London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


THE evils consequent upon the uncertainty of labour I have already been at considerable pains to point out. There is still other mischief attendant upon it that remains to be exposed, and which, if possible, is greater than any other yet adduced. Many classes of labour are necessarily uncertain or fitful in their character. Some work can be pursued only at certain seasons; some depends upon the winds, as, for instance, dock labour; some on fashion; and nearly all on the general prosperity of the country. Now, the labourer who is deprived of his usual employment by any of the above causes, must, unless he has laid by a portion of his earnings while engaged, become a burden to his parish, or the state, or else he must seek work, either of another kind or in another place. The mere fact of a man"s seeking work in different parts of the country, may be taken as evidence that he is indisposed to live on the charity or labour of others; and this feeling should be encouraged in every rational manner. Hence the greatest facility should be afforded to all labourers who may be unable to obtain work in locality, to pass to another part of the country where there may be a demand for their labour. In fine, it is expedient that every means should be given for extending the labour-market for the working classes; that is to say, for allowing them as wide a field for the exercise of their calling as possible. To do this involves the establishment of what are called the "casual wards" of the different unions throughout the country. These are, strictly speaking, the free hostelries of the unemployed workpeople, where they may be lodged and fed, on their way to find work in some more active district. But the establishment of these gratuitous hotels has called into existence a large class of wayfarers, for whom they were never contemplated. They have been the means of affording great encouragement to those vagabond or erratic spirits who find continuity of application to any task specially irksome to them, and who are physically unable or mentally unwilling to remain for any length of time in the same place, or at the same work—creatures who are vagrants in disposition and principle; the wandering tribe of this country; the nomads of the present day.

The right which every person apparently destitute possesses, to demand food and shelter, affords," says Mr. Pigott, in the Report on Vagrancy, "great facilities and encouragement to idle and dissolute persons to avoid labour, and pass their lives in idleness and pillage. There can be no doubt that of the wayfarers who, in summer especially, demand admission into workhouses, the number of those whom the law contemplates under the titles of "idle and disorderly," and "rogues and vagabonds," greatly exceeds that of those who are honestly and bonâ fide travelling in search of employment, and that it is the former class whose numbers have recently so increased as to require a remedy.

It becomes almost a necessary result of any system which seeks to give shelter and food to the industrious operative in his way to look for work, that it should be the means of harbouring and fostering the idle and the vagabond.

To refuse an asylum to the vagrant is to shut out the traveller; so hard is it to tell the from the other.

The prime cause of vagabondism is essentially the non-inculcation of a habit of industry; that is to say, the faculty of continuous application at a particular form of work, has not been engendered in the individual"s mind, and he has naturally an aversion to any regular occupation, and becomes erratic, wandering from this thing to that, without any settled or determined object. Hence we find, that the vagrant disposition begins to exhibit itself precisely at that age when the attempts are made to inculcate the habit of continuous labour among youths. This will be seen by the table in the opposite page (taken from the Returns of the Houseless Poor), which shows the greatest number of inmates to be between the ages of and .

The cause of the greater amount of vagrancy being found among individuals between the ages of and (and it is not by the table alone that this fact is borne out), appears to be the irksomeness of any kind of sustained labour when performed. This is especially the case with youth; and hence a certain kind of compulsion is necessary, in order that the habit of doing the particular work may be engendered. Unfortunately, however, at this age the self--will of the individual begins also to be developed, and any compulsion or restraint becomes doubly irksome. Hence, without judicious treatment, the restraint may be entirely thrown off by the youth, and the labour be discarded by him, before any steadiness of application has been produced by constancy of practice. The cause of vagrancy then resolves itself, to a great extent, into the harshness of either parents or employers; and this it will be found is


generally the account given by the vagrants themselves. They have been treated with severity, and being generally remarkable for their self-will, have run away from their home or master to live while yet mere lads in some of the low lodging-houses. Here they find companions of the same age and character as themselves, with whom they ultimately set out on a vagabond excursion through the country, begging or plundering on their way.

