1818

The London Society for the Suppression of Mendicity 

The Metropolitan Police did not patrol the streets of London until 1829. Prior to then, constables were appointed by Justices of Peace to preserve order. According to the founders of the Mendicity Society, constables fell into a state of passivity towards vagrancy offences, so they took matters into their own hands.

The Mendicity Society sought to discourage indiscriminate charity, which they believed caused the evils of begging. They believed only the “deserving” warranted relief, so they set up a system to examine beggars’ claims in order to root out the “undeserving” poor. The Society even formed their own constable system, which patrolled the streets of London and handed out tickets of relief instead of money. Beggars’ claims were scrutinised by inquiries led by the Society’s offices, which were then crosschecked by independent authorities. Those considered “deserving” were granted food and overnight shelter. They wanted to prove the value of discriminate charity as a means of deterring begging.

Unsurprisingly, the working classes and homeless grew to resent the Society’s constables, who patrolled un-uniformed and gained a reputation for their antagonistic behaviour. In fact, the Metropolitan Police inherited the population’s resentment during the first years of their operation. Still, there were times when the Society dropped their discriminate approach in order to distribute emergency relief, especially during the decade known as the “Hungry Forties”, when an economic depression and the rising number of Irish migrants fleeing the Famine caused a high demand for aid in London.

The Society was the subject of great criticism when an anonymous pamphlet was published in 1825 entitled, The Mendicity Society Unmasked. The author claimed a select group of “mean-minded” executives governed the charity, reappointing themselves year after year, while conducting inadequate background checks to arbitrarily determine who was “undeserving”. These allegations are worrying since the Metropolitan police used the Society’s registrar of beggars and impostors in their prosecution of offenders throughout the 19th century.

Today’s public’s general distaste towards begging is nothing new. Conversations on how best to determine whether or not someone deserves assistance have been ongoing for centuries due to our fear of deception. Four Walls practices indiscriminate charity, meaning we administer relief to everyone we encounter on the streets. In our eyes, food and shelter is a basic human right. We don’t feel it is within our right to decide who is “worthy” of relief, so we do our best to feed and clothe those who ask. For centuries we’ve been trying to deter the homeless from disturbing our daily routines with their pleas for spare change, but they existed then and they exist now. In the grand scheme of things, how productive are these conversations?

What do you think?