I’m delighted to welcome David Lawrence to the blog to share a guest post with us.
Criminal Records and the Cant Language
by David Lawrence
For me, historical research is like spinning a spider’s web – every fact I find interesting, be it a great political event or simply learning of a small household object no longer in use, is like a sticky thread spinning out into the ether. Eventually, a specific place, time, and event emerge, rather like a web, in which my story is caught.
For my first novel, Hugh, the story was caught in Westminster, 1768, centring around the antics of naughty MP John Wilkes.
For this novel, Blue Billy’s Rogue Lexicon, the web caught a story in The Mint (in Southwark), 1771, the summer of Captain Cook’s return from his first voyage round the globe.
Just how I arrived at my completed story I couldn’t exactly tell you(!). However, I can say that the initial thread came from a book called Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700 – 1830. I had heard this book referenced here and there during various research projects, and by 2021, when I began researching Blue Billy and needed to read it, I discovered a copy was quite difficult to locate. It was one of the first of its kind on the subject, published in 1992 by Rictor Norton. Ebay, however, saved the day, and I secured my lightly-worn, and beloved, copy.
Little is known about the gay subculture in London during the 18th century, but what we do know, and what Mother Clap’s Molly House outlines wonderfully, are the criminal cases in which homosexual activity ended in legal prosecution. From an historical perspective, these criminal records are priceless, preserving glimpses of lives which would otherwise have been lost to history.
I knew my protagonist William Dempsey had a history quite far down the social ladder – raised on the streets by a den of thieves before getting himself into keeping by a Marquess with a taste for deceptively doe-eyed youths. Mother Clap’s Molly House mentioned that the dialect of the molly (gay) subculture might well have had parallels with the rogue’s lexicon used by your run-of-the-mill London criminals, which included female prostitutes. I already knew that William had worked as a male prostitute, and pow! I suddenly understood that his tricking name was Blue Billy, and that a rogue’s lexicon would form the framework for the novel (the chapter names in the novel are terms taken from this street slang).
The early 1770s I had long known was to be my general time period, but Captain Cook’s return to England after his three-year voyage round the globe cemented it as the summer of 1771. Why? I was seeing parallels between his journey of discovery and Billy’s journey of self-discovery. In the summer of 1771, Billy is thrown out of his West End apartment and must not simply start over from nothing but re-examine his life choices. For details on the voyage, Captain Cook by Walter Besant was a 19th century biography I thoroughly enjoyed, as well as The Endeavour Journal of Sir Joseph Banks from 25 August 1768-12 July 1771 – Banks being the botanist who accompanied Cook on his journey.
Wonderful books like London in the 18th Century by Jerry White and The First Bohemians by Vic Gatrell filled in many more details about this glorious era. I also found James Boswell’s diary from the 1760s, relating his experiences as a young man in London, to be a priceless resource, not only in terms of the attitudes at that time, but for those small details of daily life which make a novel so much richer.
Completing my research were two books detailing the lives of rogues, beggars and thieves of the era. The titles alone tell you how colourful they are: The Surprising Adventures of Bampfylde Moore Carew, King of the Beggars – Containing his Life, a Dictionary of the Cant Language, and many Entertaining Particulars of that Extraordinary Man by Robert Goadby (published 1749) and The English Rogue: Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon, A Witty Extravagant by Richard Head (published 1665)
Both are public domain images – https://commons.wikimedia.org
Research on this project was quite a journey for me, and some wonderful reading along the way. All books (including, er, my own) are highly recommended!
Thank you so much for sharing. I love the titles of these books from the 17th and 18th century.
Here’s the blurb
William Dempsey was a wonder among wonders.
By 18, he had risen from a gang of London street rogues to be the personal plaything of the Marquess of Argyll. Maintained in splendour, celebrated at masquerades – with everything he could wish for.
Now all has come crashing down. He is put out in the rain without patronage, his West End apartment, or a place among the ton.
So on a stormy night, he arrives at a house in Southwark. Marathon Moll’s in the Mint – the bawdyhouse he worked in during his ascent and where he earned the name Blue Billy.
But is Marathon Moll’s a place from which to rise again? For there is one in the crowd, who catches his eye. Who takes his hand and promises something better.
Or does Moll’s signify a return to his roots? For one day, a second and very different young man raps on the door. Takes his hand and asks him to return to his past.
To the cat language of vagabonds. The canting dialect of thieves.
To the schemes, and the dreams, of his youth.
This title is available on #KindleUnlimited?
Universal Link: https://geni.us/bluebillysroguelexicon
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Meet the author
David Lawrence is the author of two queer historical novels – ‘Hugh: A Hero without a Novel’ and ‘Blue Billy’s Rogue Lexicon’. As a writer, he loves taking a deep dive into the politics, social norms, and events of 18th century England while presenting humorous and unique coming-of-age tales.
A native of the American Southwest, David has spent much of his life in Great Britain, France, and Finland. He now lives in the American Northwest – Helena, Montana – with his Finnish partner.
By day he loves hiking under the Big Sky of his beautiful adopted state.
By night, however, he prefers wandering the byways of 18th century London…
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