Cardboard city - the settlement of men and women camped in the underpass between Waterloo Station and the National Theatre - was a powerful image of Britain in the 1980s, a stark counterpoint to the brash hedonism of the City.
Cardboard city has been swept away and the site converted into an Imax cinema. The residents, however, have merely been displaced rather than their problems solved. Every night, charities and religious groups offer food to the homeless on the Embankment - only to be reprimanded by the head of the government's rough-sleeping initiative for encouraging people to remain on the streets, rather than entering shelters for assessment and rehabilitation.
Robert Humphreys's study of responses to the homeless in Britain since the 16th century suggests that there is little new about vigorous denunciation of well-meaning charity. In mid-Victorian Britain, the Charity Organisation Society, the subject of Humphreys's previous book, similarly condemned "indiscriminate charity" as merely demoralising the poor and preventing them from returning to the mainstream of society. In the 1960s, it was easy to dismiss the COS as callous, at a time when homelessness and begging were rare, and the welfare state and full employment seemed to have solved the problems faced by Victorian Britain. Matters seemed very different in the 1990s, when homelessness and begging were all too apparent in major cities. As Humphreys remarks, the perceptions of the COS have a new appeal to commentators on the right, who claim that state benefits and private charity undermine individual moral character that must be re-created. Humphreys is having none of this. In his view, the long history of homelessness since the end of the Middle Ages shows that it arose not from the failure of individual character but from unfairness in the national economic structure that denied suitable education and employment.
Tudor governments introduced legislation of a ferocious savagery against the travelling poor and vagrants. However, draconian penalties were supplemented by new policies designed to provide work for the poor, with houses of correction to reform the idle and dissolute. The Elizabethan poor law established a system of "settlements", which allowed one parish to return destitute strangers to the parish with responsibility for their maintenance.
The development of these laws has been studied by a large number of historians, but Humphreys provides no more than a summary of the legislation and does not draw on some of the more interesting recent work. Despite his claim that the pattern of homelessness depends on the economic structure, he concentrates on policies with little attention to the economic and social conditions that might affect homelessness and vagrancy. What was the impact of demobilisation after wars? Did a shift from annual contracts as "servants in husbandry" or as apprentices have any impact? How did the age of leaving home and the later creation of an independent household affect young men and women? How did the high levels of non-marriage in the later 17th century influence access to the housing market?
The reform of the poor law in 1834 is notorious; less well known is the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which classified vagrants in three groups: the "idle and disorderly", "rogues and vagabonds", and culminating with "incorrigible rogues". Punishment ranged from one month in a house of correction to 12 months with hard labour and a public flogging.
The right to be considered innocent until proven guilty was abandoned: it was up to the person against whom a suspicion was raised to prove innocence. More deserving poor travellers could apply to the poor law for a bed and food for the night in return for a work task. In 1882, the terms for relief were tightened up to deter applicants.
Humphreys provides a clear account of the operation of these policies, but he could take the argument a stage further by considering the operation of the labour and housing markets. Trade unions paid allowances for men to "tramp" in search of work; and there were seasonal workers moving around the country, or sailors moving from one port to another. Single men and women moved into the towns, with a decade or more before marrying and starting families. Where did these people live, how did they survive? Many families were disrupted by death.
How did children cope? Clearly, Dr Barnardo was concerned about abandoned children, though he was vigorously
criticised by the COS for
encouraging parents to avoid their responsibilities.
In 1906, the Local Government Board was still confident that the real cause of vagrancy was "indiscriminate dole-giving" and recommended that relief should be handed over to the police, with habitual vagrants despatched to labour colonies for at least six months. This policy was not adopted, but joint vagrancy committees were set up to coordinate the provision of casual wards by poor- law authorities. But the homeless were not simply looking for work. It was clear to the Royal Commission on the Feeble-Minded of 1908 that 15.7 per cent of casuals were "feeble-minded", 5.4 per cent insane and 5.7 per cent suffering from a psycho-neurotic condition. The Royal Commission had its own preferred solutions of permanent confinement or sterilisation of the feeble-minded and did not ask whether the mental problems were a rational response to dire social deprivation, rather than the cause. The eugenic policies were rejected but other approaches were developed by educationalists and the medical profession, to find suitable work for those "unfit" for more demanding tasks.
The development of a wider range of local welfare services might pull the homeless from the casual ward into other programmes. The increase in homelessness in the recent past might also reflect the closure of long-stay mental hospitals in favour of treatment in the community - often for people with no community except on the streets. Humphreys has provided a clear summary of the major changes in legislation dealing with vagrants but he has missed the opportunity to provide a wider account both of the economic and social factors that affect the numbers of people experiencing various forms of hardship, and of the ability of social policies and agencies to prevent them from becoming homeless.
Martin Daunton is professor of economic history, University of Cambridge.
No Fixed Abode: A History of Responses to the Roofless and Rootless in Britain
Author - Robert Humphreys
ISBN - 0 333 73846 2
Publisher - Longman
Price - £42.50
Pages - 222