HC Deb 12 May 1882 vol 269 cc580-94

, in rising to call the attention of the House to the great increase of Vagrancy, said, had the Rules of the House permitted, he should have moved— That the increase of Vagrancy, together with the causes and remedies for the same, require the early attention of the Government. His object was to obtain information on this subject, which it was impossible for private Members to do without the aid of the Local Government Board. The subject was one of great importance, many Unions having brought the enormous increase which had taken place in vagrancy before the notice of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board. The Local Government Board did not give sufficient or immediate attention to these representations; it was now nearly six months since their attention had been called to the matter; whereas, in such a case, their own Inspector should have done so. Notwithstanding the regulations of the Board dealing with the relief which was to be given to vagrants, during the last 20 years there had been a great, he might say an alarming and continuous, increase in their numbers. What made it more serious was the terrorism which they began to exercise over orderly and respectable per- sons; some roads being so infected by them as to be inconvenient, if not unsafe to travel upon. In 1869 and 1870 the numbers decreased, owing to the great amendment that then took place in Poor Law administration; but while in 1873 the numbers were 1,900, in 1880 they were 7,000. That showed great fluctuation; but, at the same time, a very serious increase. The present vagrant army sleeping in workhouses was between 6,000 and 7,000; about three times as many more were known to the police as vagrants—say, 20,000—half of whom were more or less wayfarers, and half of whom were undistinguishable from the workhouse tramp, making the vagrant body about 16,000 or 17,000, at least. Now, the fluctuations of the number of the workhouse tramps were very remarkable. Without giving each year, and taking the rise and fall since 1861, there were, according to the Return, of those sleeping on January 1st in workhouse wards—1861, 1,179; 1867, 3,566; 1868, 6,053; 1870, 4,147; 1873, 1,987; 1880, 7,041. Then, as regards separate Unions, he had obtained Returns from about 20, showing the increase since 1876 for the half-year. These were 10 typical ones—

1876. 1881.
Atcham 450 1,880
Tenbury 350 1,118
Langport 160 410
Hatfield 550 2,133
South Molton 110 312
Burton-on-Trent 592 6,986
Stafford 1,838 3,041
Tamworth 740 2,430
Uttoxeter 929 1,327
Seisdon 118 369
Showing an increase amounting to 300 per cent in the five years. By Returns obtained over a month or two in one Union he found that one-fifth of the vagrants were short-service soldiers, and of these one quarter, or thereabouts, were actually Reserve men. So that out of every 1,000 tramps about 200 were discharged soldiers, and 50 of them actually Reserve men—that was, if the proportion of other Unions fairly tallied with his own. Now, what were the causes of that increase? It was not easy exactly to define them; but two or three were apparent. Depression of trade was no doubt one; stricter or laxer administration might be another and a local cause. The short-service Army system might have something to do with it, in de-industrializing young men, and afterwards giving them just enough to be idle upon; and, possibly, the want of industrial training in their school children might have something to answer for. But the danger of the matter seemed to be that it was growing; and those who took to that life did not return to regular and industrial habits. It seemed to him difficult to imagine a more certain way of inculcating idle habits and vagabond life than taking a young man of 18 or 20, keeping him for six years, when he might be learning some trade, in a somewhat idle profession, and then turning him loose, with just sufficient to live a roving life, living in tramp wards and on what could be begged; and if that was so, the short-service system might have to answer not only for destroying the efficiency and solidarity of their regiments, but also for de-industrializing the young men who were enlisted, and forming a pauper Reserve, or proletariat reservoir. Without now going into the question, it appeared to him that if the Reserve could be formed out of the men enlisted for a shorter term—say, one or three years—and then passed to the Militia, who might be retained for half the present amount, and the Regular Army maintained out of a longer service or re-engagements, it would be a far sounder system; and that was the opinion of many experienced military men, altogether apart from the question of these men being in workhouses. Then, as regarded remedies, he was not prepared to offer any complete remedy or suggest any panacea; but he held that those who brought forward questions of that kind, or of any other kind, in Parliament, should at least attempt to offer some suggestion or alternative, whether it was for a domestic matter like that, a homely—he might say a homeless—question such as that, or a subject of high policy, and foreign affairs, and therefore he would frankly say what he advised. First, information as to what the most successful Unions had done in this matter, which the Local Government Board could collect and disseminate; and that was the most important matter. There was the Vagrancy Bill of the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr. Pell), which it would be out of Order to discuss to-night, with its power of detention. That might do something, but not all. There was what was known as the Berkshire system, which was a system of tickets and bread at certain stations, together with a strict prosecution of those found begging, and a sterner sentence for those who threatened. There was much in that, perhaps; but it had not been always successful, and it had to be maintained by a voluntary subscription at present. That the Local Government Board could obviate, without coming to Parliament for new powers, if it were thought advisable. But his main object that night in calling attention to the subject was to ventilate the question in that House, and throughout the country; to get the Local Government Board to take up the matter, and to afford the House all the information in its possession regarding it. He hoped, also, that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War would see his way to institute searching inquiries into the bearings and facts in connection with the subject, and do something in connection with the Army Reserve, which might in some degree mitigate the evil.