Another class of vagrants consists of those who, having been thrown out of employment, have travelled through the country, seeking work without avail, and who, consequently, have lived on charity so long, that the habits of wandering and mendicancy have eradicated their former habits of industry, and the industrious workman has become changed into the habitual beggar.

   Age. Months.   No. of Applicants. 
 Children under 1 .. 17 
 Children of 1 .. 4 
 " 2 .. 42 
 " 3 .. 21 
 " 4 .. 14 
 " 5 .. 14 
 " 6 .. 26 
 " 7 .. 30 
 " 8 .. 7 
 " 9 .. 14 
 " 10 .. 7 
 " 11 .. 5 
 Age. Years.   No. of Applicants. 
 1 ............ 28 
 2 ............ 22 
 3 ............ 28 
 4 ............ 30 
 5 ............ 36 
 6 ............ 39 
 7 ............ 56 
 8 ............ 38 
 9 ............ 92 
 10 ............ 108 
 11 ............ 104 
 12 ............ 107 
 13 ............ 177 
 14 ............ 102 
 15 ............ 268 
 16 ............ 259 
 17 ............ 380 
 18 ............ 336 
 19 ............ 385 
 20 ............ 296 
 21 ............ 335 
 22 ............ 386 
 23 ............ 295 
 24 ............ 399 
 25 ............ 122 
 26 ............ 238 
 27 ............ 219 
 28 ............ 238 
 29 ............ 84 
 30 ............ 294 
 31 ............ 56 
 32 ............ 91 
 33 ............ 105 
 34 ............ 98 
 35 ............ 186 
 36 ............ 98 
 37 ............ 63 
 38 ............ 56 
 39 ............ 42 
 40 ............ 117 
 41 ............ 63 
 42 ............ 91 
 43 ............ 49 
 44 ............ 42 
 45 ............ 91 
 46 ............ 28 
 47 ............ 35 
 48 ............ 56 
 49 ............ 84 
 50 ............ 108 
 51 ............ 28 
 52 ............ 46 
 53 ............ 44 
 54 ............ 21 
 55 ............ 49 
 56 ............ 35 
 57 ............ 27 
 58 ............ 35 
 59 ............ 27 
 60 ............ 35 
 61 ............ 7 
 62 ............ 14 
 63 ............ 7 
 64 ............ 14 
 65 ............ 12 
 66 ............ 6 
 67 ............ 10 
 68 ............ 7 
 69 ............ 4 
 70 ............ 7 
 71 ............ 4 
 72 ............ 6 
 73 ............ 7 
 74 ............ 6 
 75 ............ 7 
 76 ............ 6 
 77 ............ 2 
 78 ............ 4 
 79 ............ 0 
 80 ............ 2 

"Having investigated the general causes of depredation, of vagrancy, and mendicancy," say the Constabulary Commissioners, in the Government Reports of (p. ), as developed by examinations of the previous lives of criminals or vagrants in the gaols, we find that scarcely in any cases is it ascribable to the pressure of unavoidable want or destitution, and that in the great mass of cases it arises from the temptation of obtaining property with a less degree of labour than by regular industry." Again, in p. of the same Report, we are told that "the inquiries made by the most experienced officers into the causes of vagrancy manifest, that in all but or per cent the prevalent cause was the impatience of steady labour." My investigations into this most important subject lead me, I may add, to the same conclusions. In order to understand the question of vagrancy thoroughly, however, we must not stop here; we must find out what, in its turn, is the cause of this impatience of steady labour; or, in other words, we must ascertain whence comes the desire to obtain property with a less degree of labour than by regular industry. Now, all "steady labour"—that is to say, the continuance of any labour for any length of time— is naturally irksome to us. We are all innately erratic—prone to wander both in thought and


