The thread about a Leith “Beggar’s Badge”; when the Scottish state controlled and sanctioned begging and limited it to a select few

Today’s Auction House Artefact is this Leith beggar’s badge or token. It is inscribed on the front with the earlier version of the burgh crest and motto of the burgh (Persevere), 1565 which refers to the date of Mary Queen of Scots writing permission for Leith to erect its Tolbooth, and on the back with “Leith Poor No. 10.” It’s not date stamped, but I would wager this is from the second half of the 19th century, given the better quality of the token, the style of the crest and the fact the Persevere motto does not appear in use until then.

The growth of a large class of beggars in medieval times led to the necessity for limiting the numbers of those
officially entitled to beg
“. This was put into Scottish law by an Act of Parliament as early as 1424. Only those with a badge were allowed to beg, and it had to be worn on outer clothing. Begging was seen as a privilege for certain “deserving poor” and restricted to such charitable cases as widows, the aged or those with disabilities or injuries that precluded them from working.

Anyone found begging without a badge was liable to be dealt with severely by vagrancy laws. Sheriffs would round up “masterless men” and arrest them – these might itinerants such as wood or wool gatherers. They would be given 40 days to find a master or craft, under pain of either imprisonment, banishment from the county (which may involve the hand being branded) or being sent into bonded labour such as coal mining or salt panning. “Egyptians” (gypsies) were in particular persecuted, being banished from Scotland if they did not renounce their itinerant ways. Landowners and heritors in the 17th and 18th century were subject to a tax called “Vagabond Money”, which was to pay for the employment of vagrants as labourers. The words vagabond and vagrant both come from the Latin vagari, to wander.

Parishes and burghs all over Scotland issued these badges, as they were responsible for the maintenance of their own poor. It allowed the bearer to beg in the burgh or parish that issued it, and protected them from the force of the vagrancy laws. The parishes and burghs were resentful of having to support “idle beggars” or “sturdy beggars” from other areas, and so wanted to be able to identify their own. Begging was thus an official and strictly controlled activity.

Beggar’s badges were generally lead, pewter, copper or some other easily cast, cheap metal. Stone and pasteboard are also recorded. Not many survive, they usually have a serial number. Dates are less common and the holder’s name is almost never seen. There are at least four further Leith badges in public collections. The National Museum of Scotland lists three:

  • A clipped lead oblong from from the 18th century, one round and one oval, numbered No. 7 (below right)
  • A lead oval, featuring the arms of Leith (below left), numbered No. 5
  • A lead circle, featuring the arms of Leith, similar to the one at the start of the thread, numbered No. 9

I believe the Hunterian collection in Glasgow has a No. 4. And there are a wide range of other designs from across Scotland. Interestingly, as far as I’m aware no tokens from the 2 largest burghs (Edinburgh and Glasgow) are known to survive, this may be because they were melted down and recycled whenever they were renewed.

18th century Tokens from Adrrossan, Ayr, Alves, Conveth, Coupar Angus, Crieff, Croy and ellon.

The other authority which could issue beggar’s token was the Crown. Such “King’s Bedesmen” were first appointed by King James VI. They were commonly known as Blue Gowns, on account of the official cloak that they were issued with, or Jockies. They had a lodge house outside the city of Edinburgh; the Jockies Lodge – this is where the neighbourhood of Jock’s Lodge takes its name from. Every birthday of the reigning monarch, each Jockie received a new cloak, their tin badge with the motto “pass and repass“, a Scots shilling for every year of the monarch’s age and their dinner. “Pass and repass” referred to the holder being allowed to pass freely through the land, not being subject to the local begging laws and being charged with vagrancy.

A late 18th century illustration of a Jockie. Note his blue cloak and badge. His clothing marks him out as a former soldier, and his missing leg is probably why he was given the beggar's "privilege".
A late 18th century illustration of a Jockie. Note his blue cloak and badge. His clothing marks him out as a former soldier, and his missing leg is probably why he was given the beggar’s “privilege”.

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