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The history of the Vagrancy Act 1824

June 06 2010
You're in strange company with the Vagrancy Act! You're in strange company with the Vagrancy Act!
Nearly two centuries of legal nonsense lumps together the homeless, psychics and jugglers
There is enthusiasm for reviving pre-Victorian legislation - the Georgian Vagrancy Act of 1824 - as a response to people sleeping on the streets of London. A long line of legal measures deployed against people in public places to whom the authorities have taken a dislike has targeted gypsies, prostitutes, suspected witches, palmists and fortune-tellers, actors, artists and beggars - including certain charity collectors.

The earliest laws against begging date from just after the Peasant's Revolt in 1381. They were followed in 1547 by anti-vagrancy measures to tackle the homeless, whose numbers had swollen following Henry VIII dissolution of the monasteries, an early example of "care in the community" going wrong. Elizabethan legislation against beggars, suspected witches and conjurors and gypsies similarly failed to curb homelessness, which increased as the Industrial Revolution began and enclosures forced people off the land. In 1744 came the template of modern vagrancy law, King George II's Vagrant Act, which divided beggars and idle persons into the unemployed without means of support and those refusing to work "for the usual and common wages" and those not supporting their families; rogues and vagabonds; and "incorrigible rogues" - those already convicted of one or more offences.

The 'rogues and vagabonds' category enabled the authorities to apprehend on the street anyone they disliked. Within the catch-all definition of rogues were all persons without visible means of subsistence, those pretending to be looking for work, beggars, and "unlicensed pedlars, fencers, jugglers, bearwards, minstrels, fortune tellers and gamesters", as well as "any persons wandering abroad in alehouses, barns, outhouses or in the open air, not giving a good account of themselves." Actors and buskers were also targeted, with the Act catching "all Persons who shall for Hire, Gain or Reward, act represent or perform, or cause to be acted [..] any Interlude, Tragedy, Comedy, Opera, Play, Farce or other Entertainment of the Stage, or any Part or Parts therein not being authorised by Law." Street theatre was definitely frowned upon, and reciting Shakespeare could have you hauled away.

Rewards for rounding up beggars and vagrants had existed since 1713, with parish overseers being bound to pay five shillings to anyone who arrested an "Idle or Disorderly Person". This became a serious abuse and encouraged corruption: one Hornsey overseer rounded up over 500 people in one year. Constables conspired with offenders to share the proceeds, and whole families would sometimes hand themselves in for a share of the reward. By 1752, pamphleteers were calling for even more draconian sanctions, amid fears that the vagrants would turn into even more serious criminals such as pickpockets, burglars and highwaymen. One declared: "You may hang, or transport, or cut off a number of felons at this sitting, but like Hydra's heads there will be more spring up at the next and ever will do so, as long as idle Vagrants [..] are suffered to go as they do unmolested".

It took some 50 years for it to be realised that rewarding people for collecting vagrants was not the solution: the rewards were cut and then abolished in 1822, by which time, the vagrant population had been swollen by homeless sailors, veterans of the Napoleonic war and persons displaced by the effects of the Industrial Revolution.

Concern about the problem led to the formation of the Mendicity Society, which lobbied Sir Robert Peel for harsher vagrancy laws. The resulting Vagrancy Act 1824 survives in part today. Even subject to amendments, it is a real mouthful for any constable, prosecutor or court clerk.

Section 1 catches "Every person wandering abroad, or placing himself or herself in a public place, street or highway, court or passage to beg or gather alms, or causing or procuring or encouraging any child or children so to do, shall be deemed an idle and disorderly person". On conviction following the evidence of one or more credible witness or witnesses", such an offender can be jailed for one month.

Section 4 was a great catchall to tackle rogues and vagabonds who might include:
• "every person pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of his Majesty's subjects";
• "every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon not having any visible means of subsistence and not giving a good account of himself or herself";
• "every person wilfully exposing to view, in any street, road, highway, or public place, any obscene print, picture, or other indecent exhibition";
•  "every person wilfully openly, lewdly, and obscenely exposing his person with intent to insult any woman";
• "every person wandering abroad, and endeavouring by the exposure of wounds or deformities to obtain or gather alms";
• "every person going about as a gatherer or collector of alms, or endeavouring to procure charitable contributions of any nature or kind, under any false or fraudulent pretence";
• "every person apprehended as an idle and disorderly person, and violently resisting any constable, or other peace officer so apprehending him or her."

For section 4 offences, the penalty was three months' imprisonment.

Since 1838, there have been amendments (palmists and fortune tellers were removed in 1989), but what remains throws up all kinds of legal issues.

In the 19th and early 20th century, section 1 became a novel way to pursue impoverished husbands accused of failing to maintain their wives. Artists whose work was deemed obscene could be prosecuted under the Act; a display of paintings by DH Lawrence was prosecuted in 1929, but exhibited without problems in 2003.

The Vagrancy Act was used against spiritualist mediums, who were presumed to be committing trickery and fraud by claiming psychic arts. It was no defence that both client and the medium might be sincere believers in the spirit world, since it was considered that the deception had worked! Even having a home could not protect you from a conviction, as a home-owning medium called Monck found when he was jailed for three months in 1878.

In 1875, a further Vagrancy Act was introduced to stop people gambling and gaming with cards or dice in the streets. The anti-begging clause was invoked haphazardly against charitable collections; but in 1884 striking miners won a notable victory in the High Court with a ruling that you were not a vagrant if you were collecting money or food for strikers and their families (Pointon v Hill (1884) 12 QBD 306 )

Yet another Vagrancy Act became law in 1898, this time against prostitutes (of both sexes) and those involved with the White Slave Trade, and to tackle the problem of kerb crawling. After the First World War, there was another crackdown on spiritualists who, it was feared, were exploiting the bereaved.

Some measure of sanity began to appear with the Vagrancy Act 1935, which provided that a person ought only to apprehended where s/he had a lodging or hostel available but had refused it. This still did not stop abuse of the Act by over-zealous constables, and in July 1936 the magazine Justice of the Peace approved a magistrate's decision to throw out a charge against a man who had left a shelter early in the morning and fallen asleep on a bench on the Embankment. The editor held the law should not condemn a man who had "exchanged the close smell of the doss house for the freshness of a summer morning".

It was also accepted that a person was not a vagrant if they were sleeping on the street under a cart or wagon, providing it was their own vehicle.

Today, it appears this antiquated legislation is still considered current in some quarters (see RS205 story), with further amendments raised under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. To appreciate its breadth and the Georgian solemnity of the language, the reader is invited to consult the full text of the Vagrancy Act 1824 available on the internet or in Stones' Justices' Manual, the Bible of the Magistrates' Court.

Witch trials, executions, debtors' prisons, whipping, the pillory and the stocks have all gone, but the Vagrancy Act 1824 rolls on. Except in Scotland. There, section 4 was repealed in 1982.

• Alan Murdie is a barrister working with Zacchaeus 2000. You may also be interested in another feature on the Act.