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London’s Early Modern Tourists

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London’s Early Modern Tourists

Samuel Rowlands’s poem A straunge ſighted Traueller and the broadside ballad entitled The Great Boobee describe the unpleasant experience early modern London often inflicted on the unwary country tourist. Both texts present a traveller enthralled by the magnificence of the city’s urbs, but oblivious to the dangers London’s complex communitas could pose. In addition to the spectacle London provided, the city’s economic growth enticed newcomers with the possibility of financial success. However, investments were often a dubious adventure for inexperienced country gallants, who were easily duped by unscrupulous business partners. In both works, the references to familiar tourist destinations of London presume an audience aware of London’s physical and social layout, especially as they contain a subculture of criminal con-artists, or conny-catchers. Rowlands’s poem acts as a warning against and condemnation of London’s street crime, while the anonymously authored The Great Boobee resonates with the tourist-speaker’s retrospective self-critique and self-satire ending on an optimistic note. Ultimately, the tension in tone between the two works reflects the variable experience of London’s new arrivals, who were soon to be either uncharitably initiated into or expelled from London.
Both texts were printed with London’s consumers of popular literature in mind. Rowlands was a pamphleteer working in London between 1600 and 1630. In 1608, the short poem, A straunge ſighted Traueller, appeared in Humors looking glass, which was printed by Edward Allde for the book seller William Ferebrand. The titles of the other poems in this book, such as Of one that couſned a Cut-purſe and A drunken fray, indicate that Rowlands often took criminals and unruly denizens as his subject matter. The Great Boobee (Wing G1664) is a broadside ballad, printed on one side of an unfolded sheet of paper.1 Like most broadside ballads, the sheet is undated. The colophon states that it was Printed for F. Coles, in VVine- ſtreet, on Saffron-hill, near Hatton-Garden. Donald Wing suggests a printing date of 1663, which is reasonable given the material evidence, although the ballad may have been in circulation some years earlier. 2
The central event of both texts is the tricking and subsequent robbery of an unsuspecting, sight-seeing traveller from the country. The refrain and title of The Great Boobee is a pejorative appellation, which the ballad’s speaker alternately receives from others and applies to himself. Sailors attach the term boobee (a derivation of the Spanish bobo meaning fool) to a species of sea bird, which is easily caught after it lands on the deck of a ship (OED boobee, n.2.). The title is an apt metaphor for the speaker of the poem, who is befriended and then robbed by a female cut-purse purporting to be the speaker’s cousin. Rowlands describes his subject as AN honeſt Country foole being gentle bred (1). Rowlands’s less pejorative description indicates a certain sympathy for London’s victims, a sentiment absent from The Great Boobee. Like the Great Boobee, Rowlands’s traveller is befriended and toured around the city before finally being robbed, an event precipitating his decision to leave London (17–20).
The element of London’s communitas responsible for the inhospitable reception of rustic newcomers is described by the poet-pamphleteer, Robert Greene. In his five pamphlets on the subject, he reveals the tricks of the con-artists’ trade in a series of pamphlets on Conny-catching. 3 Published in 1591, The Second Part of Conny-catching explains how those who steal purses frequent the tourist locales mentioned in The Great Boobee and Rowlands’s poem, looking for the kinds of naive newcomers described in the ballad and poem. These thieves make their cheife walks...Paules, Weſtminſter, the Exchange, Plaies, [and the] Beare garden, where crowds hide them as they stalk the tourists (103). Greene explains how when the nip (purse cutter) and foist (purse stealer) spie a Farmer or Marchant, whome they ſuſpect to be well monied, they followe him hard looking for an opportunity to run into him and take his money in the confusion (103). Anticipating the circumstances of the robbery in The Great Boobee, Greene warns that the woman Foiſt is the moſt daungerous, for commonlie there is ſome olde hand, or mout[h] fair ſtrumpet, who inueigleth either ſome ignorant man or ſome youth to folly: ſhe hath ſtraight...foiſts him of all that hee hath (108). In Greene’s descriptions, country visitors are robbed either by clandestine theft or by trickery. These techniques rely on both the gullibility of the victims and the crowded areas the thieves operate in. The speaker in The Great Boobee is robbed in a crowded vintner’s shop in Smithfield. Here, the Foist is able to disappear into the crowd and the traveler is left with a bill he cannot pay. In this scenario, the thief benefits from her knowledge of the urbs, the alleys between streets and buildings, and her sense of the communitas—that is the likelihood of being caught. The tourist becomes a fool due to his lack of knowledge regarding both urbs and communitas of London.
Greene, the author of The Great Boobee, and Rowlands all capitalize on the reading public’s desire to take pleasure in their special knowledge of the city. This knowledge provides a sense of belonging that contrasts with the superficiality of a tourist’s interest in London’s great landmarks. As evidenced by the two poems’ focus on London’s famous sites, both tourists are able to experience the urbs, but leave themselves open to the threats of the city’s communitas. Gaping in wonder at the spectacle of the city below him, the Great Boobee forgets he is in public and begins to cry (2.46–48). His counterpart in Rowlands’s poem is likewise distracted by the sights in the time leading up to his robbery. It is the height of Saint Paul’s (2.46); the monstrousness of the whale bones at Whitehall (Rowlands 12); and the lifelike portraits of the kings at the Royal Exchange (2.43–45) that capture their attention. Meanwhile, they miss the threatening social dynamics to which a more experienced Londoner would, perhaps, remain alert. A seasoned Londoner would likely find it gratifying to contrast his knowledge of the city with that of the two travellers. Rowlands’s traveler and the Great Boobee function to consolidate the Londoner’s sense of superiority vis-à-vis the new arrivals to the city.
The most striking difference between the content of the two texts is the tone of their respective endings: one is a celebration, the other a condemnation of London. The two poems represent alternate possible outcomes available to London’s new arrivals. Rowlands’s stranger leaves London convinced that he has encountered the devil (19–20), while the Great Boobee imagines transcending the stigma of his past naiveté by becoming an actor brave enough to play before the Bears (2.75–80). After what is likely a brusque and disagreeable initiation, new arrivals must decide whether to chart a new course in the frequently unforgiving urban landscape or return to their provincial point of origin. Thomas Dekker’s Gull’s Hornbook is a collection of sardonic encouragement and admonition for young country gallants attempting to make London their home. Dekker’s newcomers resemble those figured in Rowlands’s poem and The Great Boobee: their fathers are old worm-eaten farmer[s] who have died and left five hundred a year to their sons. Dekker invites those who would strive to fashion to whiff down these observations. For if he once get but to walk by the book (and I see no reason but he may, as well as fight by the book) Paul’s may be proud of him (88). The Great Boobee admires the gallants he meets recalling, they were very gay (2.12). Ultimately, he comes to believe that if he can get a licence, he will, like the gallants, make a life in London. This is a more optimistic endnote than Rowlands allows for his poem, which concludes with his traveler’s exodus and his claim that London contains visions of the devil. The demonic vision constitutes a moral judgement directed against the criminal opportunism of London’s communitas.
The beginnings of the two poems provide hints regarding the decision each traveller ultimately makes to either stay, or return to the country. The reason for the Great Boobee’s and Rowlands’s traveller’s decision to journey to London likely lies in the collective attention focused on the city as a centre of commerce and prestige. The Great Boobee comes from a wealthy estate (1.5–8). After being unsuccessful at school, he tries farming, but is declared incompetent so he travels to London (1.13–25) for ſome Vaſhions for to ſee (1.30). The draw toward London is its novelty. This motivation is echoed by William Fennor’s characterization of young gallants, that never [. . . give] over plodding with himself how he might get into the books of some goldsmith, haberdasher, silkman, woollen- or linen-draper (443). Throughout the early modern period, London experienced rapid growth owing primarily to its important position in world trade (Sheppard 125). The lure of highly valued objects—great edifices, or finely crafted goods—attract both businessmen and recently un-landed gentlemen to the city. Fennor goes on to explain how an aspiring country gallant, dazzled by the possibility of financial success and prestige of participating in the great commerce of London, finds himself penniless after the city’s criminals are through with him (444). The draw of London—as a city frequented by kings and port to ships from around the world—for marginally educated youths must have been enormous. Like the Great Boobee, Rowlands’s Country foole is by an odde conceited humor led, / To trauell and ſome Engliſh faſhions ſee (3). This odde conceited humor is legible as the simple mimetic curiosity inspired by large concentrations of people. The prestige of participating in London despite humble origins—and perhaps leaving a mark in a great city—is summed up by Dekker’s mocking advice that country gallants ascending the tower of Saint Paul’s should carve their name somewhere in the monument, or for want of a name [and literacy], the mark which you clap on your sheep (91).
Both The Great Boobee and A straunge ſighted Traueller acknowledge the draw London’s urbs had upon curious country people, but also the challenges that the criminal element of the city presented to a newcomer’s successful integration into the communitas. Both poems dramatize the threat of conny-catching that contemporary pamphleteers address. The publication of such pamphlets and poems indicates a London audience eager to know about their own city’s criminal underworld. The Great Boobee and Rowlands’s poem also touch on the powerful draw London had for young country people with enough freedom to indulge their curiosity regarding the land’s greatest city and its landmarks. However, the curiosity terminates in an ultimatum: either weather the assaults of the urban communitas, or give up and go home. The optimism of the Great Boobee leans toward the first possibility. Alternately, the straunge ſighted Traueller’s flight from the city combined with his bitter denunciation of London as demonic indicts the civitas’s often inhospitable reception of inexperienced newcomers. Taken together, the two works illuminate the anxiety new arrivals to London experienced and the stereotypes established Londoners assigned them.


