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Drunk and incapable

I'd always wondered what the "incapable" meant in the phrase. Incapable of what exactly? Creating children's novelty balloons, reciting pi to twenty decimal places or perhaps listing FA Cup winners since 1924?

Turns out the guidance to a police officer is as follows, a drunk and incapable person is someone who has consumed alcohol to the point that any of the following applies: they cannot walk or stand unaided. they are unaware of their own actions. they are unable to fully understand what is said to them. Well we've all been there!


The reason I clarify this in my own mind is due to an anecdote that I picked up recently. I'm currently researching a new audio tour based in the southern most part of the City of London. The area is multi layered as far as it's history goes, but I thought it would be interesting to focus on the early medieval period right up to the advent of the Tudors. As with every project you end up with way more information than you can use, some because it doesn't fit into the era you're describing. The following is just such, but I thought it worth retelling if only for the loveable rouge aspect.

The street that this story happened in is today known as College Street, formerly called Paternoster Lane after the church that once stood in it.



According to 16th century historian John Stow it was nicknamed, “The Great Elbow, because of it’s bending”. The Great Fire decimated everything either side of the lane and as is well documented it was thought at the time that the City of London should be built anew. Christopher Wren started to draw up plans for a modern city to spring from the ashes, full of grand avenues and squares, but he hadn’t reckoned for the lowly inhabitants of the City.

As he was burning the midnight oil creating grand vistas, terraces and squares the vast majority of Londoners, a group of people suspicious of power and the establishment were, even as the embers of the charred buildings were still a glow, starting to clear the debris and rebuild their dwellings, workshops and places of business on exactly the same alignment as before the fire.



Before the authorities could react, areas like The Great Elbow had been rebuilt and had a healthy local population.So in 1694 some twenty odd years after the fire it was a very busy thoroughfare. One resident was a washerwoman, Anne Gill.

It was attested that Anne was a hard and conscientious worker and the quality of her laundry was venerated. However, to supplement this income, Anne was in the habit of entertaining the occasional gentleman. One night in early October, Anne was in a local tavern enjoying rather more Gin than was good for her and fell into conversation with Peter Stringer, who was also a little more than inebriated. It’s not noted what Stringer did for a living but it appears he had about him forty shillings, about £250 in todays money and in a bad error of judgement boasted of the fact to Anne. He also insisted that he bought drinks for all assembled in the Tavern and made it clear to anyone who would listen that he was a man of substance.

The couple decided to leave the tavern, but Stringer was so drunk that he couldn’t walk and so a coach had to be summoned to carry the couple back to Anne’s rooms no more than a minutes walk from the tavern, Stringer obviously footing the bill. It was noted that the appearance of a carriage in the Elbow was something of a curiosity, many customers coming out of the tavern to witness the event.

Once safely home Anne offered more drink, but Stringer was at the stage where he just needed a bed, which he managed to crawl into but not before removing his breeches and laying them under the pillow. In Stringer’s own words, “She made so bold as to come to me during the night and after, I did spy her remove my breeches from beneath the pillow.”

Waking the next morning I would imagine with a rather sore head, Stringer found that his breeches had been replaced, but all of his money had gone and two gold rings had been removed from his fingers. Confronting Anne, she replied “What is freer than a Gift? Did not you give me the Rings to lye with me?”.

Stringer jumps out of bed, struggles into his breeches, leaves and soon returns with the watchman who takes the couple before a local magistrate. Hearing the arguments from both sides the magistrate commits Anne for trial at the Old Bailey. At a time when stealing half a loaf of bread could lead you to the gallows, the outcome for Anne could have been bleak, however she had a powerful force on her side, that of the inhabitants of The Great Elbow.


Witness after witness attested to her diligence as a laundry maid and also to her good character and morals. They swore that Stringer was in no fit state to accurately remember what had happened during the evening. The clientele and staff of the tavern swore on oath that Stringer had been spending his money with no regard during the evening and the profligacy of hiring a carriage for the short journey to Anne's home was alluded to on more than one occasion.



No money was found upon Anne or in her rooms and taking all the character references on board the judge told Stringer that he was “cracked brained, your inebriation does make you an unreliable witness” and discharged Anne to return home, with I should imagine a nice little nest egg tucked away somewhere.

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