1) The eavesdropper was once the scourge of the local community – a person who lurked at night under the eaves of a neighbour’s house in the hope of gathering titbits of gossip that could then be turned to advantage.
The serious nature of the misdemeanour is clear from definitions in Law dictionaries, one of which describes the eavesdropper as a person who ‘hearkens after discourse … to frame slanders and mischievous tales’. There is no record of just when eavesdropping started to be considered as an offence but in 1377 Matilda Seamster of Methley was indicted at the manor court for listening under the walls of her neighbours’ houses at night and ‘narrating idle speeches’. That entry was in Latin, so the word ‘eavesdropper’ was not used, but in Nottingham, in 1487, a jury found that Henry Rowley was a man who wandered around the village during the hours of darkness, and they indicted him as a common evys-dropper. In Yorkshire, the offender was more commonly called an eavesing dropper or an easing dropper and early examples include: 1533 That none esyng droppers watch men howssez, Selby
1577 Elizabeth Banke ... to kepe hir house in the neight season and not be an esinge droper in Rastrick, in 1664, Elizabeth Dyson was presented for standeing under the Ewse of the house of Joseph Goodheire as an Ewseing dropper and was fined 10 shillings. It is not difficult to see how the word had acquired its meaning. In Old English the noun ‘eavesdrop’ [yfesdrype] referred originally to the water that dripped, or dropped, from the eaves of a house, but from that it came to mean the edge of the roof itself. In 1338, the sale of a house in York, in the narrow lane called St Peter the Little, required the parties concerned to agree about the space they would need should repairs or rebuilding be necessary. Two English words that were included for greater clarity were gettes and efsdropes, that is to say the ‘jetties’ or overhanging upper storeys and the eavesdrops or projecting parts of the roofs. Clearly, these both affected the space available between the buildings at ground level and this could be a problem in streets like the Shambles in York. As a consequence it became customary to restrict a person from building right up to the edge of his land, lest the water dripping from his eaves should cause a problem. That custom appears to be implicit in a Kent charter dated 868 where the word yfćs drypć is on record for the first time. It was in the space between the house wall and the ‘eavesdrip’ that our more inquisitive ancestors found shelter and were privy to a neighbour’s secrets. The Old English word efes was actually singular but the final –s has been mistaken for a plural and that is how we use it now. In quite a different usage the word is found in Ribblesdale, in place-names such as Bashall Eaves and Waddington Eaves, and the ‘edge’ here might be the boundary of an early forest.