Out of the darkness

Historical Eye

MA work

'I can not help reflecting that this social wastage and disgrace would hardly exist if we had conscription in England. I do not believe you will find anything like it in Germany'

Out of the darkness


As dawn slowly broke, many vagrants would wait for the urban parks to open. Here they could fall asleep without police interruption. There were no by-laws banning their entry in the parks or sleeping in them. Jack London witnessed the tramps dozing in Green Park, writing that ‘many men stretched out full length on the dripping wet grass, and, with the rain falling steadily on upon them, were sleeping the sleep of exhaustion.’43


Having experienced first-hand the misery vagrants suffered, he then wrote: ‘Dear soft people should you ever visit London Town and see these men asleep on the benches and in the grass, please do not think they are lazy creatures, preferring sleep to work. Know that the powers that be have kept them walking all the night long, and that in the day they have nowhere else to sleep.’44


In the main, words like these fell on deaf ears; the presence of vagrants in London’s Royal Parks and other green spaces provoked anger and bitter language not used when describing the issue vagrancy at night. Why was there this dichotomy?


One only need examine the journalism relating to vagrants ‘dossing’ in public parks to gain an idea of how harsh mainstream attitudes could be. In September, 1901, the Saturday Review carried an article on Hyde Park and vagrants: ‘Hundreds of these wretched specimens, most of whom bear upon their distorted features the brand of slavery to alcoholism, take possession of the park from 6am till midnight… at noon one day we counted thirty-two cases of drunkenness among women, and forty-five among men, all of whom were lying in the grass, some only partially dressed, some using fearful imprecations and obscene language of the foulest kind, while others were changing their underwear in broad daylight.’


The article continued: ‘The present state of Hyde Park constitutes not only a scandal but a real danger to society... such is the extent to which the monopoly of all those acres has been tacitly granted to the scum of the earth, that little children are summoned through their parents if they dare to disturb the slumbers of an alcoholic pariah.’45


In response to this article, ‘Yours of Bayswater’ wrote to the Saturday Review concurring with much of what had been said. The reader then added: ‘I can not help reflecting that this social wastage and disgrace would hardly exist if we had conscription in England. I do not believe you will find anything like it in Germany.’ If army life was impossible for vagrants, stated the reader, ‘there seems nothing for it but to start an asylum for wastrels.’46


Other complaints from the mainstream were more concerned by the thought of vagrants as harbingers of disease. Writing to the Office of Works on 19 March, 1902, Cecil Raleigh wrote: ‘These tramps, as you know, very rarely wash, and it is admitted on all hands that they carry small pox and other zymodic diseases very freely about with them… the bare idea of having to touch anything after one of them is positively revolting.’47


The London County Council was similarly concerned with the presence of vagrants in the parks. On 14 September, 1898, C. Stewart, Clerk of the Council, wrote to the Office of Works: ‘The presence of vagrants and tramps is a source of annoyance… more especially in respect to open spaces which are not patrolled by the Council’s constables at night time. The complaints received are principally as to the verminous condition of this class and special arrangements are made at some places for the cleansing of seats.’48 Stewart adds: ‘No special measures are adopted by the council for dealing with such persons, and they are not interfered with except when committing offences against bye-laws.’49


The police had certainly realised the impracticality of taking action against Twilight City vagrants sleeping in public parks. A police report dated 1 September 1887 stated: ‘With regards to St. James’ park, there is no rule to prohibit poorly-clad persons from sleeping on the grass.’50 Police reports from the time frequently stress the need to remain impartial and not to be seen as criminalising poverty. On a more practical level, proof and evidence were needed to prosecute a vagrant for a breach of the law, which was often a time-consuming and impossible task. The Daily Chronicle highlighted this issue on 17 July 1903, writing: ‘The problem is undoubtedly a very difficult one to deal with, and short of keeping everyone who is not decently dressed out of the precincts of the parks, a solution is scarcely practicable.’51 Almost a year later, on 13 April 1904, The Daily Telegraph took a sterner line and in an editorial commentary stated: ‘If a little benevolent despotism be required, the County Council and the authorities who govern the Royal Parks may safely rely upon the support of public opinion.’52


In daylight and in the parks, vagrants were labelled by the mainstream as lazy and then doubly damned as vehicles of contagion, filth and disease. But a key reason behind the public anger was the discomfort and fear of being confronted with denizens of the Twilight City in daylight settings and in a space and timeframe the mainstream believed to be their sole reserve. The territorial response was nearly unequivocal: vagrants should be moved on from the parks. But as we have seen, there was a snag; while the police could move the homeless on at night, they were powerless – unless a crime was being committed or a bylaw trespassed – to interfere during the day.


