Life and Death in (and out) of the Victorian Workhouse

Copyright Ben Cavanna
Detail from a portrait of ‘Old Scotty’, a homeless beggar in London, by John Thomson, 1877 (© SWNS.com)

This week,  Conservative MP and former soldier Adam Holloway got into hot water when he suggested during a Parliamentary debate on homelessness that “sleeping rough in central London is a lot more comfortable than going on exercise when I was in the Army”.  Unsurprisingly, his comments were seized on in parts of the media, and he was widely castigated for his lack of sympathy and understanding. He hardly helped himself by going on to suggest that London homelessness was being driven by East European migrants, and that “begging is part of the problem”, because “you can…make quite a lot of money from begging on the streets of London” . On the face of it, his intervention seems to fit perfectly with official attitudes to homelessness going back to the Vagrancy Act of 1824 – an Act that, perhaps surprisingly, is still in force, and which states that:

every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon, not having any visible means of subsistence and not giving a good account of himself or herself,

is liable to prosecution as a “rogue” or “vagabond”.

Yet, as Holloway himself acknowledged elsewhere in his speech, the problem of rough sleeping and rough sleepers has never been straightforward, and it isn’t one that responds well to simplistic solutions, whether martial or well-meaning (though the demonization of specific groups – rogues, vagabonds and foreigners, for example – is unlikely to help, either). We at ITOW were reminded of this when we came across the case of John Moss, which appears in the Axminster poor law correspondence for 1848 (MH12/2099).

Moss was a well-known figure around Axminster in the 1840s. He was described as “rather eccentric…but a quiet man”. He supported himself by begging, and roamed widely in the surrounding countryside; but he had no fixed address, and often found himself in the workhouse – once for a full twelve months. Although he seems to have been tolerated locally, he did fall foul of the Vagrancy Act now and then, and he was committed to the local gaol on more than one occasion. Sadly, his luck ran out in the winter of 1848, when he was found dead in an abandoned ‘tallet’ (a Devon term for a hayloft) near the village of Gittisham: according to the local paper he had lain there undiscovered for a more than a week.

At the inquest, it was reported that all he had on him was “a knife, clothes brush, a clean neckerchief, one shilling in silver and fifteen pence in coppers”. He also had a letter dated Ottery St. Mary, 23 January 1842 (six years before his death) and signed by “Elizabeth Moss”, and it was by this means that he was eventually identified. Shortly before he died, he had been given money and food by the Rev. J.T. Marker and others locally. It seems it was simple exposure to the cold that killed him: there were no signs of violence. He was “aged about 50”.

It would be easy to view this eccentric loner, in and out of the workhouse, as a victim of the system, with no fixed address and no proper support, begging for his bread and jailed for his pains. But scratch the surface of John Moss’s sad tale, and a slightly more complicated story comes into view; for Moss, it appears, was not entirely without resources to call on, despite his apparently down-at-heel existence. His father had been a local farmer, renting a property at £120 a year, and his brother was reportedly a surveyor “in tolerable circumstances”. He was described by Poor Law officials as a man “of respectable connexions”.

We have already seen that Moss used the Workhouse as a refuge when life outside  became too much – or, perhaps, when he wanted to avoid arrest for vagrancy. Who knows what drove him to choose the life he did? Were his ‘eccentricities’ more profound than that innocent term suggests? Was it a family rift that sent him on the tramp, or perhaps an emotional crisis? (What of that letter from the mysterious Elizabeth, the only intimate possession he had on him when he died?) Or had he simply had enough of institutional life? We know enough about workhouse tramp wards (Orwell’s ‘Spikes’) to suggest that any life outside might just be preferable.

Whatever the reasons behind John Moss’s mendicant lifestyle, it does seem to illustrate the central point made by MP Adam Holloway in his Commons speech this week – a point that was largely lost in the furore about his less subtle pronouncements. “The overriding majority” of those who were ‘genuinely’ homeless, he said:

[have] some sort of mental health issue, which is compounded by living on the streets and by drug and alcohol addiction…we should start treating [homeless]people as individuals rather than lumping them all together and suggesting that everyone has the same need.

John Moss was one such individual, and though his needs were periodically met in the workhouse and by the community at large, sadly this was not enough to save him in the end.

vagabondiana
‘Beggars leaving Town for their Work-house’, From J.T. Smith, Vagabondiana (1817)

 

 

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