The Female Vagrant

By Stephen Basdeo

English authorities always seems to have had a harsh attitude towards its destitute and homeless people, or vagrants. At the height of the Black Death in medieval England, when labour was becoming scarce and many people, understandably, were falling ill, the Ordinance of Labourers made ‘idleness’ a criminal offence. The penalty for being as an idle vagrant was whipping or branding.

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20th-Century Illustration

During the reign of Henry VIII, vagabonds were again targeted by lawmakers. The Vagabonds Act (1530) decreed that

“Beggars who are old and incapable of working receive a beggar’s licence. On the other hand, [there should be] whipping and imprisonment for sturdy vagabonds. They are to be tied to the cart-tail and whipped until the blood streams from their bodies, then they are to swear on oath to go back to their birthplace or to serve where they have lived the last three years and to ‘put themselves to labour’. For the second arrest for vagabondage the whipping is to be repeated and half the ear sliced off; but for the third relapse the offender is to be executed as a hardened criminal and enemy of the common weal.”

More laws against vagabonds were passed in 1547, 1572, and 1597. The harsh laws against vagabondage occurred at an interesting time in English history: it was a period when feudalism—through which serfs worked for and owed loyalty to the lords in return for protection—was breaking down and capitalism was emerging. The old social structures, with kings, lords, barons, and knights, still remained, of course. Yet whereas at the height of the middle ages the upper classes felt some kind of social responsibility to those beneath them, in the new capitalist, individualist world, the elites no longer felt obligated to care for society’s poorest.

And of course, there was no attempt to address the causes of vagrancy. The authorities merely saw it as a problem which had to be dealt with through harsh measures such as branding. The Henrician and Elizabethan laws against vagrancy had a minor update during Queen Anne’s reign, but the punishments remained largely the same.

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By the time that the industrial revolution began in the mid-eighteenth century, the power and social pre-eminence of the nobility had been displaced by the rising bourgeoisie. Where the lords in a feudal world might have felt some kind of obligation to the poor and needy, by the Georgian period, contract had replaced custom and, in the words of Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto (1848),

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

There had indeed always been poor people, but poverty had a new sting in its tail: people were now poor in a capitalist world in which, as Marx rightly observed, the paternalist bonds between the classes existed no more. Poets in the late eighteenth century were observed the poverty around. William Wordsworth was one such poet who was moved to write a heart-rending ‘biographical’ poem of the plight of a homeless woman living in the late eighteenth century (the poem does not refer to any particular historical figure but was from Wordsworth’s imagination—vagrancy was not an uncommon experience for many at the time).

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Later Victorian image of a homeless woman, c. 1890.

The poem was published in Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798). The volume was envisaged as an experiment—it marked a shift away from the pompous ‘Augustan’ poetry of the eighteenth century, which dealt with great men and big events, to a poetry which could be intelligible to common people. Most of the poems in the collection deal not with great men but with commoners as the subject. Even the use of the word ‘ballad’ in the title evokes the popular poetry of the plebeian classes.

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William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

The poem is meant to evoke feelings of tenderness and kindness to those less fortunate, and in this, at least, Wordsworth succeeded. In the words of Joseph Devey, writing in A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873):

It would appear that Wordsworth designed, by the instrumentality of the lowest ranks of society, to erect a poetic temple, at the shrine of which the most selfish hearts should be humanized, and a feeling of love kept alive, reciprocating and reciprocated, between the rich and the poor, the politically great and the socially defenceless, for ever. ‘Life is the vital energy of love;’ and as long as the two extremes of society stood looking at each other with feelings of repulsion, the end of existence could not be realised. His verse was to become the medium of identifying the loftiest purposes of his art with the purest aims of Christianity.

Yet things took a while to get better: the Speemhamland System of dole relief and wage subsidies did attempt to deal some of the causes of homelessness, but another vagrancy act was passed in 1824 which made it an offence to beg for money or to sleep rough.

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The Vagrancy Act (1824)

And the Act remains in force to this day in England (though thankfully whipping is no longer part of the punishment, merely a fine):

In 2016, the Vagrancy Act (1824) was used nearly 3,000 times to punish poor rough sleepers.


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The Female Vagrant as it appeared in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads (1798)

William Wordsworth, The Female Vagrant (1798)

1 By Derwent’s side my Father’s cottage stood,

(The Woman thus her artless story told)

One field, a flock, and what the neighbouring flood

Supplied, to him were more than mines of gold.

Light was my sleep; my days in transport roll’d:

With thoughtless joy I stretch’d along the shore

My father’s nets, or watched, when from the fold

High o’er the cliffs I led my fleecy store,

A dizzy depth below! his boat and twinkling oar.

 

2 My father was a good and pious man,

An honest man by honest parents bred,

And I believe that, soon as I began

To lisp, he made me kneel beside my bed,

And in his hearing there my prayers I said:

And afterwards, by my good father taught,

I read, and loved the books in which I read;

For books in every neighbouring house I sought,

And nothing to my mind a sweeter pleasure brought.

 

3 Can I forget what charms did once adorn

My garden, stored with pease, and mint, and thyme,

And rose and lilly for the sabbath morn?

The sabbath bells, and their delightful chime;

The gambols and wild freaks at shearing time;

My hen’s rich nest through long grass scarce espied;

The cowslip-gathering at May’s dewy prime;

The swans, that, when I sought the water-side,

From far to meet me came, spreading their snowy pride.

 

4 The staff I yet remember which upbore

The bending body of my active sire;

His seat beneath the honeyed sycamore

When the bees hummed, and chair by winter fire;

When market-morning came, the neat attire

With which, though bent on haste, myself I deck’d;

My watchful dog, whose starts of furious ire,

When stranger passed, so often I have check’d;

The red-breast known for years, which at my casement peck’d.

 

5 The suns of twenty summers danced along,—

Ah! little marked, how fast they rolled away:

Then rose a mansion proud our woods among,

And cottage after cottage owned its sway,

No joy to see a neighbouring house, or stray

Through pastures not his own, the master took;

My Father dared his greedy wish gainsay;

He loved his old hereditary nook,

And ill could I the thought of such sad parting brook.

 

6 But, when he had refused the proffered gold,

To cruel injuries he became a prey,

Sore traversed in whate’er he bought and sold:

His troubles grew upon him day by day,

Till all his substance fell into decay.

His little range of water was denied;

All but the bed where his old body lay,

All, all was seized, and weeping, side by side,

We sought a home where we uninjured might abide.

 

7 Can I forget that miserable hour,

When from the last hill-top, my sire surveyed,

Peering above the trees, the steeple tower,

That on his marriage-day sweet music made?

Till then he hoped his bones might there be laid,

Close by my mother in their native bowers:

Bidding me trust in God, he stood and prayed,—

I could not pray: — through tears that fell in showers,

Glimmer’d our dear-loved home, alas! no longer ours!

 

8 There was a youth whom I had loved so long,

That when I loved him not I cannot say.

‘Mid the green mountains many and many a song

We two had sung, like little birds in May.

When we began to tire of childish play

We seemed still more and more to prize each other:

We talked of marriage and our marriage day;

And I in truth did love him like a brother,

For never could I hope to meet with such another.

 

9 His father said, that to a distant town

He must repair, to ply the artist’s trade.

What tears of bitter grief till then unknown!

What tender vows our last sad kiss delayed!

To him we turned: — we had no other aid.

Like one revived, upon his neck I wept,

And her whom he had loved in joy, he said

He well could love in grief: his faith he kept;

And in a quiet home once more my father slept.

 

10 Four years each day with daily bread was blest,

By constant toil and constant prayer supplied.

Three lovely infants lay upon my breast;

And often, viewing their sweet smiles, I sighed,

And knew not why. My happy father died

When sad distress reduced the children’s meal:

Thrice happy! that from him the grave did hide

The empty loom, cold hearth, and silent wheel,

And tears that flowed for ills which patience could not heal.

