Cynophobia and the streets of early modern London

By Jennifer Jorm (The University of Queensland)


Wellcome Library, London. A mad dog on the run in a London street: citizens attack it as it approaches a woman who has fallen over. Coloured etching by T.L. Busby, 1826.
A mad dog on the run in a London street: citizens attack it as it approaches a woman who has fallen over. Coloured etching by T.L. Busby, 1826. Courtesy of the Trustees of the Wellcome Library, London.


In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England not all dogs were created equal. The gentleman’s hunting dog, the lady’s lapdog, and the shepherd’s faithful sheepdog, were set apart from the cur, the feral, itinerant street dog and the hulking mastiff. Evidence of emotional attachment to dogs exists at all social levels, but a stranger’s dog, or the dog that belonged to the streets, was a danger. Londoners in particular had cause to fear dogs as they were ubiquitous in city streets. Dogs menaced livestock, bit small children and attacked other dogs.

Diarists living in and around seventeenth-century London frequently reported dog bites and attacks on themselves as well as others. The vicar of Earls Colne, Ralph Josselin, recorded in the mid seventeenth century that his son was attacked by a ‘great mastiff bitch, who runne and snapt at him and little grates his flesh’.[i] Josselin himself was attacked by a dog that ‘flew on me and rent my coat very much’.[ii] Josselin was very frightened by these attacks, and records a nightmare in which he had ‘much ado to keep a fierce mastiff off’.[iii] The diarist Samuel Pepys also mentions two dog attacks, one in which he was ‘set upon by a great dog’.[iv] Pepys remarks that he took courage from the sword he was carrying with him. Emily Cockayne suggests that the fashion for canes during this period might have been inspired by dog attacks.[v] Londoners whose dogs attacked humans generally received a warning the first time, as it was not considered the owner’s fault that the dog attacked. Subsequent attacks were theoretically prosecutable because the owner was responsible for muzzling the dog after the first attack. Records do show that people were prosecuted for breaking laws requiring muzzling. In 1607, 21 residents of Nottingham broke regulations prohibiting unmuzzled mastiffs and officials tried an emotional appeal to offenders,

stressing that ‘severall persons and neighboures and theire children’, were experiencing ‘discontent and fright’.[vi] Emily Cockayne argues that there were relatively few dog attacks that resulted in death, possibly because everyone was armed or walking with their own dogs.[vii] Still, deaths did occur. In 1662 Samuel Pepys writes that a child in East London had been ‘torn to pieces’ by two dogs.[viii] Regardless, attacks that resulted in death rarely resulted in prosecution for murder (or manslaughter). The one case that was tried at the Old Bailey resulted in an acquittal: in 1684 the defendant Thomas Jeffes was indicted for murder when his dog killed John Martin of St. Stephen Coleman Street.[ix] The records show that Jeffes had been told to hang the dog on several occasions. Despite this, Jeffes was acquitted. The offending canine was probably not so lucky.

While being mauled by a dog was certainly a risk, people were probably more concerned about dogs carrying diseases. Rabies was a serious problem in England, and epidemics of rabies called for the mass extermination of strays. In the eighteenth century, one particularly virulent outbreak caused panic in Londoners. Reports of humans contracting rabies from infected dogs spread quickly and the Common Council of London offered two shillings for every stray dog killed and buried in Moorfields.[x]

While many Londoners feared strange dogs, they loved and mourned their own pet dogs, admired their loyalty, and praised them endlessly. At the same time, to be called a ‘dog’ was an insult. The poet Sir John Davies addresses the complex and often conflicting emotions people experienced about dogs:

Thou sayest thou art as weary as a dog,

As angry, sick, and hungry as a dog,

As lazy, sleepy, idle as a dog,

As dull and melancholy as a dog,

But why dost thou compare thee to a dog?

In that for which all men despise a dog,

I will compare thee better to a dog.

Thou art as fair and comely as a dog,

Thou art as true and honest as a dog,

Thou art as kind and liberal as a dog,

Thou art as wise and valiant as a dog.[xi]


Dogs may have been especially frightening because their closeness to humans meant they often existed in a space between wild and tame, human and animal. They came into human homes and spaces, onto their laps and into their beds, but this special intimacy made humans vulnerable to the unpredictable and potentially dangerous potential of man’s best friend.


Jennifer Jorm is a PhD student at The University of Queensland, researching emotions and animals in eighteenth-century England. Her recently completed MPhil thesis explored the material culture of love and loss during the eighteenth century. Jennifer is a Postgraduate Representative for the Society for the History of Emotions.

[i] Alan MacFarlane, ed., The Diary of Ralph Josselin 1616-1683 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 399.

[ii] Ibid., 430.

[iii] Ibid., 629.

[iv] R.C. Latham and W. Matthews, eds., The Diary of Samuel Pepys Volume IV (Berkley: Harper Collins, 2010), 131.

[v] Emily Cockayne, Hubbub (London: Yale University Press, 2007), 82.

[vi] Emily Cockayne, “Who Did Let the Dogs Out?—Nuisance Dogs in Late-Medieval and Early Modern England,” in Our Dogs, Our Selves: Dogs in Medieval and Early Modern Art, Literature, and Society, ed. Laura D. Gelfand (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 57.

[vii] Cockayne, Hubbub, 67.

[viii] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 22 August 2017), September 1684, trial of Thomas Jeffes (t16840903-23).

[x] Cases and Cures of the Hydrophobia Selected From The Gentleman’s Magazine (London: Printed by J. Smeeton, 1807), August 1780.

[xi] Robert Krueger, ed., The Poems of Sir John Davies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 136–37.

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