‘How could you bear it yourself?’

Angelique Richardson

‘This is not just about making the UK a more hostile place for illegal migrants,’ Theresa May, then home secretary, said in September 2013. ‘It is also about fairness.’ A few months later, the coalition government’s Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, aimed at ‘putting victims first’, received royal assent.

By May 2018, more than fifty local authorities had acquired public space protections orders (PSPOs) which allow the homeless to be moved on, with nowhere to go. ‘I’ve always been a-moving and a-moving on,’ Jo the crossing sweeper tells a policeman in Bleak House, ‘ever since I was born. Where can I possibly move to, sir, more nor I do move!’

By March 2019, at least sixty councils had obtained the power to issue £100 fines for rough sleeping, begging and loitering. If you don’t pay the fine, imposed for asking for money you don’t have, you risk a £1000 penalty. What happens then? If you get a criminal behaviour order for asking for money on the streets and you ask again, you can go to prison for five years.

‘How could you bear it yourself?’ William Morris asked in 1883:

What would you feel if you were poor against the system under which you live? … if I had not been born rich or well-to-do I should have found my position unendurable, and should have been a mere rebel against what would have seemed to me a system of robbery and injustice. Nothing can argue me out of this feeling … the contrasts of rich and poor are unendurable and ought not to be endured by either rich or poor.

The same year, Thomas Hardy wrote in Longman’s Magazine that ‘the Damocles’ sword of the poor is the fear of being turned out of their houses by the farmer or squire.’ He sent copies of his ‘merely descriptive’ article to William Gladstone, in his second term as prime minister, and John Morley, a Liberal MP campaigning for universal suffrage, in support of the Liberal party’s attempts to enfranchise the rural poor. Hardy later recalled a ‘sheep-keeping boy’ he had known as a child who ‘died of want – the contents of his stomach at the autopsy being raw turnip only’.

1883 was also the year that Francis Galton coined the term ‘eugenics’ for his scheme to end poverty by breeding out the working class. He had argued earlier, in Macmillan’s Magazine, that charity was needlessly, and heedlessly, preserving the unfit. If poverty was a biological condition, it was immune to the environmental changes that could be brought about through social reform. Writing in the Contemporary Review in 1885, Arnold White divided the unemployed (the ‘nomad poor of London’) into three categories: 20 per cent were genuinely unemployed; 40 per cent were ‘feckless and incapable’; the remaining 40 per cent were ‘physically, mentally and morally unfit, there is nothing that the nation can do for these men except to let them die out by leaving them alone.’

In October 1883, Andrew Mearns launched his environmentalist counter attack on biologistic accounts of poverty, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London: An Inquiry into the Condition of the Abject Poor, refuting the idea that poverty was hereditary and showing it to be the result not of defective biology but of devastating living conditions. The Pall Mall published a condensed version of the pamphlet along with a leader, ‘Is It Not Time?’, calling for more support and action for the poor. Toynbee Hall, a settlement in the East End devoted to practical social reform, was established the following year, inspiring Jane Addams’s radical Chicago settlement, Hull House, at the end of the decade.

Cesare Lombroso’s L’uomo delinquente, arguing for a biological basis for crime, had been published in 1876, and Havelock Ellis extended the argument in The Criminal (1890). By now, George Sims was running his sensationalist series ‘How the Poor Live’, in Pictorial World, poverty porn for the Victorians, teasing his reader with ‘nameless abominations which could only be set forth were we contributing to the Lancet’. The same othering and denigration of the poor was on display in Channel 4’s Benefits Street (2014-15), quite possibly with electoral consequences.

In 1889 Charles Booth began publishing his 17-volume Life and Labour of the People in London, dividing them into eight classes. An irreducible fraction of the population, Booth argued, the ‘vicious or semi-criminal’, was destined to remain in poverty. Debating the Reform Bill of 1867 in parliament, John Bright had referred to a ‘residuum’ of ‘almost hopeless poverty and dependence’ who should be excluded from the franchise for their own sake.

The idea that national health might be controlled through a neo-Malthusian regulation of reproduction, and that certain social groups might be eliminated by intervention in the nation’s breeding practices, was gaining momentum.

In 1911, James Barr, an Ulster Tory, eugenic activist and president-elect of the British Medical Association, wrote to the Times that sympathy was ‘no business of the State’, speaking out against any move towards a National Health Service. The National Insurance Bill was ‘a long step in the downward path towards Socialism’ that was likely to ‘destroy individual effort and increase that spirit of dependency which is ever found in degenerate races’.

The notion of the residuum set the poor apart, indicating that their descent to the bottom of the social ladder, and into crime – the two were often conflated, as Hardy observed, referring satirically in The Mayor of Casterbridge to ‘households whose crime it was to be poor’ – was somehow inevitable, or natural. In Eugenics and Other Evils (1918), G.K. Chesterton pointed out that what the poor needed was more money, not eugenics. As attitudes towards poverty are hardening again, they now get less, and eugenics is back.

When money was found at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown to house, temporarily, 15,000 rough sleepers in hotels and emergency accommodation, it wasn’t because the government had recognised their humanity (and housing and health needs), but so that they wouldn’t pose a risk to more privileged groups.

Last month, Conservative councillors in three towns in Dorset argued for tougher measures against the homeless ‘to boost the area’s economy’ and ‘to ease residents’ concerns’. Residents, that is, with homes. The councillors in Christchurch, Poole (Hardy’s Havenpool) and Bournemouth (Sandbourne) suggested that leaving bedding or bags in doorways should count as a PSPO breach.

On 26 August, the Home Office posted a video describing migrants’ lawyers as ‘activists’. It took it down two days (and 1.5 million views) later, after lawyers (and others) complained that it undermined the rule of law and independence of the judiciary. To seek asylum is not a crime, and neither is being homeless.


  • 8 September 2020 at 12:29pm
    Charles Evans says:
    I fear that successive Governments in the UK have been doing their utmost to criminalise poverty and homelessness. The current incumbents are too lazy and feckless to do the hard work required to eliminate homelessness, because it takes more than a tiny trickle of cash or a few empty gimmicks.

  • 8 September 2020 at 1:20pm
    staberinde says:
    Vagrancy is an outcome of poverty, but it doesn't follow that giving money to the homeless is the remedy.

    Homeless people are often addicted to alcohol or hard drugs. They often suffer from mental health problems. They often have no family or support network.

    Rehabilitating them into society - home, work, health, relationships - is more than a matter of money.

    It requires investment, to be sure, but also services delivered with empathy. And it requires open mindedness on the part of employers who operate at the commodity end of the labour market.

    Any such efforts may of course be frustrated by the homeless individual their self. It's a free country, and we can't (and should not) compel people anyone to live or work where they do not want to, or to receive unwelcome medical treatment or counselling.

    This is most challenging. If society makes reasonable, even heroic, efforts to help and support the homeless, it may yet be faced with those who will not be helped. And in those circumstances - which are certainly not hypothetical - what are communities to do? Arrest, forced removal... Some form of compulsion is all that's left.

    Just because we are nowhere near the end of the road doesn't mean the road has no end. Perhaps the difference between Left and Right is that the latter simply arrives at the same destination faster?

    • 8 September 2020 at 3:52pm
      Bob Beck says: @ staberinde
      If you should locate a society that makes "reasonable, even heroic" efforts to help and support the homeless, I trust you'll publish the name.

    • 8 September 2020 at 4:50pm
      Joe Morison says: @ staberinde
      I don’t understand your position. First you say, ‘we can't (and should not) compel ... anyone to live or work where they do not want to,’ then, ‘Some form of compulsion is all that's left.’ Which is it? And why can’t we just respect the wishes of those who want to be left alone?

      Anyone who lives or works in West Hampstead will have known John the book seller and his three legged Staffy, Sugar (there’s now a mural of them on the bridge by the Thameslink station on West End Lane where he used to sell his wares). He was a truly gentle soul, loved by many, who had a constant battle with crack and alcohol having suffered the most appalling abuse from his step-father in childhood. Although he eventually got a council flat; he often slept on the street because after so long having to, that’s where he felt safest. The idea of ‘well-meaning’ authorities forcing him off the street is utterly repugnant.

    • 8 September 2020 at 6:39pm
      staberinde says: @ Joe Morison
      My point is that no community wants vagrants. On this, the working class and the gated bourgeoisie agree. These communities attempt to help in good faith, and of course one can always argue for more to be done, but there's always more to it than humanitarianism.

      Vagrancy is a rejection of society. It's a reminder of the limits of society's power. And it is an uncomfortable reminder of how eak the boundary between in- and out-group can be.

      And that's why Left and Right invariably arrive at compulsion; through a process of othering which effectively defines the limits of individual freedom.

      To choose vagrancy and reject help, for whatever reason, is to reject the community that guarantees freedoms. Because, obviously, freedom is a meaningless concept out with the idea of community.

    • 9 September 2020 at 6:37pm
      BlakMark says: @ staberinde
      Neither the working class nor the boirgeois is a community. They are politically (and morally) internally divided. Your assertion of ‘good faith’ attempts to help is a half truth which sticks in the throat. As for rejection, I think it works both ways, and often it is society that rejects first. And continues to. In sum ... hand-wringing humbug. IMHO, of course.

    • 10 September 2020 at 8:35am
      Joe Morison says: @ staberinde
      I absolutely reject your assertions that no community wants vagrants, and that Left and Right invariably arrive at compulsion. While it’s trivially true, because being a vagrant is nearly always a pretty miserable fate, that everyone would rather vagrants could be absorbed happily into society; it’s absolutely not the case that, given that they are here, all communities would like to see them removed. I live in a part of London where great wealth, houses costing many millions, exists alongside real poverty, hardcore miserable estates with serious gang problems. But I don’t see any hostility to the many street people we have from any section of this community. Instead, I see a lot of tolerance and friendliness: people engage them in conversation and give them money and food. When John the Book died there was an outpouring of sadness and support: a huge memorial spontaneously grew up on the spot where he used to sell his books and beg, a mass of flowers (including a wreath from the local fire brigade) and a lot of personal messages; as I said, there is now a large mural of him and his dog Sugar there (with official sanction) - there were even moves to have the lane where he died named after him. I was proud to call him a friend.

      There is nothing necessary to leftwing or rightwing ideology that suggests vagrants should be forcibly removed. What is true is that authority of whatever political persuasion, from the smallest parish council to the largest national government, objects to vagrants because, I suspect, they are people who refuse to submit to their power - to which I say, fuck authority and its overweening ambition. I also suspect that you don’t like vagrants, though that’s only a guess and I wouldn’t like to speculate as to why.

  • 8 September 2020 at 6:25pm
    Graucho says:
    As Anatole France observed over a century ago: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal loaves of bread”. Oh well Le plus ca change.

  • 8 September 2020 at 10:08pm
    Rory O'Kelly says:
    It is easy to assume that the 'big story' about the 19th century is the growth and gradual percolation of prosperity through society, the question then being whether those 'left behind' were in this situation through their own fault or through force of circumstances. Even people who dismiss the 'trickle down' theory in the context of current economics find it tempting as historical explanation.

    One of Piketty's most interesting points is that the big story in the 19th century was in fact the growth in inequality of income and wealth, with the result that distribution was more unequal immediately before the First World War than it had been immediately before the French Revolution. The growth of an underclass and the criminalisation of this class by the rich followed naturally.

    It is not surprising that the revival of extreme inequality since 1980 has led to a similar ideological response.

  • 9 September 2020 at 1:25pm
    Graucho says:
    Financial instruments in whatever form boil down to being IOUs. If you are poor then the world owes you nothing, in which case why should you give a damn about the world. Is it little wonder that crime and anti-social behaviour are so closely correlated with poverty ?

  • 11 September 2020 at 2:53pm
    XopherO says:
    In the aftermath of coronavirus with relative poverty increasing way beyond the 14 million already identified, massive unemployment and mental illness, perhaps a real use for the white elephant Nightingale hospitals will be found - workhouses! Nothing is beyond belief with this government.

  • 15 September 2020 at 10:43pm
    Squeeth says:
    In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread. (Anatole France, 1894)

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