Book Review: Vagabonds

Oskar Jensen ~ Vagabonds


Until now, our view of bustling late Georgian and Victorian London has been filtered through its great chroniclers, who did not themselves come from poverty – Dickens, Mayhew, Gustave Doré. Their visions were dazzling in their way, censorious, often theatrical. Now, for the first time, this innovative social history brilliantly – and radically – shows us the city’s most compelling period (1780–1870) at street level.

From beggars and thieves to musicians and missionaries, porters and hawkers to sex workers and street criers, Jensen unites a breadth of original research and first-hand accounts and testimonies to tell their stories in their own words. What emerges is a buzzing, cosmopolitan world of the working classes, diverse in gender, ethnicity, origin, ability and occupation – a world that challenges and fascinates us still.


One of my favourite paintings is ‘Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward’, by Sir Luke Fildes. When I first laid eyes on this mid-Victorian masterpiece at Royal Holloway University, I was captivated by image of poor Londoners, lining up outside a police station on a dark and snowy night, in the hope of receiving a ticket that would allow them admission to a casual ward – temporary accommodation granted on a nightly basis.

Literally huddled against the biting cold, a diverse range of characters populate this haunting scene. An old soldier leans against a crutch. A drunk sleeps against a wall. A father clutches a small child, its bare legs and feet exposed to the freezing night air. A small boy, too poor even to have a coat, stands bent double, perhaps from the cold, perhaps from hunger – probably from both. His face is gaunt and pinched, and there is pain and desperation in his eyes. He is a visual embodiment of the children lurking beneath the coat of the Ghost of Christmas Present in ‘A Christmas Carol’.

It is an image not easily forgotten. Yet while the suffering of the subjects is plain to see, their backgrounds and stories remain a mystery. Oskar Jensen’s new book, ‘Vagabonds’, goes a long way towards addressing this by shining an unflinching light on the lives of those who struggled to survive on the streets of nineteenth-century London.

Jensen, borrowing perhaps from Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, divides his book into seven chapters, five of which deal with the different life stages of those who called the streets home – from the infant to the elder. The two remaining chapters deal with the specific experiences of particular groups – immigrants and those who found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

It is an effective structure, and rather than rely on generalisations, each chapter is filled with examples of real people. Some of those we meet as children are reintroduced in later chapters, giving a touching sense of seeing lives unfold.

Jensen does an excellent job of weaving the various stories together and providing context, although the highlights are undoubtedly the passages in which we are able to read the words of the subjects themselves. Wisely, Jensen has included many direct quotes, which speak powerfully of the experiences of those who lived on the poverty line.

Unsurprisingly, the lives we encounter are overwhelmingly bleak. While there are some moments of humour, and a few of the youngsters go on to prosper (to varying degrees), poverty and desperation stalk nearly every page. Particularly harrowing are descriptions of bereaved families so poor that they must share their small, crowded rooms with the dead bodies of their loved ones – in some cases for up to two weeks – until funeral arrangements can be made. Sometimes, the corpses are in plain view. In one especially tragic example, the lifeless remains of a small child are kept on a shelf in a cupboard, next to one of its few worldly possessions.

Reading these heart-breaking accounts, one cannot help but think about how far we have come. In Britain today, the extremes of squalor described in the book are unimaginable, and it is hard not to feel grateful to be alive now, and not then.

And yet, for all our progress, a cursory glance at the news suggests that we are not as far removed from the Dickensian poverty described in this book as we may like to think. Increasing rates of homelessness, foodbanks experiencing unprecedented demand and spiralling energy costs which force households to choose between heating and eating provide grim echoes of the plight of those whose stories fill this book.

Vagabonds is an engrossing, startling and humane examination of the poorest and most vulnerable of London’s past. It is a reminder of how much worse things were, and, as a cost of living crisis grips the nation, a timely warning of what can happen when those at the bottom of society are neglected.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I received a proof copy from Duckworth Books. Opinions my own.

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