Mary Saxby (1738-1801), an 18th-century vagrant and memoirist

Mary Saxby’s Memoirs of a Female Vagrant was published posthumously, with the twin goals of raising some money for impoverished relatives and ‘prompting the active beneficence of the present age, to regard the wandering classes of the poor, with
that attention which it is needful for their relief and reformation’.

And so Mary’s memoir is simultaneously a detailed personal account of experiences of extreme poverty and itinerancy in the 18th century, a spiritual autobiography (with its Providential world view linking her to both Alice Thornton and Ann Fanshawe), and a text for moral reformers (the prime audience, no doubt, for editorial annotations like ‘The vagrant classes of the British poor appear to be inferior in civilization to the Bedouin Arabs’ [p.19]). The rarity and quality of her voice makes it an important and seductive source, but it’s also quite a challenge for historical source criticism, and one in striking contrast to the bureaucratic imperatives of pauper narratives in settlement or vagrancy examinations.

On the pride of youth:

I now wandered from town to town, till I met with a poor travelling woman, who had three daughters: and though she was a very ignorant person, yet the Lord disposed her to take pity on me in my forlorn condition; for she washed, combed, and fed me, and took as much care of me as if I had been her own. In this poor state, I might have been very happy; as she was a tender, motherly woman, and would have taught me to get my bread honestly, had I been ruled by her. But here again, my proud, imperious temper, began to shew itself incapable of any restraint. Her youngest daughter was about my age, and with her I soon contracted an intimacy. As we both had pretty good voices, we agreed to go about together, singing ballads; and to this end we determined separating from her mother. Ah, did young, inexperienced persons, know what misery awaited them, by giving way to their own headstrong passions, and escaping from the restraint of their elders, surely they would not rush on their ruin, as they too frequently do! [pp.8-9]

On more female partnerships:

I travelled as far as Dover in Kent, with very little to support me; stopping, at times, to ask for a bit of bread, to keep me from starving. When I reached the coast, I met with a woman who sung ballads, which was a profitable trade in those parts; and she took me into partnership, till we had some words and separated… Soon after this, having made myself clean and smart, I joined company with a decent woman, who had some small children. Her husband to the best of my recollection, was gone abroad; and I think that she sold hardware. We could get no lodging for our money, except in a barn; and I was young, and in that line of life which attracted the notice of men. Though it is now so long ago, I still reflect, with horror on the one hand, and gratitude on the other, on the imminent danger, in which a kind providence watched over and preserved me… [pp.11-12]

On the consequences of keeping bad company:

Out of Kent, I went into Essex; where they would not suffer any one to travel without a licence, except they could give a very good account of themselves. I, not knowing the rules of the country, sung ballads in Epping market. In the course of the day, I became acquainted with a middle aged woman, who looked like a traveller; and we went to sleep together at an alehouse. For this I soon smarted; as she proved to be a common woman, though I did not know it. Being in her company, and having been seen with her in the market, the constable came in the night, obliged us to leave our bed, and secured us till morning; when we were taken before a justice, who committed us both to Bridewell, ordering us both to be repeatedly whipped. The keeper heard my story very candidly; and I believe he was a good man. Observing my youth and inexperience, he pitied me; and remonstrated with the woman for drawing me into a snare. We were to be confined there six weeks, without any allowance. She was a good spinner; and he made her work, and give me half her earnings. As to being whipped, I knew little but the shame of it; for he took care not to hurt me. He lent me good books, gave me good counsel, and was very tender to me. I remember feeling some serious emotions, whilst reading, and some faint desires to improve by what I read and suffered; for my misery was extreme, from cold and hunger: but my heart being unchanged, as soon as I was set at liberty I returned to my former courses, wandering from place to place. [pp.15-16]

On first finding Methodism:

How I went on, for some time after this, I have almost forgot; till one day, walking in the fields with a female neighbour, one of my daughters who was with us, did something to displease me; and I asked her, what she thought would become of her, if she went on so? The woman turned round to me, and said sharply, “And what do you think will become of you? You have more knowledge than your child, and ought to be found in your duty.” I asked her what she meant; she told me, I never attended at any place of worship. I answered, I had been at church to try, and could not hear. She said, that there a meeting house in the town, and I might stand on the pulpit stairs; where she knew, I might hear. As soon as she mentioned the meeting house, I thought I would go, and make a trial: accordingly I went the next sabbath; and finding that I could hear, I continued to attend. I soon began to be much persecuted, both by my husband, and our neighbours; but I did not care for that: for I wanted to flee from the wrath to come; though, as yet, I knew not the way. I do not remember that what I heard at the meeting house was made of any use to me: but still I kept waiting, in much darkness and distress; crying to the Lord, in a poor broken way, for mercy. [pp.29-30]

The Memoirs of a Female Vagrant, written by herself (via Trove)

The girl who ran away with the gypsies

Vagrancy (London Lives)

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