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Open Peer Review for the Humanities

Tim Hitchcock, The London Vagrancy Crisis of the 1780s

Permalink for this paragraph 0 ©Tim Hitchcock, 25 August 2011

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The London Vagrancy Crisis of the 1780s

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Most historians of crime and poverty are familiar with the intertwined crises of punishment and criminal justice, of riot and social disorder associated with the late 1770s and 1780s.  But what is less familiar is how that crisis impacted on the evolution of the treatment of paupers and vagrants.  This paper is intended to point up a crises that did not make the headlines, but which arguably affected a larger proportion of the population than did crime and its punishment, and which forced the authorities of the City of London and County of Middlesex to reassess their treatment of the vagrant poor.  It argues that the crisis of the 1780s created a new system for treating vagrants, that was midwifed into existence by vagrants themselves.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 For most of the first half of the 1780s, and in particular following the destruction of Newgate Prison in June 1780, the Houses of Correction in London and Middlesex that had been dedicated to punishing vagrants, were increasingly used to hold felony prisoners.  At the same time, the criminal justice system, faced with unprecedented anxiety and popular opposition, increased the numbers of felons executed, whipped and sentenced to the hulks; exacerbating the problem of overcrowding in the prisons and Houses of Correction, and of simply inflicting punishments.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In part, this can be seen as simply one more of a broad series of changes in the administration of crime.  A whole raft of old and new punishments were being used in new ways, largely as a result of the end of transportation to North America – that had formed so prominent an aspect of penal policy prior to 1776.  And if you think of vagrancy as a criminal issue, changes in the administration of the laws against vagrancy seem a natural part of a wider transition.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 But it is not just that one form of punishment was adopted to replace an older system; instead the crisis of the 1780s effectively redefined the vagrancy system from one that might be seen as an outpost of the history of crime, to one that is more effectively conceived as a part of the history of poverty and its relief.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 But to start with crime.  During the 1780s, prosecutions increased significantly in number following the Gordon Riots, and more defendants were convicted, and sentenced to harsher punishments. Between 1770–81 and 1782–86 the conviction rate at the Old Bailey (both full and partial verdicts) increased from 55 to 61 per cent.[1] With transportation unavailable until 1787 (although sentences resumed in 1781), this growing number of convicts was whipped, imprisoned, and sentenced to death in unprecedented numbers.

Permalink for this paragraph 0

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Source: Old Bailey Punishments, 1770-1790.[2]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In other words, there were more felons about.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 As recorded by the Sheriff of London, the number of whippings carried out (including those sentenced at quarter sessions) increased from 40 offenders in 1779 to 164 in 1785, the largest annual total in the century. Similarly, whereas 60 felons were sentenced to death in 1779, this figure more than doubled to 153 in 1784. Executions increased even more dramatically. Whereas 23 were executed in 1779, this figure increased more than four times to 97 in 1785, the bloodiest year in the century. Not only were more convicts hanged, but they formed a growing percentage of all those sentenced to death, reaching 64 per cent of the condemned in 1785 and an astonishing 81 per cent in 1787. This was a direct result of a decision by the Home Secretary in September 1782 to refuse to grant pardons (as had often occurred previously) to those convicted of robberies and burglaries ‘attended with acts of great cruelty’.[3] All told, five hundred people were hanged in London in the seven years following 1780.   In other words, the system was forced to cope with many more felons, than it was used to; and was asked to punish them ever more severely.

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Permalink for this paragraph 0 Source: Old Bailey Death Sentences and London Executions, 1775-1795.[4]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The increasing severity of punishment sentences was accompanied by changes in their implementation. Both whippings and executions were carried out in new ways which served to reduce the role of the watching crowd and ensure that the authorities retained control of the ritual. Rather than being carried out in public along a street for a hundred yards ‘at the cart’s tail’, whippings were increasingly staged at a stationary whipping post or inside prisons; the proportion of whippings carried out in public declined by almost half, from 43 per cent in the 1770s to 23 per cent in the 1780s, accelerating a long-term decline dating back to the 1720s.[5]

