the supertramp - W.H.Davies - proseClick image for Davies home



1HAD now been two years in London, at the same place, and though my literary efforts had not been very successful, I must confess that the conditions had not been the most unfavourable for study; and, no doubt, I had cultivated my mind not a little by the reading of standard works. The conditions of this place could not have been bettered by a person of such small means, and probably I would have continued living here until I met with some success, had I not known of one who would be thankful of a couple of shillings a week, and resolved to make a little sacrifice that would enable me to send them. To do this it was necessary to seek cheaper lodgings where, rent not being so high, this amount could be saved. I had heard something of such a place in Southwark which was under the control of the Salvation Army. A bed was to be had there for two shillings per week, therefore one and sixpence would be saved at the onset, as I was now paying three and sixpence. Following my first impulse, as usual, but with much regret at having to leave a place where I had not by any means been unhappy, I gathered up my few things and left, and that night settled in Southwark Street.

Speaking after six months' experience at the Salvation Army Lodging House, I am very sorry that I have nothing at all to say in its favour. Of course, it was well understood by the lodgers, whatever people on the outside thought, that no charity was dispensed on the premises. Certainly the food was cheap, but such food as was not fit for a human being. I do not know whether the place came under the control of the London County Council, being regarded as a charitable institution, or whether, in case of a surprise visit from its inspectors, beds were removed in the day: what I do know from experience is this, that it was with difficulty that a man could find room between the beds to undress. A row of fifteen or twenty beds would be so close together that they might as well be called one bed. Men were breathing and coughing in each other's faces and the stench of such a number of men in one room was abominable. I was fortunate in having a bed next to the wall, to which I could turn my face and escape the breath of the man in the next bed.

The officers in charge were, according to my first opinion, hypocrites; which seemed to be verified some time after from Head Quarters, for both the Captain and his Lieutenant were dismissed from the Army. However, the Captain was well liked by the lodgers, and I have often seen him assist them out of his own private purse.

As for the Lieutenant, he was very gentle and fervent in prayer, more so than any man I have ever heard, but in conversation he had not a civil word for any one, except, of course, his superior officer. He sometimes made his deceit so apparent that I have been forced to laugh out. When the Captain arrived at night, or in the morning - he was a married man and did not live on the premises - he would stand with his back to the restaurant bar, looking down the long room at the faces of his many lodgers. It was at such a time that when I have looked up from my meal, I have been surprised, and not a little startled, to see this Lieutenant's pale thin face looking down through a glass window, eager to see what his superior ofBcer was doing. So engrossed would he be that he would entirely forget that he exposed his deceit to the eyes of a number of men who had their faces turned towards him. Sometimes he would creep tiptoe to the kitchen door and peep in for an instant, and then creep back to the office. I have often wondered that the Captain never turned and surprised him in these doings, for there was not a lodger in the house that had not one time or another seen him perform them.

On Sunday afternoons, these two, the Captain and his Lieutenant, would conduct a meeting; the latter commencing it with a short prayer, after which the former would preach a sermon which was, I must confess, often interesting, and invariably eloquent. In all my life I have never heard a more pathetic address and prayer than that which was delivered by this Captain, on one of these Sunday afternoons. It so chanced that in this place there lived a poor half demented lodger, who was known by the name of Horace, whose profession was that of a flower seller. Every night this man would dress and garland himself with his unsold flowers, and return home drunk to the Ark. Now, this man suddenly disappeared, and, at the same time, a man committed suicide from London Bridge, which was well known to be the haunt of the man Horace. Whereat the following Sunday our Captain preached a funeral oration, giving for our interest the few facts he had gleaned from the past life of the deceased, who, the Captain affirmed, had received a good education and had come of a respectable family. The Captain wept copiously, being overcome by his feelings, and the Lieutenant approved and encouraged him by an unusual number of sighs and broken sobs. The meeting then ended with an earnest prayer for the soul of the drowned Horace. About six days after this meeting had taken place, there came to the Ark a man drivelling and laughing idiotically, with wreaths and posies all over his person - no other than the lamented Horace. The Captain came out of his office, followed by his Lieutenant. The Captain looked at Horace with a melancholy annoyance; the Lieutenant looked first at his superior officer and, after receiving his expression into his own face, turned it slowly on Horace. The Captain then turned slowly on his heels, at the same time shaking his head, and, without saying a word, returned to the office, while his subordinate followed him in every particular. Never, after this, did this Captain treat Horace as a living man, and all chaff and familiar conversation was at an end between them. How the Captain came to the belief that the drowned suicide was Horace, the flower seller, was very strange, for this man was known to mysteriously disappear several times in the year, he, invariably, like the drowned man he was supposed to be, coming to the surface on the seventh day, seven days being the extreme penalty of his simple and eccentric behaviour.

There was no lack of strictness at this place; whether a man was ill or not, whether it rained, snowed or hailed, every lodger was compelled to quit the premises at ten o'clock in the morning, after which it would remain closed for cleaning purposes until one o'clock. And yet there was not a man in the house could keep himself clean. It was not thought necessary to close other establishments of this kind, that were not connected with the name of religion, which were kept cleaner without making the lodgers suffer any inconvenience. Why things should be carried on in this high handed fashion I cannot understand, seeing that there was not the least charity doled out. Whatever good the Salvation Army did for the homeless and penniless in their shelters, they certainly did not cater well for these poor, but independent, fellows whose wages ranged from a shilling to eighteenpence a day - being paper-men, sandwichmen, toy-sellers, etc., who receive nothing but what they paid for.

