This is going to be a talk about an aspect,
what was intended to be a very weeny part of this bigger project looking at homelessness
in the modern 20th century and by accident this element arose. I’d finished a day in
the archives and I spotted that there was a reference to some material relating to vagrancy
and I thought I’ll just have a look and I took some images and I travelled home and
I looked through the pictures that I’d taken and I hit up one name and I thought that’s
a very memorable name, that’s really interesting. Oh, that’s April 1911 – oh, that’s the
morning after the census. Oh I can’t imagine he’s going to be in the census returns.
Well, the first name that popped up, he’s there and it kind of piqued my interest and
I thought hm, wouldn’t it be nice if maybe I could find out a little bit about one or
two of these individuals and see where it takes us. So a combination of accident, luck
and time have kind of led to where this project’s going and it’s still a work in progress,
there are considerable elements where I’m literally scratching the surface in terms
of my knowledge and understanding and there may be things that you guys in the audience
who may know more about what I’m talking about, so I kind of make my apologies now. I also need to explain that the archives are
very keen on me anonymising the individuals I’m dealing with, so I’ve come up with
this really clunky way that satisfies the archivists of referring to them by their first
name and the first letter of their surname, otherwise I’ll just get terribly confused
about who I’m talking about and which sources I’m pulling together because after all,
historians are meant to leave footnotes in their documentation. So I’m going to introduce you to one of
my characters, Tramp, Alfred D, who appeared before Justices of the Peace at Leicester
Castle in December 1896 accused, under the Vagrancy Act of 1824, of begging alms in nearby
Humberstone. Found guilty he was sentenced to ten days of hard labour within the confines
of the County Gaol. The newspaper trial report was brief. The arresting policemen stated
the prisoner had been going door to door and was ‘very abusive’ to those who rebuffed
him. Beyond a name no clues exist as to who Alfred D was, or from where he originated.
However, the surviving prosecution certificate describes him as being of no fixed abode – again,
not terribly helpful – but does ascribe a trade: shoe finisher. Alfred’s offence
was so un-noteworthy and common-a-place within the summary justice system that it is perhaps
surprising that it should be reported by a newspaper at all. Indeed, the archivists when
I first asked them about would all the local papers be reporting it? Oh no, they won’t
be interested. On so many levels he was anonymous, nothing more than a criminal statistic that
would be recorded by the Leicester Constabulary. The judicial system felt no need to understand,
or explain, how or why Alfred D. found himself to be begging. The line between being deserving
of sympathy and support and enduring the moral repugnance of society was a fine one. Victorian
sensibilities might acknowledge that the beggar was worthy of a charitable penny, but should
they approach a second time then society deemed them to be a professional beggar that deserved
to feel the force of the law. Alfred D. had crossed the Rubicon. Now in so many ways the man that was portrayed
in that brief newspaper report confirmed probably the suspicions of many of the readers of the
newspaper about who a tramp was: male, workshy, content to live off charity and prone to criminality.
In this lecture I propose to go beyond that stereotype and seek to understand why these
individuals were in such a position. Behind such stereotypes lays fear. It was a fear
that the tramp threatened the accepted norms of homed society through their mobile lifestyle
that rejected the Victorian trinity of work, respectability and religion. Their mobility
made them harder to regulate at a point when policy thinkers wanted to quantify and define
every form of societal ill. This same mobility presents us the historian with challenges
of identification and then judging just how peripatetic these individuals were. If the
only engagement was a fleeting reference in a newspaper, if they passed before a Magistrates’
bench, or if an archive holds an admissions register for a workhouse tramp casual ward,
then what can really be learnt of tramp life? This lecture intends to take on that challenge
directly. In doing so it intends to tackle the question that so evidently vexed contemporary
policy makers: who were the ‘tramps’? This will be faced from the starting point
of the prosecution certificates for vagrancy that arise from Leicestershire’s summary
justice system using sampled years between the 1880s and the outbreak of the First World
War. As you’ll see, this is kind of what I’m working from. Consequently I have some
850 names on a database. Mainly male, but including some women, and using various genealogical
records available via Ancestry and Findmypast, but importantly using now the ongoing digitisation
of local newspapers and this element has been absolutely crucial and kind of luck again
has played its part because just as I started it, the Leicestershire newspaper, The Chronicle,
came online up to 1900. Three months into the project they carried on to 1915 and then
the next tranche released all the regional newspapers around the countries of Leicestershire.
So suddenly my vagrants and their little movements are trackable. So this lecture is going to
attempt to show the possibilities of reconstructing these life stories and hopefully in doing
so offer new insights into a section of society that has left little trace of its existence.
