The centre and the edge

Historical Eye

MA work

'For God's sake do what you can and bring some comfort to these poor creatures'

The centre and at the edge


A common and enduring perception of nocturnal London in the late Victorian and early Edwardian era was that it was populated by vagrants shuffling from one location to another, desperately trying to avoid the grinding hell of the workhouse and casual ward. While these institutions were in reality more soul-destroying than nightmarish* by the time of our chosen era, most vagrants preferred the streets at night, so long as there was enough food to be had. So who were these people? Why did they become inextricably linked to the perceived threat of the Twilight City and why were they viewed as a danger in daylight hours? But before we attempt to answer these questions it is important to engage some key issues within the historiography.

*However, those entering the casual ward and workhouse were still expected to perform hard labour, such as breaking rocks and picking oakum, in return for low-quality food and shelter.


Views on vagrants

For one reason or another, the issue of nocturnal vagrancy in London 1885-1905 has often failed to grab the attention of historians as debates surrounding prostitution have done. If it is discussed, vagrancy is usually pigeonholed within an appraisal of government and charitable efforts to alleviate the problem, or it is seen within the larger scope of a statistical analysis of London’s late nineteenth century populace.


Historians like Inwood and Steadman-Jones highlight the late Victorian response to unemployment and vagrancy, but very little exploration of vagrants as individuals is made in their work. As Inwood writes, before the 1880s the unemployed were divided between deserving and undeserving; by the late Victorian and early Edwardian period this view was tempered somewhat, although still stong.16 Steadman-Jones explores much of the emotive language used by writers from the time, which he viewed as an effort to justify the division of the poor into deserving and undeserving. He argues that most mainstream writers of the era believed, ‘the ultimate causes of poverty and distress were neither economic nor moral but biological and ecological’.17 Put simply, Steadman-Jones argues that notions of abuse, filth, dirt and disease – with which most vagrants lived with – were used by the commentators of the time primarily to illustrate and stress the biological degeneracy of the urban working class. But perhaps Steadman-Jones’ argument is too reliant on, maybe even blinded by, the terminology of the era. As we shall see, many sources could be savagely critical but also sympathetic towards vagrants and their plight.


We should also note that, to a number of socialists and liberal commentators of the era, vagrancy and notions of degeneracy were considered an economic by-product of an unfettered capitalist system; it was often in the interests of their arguments to use emotive language strikingly similar to those with whom they were politically opposed. Yet their lexicon has engendered only limited critique by historians.


Take Jack London as an example; his writing could be as equally savage as the examples Steadman-Jones flags. The poverty-struck denizens of the East End were evolving into sub-human troglodytes, according to London. ‘The streets,’ he wrote, ‘were filled with a new and different race of people, short of stature and of wretched and beer-sodden appearance’.18 Commercial Street in the evening, he wrote, was ‘a menagerie of garmented bipeds that looked something like humans and more like beasts.’19 The vagrant men he passed were clad, we are told, in ‘fantastic rags…their faces in a perpetual writhe of pain, grinning idiotically, shambling like apes, dying with every step they took.’20 Earlier in his rambles, Jack London stood in line and talked with ‘down and outs’ trying to get into the workhouse for the night. Of the vagrants he met there, he reflected: ‘Age and English hardship had broken them, and for them the game was played and up.’21


When historians discuss vagrants it is also de rigour to evaluate Charles Booth and the output of his team, which included a young Beatrice Potter. Inwood, in particular, spends a great deal of time and effort discussing their figures. But while there can be no doubt that Booth’s work gives the historian a good idea of the numbers involved*, it offers little in the way of highlighting individuals and their specific problems. Take, for example, Booth’s early but detailed analysis of Tower Hamlets from 1886-1887. He creates a number of class categories, with ‘Class A’ determined as the lowest and containing vagrants. It was computed that Whitechapel’s ‘Class A’ was composed of 409 men with 403 wives, 139 children, 352 ‘young persons’ from the age of 15 to 20 and then 1,517 men over the age of 20 who were unmarried.22 Little effort is made to illustrate who these people where or how they ended up in ‘Class A’. And, from among these numbers, who exactly were the vagrants? In other sources, the figures are less precise and less helpful. G S Reaney’s 1888 work How to Help states: ‘Over three thousand in London alone sleep in the streets.’23 Over a decade later, Walter Besant in his work East London stated that there were 10,000 homeless, wanderers, ‘loafers’, casuals and ‘some criminals’ living on the streets.24

