are more in number, and often in pursuit of prey.” The most effectual way to protect yourself against a pickpocket was this advice: “If you go to places of public resort leave everything valuable behind you, and always be upon your guard.”

Georgian London Pickpockets

Pickpockets. Author’s collection.

Pretended Friends. These were false friends with treacherous goals. They wanted to achieve “fraud and deceit of every kind.” One man who suffered the effects of a Pretended Friend, lost his property through fraud. When he discovered the fraud, he claimed that his “Pretended Friend not only treated me with the vilest abuse, but had well nigh, entangled me in a labyrinth, of which I could never have extricated myself.”

Procuresses. These women attempted to snare innocent country girls by offering them what they thought were respectable jobs. However, unbeknownst to the country girl, the goal was to get them involved in the sex trade by trick or deceit. Procuresses would search for girls at playhouses, coffee shops, and other public places and were also always on the lookout for gentlemen clients. To these men they would offer “the most delicate women in the world … at other times, a fine young creature of fourteen, [or] … a pure virgin.” In short, Procuresses seemed to have women of all sorts at all prices “from a guinea, to five, and from five to an hundred.” Procuresses were the female counterpart of a Pimp, and these women were said to have few morals because they were willing to delude and ruin both man or woman as that was “their whole business and occupation.”

Puffers. Auctions or rather mock auctions involved selling goods or property to the highest bidder in Georgian London. Unfortunately, either the goods or property did not exist or it was not theirs to sell. To accomplish these mock auctions, a shop would be opened and filled with goods, “which, for the most part, [were] faulty.” Puffers of both sexes were then employed to “promote trade on two accounts, both affecting to purchase, and … stimulating strangers to bid.” When the auction began, Puffers would drive up prices and make country folk think they were purchasing a bargain. It was only later that the country visitor would discover he or she had been duped.

Quacks. Quacks were said to be one of the worst of all the cheats because they not only robbed people of money but also their health. They also claimed to have medical knowledge when it came to “physic and surgery … [yet they had] nothing [to] recommend them but a consummate effrontery.” One way that Quacks garnered business was by enticing the ill or promising miraculous cures. Country visitors to London were said to be particularly gullible and “liable to be caught in their snares.” This was because country people often did not know any reliable doctors when visiting in London. Moreover, if a gentleman was suffering from a venereal disease, he would not want people in his home town to know and, thus, driven by shame, he would patronize a London quack rather than visit a reliable doctor in his home town.

A quack using the “Metallic-Tractors” by James Gillray published on 11 November 1801. Public domain.

Setters. These Georgian London fraudsters enticed unsuspecting heirs with jilts or whores by claiming that such women were women of character and fortune. They accomplished their frauds with “insinuation, flattery, hypocrisy, dissimulation, and whatever … [contributed] to their flagitious purposes.” Unsuspecting heirs would then marry these ruined women. This in turn would either make the gentlemen a laughing stock or ruin their reputations. For this reason, a Setter was usually described as a “despicable wretch” or a “Snake in the Grass.”

Sharpers. Sharpers were much more dangerous than the Hangers On or Spungers. They were called treacherous because they often made friends with young heirs whom they then took advantage of  “under the mask of friendship.” They were also described as “men of reputable extraction, tolerable education, and decent appearance; but through vicious pursuits [Sharpers] … squandered their fortunes, and lost their reputations.” In addition, Sharpers liked to patronize shopkeepers and employ ruses or tricks to obtain goods. They were also good at reading people. They thought nothing of cheating or tricking a person. In fact, they were said to be someone “who supplies his exigencies by studying and practicing every means, that he may deceive the credulous, allure the inexperienced, trapan the ignorant, and mislead the well-disposed.”

Trappers. These scammers used the assistance of a “pregnant whore” in Georgian London. She would pickpocket the letters or papers of men who frequented lower class brothels or houses. The Trapper would then make false claims about the paternity of the whore’s unborn child. In most cases the men paid up because it was easier to pay maintenance for the strumpet and child than face a warrant. If they didn’t they might face financial ruin or lose their reputation, which was what was promised if they did not agree to the Trapper’s demands.

Waggon-hunters. Described as “despicable hirelings,” Georgian London waggon-hunters were employed by Bawds and Procuresses to find girls and trap them into prostitution. Waggon-hunters tended to hang around inns and accost innocent country girls before their feet touched the ground. They would be friendly and converse with a young girl in the hopes of gaining intelligence about “her future proceedings.” Sometimes they would also offer jobs, provide counsel, or give directions to the girls. However, their goal was to take the country girl to some “infamous Patroness of iniquity, and prostitution.” Then though a variety of tricks and deceit the country girl would become “despoiled,” and thus the result would be she had no other option but to become a prostitute.

Whores and Jilts. Whores were said to have hardly ever been “free from a complication of all the loathsome diseases incident to human nature.” This was because a Whore’s goal was to ply a man with drink, “deprive him of reason,” and perpetrate some sort of fraud so as to make a quick profit. A Jilt was said to be more dangerous than a Whore. That is because Jilts were often thought of as “virtuous and religious Whores.” The cost for a Jilt was also higher than that of a Whore. Jilts demanded “handsome settlements, elegant lodgings, plate, china, and all things suitable to a woman of rank.” With such guarantees it was said, “she will be faithful to you, or at least promise so to be; but her fidelity will last no longer than you can or will maintain her in her extravagance.” Jilts also tended to have a “thousand tricks and artifices” to deceive: One oft used trick by Jilts was to pretend to be pregnant. That would induce the man to voluntarily agree to take care of them and their “little one.” Thus, Jilts were summed as having “the vices, follies, and impertinencies of her whole sex.”

Because of all the dangers a country person might face in Georgian London, the author of The Countryman’s Guide to London, Or Villainy Detected (having experienced these things himself) thought it was best to warn travelers and advised: 

[I] would especially dissuade country persons of all ranks from harbouring the least desire of quitting a rural residence, for the noise, hurry and confusion of a city life … If the rural inhabitants urge diversions as a plea for preferring a town-residence; we may certainly with justice reply, that hunting, fishing, fowling, and the like are noble and manly recreations … Add to this, that all the pleasures of the town may be run through in the narrow space of two or three days, which done, you do but traverse the same foolish road, and tread the same stage over and over again, what can be more ungrateful to an ingenious, enquiring mind, than the dull repetition of the same scene?” 


  • The Countryman’s Guide to London, Or Villainy Detected, 1780.

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