ADRIAN CUNNINGHAM, born 1942 is married, 2nd year English student at Cambridge, co-edits ANARCHIST YOUTH. Worked for 18 months on and, off at St. Botolph’s Crypt Club, London, and on a survey of vagrants.

“Archaeologists interpret past civilizations by what they threw away. What contemporary society rejects is equally revealing to the sociologist.”


MUCH WRITING AND DISCUSSION OF POVERTY is open to considerable confusion through a failure to define terms. For a basic distinction needs to be kept in mind (though admittedly it is not easy to do this in practice) between voluntary poverty and destitution, between the poor who are outsiders and the poor who are outcasts. The former includes all who embrace poverty voluntarily, either to facilitate a mission or simply because they reject the competition and violence inherent in the accumulation of wealth. Thus the followers of St. Francis, the Catholic Worker, bohemians and beatniks all fall into one broad general category. They are outsiders. So much indiscriminate abuse is levelled at advocates of voluntary poverty that it is worth sorting out those who talk it to keep the poor content and those who live it to more fitly help the poor.

Destitution on the other hand, can be taken as the condition of all those who are compelled to live below a reasonable standard of decent human existence, it thus includes many of the aged, the homeless, the unemployed, and at the very bottom, the tramp. Both the willing and unwilling poor can be called vagrant, but the distinction is vital.

A further distinction needs to be made between the subjective and objective significance of vagrancy for this is the source of much sentimentality, and only serves to reinforce our social negligence. Objectively, the tramp may be an occasion of mystic awe, as in Wordsworth, or an occasion of generosity as in many religious traditions. Or he may be, as Philip O’Connor thinks, an indication of the future society in his rejection of employment and his opportunities for contemplative activity. “The parasite is an intimation of this glorious future; in the soul of the parasite is something so rarely delicate that few have deciphered it, this positive delicacy of inaction, this flower of flowers.” (p. 34). Or he may be taken as an obvious and critical reflection of the material and psychological stresses of our civilization. But all these ideas are what the observer makes of the tramp’s condition. The subjective facts, the actual feelings and experiences of tramps themselves, are far more grim, inhuman and commonplace. Powerful correctives to any romanticizing are Jack London’s “People of the Abyss” (1907) (recommended to me by a tramp) and Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” (1933)1; the social framework and conditions have, of course, changed, but they are both still (!) relevant on the basic misery of what it feels like to be a tramp.

“Vagrancy” includes many facts and details from interviews which make this obvious but they are so shot through with the author’s own curious ideas, and the book is written in such a jumbled style that often no definite or useful impression is left. He gets off to a bad start by calling Christ a “propertyless vagrant.” Christ wandered for a purpose and the defining characteristic of the vagrancy I encountered was purposeless and meaningless. Admittedly he limits himself to describing the “ethos” of vagrancy, and what he says may be true of a rapidly diminishing number of “wayfarers,” but it bears little relation to the large and predominantly static down and out populations of the large cities. With 10,000 men in London alone living in Salvation Army hostels, Rowtons, etc., and more than 1,000 sleeping rough through the winter, one hoped a Penguin Special would provide more detailed sociological information on a subject which researchers and local authorities have so far ignored. But, half a loaf…
These distinctions and reservations in mind, however, what is this ethos?

Basically, the vagrant, as outsider and outcast, presents a challenge both to the upholders of bourgeois values and also to those who believe that affluence, whether capitalist or socialist, and state welfare will undercut the roots of social ills. A challenge that is evaded, with varying degrees of hypocrisy, by both. The tramp is despised because he is unable to be competitive. It is not only because he “won’t work” (on this point O’Connor makes a useful distinction between work, which the tramp wants, and employment, which he can’t stand, pp. 61-3), all too often the attitude of those who do at least make some effort to provide help is that of “making a man of them again,” “giving them self-respect.” And here one comes at the roots of the fear of vagrancy and the punitive desire marked by centuries of legislation. Tramps either cannot or will not live a life of self-help, the cornerstone of English bourgeois morality—an interesting study could be made of the roots of this idea in English thought and social life, it seems to have no class boundary. The vagrant is hated because he demonstrates that self-help is not universal, he poses a question that current society forbids and answers by a punitive reflex. More so with the tramp than the criminal who co-operates by default in private enterprise. “The doctrine of free-will is social blackmail levelled at the incompetent poor: their culpability was the ‘enterprising’ rich man’s virtue … the spearhead of the ethic of competitive survival has always been pointed at those incipient critics and shaming wretches who could or would have none of it. Orthodox morality oscillated between considering them as human beings who would not, or sub-humans who could not acquire self-respect—a term rich in undigested ambiguities. So that the rich might virtuously grow richer, the poor had to be found wrong in their poverty.” (pp. 24 and 26).

