18th century

Goldilocks and the Three Bears: A Tale of Vagrancy and Imprisonment, by Robert Southey (1774-1843)

One of the writers that I have encountered frequently in my research upon both Robin Hood and Wat Tyler is the Romantic author and Poet Laureate, Robert Southey (1774–1843).[i] Southey’s contribution to popular culture has, in my opinion, been very understated: he authored the first Robin Hood novel;[ii] the publication of his Wat Tyler (1817) by several radical printers is one of the most enduring portrayals of the rebel leader;[iii] in his poem Thalaba (1801) we see the first vampire to appear in English literature;[iv] and he was the guy who was the first to use the word ‘zombie’ in the English language (although not in the context that we would use it today).[v] He is also the creator of the popular children’s story of Goldilocks and the three bears, which was first published in The Doctor (1837).[vi] However, Southey’s original tale is a little different to the one which you see in children’s books today.[vii]


Robert Southey (1774-1843)

The story is framed as one which ‘may content the minds of learned men and grave philosophers’.[viii] The story begins typical fairy tale fashion, and we are introduced to the three bears:

Once upon a time there were three Bears, who lived together in a house of their own in a wood. One of them was a Little, Small, Wee Bear; and one was a Middle-sized Bear, and the other was a Great, Huge Bear. They had each a pot for their porridge, a little pot for the Little, Small, Wee Bear; and a middle-sized pot for the Middle Bear; and a great pot for the Great, Huge Bear. And they had each a chair to sit in: a little chair for the Little, Small, Wee Bear; and a middle-sized chair for the Middle Bear; and a great chair for the Great, Huge Bear. And they had each a bed to sleep in: a little bed for the Little, Small, Wee Bear; and a middle-sized bed for the Middle Bear; and a great bed for the Great, Huge Bear.[ix]

So far, this introduction may be familiar: we are introduced to the bears and their lifestyle, and we are then told that the mother bear has made some porridge but before the family of bears eats it they decide to go for a walk.[x] It has to be remembered that breakfast during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was not eaten as early as it is today, and it could be taken at quite a late hour of the morning. We have evidence of this in contemporary novels: in Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), John Keightley and his boys go for a walk before breakfast; in Austen’s Persuasion (1817), Anne and Henrietta take a stroll along the beach before their morning meal, which, in this period, was usually eaten at either 9 a.m. or 10 a.m.[xi]

Casual Ward workshouse

Tramps and homeless families waiting outside a workhouse casual ward during the nineteenth century (c) Wikimedia Commons

The bears then leave their house unguarded and this provides a perfect opportunity for somebody, usually up to no good, to enter the house. We all imagine the protagonist of the tale, Goldilocks (although she is not called by this name in Southey’s version), to be an innocent young girl. But in Southey’s version we are told that

She could not have been a good, honest, old woman; for, first, she looked in at the window, and then she peeped in at the keyhole, and, seeing nobody in the house, she lifted the latch […in fact] she was an impudent, bad old woman, and set about helping herself.[xii]

You may wonder what exactly an old homeless woman was doing in the middle of the forest on her own during the nineteenth century. England in this period certainly had a problem with homelessness, or vagrancy as governments of the day termed it. These people were destitute and wandered about from place to place seeking alms, and even sometimes engaging in petty crime just to survive. Of course, nineteenth-century governments did not view it as their responsibility to help anybody. The only measure they took to getting these people off the streets was to expand the workhouse system, which took place a few years earlier with the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834). Tramps and vagrants, if they needed to, could apply for admission to a workhouse casual ward where they would receive a very uncomfortable bed for the night, as well as a small meal, in return for a day’s work. However, one would only go to one of these institutions if they were desperate because they were intended to be harsh and foreboding institutions.[xiii] It was not unusual for many vagrants to take refuge in the forest. After all, it could be easy to go poaching in rural forest areas and sustain yourself relatively well, in contrast to subsisting on the harsh fare provided by the workhouse casual ward.[xiv] Thus, as Paul Lawrence notes, ‘vagrancy is a crime or social problem which blurs notions of an urban/rural divide – quite simply, vagrants continually cross from rural to urban areas and back again’.[xv]

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Illustrations from the 1839 adaptation of Southeys Tale.

After the woman enters the bears’ house, the story looks a little bit more familiar to us. She tastes the porridge, but finds two of the bears’ meals not to her liking. Baby bear’s porridge, however, is just right. She then decides to enter the lounge and try the chairs. As we all know, it is only baby bear’s chair which is comfortable. Growing tired, she enters the bears’ bedroom, and it is only baby bear’s bed which is the comfiest. She then settles down for a nap.

