Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Seven Curses of London, by James Greenwood, 1869




The Beggar of Olden Time.

"Only a Beggar"—The Fraternity 333 Years ago A Savage Law—Origin of the Poor-Laws—Irish Distinction in the Ranks of Beggary—King Charles's Pro clamatio n—Cumberland Discipline.

Were it not that the reader's sound and simple sense renders it quite unnecessary, it might be of importance to premise that to be "only a beggar" does not constitute a human being a curse against his species. There are those amongst the greatest and most famous who have been beggars, and many of the mightiest, groaning under the crushing burden of distracting power and unruly riches, have bemoaned their fate and envied the careless beggar whose dwindled strength was at least equal to carrying his slender wallet, whose heart was as light as his stomach, and whose wildest dreams of wealth never soared vastly above a cosy barn to sleep in, a warm old cast-off coat, and a sixpence. To be sure, in many instances these dissatisfied ones may not have given any stedfast considera­tion as regards such a decided change of state as might happen to suit them. It is related of a King of Scotland that, wearying of the cares of government, he slipped away from his palace and its cloy­ing luxuries, to taste the delights that attach to the existence of ragged roving mendicants; but though his majesty affected to have enjoyed himself very much, and discoursed afterwards gravely of the great moral profit it brought him, it is not recorded that he persevered for any very long time in the pursuit of the newly-discovered blessing, or that he evinced any violent longing to return to it. Perhaps, having convinced himself of the advantages of poverty, he generously resolved to leave it to his subjects, con­tenting himself with such occasional glimpses of it as might be got by looking out o' window.
    It is now 333 years ago since the beggar ceased to be dependent on voluntary charity, and the State insisted on his support by the parishes. In the year 1536 was passed an Act of Parliament abolishing the mendicant's right to solicit public alms. Under a penalty of twenty shillings a month for every case of default, the parochial authorities were bound to provide work for the able-bodied. A poor's-rate, as we now understand the term, was not then thought of, the money required for pauper relief being chiefly derived from collections in the churches, a system that to a limited extent enabled the clergy to exercise their pious influences as in the old times, and before the destruction of monasteries and religious houses by Henry VIII. It was the wholesale spoliation in question, that occurred immediately after the Reformation, that first made known to the people at large the vast numbers of beg­gars that were amongst them. The Act of 27 Henry VIII. c. 25, prohibited indiscriminate almsgiving.
    What the charitable townsman had to give, he was bound to dis­tribute within the boundaries of the parish in which he resided. Under the old and looser condition of affairs the beggar derived the greater part of his gettings from the traveller; but the obnox­ious Act effectually cut off from him this fruitful source of supply, since it provided that any parishioner or townsman who distributed alms out of his proper district, should forfeit to the State ten times the amount given. Whether the recipient of the bounty was in a position to act as "informer," with the customary advantage of receiving half the penalty, is not stated.
    Against sturdy beggars the law was especially severe. On his first conviction he was whipped, the second led to the slicing-off of his right ear, and if after that he was deaf to the law's tender admoni­tions, sentence of death was executed on him.
    This savage law, however, remained in force not more than ten years; one of the earliest Acts of Edward VI. was to mitigate the penalties attaching to beggary. Even under this humane King's ruling, however, a beggar's punishment was something very far beyond a joke. Every person able to work, and not willing, and declining a "job," though for no more tempting wages than his bare meat and drink, was liable to be branded on the shoulder, and any man willing to undertake the troublesome charge might claim the man as his slave for two years. His scale of diet during that time was more meagre than that allotted to the pauper in our own times. If the slave's master was a generous man, he might bestow on him the scraps from his table, or such meat-offal as his dogs had no relish for; but in law he was only bound to provide him with a sufficiency of bread and water. If such hot feeding did not provoke him to arouse and set to work with a will, his master might chain him and flog him to death's door; and so long as he did not drive him beyond that, the law would hold him harmless.
    Sometimes the poor wretch so goaded would run away, but in the event of his being recaptured, he was branded on the cheek, and condemned to lifelong servitude; and if this did not cure his pro­pensity for "skedaddling," he was hanged offhand. Any employer having a fancy for such a commodity as an incorrigible runaway might have the man so condemned as his slave for life; but if no one offered, he was chained at the legs and set to work to keep the highways in repair.
    It was speedily found, however, that under such mild laws it was impossible to keep the begging fraternity in a proper frame of mind; and after a trial of it for three years the old Act of Henry was restored in full force.
    In 1551 there dawned symptoms of the system that has taken more than three hundred years to develop and even now can scarcely lay claim to perfection. Collectors were appointed whose duty it was to make record of the name, residence, and occupation of all who apparently were able to give, as well as of those whose helpless distress entitled them to relief. In the words of the ancient enactment, the said collectors were to "gently ask every man and woman, that they of their charity will give weekly to the relief of the poor." To give, however, was optional, and not compulsory; no more severe pressure was brought to bear against a grudger than that the minister or churchwardens were sent to him to exhort him to charity; but so many curmudgeons remained inexorable that the voluntary system remained in force no longer than twelve years; and then the statute regulating poor's relief was remodelled, and it was declared good law that any person able to contribute, and declining to do so, might be summoned before a justice, who would tax him according to his discretion, and commit him to gaol if he still remained obdurate.
    This last Act was passed in 1563, but nine years afterwards, we find the Government once again urged to repair what evidently had all this time remained an unsatisfactory business. It is evident that the arrangements made for the support of the impotent poor tended to loosen the shackles invented for the suppression of the professional beggar. The last-mentioned individual was found to be flourishing again, and it was deemed advisable to make still shorter his restricted tether. A law was passed enacting that "all persons whole and mighty in body, able to labour, not having land or master, nor using any lawful merchandise, craft, or mystery, and all common labourers, able in body, loitering and refusing to work for such reasonable wage as is commonly given, should for the first offence be grievously whipped, and burned through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about."
