It was when researching the work of NGOs like Shelter and Crisis for a previous book a decade ago that Professor Nicholas Crowson first realised there was no satisfactory history of homelessness in the UK. Of the few books he found, none included the voices of those who were actually homeless or properly explored the complex reasons behind their situation.
Now, having spent the intervening years compiling the profiles of hundreds of individuals prosecuted for vagrancy in Leicestershire between 1881 and 1911 , Professor Crowson is turning their fascinating stories into a new book with the support of a Major Research Fellowship awarded by the Leverhulme Trust this week.
Previous historians have suggested that tramps and vagrants are impossible to identify because of their mobility. But using census data, legal records, newspaper court reports and genealogical tools, like Ancestry, I’ve found that it is possible to track their lives from cradle to grave.Professor Nicholas Crowson, Professor of Contemporary British History at the University of Birmingham.
From a woman and her mother looking for work as fieldhands after escaping domestic abuse to a Spanish-born man deported as an alien 18 times, all of the individual stories gathered are closely or tangentially connected to the life of John Thomas Driver, who will be the spine of the book. The Yorkshire-born bootmaker was discharged from the army with a diagnosis of ‘dementia’, drifting around the country before dying from tuberculosis in an asylum in 1907.
“Each life-story exposes a different facet of the homelessness spectrum,” says Professor Crowson. “And despite many of the points of contact being crisis moments, the book will demonstrate the resilience, ingenuity, and strength of human character displayed by those of no fixed abode.”
These unearthed stories have already had a huge impact on homelessness today, after Professor Crowson worked with Crisis, using his research to help campaign against the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which was only repealed last year. But he hopes the forthcoming book – which is due for completion in 2026 – will continue to challenge the many myths and stigmas around homelessness, such as unwillingness to work and being a lifestyle choice, that still persist in UK society and politics today.