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How do you tell a sturdy vagabond from a submissive pauper?

1 March 2015

3:00 PM

1 March 2015

3:00 PM

The number of people sleeping on the streets has risen by 55 per cent in the last five years. New statistics show that London had 742 rough sleepers on the streets on an average night last autumn, which is about 200 more than the same period in 2013. Governments have tried various tactics to get people off the streets over the years, but the solutions often sound as bad as the problem. An 1893 article attempted to classify the tramps as a first step to getting rid of aggressive beggars, ‘sodden scoundrels too cowardly to commit real crimes, but willing enough to frighten women into paying them blackmail.’

First come the “mouchers,” the habitual vagrants, who wander about and get their living by begging, and who have no idea, immediate or remote, of ever adopting any other calling. Next come the “travellers” — the name given to those tramps who can best be described as “peripatetic members of the unemployed (? unemployable) class” — men who, as was said in Australia, are perpetually looking for work, “and praying God they won’t find it.” These men, when they begin, may be fairly respectable; but they soon drift into courses little distinguishable from stealing and intimidation. Next come a certain small number of bona fide workmen who are using the roads to get from one place to another,—who have, that is, a definite object in view, and are not merely wandering with the Micawberish hope that something, not tiresome manual labour, will turn up. Now it is obvious that what is wanted is, by imprisonment and other severe police action, to harry the two first classes out of existence, and to leave only the third.

At present, the casual-wards are too often…hotels for the accommodation of thieves, bullies, cadgers, and the professional unemployed. They are, besides, nurseries of the worst form of tramps. In them, all sorts and conditions of vagrants are herded together; and they become schools of iniquity and idleness, in which the art of “mouching” is taught.

In the 19th century, destitute people could go to the workhouse, some of which were farms. The magazine was sent an account of a visit to one farming establishment in Peckham.

On his [the proprietor, Mr Richards] showing me the beds on which the casual poor slept, he himself informed me that they laid three in a bed together, and in a state of nudity; and I beg to add the further particulars, that the beds were not on bedsteads, but placed on the floor. With reference to the arrangements for the casual poor washing themselves (from 50 to 60 in number) in two buckets of water, I was informed of them by the yardsman who explained to me that the one bucket consisted of water with some soft soap and soda mixed in it; the other of plain water, in which the poor, after they have used the former one, rinse themselves, and then dry their persons on one round jack towel, from three to four yards in dimensions. The two buckets of water, the yardsman also informed me, were changed twice a week. I thought proper to ask the yardsman if they did not allow the men the use of soap? When he replied, with a singularly derisive chuckle, ‘They would steal it if they had it.’

The article argued that this didn’t do much to solve the social problem of anti-social beggars, and left those who wanted to work in pitiable conditions.

The sturdy vagabonds and valiant beggars pursue their career unimpeded except by the occasional commitment from a police officer to a prison whose regimen physics their abundant profligacy and restores their zest. The more submissive pauper is consigned to the semi-penal discipline of “the house,” or the bestial economy of the farming establishment.


In 1928, Joan Woollcombe went to find out what the rough sleepers on the Embankment did each night.

Every person appearing, or claiming to be, destitute is directed by the constable to the Night Office of the Metropolitan Asylums Board. This little office, which remains open all night and deals with an average of 50 persons each night, is the official shelter; and any “down-and-out” person who does not report here is liable to be “moved on” by the police.

The waiting-room is an interesting sight on any night. It contains the most curious assortment of derelicts. An elderly tramp goes first into the inner office; he wears a jaunty air — there is a laugh as he goes in. (I learn that his life has largely been passed in prison for various pecuniary lapses. Friendly with many policemen in his lucid intervals, he always returns to visit his night office friends.) Then a respectable butler-like man, down on his luck — “beer,” he explains, mournfully. The rest are a master mariner — derelict; a destitute youth who tramped to town for work in vain; the kind of plumber you see on the music halls; a sad little woman with vague eyes; two bitter-eyed ex-Service men – one a be-medalled sergeant; a charlady, evidently a devotee of port; and a very silent ex-officer, with a pitifully buttoned-up jacket that betokens the shame of the pawned waistcoat and shirt.

This little office seemed to be remarkably successful at dishing out tailored assistance; some just needed a bed and an outfit to get themselves into employment and off the streets, others were dealt with more peremptorily.

Then comes the incorrigible vagrant. He starts one story, is checkmated by the card-index man; trying another he is caught out by a faulty detail, and so on ! He may even pose—with some few minutes’ success–as a V.C., but is inevitably discovered. He gets a very straight talk, a warning, and a card that directs him to the casual ward—or maybe, if there is a gleam of hope for him, to the ministrations of another famous charitable institution. So it goes on; night after night, the “homeless poor” are sifted out and passed to the agency that best will help them.

By the 1960s Britain had pretty much full employment and the welfare system had become more generous, but some people still slipped through the social services’ safety net.

Stepney Bombsites. In the bombed buildings groups of men will sleep at personal risk from broken floor boards and in damp basements. On the open and exposed sites schools of methylated-spirit drinkers, averaging seven to nine men in the group, nightly keep themselves warm by bonfires made from timbers torn from the bombed buildings, and lying on old cushions and broken furniture pulled from the building, or on rubble covered with broken glass from the meths and wine bottles of years. These men are given casual daytime support and help by the Brotherhood of Prayer and Action of St. Botolph’s Crypt, but on the whole their plight is untouched by social work. Police action is on the whole tolerant and even helpful, to the extent that officers will flash their torches at regular intervals over a group but take no further action. In the opinion of some of the officers they are unable to cope with the size of the problem, and find it pointless to arrest these men, who are verminous and often sick, thus creating the necessity for cleaning cells after use by the prisoners, only for them to be brought before the court and sent to prison, from which they eventually return to the only home they know to continue the same pattern.

Without enough social housing, local councils resorted in the 1980s to putting people up in B&Bs. Alexandra Artley reported on the poverty around King’s Cross.

In a ground-floor hotel room in Argyle Street, I found a couple from Hackney with their ten-month son. They had been there four months and the woman was clearly desperate. A double bed was stacked with old clothes, its stale sheets pulled back to reveal a pink mattress with wavy stains. Perhaps because she was so depressed, the heavy curtains were three-quarters drawn at midday and the room was lit by a weak bulb inside an ancient paper shade. Every surface was littered with bottles of medicine, particularly Sudafed, opened loaves of sliced bread, tins of dried milk, hair-curlers, coffee jars, hair-spray and an egg-box. Under a useless-looking handbasin about 18 inches across was a pedal bin for rubbish, a child’s yellow plastic potty and a plastic bucket with a lid for soaking soiled nappies…The matted dark brown carpet was covered with crumbs and food bits (anyone who has ever weaned a baby knows how food hits the deck). Crammed in between all this was a high chair and a lobster-pot’-style play-pen in which the baby stood while she gave him a bite out of a jam doughnut…This room is typical of the way many thousands of children are being brought up all over Britain today. The mother had just been told that her baby was losing weight and that his respiratory trouble had still not cleared up. ‘The doctor told me to put him on more food I had prepared myself but there’s nowhere to cook it.’… I asked her what she ate if should couldn’t cook. ‘Wimpy, Wimpy, Wimpy and chicken and chips.’ Medicine rather than sociology seems destined to fuel the social conscience of the Nineties. The deteriorating health of children and adults living in hotels is now such a national problem that a special interest group for homelessness was formed within the Health Visitors Association in September 1985. A recent report by the HVA on the health of hotel children makes sober reading. Hotel children are more vulnerable to accidents (scalds, burns and falls) and to disease. They suffer more from vomiting (because of eating ghastly takeaways), chest complaints (from condensation) and scabies. Preventive medicine programmes are hard to maintain and over half the under-fives in the survey had not been immunised against diphtheria or polio…Hotel children frequently sleep in rooms full of cigarette smoke or with adults smoking in bed. They walk later, talk later, keep themselves clean later and are often visibly depressed or aggressive.

Auberon Waugh added in a note of caution about taking the homelessness statistics too seriously, though.

At the time of Mother Teresa’s visit to the Embankment at night, when she called upon the Government to provide accommodation for the vagrants there, protests were heard from the Salvation Army and others in the field who pointed out that hundreds of beds were available, but the people she had seen preferred to sleep rough. But we are no longer permitted to refer to this handful of eccentrics as ‘vagrants’.

We must call them ‘the homeless’. In this way there is created a deliberate confusion between their poignant, not to say picturesque — certainly photogenic — plight, and the circumstances of hundreds of thousands of young people who are thrown out of their parental or marital homes to doss down on the floors or sofas of friends, and who then demand priority on the council lists by virtue of their ‘homelessness’.

He argued that charities and housing ministries didn’t improve their cause by exaggerating the scale of the problem and conflating two categories of people.

Subsidised housing for all who ask is not the answer, nor is anything helped by printing photographs of people like ‘Dodie’, who adorned the Sunday Times article and who, far from residing under a bridge on the Embankment, lives at Simon House, Oxford, a new building where he has all modern facilities — central heating, constant hot water, modern bathrooms, comfortable bedrooms and television, as well as a state and disability pension— and from which he has not strayed to London in at least three years, by virtue of having no legs.

But there is a slightly worrying aspect to the exploitation of genuine vagrants. Every time I pass the rag doll figures outside the Regent Palace Hotel, only occasionally slipping them 50p if they happen to catch my eye, I marvel that we are still a sufficiently easy-going society to tolerate such untidiness. The only possible result of using them to urge greater spending on council accommodation — in which they have no interest — will be to persuade Nanny Thatcher’s police to take them off the streets and lock them out of sight. I have already proposed Portakabin shanty towns for the young. If nobody is prepared to adopt that obviously sensible policy, let us all shut up about ‘homelessness’ and leave people to make their own arrangements as best they can.


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