Helping hands

Walter Besant called the vagrants of London the ‘submerged’. Having spent considerable time with them he noted that they are a ‘strange company, they were once soldiers, sportsmen, billiard players, betting men, scholars, journalists, poets, novelist, travellers, physicians, actors.’53 But when one looks closely at the list, perhaps, this is not such a ‘strange company’ as it first seems. Failed thespians, artistic types and old soldiers are still to be found among the ranks of the ‘submerged’ today. Besant also informs his readers that the favoured location for vagrants when they had 4d to spare was to stay the night in a Salvation Army shelter. Here they were given a ‘bed’, which was often a wooden box that unnervingly resembled a coffin, and some food. They were also expected to attend a religious service.54


The head of the Salvation Army, William Booth (no relation to Charles Booth) in his work In Darkest England spends some time discussing the problem of vagrants. He informs us that one of the favoured places vagrants liked to congregate at night was along the Thames Embankment. The numbers were always shifting, with the summer months, then as now, witnessing the highest levels of vagrancy. In mid-summer, along the river from the Blackfriars to Westminster, Salvation Army officers had recorded 368 persons sleeping rough.55


One officer also conducted a small vox populi of vagrants along the Embankment on the nights of June 13 and 14, 1890. Some of these small accounts are worth highlighting – after all, they at least give the vagrants something a voice, rather than treating them just as a nocturnal sight. The first man questioned informed the officer he was a confectioner by trade, but had been made unemployed due to old age. “I had a bit of bread and butter today,” he said. “I’m 54 years old. When it’s wet we all stand about all night under the arches.”56 The second vagrant said he had been a feather-bed dresser, but had seen his trade disappear because “it’s gone out of fashion”. Suffering from a cataract in one eye, he was finding it impossible to get work: “I’m a widower…my last regular work was eight months ago, but the firm broke. Been doing odd jobs since.”57 The fourth man questioned, an ‘elderly’ man, Mr J.R., ‘trembles visible with excitement at mention of work’. He informed the officer that he was a fifty-year-old waterside labourer: his last day’s work had been two weeks beforehand.58


The next two men interviewed are condemned by the officer as alcoholics. The first of the pair was a sawyer who had been made unemployed with the introduction of new machinery. The latter of the pair refused to state why he had been made unemployed and was described as ‘a heavy, thick, stubborn, and senseless-looking fellow, six feet high, thick neck, strong limbs, evidently destitute of ability.’59 Alcoholism and addiction has again placed vagrants beyond the pale, even in the most sympathetic of mainstream eyes.


The seventh vagrant to tell his story had worked in the London and County Bank. Seeking to make an investment he chose the auction business, but went ‘broke, and he is left ill, old, and without any trade’.60 There was no support forthcoming from his family: “I have a brother-in-law on the Stock Exchange, but he won’t own me. Look at my clothes? Is it likely?”61 The eleventh vagrant questioned was a match-seller aged 16. The officer’s notes on the teenager make for grim reading: ‘Mother alive. She “chucked him out” when he returned home on leaving Feltham because he couldn’t find her money for drink.’62


The Salvation Army was not the only organisation monitoring those sleeping rough on the Embankment. Eight years after William Booth’s work, The Morning Post sent along a correspondent whose subsequent article moved readers to send in a flood of donations to help the vagrants there. It is important to note that sympathy and aid was forthcoming when the homeless were placed within ‘proper’ Twilight City settings – we have already seen what the correspondent’s ‘angle’ might have been were he covering vagrancy in the parks. The newspaper gave the money received from readers to the Church Army and then, in partnership with them, set up a night shelter.


A specially-produced pamphlet by The Morning Post and other reports by the paper outline their findings. On 21 August 1897, the newspaper’s correspondent counted 157 sleeping rough: 13 were women and ‘a distressingly large percentage consisted of boys and youths, many of them pitifully emaciated, and sleeping the sleep of sheer exhaustion.’63 The pamphlet adds: ‘It is a melancholy fact that a large percentage of them are from the country. They have left their native towns to come to London – the modern El Dorado.’64 The predicament of a van boy, aged twenty and called ‘A’, is also outlined. He ‘had done odd jobs in the interval, but had no “doss money”.*65 Also listed is the slightly surprising case of ‘G’, who is ‘an expert cook, twenty two years of age, who had “won a gold medal at the Crystal Palace for making pastry”.’ Two nights later ‘G’ finds a new position.66

*Money to secure a space at a 'doss house', usually a grim place where patrons paid for little more than a roof over their head


Soldiers, as Besant and plenty of others had noted, were frequently recorded. While some of the veterans were discovered ‘on investigation to be men of bad character’ it was noted that ‘there are others who since leaving the army have failed to find employment and have gradually sunk to the lowest depths of poverty and despair’.67 One of the soldiers who talked to The Morning Post was ‘J’, aged 41, ‘who had served for twelve years in the 17th Lancers and, after his discharge, had worked at his original trade of blacksmith.’68 Another soldier, aged 19, was ‘K’ who had been ‘invalided from 2nd Battalion of the South Wales Borderers only six weeks before’. Both ex-soldiers were willing to work and were helped by the newspaper to find positions.69