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Permalink for this paragraph 0 Source: London Whipping Punishments, 1770-1799.[6]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 To put it another way, the growing number of London’s felons were using the facilities that had traditionally been used to punish and put to labour, London’s vagrants.  And the point is, that this in turn, transformed vagrant removal, and that the resulting evolution in the process of vagrant removal, itself had an impact on the broad balance of social welfare policy.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The scale of the problem faced by the City and Middlesex can been seen in the fact that between May and September 1780 a total of 678 prisoners were committed to New Prison.[7] The precise number committed to the house of correction next door, the traditional repository for vagrants from Middlesex,  is not known, but by October the Middlesex justices expressed their concern that ‘a far greater number of persons is now in general imprisoned there than what the building is capable of containing with safety and convenience’. And in the following year, 1781–82, the number of prisoners at any one time in the Clerkenwell house of correction ranged from 134 to 233. To prevent escapes, a military guard was placed at both prison and the House of Correction.[8] On inspecting these institutions in December 1782, the sheriffs of London and Middlesex found the prisoners in the ‘lowest state of misery and distress, without food to subsist upon, without fuel to warm them, without cloathing proper to keep them clean, or guard them against the inclemencies of the weather, the customary donations of the City and Sheriff being too inconsiderable to answer the purposes for which they were originally designed’.[9]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 A simple measure of the unhealthy conditions which prevailed can be seen in the fact that at least 46 prisoners died in custody in these two prisons in the twenty-eight months between 5 December 1780 and 9 April 1783.[10] When Newgate fully reopened in 1784, the poor conditions and overcrowding were simply transferred: in November, the keeper reported that the prison contained 362 felons and 167 debtors, and about 300 of the 529 prisoners lacked rugs to sleep on and keep themselves warm.[11] A year later the prison held 680 prisoners, and, in October 1788, almost 750.[12]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 At the same time, while the number of ‘felons’ tried for serious crimes increased in number; the ‘character’ of those sentenced as ‘vagrants’ appears to have changed; and I suspect that men (and I do mean men), who previously would have been convicted of a felony, were increasingly re-classified as vagrants.  A simple, if problematic measure of this change is that of the 108 adult vagrants passed through Middlesex between 4 December 1777 and 15 January 1778, 71 percent, or 77, were women, and only 29%, or 31 were men.[13] By the same season six years later, in the winter of 1784, these percentages had almost reversed and among the adult vagrants passed between 8 January 1784, and 19 February, the figures stood at 40% women to 60% men.[14] It is possible that this change is actually about the use of vagrancy legislation to punish even more men, who in other circumstances might have been charged with felonies; but in any case, it does reflect a significant shift in who was being classified as ‘vagrant’.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Rates of committal to the City’s house of correction, Bridewell (and probably London’s other houses of correction) also soared in the first few years of the 1780s,[15] reflecting both a new intolerance of minor street disorder following the Gordon Riots and the old Palace’s use as an alternative to Newgate.  Almost three thousand men and women were committed to Bridewell in 1783. Many were vagrants of one description or another, sentenced to suffer the usual punishment of a week or a month at hard labour and a whipping, but there were also felons, and people classified as vagrants, who in other years, would certainly have been tried as such.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The presence of so many long term prisoners (convicts serving sentences of imprisonment, and those awaiting transportation), was particularly problematic. Reports from 1781 indicate that the Clerkenwell house of correction held between 55 and 65 convicted felons,[16] while a list of the prisoners in February 1783 included 77 prisoners who had been convicted at the Old Bailey, and a further 18 convicted at the Middlesex Sessions. Some had been there since April 1781.[17] In March 1781 the keeper of New Prison voiced concern about ‘the capital convicts now in his custody who are very numerous and licentious and continually endeavouring to escape’, while a week later a committee of justices reported that convicts who ‘continue there months and for years [are] in an idle and worse than an useless state corrupting each other and forming confederacies dangerous to the public… ever making disturbances and riots within the goale and encouraging others to misbehave’.[18] Because the overcrowding meant that different categories of prisoners were able to intermingle, the corrosive behaviour of the convicts could spread to the other prisoners. Similar concerns were apparently present at the City of London Bridewell, where, as we have seen, the number of commitments had increased dramatically between 1781 and 1784.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In November of 1782, William Wood, a prisoner described as a ‘vagrant’ held at Clerkenwell house of correction, directly next door to the New Prison, put a pistol to the head of Thomas Mumford the keepers’ chief servant, and threatened to blow his head off if he did not deliver the keys; while John Fitzgerald, also described as a vagrant, his legs still in irons, threatened to cut John Brown’s throat if he did not hand over the keys, and cooperate in their plan.  In total, 31 people, all described explicitly as ‘vagrants’  escaped that night, of whom only 21 were ever recaptured.[19]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In December 1782 the General Prison Committee issued new regulations restricting visitors, and ordered that cutlasses be kept in a case in the watch house, stipulating that ‘a Rattle be Provided … in Case of any Disturbance [an officer] may Alarm the Beadle at the Lodge that the Gate of the Hospital may be immediately Locked to Prevent Escapes’.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 And later the same month, and in direct response to this incident, the keeper, Samuel Newport, petitioned the Middlesex Justices, who incorporated his observations in a further petition of their own to the judges at the Old Bailey, describing the mood of the prisoners.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 That since the late Dreadful Riots … those confined in the … Prison … have become most licentious and dissolute, are unruly and riotous to a very daring degree, continually committing the most outrageous acts, endeavouring to effect their escape, and encouraging others to join with them in their desperate designs… In such an attempt lately [made] three Prisoners [were] unfortunately killed and three more wounded.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Newport concluded his plea with the observation that the prisoners were possessed of a ‘determined Resolution …[for a] General Escape.[20] A troop of soldiers was paid to live in the gaol for two years, at a cost of £16 per quarter, in an attempt to calm what the local commander would later describe as the ‘riotous and dangerous state of the prisons’.[21] And as a carrot to counterbalance this stick of military authority, the daily allowance of food provided to each prisoner was doubled, and shoes and clothes were made available for poor prisoners for the first time.[22]

