The centre and the edge

Centre and Edge

It is a popular misconception that London’s vagrants in the late-Victorian and early-Edwardian era spent their nights shuffling aimlessly from one location to another to avoid the grinding hell of a workhouse or casual ward. These institutions were more gloomy and depressing than nightmarish by the time of our chosen era.* Because of this, many vagrants chose to enter the workhouse for irregular periods in winter or periods of inclement weather, remaining outside in the summer months. Unfortunately, there were those who had struck a permanent rock-bottom, with extremely limited opportunities to find shelter at any time of year. Many also suffered from the effects of alcohol addiction.

*Nonetheless, those entering the workhouse were expected to perform hard labour, such as breaking rocks or picking oakum, in return for food and shelter. It was tough and humiliating but nothing like the misery experienced a generation before, with the Andover workhouse scandal of the mid-1840s possibly the most egregious example.


Before attempting to identify who the vagrants might have been, it is important to engage the somewhat limited historiography. For one reason or another, vagrancy in London 1885-1905 has failed to attract the level of debate among historians that streetwalkers and prostitution has. If discussed at all, the subject is usually pigeonholed within an appraisal of government or charitable efforts to alleviate the problem, or it is viewed through a prism of raw statistics. Historians like Inwood and Steadman-Jones highlight the late-Victorian response to unemployment and vagrancy, but little exploration of vagrant identities is made within their work.


However, as Inwood importantly notes, there was little mainstream interest in understanding the particulars of unemployment and the toll it took on individuals in the late-Victorian period. The out-of-work were often divided between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ categories, an approach that had only started to change and become more nuanced by the early-Edwardian era.16 Thus the wealth of documentation and source materials associated with later periods is largely absent in our chosen era, making it harder for historians to make an assessment and then venture an opinion.


Trying to bypass this hurdle, Steadman-Jones focuses on the emotive language used by many of the era’s commentators to describe vagrants. He argues the mainstream thought ‘the ultimate causes of poverty and distress were neither economic nor moral, but biological and ecological’.17 Notions of abuse, filth, dirt and disease – which most vagrants lived with on a daily basis – were stressed in order to highlight a suspected degeneracy latent within the urban working classes. But this lines of enquiry is rather blinkered for our purposes as Steadman-Jones’ model depends rather too much on studying the nomenclature and overlooks sympathetic source material that can be sourced if one looks hard enough.


The model also falters when one recalls many of the era’s socialist and progressive commentators using strikingly similar language. For example, Jack London in his important 1903 exploration of the Twilight City, People of the Abyss, often fell into the same trap. ‘The streets were filled with a new and different race of people, short of stature and of wretched and beer-sodden appearance,’ he wrote.18 Commercial Street in the evening was ‘a menagerie of garmented bipeds that looked something like humans and more like beasts.’19 Some of the vagrants were clad 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, London joined a queue of people trying to enter a workhouse and reflected on those he spoke with: ‘Age and English hardship had broken them, and for them the game was played and up.’21


When historians discuss vagrancy with Charles Booth’s statistical work in mind, they often focus on the numbers he and his staff computed.* This helps in quantifying the levels and degrees of extreme poverty but offers little by way of highlighting individual case studies or the specific problems they had contend with. Booth’s early and seminal analysis of Tower Hamlets from 1886-1887 affords a useful example of this. He created a number of class categories, with ‘Class A’ determined as the lowest and containing vagrants. Whitechapel’s Class A was recorded as 409 men, 403 women, 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

*Booth’s work is rather dry, although Ronald Pearsall’s criticism probably goes too far. He labelled Booth ‘a sentimentalist… His Labour and Life of the People of London (17 volumes, 1889-1903) is the quintessence of misplaced industry, drab and boring.’23


But little effort was made by Booth to discuss these people were or why they belonged to Class A in the first place, and it is impossible to garner any further details from the numbers alone. The figures are less precise in other sources. For example, G S Reaney’s 1888 work How to Help states: ‘Over three thousand in London alone sleep in the streets.’24 Over a decade later, Walter Besant in his work East London stated there were 10,000 homeless, wanderers, loafers, casuals and ‘some criminals’ living on the streets.25


