From the bench to the streets

Harold Stevens seen on The Embankment in the Reynolds Illustrated News

Unemployed workers complaining bitterly about foreigners ‘pouring’ into the country… Not from today’s news, but the Southern Times of 11 September 1926 and a report about Harold Stevens, a well-respected Weymouth magistrate on completing a week living as a tramp in order to study vagrancy.

The story resurfaced after a photograph of Harold Stevens sleeping on the Embankment emerged in June as Britain celebrated the 90th birthday of HM The Queen by looking back on what the country was like the year she was born.

So who was Harold Stevens and what led him from his home in Weymouth to spend a week on the seamy side of the capital city?

He was born Harold Alexander George Stevens and baptised in Radipole Church on 17 September 1865. His father John was a Poor Law Relieving Officer and Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths, no doubt inspiring Harold to embark on a legal career and by the age of 15, he was a solicitor’s general clerk and ten years later, when he married Ellen Worn, a managing clerk.

In 1900 he was sworn in as a Justice of the Peace, one of the last to be so under Queen Victoria, for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis and in 1919 became a county JP. By the 1930s he was Chairman of the Weymouth Bench of magistrates and then of the Portland Bench, presiding over more than 4000 sittings of the courts. In an echo of his father’s place in Weymouth civic life, he also held the position of Registrar and was Clerk to the Weymouth Board of Guardians, the local Poor Law authority, which was formed in 1834 and lasted until Dorset County Council took on its responsibilities in 1930.

It was from this post that Stevens, spurred on by the increasing number of young men in the vagrant wards at Weymouth’s Poor Law Institution on Wyke Road, applied for a two-week leave of absence in the summer of 1926 in order to study the vagrancy problem. By 4 September the Southern Times was able to report he had ‘slept on the London Embankment, on doorsteps, in the crypt of St Martin’s, in a Rowton* House and in a Salvation Army Hostel.’

His endeavours were the subject of much discussion even impinging on the Board’s consideration of the proposed new rating and assessment areas.

‘Any news from the Thames Embankment?’ enquired a member.
MR MOGGERIDGE: I hope he will be back in a fortnight’s time.  It will be a catastrophe if he takes to this life permanently.
A MEMBER: He may want a bath. (Laughter)
MR LEGG: There is not much doubt he will come back very much alive.
MR MOGGERIDGE: Is there any question of the Rotary Club entertaining him? What about the return of the prodigal son and killing the fatted calf?
THE CHAIRMAN: He will be back at the next meeting all right.

During his time ‘on tramp’ Stevens wrote a series of articles for the Westminster Gazette that were published nationally in more than forty newspapers, recounting a wealth of experiences from meeting a man who made a century for the MCC and a former Society lady selling matches, to finding a man asleep in a dustbin, sharing a breakfast of hotel waste and sleeping with 1500 other men in a doss house near Drury Lane. In the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields he saw an old man of over eighty, his hair unkempt and in rags, start up from his sleep and murmur:

My times are in Thy hands
Whatever they may be,
Pleasing or painful, dark or bright
As best may seem to thee.

‘These beautiful lines, coming from such an unexpected source, and uttered in a room crowded with the dregs of humanity, were startling in the extreme. Could these poor creatures ever again be contemptuously dismissed as mere loafers?’ asked Stevens.

It seems his original plan had been to spend a single night of his family holiday on the street, but his intention was misreported in the newspapers and after being inundated with messages and requests – including a poor Bournemouth woman who sent him a one-pound note to spend on the vagrants as a ‘thank-offering to God’ – he decided to investigate the situation at greater length thereby ensuring a press pack met his train from Weymouth at Waterloo.

Weymouth’s Poor Law Institution on Wyke Road

The reports make for gloomy reading as Stevens observes the Bright Young People whose parties spill on to the West End streets as former soldiers who fought for their freedom scour gutters and dustbins in search of food and shelter.

He told the Reynolds Illustrated News that he hoped he would be the means of bringing to the notice of the Government the necessity of dealing with the younger tramps: ‘Many of them were fatherless or orphans, and there were many young couples travelling the country with babies, going from workhouse to workhouse. The Government should do something if only in the interests of the babies. The average man on the Embankment, in the crypt at St Martin’s Church, and in Trafalgar Square is a decent fellow who wants work. Hosts of them are ex-soldiers to whom a land for heroes was promised. I have learned to love them; and I intend to pay them a return visit.’

Elsewhere he railed against the workshy, but empathised with the elderly and those who felt the pace of social change pushing them to the margins of society.

‘One thing that has struck me forcibly has been the ever-changing nature of the underworld population. I scarcely ever saw the same man or woman on two different nights. I have been surprised, too, to see so many aged men and women on tramp, some of them so hideously featured as to be almost beyond recognition as human beings. Some of the opinions of men and women I have met as to why they are down and out are interesting. Many complain that they are no longer in a free country because of the ever-increasing legislation; others said that foreign competition had cut them out of their jobs. Many young lads placed their condition at the door of female labour. Women and girls in jobs, I should say, were responsible for 25 per cent of the young men who were on the streets or are on the dole.’

Harold Stevens returned to his hometown and continued to play his part in civic life until he died on 26 November 1942, just 16 days after his wife. In his obituary the Southern Times described ‘an esteemed townsman, one who had rendered devoted service to his native town in many capacities’ and remembered him as a merciful magistrate, often paying fines for poor offenders.

* Rowton Houses were a chain of hostels built between 1892 and 1905 by Victorian philanthropist Lord Rowton, a nephew of the reforming seventh Earl of Shaftesbury.

On the streets today

Mike Graham at The Lantern

In 1926 Harold Stevens felt he had to go to London to live on the streets for a week in order to understand homelessness. In all probability he could have learned as much in his hometown and the same is just as true today.

‘The electoral ward of Melcombe Regis is in the top four per cent of socially deprived areas in the country,’ says Mike Graham, Project Manager at The Lantern Trust resource centre, a registered charity which offers a wide range of services to meet practical, emotional and personal needs.

‘People are people and I don’t think that changes a great deal over time. We all have crisis moments in our lives when things become difficult and if we don’t have a place of refuge and the love and support of family and friends, where do we go?’

The Lantern feeds 80 people a week on average, providing a safe space where they can begin to rebuild their lives. Last year it helped fund more than 60 people into private rented accommodation while some 300 others were referred by word of mouth or other agencies. It also helped hundreds more with tailored housing and benefits advice, claims and appeals.

‘It’s not just taking people off the streets and putting them in houses, more accurately it’s about poverty. We aim to create an oasis of calm, an environment where people who live chaotic lifestyles can start to take greater personal responsibility and see ways in which they can begin to contribute. For some people it could be the first time in their lives they have experienced that.’

This year The Lantern, which is funded by Dorset County Council as well as its charity shop in Chapelhay, joined a new social inclusion pilot scheme in partnership with Dorset County Council, the You Trust and EDP.

‘We’ll do whatever we can to help people we work with by building trusting relationships with them over the long term. Shelter and food are often immediate priorities, so we cook meals and can help with finding somewhere to stay, but we also do tribunals and advocacy, or assisted rents and deposits, as well as working with other agencies on health and welfare issues.

‘There are enormous issues behind the hidden homeless, the people with no fixed abode. The local authority has no duty of care towards them, but just because they have a mate with a sofa doesn’t give them the basis to build a life. The Lantern is a place where that can begin to change.’

The Lantern Trust, 2 Ranelagh Road, Weymouth, 01305 787940, Open 8.00-4.00, Mon-Fri; The Lantern coffee bar opens 10.00 to 2.00 Monday to Friday
Housing Advice, Council Offices, North Quay, Weymouth, 01305 838416,
Shelter Dorset, 30 Poole Hill, Bournemouth, 0344 515 1400 (Weymouth outreach)

This article was prepared with the invaluable help of Richard Samways, Local History and Information Officer at Weymouth Museum, 01305 761680

• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *