Hi, everybody, welcome to Dance Knows history, yet we're talking about homelessness on this podcast, Vagrancy, Vagabond Tramping, there's been many words for homelessness over the years in many spins. Put on it are a homeless people. Romantic heroes who refuse to submit to the yoke of a capitalist settled society, or are their next essential threat to order to property? Well, Professor Nick Grossman has been studying homelessness all his career. I got a chance to ask him now about how it's always been seen and how it's been labeled by the legal system here in the U.K. And he reminds me that the legal context of homelessness here in the UK owes much to the various parts of the 18 24 Vagrancy Act that are still in force.
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I'm very pleased to meet you. Well, did homelessness and vagrancy mean I mean, before the early modern period? I mean, when we see descriptions of medieval streets, would there have been people what we now call sleeping rough, the medieval period?
They would have been the poor wandering idle. The term vagabond, which comes from Greek language, is used to describe the wonder and the punishment that could be meted out to you. Should you be convicted of being a rogue and a vagabond could actually be quite serious.
Ultimately, death, even as they have always been, a constant desire on the part of the man you know, the state authority to make people have a domicile. Because actually I always think with vagabonds. That is actually our true state, you know, wandering around, moving with the seasons. But authority wants us to settle down, presumably.
Certainly that narrative of having a parish of settlement or abode it runs through, it still underpins much of the modern day homelessness legislation. So if you present now your local housing authority as homeless, you kind of have to demonstrate where your residency or at least your association with an area is in order to be able to access services. So that kind of goes back. And we see in the Victorian period with the new poll or attempting to have this parish settlement idea so that the responsibility, the cost for up keeping the poor poor fell upon the parish, the collection of parishes that formed that particular workhouse collective.
And if you were the Wandera the Vagabond coming in outside, you weren't contributing to society. So you were a burden. So we kind of see the whole approach to kind of insisting on work as the way to drive the homeless back into the means of production. And that can be traced right back to the medieval period. So interesting that it's so threatening to the settled order, is it because, you know, the man, he wants to conscript us in his ships, the line and his naval ships, or send us to war or tax us or make us practive?
It's such an interesting tension. And do you see when you go back and look at the work you've done, the demonization of vagrancy, a vagabonds, because there is a sort of powerful romantic idea of celebrating the person who's rejected the material comforts of the world and the settled life?
Yeah. So from sort of around the eighteen sixties and Greenwood, who pioneered this idea of social investigation, where you would go into the workhouse or into the common lodging houses of Victorian Edwardian Britain to experience the underworld, and you'd write about it. So on the one hand, we have a literature that existed which is exposing the alienists, the horrors, the awfulness. And then on the other side, we have a romanticized literature about it's man's rights, the freedom to be on the road.
And we see this particularly the 1930s in what I term, tramp manuals. Hippo Neval is one of those. Stuart's Vagabond is another example where they're very much playing a romanticized vision of being able to move around the country unhindered by the burdens of the need to have money and a home and work. And instead you find tips on how to sleep out rough, should you be? And Heather should be using hay or straw, how to skin a rabbit, these kinds of sort of tips to survive you, which is the best houses to approach should you want to acquire food or vittles.
So this kind of romanticized vision. The reality, though, is that it's a harsh existence. The work I've been doing is being looking at individuals who are prosecuted under the 18 20 for Vagrancy Act and they're coming before the authorities and they're appearing on a very wide spectrum of social misdemeanours. So it could just be a tramp who has been found rough sleeping. It could be the beggar. But equally, you could be a woman who's accused of trying to sell your body and prostitution laws.
It could be telling fortunes. You could be peddling items of little monetary value as a way of eking out some form of subsistence. And they're stigmatized by the courts. And what I've been doing is trying to see the way that these individuals push back against the system, how they use humour when before the courts to try and either win over the public gallery or to just gently poke fun at authority. And sometimes it works. Other times they're doing it to demonstrate their credentials.
I am actually an honest individual. I am seeking work or in other cases where they're appearing perhaps on a charge of drunkenness. They'll try and demonstrate that actually they're prepared to take the pledge, but all the time here, the way the courts stigmatize them. But it can vary. So I've got individuals who on one occasion will appear and will be described as intelligent looking, well-dressed young men and women. And six weeks later, in a different part of the country, in a different court, they're being accused of being good for nothing.
Workshy and hard labour. 14 days is a standard punishment handed out? I don't know, man.
Six weeks I've gone from a suit wearing professional through a truck bombs lockdown existence in six months.