  1. Broadside ballads were a form of popular literature read and sung in the public spaces of early modern London (Hehmeyer). (BB)
  2. A Francis Coles had a shop in the Old Bailey at the sign of the Half Bowl (at the sign of the Lamb from 1663 on); material evidence derived from book title pages, ballads, and colophons listing F. Coles suggests that this Francis Coles belonged to a consortium of ballad printers that included Thomas Vere, John Wright, John Clark, and others. The Francis Coles at the Vine Street (Wine Street) address was likely a different man, perhaps a son, selling from this shop in the 1660s and 1670s and perhaps earlier. The BBTI record suggests that the Francis Coles of the Old Bailey and the Francis Coles of Vine/Wine Street were the same man. The Vine/Wine address appears in an undated parodic broadside ballad rendering of Charles I’s January 1648 scaffold speech (Wing M475bA), other undated ballads (STC 16862; Wing D1566C, J804B, H3011, P2041, P3372, R32A, T1779, W164A), and titles from 1668 (Wing K733) and 1678 (Wing S3448A). (JJ)
  3. A conny is a dupe, a gull, the victim of a ’conny-catcher’ (OED conny, n.10.). A conny is also a rabbit (OED conny, n.2.a.). Thus, the term conny-catcher invokes the metaphor of predator and prey, which is apt for the relationship between a thief and his mark. (BB)


Last modification: 2016-06-15 16:15:39 -0700 (Wed, 15 Jun 2016) (mholmes)
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MLA citation:

Barber, Benjamin. “London’s Early Modern Tourists.” The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Web. 22 September 2017. <>.

Chicago citation:

Barber, Benjamin. n.d. “London’s Early Modern Tourists.” The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed September 22, 2017.

APA citation:

Barber B. (n.d.). London’s Early Modern Tourists. In J. Jenstad (Ed.), The Map of Early Modern London. Retrieved September 22, 2017, from

TEI citation:

<bibl> <author><persName><surname>Barber</surname>, <forename>Benjamin</forename></persName></author> (<date>n.d.</date>). <title level="a">London’s Early Modern Tourists</title>. In <editor><persName><forename>J.</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></persName></editor> (Ed.), <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>. Retrieved <date when="2017-09-22">September 22, 2017</date>, from <ref target=""></ref> </bibl>