On a bitterly cold day in late November 1886, William Ringer could be found in Great Glenn, Leicestershire, seeking alms at the home of Police Constable Burton. When he was refused Ringer threatened to do something that would earn him two years in jail (an unspecified but undoubtedly serious offence, such as arson). He was arrested, searched, found in possession of 1s 4d, and sentenced the following morning under the 1824 Vagrancy Act to seven days’ hard labour. The newspaper reporting of these events emphasised to readers the links between begging and criminality, rather than poverty and desperation.
Engineering an arrest to earn respite from weather or ill-health, was not an uncommon action amongst the men (and women) whose lives I have been reconstructing following their prosecution for vagrancy in Leicestershire between the 1880s and 1910s. The village was unknown to Ringer and securing shelter undoubtedly a priority. The Market Harborough Workhouse was still ten miles away. The daytime temperature had barely crept above freezing and dropped after nightfall. Ringer may not have intentionally targeted the policeman, but whether these actions were born of necessity or not, they presented an opportunity to secure free accommodation in the cells. The probable jail term that followed would have offered respite and been preferable to the gruelling conditions of the workhouse.
Historians of the late nineteenth century have focused, to a large extent, on the ways that the social phenomena of vagrancy cast light on deeper structural processes: migratory labour, economic development, state regulatory formation, urbanisation, crime and responses to poverty. These perspectives are chiefly concerned with numbers and processes, rather than understanding the person who was labelled as a vagrant and criminalised on account of their social condition. I have been fortunate to collaborate with Adrian Jackson and Cardboard Citizens Theatre Company over a number of years, as we have found ways to share the compelling and personal stories of those who experienced vagrancy. This resulted in The Vagrants Acts, a series of experimental online performances in 2020 during lockdown and a forthcoming radio play.
Newspapers reported on vagrant lives largely out of concern for their criminality. The voice of vagrants may be partial and mediated, but personalities emerge as do their strategies for survival: employing humour to undermine authority; utilising defences intended to elicit a favourable court response; or even, confronting and challenging the prejudices they encountered. This is evidenced in the experiences of Irish mother and daughter Ann and Mary Ellen Norton, a formidable team traversing the Fosse Way as they sought field work. Together they resisted predatory and violent men, challenged the racial slurs cast upon them, but also, on occasion, successfully used their humour and guile to seek favour from magistrates. This did not stop Ann and Mary from being portrayed by the press in racialised and unfeminine terms, not least when alcohol contributed to their arrest.
Raphael Samuel evocatively captures the seasonality and multi-occupational experiences of the ‘wandering tribes’ arguing that due to economic and employment changes the city increasingly ‘wall[ed] them in all the year round.’ Yet the movements of the majority of those whose lives I have been reconstructing suggest otherwise. These migratory men and women may have avoided the expanding cities due to greater levels of surveillance and scrutiny. Instead, their stories unfolded within the rural and county market town until, and even beyond, 1914. Some were tempted to London, such as John Driver (a Yorkshire born shoe-hand and ex-soldier) in 1889-90, 1896 and 1900. But such stays were short-lived, and invariably involved encounters with magistrates or Poor Law officials.
The circular seasonal tramping routes from, and back to, London, observed by Stedman Jones, are not conspicuous within this set of records from Leicestershire. This group were largely circulating around England with an apparent randomness, utilising the ancient and contemporary transportation networks. Understanding vagrant life stories can be an effective means for making sense of this randomness. Take Moses Oldfield who took routes, after 1896, through central England into south Wales and back to Yorkshire. Noticeably he passed through areas with traditions of quarrying. Oldfield was born in 1870 into a quarrying family who contributed to the construction of the Tintwistle reservoirs that were designed to provide Manchester’s water. A subsequent move to Lancashire as a quarryman coincided with the industry’s economic downturn. This might explain the cause of his ‘tramping’, but Oldfield also experienced learning difficulties, being labelled ‘simple minded’, which would have aggravated matters.
Samuel did show the boundaries between the labouring poor and the vagrant were much more porous than contemporaries would admit. The discovery of an unknown body (which was not in itself uncommon) in a haystack near Cropwell Bishop in 1906 is illustrative of this reality. The press were confident that the man’s worn and patched clothing meant he was ‘of the tramp fraternity’. When police circulated his photograph, the body was identified and named, thus giving dignity to the dead. But it also changed the tone of the newspapers. The deceased was an absent husband of a laundress from Weston, Bath and in identification was transformed from a tramp to a genuine worker; a man seeking to support his family, who left behind a ‘respectable’ and ‘well-liked’ widow.
A vagrant life came at considerable personal risk. Moses Oldfield died of smallpox in 1902. Frank Insley (1853-1915) survived fitting and falling into a Coalville water storage tank whilst trying to wash, suffered significant burns when sleeping near a coal mine pithead, and ultimately died of exposure. Alfred Draper’s (b. 1861) body was recovered from a Leicester canal in 1925. Whether it was accident or suicide was never resolved by the inquest. Others experienced mental and learning difficulties which would not have been medically recognised at the time. John Driver (1857-1907), discharged at 27 from the army with ‘dementia’, may well have suffered a personality disorder resulting from a head wound as a child. Horace Bonsor (1859-1922) had learning difficulties which explain his challenging behaviours in institutional environments, but which were dismissed by the judge in his 1906 trial for rick-burning.
And what became of William Ringer? It is known he was born in 1847 near Ashbourne, Derbyshire, and that he was discharged from the Army in 1880. Using a series of aliases he moved between Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Leicestershire accruing jail terms for begging. But after being sentenced, by Barnsley magistrates, in March 1898 to one month’s hard labour for being a ‘begging pest’, he disappeared.
Combining genealogical methods with institutional records (judicial, military, poor law and asylum) enables us to move, in many cases, beyond a fixed point of prosecution faced by figures such as William Ringer. By subverting state surveillance records and calling on supplementary information from local newspapers, agency can be ascribed to the criminalized – their actions humanised and appreciated. These tools enable individuals to acquire visibility across time and place which previously would have been too labour intensive to piece together – rendering them as humans rather than statistics.
Want to know more about the history of homelessness? Listen to our History Workshop Podcast episode – Homelessness, Theatre and History Making – with Adrian Jackson, former CEO of Cardboard Citizens.
Nick Crowson is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Birmingham with a particular interest in homelessness from the 1880s to the modern day. This includes recreating the life stories of vagrants in late Victorian times; exploring the hidden history of the mass squatting of military camps in 1946; examining the role of the Reception Centres after 1946; and considering the impact of organisations, such as Shelter and Crisis, in campaigning for the homeless.
Thanks to the Cambridgeshire Records Office; Leicestershire Records Office and West Yorkshire Archives Service for granting permission for the reproduction of the images used in this article.