What is the historical context of eighteen twenty four? I would assume that various outcomes, perhaps my active imagination and my focus on the Napoleonic wars, a lot of soldiers, sailors that have been kind of released from service, thrown out with nothing and then obviously the very hard years of the climate, various other things. Depression wasn't a real problem, do you think, or why did this legislation come into being.
The irony is, is this act is still enforced today. So Sections three and four still legally enforced today. So you can be prosecuted and fined and therefore criminalised for either sleeping or for begging. So the fact that that legislation is now nearly 200 years old, there was an amendment in nineteen thirty five. But other than that, essentially that legislation the state enforced prior to that, we have frequent vagrancy acts being passed through parliament. So fact there was one in nineteen twenty two earlier ones before that.
And it was constantly this issue about seeking to control anti-social behaviour, particularly in the urban environment and your rights. The Georgian policy makers brought it in because they were concerned that post Napoleonic Wars there was this mobile population of servicemen combined with inward immigration from Scotland and from Ireland particularly, and that these populations were engaging in activities that needed greater enforcement. And of course, we've got the emergence of a police force system that this time coming alongside it. You've got new poor law coming a decade afterwards and seeking to control the poverty side of it.
So it's they're working in that little extra dimensions as they become concerned. So the big kind of moral panic in the latter part of the 19th century suddenly public. Gambling, and so that becomes added to the statutes, but the range of activities of criminals is really wide ranging and pretty much anything you could be up to on the streets. If the authorities deemed it to be antisocial, they could prosecute you under this act because in a sense, the burden of proof really increasingly says the 19th century went on was the word of a policeman.
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Fascinating, this cry for respectability in this period as the 19th century goes on, presumably you see a lot more inward migration from vast numbers of rural workers heading to the cities and finding a life, a very insecure life in those places.
Well, of course, there's an assumption that somehow homelessness is an urban problem. And I put that in kind of the inverted sort of quote marks. But in fact, it's a rural experience. And so my start point to this particular aspect to this bigger project on homelessness was finding these prosecution certificates under the Vagrancy Act for Leicestershire and taking a sample of them between 1881 and 1911, getting eight hundred and fifty names and then saying how I could begin to piece together these individuals and thinking that I might just get a newspaper report of that particular case in the courts if I was lucky, but then to realize that in fact I could piece together entire lives from birth through to death, that I could pinpoint where an individual was moving around the country and then using the genealogy begin to unravel.
What is it? Why is a particular individual following that pattern? Because historians have written about the migratory population suggesting that it's the Irish coming across, moving through South Wales across to sort of and that to do hot picking and annual harvesting. Or it's a rural population moving around the farmlands of Lincolnshire and finding that actually we've got a range of individuals. I've got a Spaniard, for example, who appears to have come to London with his mother when he was about five years old.
She marries someone who's working at the Woolwich arsenal. The lad falls into the wrong crowd, appears to have been kicked out of home by his stepfather, and then he starts circulating around. But it's not till 1911 when he's in Leicestershire, that the authorities realise that he is alien and they deport him, except he returns. And I can track him back and forth every time after his deportation and 17 times, the authorities deport him up until nineteen thirty three is the last time I've got him trapped.
And 18 times he manages to get back to the UK, even to the point where he arrives at one occasion at the British consulate in Spain, in the Spanish port where he's been returned and he says he's a sailor. Can they help him have his passage back? And I've got his seaman's ID, so I know what he looks like. He tries to commit suicide in the 1920s. It was a pretty tough existence for him. But as he says, I've been brought up in this country.
I am English. I do not consider myself Spanish. Why are you sending me back to this alien country? So there is clearly migrant populations in and around and of course, Irish, but trying to track the Irish and establish all the first generation, second generation, third generation. When do you want to be Irish? When don't you want to be Irish? Do you play on that?
So it's all there.
Why do you think the subtle order found these people so threatening, whether the threat is there a greater instance of criminality and theft, acquisitive crime, or is this a kind of moral panic, do you think? A bit of both.
Well, you could argue it's a moral panic, just purely on the statistics. So just under Section three and four, which is the rough sleeping and the pecking element before the First World War, thirty nine thousand prosecutions were occurring a year under that vagrancy act. I mean, that's fast. Just think of the resource that's taking up in terms of court time, in terms of police time, in terms of the individuals serving time in the prisons, vast resource.
So then you've got to look at what these individuals are doing. And yes, some of them are engaging in petty criminality. But then when you look at what they're actually doing, you begin to understand that the circumstances and the rationale. So theft of boots, theft of an overcoat, these tend to happen September, October time quite often, perhaps again somewhere around about January, February, or of course, if you're out and moving around the countryside, you're heavy on your boots.
