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Exhibiting Vagrancy, 1851: Victorian London and the “Vagabond Savage”

Adam Hansen

The civilised man lives not in wheeled houses.

— Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (1843)

It is curious to trace the savage in the civilised man.

— Charles Dickens, Journalism IV


Henry Mayhew coined the term “vagabond savage” in his monumental work of 1851-52 London Labour and the London Poor (I:348). It represents a development in ways of thinking about rogues, a development that involved the explicit interrelation of discourses on itinerancy, class, criminality, race, colonialism and morality in the context of writing about an empire’s capital. To Mayhew, there were roguish elements in British society as nefarious as, and thus comparable to, any number of foreign nomads. These elements could be identified and scrutinized by a discriminating observer. However, Mayhew’s writing responds to the confusions and connections instituted by colonial schemes to simultaneously set up and problematize distinctions between the local and the global, the roguish and the decent, and the savage and the civilized.

In the first instance, this article briefly discusses recent ideas about the relations between national and international deviant mobility, and the supposed disruptions these relations effect, with a view to challenging the notion that these relations and disruptions are novel. This article subsequently identifies the problems that characterized the discursive construction of rogues in the mid-to-late 1880s. This involves addressing Mayhew’s work in more detail, the Great Exhibition of 1851, and Dickens’ conflicted response to it.

“Savage Mobility” Past and Present

In Empire (2000), Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have recently described the ways in which the international matrices of post-modern socio-economics simultaneously produce, depend upon, and yet are jeopardized by, nomadic forces, a “savage mobility” (214). To Negri and Hardt this mobility within and between nation states is cause and effect of grievous coercions. People endure great hardship and insecurity as they move to escape wars and oppression, or to find work. Yet even as this nomadism is impelled in part by globalized capital, so has the “power” underwriting capital directed “extreme violence” against it (212). This is because mobility between and within states causes cultural “miscegenation” that disrupts the identities and constructs on which power is based (362). This disruption constitutes a “spontaneous level of struggle” against this power (213).

Though the theoretical bases of this grandly liberationist narrative can be critiqued, these are stimulating analyses of the instabilities induced by the circulation of people and things. However, despite Negri and Hardt’s otherwise rigorously inter-periodic approach, such analyses fail to consider prefigurations of the phenomena they describe (Featherstone 239-77, Papastergiadis 9-10, 25-30). It is possible to chart earlier material, ideological and representational alignments of the internally displaced and the internationally nomadic, alignments that were manifested significantly in London. In so doing, it is also possible to determine the disruptive (if not necessarily liberatory) potentialities that such alignments engendered for ways of thinking about ‘civilized’ cultures and identities, and the conditions on which they were founded.

For example, the material reality of Elizabethan and Jacobean colonial plantations in Ireland actually induced vagabondage as much as it profitably cleared lands and civilized a supposedly barbarous populace. Exiled Ulster “peasants” ended up as vagrants on the streets of the London, constituting a “great eyesore”, as a letter of 1606 from the Privy Council to the Lord Deputy of Ireland and the Irish Council complained (cited in George 349).

Succeeding centuries offered many other material manifestations of the disruptive alignment of the internally roguish and the globally displaced. Rogues co-opted by impressment into colonial enterprises; native vagrants relocated to new territories for punishment; aliens dislocated by mercantile expansions and imperial arrogations, and then treated like vagabonds in the very heart of that empire: these are disparate experiences, yet they signify the enforcement of power, over the vagrant and sometimes by them (Richardson and James 121, 167, Games 48). Correspondingly, however, deviance is immanent to these histories of settlement and disruption. As Peter Linebaugh puts it, a “red ‘Rogue’s thread'” ran through “the cordage and sailcloth of HM Naval Stores” (211).