This will allow us to understand who the ‘tramp’ was – or perhaps more correctly – ‘who’
was being prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act. And I’d probably better just quickly gloss
something about the Vagrancy Act. It was a Georgian response to what policy
makers saw as a crisis in anti-social behaviours caused by this phrase, “idle and disorderly
persons”, activities taking place in public places, aggravated by what was seen as a rapid
escalation in the numbers of homeless and urban poor. Of course we’ve got the demobilisation
of ex-servicemen from the Napoleonic Wars and also economic migrants from Ireland and
Scotland swelling the numbers. The Act’s four clauses criminalised an extremely wide
range of “activities” and there’s a long list there that broadly tries to categorise
them. It covered common prostitution to begging to fortune-telling to what we now call rough
sleeping. The wording of the legislation was sufficiently vague as to make it a very flexible
tool that could be applied when other forms of legal recourse were unenforceable. So Section
1, for example, increasingly became used as a means of pursuing impoverished husbands
who’d abandoned their families. Various amendments in 1838 were added on moral decency,
regarding exposing oneself in public or indecency in public exhibitions. Right up until the
1970s you’ve got art galleries being prosecuted under this clause of the Vagrancy Act for
exposing male genitalia in photographs. 1875 sees gambling and the playing of dice in the
streets brought under the remit; and in 1898 sees pimping and living off the earnings of
prostitution added as well. The Act itself did not define a vagrant, beyond
a list of anti-social behaviours that they might engage in, so it does little to help
us identify whom the “tramp” was. The closest we have is the 1906 Departmental Committee
Report on Vagrancy which accepted that it was ‘a very elastic’ definition, ‘and
as ordinarily used, no precise meaning can be attached to it.’ In resigned terms, this
report concluded that ‘the modern tramp’, through self-choice and personal inadequacy,
was content with their circumstances and beyond help. It does, however, attempt to offer us
four grades of vagrant and I’ll test you at the end if you can recall all of these,
which essentially tries to grade them on their scale of willingness to seek work and this
is the kind of economic driver of all definitions of vagrancy are all about willingness to work
and contribute to the means of production. But overall this enquiry has little sense
as to what drove these people to take to the road in the first place. Now, given the uncertainty over identifying
the vagrant amongst contemporaries it is perhaps unsurprising that this is extended to historians
too, those who have attempted to have generally conceptualised them again in economic terms
and the problem ultimately is that really historians know very little about the character
and origins of these individuals. Even as recently as 2012, a very authoritative article
based on a very long-ranging study of criminality in Crewe suggested that it was entirely impossible
to identify who these were. Now I expect within this room many of you
are aware that genealogy – and indeed you may be yourself researching your own family
histories – that genealogy now is booming. It’s big business – Ancestry, Findmypast
for example – the hugely popular TV programme Who Do They Think They Are – has kind of
driven this onwards and forwards. For those of us who have been researching in the archives
and record offices long enough, we can probably all remember going to do the old-fashioned
way of researching things and kind of being frustrated that one couldn’t get to a microfilm
reader because the family historians were in researching! So you kind of see what I’m
driving at; there’s kind of been this sort of frowned upon view that really genealogy
and family history are the work for amateurs. However, in recent years a number of culturally
informed historical studies have placed genealogical research at the core of their projects, and
similar methods are now being utilised by historians of crime. Now the benefits I think
can be seen by returning to the case of Alfred D. who I opened with. What this reveals is
that Alfred was a regular beggar on the tramp around the Midlands. He’s a man prone to
abusive tendencies, peculiar behaviours, maybe suggestive of mental health issues. Now as
we can see from this map – hopefully those at the back can as well – the blue pins indicate
points at which I pick him up. I’m very sorry, this is a Google map with 21st century
roads on it, not how the map would have looked in the late 19th century and I’ll explain
a little bit more about why it doesn’t yet, but it will in the future. As we can see,
he’s moving around Leicestershire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire, frequently
getting prosecuted for various acts of vagrancy. Now what we know from the genealogy though
is that he was born in 1861 and spent his early months in Nantwich, Cheshire with his
mother, maternal grandmother, and a wide extended family. His father, Thomas, himself in the
shoe trade, was living thirty miles away in Stafford with his sister, her husband, his
mother and two other siblings. Now, that separation, it might just be an accident of the census
date but it could be explained by a combination of economic necessity and also the practicalities
of giving birth to Alfred and the post-natal care for his mother. By 1871, Alfred now as
a 10 year old was living in St Mary’s, Staffordshire with his mother, who now describes herself
as a shoe finisher, and four younger siblings, whose birthplaces hark from all over the Midlands
and Cheshire, pointing to a transient and unstable early childhood. A wide family circle
is close at hand. His Uncle Peter and Aunt Harriet live nearby. By 1881, we pick him
up now as a 20 year old, having moved again. He is now working as a shoe finisher and lodging
in the slum district of All Saints, Leicester with a family that were all likewise engaged
in the shoe trade. It transpires this family is his Aunt Harriet’s, who has been widowed
and subsequently remarried. Now such a complicated and transient familial network appears fairly
typical amongst the project’s cohorts and in the life stories I’ve been recreating,
with many experiencing unstable childhoods, whether through bereavements, separations,
frequent mobility and/or being part of ‘problem’ families. Importantly, we now – or I now know – what
the trigger was for Alfred’s tramping lifestyle. It occurred in October 1885. He appears in
court, in Leicester, accused of selling on shoe working tools that he’d stolen from
his father. His explanation was that he wanted to escape the shoe trade. His father pleads
for leniency and the case was withdrawn on condition that the 24 year old goes out into
the world and made his own way. The spiral downwards, however, in this case was rapid.
