Cant - A Gentleman's Guide
Planning to visit Georgian London? You've collected some period money, got yourself kitted out with the appropriate clothes and had your inoculations. You have had your inoculations, haven’t you? If not, go and do it right now. There are some nasty diseases and the environment is not healthy.
But one thing is missing. As well as the grand buildings in the West End, you want to see something of the seamier side of life. To do this, you have to blend in, and to blend in you have to know the language.
Canting, Flash Lingo, St Giles’ Greek, Pedlars’ French - the language of the London Underworld. You need more than just a few words.
Frankly, you can go into a flash ken and say bene darkmans but unless you can tell a clapperdogeon from a running smobbler the dambers will know you’re half flash and half foolish and if you don’t buy a brush the upright man will turn you over to a miller and you’ll be taking an earth bath in a wooden surcoat before you know it.
Fortunately, you can avoid this fate with a little effort. A few hours study of this volume will enable you to pass as a bowman prig, even in the lowest company.
Don’t be a sapskull. Carry it with you at all times.
At intervals in this volume I have digressed into other topics that I think you may need to know to make your trip a more enjoyable (and survivable) experience. If you have done your own research before setting out, or if you are only interested in canting, feel free to skip them. I shall not be insulted.
Stalling the Rogue
There is a very ancient ceremony called Stalling the Rogue to initiate a candidate into the society of rogues. It is described as follows:
The upright man takes a gage of bowse and pours it on the head of the rogue to be admitted; saying:
I, A.B. do stall thee B.C. to the rogue; and from henceforth it shall be lawful for thee to cant for thy living in all places.
It is unlikely that you will ever be stalled but at least when you have read this book you will know who the upright man is, the nature of bowse and why you might want a gage of it. And you never know. Strange things can happen in big cities and Georgian London is one of the biggest and strangest on the planet.
This is not an academic work and should not be used as such. It is simply intended as a guide for fellow gentleman time-travellers and is presented in the hope that it might be useful.
The author must confess to a lack of formal qualifications in linguistics and lexicography. He does know enough to be aware of the vast seas of ignorance surrounding his little island of knowledge and apologises for any misconceptions or outright errors caused thereby.
If you are interested in the factual foundations of this work you can consult the Appendix on Academic Stuff.
For the purposes of this book, ‘London’ is taken to be a combination of London proper, Westminster and Southwark.
Chapter 1 - Getting Started
|How dost do my Buff?
|How are things going?
Lightmans and Darkmans are, of course, the Day and the Night. Night may also be referred to as Blindman’s Holiday. Bene means good. Buff here is an adjective with man (or cove etc) implied. A buff person is one who stands buff - is strong and reliable.
Depending on the time of year, you can comment that the weather is Ard (hot) or Znees (frosty) or that there is a Scotch Mist (soaking rain). Even among rogues, a comment on the English weather is always an acceptable way to start a conversation.
Good and Bad
Bene or Bien (pronounced ‘bean’) is a general term for good. Comparative (better) is Benar and Superlative (best or very good) is Beneship. It can be used in many contexts:
|Good beer or strong liquor
|A good companion
|To Cut Bene Whids
|To speak gently
|To Pike on the Bene
|To run away while you can (in modern parlance, get out while the going is good)
A similar term is Rum. The modern meaning has shifted to mean ‘Odd’ but in Georgian England it means ‘Good’.
Bene generally applies to people; Rum applies to things, although the rule is not absolute. For example:
|A fine or beautiful horse
|Breeches with gold or silver brocade
|A fine silk handkerchief
|A good hat
|Good French brandy
The opposite term is Queer meaning bad. Queer can apply to both people and things. For example:
|An old, worn out horse
|A pair of old and tattered breeches
|An old handkerchief
|A shabby-looking man in poor clothes
|A fop or a fool
A rogue may be referred to as a Queer Cove. In this sense it is descriptive rather than pejorative. It can be used to describe roguish activities. For example:
|Queer Cole Maker
|A maker of false coins
|Rogues who pretend to nearly drown and then try to extract money from Humane Societies and others
Men and Women
The terms for men and women are extensive and will be covered in more detail in later chapters. The following are a few of the basic terms:
|Cove or Cull
Now that you have a general idea of how this works, it is time to dive in and start learning some serious vocabulary. Alcohol is always a good place to start.
