Nicola Blacklaws is a PhD student in the Centre for English Local History, within the School of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester. She is funded by the Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, and her thesis focuses on the twentieth century poor law, c.1900-1930, in the Midlands and Wales.
In July 1902, the Llanfyllin board of guardians in central Wales resolved ‘that the Local Government Board be pressed to deal with the question of vagrancy which has become very urgent’.[i] In the aftermath of the Boer War, numbers of so-called vagrants in Wales spiralled – from 56,000 admissions to workhouse casual wards in the year ending September 1900 to 123,000 five years later.[ii] They then declined from 1911 until the end of the First World War, after which levels began to rise again, remaining high for much of the 1920s, as was the case in many areas of England.
Over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, local and central poor law officials struggled to control the numbers of itinerant poor. Attempting to strike a balance between providing adequate relief to those deemed ‘genuine’ travellers looking for work and deterring the more ‘undeserving’ vagabonds, the Local Government Board and its successor the Ministry of Health issued a variety of Acts, Orders and other instructions concerning vagrancy. These addressed a wide range of issues, from how many nights individuals should be detained in casual wards after admission, to the nature of work tasks, to what ward inmates should be given to eat. They also encouraged greater co-ordination between poor law unions, recommending that boards of guardians form joint vagrancy committees to synchronise their policies, as well as the implementation of way-ticket systems.
However, all these directives had little long-term effect on numbers of casual ward admissions. Central authorities largely attributed this to individual poor law unions’ failure to comply with them, and the lack of uniformity in treatment of vagrancy both within regions and across England and Wales.[iii] Although this view obviously neglects the socio-economic factors that could impact on numbers of vagrants, it was true that many unions only partially or sporadically adhered to government instructions on the issue, and some not at all.[iv]
This was certainly the case in Wales. Giving evidence to the Departmental Committee on Vagrancy, which reported in 1906, clerk to the Holywell board of guardians Peter Harding Roberts reported significant disparity between practices among north Welsh unions, including dietaries, work tasks given and use of way-ticket systems. In Roberts’ view Welsh boards were rather too sympathetic towards the casual poor, and had certainly not ‘been observing the letter of the law’.[v]
How did these discrepancies in union policies and practices manifest themselves ‘on the ground’ at a local level in Wales? Taking three unions in central Wales as examples – Llanfyllin, Machynlleth, and Newtown and Llanidloes (hereafter referred to as Newtown) – it is clear that approaches to vagrancy was far from uniform.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between the three was that Machynlleth did not cater for the casual poor at all between 1916, when the union workhouse was closed down, until the late 1920s when the board purchased a new set of buildings for renovation as casual wards after pressure from the Ministry of Health. In terms of the other two unions, they both utilised a ticket system to differentiate ‘bona fide working men’ from ‘real vagrants’, but neither system quite aligned either with each other or with that described by Roberts in his evidence to the Departmental Committee. Tickets of the same type seem to have meant slightly different things in each union, both in terms of the sub-category represented and in the treatment those sub-categories would receive. This meant that individuals could be received differently depending on which union they found themselves in.
The unions differed on length of detention for the casual poor as well. Central government regulations stipulated that in most cases a vagrant should be detained over two nights, and should not be discharged on a Sunday. Llanfyllin for the most part followed the Sunday rule, and began practicing two-night detention from 1912, while Newtown does not appear to have implemented this until the late 1920s, and did not always detain casuals over Sundays either.
These unions also displayed contrasting attitudes towards co-ordinated policy through the North Wales Joint Vagrancy Committee, formed in the 1880s. Newtown was a member, and an enthusiastic one, more than once supporting resolutions that all unions should be compelled to be join such committees.[vi] Both Llanfyllin and Machynlleth, meanwhile, rebuffed multiple approaches by committee representatives to become members.
However, these discrepancies do not necessarily mean that unions were operating in a vacuum, uninterested in the activities of other neighbouring bodies. These boards of guardians regularly sought out information on the vagrancy policies of other unions in the area. All three of these boards sent and received correspondence with their neighbours on issues such as the disinfection of vagrants’ clothes, the discharge of vagrants on Sundays, locations of food stations and expenditure on midday meals. These conversations sometimes included explicit references to the ways in which the strategy of one board had impacted on another. For instance, in 1925 Llanfyllin received complaints from Corwen union, their northern neighbour, that individuals discharged from their casual wards had moved on to Corwen and caused overcrowding, the implication being that Llanfyllin had detained them for an inappropriate amount of time, or discharged them on an inconvenient day.[vii] Llanfyllin in turn made a similar complaint to Forden union in 1926, as did the workhouse master at Rhayader to Newtown later that year.[viii]
Moreover, unions took the approach of neighbouring boards into account when forming their own strategies towards vagrancy. This seems to have been one of the reasons the Newtown board was reluctant to detain vagrants over two nights. When asked about their policy on this issue, or criticised by the Ministry of Health as a result of it, the guardians justified themselves by pointing out that two neighbouring unions did not have operational casual wards at all, and that other adjoining unions did not always detain for two nights either.[ix] As casual inmates were strongly discouraged from returning to the same workhouse more than once in a short space of time, the Newtown board were presumably concerned that if they detained for longer than one night they would quickly become overwhelmed with pre-emptively released inmates from surrounding institutions. Llanfyllin’s decision not to join the NWJVC was similarly informed. When rejecting an overture made by the committee in 1924, the guardians referred to the fact that two immediately adjacent unions (Forden and Oswestry) were not members– implying that vagrancy strategies formed at a regional level would not be useful if other unions in their immediate area were not also participating.[x]
This small glimpse into the management of vagrancy in Wales suggests that, although central authorities’ suspicions were correct in that adherence to central guidance was often patchy, boards of guardians were not entirely insular in their attitudes towards vagrancy. Decisions about whether to follow government instructions on the issue were made with reference to the practices of other unions in the region. Unions were wary about changing their policies unless they could be sure that their neighbours were doing the same, and their own casual wards would not become pressurised as a result. In fact, then, the consistent monitoring of their fellow board’s activities could result in a kind of uniformity – just not the kind that the Local Government Board or Ministry of Health would have preferred.
[i] Powys Archives, M/G/B/8/21, Llanfyllin Poor Law Union guardians’ minute book, 17th July 1902.
[ii] Local Government Board: Thirtieth Annual Report of the Local Government Board 1900-1901 (Cd. 746), p. 173; Local Government Board: Thirty-Fourth Annual Report of the Local Government Board 1904-1905 (Cd. 2661), p. 531.
[iii] R. Humphreys, No Fixed Abode: A History of Responses to the Roofless and the Rootless in Britain (Basingstoke, 1999), p. 107, 113.
[iv] G. Matthews, ‘The search for a cure for vagrancy in Worcestershire 1870-1920’, Midland History, 11, no. 1 (1986), p. 100.
[v] Report of the Departmental Committee on Vagrancy 1906: Vol II – Minutes of evidence, digest of evidence and general index to evidence, appendix and report (Cd. 2891), pp. 195-199.
[vi] See for instance Powys Archives, M/G/N/M/24, Newtown and Llanidloes Poor Law Union, guardians’ minute book, 18th February 1920.
[vii] Powys Archives, M/G/B/8/29, Llanfyllin Poor Law Union, guardians’ minute book, 21st May 1925.
[viii] Powys Archives, M/G/B/8/29, Llanfyllin Poor Law Union, guardians’ minute book, 25th February 1926; Powys Archives, M/G/N/M/26, Newtown and Llanidloes Poor Law Union, guardians’ minute book, 10th November 1926.
[ix] Powys Archives, M/G/N/M/24, Newtown and Llanidloes Poor Law Union guardians’ minute book, 16th November 1921; Powys Archives, M/G/N/M/25, Newtown and Llanidloes Poor Law Union guardians’ minute book, 20th February 1924.
[x] Powys Archives, M/6/B/8/29, Llanfyllin Poor Law Union, guardians’ minute book, 19th June 1925.