Out of the shadows

Despite the work of historians exploring language and raw statistics, the methodologies leave us no nearer to understanding the Twilight City’s vagrants and the causes of their plight. Are other sources are available? Diaries and memoirs are useful as they sometimes record vagrants and their activities. Writing in 1903, Machray witnessed a vagrant walking along the kerbs in Piccadilly Circus, the heart of the Bright Light City. He picking up items off the street, no matter how small, and Machray labelled him the ‘Picker-up of Unconsidered Trifles.’26 On seeing this man at ‘work’, he asked: ‘Where does he come from? Whither does he go?’27 Unfortunately for us, Machray let him be rather than holding a conversation to find out.


Some years beforehand, A S Krausse was walking the East End’s nocturnal streets. ‘I was alone in search of adventures that never came’.28 Lost in the fog that night, he recalled: ‘I believed myself to be in Stepney and was aiming for the Mile End Road.’29 He met an elderly homeless woman on the way and he attempted to talk with her: ‘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


Hope Constaple undertook several night-time tours of the city in 1894 and tried to speak with vagrants he encountered, including a beggar on Fleet Street. Constaple noted: ‘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 Albeit very briefly, we have finally been introduced to a vagrant and discovered something about who they were and, in the second example, the reason for their destitution.


Constaple also described meeting two homeless men opposite the entrance to Parliament. Described as ‘gaunt and half-starved’, they shuffled over, sat on a nearby bench and fell asleep. 32 Constaple was about to leave them some money until he noticed they had been drinking gin. He suddenly decided they were ‘two species of the professional “cadger” class so numerous in London’ and left them to their slumbers.33 These men were instantly transformed into near-hopeless wastrels once alcohol consumption was detected. Inwood’s argument that many in this era were still quick to see poverty in terms of worthy and unworthy is bolstered by this small example. However, with regards to vagrancy alone, it is worth noting Constaple’s initial reaction was one of sympathy and not disdain.


While Machray, Constaple and others sought out the Twilight City's inhabitants, most mainstream observers of nocturnal London 1885-1905 wanted to celebrate the Bright Light City and its associated excitement. It was not their intention to highlight the pockets of misery found within the bustle and so they turned a blind eye. Charles Baker went one step further, arguing the crowds created a public 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.’34


Such was the success of this kind of commentary that many in London were often unaware of the suffering and its scale. A small but telling case study involves Mr. Cavanagh in 1887. Writing to the police, Cavanagh informed them 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 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.’35

*The police would eventually force vagrants out of Trafalgar Square as many congregated there in order to wash in the fountains.


Interestingly, Hope Constaple went against the grain as a commentator and sought to look beyond the blind spots of others. Watching people leave a theatre, Constaple noticed ‘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 partly depended on getting cabs for members of the audience, 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, got up, and staggered back to his friends.38


Jack London also went ‘undercover’ in the grey zones where the Twilight City encroached on the Bright Light City. ‘I selected the West End, making Leicester Square my base, and scouting from the Thames Embankment to Hyde Park,’ he wrote.39 The only obvious movement once the theatres 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 his account yet again fails to mention any specifics relating to vagrants encountered that night, London at least highlights an institutional response by the Metropolitan Police – the shepherding of vagrants out of Bright Light City spaces, even as they become part of the Twilight City’s realm. Jack London recorded the drudgery of it: ‘Every time I dozed, a policeman was there looking to route me along again.’41


However, this institutional response was not universal and, at times, was wilfully ignored by officers. The Chief Superintendent of A Division noted this in a report dated 3 August 1887. ‘The police do not interfere 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 Plenty of other Metropolitan Police reports express sympathy and concern, another reason a ‘one-size-fits-all’ view of vagrancy and mainstream responses is too simplistic for our chosen era.