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Permalink for this paragraph 0 Source: Defendants Prosecuted (Old Bailey and Bridewell), 1770-1789.[23]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 But by 1784 the overcrowding in both Bridewell and the House of Correction at Clerkenwell, seems to have contributed to a fundamental change in the system of vagrant punishment and removal. In that year, the number committed to Bridewell fell to 612, down from over 3000 in the preceding year. But while the numbers imprisoned fell dramatically, the number of vagrants passed from the City of London to the County of Middlesex for removal to their place of settlement grew. This number reached 2,231 individuals in the twelve months following October 1784. In other words, while continuing to arrest and remove vagrants in large numbers, the City appears to have abandoned its legal obligation to punish them in Bridewell and simply passed them instead.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 And in the following year, the City of London created a city-wide night ‘patrole’ for the purpose of taking up vagrants and loose, idle and disorderly men and women, quelling minor disturbances, and preventing serious crime. Though, as Andrew Harris has argued, the City authorities had no wish to add to the pressures on the overcrowded prisons.[24] And the impact of the patroles was more to move on the disorderly poor  – and where they appear to have moved them on to, was Middlesex.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 When Henry Adams succeeded his father as the ‘Vagrant Contractor’ for Middlesex in 1774 the average number of vagrants carried from the houses of correction to the county border numbered around 1,300 per year. But with this change in City policy in the mid-1780s Adams was overwhelmed by the number of vagrants passed into his hands. The total reached over 4,000 individuals in the twelve months after October 1784. Adams complained bitterly to his paymasters, the Middlesex Sessions, and presented evidence that demonstrated that the vast majority of this increase came from the City of London; and that the individuals passing through his hands both ‘do not appear to be Objects of the Vagrants Laws.’ and that many were ‘dangerously Ill some of which have died in his Hands.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Table 7.1: Vagrants Passed Through Middlesex, Oct. 1782-Oct.1785

Accounting Period Tothill Fields House of Correction Clerkenwell House of Correction City of London Other Parts of England Total
Oct. 1782 to Oct. 1783 428 708 754 1001 2891
Oct. 1783 to Oct. 1784 577 756 1558 903 4107
Oct. 1784 to Oct. 1785 512 760 2231 682 4185
Oct. 1782 to Oct. 1785 1457 2224 4916 2586 11183

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Source: LL, Middlesex Sessions: Justices’ Working Documents, April 1786, LMSMPS508090268.[25]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Adams concluded that the reason the number of vagrants passed from the City had increased exponentially ‘arose from the ease with which passes were obtained from the Magistrates of the City of London.’ and that ‘the City Magistrates never … Cause the Vagrants to Be Whipp or Imprisoned … previous to their being passed’.[26] This sparked a furious letter to the Lord Mayor, who promised to investigate – although there is no evidence that he ever did so.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In other words, policing vagrancy in the City changed in the mid 1780s. In part, this might have been the result of more aggressive regulation of street traders from 1784 onwards[27] and the creation of the new City patrole in 1785, but in general it grew out a combination of an increasing intolerance of the less savoury inhabitants of the streets and a recognition that the City simply did not have the facilities to punish them as the law directed.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 This change is important in itself, as evidence of changing attitudes, but more importantly, for the poor, this change in policy meant that being convicted of vagrancy became a relatively painless pathway to free transportation, medical care and accommodation.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Being arrested as a vagrant required a certain wilfulness, and the growing numbers being passed through the City suggest that its policies made arrest for this offence peculiarly attractive for seasonal migrants and the Irish poor.[28] I have not done the statistical analysis, but the places of settlement of vagrants removed by Henry Adams in this year, seems to reflect a distinct pattern of long distance, and British Isle-wide migration.  One interpretation of the rather dramatic graph of expenditure by the City on vagrants for this period, is that it is essentially a reflection of demand.

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Permalink for this paragraph 0 Source: City of London Vagrancy Expenses, 1739-1800.[29]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 If the accounts kept by the Middlesex Vagrant contractor tell one story – it is largely repeated in the massive City of London Cash Books, which record expenditure on vagrants examined and issued with a pass; or else imprisoned or maintained in hospital awaiting removal.  These figures reflect the spike in removals complained of by Adams, but also evidence a continued high level of expenditure through 1786, when 2,209 vagrants were taken up, their settlement examined into, and a pass issued at a total cost of £434.[30] From this high point, the numbers gradually began to fall in 1787 (1,241), and 1788 (1,329), before increasing dramatically in 1790 and 1791.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In part, therefore, what one is seeing is a simple shift in policy that allowed large numbers of vagrants to be removed without punishment, at what should have been a minimal cost to the City itself.  But the accounts also tell a different story, because although the numbers of vagrants arrested and removed, essentially stabilised, expenditure continued high and growing.  And the explanation was that a higher proportion of those arrested were then supported in hospital at City expense prior to removal.    A series of deaths during removal, blamed on poor medical care, is part of the explanation, but more importantly, the poor themselves seem to have come to seek arrest in order to gain the access to medicine they needed.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Year by year, both the overall amounts spent on medical care for vagrants, and the relationship between this and the sums spent capturing and processing them was recorded.   Gradually over the course of the second half of the 1780s the City of London came to refer an ever growing proportion of its vagrants to hospitals for medical care.  By the 1790s, the cost of these referrals had risen to an average of £756 per year for vagrants clothed and supported in St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and up to £1057 for those referred to St Thomas’s.[31] Almost £1800 per year was being spent giving vagrants and beggars the best hospital care available.[32] By the mid 1790s the magistrates were sending such ‘great numbers of sick persons and infants utterly incapable of labour’, that the prison committee responsible for Bridewell was forced to approach the Lord Mayor and aldermen, and to ask that they: ‘confer with the governors of the two hospitals as to the necessity of adopting some measures for receiving immediately all such patients as the magistrates may think proper to send’.[33]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In other words, although the immediate crisis in the prisons was addressed, through new building and the re-opening of transportation, and the immediate crisis of vagrant removal eased in the latter years of the 1780s; the reconfiguration of vagrant removal, both as an essentially non-carceral process, and as a route into the hospitals and system of social welfare, was normalised.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The City never returned to a comprehensive policy of punishing vagrants. In 1790, when a committee of the Middlesex Bench examined a group of three vagrants passed from the City, it ruefully observed in its report that they had been ‘advised to go to the Lord Mayor for passes which they did, and had them of course.[34]

Permalink for this paragraph 3 And to set this in a larger frame, I want to conclude by suggesting that while the Proclamation Society, the JPs and conventioneers, the individual projectors and pamphlet writers who did so much in the late 1780s and 90s, to reconfigure and rethink the system of policing, vagrant removal, and social welfare, they were necessarily doing so not simply in response to new ideas or a new sense of appropriate order.  They were driven, as the City of London itself, had been, to action by a system that had broken down following the Gordon Riots; which was barely able to contain a new prison population, and that had no traditional answer to the insistent vagrants who found in the Lord Mayor a strangely assessable ear.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Tim Hitchcock