*Booth’s work is rather dry. Although one would probably not go as far as Ronald Pearsall’s criticism. Booth, according to Pearsall ‘was a sentimentalist…His Labour and Life of the People of London (17 volumes, 1889-1903) is the quintessence of misplaced industry, drab and boring.’25


Despite the work of historians to highlight the use of language and terminology, or underline numbers and raw statistics, their methodologies leave us no nearer to developing a balanced view of who the vagrants were and how they had come to tread the Twilight City’s streets. Are there other sources, perhaps ones that have overlooked, that we can turn to in order to shed a greater light upon the ‘Lost’ of London?


Night sights

Writing in 1903, Machray records witnessing a vagrant in Piccadilly Circus, the heart of the Bright Light City. The tramp, he noted, wandered along the kerbs looking for objects, no matter how small, to pick up and sell. Machray labelled him the ‘Picker-up of Unconsidered Trifles’.26 On seeing the man at ‘work’, Machray asked: ‘Where does he come from? Whither does he go?’27 Rather than finding out, Machray was content to leave him be.


Some years beforehand, A S Krausse walked the nocturnal streets of the East End. ‘I was alone’, he wrote, ‘in search of adventures that never came’.28 Lost in the fog that night, Krausse wrote: ‘I believed myself to be in Stepney, and was aiming for the Mile End Road.’29 On the way, he met an elderly homeless woman who he attempted to engage in conversation: ‘She has no home, she says, and is going to walk the streets until things are quiet, and then – luxury – she will curl up in some cosy doorway and sleep the sleep of the indigent.’30


In 1894, Hope Constaple undertook a number of night time tours of the city. Unlike Machray, Constaple attempted to engage the vagrants he came across. For example, he records in some detail a meeting he had with a beggar on Fleet Street. Constaple wrote: ‘He was a nicely-spoken chap, with a slight country accent. He told me he had been a boot-maker’s apprentice, but that on account of bad trade, he had been thrown out of his situation.’31 Here then, we are introduced to a man who has moved from the country to the city, found a job, but was then forced out of his position due to economic factors. As we shall see, it was a common predicament.


Constaple also describes meeting two homeless men opposite the entrance to Parliament. Described as ‘gaunt and half-starved’,32 the men shuffled over, sat down on a nearby bench and then fell asleep. Constaple recalled that he was about to leave them some money until he noticed they had been drinking gin. He determined they were ‘two species of the professional “cadger” class so numerous in London’33 and left them to their slumbers. In Constaple’s opinion, and in the opinion of many others, those who drank were transformed from being a poor and possibly deserving vagrant into a non-deserving ‘cadger’. Inwood’s argument that many in this era were still quick to see poverty in terms of deserving and undeserving is, possibly, backed up by this case study. However, it is worth noting that Constaple’s initial reaction to these Twilight people was sympathy and not disdain.