Such histories indicate that in the hybridities and proximities effected by the global motions inherent to colonialism, the roguish and the reputable connect and double. Deviant mobility at once defines and destabilizes the construction of civilization and empire, at home and abroad. It would thus only be a half-truth to assert that nineteenth-century ways of thinking about itinerants, rogues, vagrants, or vagabonds, assumed new forms. Certainly, we can discern continuities with the discriminatory modes of previous periods. As H.L. Malchow observes:

Popular responsiveness to the racialization of cultural difference by the mid-Victorian intelligentsia had its roots, not only in the conjunction of social-evolutionist ideas, colonial expansion, and the creation of an urban industrial proletariat, but in folk myth and long-standing domestic prejudice directed at gypsies, Jews, and especially in England, Celtic vagabonds (70).

However, what was new in the nineteenth century was the extent to which previously disparate assumptions cohered (see Young 180, Brantlinger (1986) 200-201, Lorimer 35, 92-107, Schwarzbach 73). In other words, to repeat, discourses on itinerancy, class, criminality, race, and morality interrelated to construct the “vagabond savage.”

Disguising socio-economic iniquities, commentators argued that savage itinerant elements caused problems in communities (Jones 29). Where such elements found a more permanent home, observers stigmatized and ‘externalized’ whole communities, marking them as Other, foreign, non-indigenous (Jones 85-116). This displacement and defamiliarization of indigenous ‘savages’ assumed material forms, notably in the use of emigration as a colonial and punitive strategy (Beer 31, Brantlinger (1988) 109-133, Mill 357-63).

But in an age of burgeoning global enterprise, and an “era of massive mobility”, appraising deviant mobility was problematic (Hobsbawm 152). Many definitions of rogues, vagabonds, and vagrants emphasized their polar opposition to sedentary, decent, and civilized society. Yet all observers – appalled and compassionate – were engaged in agonized debate about who came and moved about between these poles of deviant mobility and sedentary civility, what Mayhew termed a “mediate variety” in London Labour (I:3). What it was deemed most important to taxonomize, to legislate against, to displace, to curtail, or to articulate, was not simply the defined poles of savagery or itinerancy in themselves, but this “variety”, the hybridities generated by “savage mobility”.

Thinking the “Vagabond Savage”

When detailing the circumstances conducive or deleterious to civilization in The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin offered the following observation:

Nomadic habits, whether over wide plains, or through the dense forests of the tropics, or along the shores of the sea, have in every case been highly detrimental (133).

Yet by 1871, such observations were hardly innovative. Twenty years earlier, in the opening lines of London Labour, Mayhew proclaimed a racial differentiation of the sedentary and the mobile, to demonize the latter, at once reflecting and exceeding prevailing discussions of the topic:

Of the thousand millions of human beings that are said to constitute the population of the entire globe, there are — socially, morally, and perhaps even physically considered — but two distinct and broadly marked races, viz., the wanderers and the settlers — the vagabond and the citizen — the nomadic and the civilized tribes. … The nomadic or vagrant class have all an universal type, whether they be the Bushmen of Africa or the “tramps” of our own country (I:3, 349; see Himmelfarb (1973) 720-21).

Writing with John Binny, Mayhew repeated these assertions in The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (1862), reaffirming the alignment of the mobile and the uncivilized, and re-emphasizing the dangers posed by such an alignment in the imperial heartland:

Ethnologists have reduced the several varieties of mankind into five distinct types; but surely the judges who preside at the courts of Westminster are as morally distinct from the Jew “fences” of Petticoat Lane as the Caucasian from the Malayan race. … If Arabia has its nomadic tribes, the British Metropolis has its vagrant hordes as well. If the Carib Islands have their savages, the English Capital has types almost as brutal and uncivilized as they. If India has its Thugs, London has its garotte men (4-5).

However, Mayhew’s proscriptions were never clear-cut. Even in the strident opening sentences of London Labour doubts creep in: he prefaces the suggestion that physical differences exist between the sedentary and the mobile with “perhaps”. As noted above, Mayhew clouds the segregations that form the very basis of his approach:

Between these two extremes [civilized and nomadic], however, ethnologists recognize a mediate variety, partaking of the attributes of both.

