Elsewhere by Esther McManus
We are following the route of the Great North Road in the footsteps of nineteenth century journalist James Greenwood. Greenwood walked this route in 1881 to discover “whence rises the propensity for tramping” and “what are the peculiar delights of tramp life that allure so many of one’s fellow mortals to sturdily abide by it”. Despite his claims for the evidence-based assessment of those he encountered on the road, Greenwood has his own theories of “unprofitable weeds” and “loafing idle drones” which he spews unabashedly in the introduction to his account of the expedition, On Tramp.
In disguise, to “preclude the possibility of being regarded as a gentleman taking his walks abroad”, Greenwood walked along the Great North Road from Barking to Bedford over five summer days.
We will hear more of Greenwood’s voice throughout our walk, often being read in the tones of Luke Seaber, an expert in the tradition of incognito social investigation of which Greenwood was an innovator. Luke is our guide, with thumbstick and illegibly handwritten notes, who has plenty to share about the history of this route as well as “what people have said about tramps”. His voice is joined by that of Peter Jones, an urban historian and authority on vagrancy laws and nineteenth century street culture. You will also hear my voice – loudly at times, at others as a whisper – selecting what to share from the walk, to bring it into conversation with other voices from archives and library books. These will be the sounds of historical legitimacy, legality and critique, which have highly audible echoes in the present day.
Reflecting on the experience of ‘passing through’, in contrast to settling, draws us to contemplate the histories of those who are displaced, and the challenge in collecting and communicating the diversity of their stories. When history is made from the perspective of the settled, what does this mean for those who are mobile? What kind of history begins to grow, even of a spacious, travelled-through town like Stevenage?
Walking into the old town, our group feels large and unwieldy. The narrow streets are comfortably full of shoppers and we upset the balance, causing a tangible obstruction to the flow. Restaurants begin to display their A-boards in the streets as our group halts at a busy junction. As Peter informs us of the Vagrancy Acts of 1744 and 1824 we’re forced to collectively consider the notion of legitimate behaviour in public space, both historically and in the present. We feel conscious of the space we’re taking up and the irritation caused to local business owners.
The Acts criminalised a broad range of activities which, in many cases, would resemble essential daily activities. It is addressed “to every suspected person or reputed thief, and activities include
It became increasingly hard to ignore that we were an outlier in this space. But surely the institutional support we have for our endeavour would be recognised by the people of Stevenage, and the law? Perhaps it was this support that gave us a sense of entitlement to persevere in the space, even if it made us feel uncomfortable. As a white, middle class group, in the company of academics and video equipment, we could feel confident that we wouldn’t be stereotyped as “suspected persons or reputed thieves”, where other groups certainly might be.
After Pete’s presentation we returned to the wide underpasses and pavements which became increasingly unpopulated…and then increasingly sparse and infrequent. Before long we were hugging the pavementless-roadside in single file, now finding ourselves an obstacle for vehicles.
Greenwood is not alone in making these observations and distinctions of those he meets on his journey. Indeed, his diverse, disreputable “tramping fraternity” has much in common with other depictions found in social inquiries and non-literary texts of the time.
In contrast, when Greenwood engages a handful of men in conversation during his walk they describe these “unmistakable vagabonds” as “regulars on the road”, “poor people” and “a man like me”.
Supporting the poor like Lucas did would get a mixed reception to this day. An 1881 pamphlet on vagrancy included a statement from a ‘provincial observer’ claiming that “one great cause of vagrancy is, and has ever been, the inability of persons to say No! This especially applies to women. While indiscriminating (miscalled) charity prevails (that is, until weak-willed women have learned to say No), Vagrancy and the profligacy of the beggar’s opera, at the tramp symposium, will flourish unless imprisonment, or other punitory measures be resorted to”.
In the same year, placards directed ‘beggars’ to apply to the local union for bread and lodgings, and ‘the charitable and humane’ were implored “not to give money or direct relief to beggars”.
This year The New Statesman published an article encouraging readers “to give money directly and unconditionally to homeless people” followed by an article a week later stating “giving money to the homeless isn’t generous – it can condemn them to death”.
Far from stimulating a shift towards greater public conversation and understanding, these articles epitomise the disconnected advice which is not presented as part of a sustained, nuanced appreciation of the dynamics of homelessness and histories of vagrancy, criminalisation and inequality. Into this void, contradictions bring confusion and disengagement, with no hope of resolution.
Inviting us to consider the ways in which certain phenomena become perceived as social problems, Peter Beresford’s The Public Presentation of Vagrancy (1979) describes how mass media and culture contribute to the construction and maintenance of the notion of vagrancy. In highlighting the tendency to “emphasise ordinary people’s isolation from deviant behaviour” Beresford suggests that the majority of people will have personal experience of the phenomena of vagrancy (either through familiarity with manifestations of homelessness in public space or through first hand experience of temporary homelessness, staying on sofas or in hostels) yet “mass media divorces us from our own experience by imposing their own meaning on the phenomena.” Being encouraged to conceive of homelessness as “a strange world we have chanced upon”, ‘social problems’ seem further removed from the lives of the majority of the population, who feel constantly uncertain of how they might be implicated in the lives of the displaced.
In this light, Greenwood’s original, scathing question of “why won’t you work?” is solely informed by his privileging of ‘respectable’ professions as the only genuine work. His question was met by the equally spiky retort “Oh no, it ain’t work, mine ain’t! It’s like picking buttercups to tramp a dozen miles on a stony road with the luck dead against you, and not a penny or pen’orth to be picked up anywheres. It never rains, I s’pose! or freezes, or blows, or snows!”
Hearing the voice of those who are the subject of vagrancy laws, those labeled by society as “vagrant” and hence delegitimised, is uncommon and rarely sought. Even when Greenwood gains this perspective, the lack of societal legitimacy still sticks to their testimony.
Upon reaching the town centre at Hitchin, we make a final stop beside the church and River Hiz. Luke directs our gaze to a small flight of stone steps leading up to the car park, bearing the inscription “on the adjacent area formerly stood 174 cottages which were demolished under slum clearance schemes and the occupants 637 in number housed elsewhere”. Luke extrapolates on these words, telling us that several of these cottages were common lodging houses sheltering dozens of displaced persons every night of the week. Not able to receive legitimacy with the status of resident, and therefore not entitled to housing and resettlement elsewhere, this mobile population was unrecorded in this history and memorial. Their status not only diminished their entitlement as citizens, but their ability to communicate their experience to broader society and record them for posterity. With the power to label and criminalise in the present comes the ability to exclude, distort and obliterate through history and memory.
Thanks to all attendees of the walk for their participation in the workshop to generate written testimonies of the route. Our resulting conversations discussing what we observed and chose to record (and who has the authority to do this in broader society) were invaluable to the creation of this pamphlet.
Thanks to Institute of Historical Research, Senate House Library, Peter Jones, Luke Seaber and Laura Say.
The original pamphlet was produced in conjunction with Being Human Festival of the Humanities 2017, and was printed and bound at the London Centre for Book Arts.