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Without visible means: tramping the Great North Road

Video: Stray Voices homeless project walk

As Christmas approaches and the nights get colder modern Londoners often express sympathy for the city’s homeless population through events like ‘Sleep out London’, and winter coat collections. However, contemporary attitudes to the homeless are complex.

This is very obvious in perennial debates about the morality of giving money directly to people sleeping rough, explains Charlotte Berry (a PhD student at the Institute of Historical Research) in her article, Medieval homelessness and the moral judgment. Recently, the New Statesman ran two opposing opinion pieces. One decried the ‘abject morality’ of withholding cash from the homeless on the grounds that it might be spent on drugs or alcohol. The other, written by Jeremy Swain, chief executive of homelessness charity, Thames Reach, was appalled at the ‘inhuman fatalism’ of those who advocate giving money regardless of whether it funds addiction.

‘Homelessness and the response of the settled population are topics fraught with anxiety in modern society’, says Charlotte whose thesis is focussed on the neighbourhoods which formed the geographical ‘margins’ of London c.1370-1530.

Writing on the blog for the Institute of Historical Research’s (IHR) ‘Stray Voices: the unsettled history of homelessness’ project, she points out that ‘Much of it stems from concern about making moral judgments of others; how far is it right to make assumptions about homeless people on the basis of their circumstances or their appearance? These kinds of debates about homelessness and vagrancy have a very long history in England and indeed across Europe.’

Stray Voices, coordinated by Dr Peter Jones, early career lecturer in urban history at the IHR’s Centre for Metropolitan History, aims to stimulate insights into the buried stories of homeless men and women whose voices often remain unheeded within the historical record. It involves the public, artists, film-makers, community activists, researchers, and those who have experienced rough sleeping and homelessness.

With the support of the School of Advanced Study’s public engagement innovators scheme, the Stray Voices project took to the streets in September for a research-led guided walk. Under the supervision of Dr Luke Seaber, who teaches modern European culture at UCL, walkers explored what it meant to be tramping on the Great North Road in search of shelter, sustenance and security.

The resulting video, ‘Without visible means: tramping on (and off) the Great North Road’ (see above), shows how they followed in the footsteps of the investigative journalist John Greenwood who, in the 1870s, disguised himself as a tramp so he could speak to poor travellers about their experiences. His series of articles presented a brutal picture of London’s poor.

During the walk participants from Hertfordshire and beyond were introduced to stories of dispossession hidden in Hitchin’s lost slums, ‘a squalid quarrelsome underworld of little yards’. On the journey, which started in Stevenage and finished in Hitchin, they encountered the Hertfordshire Hermit, James Lucas, who Dickens once described as a ‘reversal of the laws of human nature’ and who offered his charity (in the form of gin and cash) to poor travellers.

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