I used to think that nothing was more depressing than 50 to 60 men crowded into the soup kitchen at St. Botolph’s, the sheer concentrated misery. But later, moving around with a group of vagrants (three men and two very worn prostitutes who were lucky to get 5s. or twenty cigarettes for a “short time” under the hedge by Euston Station), I realised that the street is the loneliest, most hostile place. The tramp is never lost in a crowd, people peek at him over their papers or look away in annoyed embarrassment; he catches muttered insults and a child’s shriek of frightened pleasure at the odd sight. In the Underground, even in the most crowded carriage, those who ride for hours on a 3d. ticket to keep warm will always find plenty of room. Or given change for a cup of tea, people go to such lengths to avoid a physical contact, look at the place where a vagrant has sat as if it was contaminated. The alienation is complete, there is no let up. Having undressed socially, what was left? Not even identity…

This alienation (a common factor in all vagrants is their social isolation), the “steadily declining belief in the uses of communication” produces a merely generalized sense of reality. “It is by not seeing the world that the tramp is at home in it; never in its parts, but in the sensuously generalized totality” (p. 27). Loneliness, boredom, these destroy the tramp in a far more deadly way than a month long diet of cold scraps.

I once heard someone speak of vagrants as “good revolutionary material,” perhaps they were thinking of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera with its tramps’ protest which wrecks a royal function. In fact, nothing could be further from reality. There are occasional friendships, often in the Crypt one could feel for a while a friendly, self-forgetful atmosphere, but it was only for a while, the basic feeling is always that of isolation. The tramp is alienated even from other tramps and often from himself in the most frightening forms of self-destruction. So, one man would point to another, identical in every respect, and say “he drinks / steals / begs, I’d never do that,” the familiar and depressing assertion of the persecuted by making someone else worse. One realises at this level, where it is tragic and farcical, how deeply the philosophy of self-help has eaten into our whole social culture, how far identity has become equal to superiority, the subjection of another.

Conversely, I’ve heard anarchists talk of tramps as socially useless. Admittedly, other outsiders considered in previous issues of ANARCHY, gipsies and beatniks, have an obvious libertarian relevance, in attempting to resist abhorrent social forms in the interests of a traditionally nomadic life, or a conscious community of the rejected and rejecting. And, of course, the tramp has none of this explicitness of protest, vagrancy is a hopeless condition, once you’re down it’s impossible to get up. Tramps bear the whole brunt of our social ills and, being the least articulate of the outcasts, the machinery of the welfare state, geared as it is to verbal intelligence and the ability to understand complex regulations and procedures, “looks like a ladder the bottom rungs of which are missing” (Jeremy Sandford). In all the vagrants I met the only common background factor was some dislocation of family life, precipitating a crisis they were unable to cope with either materially or psychologically; then with or without the aid of alcoholism they steadily drift into and decline through the various “stages” of vagrancy. In London, and this is probably true of most big cities, men with no fixed abode are roughly divisible into: the temporarily unemployed, seasonal or migrant workers, fruit pickers, casual labourers; those who can get NAB money and afford 4s. a night for a hostel; those who either spend the money on the more urgent needs of drinking, or get NAB money only periodically; those without NAB money who may not spend a night under cover or get a hot meal in weeks; and lastly those who are 90 per cent of the time too drunk to have much awareness at all. One man I knew for over six months had an effective vocabulary of a dozen words, with only occasional periods of lucidity, the only fully intelligible thing I remember was a constant request for someone to shoot him.

And the direction is invariably downward, whether they were forced by circumstance or perhaps took to tramping of their own accord; all are trapped in the spiral and very few ever claim to enjoy it. There is the spiral of getting clothes from the Crypt or a Church Army place, for by the time a man has a jacket his shoes have worn through; he finally gets the shoes and a couple of weeks of skippering (sleeping out) have reduced the jacket to rags. The changes of getting a complete decent outfit are pretty slim. Similarly, if he manages to get a casual job, months of malnutrition and heavy drinking result in his being physically incapable of reaching the work quota; he either loses the job or treats his friends on his first wages and he is “steamed up” for a couple of days. Again, there is the difficulty of filling in the requisite forms for assurance benefit, or getting medical attention (bronchitis, pneumonia and leg ulcers being particularly common). From time to time local NAB offices or simply officials tum a man away as a matter of course, or work the illegal (but effective) dodge of saying “no money without permanent address.” And of course if a man hasn’t got an address he gets no money, if he has no money he can’t get an address…

Given these kind of conditions, and the “interlocking of problems in the subculture of poverty”—ill health, malnutrition, inadequate clothing, frequent mental instability, inability to communicate, social isolation, and in particular sexual isolation (with the exception of a very few, it is quite impossible for a down and out to have any kind of relation, even conversational, with women)—given such conditions, drink is the obvious and often the only panacea. Spirits if possible, or cider or VP wine mixed with methylated or surgical spirits, or as a last resort some sort of intoxicant can be made from shoe polish and disinfectant. Overcrowded mental hospitals are unwilling to take vagrants, and more than once where they have the man has tired of waiting and is either completely stoned or has simply moved on. Even if he gets treatment of some kind, there is no form of after care, he inevitably returns to the city if only to find work, and the whole cycle starts again.
Perhaps it would help to give some random extracts from notes I kept:

S. Aged 43, deserted Irish Army 1940, joined British Army. Demobbed in London. Labourer, has moved to Dover on occasion for casual work. Alcoholic since 1948, on surgical since 1960. No NAB. Wife in Holloway, 5 children in 3 council homes. No regular work in 5 years. Shares with prostitute. Skippering for two years.

T. 30-35. Skilled machine grinder. Came from Dublin for work. Marriage broke up before Christmas 1961, not previously a heavy drinker. Sometimes does a week’s work but gets depressed, short sentence for being drunk. Now alcoholic, skippering. Barred at Cromwell Road NAB under no address dodge.

A. Army at 19, then with colonial police in India. Reasonably good health, drinks irregularly, occasionally works at Simpsons (washing-up or kitchen hand in big hotels and restaurants often crops up as a casual job). Finds it better to stay alone, doesn’t get on with other vagrants. Infrequent hot meals but finds people leave plenty of scraps in litter bins outside the Zoo! Has been barred from washing facilities in WCs.

Beyond one’s immediate experience, facts and statistics are hard to come by. One source used by O’Connor is the NAB annual report, but this only covers men who attend local authority reception centres. These are generally unpopular, there is compulsory delousing, it is difficult to get in after 7 p.m. or out before 11 a.m., after a few chores, and they tend to be a good distance away—the one in London is at Gordon Road, Peckham, holding 250 men. Centres can only be used once a month unless a man is able to prove he is looking for work, in which case he can stay until he finds work, and from then on pays a minimum of 37/6 per week. Average nightly attendance at centres has varied as follows:

1922 1938 1960

11,045 16,000 1,394

and the number of centres has declined.

1938 1950 1960
300 100 100

Salvation Army hostels show a much slower decline; in 1907 they took an average of 20,000 per night, and figures for 1960 were only just half, 10,000. (Jack London quotes an horrific increase from the Registrar General Report for 1886 to show that of 81,951 deaths in London, 9,909 were in work houses, i.e. one person in nine died in the workhouse.)

A survey of some 2,000 men in reception centres on 6th December, 1960, produced the following figures, which should be taken only as rough guides, many facts being simply what the untrained officer could note. The majority fell into the middle age group:

Age %

below 30 15%
30-39 24%
40-49 28%
50-64 28%
65+ 5%

More than half had been tramping for upwards of two years, 74% were bachelors, 11% were unfit for work, 18% had some physical disability, and 9% showed signs of evident instability. My own guess is that of those who have been vagrant for two years or more about half suffer from some sort of mental illness. No amount of facts, even reliable facts, can convey the actuality and for that one only has to keep one’s eyes open, around Charing Cross when a missionary coffee stall turns up, at the benches opposite the Old Vic, queueing for hours in Fleet Street in the early hours of Sunday morning on the chance of being taken on for selling papers, outside Euston Station, anywhere.

Official policy towards tramps remained virtually unchanged from the 14th century to the early 20th. It has always been punitive; partly for the psychological reasons noted above, partly as a result of economic meanness in an area where there can be no complaints, partly for fear that by providing a decent standard of existence for its outcasts society would encourage idleness. This last received its classic formulation in the 19th century—“The situation of the pauper must cease to be really or apparently so eligible as the situation of the independent labourers of the lowest class.” This principle of less eligibility is perhaps not so constitutionally obvious since 1945, but it remains as an undercurrent in any NAB report, e.g. 1960, “The earlier that a man’s inclination to idleness and the reason for it can be identified, the greater the chance of success in returning him to a working life.” In this connection it is worth recalling the Solidarity pamphlet on Newington Lodge which demonstrated how conditions were deliberately kept at an inhumanly low level by the L.C.C. to encourage the occupants to get out and find themselves somewhere to live.2

The official attitude can produce a hidden, or fringe vagrancy, which is only registered when eligibility is rapidly extended, the clearest case being the rise and fall in figures for attendance at casual wards for 1846-9. The average for 1846 was 6,000; the following year. a test case was brought, and the ruling given that no destitute person could be refused admission. The figure more than doubled immediately to reach 14,000 in 1848. The authorities hurriedly reclarified the law to exclude those whom the gate-keeper considered idle, and by 1849 the figure had dropped to 4,000, that is, 2,000 less than before the test case3! Exactly a century later with the 1948 National Assistance Act, applications for a night’s lodging at reception centres doubled, the rise was then checked by prosecution under section 51 of the Act for “failure to maintain,” and by 1950, applications dropped by a quarter. The sharp rise following an extension of relief services may point to a considerable fringe vagrancy not covered by any available figures.

It is a paradox of our society that for those who permanently have no fixed abode the best times are periods of slump, for they then share in the mass relief programmes for the temporarily unemployed which are a product of economic crisis. A booming economy, however, immediately reverses this position, and relief is wound up except for the NAB and voluntary organizations. It is indicative of the amount of pressure on these organizations that the volume of work involving social and family problems at St. Martin’s in the Fields has caused them to close down their vagrants’ shelter completely. Again, by the inevitable logic of profits and institutions, Rowton Houses are now “an interesting speculation at a reasonable yield” as one Sunday paper economist put it. Originally built to alleviate the needs of the homeless they are being converted into “working men’s hotels,” that at Kings Cross now being called the Mount Pleasant Hotel with a consequent rise from 4/- to 21/- as the minimum charge. Five other Rowtons with 3,000 beds are also due for development. The director of the company claims a decline in the numbers attending, but as Jeremy Sandford pointed out at the time the users themselves deny this and “House Full” signs are common (Observer).

Since the peak period of the 30’s the type of problem raised by vagrancy has changed as well as the numbers of the tramps. The predominant number then were normally employable men out of a job for months at a time, while now the major question is one of mental and emotional stability, the inability to enter social relations; today, down and outs are by and large unemployable. I am not suggesting that either quality is desirable, and agree with O’Connor that rehabilitation, trying to tame a man and fit him back into a competitive society the stresses and strains of which produced his problem in the first place, is absurd. But I cannot agree with his rejection of therapeutic methods. The only way out of the absolute misery of the vagrant’s life is by making some sort of modus vivendi, simply helping a man cope with his problem, and this is only possible in terms of constant personal contact. But everything in the vagrant world is in a state of permanent stalemate, and many attempts to make a breakthrough are frustrated by the balancing tensions of unorthodox ideas and the lack of money and people to implement them.

St. Botolph’s Crypt Club is the nearest I can imagine to providing the sort of assistance that is required. Some of the workers are religious, the atmosphere of the place however is non-religious and non-authoritarian (the only rule prohibits drinking inside the crypt—as much a protection against police interference as the chances of a riot in confined space). It was a matter of simple observation that if a tramp felt he had let you down, he would immediately feel guilt exacerbating his inhibition and isolation. Paternalist mateyness can only produce hatred, cringing or guilt; it is an extension of the threatened withdrawal of affection that parents can use to control their children (cf. Ian Stuart’s article in ANARCHY 32), and with their low sense of personal assertiveness tramps are particularly vulnerable to this form of bullying. Of course, permissiveness produced constant disappointments, a continued testing of how much we’d put up with. It was only when a man realized that friendship did not depend on good conduct but was an interest in him for his own sake, that we were even at the beginning of being of some real help. Without a formal committee, religious background, records, constitution and rules it was difficult to obtain financial support, and attempting to keep pace with the material demands alone was sufficient to occupy everyone’s energy: trying to feed 30 to 60 men each day on 10/- worth of vegetable soup, bread, butter and tea; getting forms filled in; weighing one need against another in allocating four bed tickets per night, sorting out old clothes, providing bandages, iodine, etc. There was little time left for personal contact with more than two or three.

Libertarian, permissive and co-operative techniques are the only ones offering any help to the vagrant in living his own life again, but only the charities and authorities have the necessary cash … Meanwhile this winter, 10,000 men are dossing in London alone and over 1,000 sleeping in the open.

1. Both recently re-issued as paperbacks by Panther & Penguin Books respectively.
2. HOMELESS! Solidarity pamphlet No. 12.
3. J. Stuart Whitley, NEW SOCIETY 27/12/62.

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Aug 16 2018 00:52


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