- Vicarious Vagrants: Incognito Social Explorers and the Homeless in England, 1860-1910
Mark Freeman and Gillian Nelson have gathered ten essays from different sources that reported on conditions in the temporary housing provided for homeless people—both men and women—during the late Victorian age. The texts represent three distinct periods of concern: 1860s, 1880s, and 1900s. Three of these reports first appeared in periodicals: James Greenwood, "A Night in a Workhouse," Pall Mall Gazette, 12-15 January 1866; F.G. Wallace-Goodbody, "The Tramp's Haven," Gentleman's Magazine, January/June 1883; and Mary Higgs ("Viatrix"), Contemporary Review, January/June 1904. The other essays were published in books.
The "vicarious vagrant" who provides the title is the reporter who entered the Victorian underworld in disguise to experience and report on the effects of the Poor Law on those it was created to assist. The editors identify three categories of vagrant: those genuinely in search of work, those who moved around in order to satisfy their need for subsistence, and the "sturdy rogue" who avoided work as much or as often as possible. Following Henry Mayhew's lead, the reporters featured in this collection believed that descriptive sources were at least as good as statistically oriented Blue Book reports. This was so, they argued, because statistics were cold and impersonal, whereas Mayhew-style descriptions made workhouse conditions palpable. And palpable they are. One reads of workhouse residents put to work picking oakum and then spending the night in vermin-infested rooms. [End Page 104]
An important word in the title of this book is incognito. While the authors entered the world of the workhouse in disguise and therefore were able to emerge whenever they chose, the authors' subjects, by contrast, lived in this environment permanently. So what sort of reporter was best for this work? According to J. H. Stallard in "The Female Casual and Her Lodging," the ideal reporter frequenting these "haunts" must be used to dirt, rags, and hardship, and be one who has "slept without a bed upon the floor, who has dined upon a crust of bread," and who has learned to endure without complaining. But the reporter must also be someone sufficiently accustomed to "cleanliness, honesty, and plenty" to notice its lack. One might add to these qualifications that the reporter must not be terribly put off by inadequate sanitary facilities or disturbed by moving black spots on the walls or by the sound of one's roommates scratching their heads and bodies.
Granting the validity of these Mayhew-like reports, the editors acknowledge they have certain limitations. For instance, the reports were written from memory, because taking notes while pretending to be a vagrant would very likely have blown the interviewer's cover. Furthermore, it's possible that the authors might have exaggerated what they saw in order to heighten the dramatic impact of their report. And it's also possible, the editors acknowledge, that the vagrants on whom the authors focused might not have been "characteristic."
Vicarious Vagrants is well presented and well referenced, with informative footnotes throughout. Interesting in itself, this book might well serve as a text or library reserve for students of social history attempting to understand from testimony gathered from within just what workhouse life was like. Or it could serve equally well as an example of Victorian investigative journalism, its ethics and its practice [End Page 105]
Larry Uffelman, Professor Emeritus of English, is a long-time member of RSVP. He specializes in Victorian English literature, especially in periodicals bibliography and in the fiction and careers of Charles Kingsley and Elizabeth Gaskell. He continues to contribute to the checklist of periodicals scholarship published in VPR.