Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth-Century London

  • By Oskar Jensen
  • The Experiment
  • 336 pp.
  • Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski
  • April 10, 2024

Britain’s benighted scalawags had more agency than you thought.

Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth-Century London

The wonderfully diverse and resilient lives of London’s 19th-century street people captured in Oskar Jensen’s delightful Vagabonds, shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2023, reveal what it was like to “live on the wrong side of history.”

Eschewing the predominant perspective of London’s street life made famous by its great chroniclers Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew, Jensen chooses to look not at his subjects but rather with them as they make their homes and livelihoods in the streets. For these people, the streets aren’t merely paths from one place to another — they are places to be in and of themselves. Accessing new physical sources and those gleaned from digital archives, Jensen assembles long-forgotten voices from unread memoirs, obscure trial proceedings, periodicals, and reports to reveal individual worlds of “tenderness, horror, shame, and triumph.”

Jensen joins these colorful figures at every significant life stage — a street version of the “seven ages of man” — as he tells their picaresque tales of existence: the infants, children, adolescents, and even the elderly approaching death. Within each stage, Jensen presents a wide selection of stories that are as entertaining (and more revelatory) as any Dickens novel. But stamped upon each life stage, Jensen argues throughout, are the overarching Victorian mores that both elevated the inhibited the plight of London’s street dwellers.

For example, among the downtrodden, babies are “hot property,” used for plucking the heartstrings and purse strings of conscientious passersby. For children in general, the Victorian expectation was to be seen and not heard. Signs of malnourishment among youngsters in the street were viewed by the wealthy as “tragic rather than criminal…a confirmation of something intrinsic to the underclass” to be pitied and mitigated by charity, not necessarily rectified by fundamental social reform.

The fate of children born into poverty in London will appall readers as Jensen rolls off one case study after another differing only in the degree of suffering. Frank Bullen, 9 years old in 1866, finds work as an errand boy, bearing heavy loads and goods across the city day in and day out. He is one of the “urchins, fleet of foot and disposable, incapable of unionization and scarcely showing up in the ledgers.”

Whereas boys in the 19th century had to fend for themselves, Jensen notes that, for girls, it was “more a case of fending off” the surveillance and advances of men. Prostitution was endemic among young women without options, Jensen admits, but there were cases where women chose prostitution as a short-term answer. Sarah Tanner, a 21-year-old domestic worker in 1854, tires of her drudgery and elects to become a prostitute for a “gentlemanly” clientele. By 1859, she has earned enough to purchase a coffeehouse and leave sex work behind. Nonetheless, prostitution offered a type of economic independence, and London’s prostitutes “formed what might reasonably be called a sisterhood,” Jensen observes.

Amid these stories of survival and ingenuity, he weaves in the dark presence of the Mendicity Society, one of several charity organizations that acted more like “a private and authoritarian police force.” Its mission? Stamp out the “social evil” of begging (mendicity), mostly through intimidation, arrest, and slander. Unfortunately, for the befuddled immigrant to England’s capital, which seemed like “a hellscape” for many, the Mendicity Society would target four ethnic groups for sustained racial discrimination, writes Jensen: “London’s Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Black communities.”

Still, buskers soon learned that “the culture of the streets was inherently open,” recognizing and welcoming difference and celebrating the outlandish or novel — whether it be a stereotypical foreigner, a disabled person, or just someone with an unusual talent. While “this was far from equality,” Jensen sagely notes, “…for the dispossessed, the stateless, the fugitive, it had its advantages.”

Though persecuted and looked down upon, street professionals and traders posed a threat to society. The author makes a fascinating case for their vocal subversiveness in an age when democracy was “a dirty word.” Indeed, “street pros” of all kinds held a meeting in May 1851 to refute Mayhew’s depictions of their ranks as utterly wretched in his much-lauded book of editorialized interviews, London Labour and the London Poor. Rather, argues Jensen, they were “proud, confident,” and self-respecting professionals who had “even taken the effort to tell us so.”

Neither idealized supplicants nor victims, the men, women, and children who inhabit Jensen’s lively book attest to their shared “love of liberty,” fierce independence, and desire to survive on their own terms. Vagabonds is a dynamic appreciation of the varieties of human experience that readers will enjoy and remember.

Peggy Kurkowski is a professional copywriter for a higher-education IT nonprofit association by day and major history nerd at night. She writes for multiple book review publications, including Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, BookBrowse Review, Historical Novels Review, Independent Book Review, Shelf Awareness, and the Independent. She hosts her own YouTube channel, “The History Shelf,” where she features and reviews history books (new and old), as well as a variety of fiction. She lives in Colorado with her partner (quite possibly the funniest Irish woman alive) and four adorable, ridiculous dogs.

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