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1572 - The English Parliament passes an Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds
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Vagabonds are homeless, unemployed people and able-bodied beggars. There are many of them in Elizabethan England. This Act is intended to deal with the problem.

Special attention is paid in the Act to preventing poor people from Ireland from entering the country. From now on, anyone who brings them over in their ship or boat will be forced to pay a heavy fine: twenty shillings for each poor traveller.

The government's concern to stop beggars arriving from Ireland suggests that this is a particular problem. If we look at what is happening in Munster, we can start to understand why this might be so.

The Act is very harsh. Anyone arrested for begging and anyone without a proper job is to be whipped, then burned through the right ear with a hot iron one inch in circumference. After this, if they are Irish, they will be sent back to Ireland.

The Act states that none of the penalties it lays down are to apply in the case of travelling harvesters. Every summer there are a few weeks when there is work for everyone who wants it. This is in harvest time. A lot of people are needed then to harvest the crop, load it into carts and get it stored away in ricks and barns. People from the poorest parts of the country and people who have no job move into the fertile corn-growing areas and help out with the work in return for pay and food. Without the work these people do the farmers would not be able to get all their crops in and some people would starve.

The gangs of harvesters, tramping the roads, will be familiar figures for centuries. Many of those who travel to the rich farming districts of England will be poor labourers from Ireland. Most will go back at the end of the harvest with money in their pockets. A few will stay and settle in England.



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