“Specially youthe”: Regulating London “Venues”

Social media has reacted with frustration and resentment at the news this week that one of London’s most famous nightclubs, Fabric, has had its licence revoked (#fabricreview). While I will avoid being overtly political, here, the closure of the nightclub inevitably prompts questions over responsibility for regulating such venues, the legitimacy of closing a popular nightclub, and the demographics that such decisions effect. On that note, Louise Mensch amusingly misunderstood one tweet concerning the closure of Fabric, thinking it a comment on Brexit.

Her error, though, points to a sense of resentment and even disenfranchisement among the younger, urban-dwelling, politically-engaged population at the hands of perceived “older” interests that is seen both in reactions to the EU referendum and to this decision to close a cornerstone of London nightlife.

Elizabethan London shares such a regulation of “youthful” venues, and the processes surrounding such restrictions are strikingly similar. Authorities sought to regulate all spaces of possible recreation throughout the 1560s, ‘70s, and ‘80s (and beyond), from bowling alleys to playing spaces (and often spaces that catered for a range of such recreational activities). I noted briefly in a previous post how the City singled out “youth” in its policing of venues:

the inordynate … haunting of greate multitudes of
people specially youthe, to Plays, enterludes, and shewes
namelye occasions of ffraies and quarrels, euill practises
of incontynence in greate Innes, hauinge chambers and
secret places adyoininge to their open stages and gallarys…
(6 December 1574; LMA JORS 20, fo.187v)

Spaces like inns, taverns, and alleys were subject to extraordinary restriction, inspection, and searches throughout the period. They were also subject to continual closures and assessment of licences. An entry from the Court of Aldermen meeting on the 7 August 1575 on this subject reads as follows:

Preceptes for

At this Corte yt is orderyd that forthwith preceptes shalbe made to euery
Alderman, that they sertefye wth expedycion what nomber of alehowses
typlinge howses and sellers for sale of drynke be in their warde, and who
be the kepers of euery of them, by what warrante euery of them kepeth suche
Alehowse or Celler, and what date, what nomber be thought meete to be
contynewed or dysmyssed, what persons and howses for the honesty of the
partyez and the conueynyencye of the places are metest to remayne, that
forreyn typlers be not allowed, and that euery seller of drynke shall sell
beare and ale at lb a quarte and not aboue/.

Like the Islington Council committee, the Court of Aldermen were at pains to determine the safety of venues for drinking, and as such they also exhibit concerns not only for the measures and quality of drink but for the consequences of intoxication (for more on this in the period, see the Intoxicants project; for accidental deaths related to drinking, see the Everyday Life and Fatal Hazard project). The Council was keen to determine whether innholders possess a licence and whether they and their properties are fit to hold one. The regulation of such venues and the places of London youth culture is something I am researching further and will be writing about in the future.

The traditional narrative of such regulation, at least when it comes to playhouses if not always alehouses and inns, is that the City demonstrated an overzealous, “Puritannical” distrust of popular pastimes. My previous post asked for an acknowledgement of the City’s concern for its citizens and for the wellbeing of London during a time when it faced a startling expansion and internationalisation of its population, changes in trade and society, and the permanent threat of plague. While sympathising with authorities aiming to keep a city safe from affrays and questionable alcohol prices (plus ça change!) in a London that had no doubt dozens (if not at least two hundred, if you believe William Fleetwood’s claim of 1575) of unsafe or undesirable drinking holes, we might also consider the way in which such regulation contained the activities of the population—and especially that sizeable portion containing “youth” and apprentices (if we allow up to the age of 20, then possibly up to half the City’s inhabitants, to extrapolate from figures quoted in Aliens and Englishness in Elizabethan Drama [CUP 2005; 65]).

Regulating and licensing alehouses and inns were part of a similar drive to proscribe other (sometimes obliquely, sometimes closely) related activities: playing at bucklers (a shield and sometimes small sword affair) in the streets, for instance, something pointed out to be a particular favourite of “Children boyes and other youthe” who do so in “greate and huge numbers” (REPS 16, fo. 211, 27 May 1567). The Journals for the Court of Common Council show particular interest in circumscribing the spaces and activities of youth, including when it comes to noise pollution. In a particularly pious entry in 1577, the Council implored apprentices and others not to gather on Shrovetide in large assemblies, especially not to commence

anye showtinge, hoopinge noyses, soundinge of
drumes or instrumentes, shootinge of gunnes or vsinge of symbles
or any demaner other than shalbe fytt for quyet and sober persones,
modestlye and dyscretelye vsinge their tyme of honest recreation…
(JORS 20; fo. 388)

Some might see the above soundscape as a description of musical life in Fabric… Sixteenth-century England was concerned about any large gathering or assembly, and so many forms of Elizabethan “teenage” activity were subject to precepts and legislative eye-rolling (with the exception of “lawfull” pastimes like archery). It seems likely, therefore, that spaces where youngsters could join in recreational activity—inn, tavern, victualing house, alley, playhouse—were particularly precious, even as they remain subject to pressures from authority.

It would not be fair to suggest that the committee in Islington and the Metropolitan Police are seeking similar “quyet and sober” atmospheres today, though their rhetoric on this matter is quite different from Sadiq Khan’s attitude towards nightlife. Khan is eager to champion and support London as a “24-hour city with a world-class nightlife,” and the different voices emerging from this week’s decision over Fabric show the various forms of power operating on the city’s entertainment. Emily Thornberry, the MP for Islington South and Finsbury, home of the nightclub, sought to “guard against the assumption that dangerous drug use would cease simply if we were to close a nightclub like Fabric.” Yet the Metropolitan Police justified revoking the licence by pointing to the outstanding danger of death posed by poor searches at the venue and a failure to prevent drugs being taken on the premises. It was ultimately a “sub-committee” at Islington Council that took the decision.

The Elizabethan city also saw such a split of power and interests, with the Court of Aldermen and the Court of Common Council processing regulations and precepts for controlling the City, while also, as Tracey Hill noted in a comment on this blog, being subject to orders from “above.” As current Mayor, Sadiq Khan would be sympathetic to these frustrations, and he has explained that while “Mayors can do a huge amount,” they cannot directly interfere with licensing in instances like the Fabric case. In the Elizabethan city, several entries across both Courts show a respectful grappling for control with individuals like the Lord Chamberlain over certain areas of governance, including theatrical licensing.

Restrictions of these kinds are generally well meaning, even if some people—to refer back to Emily Thornberry and swathes of social media commentators—think they are, in this instance, misguided or misdirected. They also point to those who feel the brunt of licensing restrictions in a city like London: those who frequent such places and those who run them. Innholders in Elizabethan London fought back against regulations that cost them money and time and that on the whole they apparently thought unreasonable—

Item yt was orderyd that the byll of complaynte exhibetyd vnto
this Corte by the Mr wardeyns and companye of the Inholders of
this Cytie, shalbe referryd to the hearynge and examynacion of the
Mrs and Gouernors of xpies [Christ’s] hospytall…
(REPS 19; fo. 272; 10 December 1577)

—just as the owners of Fabric will continue to challenge the revocation of their licence. Such “putting down” of venues also affects more keenly a younger demographic, searching for space in a closely regulated and increasingly commercialised city—then as now.


3 thoughts on ““Specially youthe”: Regulating London “Venues”

  1. Pingback: Birthday Post: A Year of Before Shakespeare | Before Shakespeare

  2. Pingback: Losing the Plot: Audiences, Scraps of Performance, and Selective Participation | Before Shakespeare

  3. Pingback: The Before Shakespeare Guide to Theatre Etiquette | Before Shakespeare

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