    This mild and moderate mandate was promulgated under the sanction of the virgin Queen Elizabeth, and it is to be observed that during the same beneficent reign were passed laws in connec­tion with labour and labourers that, were they revived, would go hard with trade-unionists and strikers in general. By the statutes 39 of Elizabeth, cap. 3 and 4 (1598), to refuse to work at the recognised and ordinary wages subjected the malcontent to be "openly whipped until his body should be bloody, and forthwith sent from parish to parish, the most straight way to the parish where he was born, there to put himself to labour, as a true sub­ject ought to do." Under the same Acts of Elizabeth, the overseers of the poor in every parish were empowered to raise by "taxation of every inhabitant, parson, vicar, and other, and of every occupier of lands, houses, tithes, mines, &c., such sums of money as they shall require for providing a sufficient stock of flax, hemp, wool, and other ware or stuff to set the poor on work, and also compe­tent sums for relief of lame, blind, old, and impotent persons." By virtue of the Acts in question, justices were empowered to commit to prison the able-bodied who would not work; and church-wardens and overseers were charged to build suitable houses, at the cost of the parish, for the reception of the impotent poor only.
    As, however, is observed by Mr. Halliday (to whose excellent account of the Origin and History of the Poor-Laws I stand in­debted for much of the material employed in this summary) "these simple provisions were in course of time greatly perverted, and many abuses were introduced into the administration of the poor-law. One of the most mischievous practices was that which was established by the justices for the county of Berks in 1795, when, in order to meet the wants of the labouring population— caused by the high price of provisions—an allowance in proportion to the number of his family was made out of the parish fund to every labourer who applied for relief. This allowance fluctuated with the price of the gallon loaf of second flour, and the scale was so adjusted as to return to each family the sum which in a given number of loaves would cost beyond the price, in years of ordi­nary abundance. This plan was conceived in a spirit of benevolence, but the readiness with which it was adopted in all parts of England clearly shows the want of sound views on the subject. Under the allowance-system the labourer received a part of his means of sub­sistence in the form of a parish-gift, and as the fund out of which it was provided was raised from the contributions of those who did not employ labourers as well as of those who did, their em­ployer5~ being able in part to burden others with the payment for their labour, had a direct interest in perpetuating the system. Those who employed labourers looked upon the parish contribu­tion as part of the fund out of which they were to be paid, and accordingly lowered their rate of wages. The labourers also looked on the fund as a source of wage. The consequence was, that the labourer looked to the parish, and as a matter of right, without any regard to his real wants; and he received the wages of his labour as only one and a secondary source of the means of subsis­tence. His character as a labourer became of less value, his value as a labourer being thus diminished under the combined operation of these two causes."
    In the olden time, as at present, it appears that the Irish figured conspicuously in the ranks of beggary. As is shown by the recent returns, there are haunting the metropolis nearly three mendicants hailing from the Emerald Isle to one of any other nation; and that it was so so long ago as the reign of King Charles II. the following proclamation will sufficiently attest:
    "A Proclamation for the speedy rendering away of Irishe Beg­gars out of this Kingdome into their owne Countrie and for the Suppressing and Ordering of Rogues and Vagabonds according to the Laws.
    "Whereas this realme hath of late been pestered with great num­bers of Lrishe beggars who live here idly and dangerously, and are of ill example to the natives of this Kingdome; and whereas the multitude of English rogues and vagabonds doe much more abound than in former tymes—some wandering and begging under the colour of soldiers and mariners, others under the pretext of impotent persons, whereby they become a burden to the good people of the land—all which happeneth by the neglect of the due execution of the lawes formerly with great providence made for relief of the true poor and indigent and for the punishment of sturdy rogues and vagabonds: for the reforming thereof soe great a mischiefe, and to prevent the many dangers which will ensue by the neglect thereof; the King, by the advice of his Privy Council and of his judges, commands that all the laws and statutes now in force for the punishment of rogues and vagabonds be duly putt in execution; and more particularly that all Irishe beggars which now are in any part of this Kingdome, wandering or begging under what pretence soever, shall forthwith depart this realme and return to their owne countries and there abide."
    The authorities of Cumberland and Westmoreland appear to have hit on an expedient that has proved successful in diminishing the number of tramps that formerly infested those counties. A recently published report states: "In consequence of frequent and general complaints from the people of these two counties, as to the numerous robberies committed by tramping vagrants, it was determined, at the end of the year 1867, to enforce the Vagrant Act strictly. The result has been that, in the year ending at Michael­mas 1868, 524 persons were apprehended in the two counties for begging from house to house, and 3.74 of them were committed to prison. The effect has been, to a certain extent, like that which occurred in the time of the cattle-plague; when the police told the tramps at the frontier that they must either stop or must be dis­infected, and they turned back. The daily average number of tramps and vagrants in the two counties in the year ending at Michaelmas 1868 was only 150, making a total decrease of 6935 in the year; and various petty larcenies, burglaries, and other crimes decreased remarkably. The chief constable has reported that the course adopted has been attended with most beneficial results, in checking professional mendicancy and preventing crime; and he is persuaded that if the law were generally and uniformly carried into effect, tramping vagrancy, as a trade, would be very soon put an end to. He says that, as a rule, the condition of the hands will enable the police to judge between the professional tramp and the working man really travelling in search of work, and that all difficulty might be removed by requiring the latter to pro­cure a certificate from the head of the police of the starting-place, which would protect him against apprehension, and which might also guarantee certain relief at appointed places along his route."