Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

current issue

June – July 2024 : Reflections READ ONLINE


History lesson

June 01 2024
© Pen & Sword History © Pen & Sword History

A short introduction to a remarkable figure from the past you may not be familiar with. Elizabeth Heyrick’s support for homeless people in the 19th century resonates today. By Jocelyn Robson

Homelessness is in the headlines and not for the first time. Two hundred years ago, when England introduced the 1824 Vagrancy Act, it was intended to rid the Georgian streets from increasing numbers of homeless and penniless people.

The ending of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 and the Industrial Revolution forced thousands out of the countryside and into cities like London, Leicester, Liverpool and Birmingham. The destitute sought refuge, hoping to find employment. Discharged soldiers and sailors, as well as economic migrants from Ireland and Scotland, arrived in London particularly, and found themselves obliged to sleep on the streets.

These so-called rogues and vagabonds were vulnerable. Sanctions and penalties were raised against them, with the authorities handing out rewards to anyone who could round them up. Policy makers struggled to contain the displaced, including those living outdoors or in barns, the beggars, peddlers, itinerants, prostitutes, gypsies. Regardless of injuries or ailments, harsher laws were called for against these vulnerable people.

Some opposed these moves and William Wilberforce, the abolitionist and politician, was one of those condemning the 1824 Act. He said that it failed to take an individual’s circumstances into account. Did anyone know what had happened to these people? Or question why they were living on the streets?
Another, lesser-known abolitionist, Elizabeth Heyrick, was reading her newspaper one morning when a particular piece caught her attention: it outlined the provisions of the new Vagrancy Act. She was horrified to read that many of those classified as rogues or vagabonds were now liable for imprisonment or flogging. Women were not permitted to speak in public, so Heyrick picked up her pen and wrote a pamphlet – like a true Georgian blogger.

By her own admittance, she was one of those who supported the so-called rogues and vagabonds. The 1824 Vagrancy Act effectively branded misfortune with the stigma of crime. Heyrick was a devout Quaker and believed everyone to be equal, created in the image of God.

Within the Christian Church, there is an emphasis on charity and generosity. Followers are taught to give to the hungry and offer sanctuary to the poor. Yet the Government legislation was doing the exact opposite. People’s welfare was being reduced by circumstances beyond their control: by fluctuations in trade, population increase and even the substitution of mechanical over manual labour. Why should the poor be stigmatised, robbed of their independence and punished? What crimes had been committed?

So, what were the Government’s motives? Heyrick wondered, was it the wounds or deformities of these people, could it possibly be the unpleasant rags? Or was it simply the commercial implications. Some claimed that vagrants posed a threat to the livelihoods of respectable shopkeepers and tradesmen.
Why had no one exposed the injustice of these persecuting measures? How is it that no one had noticed the cruel system of tyranny they would surely lead to? And pointedly, she asked, as the anti-slavery movement was gathering pace, where were the great abolitionists – the sworn enemies to slavery and oppression – when this legislation was proposed to the House?

Today’s readers may not be aware that some parts of this 1824 legislation are actually still in force. Homeless people are still being arrested and the intended replacement legislation (the Criminal Justice bill) has not yet been passed by Parliament. In May 2024, some MPs rebelled over proposals to give police powers to fine rough sleepers for, among other things, ‘excessive noise’ and ‘smells’. What would Elizabeth Heyrick have made of these new provisions? She was deeply shocked at her contemporaries’ efforts to criminalise rough sleepers. Certainly, she would surely disapprove of the current Governments intentions.

Over the course of her life, Heyrick continued to fight fiercely for the rights of oppressed people and she became one of the most outspoken anti-slavery campaigners of her time.

  • Jocelyn Robson’s biography of Elizabeth Heyrick is due to be published soon by Pen & Sword History