Indeed, Mayhew’s emphasis on the parasitic relation of the nomadic to the civilized confirms that the “two classes” are “not necessarily isolated” (I:349; see Gallagher 91). Nomads embodied the rapacious and opportunistic characteristics of contemporary civilization. Moreover, this confusing conflation brings about continuities that make degenerations possible:

Strange to say, despite its privations, its dangers and its hardships, those who have once adopted the savage and wandering mode of life, rarely abandon it. There are countless examples of white men adopting all the usages of the Indian hunter, but there is scarcely one example of the Indian hunter or trapper adopting the steady and regular habits of civilized life (I:4).

As Rachel Vorspan notes, “the Victorian and Edwardian propertied classes apparently suspected that every individual, of whatever class or station, inherited a predisposition to vagrancy”; “latent impulses” might be “activated” (73-74). Prefiguring later theories of degeneration (outlined by Greenslade), in the 1850s it was understood that errant urges had to be repressed, contained and proscribed, lest, inverting conventional tropes of ‘going native’, the native went ‘foreign’ (assumed putatively foreign degenerate traits, and went wandering to foreign parts). These interchanges provoked anxieties comparable with concerns about contact with foreign savages; such contact might manifest savagery immanent to, and habitually subdued by, the civilized. Ruth H. Lindeborg argues that while “evolutionary theories rationalized and reinforced Victorians’ sense of difference from the “savages” of their colonies”, Imperial expansion engendered economic and conceptual associations that “reduced that distance by making these supposed prehistorical peoples, and the places they inhabited, part of Britain’s identity” (383).

Mayhew attempts to characterize the urge to wander as the consequence of biological determinism: “it is evident that some men are naturally of more erratic natures than others”. Yet he cannot resist radically universalizing: “even gentlefolks know the pleasure of travelling … but a delight in going upon foreign tours is simply a delight in vagabondage”. Hence, Mayhew concludes in Criminal Prisons, any “love of liberty” and “impatience under control” is “more or less common to all minds” (384-85).

Exhibiting Vagrancy

Mayhew’s ethnological and taxonomical discriminations deny amalgamation only to invoke the possibility and desirability of it. Yet the paradoxes of his approach were not unique. In Victorian society at large it was no less difficult to isolate the illicitly nomadic from the decent and sedentary. The poor shared lives of intermittent mobility and stasis, shared casual labour, shared economic misfortunes, and shared risks of illegality. Their numbers swelled with seasonal shifts and wage and price changes: “The tramp, the navvy, and the pedlar might be one and the same person at different stages of life, or even at different seasons of the year” (Samuel 152). Even skilled workers were forced into itinerancy throughout their careers: “the nomadic phase and the settled were often intertwined” (Samuel 153). Successive nineteenth-century governments attempted to curtail this indistinction with mixed results (see Jones 198, Vorspan 60-61, Humphreys 78-112). Getting the itinerant to know their place (and stay in it) was no easy task. Indeed, it was perceived as involving overcoming centuries of degradation. The 1881 Poor Law Conference deemed tramps “pedigree bred … a race which has the very genius of not working in its bones and sinews” (cited in Vorspan 72).

Concerns about relations between the “vagabond savage” and the civilized focused particularly on London as the locus of internal authority, and the nexus of colonial power. We can localize these concerns still further, by examining responses to the 1851 Great Exhibition. Writing of the Exhibition, Charlotte Brontë identified — and mystified — the awesome potency of the mingled and the merged that exemplified empire:

Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things. Whatever human industry has created you find there. … (Yet) it seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth (cited in Briggs 52).

