Tramps' tales: discovering the life stories of late Victorian and Edwardian vagrants

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Colleges, School and Institutes


This article addresses a question that challenged British policy-makers at the turn of the twentieth century: who were the tramps? Using genealogical methods, the article shows the extent, and detail, with which it is now possible to reconstruct a vagrant’s life. Understanding these life-stories, of people trapped in a system of state control and surveillance, opens up the potential to unravel the strategies and inner logics that they were applying in order to survive. For the most part, these individuals were punished and criminalised by the New Poor Law and 1824 Vagrancy Act on the basis of their personal condition, state of being and socio-economic status. The article will illustrate how it is now possible to pinpoint a tramp’s movements around the country, and understand the individuality of these routes. And finally, in addressing the debates about why people found themselves in this predicament, the article argues that individual fragilities contributed significantly to the circumstances they experienced.

Bibliographic note

Not yet published as of 15/12/2020.


Original languageEnglish
JournalEnglish Historical Review
Early online date22 Dec 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 22 Dec 2020