For as long as historical records have been kept, Britain has had a homelessness problem. As far back as the 7th century, the English king Hlothaere passed laws to punish vagrants.
William the Conqueror forbade anyone to leave the land where they worked. Edward the First ordered weekly searches to round up vagrants.
The numbers of vagrants has risen and fallen, and precise figures are hard to come by, but we know that 16th-century estimates put the number of vagrants at 20,000 or more. And it was in the 16th century that the state first tried to house vagrants rather than punish them. It began introducing bridewells – places meant to take vagrants in and train them for a profession, but which in reality were dirty and brutal places. By the 18th century, workhouses had replaced the bridewells, but these were intended to discourage over-reliance on state help. At best they were spartan places with meagre food and sparse furnishings –