Park life

As dawn broke, many vagrants would wait for London’s public parks to open. They could legally slumber in these spaces without police interruption because there were no bylaws prohibiting their entry or banning anyone from falling asleep on the grass or benches. Jack London witnessed vagrants dozing in Green Park, writing ‘many men [were] 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 of being constantly moved along at night, he concluded: ‘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


Sadly, pleas like this often fell on deaf ears as mainstream opinion in letters of complaint about vagrants in park spaces was uncompromising and the opinion columns in newspapers often reflected this. For example, The Saturday Review carried an article on Hyde Park and vagrants in September 1901 and it is worth quoting at some length: ‘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 6 am 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.’ 45


‘The present state of Hyde Park constitutes not only a scandal but a real danger to society,’ the article continued. ‘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.’ In response to the article, ‘Yours of Bayswater’ wrote to The Saturday Review concurring with much of what had been said. They added: ‘I cannot 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 ‘there seems nothing for it but to start an asylum for wastrels.’46


Concerns were also raised about vagrants as possible harbingers of disease. Writing to the Office of Works on 19 March 1902, a complainant called Cecil Raleigh wrote: ‘These tramps, as you know, very rarely wash, and it is admitted on all hands that they carry smallpox 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 worried. 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.’48 However, Stewart noted: ‘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


Indeed, the police often stressed vagrants had the law on their side. For example, 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 Other police reports underlined the need to remain impartial and not to be seen as criminalising poverty. The Daily Chronicle highlighted the 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 The Daily Telegraph took a sterner line in its editorial on 13 April 1904: ‘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


Some helping hands

Walter Besant called the vagrants of London the ‘submerged’. Having spent considerable time with them, he noted that they were ‘[a] strange company, they were once soldiers, sportsmen, billiard players, betting men, scholars, journalists, poets, novelists, travellers, physicians, actors.’53 But perhaps this list is not as ‘strange company’ as it first seems and creative types, gamblers and veterans are still prevalent in the ranks of rough sleepers today. Besant also informed his readers that a favoured location for vagrants when they had 4d to spare was to stay overnight in a Salvation Army shelter. Here they were given some food and a ‘bed’, which was often a wooden box unnervingly shaped like a coffin. They were also expected to attend a religious service.54


The head of the Salvation Army, William Booth (no relation to Charles Booth), discussed vagrancy in London in his work In Darkest England, informing us the problem was particularly acute along the Thames Embankment, the numbers always shifting but the  summer months witnessing the highest levels of vagrancy. In mid-summer, along the river from the Blackfriars to Westminster, we are told Salvation Army officers recorded 368 persons sleeping rough one evening.55 An officer also conducted a small vox pop of vagrants along the Embankment on the nights of June 13 and 14 in 1890, and some of these accounts are worth highlighting.


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 man 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 next man was described as elderly. ‘[He] trembles with visible excitement at mention of work’ and informed the officer that he was a 50-year-old waterside labourer. His last day’s work had been two weeks before the interview.58


The following two men were condemned by the officer as alcoholics. The first was a sawyer who had been made unemployed by the introduction of new machinery, while the second refused to detail the causes for his unemployment. He was described as ‘a heavy, thick, stubborn, and senseless-looking fellow, six feet high, thick neck, strong limbs, evidently destitute of ability.’59 Signs of alcoholism have again placed vagrants beyond the pale. Another man mentioned he had worked in the London and County Bank. Seeking to make an investment, he chose an 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,’ he said. ‘Look at my clothes? Is it likely?’61 One of the youngest vagrants was a match-seller, aged 16, and the officer’s notes 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. The Morning Post sent along a correspondent eight years after William Booth’s work, the subsequent article spurring a large number of donations to help the vagrants described there. Once again, sympathy and aid was forthcoming for the homeless, albeit within the context of Twilight City settings. One can easily guess the correspondent’s angle if he had been told to investigate vagrancy in London’s parks. The newspaper gave the money received from readers to the Church Army, which used the funds to establish a night shelter.