But in the “grandeur” of the Exhibition, the “magic” of imperial authority is contingent upon, and compromised by, mobility and the hybridities it produced. Contemporaries were painfully conscious of the charge of hybridity in this regard, as Malchow asserts:

Throughout the course of the nineteenth century, there was a progressive shift toward an essentially negative reading of the half-breed as biological unnatural, and away from the more positive one grounded in animal husbandry. … As the Victorian world became ever more race-and-class-conscious, there arose the image of a new generation of mixed-blood persons, often with resources of their own, no longer fixed or anchored by slavery or poverty in their own realm — the Caribbean plantation or Canadian trading post or the Suburbs of Calcutta — but a mobile population spreading like the empire itself, and ultimately, threatening to return “home” (180, 193).

The blurred flux of people and things through global circuits was momentarily arrested and rendered transparent in the glass edifice and static displays of the Exhibition, to materialize a vision of “England, maintaining commercial intercourse with the whole world” (Dickens and Horne 357). Dickens and R.H. Horne would contrast this display with China’s ‘Little Exhibition’, to remark that “you have the comparison between Stoppage and Progress, between the exclusive principle and all other principles” (360). David Trotter observes that such sentiments signified “the ease with which civilisation is rendered as exchange and flow, backwardness as stagnancy” (101). But circulatory mobility was not necessarily benign, and inclusive exchanges were not simply commercial, as some anxiously appreciated during and before the Exhibition. The intercoursings induced by free trade could cause social instabilities, of a distinctly itinerant cast. Late in Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present (1843) comes a section entitled “PERMANENCE”:

Permanence, persistance [sic] is the first condition of all fruitfulness in the ways of men. The ‘tendency to persevere,’ to persist in spite of hindrances, discouragements and ‘impossibilities:’ it is this that in all things distinguishes the strong soul from the weak; the civilised burgher from the nomadic savage, – the Species man from the Genus Ape! … The civilised man lives not in wheeled houses. He builds stone castles, plants lands, makes life long marriage-contracts; — has long-dated hundred-fold possessions, not to be valued in the money-market; has pedigrees, libraries, law-codes; has memories and hopes, even for this Earth, that reach over thousands of years (274).

Just as Carlyle settles into his mutually exclusive binary segregations, so does he explicitly identify transience as a characteristic of the society of which he was a part:

The Nomad has his very house set on wheels; the Nomad, and in a still higher degree the Ape, are all for ‘liberty;’ the privilege to flit continually is indispensable to them. Alas, in how many ways, does our humour, in this swift-rolling self-abrading Time, shew itself nomadic, apelike; mournful enough to him that looks on it with eyes!

Carlyle, of course, is hardly averring kinship with the “vagabond savage”. Nevertheless, he is projecting mobility with savage associations onto those who exploit the mutability of the industrialized cash-nexus society. Impermanence and “apelike” humours are produced by society as it stands, or rather shifts, at the present time. And not only communal identity is afflicted: personal identity is eroded and made transient in the friction of this motion.

As Carlyle put it in Chartism (1840), approvingly cited in Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), “English commerce” materializes “world-wide, convulsive fluctuations” (144). This is written into Carlyle’s apocalyptic, hyphenated “self-abrading” phrases, as much as it is into Engels’ references to the “soil that is honeycombed” on which the bourgeoisie dwells (63), and the revelations of The Communist Manifesto (1848): “All that is solid melts into air” (38). Carlyle, subsequently, regarded the Exhibition with contempt and fled north.

The Exhibition stimulated other concerns. Given the events of 1848, though the Exhibition signified the uniting of interests within Britain and without it as a “symbol of international brotherhood”, so it also occasioned much angst about the potentially seditious character of visitors, foreign and domestic (Auerbach 161). The plural relocations of possibly deviant people problematized the profitable regulation the Exhibition sought to extol, as Mayhew noted in London Labour:

A few new lodging-houses, perhaps half a dozen, have been recently opened, in expectation of a great influx of “travellers” and vagrants at the opening of the Great Exhibition (I:277).

In 1819-20, a Middlesex contractor shipped 7,000 paupers out of London to the county boundary (Sheppard 378). By 1851 such efforts were growing futile. The capital was inexorably becoming denser. As the 1851 Census demonstrated, in 1801 there were 394 square yards per person; in 1851 there were 160 square yards per person. In 1801 the average distance between houses was 57 yards; in 1851 it was 38 yards (Choi 581). As one writer on itinerants observed, London, more than ever before, was a place “for strange rencounters” (Borrow 313). According to ships’ captains, three times the number of “foreigners and aliens” arrived in 1851 as compared to 1850 (Auerbach 185). The city collocated the strange, estranged, itinerant, alien, ‘savage’ (external and internal) and the sedentary, to compromise the discriminations that might facilitate the definitions of such types.

According to figures cited by Mayhew in London Labour, in the winter of 1848-49 (years of famine in Ireland, eighteen months before the Exhibition, and in the thick of Europe’s revolutions), the Houseless Poor Society sheltered (among many other vagrants from European countries and English counties) 12 individuals from Africa, 78 from America, 19 from the East Indies, 8068 from Ireland, 230 from Scotland, 25 from the West Indies, and a further 5 who were without nation, being “Born at sea”. Comparably, Mayhew describes the “congregation” at the Refuges for the Destitute as a “ragged congress of nations”. The Asylum for the Homeless Poor of London similarly contains the “poverty-stricken from every quarter of the globe”: “the haggard American seaman … the lank Polish refugee, the pale German “out-wanderer,” the tearful black sea-cook, the shivering Lascar crossing-sweeper, the helpless Chinese beggar” (I:416-17, 438). Mayhew likewise records the lives of “HINDOO BEGGARS” and “NEGRO BEGGARS” (IV:423-25). The nineteenth-century’s exploited and dejected were coming to Britain along the routes of an empire itself impossible without mobility.

Becoming Vagrant

Whatever Dickens recorded in Household Words, he was accordingly extremely ambivalent about the Exhibition. Writing with W.H. Wills in “The Metropolitan Protectives” (1851) he termed it an “Industrial Invasion” (254). Clearly his sensibilities were appalled. As John R. Davis notes, with the event dominating London, “his first response was to escape from it to the coast and Paris” (190). And yet, when driven to travel, Dickens endured a curious, telling, reversal. If the displaced were coming to London, he was displaced from it, becoming vagrant himself, locally and internationally. As he wrote (in wilfully melodramatic style) to Spencer Lyttleton in May 1851, the month the Exhibition opened:

I am living in a gipsy tent here, until Tuesday next, or so. You will find me usually before 2 – boiling a kettle suspended by a cord from three sticks, and living chiefly on stolen fowls and broken victuals (Letters VI:393).

Dickens’ response to what Henry Sutherland Edwards called the “strange contradictions” of the Exhibition suggests that he abjured and acknowledged the disjunctions and continuities effected by presence of the mobile and spatially displaced (cited in Auerbach 150). He avoided itinerants while in part becoming one. For Dickens, the existence of “mediate variety” — befogging categories of mobility, morality and race — concurred with the ambivalent, hybrid proclivities he identified within himself, what he defined in “The City of the Absent” (1863) as the “attraction of repulsion” (263).

Of course, precisely because of the confusions evinced in himself and his society by phenomena such as the Exhibition, Dickens perceived that only continual crusading intervention might eradicate that “sudden restlessness and recklessness which may long be suppressed” as he put it to Angela Burdett-Coutts in 1846 (Letters IV:555). Without such intervention, iniquity triumphed in the constitution of an irreclaimable urban mass. As Dickens described it in Little Dorrit (1857), this mass was comprised of “slinking men, whistling and sighing to one another”, “homeless people, lying coiled up”, ready to spring, strike or unwind (174).

