Dr Matthew Beaumont reconstructs a cultural history of Oxford's nocturnal urban life from the Middle Ages to the present.

Dr Beaumont's rich history explores those who, for varying reasons, skulk outdoors while others sleep

Dr Matthew Beaumont (Lady Margaret Hall, 1991)

In his Collectanea Curiosa (1781), the Anglican clergyman John Gutch recorded that, for centuries, it had been one of the ancient privileges of the University of Oxford ‘to search and seize Noctivagators and other suspicious persons and ill-livers’. Who were these ‘noctivagators’? Noctivagators – or ‘noctivagants’, as they were also called – were individuals who wandered at night. These were the Latin terms for people who were more frequently, and in a legal context, classified by the authorities as ‘common nightwalkers’. 

One of the University's ancient privileges was ‘to search and seize Noctivagators and other suspicious persons'

The legal origins of the ‘common nightwalker’ lie in late thirteenth-century England. In 1285, in an attempt to institute a rudimentary national criminal justice system, Edward I introduced the Statute of Winchester (13 Edw. 1). The first of a series of so-called ‘nightwalker statutes’, the Statute of Winchester, or Statute of Winton, was a concerted response to rising crime levels, especially at nighttime, in England’s expanding towns and cities, including Oxford: ‘Because from day to day robberies, homicides and arsons are more often committed than they used to be…’ the relevant section of the Statute begins. 

This legislation ordained that every walled town should close its gates from sunset to sunrise and that it should operate a night watch system. The city’s constables or watchmen were expected to arrest strangers abroad at night – by definition suspected of being felons – and to deliver them to the sheriff. Private citizens were also authorised to raise the hue and cry in order to pursue, apprehend and detain those walking about after dark – ‘and for the arrest of such strangers no one shall have legal proceedings taken against him.’ For the purposes of this statute, implicitly, ‘strangers’ were simply people who failed to carry lanterns or torches – the poor.  

Common nightwalkers, then, were in general the poorest of the poor; homeless itinerants or vagrants who, in the absence of even the most crowded and squalid lodgings at night, were forced to spend the hours between the descent of darkness and the next day’s dawn on the inhospitable streets. Some of them were no doubt involved in more egregious criminal activities than simply wandering, but most were regarded as ‘ill-livers’, in Gutch’s pungent phrase, simply because they were unemployed and ‘houseless’. In the Middle Ages, both men and women were arrested and charged for being nightwalkers, but in the Early Modern period, increasingly, the term came to be associated with women in particular. 

Not until 1827 was the ancient legislation against nightwalking finally repealed in England.
Not until 1827 was the ancient legislation against nightwalking finally repealed in England
As the curfew gradually fell into disuse – in part because the rise of a distinctive ‘nightlife’ among the upper and middle classes made policing the nocturnal streets almost impossible – nightwalking became more popularly identified with prostitutes or streetwalkers than with vagabonds. In The Wandring Whore (1660), for example, which served as a guidebook to the iniquitous services on offer in the nocturnal metropolis, the author includes a ‘list of the names of the Crafty Bauds, Common Whores, Wanderers, Pick-pockets, Night-walkers, Decoys, Hectors, Pimps and Trapanners, in and about the City, and Suburbs of London’. Alongside prostitutes with names like Toothless Betty, Butter and Eggs, Mrs Love and Cock Birch, one Sugar-C--- is identified as ‘a constant wanderer & night-walker’.

Nightwalkers remained a concern at Oxford long after London, with colleges continuing to operate a curfew of 9.05pm

I suspect that male as well as female noctivagators remained a disciplinary concern in Oxford long after they had, in legal terms, become largely irrelevant in London for two principal reasons: first, because the socially privileged student population was thought to be dangerously susceptible to moral corruption; and second because, in consequence, the colleges continued to operate a curfew, signalled across the city by the ringing of Old Tom at 9:05pm. Students, it seems to have been assumed, might themselves become ‘ill-livers’ if they stayed outside their college walls at night and risked consorting with noctivagators of one kind or another. 

Dr Matthew Beaumont is a lecturer in English at University College London. His book Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, Chaucer to Dickens is out with Verso Books.

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By Pia Jolliffe

Thank you for this article and also for your excellent book. This is wonderful research on a largely neglected topic: social life after dark. With best wishes, Pia Jolliffe