Devil of Dowgate, or Usury Put to Use

John Fletcher (1623)

Historical Records

The Office-Book of Sir Henry Herbert

New play, The Deuill of Dowgate, or Usury putt to use, by Fletcher, King’s Company, 17 Oct. 1623. 1 li.

(Bawcutt, Control and Censorship, 146)

Theatrical Provenance

For the King's Men

Probable Genres

City comedy; usury play

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

“The devell of Dowgate and his sonne.”

This now-lost ballad was entered to Edward White on the Stationers Register on 5 August 1596 (see Hoy).

Critical commentary

F. G. Fleay wrote:

The Devil of Dowgate, or Usury put to use, C, was licensed 1623, Oct. 17 (in place of an old play by Middleton), for the King's men. As Massinger was away, we must look for a play by Fletcher, Middleton, or Rowley. Such a play is Wit at several Weapons. Fletcher only writ in an "act or two" (see the Epilogue at a revival, when the name of the play, no doubt, was altered). The old title is alluded to i. 2, 'Father, you shall know that I put my portion to use." The scene, is in London, and the subject is of such a father and son as the old ballad title, The Devil of Dowgate and his Son, would lead us to expect. Fletcher's part is i. I ; ii. I ; iii. i ; iv. i, 2, 3 ; but it has been altered at the revival, of course after Fletcher's death... I find no notice of a Court performance under either of the above names, but as it is not likely that any play of Fletcher's should at this late date have been omitted from the Court list, I would suggest that The Buck is a Thief presented 1623, Dec. 28, was this play. Sir Ruinous Gentry, of course, would be the Buck. (218)

Almost none of this is tenable, but it introduces the major themes of speculation and scholarship around the play.

Firstly, the confusion with a Middleton play: Chalmers's printed extracts from Herbert simply concatenated the entry for The Devil of Dowgate with the end of the preceding entry for More Dissemblers Besides Women, thus: "For the King's Company. An Old Play, called, More Dissemblers besides Women, allowed by Sir George Bucke; and being free from alterations was allowed by me, for a new play, called, The Devil of Dowgate, or Usury put to use: Written by Fletcher." This gave Fleay the erroneous impression that the latter was somehow a substitute for the former. More recent sources, including Bentley and Bawcutt, observe that this is an error, and that they are two separate entries. The Middleton connection therefore disappears.

Secondly, authorship: Herbert’s record in fact assigns it firmly to Fletcher and mentions no-one else.

Thirdly, Fleay’s argument that the play survives as a palimpsest in Wit at Several Weapons has met with no favour, and is indeed rendered impossible by the modern consensus that that play is earlier than 1623. Elsewhere it has been suggested that the play survives in Fletcher and Shirley's The Night Walker, which is equally wishful thinking, and impossible to reconcile with that play's separate licensing record. Nor is there anything to substantiate Fleay’s claim that The Devil of Dowgate might also be the lost Buck is a Thief. (On all these claims, see Bentley, 3.328-9).

Fourthly, Fleay suggests some sort of connection between this title and the lost ballad of 1596, “The devell of Dowgate and his sonne.” This seems much more plausible, but it brings up the equally thorny question of what was in the lost ballad.

Dowgate, at least, can be described. It is a ward of the city of London, on the north bank of the Thames, a little west of London bridge. The land it comprises runs steeply downhill to the river. John Stow gives an extensive description of the ward, including its water-conduit; churches; historic buildings; and wharves. None of this, however, offers any obvious clue to the nature of the “devil”. For a map see here; for Stow’s description, see here.

The other existing known references to the phrase "Devil of Dowgate" are collected by Cyrus Hoy in his commentary on Dekker's Satiromastix (Hoy, 1.249-50). They comprise the anonymous comedy Wily Beguiled (bef. 1606), where a character is described as strutting "... as if hee were gentleman Vsher to the Great Turke, or the Diuell of Dowgate", and a reference in Nashe's Have With You to Saffron Walden (1596), significantly perhaps from the same year as the lost ballad: "I hope thou wilt tear her, and tug with her, if she begin once to playe the Deuill of Dowgate". Finally, in Satiromastix itself (perf. 1601), Tucca addresses a woman as "My little deuill a Dow-gate, Ile dam thee, (thou knowst my meaning) Ile dam thee vp" (F2v).

