Elsewhere  by  Esther  McManus

Our reasons for undertaking this expedition may be stated in a few words. 

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 are covering a shorter stretch, from Stevenage to Hitchin, over one day in September.

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.

As we leave Stevenage rail station, Peter invites us to look to the excessive spaciousness of Stevenage, the voids and spaces which characterise a town whose function is historically to be travelled through.

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

frequenting any river, canal, or navigable stream, dock, or basin, or any quay, wharf, or warehouse near or adjoining thereto, or any street, highway, or avenue leading thereto, or any place of public resort, or any avenue leading thereto, or any street, or any highway or any place adjacent to a street or highway with intent to commit an arrestable offence”. Some of the more specific activities which were prosecutable under the act present a bias to those with ‘wandering’ ways of life, leaving those lacking property or position in a vulnerable position and liable to be labelled ‘vagrant’.

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 has a broad vocabulary for describing those he meets on the road. Introduced at the start of On Tramp as “vagabonds born and bred for the most part”, his keenness for categorisation and naturalisation keeps him busy identifying “adult idlers and vagrants of the tag-rag and cadging order”, “habitual tramps”, “beggars and outcasts”. He picks out “the unmistakable sturdy vagabond type”, someone “genuinely a tramp and in search of work” and “a perfect specimen, both regards get-up and impudence”. He makes it clear to us that he’s looking for “tramps of a noteworthy kind”, but at points he meditatively describes the scene of his journey: “tramps I met and tramps overtook me, singly and in pairs, but they carried their character plainly written on their faces and were not of the sort I was in search for”.

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.

William Harbutt Dawson’s The Vagrancy Problem (1910) offers as many distinctions as Greenwood, making claims for “the deserving poor”, “the genuine unemployed”, “hopeless unemployables”, “habitual loafers (who neither seek work nor accept it)”, “the unmitigated vagabond”, “the settled resident loafer”, and “the itinerant mendicant”. In Down and Out (1914), Mary Higgs offers a distinction between the “tramp” and the “vagrant” where “the ‘Tramp’ is a man who ‘tramps’ or walks, from place to place, having no other means of locomotion, and may include genuine workers. The ‘Vagrant’, on the other hand, is the nomad, who habitually leads a roving life. This choice is either hereditary (as with gypsies) or acquired by reversion, often in the first instance compulsory, to nomadic state”.

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”.

On a verge across from the Hermit of Redcoats pub, Luke fills us in on local landowner and “friend of tramps” James Lucas. Greenwood dedicates the majority of a chapter in On Tramp to telling tales of Lucas – his ‘eccentric’ lifestyle and steadfast desire to give away chunks of his fortune to tramps in the form of money, bread and gin in the 1860s.

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.

On a rare occasion in On Tramp, Greenwood gives space to the account of someone he met on the road. The dialogue provides the voice of a man who is unrelentingly given stone-breaking tasks at the workhouse due to his perceived ‘health and strength’. When hearing of this man’s merciless labour, Greenwood comments “I wonder that you do not grow disgusted”. We are told that the man replies laughing, as though Greenwood had uttered a good joke “‘Pon my word, I often wonder so myself, it’s just enough to make a feller do anything, and that’s a fact.”

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.

Towards the end of On Tramp, Greenwood spends a night thinking of “this poor hopeless wretch, and speculating to what extent–providing he spoke the truth–the existing system of poor laws are responsible for the plague of tramps with which the country is afflicted”.

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.