Old Stratford - Tramps & Vagrants

A parliamentary report of 1777 recorded a parish workhouse in operation at Cosgrove (for up to 9 inmates).

Part of Old Stratford was included in the parish of Cosgrove at that time, so that people from Old Stratford could be offered a parish poor house place. These houses were two cottages on the corner of Main Street and what is now Lock Lane in Cosgrove.

The Northampton Mercury July 13th 1833


Persons DESIREOUS OF ENTERING INTO contract, FOR Conveying such Vagrants as may be required to be passed from Old Stratford, in the County of Northampton, to Willoughby, in the county of Warwick, are to send Proposals in Writing (Post paid), sealed up and specifying the Price they propose for the Conveyance od each Vagrant to the Clerk of the Peace’s Office, in Northampton, on or before the SECOND day of AUGUST next, in order that the same may be laid before the Court at the Adjourned Sessions on the following day. It is proposed that the Contract shall commence on the 2nd. Of September next for the Term of One Year, and be subject to such alterations and provisions as may be required by any Act of Parliament to be passed, relating to the Conveyance of Vagrants.
Security will be required for the performance of the Contract.
CHAS. MARKHAM, Clerk of the Peace.
Northampton, July 12th, 1833.

Wharf House, in Wharf Lane, used a the "Tramp Ward" during the mid 1800s.

The Potterspury Poor Law Union formally came into being on 20th May 1835. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 13 in number, representing its 11 constituent parishes as listed below (figures in brackets indicate numbers of Guardians if more than one):

County of Northampton: Alderton, Ashton, Cosgrove, Furtho, Grafton Regis, Hartwell, Passenham, Paulers-Pury [Paulerspury] (2), Potters-Pury [Potterspury] (2), Wicken, Yardley-Gobion.
Later Additions (from 28th September 1835) County of Buckingham: Stony Stratford — St Giles on West Side (2), Stony Stratford — St Mary Magdalen on East Side, Calverton, Woolverton.

The Northampton Mercury March 21st 1885

BOARD OF GUARDIANS, TUESDAY, MARCH 17. Mr. Swinfen Harris, clerk of the Potterspury Union, saying that the tramp ward at Old Stratford was to be closed after the 25th inst., and from that date all vagrants requiring relief would be admitted into the workhouse at Yardley Gobion. Mr. Whitton said he believed one effect of this would be that more tramps would come to Towcester, as the men would prefer coming direct.

The Northampton Mercury December 15th 1860

Robert Smith, a tramp, was charged by police-constable Finn, with being drunk and disorderly at Old Stratford, om Saturday, the 1st inst. Committed to Northampton gaol for seven days.

The Northampton Mercury May 18th 1867

STONY STRATFORD PETTY SESSIONS. John Taylor, a tramping blacksmith, was charged by P.C. Sterling with vagrancy, at Old Stratford, on the 8th inst. Committed to prison for seven days with hard labour.

The Northampton Mercury May 25th 1867

STONY STRATFORD POLICE COURT, Mary Wilson, a tramp, was charged before the Rev. H. J. Barton with being drunk and disorderly, at 11 p.m., on the 13th inst., when applying for relief at the Old Stratford Tramp Ward. Committed to prison for seven days

The Northampton Mercury June 29th 1867

TOWCESTER PETTY SESSIONS. Stealing a Jacket. George Brooks and Thomas Williams, young men on tramp, were charged with stealing a jacket, at Old Stratford, on the 17th of June, the property of Thomas Upton. Thomas Upton was employed on the road, when prisoners passed and picked up his corduroy jacket, which he valued at 4s. He followed them, and gave them into custody. It was Brooks who had the jacket. Brooks admitted taking the jacket, but said it lay on the road, and no one was near it. Williams was discharged, and Brooks was sentenced to one month hard labour.

The Northampton Mercury February 8th 1868

TOWCESTER PETTY SESSIONS. Sarah Carter, tramp, Camberwell, was charged by police-constable Stirling, Old Stratford, with stealing a blanket, at Old Stratford, on the 3rd of February, 1868. Police-constable Stirling said he attended the tramp ward, and hung three blankets out to dry, and at half-past nine he missed one. About twelve at night Sergeant Willis produced the blanket with the prisoner. The blanket belongs to the tramp ward committee at Stony Stratford, and is valued at 4s. Prisoner elected to be tried by the Bench. Sergeant Willis said he received information from police-constable Stirling that he had lost a rug. He found prisoner in the parish of Furtho, sleeping under a cart, with the rug wrapped round her. He took her into custody, and charged her with stealing the rug. Prisoner said she found the rug there, and was glad to make use of it. She was going to Stratford-on-Avon. Committed to the House of Correction at Northampton for 14 days’ hard labour.