action; and it is only by a vigorous effort, which is more or less painful to us at , that we can keep ourselves to the steady prosecution of the same object, to the repeated performance of the same acts, or even to continuous attention to the same subject. Labour and effort are more or less irksome to us all. There are, however, means by which this irksomeness may be not only removed, but transformed into a positive pleasure. is, by the excitement of some impulse or purpose in the mind of the workman; and the other, by the inculcation of a habit of working. Purpose and habit are the only modes by which labour can be rendered easy to us; and it is precisely because the vagrant is deficient in both that he has an aversion to work for his living, and wanders through the country without an object, or, indeed, a destination. A love of industry is not a gift, but a habit; it is an accomplishment rather than an endowment; and our purposes and principles do not arise spontaneously from the promptings of our own instincts and affections, but are the mature result of education, example, and deliberation. A vagrant, therefore, is an individual applying himself continuously to no thing, nor pursuing any aim for any length of time, but wandering from this subject to that, as well as from place to another, because in him no industrial habits have been formed, nor any principle or purpose impressed upon his nature.

Pursuing the subject still further, we shall find that the cause of the vagrant"s wandering through the country—and indeed through life —purposeless, objectless, and , in the literal and strict meaning of the term, lies mainly in the defective state of our educational institutions; for the vagrants, as a class, it should be remembered, are not "educated." We teach a lad reading, writing, and arithmetic, and believe that in so doing we are developing the moral functions of his nature; whereas it is often this ability to — that is to say, to read without the least moral perception—which becomes the instrument of the youth"s moral depravity. The "Jack Sheppard" of Mr. Harrison Ainsworth is borrowed from the circulating library, and read aloud in the low lodging-houses in the evening by those who have a little education, to their companiions who have none; and because the thief is there furbished up into the hero—because the author has tricked him out with a sort of brute insensibility to danger, made "noble blood flow in his veins," and tinselled him over with all kinds of showy sentimentality—the poor boys who listen, unable to see through the trumpery deception, are led to look up to the paltry thief as an object of admiration, and to make his conduct the of their lives. Of all books, perhaps none has ever had so baneful an effect upon the young mind, taste, and principles as this. None has ever done more to degrade literature to the level of the lowest licentiousness, or to stamp the author and the teacher as guilty of pandering to the most depraved propensities. Had Mr. Ainsworth been with me, and seen how he had vitiated the thoughts and pursuits of hundreds of mere boys—had he heard the names of the creatures of his morbid fancy given to youths at an age when they needed the best and truest counsellors—had he seen these poor little wretches, as I have seen them, grin with delight at receiving the degrading titles of "Blueskin," "Dick Turpin," and "Jack Sheppard," he would, I am sure, ever rue the day which led him to paint the most degraded and abandoned of our race as the most noble of human beings. What wonder, then, that—taught either in no school at all, or else in that meretricious which makes crime a glory, and dresses up vice as virtue—these poor lads should be unprincipled in every act they do— that they should be either literally actuated by no principles at all, or else fired with the basest motives and purposes, gathered from books which distort highway robbery into an act of noble enterprise, and dignify murder as justifiable homicide?

Nor are the habits of the young vagrant less cultivated than his motives. The formation of that particular habit which we term industry, and by which the youth is fitted to obtain his living as a man, is perhaps the most difficult part of all education. It commences at an age when the will of the individual is beginning to develope itself, and when the docile boy is changed into the impatient young man. Too great lenity, or too strict severity of government, therefore, becomes at this period of life dangerous. If the rule be too lax, the restless youth, disgusted with the monotony of pursuing the same task, or performing the same acts, day by day, neglects his work—till habits of indolence, rather than industry, are formed, and he is ultimately thrust upon the world, without either the means or the disposition of labouring for his living. If, on the other hand, the authority of the parent or master be too rigidly exercised, and the lad"s power of endurance be taxed too severely, then the self-will of the youth is called into action; and growing restless and rebellious under the tyranny of his teachers, he throws off their restraint, and leaves them—with a hatred, instead of a love of labour engendered within him. That these are of the primary causes of vagrancy, all my inquiries have tended to show. The proximate cause certainly lies in the impatience of steady labour; but the cause of this impatience is referable to the non-formation of any habit of industry in the vagrant, and the absence of this habit of industry is usually due to the neglect or the tyranny of the lad"s parent or master. This is no theory, be it remembered. Whether it be the master of the workhouse, where the vagrants congregate every night— whether it be the young vagrant himself, or the more experienced tramp—that speaks upon