 

11 ‘Twas a hard change, an evil time was come;

We had no hope, and no relief could gain.

But soon, with proud parade, the noisy drum

Beat round, to sweep the streets of want and pain.

My husband’s arms now only served to strain

Me and his children hungering in his view:

In such dismay my prayers and tears were vain:

To join those miserable men he flew;

And now to the sea-coast, with numbers more, we drew.

 

12 There foul neglect for months and months we bore,

Nor yet the crowded fleet its anchor stirred.

Green fields before us and our native shore,

By fever, from polluted air incurred,

Ravage was made, for which no knell was heard.

Fondly we wished, and wished away, nor knew,

‘Mid that long sickness, and those hopes deferr’d,

That happier days we never more must view:

The parting signal streamed, at last the land withdrew,

 

13 But from delay the summer calms were past.

On as we drove, the equinoctial deep

Ran mountains-high before the howling blast.

We gazed with terror on the gloomy sleep

Of them that perished in the whirlwind’s sweep,

Untaught that soon such anguish must ensue,

Our hopes such harvest of affliction reap,

That we the mercy of the waves should rue.

We reached the western world, a poor, devoted crew.

 

14 Oh! dreadful price of being to resign

All that is dear in being! better far

In Want’s most lonely cave till death to pine,

Unseen, unheard, unwatched by any star;

Or in the streets and walks where proud men are,

Better our dying bodies to obtrude,

Than dog-like, wading at the heels of war,

Protract a curst existence, with the brood

That lap (their very nourishment!) their brother’s blood.

 

15 The pains and plagues that on our heads came down,

Disease and famine, agony and fear,

In wood or wilderness, in camp or town,

It would thy brain unsettle even to hear.

All perished — all, in one remorseless year,

Husband and children! one by one, by sword

And ravenous plague, all perished: every tear

Dried up, despairing, desolate, on board

A British ship I waked, as from a trance restored.

 

16 Peaceful as some immeasurable plain

By the first beams of dawning light impress’d,

In the calm sunshine slept the glittering main.

The very ocean has its hour of rest,

That comes not to the human mourner’s breast.

Remote from man, and storms of mortal care,

A heavenly silence did the waves invest;

I looked and looked along the silent air,

Until it seemed to bring a joy to my despair.

 

17 Ah! how unlike those late terrific sleeps!

And groans, that rage of racking famine spoke,

Where looks inhuman dwelt on festering heaps!

The breathing pestilence that rose like smoke!

The shriek that from the distant battle broke!

The mine’s dire earthquake, and the pallid host

Driven by the bomb’s incessant thunder-stroke

To loathsome vaults, where heart-sick anguish toss’d,

Hope died, and fear itself in agony was lost!

 

18 Yet does that burst of woe congeal my frame,

When the dark streets appeared to heave and gape,

While like a sea the storming army came,

And Fire from Hell reared his gigantic shape,

And Murder, by the ghastly gleam, and Rape

Seized their joint prey, the mother and the child!

But from these crazing thoughts my brain, escape!

—For weeks the balmy air breathed soft and mild,

And on the gliding vessel Heaven and Ocean smiled.

 

19 Some mighty gulph of separation past,

I seemed transported to another world:—

A thought resigned with pain, when from the mast

The impatient mariner the sail unfurl’d,

And whistling, called the wind that hardly curled

The silent sea. From the sweet thoughts of home,

And from all hope I was forever hurled.

For me — farthest from earthly port to roam

Was best, could I but shun the spot where man might come.

 

20 And oft, robb’d of my perfect mind, I thought

At last my feet a resting-place had found:

Here will I weep in peace, (so fancy wrought,)

Roaming the illimitable waters round;

Here watch, of every human friend disowned,

All day, my ready tomb the ocean-flood—

To break my dream the vessel reached its bound:

And homeless near a thousand homes I stood,

And near a thousand tables pined, and wanted food.

 

21 By grief enfeebled was I turned adrift,

Helpless as sailor cast on desart rock;

Nor morsel to my mouth that day did lift,

Nor dared my hand at any door to knock.

I lay, where with his drowsy mates, the cock

From the cross timber of an out-house hung;

How dismal tolled, that night, the city clock!

At morn my sick heart hunger scarcely stung,

Nor to the beggar’s language could I frame my tongue.

 

22 So passed another day, and so the third:

Then did I try, in vain, the crowd’s resort,

In deep despair by frightful wishes stirr’d,

Near the sea-side I reached a ruined fort:

There, pains which nature could no more support,

With blindness linked, did on my vitals fall;

Dizzy my brain, with interruption short

Of hideous sense; I sunk, nor step could crawl,

And thence was borne away to neighbouring hospital.

 

23 Recovery came with food: but still, my brain

Was weak, nor of the past had memory.

I heard my neighbours, in their beds, complain

Of many things which never troubled me;

Of feet still bustling round with busy glee,

Of looks where common kindness had no part,

Of service done with careless cruelty,

Fretting the fever round the languid heart,

And groans, which, as they said, would make a dead man start.

 

24 These things just served to stir the torpid sense,

Nor pain nor pity in my bosom raised.

Memory, though slow, returned with strength; and thence

Dismissed, again on open day I gazed,

At houses, men, and common light, amazed.

The lanes I sought, and as the sun retired,

Came, where beneath the trees a faggot blazed;

The wild brood saw me weep, my fate enquired,

And gave me food, and rest, more welcome, more desired.

 

25 My heart is touched to think that men like these,

The rude earth’s tenants, were my first relief:

How kindly did they paint their vagrant ease!

And their long holiday that feared not grief,

For all belonged to all, and each was chief.

No plough their sinews strained; on grating road

No wain they drove, and yet, the yellow sheaf

In every vale for their delight was stowed:

For them, in nature’s meads, the milky udder flowed.

 

26 Semblance, with straw and panniered ass, they made

Of potters wandering on from door to door:

But life of happier sort to me pourtrayed,

And other joys my fancy to allure;

The bag-pipe dinning on the midnight moor

In barn uplighted, and companions boon

Well met from far with revelry secure,

In depth of forest glade, when jocund June

Rolled fast along the sky his warm and genial moon.

 

27 But ill it suited me, in journey dark

O’er moor and mountain, midnight theft to hatch;

To charm the surly house-dog’s faithful bark,

Or hang on tiptoe at the lifted latch;

The gloomy lantern, and the dim blue match,

The black disguise, the warning whistle shrill,

And ear still busy on its nightly watch,

Were not for me, brought up in nothing ill;

Besides, on griefs so fresh my thoughts were brooding still.

 

28 What could I do, unaided and unblest?

Poor Father! gone was every friend of thine:

And kindred of dead husband are at best

Small help, and, after marriage such as mine,

With little kindness would to me incline.

Ill was I then for toil or service fit:

With tears whose course no effort could confine,

By high-way side forgetful would I sit

Whole hours, my idle arms in moping sorrow knit.

 

29 I lived upon the mercy of the fields,

And oft of cruelty the sky accused;

On hazard, or what general bounty yields,

Now coldly given, now utterly refused.

The fields I for my bed have often used:

But, what afflicts my peace with keenest ruth

Is, that I have my inner self abused,

Foregone the home delight of constant truth,

And clear and open soul, so prized in fearless youth.

 

30 Three years a wanderer, often have I view’d,

In tears, the sun towards that country tend

Where my poor heart lost all its fortitude:

And now across this moor my steps I bend—

Oh! tell me whither — for no earthly friend

Have I. — She ceased, and weeping turned away,

As if because her tale was at an end

She wept; — because she had no more to say

Of that perpetual weight which on her spirit lay.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The Female Vagrant

  1. […] If you were a woman on your own in London with a child or several children to support, you might leave your child in the care of the Foundling Hospital. This was often done in order for a woman to get back on her feet while she worked and earned money, with the intention of collecting her child later once she was earning a bit more. The child may also have been born out of wedlock, which would have made it difficult to for her to secure work if she had a child, owing to the prejudices of the time. […]

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