Repeated offences for drunkenness occur within a matter of weeks and from March 1888 – so
what, two and a half years later – the newspapers were already describing him as ‘a tramp’:
ironically having secured his desire to escape his trade. Now, family relationship breakdowns
are recognised in modern day sociological studies of homelessness as a significant cause
for it, but to Victorian society Alfred would have been an undeserving case of the worst
variety: an habitual ‘professional beggar’ and one who particularly targeted vulnerable
women and children. What happens then to Alfred after this case
that I started the lecture with in 1896? Well he disappears, only to resurface in 1908,
back in Leicester, being described as hailing from Nantwich and of no fixed abode. The court
also hears that he has numerous convictions. He had at least 21 up to 1896 so he’s not
stellar but he’s productive shall we say in picking up these prosecutions. Then at
some point thereafter, he appears to settle in Britannia Street, a part of Leicester notorious
for it’s cheap common lodging houses. Interestingly, the records start talking about him and describing
him as a rag gatherer – an occupation more commonly associated with young working children
than with a man in his 50s. It may be that I don’t understand enough about Victorian
occupations yet. Then in November 19, 18 – yes, we are in the 19th century now – 1925, his
body is pulled from a Leicester canal. It is unclear, according to the death certificate,
how the body came to be there. I may find out as I’ve just been told this week that
the inquest records actually survive and are in Leicester Record Office, so a trip there
will pursue this one a little further. Now what I want to do from this life story, this
last sort of travail, is kind of just make some points: one about homelessness and one
about the sources. Homelessness wise, evidently as age catches up with Alfred D. – I was
going to use his surname there – he makes a conscious decision to return to a City that
he’s familiar with, and to adopt a more settled, if still insecure, form of homed
living within the Common Lodging house network and to eke out a living that seems to be supplemented
by petty crime, in the underbelly of Leicester’s casual poor. There’s probably also a sub-point
here about the likelihood that many of the lodging houses actually have long term residencies,
when supposedly they were only licenced for nightly arrivals. The point about the sources,
is this 12 year “disappearance”. What happens between 1896 and 1908? I don’t think
he just disappears off; I kind of assumed that he’d died and I’d just not sort of
tracked him down properly. I suspect the actual answer lies in the really poor quality of
the digitisation of the Leicestershire newspapers during this period and I suspect or cost saving
purposes they’ve digitised straight off the microfilm copies of the Leicester Chronicle,
which were equally poor for this and the search function just can’t cope with it and what
it comes up with is lots of gobbledegook. So I either bite the bullet and try and work
through them or I kind of say I’ll accept I know enough about Alfred to kind of say
something meaningful. Obviously the key point here is that the prevalence
of newspapers allows me to start saying a bit more about his lifestyle than I would
just glean purely from using census returns. And indeed there can be a danger on relying
on census returns, disregarding all the inaccuracies that can occur in the official recordings
that occur in these and this next example’s going to kind of illustrate this. Robert F., I encounter him for the first time
in Melton Mowbray having destroyed his clothes in the casual ward of the workhouse, very
conveniently the morning after the census in April 1891. I do love these vagrants who
get up to bad behaviour the morning after the census! I initially disregarded him because
the census return describes him as an “American sailor” and I just thought oh, how the hell
am I going to kind of go down that route? I’ll move on. But I came back to him and
the reality is far less exotic. In fact, Robert hails from March, in Cambridgeshire, born
into a family of agricultural labourers in 1845, and to all intents and purposes, for
all the remaining census returns, never left March. He ultimately died in May 1897 in the
local Doddington workhouse. I even know his exact graveplot. However, a reliance of a
record of location every decade can be very misleading. In reality, as the map’s going
to show – and I’m trying to master the skill of the map making and it will develop
as this project goes forward – as you can see he’s moving quite a bit around the country,
as far north as York, as far south as Gosport near Portsmouth, and as you can see that sort
of round the Central region he is clearly misbehaving in a whole round of counties through
Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Staffordshire, Bedfordshire Cambridgeshire – the list just
kind of goes on. The prison records that survive for him show that most of his offences are
for vagrancy misdemeanours, usually occurring within the workhouse casual ward environment.
Just occasionally he gets carried away and conducts an act of theft, but more or less
his misbehaviour relates to the workhouse. He’s variously described as an ‘old offender’,
‘very troublesome’, and shortly before his death, as ‘a very deaf and eccentric
man.’ These descriptions alongside the attempts to pass himself off as a sailor, both in Melton
workhouse and Stafford prison, perhaps, perhaps hints to mental health problems. I’m not
certain. Although, there is kind of this fly in the ointment, we know that in 1866 he is
in Gosport, a naval town. Was he applying as a young man as a trade as a sailor for
a period of time? I don’t know, I haven’t got a definitive answer, despite how much
I actually know about this individual. The numerous institutional records constantly
talk about his tattoos and what they enable me as a historian to be doing is ensuring
that I know that I’m actually following the same man, because sometimes with these
surnames as you’d probably expect, go back to the original case I started with, I’m
tracking ultimately three individuals with the same name, born roughly around the same
time, plying their trade as shoe finishers. So it’s disentangling sometimes who you’re
dealing with is a challenge. Again, I’m left wondering about the tattoos.
Do they back up the sailor story? There is a cross and a skull, a kind of pirate – I’ve
been listening to too many Pirates of the Caribbean movie adverts – you know, anchor?
I don’t know, I really don’t know. I kind of probably ought to dwell more on these tattoos
because they are kind of a very common feature of those that I’m picking up. Now why should this labourer from Cambridgeshire
be a frequenter of the casual ward? The answer lies in his 1871 census. A clue that unlocks
two features common to the tramp: a disability that prevents him from working, and the fact
that he’s ex-Army. The disability was sustained during an accident while serving with the
1st Battalion 22nd Foot in the summer of 1868 when based at the regimental depot in Chatham,
hence my kind of reticence – Chatham, a naval town as well, are the tattoos picked
up from kind of that coastal kind of connection there? Hence my kind of uncertainty about
speculation. We know from the military records that he’s not a very good soldier. He absconds
in 1866 and wasn’t even very good at that, getting picked up three days later and spends
a month in the military prison at Fort Clarence for his pains. He’s reinstated though. He’s
only a private so they kind of throw him back in. Unfortunately this accident – and I
don’t know what caused the accident – this accident occurs whilst serving and in the
view of the Army’s medical officer at his discharge, declares he’s unlikely to ever
earn a living again. Here Robert perfectly fits that fourth class of vagrant identified
in the 1906 Vagrancy Report: he’s infirm, unemployable, moving from casual ward to casual
ward, probably suffering mental health issues, a frequent nuisance to the police and magistrates.
