This is a story about how a speculative visit to Leicestershire Record Office opened up an unexpected avenue of research possibility. I decided to consult some files labelled as Conviction Certificates: Vagrancy. These were document produced to register the punishment passed down on men and women by the summary justice system in England: the Petty Sessions and Police Courts.
These pro forma certificates, I reasoned, would give a sense of the scale of ‘vagrancy’ prosecutions in late Victorian/Edwardian Leicestershire, but little more than that.
One name stood out from that first visit, Charles B., found guilty of refusing to break stones in Loughborough workhouse casual ward 3 April 1911. His punishment: 14 days hard labour in Leicester Gaol.
The date should have grabbed me rather than the surname. It was the morning after the 1911 census had been conducted. So with subscriptions to Ancestery.co.uk and Findmypast.co.uk I entered the world of genealogy. Now I know that Charles B. claimed to be born in St. Silas, Sheffield in 1880.
Combine this digital genealogical material with the British Newspapers 1600-1950 archive, and the plethora of different institutional records relating to the Poor Law, Police and Judiciary in Leicestershire and suddenly a different research question is possible: Who were the vagrants?
And so began a research odyssey reconstructing the lifestories of the men and women who found themselves prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act of 1824.
With the help of a College of Arts and Law Research Scholar, Sarah P, the remaining conviction certificates were sampled and a database containing over 900 cases between 1881 and 1911 created. The specifics of the convictions vary, but all were made under articles of the Vagrancy Act.
Example of Conviction Certification QS85 1 316 Courtsey of Leicestershire Record Office.
The majority of individuals prosecuted are local to Leicestershire and even if you just concentrate on those begging, sleeping rough and refusing work duties there is still a strong Leicestershire connection for many of those prosecuted. For those who might be deemed ‘habitual’ vagrants this research appears to offer an insight, in a way that contemporary policy-makers seemed unable to do, to the background, life experiences, and tramping routes adopted by these individuals.
Here is one example Alfred D., who appeared before the Magistrates at Leicester Castle in March 1896 for begging. He was born in Nantwich in 1861 to a line of shoe workers. His family relocated to Stafford, before he himself took on the trade of shoe fitter and moved to Leicester, lodging with his aunt.
Convicted Beggar Leicester Gaol Prisoner Photograph DE3831 142 Courtesy of Leicestershire Record Office
In 1885 he stole his father’s shoe making tools and tried to sell them because he wanted to go into another profession. His father asks for leniency, wanting not punishment for his son, but for him “to improve his conduct. If prisoner would promise to go away from home and earn his own living, he would with draw the charge.” The court agreed.
The spiral downwards was rapid: convictions for drunkenness follow before he begins tramping between Northamptonshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Leicestershire. He is repeatedly jailed for vagrancy (possibly as many as thirty times).
Early reports of his trials mention his trade as a “shoe fitter”. Increasingly this is lost as he gains his wish to shed his profession for that of a “tramp” and “professional beggar” who is a “dangerous character”, prone to “peculiar behaviour”, and in the “habit of intimidating people”. His arrests often feature a struggle that requires numbers of men to subdue the prisoner.
Reconstructing these life stories is not without its’ challenges and frustrations. Who would have thought that Barzilla D. would be, in fact, two different men living just a few miles apart from one another?
Or, that the William H. whose 1882 mug shot appears in the Leicester Gaol prisoner photograph register, with a string of previous convictions around the Midlands, cannot yet be definitively linked to the elderly William H. who refused his work duty in 1911.
Convicted Vagrant Leicester Gaol Prisoner Photograph DE3831 301 Courtesy of Leicestershire Record Office
And what of Charles B.? After several false leads the trail had gone cold, that was until I discovered recently an account of the trial in the Nottingham Evening Post. So watch this space …..
Images reproduced with permission of Leicestershire Record Office.