Vagrancy prohibition sign

Becky Field

Sign previously on the Black Horse pub in Beaconsfield
Becky Field

The Beaconsfield & District Society’s Archive contains objects as well as documents, newspaper cuttings and photographs. One such object is this sign which was described by the late John Broadbent, a former Society member, architect and enthusiastic local historian, in his notes (which are also in the Society’s archive) as being a sign which read “No vagrancy or begging allowed”. John stated that the sign had previously been fixed onto the Black Horse pub, which used to be in Wycombe End. This pub was the first building you came across on the way into Beaconsfield from High Wycombe, and is believed to have stood on the site of the Old Forge which is now a Design Studio, (and which is being converted back to private housing). It would have been the first thing to be seen by travellers arriving in Beaconsfield from High Wycombe.  For the past 10 years at least, the sign, which actually reads “The Magistrates have Ordered that all Persons found Begging or Committing any other Act of Vagrancy will be Apprehended” has been covered in dust behind a cupboard in the Archive and was rediscovered during the reorganisation of the Archive as part of the Beaconsfield Archive Project.

It is not known how old the sign is but vagrants and beggars were seen as a serious social threat to a settled law abiding community and were viewed with suspicion as being people likely to commit crimes. The relief of poverty was a local responsibility and the cost of it was a heavy burden, accounting for nearly the whole of the expenditure of the rates. Responsibility lay with the overseers of the poor. They had to be watchful against the risk of having the problem cases of other localities coming under their charge to the detriment of their ability to help people of their own town who had fallen on hard times. It was, no doubt, with this in mind that the sign was erected.  Local Magistrates would have wanted to ensure that everyone was also aware of the 1824 Vagrancy Act which dictated that “every Petty Chapman or Pedlar wandering abroad without being duly licensed…. and every Person wandering abroad, and placing himself or herself in any public Place, Street, Highway, Court or Passage to beg or gather Alms……..be deemed an idle and disorderly person” and could be given imprisonment and/or hard labour, as could those who were “wandering abroad……not having any visible Means of Subsistence or not giving a Good Account of him or herself”. The Act assumed that homelessness and behaviour associated with extreme poverty was due to idleness and therefore punishable. Beaconsfield Magistrates were, obviously, up to the task and advertised their commitment to the spirit of the Act.

Comments about this page

  • I was intrigued to discover more about the word “Chapman” used in the 1824 Act. It’s not a common word today but it derives from the Old English “ceapmann” meaning a trader or dealer, and is found in the words Cheapside and Eastcheap in London and also Chepstow which were all markets or dealing places. The word “Cheap” nowadays means a good deal and the word “Chap” is slang for a person who was a customer of the dealer.
    Another connected word is “Chapbooks” which were small pamphlets sold by chapmen. For a short description of these see http://web.mit.edu/21h.418/www/nhausman/chap1.html

    By Becky Field (29/05/2016)

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