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Sweep Them Off the Streets

John Marriott looks at attitudes to the London poor since the 17th century.

Recent publicity over the numbers of those sleeping rough on the streets of London has served to remind us that the poor are not only still with us but continue to be perceived as an urgent problem. According to The Observer of November 14th, 1999, for example, Louise Casey, head of the government’s Rough Sleepers’ Unit, claimed that the policies of charitable organisations just perpetuated the problem of the homeless, and called for radical new strategies to ‘sweep them off the streets’.

There is something familiar about such pronouncements. As early as 1700, ‘M.D.’ worried that:

The number of Beggars increases daily, our Streets swarm with this kind of People, and their boldness and impudence is such that they often beat at our Doors, stop Persons in the ways, and are ready to load us with Curses and Imprecations if their Desires be not speedily answered.

At particular moments, usually following demobilisation from the army and navy, the number of beggars increased dramatically. So too did the levels of anxiety expressed by observers. The early 1750s were distinctly troubled years. Not only did beggars proliferate, but they were linked to the more serious matter of crime. An anonymous pamphlet of 1751 argued:

The first sources... of the many robberies committed in our streets... is the prodigious and scandalous encrease of publick beggars... [T] here are more publick beggars in London and Westminster alone than in all the great cities of Europe put together, tho' the revenue of collected for the use of the poor in these cities exceeds the revenue of some very respectable sovereign states....At least 20,000 live by the publick trade of begging and pilfering, and other arts of that sly profession.

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