Heritage: History of Havering’s homeless

Romford Market in 1900. In 1776 Mary Wilks was whipped in the market. Picture: Brian Evans

Romford Market in 1900. In 1776 Mary Wilks was whipped in the market. Picture: Brian Evans - Credit: Brian Evans

Prof Ged Martin glimpses the forgotten world of homeless vagrants

We often think of the past as a static world, where people lived all their lives in one place. But the poor were constantly on the move. Only rarely do we glimpse them as real people.

Robert Johnson’s love life dragged him before the Church courts in 1607.

A labourer, he’d lived at Upminster with Elizabeth Whitland, the mother of his child, “but was not marryed unto her”.

He wanted to tie the knot, but Upminster people objected, probably thinking he was too poor to support a family.

After moving to London, Robert visited Aveley, where he met a widow – from Upminster! They married in London, but settled at Terling, six miles north of Chelmsford – apparently all random moves.

Until 1834, everybody “belonged” to a parish, usually their birthplace.

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Wherever you ended up, your home parish had to support if you were old and sick.

In 1729, Rainham officials paid a pregnant woman to keep moving. If she’d given birth there, Rainham ratepayers could have been responsible for the child decades later.

To be sent from parish to parish back to your original place of “settlement” could be an ordeal. In 1618, a “vagrant that dyed in the constables hands” was buried at St Edward’s church in Romford.

To add to their woes, the homeless unemployed could be punished for vagrancy. Mary Wilks was whipped in Romford Market in 1776.

In 1720, officials at Crayford in Kent refused to support a “poor Travelling Boy aged about 14 years”.

One March evening, they rowed him across the Thames and dumped him on Rainham marshes.

The next day – it was Good Friday – he was found dead from exposure in Ferry Lane.

An angry correspondence followed between the clergymen of the two parishes, not over who was to blame, but about who should pay for the funeral.

Parish registers suggest that barns were used as primitive hostels.

In 1604, Romford noted the death of “a poore woman” in “Mawnes Barne”. Mawneys manor house stood near the site of the Royal United Services Club.

In 1616, a “stranger” died in the barn at Stewards, a lost mansion located in South Street near the Quadrant Arcade.

Their names were rarely known. Many were just children.

In 1604, Romford’s burial register baldly noted the death of a boy in Romford Market. In Hornchurch, a “poore vagrant boy” died at Suttons in 1607.

In 1612, St Edward’s church buried the “infant” child of “a walkinge woman”. Imagine the mother’s desperation and grief – no home, no help.

“A poor travelling Man that was drowned” was buried in 1615. I wonder where and how he died.

In the 1850s, social investigator Henry Mayhew talked to London tramps who roamed the country begging and seeking casual work. Romford was a popular first stop.

The back kitchen of the King’s Arms, a Market pub, operated as a doss-house.

“Very respectable, sir,” one vagrant told Mayhew, “and a proper division of married and single, men and women.”

“Of course, they don’t ask any couple to show their marriage lines, any more as they do any lord and lady, or one that ain’t a lady if she’s with a lord, at any fash’nable hotel at Brighton.”

The King’s Arms provided forty beds, “some of them with curtains”. Somehow, I don’t think lords and ladies ever boarded there.

The pub had closed by 1900.

But it was better than the next stopping-off point on the circuit, a Chelmsford hostelry, where you could get a bed, a pint of beer, and a punch in the head, “all for twopence”.

From the 1830s, travellers could stay at the new workhouses, in “casual wards”, which provided a network of basic overnight hostels.

Romford’s workhouse later became Oldchurch Hospital.

We needn’t be sentimental about the “Good Old Days”.