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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The Politics of Victorian England’s “Vicious Republican”: G. W. M. Reynolds (1814–79)

By Stephen Basdeo

It’s quite possible that you’ve never heard of George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814–79). His prolific writing career has been overshadowed somewhat by his contemporaries such as Charles Dickens, whose writings, while they manifested a bit of a social conscience, were hardly radical. Reynolds’s name, by contrast, was, in Dickens’s words, ‘a name with which no Lady’s, and no gentleman’s, should be associated’.

But why was Reynolds’s name so dangerous to a man like Dickens? After all, in their fictional works, they both railed against the injustices of the poor law and the workhouse, the oppression of the working class, and the exploitation of children. They should have been natural bed-fellows. But Reynolds was a committed radical, democrat, and borderline revolutionary who sought a fundamental change in society’s constitution, and importantly not a racist (evident by his comments in Grace Darling, published in 1839, in which he criticises those who believed that black people were inferior). Dickens, who had questionable views on race, was a paid-up man of the establishment who merely argued that the upper classes should be philanthropic where possible. Not without justification did Reynolds call him

“That lickspittle hanger-on to the skirts of Aristocracy’s robe—‘Charles Dickens, Esq.’ —originally a dinnerless penny-a-liner on the Morning.”[i]

(The Morning refers to Dickens’s work for the conservative Morning Post newspaper, which was taken over by The Telegraph in the 1930s). Reynolds maintained a firm and unshakeable belief in the rights and sovereignty of the people. His influences in this regard were writers such as Thomas Paine—the intellectual force behind both the American and French Revolutions—and, having spent the early part of his career as a struggling journalist in France, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. This naturally entailed a belief in the sanctity of the ballot and truly universal suffrage, which for Reynolds also included women—something which would not be achieved until after Reynolds’s death:

“Every community has the right to choose its own institutions, its own form of government, and its own rulers.”[ii]

Of course, in the early Victorian era, few could vote. It is true that the ‘Great’ Reform Act was passed in 1832, which extended the franchise to large sections of the middle classes, or those who either rented or owned property worth 40 shillings. But for the Chartists, this was not enough and they kept on campaigning for vote, and neither should the people accept anything less than full universal suffrage, according to Reynolds.

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Title page to Reynolds’s crime novel: The Mysteries of London

But who were ‘the people’? Interestingly, Reynolds only infrequently uses the term ‘working class’ in his novels and newspaper articles, and opts instead for a much wider term: ‘the industrious millions’.[iii] While Reynolds was a passionate advocate for working-class political enfranchisement, evident through his significant involvement with the Chartist cause, most of the time ‘the oppressed’ or ‘industrious millions’, a term which he uses in The Mysteries of London (1844–48), comprises both the working and middle classes. They occupy a place beneath royalty and aristocracy, as he maintains in the same novel, in which a character named ‘the Republican’ declares that:

“I only strive to arouse the grovelling spirit of the industrious millions to a sense of the wrongs under which they labour, and to prove to them that they were not sent into this world to lick the dust beneath the feet of majesty and aristocracy!”[iv]

Reynolds probably saw something of himself in his republican character. This idea of aristocracy against the people (working and middle classes) is a constant theme throughout his journalism. Both his fiction and his journalism were melodramatic; he had to present a clear ‘bad guy’ or evil class of people, while the industrious millions he depicted as a saintly yet passive oppressed people. It was the aristocracy, in Reynolds’s view, who were responsible for every social ill: poverty, crime, injustice.

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The original incarnation of Reynolds’s Newspaper entitled Reynolds’s Political Instructor. This edition features William Cuffay, the famous Chartist activist, on its front page.

Reynolds’s radicalism evidently looks back to earlier, more bourgeois forms of it which were influenced by the likes of Paine and various French thinkers from the 1830s. So, while Reynolds does often criticise capitalist society and its attendant social ills, he has no advanced theory of the existence of a ruling class and the class conflict between them and the industrious millions. The best he can do is to map his criticisms of capitalism on to older discourses of ‘Old Corruption’. The idea of Old Corruption held—with much justification—that a narrow oligarchy of aristocrats elected by only a very small proportion of the population pursued their own landed interests at the expense of the people-at-large. In Reynolds’s worldview, in spite of the rise of capitalism, it was still the aristocracy who held sway over the people, as he wrote in 1851:

“As I have often said, England is in reality a despotism—this despotism consisting, not of an autocrat, but of an oligarchy—not of an individual, but of a few hundreds of aristocratic families.”[v]

The caveat for Reynolds was the aristocracy consolidated its power by more often than not allying themselves with the capitalists. In some of his later writings we find references to two types of aristocracies: the aristocracy of birth and the aristocracy of money:

“The Birth Aristocracy sees that the helm is escaping out of its hands; and therefore, rather than allow the slightest chance for the infusion of a democratic element into the system, it will enter into political partnership with the Moneyocracy. This arrangement will be for the perpetuation of tyranny and class-legislation; and the two Aristocracies of Birth and Money will unite with the common object of riveting the chains about the industrious millions.”[vi]

We have to remember that Reynolds’s most biting political commentary came before the first English publication of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels’s The Communist Manifesto (1848). The first English translation of this was published in the Chartist magazine, The Red Republican, but it would not be until the 1870s, which was the decade that Reynolds died, before a fully-fledged English socialist movement would emerge. It would not be until the writings of Marx and Engels’s found their way into mainstream radical thought in Britain after the 1850s that the idea of class conflict between two classes—a bourgeoisie and a proletariat—would be clearly articulated. Thus, Reynolds’s radical philosophy was an early attempt to diagnose the social ills of modern industrial society while taking into account earlier forms of aristocratic, oligarchical oppression.

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Reynolds’s Newspaper

If we are viewing Reynolds’s politics through a modern lens, we might fall into the trap of thinking that he was what we might call left wing today. Some of his views do indeed correlate with those espoused by prominent members of the left. However, where he would have differed from today’s so-called radicals is in his views on taxation. He was an advocate of what we would now call a low-tax society. One of the primary reasons for this is that he hated the idea that taxes went to fund an idle and profligate monarchy and aristocracy. In an editorial for Reynolds’s Newspaper in 1851, he asked how it could ever be just for the taxes of the working poor should

“Swell the coffers of the Illustrious Beggars and Serene Paupers of Saxe Coburg Gotha.”[vii]

Now, taxes in the Victorian era were, if we look at it objectively, not too onerous. Income tax was first levied during time by the Tory government of Sir Robert Peel at a rate of 7d in the pound. The tax threshold was an income of £150 per year which exempted almost all the working class. Direct taxation was somewhat unpopular in Victorian Britain and some chancellors toyed with the idea of abolishing income it; however, it proved too convenient and lucrative. Yet Reynolds hated all forms of tax: in the middle of many of his novels, he often broke the narrative to enter into a political rant. Perhaps the best articulation of his opposition to all forms of taxes comes in The Days of Hogarth; or, The Mysteries of Old London (1848):

Taxation is a vampire that loves to feast on the blood of a nation’s heart, and prey upon the vitals of an industrious population. It is an avaricious, grasping, griping fiend that places its finger on every morsel of food which enters into the mouth, on every article of clothing which covers the person, and on everything which is pleasant to behold, hear, feel, taste, or smell! It interferes with our warmth—our light—our locomotion—the very printed paper which diffuses knowledge! It roams over the land to claim its share of the produce of our fields and manufactures and it awaits on the [quays] of our seaports for the unlading of vessels bringing things from abroad. The moment the industry or intelligence of man originates something new, the fiend Taxation overshadows it with its loathsome, hat-like wing. It plunges its hand into the rich man’s dish and the poor man’s porridge … Oh! Insatiate is that fiend, for he attends at the death bed when the will is made, and in the spiritual court when it is proven:—he has his share of the price paid for the very marble which covers the grave of the deceased:—and it is only there—in the grave—that the victim of Taxation can be taxed no more![viii]

In sum, Reynolds was a democrat; the people—the working and middle classes—should be granted the vote. They are prevented from achieving political equality due to the machinations of the aristocracy who conspire with the interests of big capital to oppress the industrious millions. And he hated all forms of tax: it made food more expensive; it restricted the exchange of knowledge through the Stamp Act; and it stifled commercial and industrial innovation.


[i] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’s Miscellany, June (1851), cited in Richard Maxwell, The Mysteries of Paris and London (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1992), p. 356.

[ii] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The Duty of the French Republicans’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 29 December 1850, 1

[iii] As he progressed throughout life, however, he does opt for the term ‘working class’ with greater frequency.

[iv] G. W. M. Reynolds, Mysteries of London, 2 vols (London: G. Vickers, 1846), I, p. 70

[v] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The Necessity for the Ballot’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 22 June 1851, 1.

[vi] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The People’s Rights’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 13 April 1851, 1.

[vii] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘A Word to the “Liberal Minority” in Parliament’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 16 March 1851, 1.

[viii] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Days of Hogarth; or, The Mysteries of Old London (London: John Dicks [n. d.]), ch.5.

The Underclass of 19th-Century New York City: The Work of Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914)

Stephen Basdeo examines the work of nineteenth-century American social reformer, Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914).

