Poor and Homeless - Then and Now a Crime


Henry Gunning’s Reminiscences of the University, Town and County of Cambridge from the year 1780 was published in 1854, the year he died, and the work is one of the more entertaining descriptions of Cambridge at the beginning of the 19th century. He had been one of the Esquire Bedells of Cambridge University and had an official connection with the university for over 65 years. He describes his passion for shooting - ‘in going over the land now occupied by Downing Terrace, you generally got five or six shots at snipes’ - and would make his way along the main road to Trumpington apparently shooting at every bird in sight!


In 1851 he was living at 1 Emmanuel Road, looked after by Charles and Susan Leggatt, his servants; he had had a fall in 1847 that left him disabled. I decided to look a little closer at the road at this time. Originally called Miller’s Lane, Emmanuel Road was developed in the 1820s and by 1850 it contained the homes of a variety of people including town councillors, property owners and college servants. The Unitarian Church was not built until 1928; in 1851 the same site, no. 6, was the home of James Tompkins, master builder.


Perhaps the most interesting house on Emmanuel Road then was no. 7, on the corner with Victoria Street. In 1851, this was the Police Station, home of William Juggard, superintendent, his wife Ann, and two children, Mary Ann, aged 7, Alfred, 4, and their house servant Lydia Bowman, 14. More surprisingly, in the 1851 census, as well as this family, are the names of eight prisoners as well as two small children who belong to two of the women in the gaol. In fact five of the prisoners are women aged between 21 and 32.


A look in the Cambridge Chronicle for April 5th reveals why they were under lock and key. The prisoners appeared before three magistrates, including the mayor, on a Monday. Joshua Brook, 33, was charged with vagrancy but released on the promise to leave town. Two of the women, Charlotte Mist, 32, and Frances Burford, 22, with a 7 month old child, Emma, were also charged with vagrancy. They had been found by PC Thompson sitting on a step in East Road at midnight on Saturday. Rather than promise to leave Cambridge the two women retorted that they had come up from London for a stroll, ‘intending to have a spree’ and would not leave until the magistrates gave them something. In reply the magistrates gave them seven days imprisonment.


Two other women, Mary Rust, 21, with five month old James, and Eliza Cooper, 22, had been involved in beating up PC Yardley. He had gone to arrest Mary’s partner Johnson after he had been seen breaking into two houses in Gas Lane. The constable apprehended Johnson but the two women, ‘in language not of the most refined’, persuaded Johnson to resist. The constable was struck and kicked and Johnson escaped. The two women were brought back to the magistrates on the Friday. Johnson not having appeared, both women were committed for seven days hard labour.

The fifth women, Ann Poole, 22, was also charged with vagrancy. She had been begging in Cambridge for 14 days and so was sent to gaol for 14 days.


The two other men were William Marfleet, 51, and Saunders Johnson, 22. William Marfleet of East Road, had just come out of gaol for three months after a second offence of threatening his wife with a knife. The magistrates sent him down for another three months. Saunders Johnson had assaulted a man with a wagon whip. He was given the choice of a 10 shilling fine or 14 days imprisonment.

The Vagrancy Law had been introduced in the UK in 1824 to deal with the large number of poor and homeless soldiers after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It made begging or sleeping in a public place an arrestable offence punishable with up to one month’s hard labour. Although the entire Act was repealed in Scotland in 1982, certain sections remain in force in England and Wales where is is still a criminal offence to sleep ‘in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon, not having any visible means of subsistence.’ In other words, just for being poor and homeless.


In 2014 three men were charged with stealing food worth £33 that had been put in bins outside an Iceland supermarket in north London. Iceland themselves questioned the public interest of the police pursuing the case; the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to take further action!


Further information, links and details of sources can be found on the Museum of Cambridge interactive map - capturingcambridge.org