Beggars Bush: A Perambulation through the Disciplines of History, Geography, Archaeology, Literature, Philology, Natural History, Botany, Biography & Beggary

Sticky: Anthologies – why the OED and Brewer’s Dictionary were wrong

The Oxford English Dictionary gives under Beggars:

8. Special combinations. . . “beggar’s-bush, a bush under which a beggar finds shelter (name of ‘a tree near Huntingdon, formerly a noted rendezvous for beggars’ – Brewer), fig. beggary, ruin;”.

This is taken from E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1868 and all editions until recently when the entry was dropped) which gave;

“Beggars Bush. To go by beggar’s bush, or Go home by beggar’s bush – i.e. to go to ruin. Beggar’s Bush is the name of a tree which once stood on the left hand of the London road from Huntingdon to Caxton; so called because it was a noted rendezvous for beggars. These punning phrases and proverbs are very common.”

This is partly true and partly false – perhaps more correctly this was false when it was first published, but through the influence of these two reference works has become common usage. It has been applied as a post facto explanation for the existence of the place name — see for example Donnybrook, Dublin and the histories of Dublin). Read the rest of this entry »

Posted: October 18th, 2011 | Filed under: Writers, Speculations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Jane Anger Her Protection for Women 1589

“The great Patrimonies that wealthy men leave their children after their death, make them rich: but vice and other marthriftes happening into their companies, never leave them until they bee at the beggers bush, where I can assure you they become poore.”


This is one of the earliest recorded literary uses of the phrase. It is used in a literary sense of falling into poverty, in this instance by one’s own folly. The author did not feel any need to elaborate or explain it. This suggests it was already in common use. The usage is similar to the earlier alternative beggarly attributes – Isabel Plumpton’s Beggars Staffe and William Bullein’s Beggars Barne. There is no suggestion that it was a real location.
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Posted: March 13th, 2011 | Filed under: Writers | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Isabel Plumpton Plumpton Correspondence 1506

“Sir for God sake take an end, for we are brought to begger staffe, for you have not to defend them withall.”

This comes from a moving personal letter from Isabel Plumpton (“your bedfellow”) to her husband Sir Robert Plumpton urging him to end the litigation that was ruining them. Sir Robert, Warden of Knaresborough Castle, was involved in numerous legal cases involving his inheritence, and actions by Sir Richard Empson, the King’s Agent. His title to the estates was bound up in such a way that he could not sell it to raise money to cover the costs. Having lost at York Assizes he had gone to London to appeal. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted: March 13th, 2011 | Filed under: Writers | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

William Bullein A Dialogue Against the Fever Pestilence 1564

“Fellowes are so braine sicke now adaies if thei haue but tenne shillynges, yea, though thei doe borowe it, will be twoo or three times a yere at Westminster haule ; let wife or children begge ; & in the ende thei go home many miles, by foolam crosse, by weepyng cross, by beggers Barne, and by knaues Acre, &c. This commeth of their lawing ; then thei crie, might doe ouer come right, would I had knowen as muche before, I am undone, &c. “


The text includes classical references, items from morality plays, and early usages of popular turns of phrase. The phrase”to go home by” is identical with early examples of the Beggars Bush phrase. The alternative places are all proverbial. This shows that the usage with Beggars Bush is only a variation of a proverbial phrase. The context is almost identical to the circumstances of the Plumpton Correspondence using the similar Beggar Staff.
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Posted: March 10th, 2011 | Filed under: Writers | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »