Poverty Work and Punishment: Vagrancy across the Midlands, 1824-1896.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Sch of Historical Studies


The vagrant is an iconic figure in welfare history. Fear over this group was a factor in the implementation of the Old Poor Law. For its 1834 successor, the New Poor Law (NPL) the vagrant is an historiographical leitmotif for policy success (where vagrant numbers fell) or failure. Throughout the life of the NPL, streams of vagrants explain the majority of 'throughput' in the inmate populations of workhouses. And while it has become commonplace to observe that the majority of all welfare continued to be paid outside the walls of the workhouse, it is less commonly acknowledged that in 'normal' times vagrants absorbed a significant percentage of all 'outdoor' relief. Despite the survival of considerable sources for quantitative and qualitative analysis, however, the nineteenth-century vagrant remains much-neglected. Your study will begin to rectify this situation. Working with your supervisory team you will focus on the nature and experience of vagrancy in 15 Poor Law Unions selected for their coverage of different socio-economic typologies, in a broad band running from Cambridgeshire through to Shropshire and Staffordshire. The source base for the project will comprise: Parliamentary Papers; TNA records in HO 44-5 and 52, MH 9-10, 12, 15, 19 and 32; Union records in local record offices; and newspaper reporting. You will work with us to frame the project, but key questions might include: (i) What was the scale of the 'vagrancy problem' over time and area?; (ii) How did the State understand vagrancy?; (iii) What strategies (singly and in concert) did Unions devise to reduce vagrancy?; (iv) Who were the vagrants?; (v) How did the welfare experiences of vagrants change over time?; (vi) How was work used for punishment and deterrence?; (vii) Did vagrants pursue relief in favoured locations?; (viii) How did vagrants construct their condition? The studentship will particularly cater to interests in social and welfare policy, class, power, identity and agency.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000711/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2100184 Studentship ES/P000711/1 01/10/2018 30/09/2022 Megan Louise Yates
Description Extensive research of 'MH12' letters between the local authorities across the Midlands and the Central Commission in London. These letters have revealed a significant level of vagrancy across the Midlands and have also revealed that the definition of a vagrant is complex and a much misunderstood topic. Narrowing down newspaper reports for vagrants in these Midland locations has also revealed that vagrants were a group that knew their workhouse rights and complained or rebelled if the treatment they received was, according to the law, dissatisfactory. In the early stages of this award, I am continuing to bring together archival material to substantiate these key findings. I will in due course, be in a position from both the qualitative and quantitative data collected, to make a novel contribution to the field of study.
Exploitation Route Further studies of vagrancy, understanding the selfhood and identities of marginalised groups and the ways in which identity can be constructed for the past without the use of ego documents (e.g. letters, diaries, autobiographies). Governmental plans for changing the Vagrancy Act (1824). Specifically the focus on the wording of the vagrancy act which concentrates on 'idle and disorderly persons' and the definition of such people, a key aspect of the first chapter in this thesis.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections