Hark! Hark! the dogs do bark,
The beggars are coming to town;
Some in rags and some in tags,
And some in velvet gowns.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown,
And some gave them a good horse-whip,
And sent them out of the town.
The Beggar’s Retreat
During the final years of Georgian rule the population of the United Kingdom was to grow at an alarming rate, this especially within the cities and other large conurbations which were to experience the transforming social effects of the Industrial Revolution. A large and generally convoluted movement of people was created as workers, many of whom had spent whole lifespans – and indeed generations – in the mainly outdoor occupation of agriculture, now wandered the highways and byways of the counties of England, to and from places which they had probably never before heard of as they sought paid work or sustenance of any description within the new factories and steam-powered workplaces which were by now proliferating. Of course, the mechanisation of farm machinery and steam power had also played its part in driving away great numbers of these long suffering people who mostly knew no other trade.
Messy political conflicts across Georgian Europe too, were quite a frequent occurrence with many of the combatants engaged in the battlefield and away from the complications of home life where they were out of the general scheme of things for a while. But sadly, at the termination of these often short-lived skirmishes with France, Germany or Spain and other kingdoms, any of the military men left standing were to find their way back home to ‘Blighty’ in a state more often than not sans legs, arms, feet and many other useful body parts, not to mention those displaying horrific and visible physical injuries to all parts of their bodies. Of course there was no NHS or Social Services then, in fact few people were particularly interested in the awful plight of these brave young men who had taken the shilling and given of their best for the allegedly ‘mad’ King George III. It is sad to say that the exposure of such visible wounds and deformities was a common ruse employed by those who would sit outside busy public places to extort sympathy by way of alms.
Things changed little in the ensuing years and as these itinerant job seekers and unemployable military rejects wandered aimlessly and dispirited from town to town along the turnpikes and avenues of England, the scourge of begging for support from the local people became commonplace and unwanted behaviour. In the early years of the 19th century, as the country prepared to say goodbye to the last of the King Georges, the people welcomed the arrival of a very young Queen Victoria in 1837 who would take the reins of the Monarchy, to provide a more caring social conscience. Begging had by now become a serious problem which was increasingly at an escalating cost to the taxpayer and the Government, via local authorities, put together legislation to address the problem.
To learn more of life for the poor on the streets of Georgian Britain during these times, I reccomend this excellent website from the British Museum:
Poverty in Georgian Britain
- Article by: Matthew White
The practice of begging is probably as old as the oldest of all the professions, prostitution, but not that long ago – maybe perhaps still today – trainee police officers were taught what they were assured was a most important Act to assist them in the general course of their daily duty. One of the oldest pieces of legislation, The Vagrancy Act 1824, is an Act of Parliament, oft amended, but designed basically to make it ‘an offence to sleep rough or beg and anyone in England and Wales found to be homeless or trying to cadge subsistence money can be arrested.’ But long before legislation arrived, local Boards were controlling their own areas in their own way by seeking the co-operation of their County neighbours to ensure that the public purse was properly recompensed and balanced. See this fascinating clip from a Derby newspaper of 1790:
As the years passed by, Borough Boards were not slow to realise that they were expending public money on the control and repatriation of these itinerant beggars, who usually had little or no local connection with their area and in the event that the origins of these travellers could be ascertained, a system was devised whereby they were returned from whence they came with the removal costs to be charged back to the originating Borough. It was very obvious to all concerned that such control could not be maintained by just ignoring their unwelcome presence and from the earliest days of the Workhouse system, provision was indeed made for itinerants also to be lodged, usually overnight, occasionally longer but wherever possible, they were separated from the main buildings and special staff were employed to maintain order.
It seems that all the itinerant traveller required in Victorian times was a shelter from the elements and a place to lay ones head. Attempts to provide more comfortable conditions were not always welcome, as the Grantham Journal was to inform its readers in 1868 when it wrote:
‘What is the best thing to do with a vagrant?, Keep him dirty, and miserable, and idle? No, give him a respectacle sleeping place, a good breakfast, strict rules to observe and some work to do? Yes. Mr Douglas, the humane governor of Marylebone Workhouse has tried the plan, and has found it beyond expectation successful. The authorities have built spacious casual wards, both clean and comfortable, and, strange to say, they are almost deserted. The habitual tramp prefers dirt and close quarters and has slunk away from Marylebone to less cleanly workhouses and less particular guardians. If the guardians of the poor generally take the hint, they might economise the parish revenue and earn for themselves a reputation for philanthropy.’
