The 1824 Vagrancy Act – which criminalises rough sleeping – has become the subject of public debate after Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK’s Labour Party, committed to repeal it in the event of a Labour government. A parliamentary debate on the Act, organised by Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, is due to take place in March.
With the recent rise in homelessness across the UK, the debate has much contemporary relevance – but the Act’s military origins are less well known.
In the early 19th century, large numbers of recruits were press-ganged – forced – into service with the British Navy to bolster Britain’s ranks for the War of 1812, as well as the Napoleonic Wars. After the Napoleonic Wars came to an end with the Battle of Waterloo (1815), heavy cuts were made to funding for the Armed Forces.
Many soldiers and sailors were discharged, and were unable to find subsequent employment or accommodation. A large number of wounded soldiers ended up begging in the streets, unleashing fears that the demobilised servicemen threatened the social order. The main impetus for the Vagrancy Act stemmed from these fears.
The Vagrancy Act specifically targeted injured soldiers, with the original 1824 text stating that ‘every person wandering abroad, and endeavouring by the exposure of wounds or deformities to obtain or gather alms… shall be deemed a rogue and a vagabond.’
The Act was controversial even when it was first passed, with opponents including anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, who condemned the legislation for failing to take into account the individual circumstances of the homeless.