While Machray, Constaple and others sought out the Twilight City's inhabitants, many in the mainstream, despite knowledge of vagrancy, knew little of the scale and grim reality until they came face to face with the homeless at night, as happened to one Mr. Cavanagh in 1887. Writing to the police, Cavanagh informed them of how he and some friends had walked past the church of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields between 12 am and 1 am and counted up to 50 homeless huddled on its steps. They were ‘of all ages between about 16 and 70 of both sexes’, he wrote. Having seen further homeless people in Trafalgar Square,* Cavanagh says he struck up a conversation with a patrolling policeman, PC 99E. ‘He informed me,’ wrote Cavanagh, ‘that as many as 200 were sometimes to be found in the Square at night. Although I have lived in this neighbourhood for the best part of thirty years, this was news to me.’ He finished his letter pleading: ‘For God’s sake do what you can and bring some comfort to these poor creatures.’34

*The police would go on to force many of the vagrants out of Trafalgar Square, where they had congregated to make use of the fountains to wash and clean in.


Out of the shadows

Observers of nocturnal London during our chosen era frequently celebrated the hurdy-gurdy bustle of the Bright Light City. Charles Baker thought it a unique space where London and its people created, albeit for a brief perioI, a community of equals. As the theatres emptied ‘heterogeneous individualities, as differentiated at all other times as though they were separate orders of creation have, for a few brief hours, been united in community of thought and feeling.’35 But others focussed their gaze beyond the swirling scene and highlighted some of the grimmer realities beneath the Bright Light City’s surface. Hope Constaple, for example, recorded the behaviour many in the crowds displayed towards the presence of vagrants into what they considered an urban setting and timeframe that belonged to them, the mainstream.


Standing outside one of the theatres as the crowds were leaving, Constaple noted ‘two or three prematurely old men, ostensibly selling copies of the evening papers’.36 One of these men, looking for a tip, approached two waiting ladies and asked: “Keb, mum? Wheeler or ‘ansum, fetch it mum?”37 The theatre’s hall porter (whose job depended on getting cabs for members of the leaving audience) promptly sent the vagrant packing with a cuff to the head. Adding to the pauper’s misery, a ‘pompous policeman’ then kicked him into the gutter. Fortunately, the man preserved his newspapers from the filth, picked himself up, and then staggered back to spot where his friends continued selling papers.38


In his exploration of vagrancy, Jack London went ‘undercover’ on the verges of the Bright Light City and the Twilight City. ‘Men and women walk the streets at night all over this great city,’ he wrote, ‘but I selected the West End, making Leicester Square my base, and scouting from the Thames Embankment to Hyde Park.’39 Mirroring Constaple’s observation about the dominance of the Twilight City after the Bright Light crowds departed, Jack London wrote that the only obvious movement on the streets once the theatres had emptied ‘[were] ubiquitous policemen flashing their dark lanterns into doorways and alleys, and men and women and boys taking shelter in the lee of buildings from the wind and rain.’40


While Jack London’s account of this particular night sleeping rough fails to inform us about the lives and personalities of vagrants, it nonetheless highlights one of the institutional responses by the metropolitan police towards the problem. In this instance they are acting out a mainstream’s desire that vagrants be heard of but not visible – and certainly not seen in areas deemed to be mainstream space. Jack London recorded the experience and routine of being moved on: ‘Every time I dozed, a policeman was there looking to route me along again.’41


The institutional response was not universal and often receded when the individual policeman confronted a vagrant. The Chief Superintendent of ‘A’ Division, no less, wrote in a report dated 3 August 1887, saying: ‘The police do not interfere [which was not whole truth, as we have seen] with these poor houseless creatures, in fact it would be sad, I think, to do so after wandering all day, probably without food. [It] would require a sterner heart than I possess to refuse them a temporary escape from their troubles in sleep.’42


Recalling Constaple’s reaction to the drunken vagrants, we are again seeing that the thoughts and attitudes towards the destitute were far from uniform and could often be contradictory. Opinionated judgement was frequently voiced alongside sympathy and concern. Put simply, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ historical argument on vagrancy from 1885-1905 and the mainstream language used in response to the problem is too simplistic. Other, more nuanced factors are at play.


Out of the darkness (click to continue)


Creed of the Assassins


Cathedrals of consumption


William Morris and the Thames


New York Saloons 1845-1895


TheTwilight City


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