A GROWING EVIL
the homeless have always been with us. Sometimes we see them, but more often they are shadows. Most do not walk the streets out of choice, and yet it is an offence for them to sleep rough or beg – the consequence of an act of Parliament which came into effect shortly after the new house of correction at Brixton had opened.
In 1822, two of the aldermen of Southwark wrote to the magistrates of Surrey. They were acutely concerned about the ‘great and increasing number of rogues, vagabonds, common prostitutes and other loose, idle and disorderly persons who daily infest the town and borough’, the majority of whom, they said, came from ‘other parts of the county… more remote from the metropolis’. They called upon the local magistrates ‘to use every legal means for the suppression of the growing Evil’, namely committing them to the new prison at Brixton ‘which is so amply provided with the means for the correction and amendment of these unhappy objects of crime and misfortune’.
Vagrancy was the scourge of London and a problem in large part manufactured in the countryside. Over just a few decades the rural poor had watched the fields they worked being drained, ditched, hedged and enclosed for the benefit of the large landowners. At the beginning of the century most Englishmen were still employed on the land, but within a generation the majority would be looking for work in the towns and cities. After 1815 they joined thousands of soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars discharged onto the streets, as well as migrants from much further afield – notably the Irish who had suffered their own particular economic hardships. All faced a post-war depression where competition for work and low wages were compounded by rising food prices.
Those who came to London typically settled south of the river which had always been the city’s underbelly. It was darker, dirtier and more debauched than the north side and less suspicious of strangers. It proved a natural pull for these destitute migrants. At the beginning of the 1820s the magistrates of Southwark embarked on a Canute-like attempt to clear them from the streets. ‘Removal orders’ allowed people to be deported back to their home village or town, a consequence of the ‘poor laws’ which put the onus for social relief on individual parishes and made it illegal for anyone to claim welfare in a place they were not registered. It was an expensive, outdated and ineffective system. And so the magistrates began to make use of the vagrancy laws, and to commit more and more people to Brixton.
Most of those first sent to Brixton by the courts had been found guilty of homelessness, begging, prostitution and other petty crimes which all fell under the broad brush of this ancient legislation. Among the earliest arrivals were 19 year old Martha Simpson and 26 year old Thomas Roffe, each of whom received a month’s hard labour for being ‘rogues and vagabonds, wandering abroad and sleeping in the open air at Saint George’s, Southwark’. Ten year old David Deer, 13 year old William Phillips, 13 year old Richard Rouse and 17 year old Isaac Lee all received a month for being caught begging in Lambeth. Fourteen year old Mary Winter was given the same sentence for being ‘an idle disorderly person, of evil fame, and a common prostitute’ as were 19 year old James Lyons and 25 year old George Fielder who had been caught in Lambeth with ‘a quantity of lead, suspected to have been stolen in the river Thames’.
The vagrancy laws, though, were vague and open to interpretation. They comprised numerous acts, some of which dated back 300 years. In 1822 they were combined into one piece of legislation. It not only detailed the various crimes of vagrancy but also gave clearer sentencing guidelines. Perhaps most significantly it embodied a parliamentary dictate which effectively legitimised a social purge.
Most of those first sent to Brixton by the courts had been found guilty of homelessness, begging, prostitution and other petty crimes which all fell under the broad brush of this ancient legislation.
It was a challenge the magistrates of Surrey seized upon. They began to process cases on a wholesale basis, most significantly at Union Hall in Southwark, where miscreants began passing through like antiques in an auction house. A hundred and one people were ordered to Brixton during August 1823 and almost all had had their cases heard at the court. Thirty seven were sent down as ‘rogues and vagabonds’ and 38 as prostitutes. Five were convicted of being thieves and eight as ‘reputed thieves’ – for under the new Vagrancy Act circumstance or reputation was enough to secure a conviction. Begging, indecency, low-level fraud, indecent exposure, gambling, pickpocketing, husbands abandoning their wives and two cases of ‘playing an unlawful game of cups and balls’ all featured. Almost all had been committed under the new Vagrancy Act and were given sentences of between 14 days and three months.
The act was refined further in 1824 – legislation which remains in place today. It allowed the Surrey magistrates to step up the scale of their purge. On a single day in July that year, upwards of 70 people were delivered to Union Hall. All had been rounded up during raids on lodgings in Newington. It followed complaints from the ‘respectable’ inhabitants of the area of ‘nightly scenes of theft, riot and debauchery, carried on by thieves, cadgers and prostitutes of the very lowest description’.
Such were their numbers they were placed in the dock dozens at a time, among them a group of 12 women, known to be ‘common prostitutes’. They had been discovered in a single room with an ‘intolerable stench’ in which four or five bedsteads had been jammed so tightly together there was no room to walk. Most were found naked with men in the same state. Among them was 14 year old Anne Wallace, a girl whose ‘hard-working, decent mother’ had proved unable to correct her of her ‘evil propensities’. Next to her in court was Maria Davis – an elderly woman who had been found naked with a black man. She implored the magistrate with tears in her eyes to pardon her – she was married and would never do the like again. Both were committed to Brixton for a month.
On a single day in July that year, upwards of 70 people were delivered to Union Hall. All had been rounded up during raids on lodgings in Newington. It followed complaints from the ‘respectable’ inhabitants of the area of ‘nightly scenes of theft, riot and debauchery, carried on by thieves, cadgers and prostitutes of the very lowest description’.
Batch after batch were brought before the magistrates. Most were sent to the Surrey house of correction. It was, said the Morning Chronicle, an example of the new Vagrant Act being ‘extremely well applied’.
Many had the same story to tell, that of abandoning the Surrey countryside in a failed attempt to forge a better life in the burgeoning city. ‘The general race of prisoners in this House of Correction are decidedly of a stouter frame, and more sailor or peasant-like make than at Coldbath Fields’ observed one visitor, contrasting Brixton with its neighbour north of the river in Middlesex. Another made the same comparison, noting the prevalence of ‘robust agricultural labourers’ in the Surrey prison, while the other was ‘almost entirely supplied with the sickly inhabitants of the city’.
The efforts of the magistrates to clear these ‘undesirables’ from the streets gradually caused the prison to swell in number. The two dozen recruited in 1819 to help with construction had become 50 by the beginning of 1821. By the end of that year, with the treadmill up and turning, enough were being committed to ensure it was at its intended capacity of 140. But by the beginning of 1824 some 300 were held within its walls – well over double the number for which it had been designed. Within a few years a prison built to help solve a problem of overcrowding was itself bursting at the seams.
Christopher Impey is an award-winning journalist and radio producer. He spent nine years working in HMP Brixton where he was Managing Editor of National Prison Radio – the world’s first national radio station for prisoners.Before that he was employed at the BBC as a reporter and producer. He has made a number of documentaries for Radio 4, including London’s Oldest Prison, based on his research into HMP Brixton. He left the prison in 2018 and now works at The Economist.
The House on the Hill by Christopher Impey, the history of Brixton Prison complete with rare photos, is available from 30 May for £14 in all good bookshops (and hand-bound collector editions are available directly from Tangerine Press). More info at https://www.thetangerinepress.com/