Madness, disease and death: the trials and tribulations of a vagrant life in the nineteenth century

Vagrancy is complicated. When we talk about vagrants, we assume that they are (or were) homeless, destitute, criminals, or suffering from mental health issues – or, indeed, all of the above. Through this post I shall reflect on all of these attitudes, prejudices and assumptions through vagrant experiences described by the local British Press. I will talk about three cases, the first describing a ‘mad vagrant’ woman, her apprehension and punishment. The second case, an interaction between the workhouse, medical authorities and a vagrant with blisters on his feet. The third case, being morose and violent, outlines an explicit warning to potential vagrants of the accidental death to which they subjected themselves. Vagrants were not, however, relatively innocent victims, as portrayed by these cases. There were some that conformed to suspicions of abhorrent criminality. The fourth example, however, provides a counter argument, describing a murder committed by a vagrant who could not live with what he had done any longer.

An appropriate starting point for this discussion is an article published in the Monmouthshire Merlin in March 1840 with the bold title ‘THE MAD VAGRANT’. The article presented a strange example of the complicated characteristics of vagrancy and the tactics that vagrants used to evade punishment or penalty. In the middle of the night, a ‘strange and fantastically-dressed old woman’ was easily identified. She was ‘shouting, screaming and raving mad’, so constables took her straight to magistrates under the charge of vagrancy. Her theatrics continued in the courtroom as she ‘strode’ across the room, arms folded and a look of disdain upon her face. Then her demeanor changed. She became unrelentingly sad and bawled uncontrollably. This woman was dismissed from the court and her charges dropped. She was given a shilling to ‘procure refreshment on her way’ and left the courthouse with a smile.[1]

There are two lessons about vagrants that this article portrays. This woman was not hopeless and not necessarily criminal. She was, by all reasonable assertions, insane. In this case it was her striking madness that attracted attention to constables, yet that same behaviour permitted her prompt release and sweetened her purse. Victorian society was fearful of such actions and therefore wanted the person moved on as quickly as possible. Conversely, vagrants were aware of this fear and manipulated the authorities by invoking madness to secure unhindered movement.

The victims or the victors? Coloured lithograph by C.J. Grant, 1834. Wellcome Collection.

A subsequent article from the Nottinghamshire Review and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties, dated January 1844, discussed a vagrant’s case that was brought to the Board of Guardians’ monthly meeting. It recounted a situation in which a vagrant (referred to as a tramp) had been ‘turned out of the workhouse in an unfit state to travel, his feet being ulcerated’. It went on to outline the vagrant’s complaint against his treatment. The vagrant in question had the biggest grievance against the leadership of the workhouse at the time, as a settled workhouse pauper was put in charge of the casual (vagrant) wards and it was this person that had sent him on his way. The Board supported turning the vagrant away, as a surgeon had previously declared the vagrant fit to travel. The Board did however qualify with the pauper in charge that he was ‘never to turn vagrants out against their will, without first consulting him [the representative of the board]’.[2] Supporting the vagrant’s complaint to some extent gave them power and authority over the workhouse system. They were not passive refugees of the Poor Laws but made an active choice to enter the workhouse and utilise the healthcare, shelter and sustenance there before deciding to leave. Not being allowed to turn vagrants out against their will supports the idea that although vagrants were considered criminal and undeserving of relief, they had a right to claim for it at the same standard as the settled poor.

The third and most abhorrent vagrant tale presented in the press in this post was the grisly death of a ‘poor vagrant’ reported in the Westmoreland Gazette in May 1898. This cautionary tale suggested that ‘a more frightful death…can scarcely be imagined’. A bull had killed an unnamed vagrant, after they had sought shelter for the night in a nearby barn. The article called it a ‘rude awakening’ and hoped the vagrant had soon become unconscious because the bull ‘not only… killed him, but… trampled on the senseless body and… torn the clothes off in wild fury’. The article sent a warning to vagrants and threatened ‘peril’ against such a lifestyle that would put them in this position. It also warned that special care should be taken by the owners of a bull to securely fasten it. The bull in this instance ‘broke away from its mooring before attacking the intruder’. Blame was placed upon the vagrant for their foolishness in rambling to a barn, though the event was noted as an ‘accident’.[3] This example presented another dimension to the vagrant lifestyle away from State interactions. Vagrants did not appear solely in the workhouses, prisons, asylums or courthouses of the nineteenth century but sought their own means of temporary shelter through barns and outhouses.

Instances of madness, disease and death were a frequent trope in the local press. Although vagrants were treated as outsiders, rootless and dangerous, they formed a crucial part of society both to contemporaries and for historians. Newspapers wrote on vagrants because they were strangers. They were scandalous and their stories mysterious, thereby making them an interesting read for the audience. These tales also served a political purpose as a warning to the settled community not to be taken in by tales of woe and not to become vagrant themselves and seek out shelter in barns with bulls for neighbours.


‘During the last few days some excitement had prevailed in Dorchester, in consequence of the discovery of a murder by a vagrant, under very extraordinary circumstances. A man, who gave his name as John Hasley, was apprehended…by the Weymouth police for vagrancy, and committed for 14 days with hard labour. Saturday night the vigilant chief constable at Dorchester, Mr. T. Pouncey, received information from Mr. Lawrence, the Governor of the prison, that Hasley, who had on that day completed the term of his imprisonment, was in state of mental uneasiness and had confessed to having committed a murder; but upon whom or where he refused at that time to disclose. An examination as to the sanity of the man having been made, he was ordered by the magistrates in attendance to be detained in custody. In the meantime Mr. Pouncey wrote to the various police offices in the West of England, and sent information to the Police Gazette, giving a description of the prisoner’s person, together with the statement that he had made as to the murder. On Tuesday afternoon the chief police officer of Bath arrived at Dorchester, took the prisoner into custody and conveyed him to Bath, where he has confessed that he murdered an old man named George Bash, on the 6th of December last, at Priston, near Bath. Thinking the man had some money about him he followed him across some fields, tripped him up, drew a knife two or three times across his throat, stuffed some grass into the wound and then emptied his pockets, but only found seven or eight shillings. He slept in a cart house that night and under hay stacks ever since, but could never rest, having the man always before him. He expresses deep contrition for the offence, and admits that he deserves only to die as a murderer.’[4]

Although this post identifies the instances in which newspapers were sympathetic or supportive of vagrants, cases where such people had committed a murder were also common. In some articles, unsolved murders were attributed to vagrants with no further explanations required. The word vagrant was, and is, a loaded and weaponized word. Articles that associated all vagrants with the characteristics of crime helped to perpetuate assumptions of vagrants in the nineteenth century as lawless, reckless and rootless.

Human taxidermy: the complete guide. Colour photomechanical reproduction of a lithograph by N. Dorville, c. 1901. Wellcome Collection.

Megan Yates is an ESRC-DTP student within the College of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities at the University of Leicester. Her studentship is collaborative and alongside the University of Leicester, Megan also works closely with the University of Nottingham and The National Archives. Her doctoral research focuses on interactions between vagrants, the State and wider communities across the midlands in the nineteenth century. She looks to explore the characteristics that have been assigned to such people and what this meant for vagrants specifically in the nineteenth century.

Notes & references

[1] Monmouthshire Merlin, March, 1840. From British Newspaper Archive.

[2] Nottinghamshire Review and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties, 19 January 1844. From British Newspaper Archive.

[3] Westmoreland Gazette, 21 May 1898. From British Newspaper Archive.

[4] Morning Advertiser, 23 July 1852. From British Newspaper Archive.

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