Chapter 2 - Buying a Drink
Time travelling is thirsty work so, shortly after arriving, you are likely to need a drink. The terms alehouse (which sells drink only), tavern (food and drink) and inn (food, drink and accommodation) are perfectly acceptable but there are some other terms you may hear, which are presented below. Georgian London has hundreds of these establishments. You should have no trouble finding one.
There are a large number of terms for drink and drinking. Whilst there is no need for you to use them all, you should at least recognise the terms when you hear them. Don’t forget that you can use Bene, Rum and Queer as additional descriptors. A Bowsing Ken is an alehouse but if you like it you can describe it as a Bene Bowsing Ken.
There are one or two taverns which might be of special interest to the gentleman time traveller.
The Mitre in Fleet Street was Dr. Johnson’s favourite supper-house and his coterie included Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Percy, John Hawkesworth and James Boswell. If you are in the mood to be richly insulted by an eminent lexicographer you need do no more than attempt to interrupt the good Doctor’s dinner.
The Rose Tavern in Covent Garden was a favourite venue in the early Georgian period for dramatists and poets. Poet and playwright John Gay (famous for The Beggar’s Opera) was a patron. One inspired if drunken evening, Gay and his friends concocted a popular love ditty, entitled Molly Mogg of the Rose, in compliment to the then barmaid.
The Rummer is located between Whitehall and Charing Cross. If you are in London before November 7th 1750 (when it burned down) it is well worth a visit. It is, among other things, the site of the first recorded robbery by escapologist Jack Sheppard (executed in 1724) from whence he stole two silver spoons.
If you happen to be in Pall Mall on 26th January 1765 and aren’t upset by the sight of blood, you might care to visit The Star and Garter and check out the duel/drunken brawl between Lord Byron (the 5th Baron and grand-uncle of the more famous poet) and his soon to be late friend Mr Chaworth. In an undignified scuffle in one of the rooms, Byron ran his sword through his opponent’s stomach, causing him to expire the next day.
More importantly, in 1774 the tavern was the meeting place of the first cricket club where Sir Horace Mann (Kent), The Duke of Dorset (Surrey) and Lord Tankerville (Hampshire) laid down the first set of rules of the game.
If you are interested in boxing, The Castle Tavern in Holborn is, in the later Georgian period, a must see. It was the headquarters of the Prize Ring, kept by two of its heroes, Tom Belcher (until 1828) and, thereafter, Tom Spring. The Daffy Club was inaugurated here by a Mr James Soares for its members to enjoy gin (daffy) and sports. It met in the long room beneath the portraits of pugilistic heroes, including Jem Belcher, Burke, Jackson, Tom Belcher, Joe Ward, Dutch Sam, Gregson, Humphreys, Mendoza, Cribb, Molyneux, Gulley, Randall, Turner, Martin, Harmer, Spring, Neat, Hickman, Painter, Scroggins and Tom Owen and also Jem Belcher’s dog, Trusty, who apparently rated in this august company.
If you want to try your luck in low company you can visit The Queen’s Head in Duke’s Court, Bow Street but more study of this guide is recommended before you do so. If you don’t know what you are doing you are likely to Catch a Cold or get into trouble. Don’t Sit on Thorns - we shall get there soon enough. The tavern is known locally as the Go Shop due to their serving gin and water in three-halfpenny bowls known as Goes.
Inns and Taverns
|Alehouse (literally Drinking Place)
|Alehouse (refers to Innkeepers touting for custom)
|A small, obscure tavern; also one frequented by sharpers (dishonest gamblers)
|Flash Ken; Flash Crib
|A tavern frequented by rogues
|A tavern frequented by beggars
|Stop Hole Abbey
|The nick name of the chief rendzvous of the canting crew
If you think the landlord will let you run a tab you can ask to Hang it up or to Walk up the Wall. At the end of the evening you pay your Scran.
If you really want to be popular you can offer to Stand Huff or pay for everyone’s drinks. The alternative, to Lush at Freeman’s Quay, is to drink at another’s expense, but this is seldom as well appreciated.
|Publican or alehouse keeper
|Flash Cove or Covess
|Landlord or landlady of a flash ken
|Draper; Ale Draper
|Dash; Rum Hopper
|The man who draws beer or other drinks
|A pot boy
Note that an innkeeper can be referred to as a Buffer rather than a Bluffer. However, as this is also a term for dog, it is best avoided.
There are many different terms for drink.
|Booze; Bowse; Bub; Fuddle; Guzzle
|General term for drink
|Poor quality drink
|Drinks that have been watered
|Bene Bowse; Cup of the Creature; Suck; Swizzle; Tipple
Beer, Brandy, Gin and Wine
|Belch; Bub; Hum Cap; Knock Me Down; Nappy Ale; Oil of Barley; Sir John Barleycorn; Stingo; Stitchback
|Act of Parliament; Rot Gut; Water Bewitched
|Small (heavily watered) beer
|Bingo; Blue Ruin; Blue Tape; Daffy; Diddle; Drain; Frog’s Wine; Geneva; Heart’s Ease; Jackey; Lady Dacre’s Wine; Lightning; Max; Rag Water; Sky Blue; South Sea Mountain; Strip Me Naked; White Ribbon; White Tape; White Wool
|Cold Tea; Cool Nantz; French Cream; Red Ribbon; Rum Nantz; Red Tape; Suit and Cloak
|Black Strap; Kill Priest; Red Fustian
|Port or sometimes claret
The most popular drinks are beer or ale, gin and brandy, but many drink wine and there is a variety of punches. Beer needs to be divided into strong beer and small beer - the latter being quite dilute. The enormous popularity of gin is shown by the number of different terms for it.
Don’t worry if you can’t remember all these terms. A general selection will suffice.
The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 brought William of Orange to the British throne. Accompanying him on the ship was an uninvited guest but her presence was so familiar that no one commented on it. Her name was Madame Geneva, more commonly known in the short form - Gin. Distilled alcohol flavoured with juniper berries, it was encouraged by successive governments, which at the same time were restricting the imports of French brandy.
As the 18th century got going, gin became more and more popular and drunkenness became common to the point of affecting the economy through lost labour. Moralists and politicians joined forces to try and bring this foreign lady to heel but she refused to go quietly.
Compared to malt distilling (for, say, whiskey), producing gin is fairly simple and it could be produced cheaply in back rooms. When an Act in 1729 attempted to tax gin, the excise men had the devil’s own job tracking where it was being made. Moreover, the Act defined gin as spirits to which juniper berries had been added. The rogues of London, no fools, simply left out the juniper berries and carried on. The poorer people of London were prepared to drink what was effectively raw spirit if it were cheap enough.
Determined to dig itself into a hole, the Government, in 1736, brought in punitive taxes of 20 shillings to the gallon and required £50 for an annual licence to sell gin. People ignored it. Informers were encouraged at £5 a time. This resulted in the Magistrates’ Courts being nearly overwhelmed, organised gangs of informers, mob riots and lynchings (of said informers). The government introduced more and more harsh measures to even less effect. The Riot Act was read and the mobs ignored it. Madame Geneva’s supporters were manning the barricades.
In 1751, Josiah Tucker of Bristol calculated that the annual amount gin cost the economy was three million, nine hundred and ninety-seven thousand, six hundred and nineteen pounds, and eleven pence halfpenny. While it is a wonderful example of spurious accuracy, the round sum of four million pounds is still impressive.
Sanity eventually prevailed. The Gin Act of 1751 cut licences and excise down to almost nothing and suddenly it became easier to do things legally. There were restrictions on precisely who could get a licence and it took a while to come fully into effect but by the end of the 1750s the Lady had achieved respectability and had settled down to become a tolerated member of society.
|The drainings of the last drops of all bottles collected in a single bowl
|Mead and ale sweetened with honey
|Treacle, vinegar, gin and water
|Rum and water
|Huckle my Buff; Twist
|Beer, eggs and brandy, served hot
|Spirits, water, lemon and sugar
|Ale with a dash of wormwood
|Canary wine with a dash of wormwood
|Rum, water, sugar and nutmeg
|Cat Lap; Chatter Broth; Congo; Gruts; Prattle Broth; Scandle Broth; Slop
|Half tea and half coffee
Three pieces of advice:
- Stay away from cheap gin - it is generally adulterated and may kill you
- Don’t drink All Nations unless you have a really strong stomach
- If you are drinking Purl, make sure the Bluffer goes easy on the wormwood
Want to read more? Cant - A Gentleman's Guide is available at www.amazon.com in both eBook and print formats.