said, he felt himself unable to suggest any definite or radical cure for the long-established evil of vagrancy. The question, however, was one of great interest and importance to the community; and thanks were due to his hon. Friend for bringing it forward. A few years ago, he himself had an opportunity of giving some attention to, and gaining a certain amount of information on, that subject at the very time when the causes of the increase of vagrancy were especially in operation. It was very difficult to speak positively on a subject of that kind; but he believed that the recent increase of vagrancy was very much due to the bad state of trade for a period of two or three years some few years since. He had noticed that matter during the years 1876, 1877, 1878, and 1879, culminating, as it did, in the year 1880. He had observed this very remarkable feature in respect to vagrancy throughout the country—that if they kept their attention fixed upon some particular district—for instance, on some great centre of the iron industry—they would find that a year or so after the adverse circumstances of trade commenced vagrancies spread gradually from that particular point throughout the Kingdom. What happened was this. Men who were thrown out of employment from the bad times held to their homes as long as they could, hoping for a return of better trade; but at last they left their homes, and started on a journey, sometimes in search of work. They went a certain distance; some of them got work; others did not. When they did not get work, they began to go further and further throughout the country; and he believed that the Poor Law Returns of the time would show that, year after year, the increase of vagrancy spread from the great centres of trade further and further into the country as those persons who were in want of work went further to obtain their object. What was the effect of that process on the men themselves who were wandering in search of employment? Many of them gradually found that a wandering life was easier, more profitable, and more pleasant than an industrious life; and the result had been that, in consequence of the bad times of 1877 and 1878, the wanderers from the great centres of manufactures, not having found work, and having got accustomed to sleeping in the unions at night, and begging their way during the day, had become confirmed and habitual vagrants. One of the first things they had to do was to appreciate the distinction between men who, from bad habits and education, habitually adopted the character of vicious vagrants and men who were honestly wandering about in search of work. He was in the habit of conversing with vagrants whom he chanced to meet, and his conversation with them had confirmed the impression he already entertained—namely, that there were a class of men who became vagrants by choice. Now, that class of men ought to be repressed; they were a dangerous class, and the cause of great trouble and annoyance to cottages at which they persistently begged, and whose occupants they threatened if their demands were not satisfied. They were men who went from bad to worse, and who ultimately generally joined the criminal classes. He did not now suggest any solution of the difficulty; but he wished to impress upon the Government the difference between the two classes. Some persons had suggested that the detention of these men in the workhouse for one night only was insufficient, and certainly it was open to grave objection. The ordinary vagrant who was taken in and sheltered at night received his breakfast, and had to do his task in the morning of picking oakum, or whatever it might be, and after that was discharged. The con- sequence was that he wandered about all day begging, or spending his time in some similar occupation until the evening, when he again obtained shelter in the same way. Perhaps such men might with advantage be detained for more than one night. On the other hand, when a man honestly started from his home in search of work, which he could not obtain in his own part of the country, it would be a great advantage to him if he could obtain tickets which would carry him through the country until he obtained the occupation he sought. And, more than this, the Poor Law Board ought to have some enlarged powers intrusted to them of enabling men who were honestly unable to obtain suitable employment to emigrate, not at the expense of the parish or Union, but of some larger area. There were many methods by which the vicious vagrant might be distinguished from the workman thrown out of employment. The use of the police had been tried with success, and was certainly worthy of the attention of the House. He did not propose to follow the hon. Baronet in his remarks on the effect of the short-service system generally, as he did not think a consideration of that subject would tend to aid their discussion on the present occasion. But he was not surprised to find that a certain number of men who had been in the Army had become vagrants. It must be obvious that a man who had spent six years of his life in military service would have great difficulty in making his way into the first class of artizans. It was quite clear, also, that as soon as any depression in trade made itself felt, the second-class workman would be the first to suffer. He urged on the Government, however, to spare no pains to distinguish between those who were compelled against their will to leave their own homes in search of work and those who wandered about from idle habits. The former should receive the sympathy of all, the latter were an idle and vicious class, who deserved no consideration, and which it should be the aim of the Government to abolish.