The Northampton Mercury May 5th 1869

STONY STRATFORD PETTY SESSIONS, John Robinson, a tramp was charged with begging, at Old Stratford, on April 22nd. Police constable Stirling proved the charge. Prisoner was sent to gaol for a week.

Henry Fisher was charges with disorderly conduct in the tramp ward, at Old Stratford, on the night of the 22nd instant. One of the rules of the ward is – should any of the occupants of the beds be disorderly in their conduct, or make use of foul language, they shall be treated as common vagrants, and brought before a justice as such, or something to that effect. Police-constable Stirling gave evidence to the effect that prisoner had been very disorderly, and had used bad language, consequently he brought him to the police-station and locked him up. The prisoner gave a lucid explanation of his conduct and travels the day before, and the Bench dismissed the case.

Old Stratford Census 1871: Tramp Ward - Samuel Stirling, head, married, 40, Police Constable.

Old Stratford Census 1881: Tramp Ward - Samuel Stirling, head, married, 50, Police Pensioner. Also names of Tramps

The Northampton Mercury March 3rd 1877

TOWCESTER SPECIAL SESSIONS, FEB. 27th. Stealing a Blanket at Old Stratford. Ann Young, tramp no residence, was charged with stealing from the tramp ward, Old Stratford, a blanket, value 3s., the property of the committee of the tramp ward, on the 6th of February, 187[7]. P.C. Sterling, of Stratford, said he kept the tramp ward at Old Stratford. On the 5th of February, 1875, the prisoner went to the institution. There were at the time ten men, another woman, and a boy there. During the night the men were disagreeable. On the morning of the 6th, after the men were up, witness went and counted the blankets, and found them light. He ordered prisoner to fold them up and put them in the cupboard. The other people who were in the house did not go upstairs at all. After they were all gone away but the prisoner, she asked to be allowed to stay behind, saying she wanted to get away from the other woman. She stayed about a quarter of an hour. On the night of the day on which she left he put out eight blankets; next morning placed the same number back in the cupboard. When that night, he went to count over the number of the whole, there was one missing. No one but the prisoner had touched them. Inspector Wallace said prisoner was brought to the lock-up in Towcester, in custody, on the 21st inst. When she came, witness saw her, and said to her, “I suppose you know what you are charged with?” She at first made no reply. He then told her the charge, and she said she did take it, but he could not get it, because it was sold to a party travelling in a van. One month, with hard labour.

The Northampton Mercury September 1st 1877

Arson.—George Powell. Chelmsford, Essex, charged with setting fire to a hay-stack, at Old Stratford, on the 22nd, the property of the Rev. James Thomas. —The prosecutor stated that he was a clerk in holy orders, and lived at Old Stratford. He also had some land there, and had a stack-yard, in which were two stacks of hay. He saw them on the 21st, when they were all right. When he saw them again on the morning of the 22nd one of them was on fire—the one nearest the cow-house. He was informed it had been set on fire. When he saw it it was alight at one corner. The engine was there. It was extinguished in about an hour and a-half. He estimated the damage at about £25. He did not know the prisoner, and had not seen him except before the magistrates.—Robert Daniels said he was a labourer, and lived at Calverton. On the morning of the 22nd he was going along the road with Major Richardson to his work, about twenty minutes to five, when he saw smoke coming direct from Mr. Thomas's yard. He was about 400 or 500 yards off. He saw the prisoner come out of the gate near to Mr. Thomas's house into the turnpike. When he saw the fire they want and called for help, and the engines came, and they got the fire out. It was burning more than an hour.—Thomas Smith said he lived at Stony Stratford. On the morning of the 22nd he was going along the road about five o'clock, when he met the prisoner about 20 yards from Stratford Bridge and about 00 yards from Mr. Thomas's gates leading to his stack-yard. Witness said. "Good morning" to him, but be hardly spoke, and seemed very much confused. After Witness passed him he saw the stack on fire. He turned round and looked back after the prisoner, and saw him looking in the direction of the fire. Witness stopped and helped put the fire out.—P.C. Sterling, stationed at Old Stratford, deposed that from information he received he went towards Stony Stratford, and overtook the prisoner against St. Paul's School. It was about fire o'clock. He was smothered with hay seeds, and combing them out of his hair at the time. He asked him if he had slept in that hay-stack last night, and he replied that he had, and set fire to it afterwards. Asked him what motive he had for doing so, and he said to get off the road, for he had tried every farm house all the way down from London for work, and could not get any, and the last place he called at, where he thought he could get some work at bean tying, the master told him he would have him locked up, and he then said he would do something to be locked up for. He then took him into custody. Searched him, and found a pipe, some matches, and a comb upon him. He had called at the tramp ward the night before.—In reply to Mr. Oliver, the witness stated that he would not take him in because be used very abusive language.—The prisoner denied using any bad language, and was committed for trial at the Winter Assizes.