In projects such as the Home for Homeless Women and articles such as “A Sleep to Startle Us” (1852) Dickens sought to inhibit the “mediate variety” through vigorously implemented disciplinary programmes, programmes that provided the tools by which an “always-increasing band of outlaws in body and soul” and any number of “houseless creatures” could be “restrained … by the law of kindness”, and thus necessarily “reclaimed”. For only by such reclamation could society “relieve the prisons, diminish county rates, clear loads of shame and guilt out of the streets, recruit the army and navy, waft to new countries, Fleets full of useful labor, for which their inhabitants would be thankful and beholden to us” (Journalism III:51,56,53,57). To put it another way, an empire might be made, with native and foreign “vagabond savages” rendered useful. As one contemporary commentator on itinerant-hybrids observed:

John Bull dislikes keeping the idle, bastard children of other nations. He readily protects those who tread upon English soil, but in return for this kindness he expects them, like bees, to be all workers (cited in Mayall 183-84).

In Charles Dickens (1898), George Gissing raised the question of Dickens’ fascination with wanderers, but diminished the relevance of that fascination and of the itinerant themselves:

Overflowing with the enjoyment of life, he naturally found more sunshine than gloom, whether in crowded streets, or by the wayside with its scattered wanderers. … He had not the vagabond nature which we see, for instance, in George Borrow; he is a man of the town, of civilization; but the forms of vagabondage which arise amid a great population, quaint survivals, ragged eccentricities, laughter-moving incarnations of rascality and humbug, excited his unfailing interest (33).

Yet in The Immortal Dickens Gissing also admits that Dickens embodied a more intense connection to itinerants: “there seems to have been a strain of vagabondism in his blood” (214).

Gissing’s observations are striking. Vagrancy captivated Dickens because, even as it signified degenerative deviance, it was bound up with his sense of self. On one hand, he disdained the mobile. As he put it in “An Unsettled Neighbourhood” (1854), being “nomadic” was to be “unsettled, dissipated, wandering”; the very term was gallingly transient, being “the crack word for that sort of thing just at the present”, and hence liable to change (Journalism III:245). Nonetheless, Dickens associated himself with the vagrant, in a multiplicity of ways, at once cultivating and disavowing that association.

Frances Armstrong has shown how Dickens indulged a capacity to at once “construct and deconstruct” the home (21). An 1850 article in Fraser’s Magazine presciently opined that he engaged in “enthusiastic worship” of the “household” (Collins 243-48). Yet he also maniacally jeopardized it: John Forster recorded Dickens’ declamation: “I detest my house” (I:129). This ambivalence both precipitated and found expression in his impersonations of vagrancy, literary and actual. Dickens revealed as much in a letter of 1848 referring to his role as Sir Charles Coldstream in a production of Used Up: “I have no energy whatever — I am very miserable. I loathe domestic hearths. I yearn to be a Vagabond” (Letters V:374). Dickens’ confusion about being and becoming vagrant realized concerns that were at once deeply personal and profoundly social.

Dickens’ nightly restlessness and wandering — “insomniacal digressions” — are thus figurative images of and literal contexts for his art (Clark 32). In articles such as “Lying Awake” (1852), where Dickens detailed the “association of ideas” that possessed his lucid dreams and waking nightmares, he would constellate “Her Majesty Queen Victoria” and “Winking Charley, a sturdy vagrant” (Journalism III:90). Dickens was attentive to his own dreamy, nightmarish “vagrant fancy” (Journalism IV:352). For from errant and transgressive imaginings came articulation: “I think, on waking, the head is usually full of words” (Letters VI:278). In the words of the compulsively night-walking narrator of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841): “The story that I am about to relate, arose out of one of these rambles” (4).

Much like those who wrote on the Exhibition and the empire it reified, Dickens realized that there was no production without mobility, vagrant or decent. In the febrile circulations of mid-to-late nineteenth century London, exhibiting one necessarily involved realizing the other.

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To Cite This Article:

Adam Hansen, ‘Exhibiting Vagrancy, 1851: Victorian London and the “Vagabond Savage”‘. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 2 (September 2004). Online at Accessed on [date of access]