And that's often a way of identifying the vagrant because insects, generally, their clothes aren't much different from the general labouring working population. They're wearing similar clothes, but they're footwear. And how dirty is usually the indicator to the authorities when they encounter them so that necessity is driving them. The other element is that sometimes individuals will intentionally seek to get themselves arrested. So they will come in out of the countryside, into the urban county town. And this frequency, which they're found knocking on police vans, doors, begging, and then when the policeman threatens to basically says go away and they say, no, no, no, I'm not going to go away, please go away.
I don't really want the aggravation of having to arrest you. Well, I'm going to do something worse if you don't. And this often is quite an intentional act on the very. Behalf, because if you then look at the wider circumstances, it might be particularly bad weather, there might be extensive flooding in the area, they might have a health issue where they're hoping that if they can get two weeks in the local county jail, then it's some full respite.
They've got some access to a very rudimentary medical treatment as well. So that's kind of a whole range of motives are all bundled up into this as we enter the 20th century.
What changes in our attitudes towards the government's attitudes towards vagrancy? So there's always been a problem in the eyes of the authority that ex servicemen disproportionately made up the numbers of wandering vagrants, and that seems within my cohort to be quite true. Many have got some form of ex military background in their history.
But obviously, after the First World War, you've got a generation that has essentially been conscripted into some form of military service and in recognition of the service to the country that come after the First World War, the authorities in the workhouse system begin to treat the servicemen slightly differently. So there's the beginnings of a move towards rehabilitation, only rudimentary rehabilitation, but one that's driven again by the work ethic. So if you arrive at a casual ward or the ward off the workhouse hoping to stay overnight, they will ask and inquire whether you service.
What's your regimental number? Where did you serve? Have you picked up a disability and register these details in separate admission books? And then they seek to try and encourage you to attend the local job exchange the following morning on release. Often these individuals won't, but some do. So there's a gradual attempt and recognition that actually many men have come out of the first war damaged, not necessarily physically, but also mentally. So that's part of a greater awareness.
Post Second World War is an assumption that the tramp is no more, that somehow this is just disappeared and they base this on the returns to the workhouse when they've reopened, whether it's returned, what happens in the fifties is single vagrancy continues. The term drops out of use around the late sixties and we begin to start talking about the single homeless rather than vagrants. So the less stigmatisation they use of the act also diminishes. We're averaging probably 2000 prosecutions to three thousand prosecutions annually through the 50s, 60s, 70s.
Still jailable and still aspects of that, so in the 70s is a couple of high profile cases where high end Mayfair art galleries are prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act for displaying artwork with male genitalia. So the obscenity dimension and then in the 80s, we, of course, have all the controversy where the Vagrancy Act has been used under the SUS, the police can stop particularly black youths under the suspicion that they're up to acts of criminality. And so we have all that controversy.
And then in the early 80s, they removed the jail term from the Vagrancy Act and bring it into being justified only. But again, if you find a beggar, what's the prospect of actually capable of paying the fine? This is one of the challenges. And so we've had repeated attempts through the 80s, 90s and much more recently by politicians and campaign groups to seek repeal of the act. And I suppose really the term format of even the public consciousness until Harry and Meghan's wedding, when a local councillor wrote to their PCC complaining about vagrant behaviours and aggressive beggars in Windsor and how they were a detriment to the town.
Is there anywhere in the world that we can look to? This may fall outside your work, but we can look to where we see settled societies comfortable with an element of people within them that refuse to settle.
But remain mobile plus people, yes. But what I say is that I'm looking at a almost a micro level because I'm following a range of individuals within a national context. But actually the impaired understanding and application of the British vagrancy laws when across the world so India, for example, Kenya, the Americas all have forms or they have forms of the Vagrancy Act, which directly were derived from the British model. And so many of those countries, ironically, have abolished their vagrancy acts.
Well, before we have a reminder that what we do on this deadline, Davos, has resonance all over the world. Thank you very much indeed for coming on the podcast.
Tell me how people can get hold of your work and they can probably find me on my university web profile at the University of Birmingham if they're interested. YouTube Cobbold Citizens Theatre Company, who I've been collaborating with and we've been bringing to life a number of these individuals who I've been tracking through a series of plays and performances through last December and just recently up in Coventry.
Go and check that out. Everyone, thank you very much indeed for coming on the podcast. Obviously, no problem at all.
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