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 Dore. 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.
Shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize
‘Oskar Jensen’s Vagabonds is an elegantly-written and vivid account of the people that lived and worked in Georgian and Victorian London. Jensen doesn’t just present these hitherto marginalised figures on the page; like a delightful sorcerer, he brings them back to life.’
‘Oskar Jensen’s fascinating, delightfully readable book about nineteenth-century street life is animated by a formidable passion for recovering the stories of some of metropolitan London’s poorest, most precarious, but also most creative people, a passion that is all too rare in accounts of the period that are this scrupulous in their scholarship. Rescuing these diverse, colourful individuals from both the condescension of their contemporaries and the silence of so many historians since, Vagabonds narrates their lives with a sympathy and sensitivity that is often moving – not least because they speak obliquely but powerfully to urban life in our own troubled and unsettled times.’
‘Oskar Jensen has coaxed out of the archives a vast range of original voices of the street poor of London. With great sensitivity and scholarly rigour he ensures that once again, we hear the lived experiences of those who lived and died on the margins of metropolitan life.’
‘A very readable and historically well researched picture of the nineteenth-century poor’
Gareth Stedman Jones, author of Outcast London
‘with echoes of Walter Pater and of Vernon Lee’s historical writing… Jensen does an excellent job of describing the confusion so often experienced by those accused of petty or serious crimes… Vagabonds allows readers to feel the injustices and the seeming inevitability of lives going wrong. The writing is compelling, often displaying the flair of a nineteenth-century journalist or courtroom lawyer.’
Times Literary Supplement