But he’s not fallen into this position because of some personal fecklessness, he’s sustained
an injury after all serving his county and this is preventing him from working, and it
says something about the inadequacy of pension provision for veterans. Within military records
there is a document that the discharged soldier is expected to sign saying that they will
make no recourse to the military authorities for a pension and interestingly written at
the bottom is the word ‘rejected’. I’d initially assumed that that was the officer
discharging him saying ‘we’ve rejected him for a military pension’. However, further
on in the record, after he’s left the army, there’s a series of notations saying that
a vicar from March, Cambridge, has been in correspondence repeatedly with the military
authorities – it doesn’t say what and they don’t survive – in 1870, 1871, 1872
and I just wonder if F. rejected the signing of this documentation saying ‘I have no
claim to a pension’ and then tried to persuade his local parish priest to interceded on his
behalf and ultimately failed. I’m speculating, I don’t honestly know, but it would be a
good story if that was the case. OK, these two examples, well they certainly
point to the rich tapestry of detail that can re-threaded together, but they also suggest
the complexity of reasons as to why someone is on the road. It also points up that “homelessness”
is a spectrum of need ranging from insecure nightly temporary accommodation to absolute
rooflessness and perhaps on a night to night basis, an individual might move from rough
sleeping to temporary accommodation and so forth. The findings obviously challenge the
contemporary Victorian/Edwardian assumption that this was a decision of choice adopted
due to personal inadequacy. Those of no fixed abode that I’ve been reconstructing evidently
are suffering from health issues, both physical and mental, family and relationship breakups
that have all contributed to their abandonment of conventional homed society. I’m going to consider in a little bit some
of the triggers for this homelessness a little bit further and use some further examples
to try and illustrate things but I just want to return briefly to this work in progress
on tramp routes and mobility because it’s kind of the next phase of the project and
I’m hoping to develop using GIS technology and the historic OS maps that are now available
via Digimaps, a method for doing this in collaboration with the Museum of Homelessness, whom I’ve
been doing some work with. So I’m going to just talk a little bit more
about mobility. Now, mobility, the tramps’ mobility presents challenges for the authorities.
The funding model of the Poor Law system placed the burden of cost for those entering the
casual wards of the workhouse upon the relevant parishes that were federated to the Union.
This means that the vagrant is a cost to those parishes and therefore in a sense, they are
keen to move the vagrants onwards and out of their area. This is a sentiment that some
Tramps’ blatantly seek to exploit when they appear before the courts by ‘offering’
to move on immediately should they be acquitted. The authorities response was to assume that
the answer lay in deterrence and so we have a series of legislation acts that were brought
in that tried to tighten up the rules to detain these vagrants for longer for two nights and
to introduce an onerous workduty that will instil in them the work ethic that will hopefully
return them back to contributing to the means of production. The problem is that the rules
are inconsistently applied from from Union to Union: and Leicestershire as a county is
no different in this respect and it’s widely suspected that amongst the vagrant community,
kind of word of mouth, grapevine, is kind of saying well if you go to there you’re
going to get held up definitely for two nights and be made to break stone to this size, whereas
if you go that way you may get a lesser task and a slightly easier passage. And it’s
clear looking at my vagrants that deterrents clearly isn’t working for them. They are
returning quite frequently to Leicestershire. Now I think some of this can be explained
for reasons of familiarity. We are after all humans, we like things that are familiar,
but in other cases they are due to familial reasons. And illustrative of this is the case
of Alfred Edward G who was born in 1888 and died in 1963. He’s prosecuted for rough
sleeping in a henhouse in Great Bowden in August of 1911. The court deem him ‘an old
offender’, at the tender age of twenty-three. He was sentenced to a month’s hard labour.
It transpires he was only born five miles away in Foxton and he spent his years from
his late teens until the outbreak of the Second World War – sorry, First World War – moving
around the Midlands and East Midlands, particularly getting himself into all sorts of trouble.
Cambridgeshire Magistrates label him a ‘begging nuisance’ in 1908, frustrated that he’s
fit to work ‘but won’t’. He commits similar offences in Bedford and various other
places. I suspect in all likelihood he’s combining casual labouring jobs with begging
in the winter months, and so he kind of fits into this 2nd class of vagrant that the 1906
Report identified. The 1911 census shows that he’s lodging with the Brown family in Clarence
Street, Market Harborough – so again he’s back in Leicestershire, not moving very far
from where he’s born, but he returns pretty quickly to his tramp ways once the weather
improves. If that’s the case then he’s conforming to an assumption that’s been
made about the vagrant tramp, mixing between sleeping at cheap lodgings when the weather
and money permits, sleeping out in the warmer months, and only using the Tramp Casual Ward
at the workhouse as a last resort. Just what routes the vagrants are taking round
the country has though been subject to much conjecture. It’s been suggested that London
based tramps for example, after wintering in the capital and getting fat, would migrate
to the fashionable coastal resorts before autumning in Sussex or Kent for some hop-picking
season. Reconstructing the movements of the Leicester case-studies though suggests that
my lot seem to be, in general, moving on a north-south axis between the Home Counties
and the north-east. I rarely get them going into London. I’m not sure whether that’s
something I’m doing wrong or whether that really is just the case they are avoiding
the capital. Take as an example Holliday C. Holliday is a great name, his surname’s
even better, it’s beautiful. I think because of the distinctiveness of his name he adopts
a very boring alias of Thomas B., which can be a bit frustrating trying to disentangle
where he is with that name. He’s an itinerant stonemason with a long history of court appearances,
around the East Midlands and the Home Counties accrued over some twenty years, after he moved
away from his childhood home of Manningham, Bradford, where his father was a master mason.
In all likelihood he’s using the railway network to assist his travels. He’s prosecuted
on a number of occasions for travelling without a ticket. He’s also frightfully unlucky
in some of his cases; he gets picked up and arrives at a police station in Leicestershire,
only for the desk sergeant – I assume it’s the desk sergeant anyway – to say ‘you
absconded 12 months ago without paying your fine. So, m’lad, you’re in real trouble
this time’. So you can kind of see some of these characters are clearly out there,
they’re interesting just for what they’re up to. Others though have been much more restrictive
in terms of their routes and are either taking a very distinctly Midlands or even East Midlands
process as kind of Alfred D and Robert F suggested with their kind of core activities when they
were up to no good. Others though are up to taking quite different
routes around the country, but even these potentially offer us some sense of perhaps
why they’re moving the way they do and I’m going to bring us to the example or Mary Ellen
N, who uses the alias, Mary J. I encounter he because again she’s up to no good in
Melton Mowbray. She’s born in 1871 to an Irish mother, Ann, who hails from Galway.