The Northampton Mercury January 19th 1878

Stealing Cake. William Jackson, tramp, was charged with stealing a piece of cake from the shop of James Castle, at Old Stratford, on the 10th inst. The prosecutor stated that on Thursday evening, the 10th last., about twenty minutes to six o'clock, he heard someone at his shop door. He answered it, and the prisoner walked inside. He asked for something to eat, and he told him he had nothing to give him. He then said, "Then I will help myself," at the same time taking up a piece of cake, which was laying on the counter, and began to eat it. He took hold of him, and prevented him from eating all of it. He then sent for the police. P.S. Matthews, of Potterspury, deposed that on Friday morning, the 11th instant, he went to Stony Stratford Lock-up, and there saw the prisoner. He charged him with stealing the cakes produced. He said, "Yes; I went to the shop and asked for something to eat, as I was hungry, and he said he could not give me any, and I took a piece of cake." In answer to the charge, prisoner pleaded guilty, and was committed for three weeks' imprisonment, with hard labour.

The Northampton Mercury September 16th 1898

A TRAMP THIEF. At a special sitting of the Towcester Bench of Magistrates on Tuesday morning, Alfred Bulgin, a tramp, was charged on remand with stealing two shillings, the property of John William King, of Old Stratford. Prosecutor, a baker said that on September 6th prisoner entered his shop and purchased some bread and bacon, which he paid for. Witness left the shop to fetch the articles, leaving prisoner alone in the shop. Prisoner tendered a sixpence, and when witness went to the till for the change he noticed that a two-shilling piece was missing. Prisoner then offered to go to a public-house for change, and when he returned witness accused him of stealing the missing florin. He denied the theft, and emptied his pockets. Walter George Ward, son of the landlord of the Black Horse public-house, Old Stratford said he remembered prisoner going to the house on the day named and ordering a pint of beer, for which he paid with a two-shilling piece. Police constable George Gaius Robinson, stationed at Deanshanger, said that when had obtained information of the heft he took a full description of the prisoner and found him at a lodging-house at Old Stratford. At first the prisoner denied stealing the money, and said he never had a two-shilling piece.; but when witness told him that he had changed one at the public-house he said "I was hard up, and when I was in the baker's shop, whilst they had gone downstairs to fetch the bread, I leaned over the counter and saw the two-shilling piece in the till, and took it out and I bought a penny stamp, a penny packet of cigarettes, and a pot of beer". Prisoner then handed witness 1s. 5d. from his trousers pocket, and said "this is all I have left of it." Prisoner pleaded guilty -. He was then charged with stealing a pair of scissors for Towcester Grammar School, the property of John Wetherell, the head master of the school. He was sentenced to 21 days' hard labour on each charge - six weeks in all.

The "houseless poor" — variously known as vagrants, tramps, rogues, vagabonds, and travellers, have always lived on the edge of society often the subject of distrust. They were also regularly the target of legislation — as early as the seventh century a law was framed to make those who entertained travellers responsible for any misdemeanours they committed.

In the fourteenth century, in the aftermath of the Black Death (1348-9), when labour was in short supply and wages were rising steeply, several Acts were passed aimed at forcing all able-bodied men to work and keeping wages at their old levels. These measures led to labourers roaming around the country looking for areas where the wages were high and where the labour laws were not too strictly enforced. Some also took to begging under the pretence of being ill or crippled. In 1349, the Ordinance of Labourers prohibited private individuals from giving relief to able-bodied beggars. In 1388, the Statute of Cambridge introduced regulations restricting the movements of all labourers and beggars. Labourers wishing to move out of their own county "Hundred" needed a letter of authority from the "good man of the Hundred" — the local Justice of the Peace — or risked being put in the stocks.

A century later, in 1494, the Vagabonds and Beggars Act determined that: "Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid." Worse was to come — the Statute of Legal Settlement in 1547 enacted that a "sturdy beggar" could be whipped and branded through the right ear with a hot iron, or made a slave for two years — or for life if he absconded. The Act condemned "...foolish pity and mercy" for vagrants. An Act of 1564 aimed to suppress the "roaming beggar" by empowering parish officers to "appoint meet and convenient places for the habitations and abidings" of such classes — one of the first references to what was subsequently to evolve into the workhouse.

In 1597, an Act for the Repression of Vagrancy required than anyone deemed to be a rogue, vagabond, or sturdy beggar, who was found begging could be "stripped naked from the middle upwards and openly whipped until his or her body be bloody, and then passed to his or her birthplace or last residence. Those falling within the scope of this Act included:

  1. wandering scholars seeking alms
  2. shipwrecked seamen
  3. idle persons using subtle craft in games or in fortune-telling
  4. pretended proctors, procurers or gatherers of alms for institutions
  5. fencers, bearwards, common players or minstrels
  6. jugglers, tinkers, pedlars and petty chapmen
  7. able-bodied wandering persons and labourers without means refusing to work for current rates of wages
  8. discharged prisoners
  9. wanderers pretending losses by fire
  10. Egyptians or gypsies

11.  Over the next two centuries, this list was amended periodically to include any class of person now considered undesirable such as "end-gatherers" (persons buying ends of cloth), poachers, unlicensed lottery ticket dealers, persons "in possession of burglarious implements", and so on.