A specially-produced pamphlet by The Morning Post and other reports by the paper outlined many of its findings on 21 August 1897. The paper counted 157 sleeping rough, including 13 women. ‘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 called A, aged 20, was also outlined. He ‘had done odd jobs in the interval, but had no “doss money”’.*65 The most surprising case was that of G, ‘an expert cook aged just 22 who had “won a gold medal at the Crystal Palace for making pastry”’. He found a new job two nights later.66

*Money to secure a space at a ‘doss house’, usually rooms where patrons paid for little more than a roof over their head. Many had church-like pews on which a ‘dosser’ slept, sitting upright and held in place by a rope stretched across the pew.  


As Besant and plenty of others had already noted, former soldiers were recorded by The Morning Post as over-represented among those sleeping rough. While some veterans were found to be ‘men of bad character,’ it was noted ‘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 with 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 was K, aged 19, who had been ‘invalided from 2nd Battalion of the South Wales Borderers only six weeks before’. Both were willing to work and were helped by the newspaper to find positions.69 The Morning Post was also sympathetic towards the plight of former prisoners and, while it recorded men of ‘bad character’ once more, it also stressed the difficulties faced by those wanting 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


The police monitored but largely left the Embankment’s homeless alone, possibly because the space was not dedicated to the Bright Light City in the early hours. However, an internal memo filed on 18 February 1898 within A Division reveals an interesting disconnect. It notes: ‘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.’ It adds: ‘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 fly in the face of almost all other documentary evidence, with vagrants noted along the Embankment throughout our chosen era. It is likely officers on the beat were sympathetic to their plight and/or felt it unnecessary to act because there were no mainstream expectations they should. More mundanely, many policemen would have wanted to avoid the hassle of charging someone under the Vagrancy Act, which involved bureaucracy and, in many instances, required the issuance of a warrant.*

*The case brought against Edith Hill in 1890 serves as a good example. She was a frequent face at the Hackney Workhouse and had been arrested and taken to court for ‘wilfully neglecting to maintain herself,’ although the presiding magistrate was angered at the absence of an arrest warrant as required by the Vagrancy Act. He ordered her acquittal. However, he then had the necessary warrant issued and, before she could even leave the dock, immediately had her retried. Hill was found guilty and sentenced to 14 days hard labour.72


Our Model

Time and again, we have noted observers and members of the public expressing sympathy when coming face-to-face with vagrancy in the Twilight City. In addition, they often treated rough sleepers on an individual basis. Even the police were generally pragmatic about homeless persons and knew dividing vagrants into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ categories did not reflect the realities often encountered. However, the presence of vagrants in the parks and their efforts to catch up on sleep was more problematic: by penetrating a mainstream space outside of the Twilight City settings, vagrants were castigated and criticised, often with demands they be moved along.


From the sources explored above, we have a slightly better idea of who the Twilight City’s vagrants were during our chosen era and why they were adrift. Many originally came from outside of London, with unemployment – often combined with age – the primary reason for their misfortune. For others, the slide into vagrancy was a slower process and sometimes occurred when a new technology had been introduced or changes in fashion occurred. Others, such as the casual worker or the young soldier, had been laid off and realised they had no other opportunities available. Half-starved, they then became too weak to perform manual labour, the only type of work available to them.


For others, drink and the ravages of alcoholism caused their slide into vagrancy and then 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 find it hard to empathise with rough sleepers who are alcoholics, drug addicts or both. Alcoholic vagrants were frequently written off during our chosen era, despite many of their misfortunes emanating from the same wellspring as non-alcoholics. Unfortunately, analysis of condemnatory responses has been a dominant theme within the historical debate. This then filters through into the wider public discourse and shapes the popular perception of London at night 1885-1905 overall. There has been little room for nuance and, as we shall see, similar problems are encountered with regards to the era’s streetwalkers.


Daughters of the Twilight City (CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE)