One of the core aims of the Stray Voices project is to bring academic research and its methodologies to a broader audience. My role in the project is to produce a pamphlet documenting Luke Seaber’s guided walk from Stevenage to Hitchin (in the footsteps of James Greenwood’s On Tramp), and to present some of his research in an alternative form.

While preparing for Seaber’s walk I paid several visits to Senate House Library’s Special Collections, to read their copy of On Tramp (1883) and to see what other voices on vagrancy exist in the archive. Seaber’s Incognito Social Investigation in British Literature (2017) was invaluable in providing an insight into historical perspectives on vagrancy in Britain, giving a sense of how this subject was discussed in literature and journalism. Yet through exploring the library’s Special Collections I hoped to gain greater understanding of other kinds of documentation of vagrancy, and an appreciation of whose voices were recorded and disseminated beyond the literary sphere.

I became most interested in the bound volumes of pamphlets, containing reports on vagrancy from 1880-1900. Volumes lettered “Pamphlets – Vagrancy” from the Family Welfare Association (in volumes labelled with the Association’s earlier name: Charity Organisation Society) were bound together, despite being wildly different formats and sizes. The variety of perspectives contained within was visibly apparent in these volumes, where an array of different paper stocks conveyed a multiplicity of voices.

Nonetheless, very few of these volumes contained accounts or reports from those who bore the label of ‘vagrant’ by the society of their time. A rare instance of this was found in another item from the Family Welfare Association collection, On the road : a description of some casual wards in the south-western counties. Described as “a series of articles reprinted from the Western Gazette, January-May 1928”, this book presents the diary of a young man travelling between casual wards. Christchurch is described in particularly grim detail, and this section of the book contains a forgiving addendum “It is only fair to state that the Christchurch Casual Ward was under re-construction at the time of visitation”.

In reading the Special Collection items related to vagrancy, I was able to gain deeper understanding of how language and public presentation of vagrancy shaped the consciousness of the time. Yet the importance of equally attending to the physical form and paratextual features of the texts cannot be overestimated. This has been discussed by Seaber (2017) in relation to incognito social investigation texts, and I found it invaluable to examine these original documents and the way they had been bound into volumes for reference.

Drawing from a broader range of sources (rather than focusing too rigidly on Greenwood) enabled me to see parallels between the language of “vagabonds born and bred” and the laws of the time, which can be found to exert influence right up to the present day. A 1978 pamphlet by the Runnymede Trust – ‘Sus’ a report on the Vagrancy Act 1824 – outlines how “the use of a very antiquated provision of the law has a real and important effect on the police and community relations”, suggesting that “the use of any law needs to be reviewed continually as social conditions change”. This lineage from Greenwood to the contemporary manifestation of ‘sus’ laws was made evident in the archive, and illuminated the need for me to make this apparent within my pamphlet for Stray Voices.

References:

Demuth, C. (1978) ‘Sus’ a report on the Vagrancy Act 1824.

Greenwood, J. (1883) On Tramp.

On the road : a description of some casual wards in the south-western counties : a series of articles reprinted from the Western Gazette, January-May, 1928. (1928)  Found in Senate House Library Special Collections, Family Welfare Association Great Britain Collection.

Seaber, L. (2017) Incognito Social Investigation in British Literature.

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