Meantime, the three bears return and see that someone has been helping themselves to their porridge. They inspect the house and eventually find the woman sleeping in baby bear’s bed:

The little old woman had heard in her sleep the great, rough, gruff voice of the Great, Huge Bear, but she was so fast asleep that it was no more to her than the moaning of wind or the rumbling of thunder. And she had heard the middle voice of the Middle Bear, but it was only as if she had heard someone speaking in a dream. But when she heard the little, small, wee voice of the Little, Small, Wee Bear, it was so sharp and so shrill that it awakened her at once. Up she started, and when she saw the three bears on one side of the bed she tumbled herself.[xvi]

Startled, the woman jumps out of baby bear’s bed and then jumps out of the open window to get away from the bears. As she is running away, a constable finds her, arrests her, and she is sent to the House of Correction. While we noted above that the government made some provisions for tramps and wanderers in requiring workhouses to have casual wards, vagrancy was still a crime. If the police thought that a person with no abode was up to no good, they could arrest them, especially if they had been caught begging. In the words of the Act,

Every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon, not having any visible means of subsistence and not giving a good account of himself or herself […] it shall be lawful for any justice of the peace to commit such offender (being thereof convicted before him by the confession of such offender, or by the evidence on oath of one or more credible witness or witnesses, to the house of correction, for any time not exceeding three calendar months.[xvii]

(This act has not yet been repealed: in 2014, two homeless men were arrested under this act for stealing food from a dumpster outside an Iceland supermarket store).[xviii] Alas, poor Goldilocks! – a starving, homeless pauper who just wanted a meal and somewhere to sleep, but who ended up in the House of Correction!

[i] Michael Gamer, ‘1813: The Year of the Laureate’, in The Regency Revisited, ed. by Tim Fulford & Michael E. Sinatra (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2016), pp. 93-104 (p. 107): The position of Poet Laureate was originally offered to Walter Scott (1771–1832). He refused this, however, because he feared that taking the position would tie him into artistic servitude to the Prince Regent who, if he was honest, he did not like very much.

[ii] Robert Southey, ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’, Bodleian MS. Eng. misc. e. 21 (Summary Catalogue 31777).

[iii] Robert Southey, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (London: W. Hone, 1817).

[iv] Robert Southey, Thalaba the Destroyer, 2 Vols. (London: Longman, 1801), 2: 102.

[v] Robert Southey, History of Brazil, 3 Vols. (London: Longman, 1810–19), 3: 24-28, 787.

[vi] Iona Opie & Peter Opie, The Classic Fairy Tales (Oxford University Press, 1974; repr. 1992), p. 199: A similar story to Southey’s was written slightly earlier by Eleanor Mure.

[vii] Southey is also noteworthy as a historian of South America. For further information see the following article: Rebecca Nesvet, ‘Robert Southey, Historian of El Dorado’, Keats-Shelley Journal, 61 (2012), 116-121.

[viii] Robert Southey, ‘The Story of the Three Bears’, in The Doctor, by the Late Robert Southey, ed. by J. Wood Warter, rev. ed. (London: Longman, 1848), pp. 327-29.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] See also Jane Newham, ‘Bear facts and fiction in 19th and 20th century children’s books’, New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship, 3: 1 (1997), 65-74.

[xi] Eileen Sutherland, ‘Dining at the Great House: Food and Drink in the Time of Jane Austen’, Persuasions: A Publication of the Jane Austen Society of North America, 12 (1990), 88-98, online edn. http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number12/sutherland2.htm Accessed 21 December 2017.

[xii] Southey, ‘The Story of the Three Bears’, p. 327.

[xiii] Peter Higginbotham, ‘Tramps and Vagrants’, in The Workhouse: The Story of an Institution, ed. by Peter Higginbotham, online edn. http://www.workhouses.org.uk/vagrants/index.shtml Accessed 21 December 2017.

[xiv] Harvey Osbourne & Michael Winstanley, ‘Rural and Urban Poaching in Victorian England’, Rural History, 17: 2 (2006), 187-212.

[xv] Paul Lawrence, ‘The Police and Vagrants in France and England during the Nineteenth Century’, in Polizia, ordine pubblico e crimine tra città e campagna: un confronto comparative. Stato, esercito controllo del territorio, ed. by Livio Antonielli (Manelli: Rubbettino, 2011), pp. 49-60 (p. 49).

[xvi] Southey, ‘The Story of the Three Bears’, p. 329.

[xvii] An Act for the Punishment of Idle and Disorderly Persons, Rogues and Vagabonds, 5 Geo. IV c. 83 (London: HMSO, 1824), online edn. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo4/5/83/section/4 [Accessed 21 December 2017].

[xviii] BBC News, 29 January 2014, online edn. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-25950761 Accessed 21 December 2017.

4 replies »

  1. Fascinating. My paternal grandmother was Southey’s great granddaughter and a well-known in Tasmanian writer.
    Her name was Bertha Southey Brammall (nee Adams). I have a daughter and her 3 daughters living in the U.K and couldn’t help being thrilled when my youngest (half Aussie) granddaughter recently graduated in the top 1% English language graduates in the U.K. This was from what we in Australia call Primary School.

  2. Honestly, Goldilocks was lucky to end up in jail – NEVER make one bear, let alone three, angry!