Vicarious Vagrants : Incognito Social Explorers and the Homeless in England, 1860-1910by Freeman, Mark; Nelson, Gillian
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When the novelist Jack London went in disguise among the poor of the East End, he remarked: 'For the first time I met the English lower classes face to face, and knew them for what they were.¿ The period covered by this book was the heyday of the incognito social explorer. Many men and women travelled in disguise among the poor in England and published lively accounts of their experiences. The most common social group investigated in this way were the homeless, and this book reprints several accounts of incognito investigations of vagrancy. Many found themselves in the workhouse casual ward, or 'spike¿; others in common lodging-houses; and some on the open road. Their descriptions of the conditions in which vagrants, or tramps, lived, and of the many engaging characters that they met, vividly convey the tenor of life among the Victorian and Edwardian 'underclass¿, or the 'submerged tenth¿, as they were designated by William Booth. This book reprints several examples of the genre, beginning with James Greenwood¿s classic account of a night in Lambeth workhouse in 1866, published under the pseudonym 'The Amateur Casual¿. Other documents included in this edited collection are less well-known, and have never before been reprinted, such as C. W. Craven¿s description of a night in Keighley workhouse in Yorkshire in 1883, and George Z. Edwards¿s Vicar as Vagrant, dating from 1910. Three longer pieces are also included: J. H. Stallard¿s The Female Casual and Her Lodging (1866), for which a working-class woman was sent undercover to investigate the metropolitan casual ward system; Greenwood¿s On Tramp, an account of the author¿s experiences as a vagrant in rural Hertfordshire in 1883; and Everard Wyrall¿s The Spike (1909), which describes various institutions for the relief of the homeless in and around London, and illustrates the difficulties that many social explorers had in maintaining their disguise. The book also contains a description of the 'spike¿ in Burnley, Lancashire, by the socialist pamphleteer J. R. Widdup; an article by Mary Higgs, the wife of a Congregationalist minister, about a women¿s casual ward; an article from the Gentleman¿s Magazine describing a night in a London casual ward in 1883; and a versified account of Greenwood¿s iconic night in Lambeth in 1866. The editors¿ introduction sets the documents in the context of legislative responses to vagrancy, in particular the development of the poor law in nineteeth- and early twentieth-century England, and also the emergence of new social research methods in this period. It assesses the value of social descriptions of this kind, to contemporaries and to historians. The texts themselves are annotated, and there is a full index.
Mark Freeman is a lecturer in the Department of Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow. He is the author of Social Investigation and Rural England 1870-1914 (Royal Historical Society Studies in History, 2003), and a number of other books and articles on modern British social history.Gillian Nelson is completing a PhD at the University of Glasgow on the topic ôCovert Ethnography in Britain since the 1880sö.
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