The pair accompany one another as they seek casual work as garden or field hands. Theirs
was a volatile relationship that frequently turned violent with alcohol consumption. They
moved from cheap lodgings, they’re frequently thrown out of their cheap lodgings for being
drunk and they also use the casual wards. Between them they serve repeated jail terms
for begging, drunkenness and occasionally theft. The press report their Irish ancestry
and they themselves are not beyond accusing their prosecutors of racial prejudice. On
one occasion, Mary Ellen who at this stage is young, she’s just in her early 20s, seeks
to ameliorate the threat of another jail term, for having stolen a waistcoat, by claiming
she had committed the crime to escape her alcoholic, and aging, mother. The magistrate
orders her discharge, instructs the police missioner to secure the young woman a place
in service. That Mary was shortly before a different magistrate alongside her mother
suggests that the ruse had worked and the intervention failed. The tramping lifestyle,
the alcoholic, clearly took their toll. Reports from 1895 – so she’s mid-20s by this point
– start noting that with increasing alarm her physical decline, she ‘looked a dreadful
state’, she appeared ‘emaciated and vacant looking’. As a pair, and as you can see
from this, they’re moving a considerable distance as they go between Lincolnshire and
Gloucestershire back and forth on a diagonal axis and I’m kind of wondering whether that
green line which my 15 year old son very helpfully drew onto this presentation for me – in
fact he helped me with quite a lot of this and when it goes wrong I shall blame him!
– I wonder if they’re shadowing the Fosse Way? Don’t know. I mean by its nature, tramping
is an activity undertaken on foot, so did the ancient roads networks such the Fosse
Way, the Icknield Way, the Ermine Street, provide the broad outlines of routes to follow
in an age before maps had become mass market? And kind of what I’m hoping is I’m going
to get a better sense as I start plotting all these GIS things together this coming
summer. I think though some of the movement is obviously
being dictated, particularly in Ellen’s case, by the seasonality of casual agricultural
work – apple and hop picking in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire for example in autumn;
vegetable planting on the Lincolnshire fens in spring. Equally some of the movements are
being dictated by public or engineering works that were taking place at this time which
were labour intensive and which are hiring workers on a daily basis. The growth of the
railway network must be assisting in the potential mobility of the tramp, not least because in
Leicester the Prisoners’ Aid Society were known to provide a rail ticket to move a released
prisoner on out of the county. And likewise the prison system itself is aiding that mobility
because a tramp is picked up somewhere, they’re moved onto the court where they’re tried,
they’re then moved from the court to the county jail to serve their sentence – or
even further afield if it’s a penal term. We’ve already heard about Robert F being
an ex-serviceman, adopting a tramp lifestyle. Many contemporaries suspected that the army’s
treatment of its former veterans were at the root cause for many of those being on the
road. They lay blame at the door of the Army’s six year short service system – I’ve had
to learn a lot of military lingo with this, sometimes I slightly glaze over but I’m
trying to get to grips with it all. What this does is it deducts a proportion of each payment
towards a Lump sum that they’re given on discharge
and the argument was that these ex-soldiers are then given this lump sum of money, they
go down the local pub, drink it all away, then decide they can’t be bothered to get
a job and resort to the casual ward, moving from ward to ward. That’s the argument.
It’s clear that a military ‘experience’, and I’m going to use that word ‘experience’,
whether in the regulars or the militia, is a very common feature of those that I’ve
been reconstructing within Leicestershire. George L., born in 1854, died 1913, exemplifies
this. His military career spanned over twenty years,
variously in the regulars, reserves and finally the militia He saw service overseas and would
later claim, when before a magistrate for drunkenness, that his intolerance of alcohol
came as a result of sunstroke whilst overseas. An initial ‘very good’ character reference
was tarnished by a desertion in 1887 that earned him a four-month jail term. Like many
ex-servicemen he appears to have no military pension and without a secure income once out
of the regulars, he has no trade. He moves frequently between casual work – he is variously
described as a labourer, collier, furnace-man or just ex-soldier. His willingness to sign
up to the militia and the reserves suggests that he’d missed the regimented nature of
military life, but also importantly deserved some form of income at points through the
year. He’d been orphaned in his early teens and from that point we start picking him up
for brushes with the law. He never married and I have speculated whether the trauma of
pulling the bodies of two young brothers who drowned in a village pond in 1894 explains
one of the reasons for him being on the road. After his final discharge from the Royal Northern
Regiment after a year’s short service in March 1901, he spent some time with his brother,
a shoemaker, in Middle Ransen, Lincolnshire before moving through that county, through
Yorkshire and then back to the East Midlands, seemingly alternating between the casual ward
and prison. Frequent appearances before the magistrates witnessed George railing against
the injustices of the casual ward system. At Daventry it’s the volume of oakum to
be picked. At Grantham it was the expectation that stone should be broken on a Bank Holiday.
And, at Bedford it was the unacceptable delays in the discharge process which leads to him
clouting the tramp major. He pays, and this is where I’ve picked him up, a series of
repeat visits to Melton Mowbray and true to form, refuses his oakum picking duties on
every occasion and ultimately he dies there in its workhouse infirmary, 10th May 1913
aged 60. Now George’s life story showed that being
a former solider carried little dispensation. The expectation was that, if able bodied,
these men should re-join the labour force and contribute to society through production.
The problem as I’ve suggested is that the Army left them with no trade and in his case
he’s too old to acquire new skills. The ex-Serviceman invalided out of the army, possibly
carrying a disability that hindered the options for work, ought you would have thought to
have been viewed more favourably, though as Robert F’s case illustrated, there was no
actual assistance available for him. What’s more there are lots of lingering concerns
about the “bogus” ex-military man, seeking to exploit the patriotic card and gain a slightly
easier passage. In such cases the authorities admitted they found it hard to judge the truthfulness
of the claim. Supposedly veterans are meant to carry a parchment paper of discharge round
with them but it’s kind one, I suspect, wear and tear on the road, if alcohol is kind
of an issue in their lives then one’s ability to keep all your possessions in the right
place may become more problematic and obviously the like. So it is problematic although I
should say as an aside, I’ve got a register for ex-Servicemen from February/March 1920
in Loughborough workhouse and in there are a number of veterans who aren’t First World
War but are veterans from the 1890s, early 1900s. They can remember their regimental
number, they can remember to the date the day they signed on and the date they were
discharged. Now either they’ve manged to retain that parchment for all those years,
or as my fellow rugby coach ex-squaddie from Mowsley Juniors Rugby Club has told me, ‘when
you’re a squaddie, you never forget your number because the punishment isn’t worth
it’. So again, one’s wrestling with all these kind of permutations going on. Now there’s some justification I think for
the concern about the fraudulent ex-serviceman and I’ve got one of those within my cohort.
A William S. who’s found guilty of seeking alms under the false pretences of being a
wounded veteran of the South African war in June 1901. He gets a month’s hard labour.
He had signed up but was kicked out after two days, ‘being deemed not ready to become
an efficient solider’. Now this may have actually been an issue of maturity. He was
passing himself off as nineteen but was still to reach his sixteenth birthday. He’d also
signed on under an alias, but I’ve tracked it all down and as a result, I think there’s
actually another clue as to what’s going on and it may be just down to his mental capabilities
because within a matter of months of serving that sentence, he’s returned to the family
in Nottingham and he’s been admitted to the Lunatic Asylum, labelled an ‘imbecile’,
and as far as I can tell, remains institutionalised until his death in 1933. Ultimately, then, an unwillingness to contribute
to the means of production may not have been down to an individual’s fecklessness. Yes,
structural issues, in part, explain the numbers of tramps but I don’t think that’s an
adequate reason in itself. And what’s kind of coming strongly through all these reconstructions
and what you’ve been hearing from me, they’re a combination of personal issues, addictions,
disabilities, mental wellbeing, learning disabilities, kind of running through all of these stories
and so that raises questions about whether an individual’s fragilities were perhaps
a more realistic explanation than the structural issues for why they were on the road. I’m
quickly going to romp through some of these and talk about mental health. Now, although it’s recognised that many
of those who were crammed into the overcrowded asylums were of the pauper and vagrant class,
it doesn’t appear that Victorian/Edward society is actually very good at kind of acknowledging
the warning signs of the diseases associated with mental health. A good proportion of those
of ‘no fixed abode’ are clearly displaying mental well-being issues. How serious is obviously
dependent on the scale of things and this will come clear with this next case. That
of Horace B., who’s there. As you can see, he’s a blacksmith born in Clipston, Leicestershire,
who takes to the road in 1884 under an alias after twice failing to enlist with different
regiments of the army for being deemed ‘inefficient’ – that word again, “ inefficient”. He’s
actually grown up in the Great Bowden workhouse, near Market Harborough, after the death of
his parents in 1865. From there, he’s apprenticed to a shoeing smith master in Leicester by
the workhouse. It’s clearly a profession he doesn’t enjoy because he tries to abscond.
The courts haul him back and say he must serve out his term. Shortly after, he starts getting
picked up for drunkenness and fighting and generally duffing people up. We know from
the 1901 and 1911 census returns that he’s located in casual tramp wards at the time.
I know that during that decade, every two or three weeks he returns to the Casual Ward
at Great Bowden, spends a couple of nights there and then moves on. Prior to, and in
between these years, he spent significant periods in penal servitude, the last two convictions
being for rick-burning at Boston, Lincolnshire and in his home area of Great Bowden. Rick-burning
is a really common misdemeanour, serious misdemeanour, that tramps get up to and it’s a combination
of sometimes intentionality, other cases stupidity – hot matches, pipes, discarding amongst
very flammable materials, but obviously for the framers’ concerned, there’s considerable
economic loss against this and authorities come down really hard on them for it. At the trial in 1906 for this last rick-burning
episode, the judge intervenes, concerned at the defendant’s apparent misunderstanding
about how to plead. He said he was guilty, ‘but it was an accident, m’lord’. So
the judge instructs him to change his plea to not guilty. Under examination Horace revealed
that he had been in the ‘asylum’ and that his ‘head was bad’. When pressed on how
the fire may have started, his responses can perhaps only be described as confused. For
the Bench, this ambiguity in his answers was in all likelihood interpreted as an attempt
to conceal his guilt – after all, he had form. His subsequent prison record is then
updated to record that he’s ‘feeble minded’ and suffers from a speech impediment. We know that Horace actually spent three spells
in an asylum; at least three spells, I suspect there will have been more. His case-notes
from the last one, Berrywood near Northampton, where he was admitted displaying suicidal
tendencies on New Year’s Eve 1900, noted that his Father had committed suicide in 1865
and this is underscored in red, some three months after his mother’s death from natural
causes. Hereditary factors were always accorded importance by asylum medical officers. Equally,
having seen the inquest transcripts for the suicide, I suspect for the children who witnessed
it all it must have been a pretty harrowing offence – he’s one of eight siblings – because
after a night of “raving” and seeing “frightful things” his father was found outside the
house by the children, his throat cut but still alive. The children pick him up, take
him to his bed and he dies before them. Within those case notes there’s actually
little to really indicate significant mental illness, other than an early reference to:
‘Mania. Confused & rambling in speech. Memory is impaired.’ More generally, the records
of the asylum staff consider him to be a ‘dullard’ and a ‘high grade imbecile’. That latter term
would correspond to someone with what we would now probably describe as ‘mild learning disabilities’,
or in an earlier previous era as ‘borderline subnormal’. Through the three months that
he’s there, recovery clearly takes hold and he settles into the work regime – that
work regime again, kind of getting you back into the means of production, and clearly
they rate him very highly, ‘an idle worthless man who is content to play games and enjoy
himself – does enough for tobacco…’. They clearly like him and discharge him after three
months. Again, the shortness of the stay suggests that it’s not necessarily a long term – well,
there may be long term issues but it’s not deemed serious enough by the system at the
time. All of this taken together, a picture emerges of a man with some mild learning disabilities
and limited intellect, who clear has difficulty in coping with various aspects of life. Periodically
he reacts by either becoming ‘noisy’ or ‘refractory’ or engaging in self-harming tendencies. He
likes a bit of head-banging against walls on occasion. And so probably managing him,
whether he’s in the Casual Ward or out in society, is clearly an issue. It’s also
worth noting that his brother, his older brother, is also one of my vagrants. He’s tramping
round as a drover all over the place and up to no good as well but time will not permit
me to talk about him today. So where does that leave us? Well it leaves
me wanting to kind of say something about alcohol because that’s clearly a thread
with many of those that I’ve spoken about so far. Now Victorian society of the many
vices is probably most attuned to alcohol. If they only have a rudimentary understanding
of mental well-being they would look to explain why vagrants adopted the behaviours they did
and they usually settled up on alcohol as the explanation. In one tragic case that attracted
national attention, James “Jimmy” J., born 1857 who hailed from Thorpe Arnold, near
Melton Mowbray – Melton seems to be cropping up rather a lot today – was jailed in 1896
for drunkenness and assault. He has an extensive record; 40 jail terms that I’m aware of,
mainly for vagrancy but often drunkenness associated with it. Unfortunately during this
last sentence he successfully hangs himself in Leicester Prison after fashioning a noose
from his oakum pickings. Whether his presence of mind was affected by a withdrawal of alcohol
can only be surmised. The inquest decide that he’s temporarily insane and there’s a
severe bollocking for the prison authorities for allowing him to sufficiently secrete enough
of these strands of oakum to thread a noose. Some commentaries ought to be framed within
the context about Victorian concerns for temperance and moral decline associated with the alcoholic.