Of particular note – especially as we consider late Victorian and early Edwardian opinions surrounding vagrants – The Morning Post was also sympathetic to the plight of many ex-prisoners. Again it was recorded that there were men of ‘bad character’, but the paper stressed that there were also those who wanted to return to mainstream society. The lot for these men, the newspaper stated, ‘is singularly hard, because even when willing to work they find avenues of honest labour closed against them.’70


Vagrancy on the Embankment produced mixed reactions from the police, with the institutional response frequently forgotten by the bobbies monitoring the area. For example, while most reports highlight the efforts being made to deal with vagrants there, one – filed on 18 February 1898 within ‘A’ Division – emphatically states: ‘Police on night duty on Victoria Embankment have had their special attention called to persons who it is alleged sleep on the seats and wander about on the Embankment at night…Police have no evidence of this as far as this subdivision is concerned.’ The report continues: ‘If Police found persons sleeping on the seats etc. and found they had no house, they would be charged under the Vagrancy Act.’71


These assertions patently fly in the face of Salvation Army records and other accounts. Perhaps the reason why policemen were not reporting and certainly not charging the homeless on the Embankment was the need for a breach of the law to occur before action could be taken. And then there was the paperwork to consider: even in our chosen era the bureaucracy of detaining someone was time consuming and expensive. Many cases explicitly demanded and an arrest warrant be first secured.* The notion that the police would arrive and start charging hundreds of vagrants en masse, while making sure all the paperwork was present and correct is merely wishful thinking by the report's author.

*In 1890 a case against Edith Hill, 21, for ‘wilfully neglecting to maintain herself’ under the Vagrancy Act collapsed because no warrant for arrest had been issued. Hill was a frequent face in the Hackney Workhouse, which had often secured her jobs in domestic service. Edith Hill, according to I Mason, the workhouse master, had always absconded from any position found for her. She would then return to the House on the ‘grounds of destitution’. Hill was eventually arrested for refusing to work and prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act. At the trial, the presiding magistrate, Montague Williams, was deeply unimpressed with the lack of a correct paperwork and had the accused acquitted. However, he then had the necessary warrant immediately issued, had Hill re-arrested and sentenced her to 14 days hard labour.72


Our Model

The assumption that mainstream late Victorians and early Edwardians merely viewed vagrants as examples of working-class degeneracy are, in many ways, overturned by the case studies above. Time and again, when late Victorian and early Edwardian observers and members of the public came face to face with vagrants in the Twilight City, they were (usually) sympathetic. And if they endeavoured to find out who the vagrants were, they treated them on an individual basis, noting their specific problems and concerns.


Even the police, despite the often conflicting institutional and individual responses, were generally pragmatic about the homeless problem and they were also well aware that simply dividing vagrants into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ categories was too simplistic an approach.


More problematic was the presence of vagrants in the parks and their efforts to catch up on sleep. By penetrating a space and timeframe that the mainstream deemed off limits to those inextricably linked to the Twilight City, vagrants quickly found themselves on the receiving end of fierce and fiery condemnation.


From the above we can also begin to gain an idea of who the Twilight City’s vagrants were and why many had been cut adrift from mainstream society. Many had come into London from outside of the city and it was unemployment – often combined with old age – rather than dissipation that was often the primary factor behind vagrancy. For others, the slide into vagrancy was a slower process and frequently occurred with the introduction of new technology in the workplace or changes in fashion.


Others, such as the dock casual or the young soldier, had been laid off, but had no other trade skills to fall back on. On the edge of starvation, they became too weak to perform the only type of work available to them: manual labour. But it is also important not to be naïve. As is the case today, there were undoubtedly a number of ugly characters using the shadows of the Twilight City to skirt around the edges of society, hoping to avoid surveillance and control. The Morning Post’s background checks on some of the ex-soldiers and ex-prisoners, for example, had revealed that many were indeed dubious characters.


For many others drink and the ravages of addiction caused their slide into vagrancy and held them there. Whether they were ‘deserving’ of assistance was an issue that late Victorians and early Edwardians had difficulty grappling with, just as many today might find it difficult to sympathise with vagrants addicted to hard drugs. It was these people – despite the fact that many were often contending with many of the difficulties described above – who were frequently written off as indigent ‘loafers’.


Unfortunately it is these responses – and the language contained within them – that often grabs the attention of historians and other commentators, distorting their appraisals, which then filter down and influence the way the wider public view vagrancy in London from 1885-1905. It is a similar problem to the way historians have approached the issues surrounding streetwalkers in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period.


Daughters of the Twilight City (click to continue)


Creed of the Assassins


Cathedrals of consumption


William Morris and the Thames


New York Saloons 1845-1895


TheTwilight City


© 2014. All rights reserved