said, that, until the hon. Baronet opposite (Sir Baldwyn Leighton) rose, he (Mr. Childers) had not anticipated that the Army Reserve would be mentioned in connection with vagrancy, and, consequently, was not prepared with any statistics on the subject. He might say, however, that although the Unions generally were by no means backward in complaining of matters of this kind, yet he had been able to ascertain that neither the War Office nor the Local Government Board had received any complaints from them as to Army Reserve men becoming vagrants; unless, possibly, the latter Department had heard from the Union of the district with which the hon. Baronet (Sir Baldwyn Leighton) was connected; and the information at the disposal of the Government did not, therefore, support the suggestion of the hon. Baronet that the evil was one which occasioned any very great public interest. Speaking of a particular Union, the hon. Baronet said that one-fifth of the vagrants were men who had been in the Army, and of these one-fourth were from the Army Reserve, the argument being that the Army Reserve contributed one-twentieth of the total number of vagrants. If so, on the hon. Baronet's own figures, the Army Reserve contributed a smaller percentage by far than old pensioners, the latter numbering some 80,000. There was, in fact, no evidence to show that of the Army Reserve men—the short-service men—any large proportion fell into penury. The question was tested on the last occasion, when a certain number of Army Reserve men were invited to return to the Colours. When that step was taken various results were predicted; on the one hand, that the number of those who would be glad to return would be very large; on the other, that the men, as a rule, were in good employment, which few of them would be willing to quit. The event showed the correctness of this latter view, as only 900 men returned; and of these he had reason to know that a large proportion did come from employments in which they were receiving good wages, and only a small number came back to the Colours because they were in distress. Therefore, bearing these facts in mind, and in the absence of complaints from the Unions, he did not believe that the increase of the number of vagrants was at all due to the establishment of the Army Reserve. He was bound to say, also, that it was not in harmony with experience that military work demoralized or de-industrialized—to use the hon. Baronet's word—the men. Indeed, if this question of vagrancy was the hon. Baronet's sole objection to the short-service system, it was a very small one. Under the old system they could not get enough men, while under the new system they were getting a very satisfactory number of recruits.


said, he wished to make a few remarks in reference to what had been said by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War. He did not pretend to enter into the question of the comparative merits of long and short service in the Army; but the right hon. Gentleman knew that it was a question upon which he (Sir Henry Fletcher) did not agree with him. In the few words he had to say, he wished to speak, not as an old soldier, but as a Chairman of a Board of Guardians of many years' experience. Gentlemen filling such positions had greater knowledge of facts connected with vagrancy than ever reached the War Office. How, indeed, should that knowledge reach the War Office? These tramps and vagrants only came into the workhouse for one night; they received their bed and their breakfast, and for this they were required to do a certain amount of work. He could not agree with the right hon. Gentleman, as he knew that there were a large proportion of short-service men who did take advantage of workhouses in this way, and tramp about as his hon. Friend near him (Sir Baldwyn Leighton) described. He never said anything in the House that he was not able to prove, and on subjects with which he was not fully acquainted; but he could say most distinctly that for some years past he had had occasion to pay attention to this vagrancy system, and he knew it to be the curse of England. He could prove that since the institution of the short-service system vagrancy had increased. He had, in his own Union in the county of Sussex, taken pains to ascertain the number of tramps who had been short-service men, and he was sure that his hon. Friend had under-estimated rather than exaggerated the number. The Secretary of State for War said that with the short-service system there was no inducement for men to be out of work; but, with all respect, the contrary proposition could not be denied. Without going into the general question of short service, he might briefly state that what happened was this. A man enlisted as a soldier at the age of 18 or 19, he served for a period which up to now had been seven years, and at the end of that time he received his discharge and returned to his village, his town, or his parish. He went to his old master, and asked to come back to his former employment; but the master replied—"I have filled up the place, and I have nothing more for you to do." The man, during his soldier life with the Colours, had contracted a restless mode of life, and, finding he could not get employment in his own parish, he started off and wandered over the country, living a restless, unprofitable existence. In the Southern shires there was a regular track for these vagrants, which they followed week after week, and month after month. Starting from London, they went down to the South-Eastern part of England, to Dover, say. They walked along to Brighton and Southampton, and so passed along to Plymouth and into Wales. They went by the Southernmost road, and they returned by a road a little further inland. Day after day, week after week, he had seen these men tramping along the roads, being nothing but a nuisance to the labouring classes, whom they jeered at as they passed and chaffed them, asking why should they work when bed and board could be had for nothing? The bread ticket system had been mentioned, and this they had tried in West Sussex, the Dorsetshire system, as it was called, and the result had been an utter failure. For two years it was tried; but it was found that the men got more bread than they could eat from charitable persons, and they had been seen to go into public-houses and exchange bread for tobacco and beer. It was found impossible to continue the bread ticket system after a trial of two years. Another matter had been alluded to by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Salt), which. was keeping the vagrants longer at the workhouse. That he could not approve of. He had tried it in his own workhouse, keeping them from the Saturday until the Monday; but the men who were thus detained amused themselves all Sunday in their cells by ringing the bells for the porter and assistant porter, and remained in their cells laughing at the workhouse authority. It was now for the Local Government Board to suggest some means of suppressing va- grancy. Magistrates and Guardians had tried all in their power, but without success. During the 11 years he had been Chairman, various systems of work had been tried for these men—oakum-picking, stone-breaking, and there was one thing that the men did not like at all, and which might be recommended to other Guardians as a deterrent, and that was stone pounding—pounding stone into minute particles by means of an iron hammer, 60 lbs. or 65 lbs. being required of a man before he left the workhouse. There was another deterrent which, however, had not received the sanction of the Local Government Board, and that was the crank-pump. The tramps did not like that at all. He (Sir Henry Fletcher) thought that anything of that description that possibly could be ought to be imposed on the tramp, who was a worthless fellow, a perfect nuisance, and a pest. When not engaged in his Parliamentary duties, he (Sir Henry Fletcher) was, as a rule, in daily communication with the authorities at the workhouse in his district. Every day he saw tramps on the road; indeed, he could not go out of his house without meeting gangs of them, and he knew how the poor cottagers by the roadside suffered from them. These men went to the door, under pretence of asking for a glass of water or a piece of bread; but, in reality, they intimidated the poor women to such an extent that, being in constant danger of their lives, the tramps were absolutely a perfect misery to them. In his division of the county they had Petty Sessions once a fortnight; but there was hardly a week passed in which he was not called upon by the police to go across to the Petty Sessional town to dispose of these cases. The magistrates, too, used their best endeavours in trying to put down the evil by giving a uniform system of punishment. They had been asked for and supplied policemen for additional service at the most frequented places; but the system of vagrancy had assumed such enormous proportions during the last few years that it was evident, unless the authorities or Government interposed, the people would continue to suffer still more than they did now from their visits. He did not wish to put forward any measure or suggestion; but he most earnestly asked the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Local Govern- ment Board to give the matter his best and most earnest attention, in order that this vagrancy, which was neither more nor less than a curse and a disgrace to the community, should be diminished and repressed.


said, he could assure the hon. and gallant Baronet opposite (Sir Henry Fletcher) that the officers of the Local Government Board, including himself, were deeply sensible of the evils of vagrancy, and were sincerely desirous of putting as much restriction as possible upon those evils. There could be no doubt that during a period of some years, and particularly between the years 1875 to 1880, the mischief of vagrancy had been on the increase; but that increase had, he believed, been felt more in particular localities than in the country as a whole, and it must not be assumed that because some districts suffered very much from it that there was a serious increase in this mischief all over the country. The hon. Baronet the Member for South Shropshire (Sir Baldwyn Leighton) attributed that increase to three causes—namely, the depression in trade, the short-service system, and the non-industrial education of boys in modern times. He (Mr. Dodson) was of opinion that the second of those allegations was not sustained. He would remind the hon. Baronet that there was no record kept at the workhouses as to the calling of those that received relief; and, therefore, there was no proof that they were short-service men. This branch of the question, however, had been dealt with exhaustively by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War (Mr. Childers); notwithstanding that, he (Mr. Dodson) might say that he had received a record from a gentleman connected with the county of Northumberland, which was confirmatory of the opinion of his right hon. Friend, and which would give some indication as to the short-service men. This gentleman had ascertained that in the course of one week 61 men came to the workhouses in Northumberland who had served in the Army. Of these 50 had served seven years and more, and only 11 had served less than seven; and, judging from the ages of the men, it would appear that not more than three or four were short-service men. That gave some idea as to the number of short-service men relieved.


said, that they might have served seven years, and still be short-service men.


said, that was so now; but, at all events, of the 61, not less than 50 had served more than seven years. As regarded the non-industrial education of the boys of the present day, that was an allegation somewhat difficult to prove. It proceeded upon a theory he thought they would not undertake to discuss. If he were asked to assign the causes accounting for the increase of vagrancy, such as it had been in recent years, he should say, first, the depression in trade to which the hon. Baronet had alluded. It was a fact that the years between 1875 and 1880 were the years when depression of trade was greatest, and vagrancy correspondingly increased, while the years of improvement corresponded with the years of diminished vagrancy. In 1881 there was a diminution as compared with 1880; and he was glad to say that, in 1882, so far as it had gone, there was again a diminution as compared with the previous year. The second cause which added to the recorded number of vagrants was the increased accommodation through the multiplication of wards in the workhouses, which had drawn to them a number of men, who would, perhaps, have gone to lodgings or have slept under a hedge. In this way the Act passed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ripon (Mr. Goschen) had tended to swell the Returns. A third cause was the growth of population. Again, the total number often given was a fallacious one; and, with reference to this point, hon. Members must bear in mind that the workhouse records gave the number of cases relieved, and not the actual number of vagrants in the country. Of course, if there were 100 more vagrants this year than last, and they each visited 100 workhouses, that would make a nominal increase of 10,000.


said, that the figures he had quoted showed no decrease in the last year, but a steady increase.


said, he was not disputing the hon. Baronet's figures. He merely gave that instance to show how easily a miscalculation had often been made. He would then give them a few statistics. In 1879 the mean number relieved in the wards was 5,567; in 1880, 6,194; and in 1881, 5,912. On the 1st of January of those years the numbers were 5,347, 5,848, and 5,466 respectively. That showed that the tide had turned, and he hoped that it would continue to ebb so. He should like to go back to a former period, in order to ascertain whether vagrancy was permanently and continuously on the increase. Up to 1868, the Home Office used to have the number of vagrants showed among other criminal statistics in the Police Returns. They gave the total number of vagrants known to the police; and, in 1868, the number of vagrants known to the police was 36,000; and the vagrants relieved by the Guardians on the 1st of January, 1868, were, in rough numbers, 6,000. The number relieved on the 1st January, 1882, was, as he had stated, 5,466. The mean number of vagrants "in and out" on 1st January, 1868, was 6,129, and on 1st January, 1881, 6,338, showing an increase of vagrants relieved in and out of the workhouses of only 209. It amounted to this—that the total number of vagrants relieved by Guardians, notwithstanding the increase of population, was not now greater than in 1868. It must be borne in mind that, owing to the fluctuations of particular trades at particular times, there were in particular localities more vagrants than at other times. Therefore, we must not lay too much stress on our own experience of a particular neighbourhood or a particular time. If we wished to have a correct impression as to the progress or otherwise of vagrancy, we must look at the matter as a whole. Some remedies had been suggested to obviate this increase; and amongst them were bread-tickets, stricter treatment, longer de-tention, crank labour, and other correctives of that kind. These remedies were all under the consideration of the Local Government Board. Communications on the subject had also been addressed by various Unions to the Local Government Board, who had paid the greatest attention to them. He would not enter into a discussion of the plans which might be devised for a better management of vagrants, because in a day or two there would be discussed a Bill which had been brought into the House by an hon. Gentleman who had very great experience upon these matters. On the second reading of that Bill there would be a legitimate opportunity for discussing the remedies suggested on the subject.


said, that, with reference to the closing remark of the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Dodson), he hoped the subject would receive the attention it deserved when the Motion with reference to it was brought forward on Wednesday next. In his (Mr. J. G. Talbot's) capacity as Chairman of the Vagrancy Committee in the county of Kent, it had been his duty to watch the alarming increase of this great evil. It was not only an evil, in so far as it was a disgrace to the community that a large number of persons should be wandering about without visible means of support; but it was also an evil because vagrants were usually persons who preyed in some way upon society. It might be that the distinction drawn by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Salt) between good vagrants and bad vagrants was correct; but he could not help thinking that poor persons who were really anxious to obtain work would not, in any great numbers, find their way to the casual wards of workhouses. At least one-half of the vagrants frequenting the casual wards belonged to the criminal or the semi-criminal population. The best plan was to divide vagrants into the two categories of paupers and criminals. So far as vagrants really deserved the assistance of the State, he thought that they ought to be treated like other paupers. That was the principle which the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr. Pell) had developed in his Bill. He thought they had made a mistake in the treatment of vagrants. They had at once been too stern and too indulgent, for too much indulgence had been shown to these people, because they were allowed to receive gratis board, lodging, and necessary clothing; but, on the other hand, a want of feeling was shown towards them, because they were kept by themselves and treated differently from other paupers. Moreover, there was no attempt to bring them under humanizing influences, for no Chaplain or Board of Guardians ever came near them. That exceptional severity should be removed, and they should receive the same treatment as other paupers. Then, again, if they were not criminals in act, or not detected criminals, they were often criminals in will, ready to lay their hands upon anything that might come in their way. They were persons from whom a great deal of the crime of the country proceeded; and, when convicted of begging, it had been found by experience that their imprisonment had a striking effect upon the class. Magistrates were often too lax in their treatment of them; they should put in power the force which the law gave them. He was glad to hear from his right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board that there had been a diminution of the number of vagrants this year; but that was probably due to the exceptionally mild winter. He was struck by the remarkable circumstance stated by the right hon. Gentleman that on a given day there were 36,000 vagrants known to the police, whilst on the same day there were only 5,000 or 6,000 in the casual wards. Those were the people who received encouragement through the lax administration of the law. If the present Motion led to a more stringent administration, his hon. Friend the Member for South Shropshire (Sir Baldwyn Leigh-ton) would have not laboured in vain. He had also done no little service to the country by having drawn attention to the mode in which the Army short-service system had been abused. He hoped the House would arrive at the conclusion that this was a subject which deserved the serious attention of Parliament and of the country. No slight amount of evil arose from people living a life of idleness, and preying on the earnings won by others in honest toil.