the subject, all agree in ascribing the vagabondism of youth to the same cause. There is, however, another phase of vagrancy still to be explained; viz. the transition of the working man into the regular tramp and beggar. This is the result of a habit of dependence, produced in the operative by repeated visits to the casual wards of the unions. A labouring man, or mechanic, deprived of employment in a particular town, sets out on a journey to seek work in some other part of the country. The mere fact of his so journeying to seek work shows that he has a natural aversion to become a burden to the parish. He is no sooner, however, become an inmate of the casual wards, and breakfasts and sups off the bounty of the workhouse, than he learns a most dangerous lesson — he learns how to live by the labour of others. His sense of independence may be shocked at , but repeated visits to the same places soon deaden his feelings on this score; and he gradually, from continual disuse, loses his habit of labouring, and ultimately, by long custom, acquires a habit of "tramping" through the country, and putting up at the casual wards of the unions by the way. Thus, what was originally designed as a means of enabling the labouring man to obtain work, becomes the instrument of depriving him of employment, by rendering it no longer a necessity for him to seek it; and the independent workman is transformed after a time into the habitual tramper, and finally into the professional beggar and petty thief. Such characters, however, form but a small proportion of the great body of vagabonds continually traversing the country.

The vagrants are essentially the nonwork- ing, as distinguished from the hard-working, men of England. They are the very opposite to the industrious classes, with whom they are too often confounded. Of the really destitute working-men, among the vagrants seeking relief at the casual wards, the proportion is very small; the respectable mechanics being deterred by disgust from herding with the filth, infamy, disease, and vermin congregated in the tramp-wards of the unions, and preferring the endurance of the greatest privations before subjecting themselves to it. "I have had this view confirmed by several unfortunate persons," says Mr. Boase, in the Poor-law Report on Vagrancy: "they were apparently mechanics out of employment, who spoke of the horrors passed in a tramp-ward, and of their utter repugnance at visiting such places again." "The poor mechanic," says the porter at the workhouse, "will sit in the casual wards like a lost man— It"s shocking to think a decent mechanic"s houseless," he adds; "when he"s beat out, he"s like a bird out of a cage: he doesn"t know where to go, or how to get a bit." But the highest tribute ever paid to the sterling honesty and worth of the working men of this country, is to be found in the testimony of the master of the Wands- worth and Clapham Union. "The destitute mechanics," he says, "are entirely a different class from the regular vagrant; they have different habits, and, indeed, different features. They are strictly honest. During the whole of my experience, I never knew a distressed artisan who applied for a night"s shelter commit an act of theft; and I have seen them," he adds, "in the last stage of destitution. Occasionally they have sold the shirt and waistcoat off their backs, before they applied for admittance into the workhouse; while some of them have been so weak from long starvation, that they could scarcely reach the gate, and, indeed, had to be kept for several days in the infirmary, before their strength was recruited sufficiently to continue their journey." For myself, I can safely say, that my own experience fully bears out this honourable declaration of the virtues of our working men. Their extreme patience under the keenest privations is a thing that the wisest philosophers might envy; their sympathy and charity for their poorer brethren far exceeds, in its humble way, the benevolence and bounty of the rich; while their intelligence, considering the little time they have for study and reflection, is almost marvellous. In a word, their virtues are the spontaneous expressions of their simple natures; and their vices are the comparatively pardonable excesses, consequent upon the intensity of their toil. I say thus much in this place, because I am anxious that the public should no longer confound the honest, independent working men, with the vagrant beggars and pilferers of the country; and that they should see that the class is as respectable and worthy, as the other is degraded and vicious.

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 Title Page
Chapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
Our Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
Chapter III: - Street Musicians
Chapter IV: - Street Vocalists
Chapter V: - Street Artists
Chapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
Chapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
Chapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
Chapter IX: - Ballast-Men
Chapter X: - Lumpers
Chapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
Chapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
Chapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
Chapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
Chapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
Chapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
Chapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men