Permalink for this paragraph 0 University of Hertfordshire


[1] Calculated using the statistics function on the OBP, counting by defendant and excluding unknowns and multiple defendants.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [2] OBP, statistics function.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [3] Quoted by Simon Devereaux, ‘Recasting the Theatre of Execution: The Abolition of the Tyburn Ritual’, Past and Present, 202, no. 1 (2009), p.127.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [4] Devereaux, ‘Convicts and the State’, pp. 244, 392, based on data from PP, Sessional Papers of the House of Commons, 1818, xvi, 185–7 and 1819, xvii, 295–9.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [5] Robert B. Shoemaker, ‘Streets of Shame? The Crowd and Public Punishments in London, 1700–1820’, in S. Devereaux and P. Griffiths, eds, Penal Practice and Culture, 1500–1900: Punishing the English (Palgrave, 2004), pp. 238–40 and Table 9.1.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [6] National Archives, Sheriff’s Cravings, T64/262, T90/165–168.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [7] LMA, MJ/CC/V/002.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [8] LMA, MA/G/GEN/1 pp. 40, 42, 67; MJ/CC/B/080; MA/G/GEN/10; MA/G/GEN/13; MA/G/CBF/1 (27 January 1784).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [9] LMA, Repertories 187, p. 25 (3 December 1782).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [10] In October 1783 the coroner claimed a total of £35.0.3 for conducting the inquisitions, at 15 shillings per inquisition: LL, Middlesex Sessions: General Orders of the Court, 5 October 1783 (LMSMGO556070461).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [11] LMA, CLA/032, Nov 1784.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [12] Devereaux, ‘Convicts and the State’, pp. 232, 254.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [13] LMSMPS50677118-22.  Children have been excluded from these calculations.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [14] LMSMPS507780019-22

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [15] see ‘Aftermath’. Above [expand].

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [16] LMA, MA/G/GEN/1, p.67, MA/G/GEN/10.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [17] LMA, MJ/CC/B/81.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [18] LMA, MA/G/GEN/1, pp. 56–7.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [19] OBP, T17821204-71.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [20] LL, Middlesex Sessions: Sessions Papers, September 1781, ‘petition of Samuel Newport’ (LMSMPS507440060), LMA, Ms. MJ/SO/1781/12.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [21] LL, Middlesex Sessions: General Orders of Court, September 1782 (LMSMGO556070380), LMA, Ms. MJ/OC/10a.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [22] LL, Middlesex Sessions: Sessions Papers, Sept. 1781, ‘An Account of Money Paid by James Crozier… for the poor convicts…’ (LMSMPS507440064), LMA, Ms. MJ/SP/1781/09.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [23] OBP, statistics function (counting by defendant), consulted 1 May 2010; Faramerz Dabhoiwala, ‘Summary Justice in Early Modern London’, English Historical Review, 121, no. 492 (2006), Appendix (committals).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [24] Harris, ‘ ’Policing the City, pp. 38–52.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [25] LL, Middlesex Sessions: Sessions Papers, April 1786 (LMSMPS508090268).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [26] LL, Middlesex Sessions: General Orders of the Court, April 1786 (LMSMGO556090233); Middlesex Sessions: Sessions Papers, April 1786 (LMSMPS508090268).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [27] Harris, Policing the City, pp.45-6.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [28] Tim Hitchcock, Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London (London: Hambledon and London, 2004), ch. 7.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [29] LMA, City Cash Accounts, MS 2/39–67.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [30] LMA, City Cash Accounts, 1784 – 1786, MS 2/58, fol.298.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [31] From 1773 St Bartholomew’s insisted that the City not only pay for medical care and washing, but also for clothing prisoners sent to the hospital.  St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archives, ‘St Bartholomew’s Governors’ Minutes, 1770-86′, Journal HA 1/14, p. 206.  My thanks to Kevin Siena for this reference.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [32] CLRO, ‘City’s Cash Accounts’, 1791-99, MS 2/61, fos. 130-31, 294-95; MS 2/62, pp. 303-5, 358-61; MS 2/64, pp.353-56; MS 2/65, pp. 365-68; MS 2/66, pp. 344-47; MS 3/67, pp. 352-55; MS 3/68, pp. 263-66.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [33] CLRO, ‘Repertories of the Court of Alderman’, Rep. 158, p. 116-17.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [34] LL, Middlesex Sessions: General Orders of the Court, January 1791 (LMSMGO556100109).

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