'No home to go to, and no means of living': how colonial vagrancy laws punished the poor

Image: https://vagrantsandmurderesses.com/
Image: https://vagrantsandmurderesses.com/

Vagrancy – being found in the street without any visible means of support – was a crime in many parts of Australia right up to the final decades of the 20th century. In some jurisdictions, vagrancy laws were only repealed in the early 2000s.

Police could arrest people who were found asleep in lanes, walking around country towns without a job to go to, or loitering near buildings. These people may simply have looked different or “out of place”.

The term “homeless” has replaced the concept of vagrancy, but in current discussions about homelessness we can hear echoes of the past treatment of vagrants. As recently as 2022, a councillor on the Gold Coast called for the reintroduction of vagrancy laws, which would effectively criminalise homelessness once again.

But was being a vagrant in the past the same as being homeless now?

Read more: Britain's dark history of criminalising homeless people in public spaces

Convicts, bushrangers and vagrants

The crime of vagrancy has a long history. English criminal law was adopted in 1787 as part of the first Charter of Justice for the soon to be established colony of New South Wales. By 1828, when the Australian Courts Act came into being, most English statutes still in force were relevant to criminal law.

But colonial governments had worked out that the British Vagrancy Act of 1824 was not fit for the colonial context. Separate colonies created new laws, from 1835 in New South Wales, and during the 1860s in Victoria and New Zealand.

The end of penal transportation to the south-eastern colonies of Australia in 1852 made way for an influx of free settlers, but many convicts and ex-convicts remained in the population. Bushrangers, mostly escaped convicts who disappeared into the bush and survived by committing robberies, presented an early threat in Van Diemen’s land and New South Wales. In the public imagination, there was a strong association between convicts, wandering and escaping, bushranging and vagrancy.

By the early 19th century in Sydney and Hobart, convicts who lived and worked around the penal settlements were beginning to exercise some social freedoms, including the possibility of movement between places of work and their homes. Yet despite these new freedoms, contemporaries still viewed them as criminals who needed to be controlled.

Vagrancy laws in the colonies served a specific purpose. In a world of people on the move – settling, migrating and travelling – they were established to capture and fix unwanted movement. They also attracted criticism for being too broad. Some people worried they would infringe upon civil liberties – a term used at the time.

Legislation was designed to monitor the activities of people moving around the towns and countryside. The laws highlighted the potential for criminal activity by those who were “idle”, “disorderly”, “wandering abroad” or lodging in barns, buildings, or the open air. This attention extended to people on the open road seeking forms of charity and women soliciting as prostitutes.

There was constant policing and sentencing of vagrants throughout the 19th century. Most criminals in the Australian colonies were arrested on minor charges such as vagrancy or drunkenness, which meant they became a distraction and part of a wider problem facing lawmakers and the criminal justice system. They clogged up the courtrooms and began to crowd prisons.

The popular view of vagrancy in the colonies drew on the tropes and visual depictions of vagrants in Britain, as suggested by an editorial in the Hobarton Guardian in February 1848, which worried about “idle vagabonds”, the writer remarking that “it is quite time that our city was purged” of these types.

Image from Punch magazine, London, promoting emigration as a solution to vagrancy, July 8, 1848. Alexander Turnbull Library.
Image from Punch magazine, London, promoting emigration as a solution to vagrancy, July 8, 1848. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Who were the vagrants?

Vagrancy emerged as a habit of life in the aftermath of convict transportation, as the colonies were being transformed by waves of migration from the 1850s, reaching a high point in the 1870s. Many immigrants lacked extended family support networks. Movement between the colonies was common.

Vagrants were everywhere in the colonial world. Women and men, young and old, from many different backgrounds, could be arrested as vagrants. They endured poverty and life on the streets until they attracted police attention. Sentences of one week or up to three months in prison gave them shelter and food for short periods of time.

They were women like Margaret Kegan from New Zealand’s North Island, who had “no home to go to, and no means of living”. In 1902, she pleaded guilty to vagrancy and asked to be “locked up”.

Some people charged with vagrancy wanted to keep moving, cheerfully pledging to “clear out” from places where they had been identified as a threat.

The policing and prosecution of vagrants was increasingly used as a means to maintain social order. Vagrancy was viewed as a social problem of the “criminal and pauper classes”. Thousands of people were charged and convicted as vagrants over the second half of the 19th century. Many of them were charged more than once.

In the regular Police Gazettes of each colony, vagrants were listed as “discharged prisoners”. These reports were crafted to aid police in their work, and the physical descriptions bear witness to the harsh realities of a life of vagrancy. Men and women arrested for vagrancy bore tattoos, their mouths were missing teeth, their limbs were scarred, notably deformed or burned. Some were blind or one-eyed.

Sundowner postcard, 1904. Wikimedia Commons.
Sundowner postcard, 1904. Wikimedia Commons.

Most of those charged were Europeans. Indigenous people – from many displaced Aboriginal clans and Māori iwi – were subjected to other, more severe interventions: mostly violence, dislocation and segregation, as well as specific and harsh legal controls over time under the guise of “protection”.