Amongst British nineteenth-century scholars, Henry Mayhew is perhaps the best known of all social investigators, along with perhaps G. W. M. Reynolds. His London Labour and the London Poor (1851) documented the lives and living conditions of a variety of working-class people. A little later in the century, on the other side of the pond, however, was an equally interesting figure, Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) who published a work similar to Mayhew’s but with an emphasis on New York entitled How the Other Half LivesStudies Among the Tenements of New York (1890).

J A Riis
Jacob A. Riis (c) Wikimedia Commons

Conditions for the poor in late-nineteenth-century New York City were comparable to those faced by paupers in Victorian London. Many of the poor, adults as well as children, in New York worked as casual labourers, families herded into a single room at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords. Riis himself had experienced some of this poverty – he was born in Denmark in 1849, but had emigrated to the States in 1870 to seek employment as a journalist. He arrived in the States just prior to ‘The Long Depression’ (1873-1879) and experienced bouts of unemployment, hunger, and homelessness himself. Eventually he got a job with The New York Tribune as a Police Reporter and became acquainted with the thousands of people who passed through the police courts. Furthermore, he often accompanied policemen on their rounds through the slum districts of the Lower East Side, and he decided that he had to alert the public to the plight of the poor and the need for social reform.[1] Another thing he did was to photograph much of what he saw, which highlighted for readers the awful conditions that their fellow countrymen lived in.

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“Bandits’ Roost” from J A Riis’s How the Other Half Live

According to Riis, it makes sense to improve the condition of the poor from both an economic and Christian standpoint: improving the living conditions of the poor would reduce the costs of workhouses (yes, the States had them too) and prisons, among other things; and, of course, it is the duty of every Christian to help the poor.[2] There is also the fact that diseases spread easily amongst the cramped tenements of New York, and these diseases recognise no social class – cholera in the slums can and does spread to the suburbs.

But Riis is essentially one of the elites who, although he is friendly to the poor, is at times condescending towards them. Unlike Mayhew, interviews with paupers are not a prominent part of his enquiries into the condition of the poor. They are categorised according to their class, or ethnicity in some cases.  Thus the various chapters describe ‘The Sweaters of Jewtown’ (describing poor Jews), ‘The Italian in New York’, ‘Chinatown’, and ‘The Color Line in New York’ (describing the condition of black people in the city). Then there is ‘The Mixed Crowd’ and ‘The Common Herd’.

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Young newspaper sellers photographed in their lodging room wash-houses

Riss’ chapters on ‘The Waifs of the City’s Slums’ and ‘Street Arabs’ is harrowing but especially interesting. These are the homeless, parentless children of New York City that must survive by their wits, making money however they can:

Newspaper row is merely their headquarters. They are to be found all over the city, these Street Arabs, where the neighbourhood offers a chance of picking up a living in the daytime and of “turning in” at night with a promise of security from surprise. In warm weather a truck in the street, a convenient outhouse, or a dug out in a hay garage at the wharf make good bunks.[3]

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An immigrant family in poor quality slum housing

Many of these boys were newspaper sellers, or ‘Newsies’ according to American slang (the story of the Newsie strike was, curiously, a very successful Disney Broadway play in 2014). Others made their money by shining shoes in the street. Yet with provision to help such homeless young boys and girls so thin, there is only one path open to them as they reach adulthood: a criminal career. Riis says

Very soon the wild life in the streets holds him fast, and thenceforward by his own effort there is no escape. Left alone to himself, he soon enough finds a place in the police books, and there would be no other answer to the second question: “what becomes of the boy?” than that given by the criminal courts every day this week.[4]

But Riis does more than simply whinge about the state of the poor in New York City. He also provides a solution. The state, along with private capital, must rebuild the tenements on a large scale. This is the crux of the matter – the Health Department, argues Riis, cannot make inroads into improving citizens’ health if the city as a whole is unprepared to remedy the housing the situation and build clean, new apartments for people in the place of the slums. From this would follow an improvement in the habits and morals of the impoverished working classes. And Riis’ work was suitably shocking to respectable inhabitants of New York to ensure that it had lasting impact. The Tenement Housing Committee was formed in 1894, and in the following year the Tenement Housing Act was passed which prohibited sub-standard building. Further improvements came in 1901 with more legislation aimed at improving the condition of paupers’ habitations, and a further result of his work was that the Federal Government began to undertake reforms to pauper dwelling places on a national scale.[5]


[1]Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives, ed. by Charles A. Madison (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1890; repr. New York: Dover, 1971), p.v.

[2]Riis, How the Other Half Lives, p.2.

[3]Riis, How the Other Half Lives, p.154.

[4]Riis, How the Other Half Lives, p.156.

[5]Keith Gandal, The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane, and the Spectacle of the Slum (Oxford University Press, 1997), p.148.