Winchester Geese or Bankside Whores

Today’s fragments come from Robert Greene’s A Notable Discovery of Cosenage, Conie-catchers and Crossbiters published in 1592, a pamphlet written as a cautionary warning to innocents abroad in London.   Greene’s practical advice details the perils awaiting the unwary in the streets, taverns, brothels, and gaming dens, of London.

The pickpockets are ‘apparelled like honest civil gentlemen or good fellows, with smooth faces, as if butter would not melt in their mouths…[they] walk up and down Paul’s, Fleet Street, Holborn, the Strand, and such common-haunted places, where they attend only to spy out a prey.’  Their most popular location is St Paul’s, and their favoured victim ‘some plain man that stands gazing about, having never seen the church before.’ The preferred time to strike ‘is at divine service, when men devoutly go up to hear either a sermon, or else the harmony of the choir and organs. There the nip and foist [cutpurse and pickpocket], as devoutly as if he were some zealous person, standeth soberly with his eyes elevated to heaven, when his hand is either on the purse or in the pocket.’

Then there are the whores, known on Bankside and Southwark as Winchester Geese. Greene was an expert on whores, having been kept by one for several years. He warns that ‘a shameless hussy has honey in her lips and her mouth is as sweet as honey, her throat as soft as oil; but the end of her is more bitter than aloes and her tongue is more sharp than a two-edged sword.’ ‘End’ here had a double meaning; loose women would no doubt come to a bad end, but there was also the substantial risk that the whore’s ‘end’ was quite liable to give her gentleman companion the clap.

Greene particularly warns against a practise known as ‘cross-biting’: ‘Some unruly mates that place their content in lust, let slip the liberty of their eyes on some painted beauty, let their eyes stray to their unchaste bosoms til their hearts be set on fire.’ Having set his cap at the object of his desire, the young man is quickly embraced by the scheming harlot, who either leads the way to the tavern ‘to seal up the match with a bottle of Hippocras, or straight away she takes him to some bad place.’ But once the couple are in bed and have ‘set to it’, there enters ‘a terrible fellow, with side hair and a fearful beard, as though he were one of Polyphemus cut, and he comes frowning in and says ‘What has thou to do, base knave, to carry my sister, or my wife?’ The accomplice then rounds on the woman and calls her nothing better than a whore and threatens to haul them both before a local justice. ‘The whore that has tears at command, immediately falls a-weeping and cries him mercy’. The hapless victim, terrified that the publicity will get back to his wife and family, or his employer, has no choice but to pay whatever it takes to persuade the ‘husband’ or ‘brother’ to keep quiet.

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