Sunday, 2 February 2020

Who is the tramp? Vagrancy in Victorian and Edwardian Britain (Thursday 27 February)

Throughout history vagrants or vagabonds or tramps or drifters - homeless people without regular employment or income - have been considered troublesome outsiders by people living in settled, ordered communities. They might be thought worthy of scorn or mistrust, or they could be the recipients of charity.

The first major vagrancy law in England and Wales was the Ordinance of Labourers (1349). At a time when the population had been depleted by the Black Death it made unemployment an offence. A person who was judged able to work but declined to do so would be branded or whipped. Four Vagabonds Acts in the sixteenth century included as legal punishments flogging, disfigurement, enslavement, transportation and execution.

In 1821 a parliamentary review recommended the consolidation and simplification of earlier vagrancy laws, the removal of the abuses and fraud that had developed in their operation, and, for certain types of vagrants, longer prison sentences with hard labour. The outcome was An Act for the Punishment of Idle and Disorderly Persons and Rogues and Vagabonds (1824).

On 27 February we will welcome as our speaker Nick Crowson, Professor of Contemporary British History at the University of Birmingham. Nick has a particular interest in homelessness from the 1880s to the present. In his lecture for the Historical Association Bath branch he will use records of court cases, censuses and personal documents to demonstrate how genealogical research can be used to recreate the hidden life stories of the vagrant and the tramp in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

Nick Crowson's findings challenge the frequently-made assumption that tramps adopted their way of life because they were personally inadequate. Through exploring their life stories it becomes apparent that there were varied pathways into, through and out of homelessness.

Mike Short