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When the novelist Jack London went in disguise among the poor of the East End, he remarked: "For the first time I met the English lower classes face to face, and knew them for what they were." The period covered by this book was the heyday of the incognito social explorer. Many men and women travelled in disguise among the poor in England and published...
When the novelist Jack London went in disguise among the poor of the East End, he remarked: "For the first time I met the English lower classes face to face, and knew them for what they were." The period covered by this book was the heyday of the incognito social explorer. Many men and women travelled in disguise among the poor in England and published lively accounts of their experiences. The most common social group investigated in this way were the homeless, and this book reprints several accounts of incognito investigations of vagrancy. This book reprints ten generally obscure examples of the genre. The editors' introduction sets the documents in the context of legislative responses to vagrancy, especially the development of the poor law in this period, which saw the number of vagrants in England increase tenfold, and a new set of policy responses emerged. The distinction between "deserving" and "undeserving" poor is pervasive in the texts reprinted here, and the editors trace the long history of the distinction. The vicarious vagrants were aware of the methodological and ethical difficulties that beset their work, and although they did not couch these difficulties in the language of modern sociological participant observation, they encountered the same barriers to social understanding that social researchers encounter today. The editors' introduction assesses the texts in the light of these methodological issues, and assesses their value, to contemporaries and to historians. The texts themselves are annotated, and there is a full index. Mark Freeman is a lecturer in the Department of Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow. He is the author of Social Investigation and Rural England 1870-1914 (2003), and a number of other books and articles on modern British social history. Gillian Nelson is completing a PhD at the University of Glasgow on the topic "Covert Ethnography in Britain since the 1880s".
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