Casual wards for the destitute of no fixed address

inside a casual ward for tramps and vagrants

Tramps and vagrants were common sites on British streets before the 1930s. They spent their nights in parish-run institutions called casual wards which would only accommodate them for one night at a time before moving them on to trudge to the next casual ward. This page describes the extremely basic nature of casual wards including the food supplied, the work that the inmates had to do in return for their keep and how casual wards differed from workhouses.


Extracted from the memoirs of the webmaster's mother (1906-2002) and edited by the webmaster with further research

What casual wards were and what they did

Casual wards provided extremely basic food and overnight accommodation for individuals of no fixed address and no means of other support.

Difference and similarities between casual wards and workhouses

The main difference and similarities between casual wards and workhouses are as follows:

The main corridor of a casual ward, also known as a dosshouse, showing the doors of the cells.

The main corridor showing the doors of the cells. Photographed with permission in Guildford Spike

The vagrants, tramps and destitutes who used the casual wards

The inmates of casual wards were completely destitute. Because they had to move on every morning, they spent their days on the road, walking from one casual ward to another or spending nights under hedges or in barns. So they were often to be seen walking/tramping along the roads. That is why they were commonly known as tramps, although officially they were called vagrants.

I could watch them lining up outside our local casual ward as I came home from school, as they were not allowed in until the early evening. I think it was 7 o'clock, but I can't be sure. They looked such a ragged and impovished bunch.

Food for inmates of casual wards

The previous night's casual ward normally provided tramps with enough money for the most basic of food for the day, but for other food and clothes they relied on charity or small-scale theft. Tramps' lives were hard - see the page on their daily schedule.

Were vagrants and tramps thieves and villains?

Tramps suffered from serious malnutrition and inadequate clothing, so it is not surprising that some turned to crime. Consequently they were often known in the community as rogues, thieves and villains and widely regarded with caution by the rest of the community. They were given a wide birth as potentially criminals and were certainly regarded as the lowest of the low. They were even looked down on by the inmates of workhouses.

Origin of names 'Casual Ward', 'Spike' and 'Dosshouse'

The name casual ward probably came from the 'casual' nature of the stay of only one night, although the meaning of 'ward' in this context is uncertain. It could mean ward as in a hospital or the rather archaic 'A means of protection'. The terms 'ward of court' or 'someone's ward' are still in use today.

Casual wards were also known as spikes, possibly after the tool used there for rope-teasing. A more disrespectful name was dosshouse, although the latter was also used for any low-cost overnight accommodation, often run by charities.

The management and funding of casual wards

Casual wards, like their associated workhouses, were managed locally by a Board of Guardians. For many years my uncle was chairman of our Board of Guardians for Edmonton.

Casual wards were a cost to the parish and it is likely that this was the excuse for the low standard of accommodation in casual wards.

The tramp major

Day-to-day staffing of casual wards was in the hands of individuals known as tramp majors. Whether or not this was their formal title is uncertain since tramps were formally known as vagrants not tramps.

According to Orwell, tramp majors were generally paupers from the workhouse who were paid for their work.

The end of casual wards

In 1930 the last casual wards and workhouses were officially closed, marking the end of the Poor Law system. However they continued in some form until the establishment of the welfare state, just after the Second World War.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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