12.  The Settlement Act of 1662 made wandering an offence and gave magistrates the power to order the removal of travellers back to their place of settlement. The Act also authorized the arrest of rogues, vagrants, sturdy beggars, or idle or disorderly persons, and their committal to a workhouses or House of Correction (an early form of prison), or transportation for seven years to English plantations.

13.  In the eighteenth century, the troublesome business of detaining, maintaining, and conveying vagrants in a county, was often handed over to a paid contractor or "farmer" along similar lines to that employed by parishes for farming their poor. The contractor would receive an agreed amount for each vagrant he maintained (for a maximum of say three days) and for each that was conveyed to the county borders.

14.  During the same period, an informal system grew up of magistrates issuing passes which would allow the bearer to travel unmolested to a named destination and in cases to request a night's board or a few pence for a day's subsistence from an overseer or churchwarden. However, the pass system was widely abused and was in fact increasing vagrancy rather than reducing it. By 1821, a Parliamentary Select Committee estimated that around 60,000 people were perpetually circulating around the country at the public's expense. The Committee concluded that the pass system "has been found to be one of inefficiency, cozenage and fraud."

15.  A new Vagrancy Act followed in 1824 which dictated that every "every Petty Chapman or Pedlar wandering abroad and trading, without being duly licensed... and every Person wandering abroad, or placing himself or herself in any public Place, Street, Highway, Court or Passage, to beg or gather Alms, or causing or procuring or encouraging any Child or Children so to do, shall be deemed an idle and disorderly Person" and liable to imprisonment and a month's hard labour. In addition, every person "wandering abroad and lodging in any Barn or Outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied Building, or in the open Air, or under a Tent, or in any Cart or Waggon, not having any visible Means of Subsistence, and not giving a Good Account of himself or herself... shall be deemed a Rogue and Vagabond" and liable to up to three months hard labour. Exceptions could made for discharged prisoners to beg their way home, and for soldiers, sailors, marines and their wives to beg. Natives of Scotland, Ireland and the Channel Islands were also allowed to pass without punishment as these places had no formal system of settlement to which such persons could be legally removed. As a result, habitual vagrants could simply declare themselves to be from Dublin or Glasgow or Jersey and thus remain on the road.

After 1834

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 made no mention of vagrants, with the result of new union workhouses making no provision for them, and Boards of Guardians regarding vagrancy as a matter for the police rather than the poor law. The settlement laws, too, still operated so that a union was obliged to offer relief only to those holding legal settlement within its boundaries. However, tramps continued to claim relief at union workhouses which, it turned out, were usually located within a day's walk of one another. Several instances of tramps dying from exposure or starvation after being turned away from the workhouse door resulted in the Poor Law Commissioners having to compromise. In 1837, a new regulation was introduced which required food and a night's shelter to be given to any destitute person in case of "sudden or urgent necessity" in return them performing a task of work.

This change of heart led to accommodation for vagrants becoming a standard feature of workhouses. At first, this was often provided in existing infectious wards which were often separated from the main workhouse and recognised that tramps often carried contagious diseases such as measles. Gradually, however, purpose-built blocks were added, usually of a single storey and located near the workhouse entrance. They were designed to provide the most basic level of accommodation, inferior to that in the main workhouse. One observer in 1840 reported that they were:

In general they have brick floors and guardroom beds, with loose straw and rugs for the males and iron bedsteads with straw ties for the females. They are generally badly ventilated and unprovided with any means of producing warmth. All holes for ventilation in reach of the occupants are sure to be stuffed with rags and straws; so that the effluvia of these places is at best most disgustingly offensive.

These quarters were known by various names such as tramp wards, vagrant wards, or casual wards — with their occupants officially referred to as the "casual poor", or just as "casuals". Another term that became popular for the tramps' block was "the spike" — a name whose origins are much debated with the most popular being:

  • The "spiky" nature of the beds
  • An derivation of "spiniken", another tramps' name for a workhouse, originally based on "spinning house".
  • A small metal nail sometimes used to help in the task of oakum picking.
  • A metal spike on which admission tickets (issued in some areas at local police stations) were placed after being handed over to the workhouse porter
  • The spike or finial that often crowned a workhouse roof.

The Casual Ward

The routine for those entering a casual ward began in late afternoon by joining the queue for admission. A spike had only a certain number of beds and late-comers might find themselves turned away.