“Wandering at large”, “wandering abroad”, “wandering abroad and not being able to give a good account of himself”, “wandering in a state of vagrancy”; do any of these offences sound familiar?

British citizens in 2020 now think twice before sitting on a public bench or standing for too long in one place. But being wary while out of doors isn’t a new phenomenon, although it may seem like it to us. In the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century, for hundreds of thousands of individuals, “wandering” without good reason was a crime which merited instant intervention from the parish constables, the early equivalent of the police force.

If you were found “wandering” then the assumption was that you were a vagrant and vagrants were beggars. They were lowest in the social scale; the people who had wandered away from their original home or workplace, made the place look untidy, and may one day want help from the parish they had ended up in. Parishes kept detailed records of their own poor and assisted them with money, food or coals; sometimes there was the workhouse to go to. Local residents had to pay for this in the form of the Poor Rate, but they weren’t always happy about it, so helping anyone from outside the parish boundaries was out of the question.

Many and varied were the punishments doled out to these individuals. Harriet Thompson was found in June 1825 lying under a haystack in Preston Village near Brighton. She said she came from Bath but “belonged to Canterbury”. She was committed to prison for one month. Samuel Holmes, arrested wandering and begging in St Mary Woolnoth in London in March 1821, got off relatively lightly; he was simply sent back to the parish where he had been born, St John sub Castro in Lewes, Sussex. Typically, a spell in prison usually preceded a removal order. Elizabeth Jones, found “wandering abroad and sleeping in outhouses”, had a spell in Lewes House of Correction before she was sent back to Ninfield in May 1807.

Local justices had some leeway when passing sentence. There was a whipping for John Harrison and his wife Anne, who had been found “wandering and telling fortunes” in Sussex in 1662, before they were sent back to Derbyshire. Phillip Carr, found wandering in East Grinstead in March 1756, had formerly been a sailor. He agreed to serve again and was sent to a convenient port to await a ship; he was also “allowed proper diet”. But there was no mercy for Thomas Suddell, “wandering abroad… and not giving a good account of himself” in Wisborough Green in 1812. He had done this before. Already judged “an incorrigible rouge and vagabond”, now his sentence was to be transported for seven years.

“Wandering”; it could even undermine the stability of the government. Oliver Cromwell, in a letter to the prominent citizens of Rye in April 1658, cited people landing from incoming ships, who, “by their wandering up and downe and other carriages… show themselves to be dangerous persons, and come over with a designe against the peace of the Commonwealth.” However, a typical “wanderer” was much more likely to have a history of wretchedness. In 1823, Mary Bayley of Wartling, “on her own confession as a rogue and vagabond” had been delivered of a bastard child on a property belonging to a man of the parish. She was imprisoned for a month. And in October 1789 the parish overseers of Rotherfield went to great lengths to examine Ann Blaur. She had given birth to a bastard child in the parish and the overseers “made the record to avoid the Settlement of bastard children born in Vagrancy on the parish of Rotherfield”.

Parish constables did not only have the authority to make people move on. They could keep them indoors, too. This account from the plague year, 1666, is all too familiar. When William Cooper of Stedham, West Sussex had the plague, local magistrates ruled that, “care is to be taken to keep him and his family from wandering from his house and conversing with any person whatsoever during the said contagion and a strict watch is to be kept on them.”

We haven’t yet reached the point where individual policemen are patrolling outside our houses, but who knows…?