There are points when a drunk could avoid jail if they took the ‘pledge’ of abstinence
and one of those who did is long term alcoholic, Arthur W., nick-named “Gussy”. He’s
described as a scourge of Melton Mowbray and I’ve just kind of realised I’ve given
an example of James “Jimmy” J who’s also a bad boy from Melton Mowbray so I think
they have the kind of issue shall we say with alcohol in the town because they do overlap
in their time together. Magistrates make regular appeals to the local population not to buy
Gussy drinks in the pubs because they know that he’s going to get up to no good. On
one occasion he goes round smashing all the gas lamps in the town. A lady of Melton Society
decided she would take Gussy under her wing if he remained sober. It doesn’t last very
long unfortunately. He’s soon drunk in church, disrupting choir practice. Gussy is a real
character; he even in the end gets his own editorial written by the Grantham journal
and there’s one particular moment where a member of society writes in to say the well-known
beggar and scourge, Gussy, is actually underneath rather a decent man, “I gave him some money
the other day, he brought it back to me saying ‘but sir, I only asked for a penny, this
is a shilling’”. So clearly he’s got a right notoriety; he’s all over, he’s
up in Wakefield, Lincolnshire, committing vagrancy offences as well. Of course, drinking
could be a means of blotting out the horrors of being on the street and we do quite regularly
see examples such as Mary Gilbert, a widow and tramp, who’s before the courts for being
very drunk and using obscene language, pleading to be locked up. There is a suspicion among
some contemporaries, [0:53:23] particularly, that actually the prison system is far too
soft on the vagrant and they’re deliberately getting themselves arrested. We sometimes
see examples of the beggars deliberately knocking on the houses of policemen and then when the
policeman says ‘oh no, no, go on, go on, I don’t want to arrest you’, ‘well I’m
going to go and commit an offence if you don’t arrest me’. It’s quite common. We obviously heard earlier about Robert F’s
disability and I’m kind of conscious of the time so I am going to get there, even
though I’ve got some examples. I think we can take the disability as a problem. We’re
in an age where health and safety doesn’t exist, accidents in the workplace are common
features and this very fetching gentleman here, James J, is just one such example. I
think he was a respectable upstanding member of society. He serves with the Welsh Royal
Artillery Militia for ten years of annual training until 1899. Following year, he’s
picked up for his first offence. He leaves Wales and starts tramping round through Scotland,
down through the East Midlands, back to Wales, back up to Scotland and round. The reason
I think is that he endured an industrial accident at some point in those six months where he
lost a finger and something caused the rest of his fingers on the hand to contract such
that he’s unable to work. He’s also a very bad boy. He serves a lot of prison terms
in penal institutions – Strafford, Dartmoor, Portland, Shrewsbury, Parkhurst – he gets
around. I suggested earlier that relationship breakdowns are an important factor in the
understanding of modern day homelessness and that’s only really kind of taken hold since
the 70s. Relationship breakdowns would have been recognised
but the authorities in the Victorian/Edwardian period would have encouraged the individual
to return to their family, or to reconcile the married couple if they had parted ways.
