The Vagrancy Act
Have you ever ignored an update on your phone, only to give in when you begin notice the snail-speed at which your apps are operating? That’s the type of thinking that surrounded vagrancy reform in the early 19th century. It was only until the inefficiency of existing vagrancy law was brought to the attention of English Parliament, that it was decided it was time for an update.
After a round of drafts, the 1824 Act replaced 27 previously enacted laws against vagrancy in England and Wales. One of the law’s biggest proponents, MP Chetwynd, claimed the legislation was necessary since the last statute, released over 77 years ago, was “ill-adapted to the present state of society”. What was one of the chief motives for reform? Wasted money.
Back in the early 1800's, parishes were a part of local government, functioning like modern-day local councils. Parishes were the authorities to whom you appealed for relief in times of need. Poor relief was funded through the taxing of property owning parishioners, who at the time complained about rising rates. But that wasn’t the only problem here.
Since 1662, a person was only entitled to poor relief from the parish to which they were settled. In order to be considered settled you needed to meet a qualification, for example, you were either born or married into a particular parish. This attempted to prevent people from moving around in order to appeal to more generous parishes for aid.
If you happened to appeal for aid in a parish outside your settlement, your native parish was required to pay for the cost of your journey back home in order to receive poor relief. According to MP Chetwynd, vagrants abused this system, making false claims at the expense of parishes so that they could travel the country. Local authorities moaned of the mounting cost of this system, which supposedly wasted money on the transportation of deceiving vagabonds. Not only was the government wasting money transporting vagabonds around the country, they were also rewarding dishonest constables for the arrests of vagrants. Rewards were posted for the arrest of vagrants, which led to some constables conspiring with criminals in order to split the reward.
The Act introduced three new grades of offenders, categorising offences and punishments in order of seriousness. Under the Act, you could be convicted as Idle and Disorderly, Rogue and Vagabond, or the worst offence, an Incorrigible Rogue.
If you were wandering outside of your parish settlement, begging in a public place, then you could be convicted as idle and disorderly
If you were sleeping in the open air, under a tent, in a cart or wagon, then you could be convicted as a rogue and vagabond
If you didn’t have any visible mean of subsistence, then you could be convicted as a rogue and vagabond
If you were a man who ran away from his wife, then you could be convicted as a rogue and vagabond
If you were previously convicted as a rogue and vagabond and committed another vagrancy offence, then you could be convicted as an incorrigible rogue
This list isn’t by any means exhaustive, but it does give you an idea of the types of behaviour the government sought to discourage. You’d be sentenced to the House of Corrections for up to three months hard labour, depending on the severity of your conviction.
This law is controversial now, but many viewed it as a modernising effort in the early 1800’s because it distinguished punishments and offences. Section four criminalises those who sleep on the street, while granting police the authority to arrest a person on suspicion alone. Ever heard of the debates surrounding the "sus laws"? It all started here. Some have argued that this statute has led to the discrimination of marginalised groups.
If MP Chetwynd, in the early 1800's, said 77 year old legislation was ill-adapted to the state of society, then why do we let nearly 200 year old legislation govern people today?
What do you think?