In the late-19th century, economic depression across the colonies created itinerant populations of men looking for seasonal work in rural areas, and there were growing numbers of impoverished families and single people in Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Auckland. By the first two decades of the 20th century, vagrancy had become a familiar part of the landscape. Cultural meanings came to be attached to be attached to the vagrant, who was mostly viewed as masculine, even though, in reality, many vagrants were women. Despite the sentimental depictions of the adventures of men “on the swag” found in poetry and fiction, there was little about the hardship of mobility that could be said to be romantic.

Read more: Hidden women of history: 'the Buzzwinker' Ellen Miles, child convict, goldfields pickpocket and vagrant

How can we find out more about the lives of vagrants?

In histories of crime and punishment, lives can be glimpsed in shadowy portraits. Some people stare at us from old prison photographs. Archives, libraries and repositories have started to showcase 19th and 20th century police mugshots in accessible online collections. The digitisation of records, including criminal records, expands our visual sense of the past.

It is more difficult to find out how people lived as vagrants. How can we find out more about their precarious existences: the experiences of endless walking, hunger, thirst, rough sleeping, and encounters with people along the way?

Street life in the emerging cities of Australia and New Zealand was often smelly, dirty, dangerous and noisy. In the urban environment, there were conflicts over footpaths, litter, drainage and the wafts of noxious trades. People who were making their way or seeking shelter in the lanes, alleys, alcoves and public parks experienced all of these.

Emily Reynolds. https://vagrantsandmurderesses.com/
Emily Reynolds. https://vagrantsandmurderesses.com/

Vagrants could be annoying and threatening to other people. They may also have been the easy targets of complainants who could tackle the politics of space by blaming vagrants for vandalism or taking up in places where they were not wanted.

The recorded complaints against vagrants read as familiar documents of dispute over social spaces and places; they are opportunistic in their portrayal of vagrants as aggressive and destructive. But they also tell us something about the people behind the label of “vagrant”.

In June of 1863, John Ferguson, who owned a business in George Street, wrote to the Mayor of Sydney to ask for repairs to his window that was broken by a vagrant named John Hendon, drawing attention to the problem of casual damage by vagrants in the city.

In September 1877, the Australian Jockey Club complained to the Sydney Municipal Council about damage to the fence separating the racecourse from the water reserve caused by a fire lit by vagrants. In October 1879, Sydney vagrants were again singled out for their lack of regard for others by William McDonald, who suggested they would “rendezvous” and dump rubbish if he was forced to remove a fence on his property at Lombard Place, west of George Street.

In each of these cases, “vagrants” were named as a group, blamed for unsociable behaviour, and characterised as an annoyance or worse by the complainant. Borders, such as fences, were important to keep vagrants out and away from “civilised” spaces, but also to prevent them from occupying empty ones.

Read more: Hidden women of history: Kate Cocks, the pioneering policewoman who fought crime and ran a home for babies – but was no saint

‘The Cockroach’

For women, the streets were dangerous places. Being a heavy user of alcohol and living as a vagrant made some women vulnerable to violence enacted by men.

The cases of women raped, murdered or left to die on the streets in colonial cities are shocking in their casual brutality and in what they reveal about attitudes to women. These include Catherine Owen, a woman of 50 who was “outraged to death” by a group of young men at Waterloo in Sydney in January of 1884.

But women could be resilient too. One of the many women who appear in the New South Wales Police Gazette, Sarah Jones, became notorious for her various encounters with the police in the 1870s and 1880s. She continued to offend after that time, showing up in court and prison entries in the State Archives of New South Wales.

According to the details taken at each of her arrests, Sarah was likely born in Ireland sometime in the 1840s, though she often gave dates in the late 1830s to those who inquired. She had dark hair and her eyes were recorded as being brown or grey. She did not seem to have attracted attention for her appearance, making her more elusive for the historian than other offenders in the record, whose distinguishing physical characteristics, such as scars, made them more visible.

Jones used a range of aliases. This fact – along with discrepancies in the record – means that our ability to tell a historical story about her is compromised. Yet because of her notoriety we know that Sarah managed to survive the challenges presented by life on the streets.

The common alias noted for Sarah in the Police Gazette is unflattering: “the Cockroach”. The term was popularised in police and court reports in the newspapers, taking hold as shorthand for her in the official notations about her crimes. The moniker suggests that the police saw her as a nuisance they could not eradicate, but perhaps it also highlights her ability to thrive in the grime and grit of the growing city.

One important role for the historian of vagrancy is to bring humanity to the lives and stories of vagrants who appear in the historical record. Over the past few years, the number of people who live on the streets and seek charitable assistance in Australia has grown, with “homelessness” recognised as a significant social problem.

When thinking about our responsibilities towards people who find themselves living on the streets of our present-day cities and in our communities, we might reflect on the difficult balance between social responsibility and making spaces safe for all citizens. It helps to better understand the historical figure of the vagrant in a social, economic and cultural context.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Catharine Coleborne, University of Newcastle.

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Catharine Coleborne does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.