We’ve kind of already seen that in Alfred D’s case, it’s trigger is falling out
with his father over the theft and selling on of the shoe-making tools. Likewise we see
this in my UKIP poster boy as I like to think of him, Jose J., who takes very anglicised
names as his aliases. He attributes in a number of quite candid cases that are reported in
the newspapers that the reason he took to the road was his Father kicked him out of
the house aged 15, and by his own admission, he fell into bad company, is sent to prison
for housebreaking in 1906 and 1909, and after that “unable to get work, I drifted into
the workhouse.” He serves repeated terms for vagrancy – a long list there – and
is described in 1931 as a “persistent beggar.” I encounter him because he turns up in Loughborough
workhouse in 1911 and when he refuses to do his workhouse duty, the courts discover that
in fact he’s an illegal alien. He’s come from Spain aged 5 in 1894, settled with his
family in the Woolwich/Plumstead area of London, but for some reason there is this deportation
order on his head and between then, 1911 and 1931, he is deported eighteen times. And seventeen
times he manages to get back to the country pretty quickly, hence why I call him the UKIP
poster boy, porous borders and all that. Indeed the image we have here is the reason he gets
back; he immediately signs up on a ship bound for Britain as a sailor and this is one of
his sailor IDs that’s sitting in the national archives. The tramping lifestyle evidently
though took its toll, and in 1926 he attempts suicide by hanging in a public lavatory in
Bristol after hearing of the death of his “dear old mother” and deciding that Britain
was a “cruel country” for its insistent desire to return him to Spain. For women though, those that are left in destitution,
your options are far more limited in a sense. If you’re abandoned by your husband your
choice is survive through prostitution, sell your body. If you’re older, you’ve got
to find some form of work if you can. If not, it’s the workhouse. Now if you arrive at
the workhouse having been abandoned by your husband, then often the Poor Law Guardians
seek to pursue the absent itinerant husband under section 1 of the Vagrancy Act. I have
a quick example here in the form of Barzilla, a name – there are two Barzilla’s and
they live a few miles apart. They’re not related, they had the surname and the newspapers
cannot spell Barzilla for love or money. There must be about ten different variants of the
name, so unpicking these two has been an absolute nightmare. Anyway, that rogue there, looking
very happy in 1901, serving a sentence for stealing wood from empty houses somewhere
in a slum area of Leicester. I could talk about cases of women who have to resort to
prostitution but time isn’t going to permit that, but I do want to say something about
this last lady, just because I want to show off the fact that I have not just one, but
three images of her and I’m very pleased with dear Alberta, or Kate W., as she sometimes
quite often is known by. The reason I’ve got her up, apart from the
fact I want to show off the pictures, is the fact that she demonstrates this extremely
fine line between being labelled a vagrant, or tramp, and being part of the casual poor
who find the grind of poverty, obligating them to adopt criminal strategies to survive.
Her particular modus operandi between 1881 and 1918 around the cities of Leicester, Nottingham
and Southampton is to beg bed and board, on the promise of payment in the morning, then
when the lady of the house goes out to buy some breakfast for her, she steals something,
tries to pawn it and does a runner. She’s not very good at it because she quite regularly
gets caught. The left-hand picture of her from 1882, if you look closely, this is just
two weeks after she’s given birth to her second child in the workhouse in Leicester.
Shortly after this event her husband, William, a shoe riveter, appears to have deserted her.
And now her pattern of survival seems to be cemented. She moves between the common lodging
houses, private lodgings, the workhouse at Leicester which is her Union of abode, or
the casual wards of further afield workhouses. After 1883 she’s describing herself as a
widow. I can’t find any evidence of her husband’s death and I rather suspect that
this is a tactic to create a veneer of respectability as she seeks to talk her way into a night’s
lodgings. When challenged by one judge to explain her behaviour she “attributed her
misfortune to drink”. That theme again. Now obviously this needs to be quickly wrapped
up because time now is kind of drawing to a close and I’m sure there’s going to
be questions. I hope you’ve got a sense from these kind of stories that I’ve been
telling you and I kind of feel I have been telling stories this evening, show how the
very simplistic categorisations of unreservedness are clearly unfounded and that through using
this methodology we actually can gain clues as to why an individual may be taking a route
into homelessness. But they’re also clearly showing us that there are a multitude of reasons,
both structural and personal, that come into play that kind of create this perfect storm
that leads this individual. Homelessness is also an issue that is wonton to be caught
up in episodes of moral panic, never more so than the issue of youth homelessness. Anthropological
studies of youth homelessness in the mid-1990s concluded using longitudinal surveys that
many young homeless individuals who had fallen out with parents and ended up in various hostels
and accommodation like that, actually return in their 20s to a settled form of living.
Many of the examples that I’ve got of youth homelessness would fall under this category.
I’ll show you a picture of another one, looking very fetching with his mirror image.
Walter Braithwaite, he’s just a bad liar. He tries to beg under false pretences bed
and board claiming that he’s a clerk arrived in town and that he’s got to wait a month
before he’s paid his first salary. He tries it three times, he serves three sentences,
he doesn’t appear to have committed an offence thereafter. He gets a long term job as a warehouseman
and joins the RAF in the First World War. He returns to home living. Likewise Francis Hamilton T., born in 1889
who has ‘all the appearances of a tramp’ when found rough sleeping. The Magistrates
say ‘go home young boy, back to your parents and reconcile yourself’. He stupidly re-appears
before them for begging. They’re not very impressed, they throw the book at him but
thereafter he appears to have returned to settled living. Indeed, I have an image of
him that I haven’t negotiated permission to use yet, showing him standing in kind of
slacks and a lovely fetching hat, outside a Victorian villa somewhere in South Manchester
where he resides. He marries twice. I think his first wife dies of Spanish flu, looking
at the dates, and he ultimately dies in September of 1961. After his last offence, evidently
enough readers of the Leicester Chronicle followed its instructions to pray for Hamilton
T, given his return to home living. Now, I’m going to sum this up very quickly
by saying we opened with Alfred D. I’ve kind of flagged up that it’s not ironic
that the newspaper reporting is now increasingly describing him as a tramp, not as a shoe-finisher.
He has escaped that trade that he was so desperate to flee from as a young 24 year old. To Victorian
society he’s a scourge, a professional waster. Today, his case might be received rather differently.
Amongst health professions and those working with the homeless, it is accepted that this
population disproportionately experiences what they term ‘complex trauma’ – many
of the things you’ve been hearing about today – and the language of modern responses
to homelessness is suffused with references to ‘therapeutic frameworks’ and ‘psychologically
informed environments’ that will be help these individuals return and re-join homed
society. No such opportunities existed for Draper. However, for all the positives developments
in homeless policies of recent decades, there persists, especially in the political and
media arena, narratives that our Victorian and Edwardian counterparts would have recognised.
Notions of the ‘undeserving’ and of personal inadequacies, and the sense that the single
homeless are scroungers and wasters still strongly pervades far too many of our discussions
on the problems of modern day homelessness. Thank you.

‘Tramps’ Tales: Discovering the history of homelessness in Britain
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One thought on “‘Tramps’ Tales: Discovering the history of homelessness in Britain

  • October 7, 2019 at 8:02 pm

    I found this a really interesting listen. Thanks.


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