On Vagrancy

Trans. Devon. Assoc. vol. II, Part II, (1868), pp. 361-363.


E. Vivian, J.P.

Prepared by Michael Steer

The Paper was presented at the Association’s July 1868 Honiton meeting. Historians in this period with genealogical interests seem to have focused, to some extent, on the variety of ways the social phenomena of vagrancy cast light on deeper structural societal processes, for example: migratory labour, economic development, state regulatory formation, urbanisation, crime and responses to poverty. Their perspectives were primarily concerned with numbers and system-related processes, rather than at attempting to understand, for example, the ancestor who was labelled as a vagrant and criminalised on account of his or her social condition. Vagrancy was the foundation of the English system of public relief during the Elizabethan period. It remained the most intractable problem confronting Poor Law administrators in the 19th century and into the Edwardian period. Literature on vagrancy abounds, with authors employing a variety of genealogical methods to better understand this problematic, almost intractable social policy issue. A paper on this complex topic was delivered by the author at an earlier Association meeting, available here. The present Paper, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

It is estimated that more than two-thirds of the criminal population of this country fall under the head of vagrants, amounting, by the latest reports, to nearly 100,000 persons.(1). This is also the class from which other criminals are recruited; and the habits of the wandering mendicant afford a shelter and a plea to those who are bent upon the commission of greater crimes.
A Vagrant Act is the logical supplement to a Poor Law, and it is only on this ground that it can be justly enforced, almsgiving being recognized both by divine and human law as a virtue, and its recipients consequently not guilty of a crime.
The first point which claims attention is, whether the State provision adequately meets all the requirements. By the law of Elizabeth, employment or maintenance was secured to the entire population. By the Poor Law Amendment Act, the option was given of providing this in the Union Workhouse. Is either provision righteously carried out ? I fear that recent investigations throw some doubt upon this, especially in the metropolis and populous towns. Out-door relief is frequently insufficient without private alms, and this is too often made the ground of a reduction, thus sanctioning the very evil which it is the object of a poor law to repress. In-door relief is also very defective, especially for the sick and aged.
Whether this impression be correct or not, it is very generally accepted by the humane public; and until it is removed it will be in vain, indeed it would be wrong, to harden their heart against the vagrant Many amongst all classes, especially the poor themselves, prefer to give to nine undeserving applicants rather than incur the responsibility of rejecting one true case of destitution. It is only when full confidence prevails in the administration of the Poor Law that any of us could say with Archbishop Whately, "I thank God I have never given to a beggar." I saw an instructive illustration of this at Newton a few weeks since. None of the guardians who had just passed resolutions against vagrancy, and defended the rigour of our prison discipline - plank beds and the treadmill - had the nerve to lay an information against a woman whom we met dragging about three wretched children; and a philosophical friend, now present, not long since gave his pence to a mendicant to whom I had been preaching a homily against vagrancy. The first point therefore to be attended to is to reform this defective administration of the Poor Law. I am quite aware of the difficulty, but hope that much has already been effected, as the result of the recent exposures, by opening Casual Wards, and especially by appointing the sergeants of the county police to administer relief to vagrants (2). Pauperism which is not the result of misconduct should never be regarded as a crime; the Sick Ward should be a liberally-conducted hospital; and the old people's apartments almshouses. Age and sickness are a branch of pauperism which no indulgence will increase, and may be treated with a liberal discretion. I am happy to add that this is invariably practised in the Newton Abbot Union, and doubtless many others in this county. True Christian charity, which "seeketh not its own," would gladly forego the luxury of private almsgiving if the welfare of the recipient were promoted, and there is no better field for the exercise of benevolence than the administration of the great national charity in the office of poor law guardian.
The only real and efficient remedy would be that which on a former occasion I urged before this association as applicable to our prison discipline for all classes of offenders - the substitution of industrial and reformatory occupation for mere confinement and punishment. Not only would this by its beneficial influence diminish the number of the vagrant class, but it would give an assurance to the benevolent, that in refusing relief or even in assisting to enforce the law, they were conferring a greater benefit even upon the objects of their compassion than by enabling them to continue their present reckless course of life.
A system has been proposed for the relief of bond fide industrious persons in search of work, under which they would be entitled to receive lodging, without compulsory labour, at any Union House, and be furnished with a ticket authorizing them to beg for food on the road, the distance to be travelled each day being proportioned to their ability. This is objectionable on economical grounds as a waste of labour, and it would also encourage vagrant habits. A systematic publication of the rate of wages in different districts, and an advance of tlie fare by Parliamentary train from the rates, would be far preferable.
One of the principal attractions to vagrancy is, that it affords the means of gratifying depraved habits. The work-house is a teetotal establishment, almost as unpalatable as a jail Could not therefore some check be imposed upon the public-houses and beer shops - the tramp's club? If "to be drunk on the premises" were prohibited, few vagrants would frequent the tramp's lodging-house.
A committee has recently been appointed by the board of guardians of the Newton Abbot Union, of which I have been an elective or ex-officio member since the passing of the new Poor Law, to investigate the causes of the great prevalence of vagrancy, and the best means for suppressing it; and I am very desirous of hearing the subject fully discussed by members of this association.

(1)    According to the Home Office returns, 1866, there were 118,560 known criminals at large, of whom 16,000 were in London. In Exeter the proportion was 1 in every 93 of the population ; Bath, 1 in 79.
(2)    Since the adoption of this system in the Newton Abbot Union, at Mid- Summer, 1864, the relief of vagrants has been as follows: -


    Indoor   Outdoor   Total
    £ s. d.   £ s. d.   £ s. d.
1863   3 12 6   33 5 5   36 7 11
1864   3 4 11   33 19 3   37 4 8
1865   2 0 4   16 16 1   18 17 3
1866   3 6 9   10 4 11   13 11 8
1867   3 8 6   11 11 7   15 0 1
1868   3 10 0   13 16 8   17 6 8


Indoor Outdoor Total
£ s. d. £ s. d. £ s. d.
1863 3 12 6 33 5 5 36 7 11
1864 3 4 11 33 19 3 37 4 8
1865 2 0 4 16 16 1 18 17 3
1866 3 6 9 10 4 11 13 11 8
1867 3 8 6 11 11 7 15 0 1
1868 3 10 0 13 16 8 17 6 8