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Rude Boys in Seventeenth-Century England


Far from originating in the Jamaican ska scene of the 1960s, rude boys (and girls) were flourishing in the seventeenth century, gaining particular note for their attacks on Quakers, to the extent that George Foxe recommended ‘that some Friends be appointed at every Meeting to keep the Doors, to keep down rude Boys and unruly Spirits; that so the Meetings may be kept Civil and Quiet’ (George Foxe, A Collection of many Select and Christian Epistles, London, 1698, volume 2, part 1, p. 276).

This is not just a chance one-off coupling of the two words; rude boys ‘were a recognizable group’ (John Miller, ‘”A Suffering People”: English Quakers and Their Neighbours c.1650-c.1700’, Past & Present, 188, 2005, pp. 71-103; p. 98. Miller’s paper, which also gives references for ‘rude girls’, and rude people generally, can be downloaded here), and the expression occurs in more than two dozen early modern texts.

Miller focuses on the use of this expression in Quaker contexts; ‘rude boys’, he says,

maltreated a small group of Quakers, most of them
women. They pelted them with missiles, beat them, dragged
them through the mire and forced dirt into their mouths. One
old woman nearly died.These youths showed a taste for
sadistic violence… (Miller, p. 97.)

Apparently, the rude boys were encouraged to perform these acts of violence by the constables and even by the clergy. At Hull in 1661–2 the governor ordered that some Quakers who had been arrested should be handed over to the “rude boys”‘, and ‘In Truro in 1670 a
constable “set on the rude boys” to pelt an old woman with
stones and dirt’ (Miller, 98; Miller’s source for these snippets is
Joseph Besse, A Collection of the Sufferings of the People Called Quakers 2 volumes, London, 1753).

Miller notes that there were also sympathizers, particularly towards the end of the century, who helped to pick up the pieces and even sheltered Quakers against attacks of this kind. He also explores the fascinating line between the Quaker assertion that suffering was ‘easy, sweet and pleasant unto their souls’ (p. 76, citing the  Great Book of Sufferings, Friends’ House Library, London, 1650-1790, 6/2, p. 436) and the active seeking out of suffering. The records of the Meeting for Sufferings, a weekly meeting held by Quakers in London from 1676 on,

depicted Friends as having no option but to act as they did. The light within them, Christ Himself, commanded them to meet at specific times and places, to ignore interruptions and to continue the meeting until the spirit told them that it was time to bring it to an end. By contrast, those who attacked them and disrupted their meetings did so out of choice — and out of the wickedness to which the ‘people of the world’ were all too inclined. (P. 74.)

As Miller shows, the behaviour which the early Quakers felt constrained by their God to engage in included disrupting church services, denouncing the ministers as ‘false teachers’ and the congregations as living ‘in envy and malice’, reproving people in the street for profaneness, and going naked (p. 75).

In addition to Miller’s piece, there’s a fairly good account of early Quakers here.