Poverty was rife in nineteenth-century London and, just as today, beggars were a familiar sight on the capital’s streets. The 1824 Vagrancy Act (5 Geo. 4. c. 83) was a wide ranging piece of legislation that effectively caught up anyone who was on the streets and acting in a way that might draw suspicion. It made it an offence to sleep rough or to beg and allowed the authorities to sweep up any ‘undesirables’ and imprison them with very little evidence. Readers might be interested to know that this draconian piece of legislation has not been completely abandoned (as this recent case shows).
In the 1800s beggars were often referred to as mendicants and correspondents frequently complained about the problems caused by ‘widespread mendacity’ in the metropolis. In June 1828 an unusual case of mendacity came to the Union Hall Police Court.
A ‘fellow’ was brought up for begging on the streets by the Mendacity officers of the local parish. He had often been found eating raw cabbage in an attempt to elicit sympathy for his situation. His aim was, it was said, ‘to induce people to believe he was starving’ and so get them to offer him money or more palatable foodstuffs.
The man was well known for doing this and had recently been released from prison for this offence. Since regaining his freedom he had apparently eschewed the cabbage and taken to picking up offal from the streets and pretending to consume this instead. The reason he was now in court was that officers had decided to watch him and had seen him take a mackerel’s head from a nearby kennel and pretend to to eat it. He had smeared the blood of the fish around his mouth to make it look like he had swallowed it but when he was arrested and searched the fish’s head was found in his pocket!
We might hope that a modern magistrate would have some sympathy with the man and his condition and point him in the direction of social services or mental health practitioners but neither were available (or even considered suitable) in the 1820s and so the poor fellow was sent back to prison for three months.
[From The Standard , Thursday, June 05, 1828]