E. H. Sugden offers one possible explanation of the phrase, relating the following tale about Dowgate Wharf:

From D. Wharf ran the ferry across to St. Saviour's Dock, which, according to legend, was managed in the 10th cent. by one John Overy, whose effigy is still to be seen in St. Saviour's Ch. He was a famous miser, and on one occasion feigned to be dead in order to cheat his men out of a day's meals. He had himself duly laid out, but when he heard the rejoicing of his servants over his death he rose from his bier in a rage, and one of them, thinking it was the devil, knocked his brains out with an oar. (Sudgen, s.v. "Dowgate").

Sudgen suggests that the allusions in Satiromastix and elsewhere to the Devil of Dowgate relate to this tale. But how plausible is this case?

The tale has seventeenth-century pedigree, going back to at least 1637 when it is told, at length, in a highly entertaining illustrated black-letter pamphlet:

The true history of the life and sudden death of old Iohn Overs, the rich ferry-man of London And how he lost his life by his owne covetousnesse. And of his daughter Mary, who caused the Church of Saint Mary Overs in Southwark to be built, and of the building of London-Bridge.

In some respects, the story is a good fit to the fragmentary evidence about the phrase, since Overy/Overs is certainly associated with a 'devil'. Furthermore, he is specifically identified, in the pamphlet biography, as a usurer (which would chime with the usury reference in the title of this Fletcher play). In other respects, things are less clear. There is no place in the story as it stands for a son, since Mary has to inherit in order to found St Mary Overy, the church allegedly named after her. And there is no reference, in the pamphlet, to the phrase "Devil of Dowgate", or indeed to Dowgate in any connection. Thus, there is still not yet a paper trail (preceding Sugden) to link Overy/Overs to the phrase under discussion.

For What It's Worth

Returning to the bare record, we can say something about the genre of this lost play. Insofar as it names a central London location in its title – Dowgate - it identifies itself as a city play, probably a city comedy. “Usury put to use” suggests a plot in which a usurer is himself exploited, and this seems in line with the usual fate of usurers in city comedies. (Presumably the usurer is metaphorically the eponymous "devil", but this is only a presumption).

Secondly, an EEBO-TCP search turns up a surprising new reference to the tradition of the Devil of Dowgate. It is from 1573, more than twenty years earlier than the earliest yet known. The controversialist John Bridges - now chiefly remembered as the victim of Martin Marprelate - is attacking Catholics:

howe spitefully they handle all Protestantes, that they maye once sette their spitefull spirituall fingers vppon, all the worlde doeth sée. And yet the silie Protestantes muste beare all the blame, it is not ynoughe for them to beare the iniuryes. This lesson ye learned of the Diuell of Dowgate, to bite and whine also, or rather ye doe as Esops Woolfe did, chalenge the poore Lambe for troubling his water, and to misuse him spitefully, but thys mercifull Woolfe, deuoured this spitefull Lambe.
(Bridges, The supremacie of Christian Princes, 87.)

Bridges's reference is valuable in that it shows the phrase is fifty years old by the time it comes to be used by Fletcher. It does not seem obviously to chime with the story proposed by Sugden, and even with this extra example, it is still unclear what is being referred to across the numerous references to the phrase. The original story or stories of the Devil of Dowgate still await elucidation.

Works Cited

Bridges, John. The supremacie of Christian princes ouer all persons. London, 1573.

Dekker, Thomas. Satiro--mastix. Or The vntrussing of the humorous poet. London: Edward White, 1602.

Fleay, F. G. A Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama, 1559-1642. London: Reeves and Turner, 1891. Print. Internet Archive

Hoy, Cyrus. Introductions, Notes, and commentaries to Texts in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, Edited by Fredson Bowers. 4 vols. New York: Cambridge UP. 1980.

Sugden, Edward H., A Topographical Dictionary to the Works of Shakespeare and his Fellow Dramatists. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1925.

The true history of the life and sudden death of old Iohn Overs, the rich ferry-man of London And how he lost his life by his owne covetousnesse. And of his daughter Mary, who caused the Church of Saint Mary Overs in Southwark to be built, and of the building of London-Bridge. London : Printed by N. and I. Okes, 1637.

Page created and maintained by Matthew Steggle: last revised 20 May 2017.