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Aaron Williamson explains the 17th Century Glimmerers, Dummerers, Whipjacks / 12 April 2010

On the Subject of Begging

The association of begging with disability is very well-established and so, almost equally, is the counterfeit claim of ‘sturdy beggars’ who impersonate disability in order to maximise their takings.

Indeed, there is a branch of literature (representing a decidedly reactionary outlook) that claims many ‘crippled beggars’ to be not only bogus but, in fact, secretly wealthy; accumulating much more money through playing on the public’s sympathy than they would if they did an honest day’s work.

This is the sub-plot, for example, to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Man With the Twisted Lip’. Spoiler alert: the solution resides in the titular scarred and crippled man turning out to be a perfectly normal person who cannot afford to keep his family through working at the bank and so invests in an incredible disguise as a crip. He rakes in vast sums of money through begging on the streets of London in order to keep his family in a Big House in the English countryside.

But going back in time from there, the prejudice/suspicion that many beggars fake their circumstances is a recurrent theme in those few histories that mention their existence.

The Glimmerers, for example, were a sub-category of beggars in the 17th century who would claim to have lost all their belongings in a fire and to limp or crawl as a result of their (cosmetic?) burns. Carrying charred wooden objects about with them, they were known as ‘demanders for Glimmer’ ie - for some sparkling coinage with which to lift their spirits and replace their belongings.

On the other hand, the ‘Dummerers’, although treated with a similar level of scepticism by the 17th century giver of alms, may have been more credible. Since gouging out the tongue was a fairly common auxiliary to being dumped and pelted in the stocks, many people were left without speech as punishment for their social transgressions, (or just for looking a bit like a witch).

The Dummerers were apparently quite aggressive beggars and made strange grunting and squealing sounds which only the giving of alms could allay. The easy opportunity for subterfuge was possibly tempting for people who could in fact speak but, if caught out, the appropriate punishment would turn them into authentic examples of their type.

‘Counterfeit Cranks’ carried bars of soap about with them and after attracting the attention of a crowd by behaving strangely on a street corner, would secrete the soap into their mouths and stage ‘the falling sickness’, or what we now refer to as an epileptic seizure. Similarly, ‘Poor Toms’ either were, or pretended to be, ‘mad’, illustrating this through irrational and/or amusing behaviour in public that would attract an audience and their money.

Perhaps the strangest (or unlikeliest) type of panhandling 17th Century beggar was the ‘Whipjack’ – a fellow who, sporting an eyepatch, empty armsleeve and a peg-leg (and perhaps with a parrot, on his shoulder, why not?), claimed to have survived a shipwreck. The Whipjacks though, offered wares in return for alms: crudely carved boats, anchors, whales and other unexpectedly-themed memorabilia.

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