Melton Mowbray Poor Law Union
A temporary workhouse was first located in Melton Mowbray in 1835 in what was then known as Back Street – today better known to us as Leicester Street – which was replaced when the Town’s Poor Law Union was formed on 26th March 1836. The Union comprised, along with the town and some nearby smaller hamlets, some 54 parishes, the total population of which then just exceeded some 3,000 souls. In that same year, now 180 years ago, the first phase of the Union Workhouse was constructed on the edge of the town at Thorpe Road.
It is extremely sad that as I write these words and almost two centuries along the way, this wonderful archaeolgical reminder of days gone by, is probably to be converted from social history into social housing in a 21st Century regeneration action. We are told that the once solid stone structure is by now crumbling and not a viable proposition for rescue and we are also aware that the Borough and County coffers in the current state of austerity are at their lowest ebb. Of course we are also well aware from national Government dictat, that the housing stock of the country as a whole requires replenishment on a grand scale and that Boroughs in Leicestershire like Melton Mowbray are said not to be providing their share of the numbers required, so that when a large brownsite such as the former St Mary’s Hospital and grounds becomes available, priority will suggest that the historians are likely to draw the shorter straws. I do not have the expertise nor the figures to argue for the retention of a least some small reminder of the past at the site and the civic bodies of the town have been strangely silent on the matter, but through all manner of other obfuscations and hurdles along the way, it seems that we are pretty close to also losing the once grand Wyndham Lodge on the other side of the town, which, through my bedroom window I have watched for many years just crumbling away -literally. When salvation did finally appear to arrive at the end of 2015, the presence of three or four pipistrelle bats were discovered to be squatting in the sodden rafters of the neglected pile and the whole job was suspended. You could not make it up!
The Beggars Block
Many thousands of beggars have no doubt passed through our small town over the years and not only were they lodged in the temporary Union accomodation, but several rooms were rentable in the town by private landlords in large old houses. Two of the best known were located at Gooseberry Square, where the car park now is in Mill Street, and next door to the Wheatsheaf Inn at the bottom of Thorpe End – now gone. Census records around the turn of the century clearly show these places and their many occupants.
Of more interest currently, with the impending doom of likely demolition, is the existence of what is known as the ‘Beggars Block’, now fenced off with a decision on its future pending. On the southern edge of the property, the foreboding and squat red-bricked building seems to have survived the years pretty well, being detached on purpose from the main building. It does not seem to have been utilised for hospital purposes in modern times except perhaps for the use of storage. I do believe that plans are in hand to at least salvage this small offering for later generations to understand its history. Inside, a single corridor down the centre of the floor provides gloomy access to a number of rooms or cells with space for about one bunk bed, a sideboard and little else. Heavy prison-type doors with serving hatches suggest that once a visitor was in for the night, his access was strictly controlled.
See Peter Higginbottom’s excellent article on the subject of the The Spike which explains in graphic detail the proliferation of these temporary human shelters which were to be found in all centres of high population. As a slight and personal diversion, I recall circa 1952 as a schoolboy in Leicester when I was witness to a minor crime in the city centre and the police took me in a big black Wolseley saloon on a tour of the local streets. I remember visiting what was then known as the Leicester ‘spike’, which was near to St Mary’s Church in Belgrave Road and being fascinated at the sight of all the overnighters being sent on their way. Legend has it that they paid a few pennies to sleep against a rope tied across the room and at first light the rope was untied to wake them all up. Anyway I didn’t spot my ‘perp’ again and an 11 years old schoolboy was returned dutifully to his lessons at the City Boy’s Grammar School!
Interest is currently being shown in the future retention of at least the beggar’s block and I wish all success to those wishing to retain at least a small part of the memory. I am sure that in the future, one of those wonderful picture shows presented by local picture historian, Arthur Payne – who has visited and videoed the site – will properly display and describe to visitors this now vanished phenomenen of social life in the town. Add my vote to those in support and we will watch this space with fingers crossed.
A spooky shot of the interior of the Beggars block.