England Records of Vagrants (National Institute)
The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Begging was a huge social problem in the 16th century and the Poor Law Acts of 1597-1601 aimed to discouraged it by prescribing that beggars be whipped; references to this punishment are found in the records below. Elizabethan and later authorities were concerned to stamp out menacing bands of beggars, and the nursery rhyme Hark, hark! The dogs do bark, the beggars are coming to town, comes from this time. Incorrigible vagabonds could be sent to the county Bridewell (House of Correction, orGaol) and set to hard labour with other petty offenders.
David Hey in his book, The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History, points out that most beggars were actually local, single men in ones or twos seeking work or assistance from relatives. The problem lessened after the Act of Settlement of 1662 and with gradual improvement in living standards in Stuart and Georgian times. However the numbers of men on the tramp increased again after the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) and the system of examination for vagrants fell into disuse - there is relatively little material after 1820.
Vagrants were whipped or confined in the parish cage and removed to their parish of settlement, and their children could be apprenticed by the JPs. Vagrants were classified into three categories:
- Idle and disorderly persons included those who threatened to run away and leave their dependants, those who had been removed but returned, and idlers who begged in their own parish.
- Rogues and vagabonds were itinerant performers such as jugglers and minstrels, wandering beggars, those pretending to be soldiers, sailors or Egyptians (gypsies), fortune tellers, card and other tricksters, unlicensed pedlars, persons lodging in the open air or in barns and who could not give a good account of themselves, and anyone who actually left family chargeable to the parish.
- Incorrigible rogues included a rougher lot - those repeating a former vagrancy offence, refusing to be examined, lying upon examination, and escapees from custody. They were to be imprisoned for six months, may be whipped and could be impressed into the navy or army.
Cole states that the vast majority of those mentioned in vagrancy examinations, were not deliberate miscreants but just ordinary people who happened to be travelling when misfortune hit them.
A couple of typical vagrant examination examples are seen below .
Vagabond Examination 1757 Abingdon, Berkshire
The Examination of Ann Broadbelt, the wife of Joseph Broadbelt now in his Majesty’s Sea Service, a ROGUE and VAGABOND apprehended by John Stevens, one of the Constables of the Borough of Abingdon in the County of Berks, in the Borough of Abingdon Aforesaid and brought before Me, Mayor and one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the Borough of Abingdon aforesaid. And taken before Me this fourteenth Day of July in the Year of our Lord 1757.
This Examinant on her Oath saith That She is very Poor and through Necessity was this Day Obliged to Ask Relief in the said Borough for the Support of her Self and her Child Ann Broadbelt Aged Six Years Lawfully Begotten on her Body by her said Husband Joseph Broadbelt, and further saith, She hath heard her said Husband Say that his last Legal Settlement was in the Parish of Hounsleet in the County of York, and that he Acquired his said Settlement There by having Served an Apprenticeship of Seven Years to Joshua Smithson of Hounsleet Aforesaid Clothier, and that he was Bound by Indenture to him for the said Term of Seven Years, and Saith That She verily Believes that the last Legall [sic] Settlement of her said Husband, Her Self and her said Child was and is in the said Parish of Hounsleet in the County of York Aforesaid, her said Husband not having Acquired any Settlement Else where Since to the best of her Knowledge and Belief.
Vagabond Examination 1821 Abingdon, Berkshire
| The Examination of William Hamlet, a ROGUE and VAGABOND taken on Oath before me,Thomas Baker Esquire, one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace in and for the said Borough this 17th Day of April in the Year of out Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and twenty one who on his Oath saith, That he was born in the Parish of Rencombe in the County of Gloucester to which place he now belongs, and he saith that he hath done no act since his Birth to gain a Settlement out of the Parish of Rencombe aforesaid, And that he hath a Wife named Elizabeth.|
The mark of William Hamlet X
Taken and sworn before me Thomas Baker.
The vagrant would be then sent with a removal order, called a vagabond’s or vagrant’s pass , back to his own parish. These may be annotated en route with the names of parishes where he/they had obtained relief, how much, and whether he had been conveyed on foot or horseback. Many have been filmed, for example there are a series of vagrants’ passes 1816-1821 in the Surrey Quarter Sessions records on 2 films FHL film 0992500-1. Lists might be kept in the parish chest.
Vagabond Pass 1821
William and Elizabeth HAMLET—Vagabonds
Borough of Abingdon in the County of Berks to wit: To the Constable, Tythingman, or other Officer of the Peace of the Borough of Abingdon in the said County, and also to all Constables, and other Officers whom it may concern, to receive and convey: And to the Church-wardens, Chapel-wardens, or Overseers of the Poor of the Parish of Rencombe in the County of Gloucester, or either of them, to receive and obey.
WHEREAS William Hamlet was apprehended in the Borough of Abingdon as a ROGUE and VAGABOND (viz): wandering in the open air at unseasonable hours of the night and upon Examination of the said William Hamlet taken before me Thomas Baker Esquire one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace in and for the said Borough of Abingdon upon Oath (which Examination is hereunto annexed) it doth appear That the last place of legal Settlement of the said William Hamlet is in the Parish of Rencombe in the County of Gloucester.
These are, therefore, to require you the said Constable, Tythingman, or other Officer of the Peace of the said Borough of Abingdon to convey the said William Hamlet and Elizabeth his wife to the Hamlet of Shippon in the County of Berks, that being the first Hamlet in the next Precinct through which they ought to pass in the direct Way to the Parish of Rencombe to which they are to be sent, and to deliver them to the Constable or other Officer of such first Hamlet in such next Precinct, together with this Pass, and the Duplicate of the Examination of the said William Hamlet taking his Receipt for the same.
Vagrant Records in Horne, Surrey
Vagrants Records in Horne, Surrey 1679
FHL film 1042203
|Anno Dom. 1679|
|April 5th||Elias Smith and Jane his wife were taken wandring, whipped and sent by pass to Layton Stone in the County of Essex.|
|April 14th||Phillip Harbour and Susan his wife, together wth Willm Harbour, Rachell and 'Elizabeth Harbour their Children were taken wandring, whipped and sent by pass to Lyn in Norfolk.|
|May 8th|| Thomas Morton and Sarah his wife together with Sarah and Mary their Children were taken wandring, whipped and sent to Nutfeild (by a pass) in this County.|
Anne Green also was this day taken wandrg, whipped and sent by a pass to New Castle in Yorkshire.
|March 17th|| Mary Crossbey together with Nathaniell and Mary her Children were taken, whipped and sent to Woodstock in Oxford Shire.|
And Elizabeth Hird with Alice and Elizabeth her Children were also at ye time taken, whipped and sent to Hedington in the sd County of Oxon.
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