I had been at this place something like four months, when I determined to make another attempt at publication. My plans at this time seemed to be very feasible, for I gave them a full half year for execution. I applied at the local police station for a pedlar's certificate, intending to stock myself with laces, pins, needles and buttons with which I would hawk the country from one end to the other. At the end of this time I would be some ten pounds in pocket, the result of not drawing my income, and would, no doubt, save between nine and ten shillings a week as a hawker. Being very impulsive, I pro- posed starting on this interesting business at once, but one idea - which could not for long be overlooked - brought me to a halt: my artificial leg would certainly not stand the strain of this enforced march from town to town on the country roads, that were so often rough and uneven. For even now it was creaking, and threatened at every step to break down. On mentioning these difficulties to a fellow lodger, he at once advised me to go to the Surgical Aid Society for a wooden leg, of the common peg sort; which, he was pleased to mention, would not only be more useful for such a knockabout life, but would not deceive people as to my true condition. This society was visited by me on the following day; at which place I was informed that fifteen subscription letters would be required for my purpose, and after paying sixpence for a subscription book, in which were the names and addresses of several thousand subscribers, I lost no time in buying stamps and sta- tionery. Eighteen letters were without loss of time written and posted to their destination. These eighteen succeeded in bringing in two subscription letters, several letters of regret from people who had already given theirs away; several of my letters were returned marked "not at home," and a number of them elicited no response. Twelve more letters were quickly despatched, with the result of one subscription letter. To be able to do this I was forced to use the small weekly allowance that I had been making. In six weeks I had written nearly a hundred letters and was still several letters short of my allotted number. I again consulted my fellow lodger, who had at first referred me to the Surgical Aid Society, and his explanation was, undoubtedly, reasonable and true. He explained that not only was the time of the year unfavourable, it being summer, and most of the subscribers were away from home on their holidays - but, unfortunately, the South African war was still in progress, and numbers of soldiers were daily returning from the front in need of artificial assistance one way or another. Although I ruminated with some bitterness on the idea that I would almost pay in postage the value of that which I required, before it became mine, I still had enough common-sense to see that no one was actually to blame. Several letters were received, offering to assist me on certain conditions. One lady would assist on a clergyman's recommendation, and another subscriber would have no other than a Roman priest. I offered to get these ladies a Salvation Army Officer's recommendation, which, apparently, would not do, for our correspondence came to an end. One lady, who did not recognise the house of Salvation under the address of 96 Southwark Street, regretted that she had already given her letters away, but advised me to go to the Salvation Army, who would most certainly attend to my wants. I explained to this person that I was already at one of their places, and had been here over five months; and that I had not been seen drunk in the place, and that my behaviour had not, at any time, raised objections, also that I was on the most friendly terms with the officer in charge; but that I could live here for many years to come, and no man would enquire my wants or offer to assist me.

One afternoon, when I returned to the Ark, after having been out all day, I was surprised to hear from a lodger that two gentlemen had been there that afternoon to see me. After which another lodger came forward with the same information, and still another, until I was filled with curiosity to know who those gentlemen could be. "What did they look like?" I asked one. "Like solicitors," he answered. "What kind of looking men were they?" I asked of another. "Very much like lawyers," he answered at once. "Don't forget to remember yer old pals," chimed in another, "when yer come into the property." First I examined my mother's side of the family, and then my father's, but could find no relative, near or distant, at home or abroad, whose death would be likely to befriend me. At last I went to the office, but found this place closed, the Lieutenant being out walking, and the Captain not yet having arrived. Never in my life did I have such an excitable half hour as this. When I saw the Captain coming forward, smiling, with an envelope in his hand, I went to meet him, and, taking the letter in my own hand, began to examine its outside. "Of course," said the Captain, "You know who it is from?" "Not the least idea," I said, "how should I?", and proceeded to open it. It was a short note, with a request that I should call on the Charity Organisation, between the hours of ten and eleven a.m. on the day following. The Captain went back to his office, and I sat down, thinking of what this would amount to. Again I decided to consult the Canadian, the lodger who had first mentioned to me the Surgical Aid Society. "As to that," said this man, "it's a wonder to me that you have not run foul of these people before now. My friend, who sells papers in the city, was continually meddled and interfered with by these people, but they gave him no assistance, although they seemed curious to know all about him." This information surprised me not a little, but I came to the conclusion that the Canadian's friend was addicted to drink and other bad habits, and was an undeserving case.

The next morning I arose, lighthearted in anticipation of hearing something to my good, and was leaving the house when I saw the Captain standing at the front door. Feeling some misgiving, I turned to this gentleman and asked him point blank - what was his opinion of the Charity Organisation. "Well," he replied slowly, "to give you my candid opinion - although I may be mistaken - the object of the Charity Organisation is not so much to give alms, as to prevent alms being wasted." How I remembered these words in the light of my after experience with these people!

At ten o'clock punctually, I was at their office in the Borough Road, and was at once shown into a side room, where I sat waiting patiently, for an hour. At last a gentleman in black came forward, saying, very politely "Mr. Davies, will you please come this way." I followed him up two or three flights of stairs, and we entered a quiet room on the top floor. Seating himself at a table, and taking pencil and paper, he then asked me to be seated and began. "Mr. Davies," he said, "I have received a letter from a lady who has become interested in your case, and wishes to better your conditions. So as to answer this lady, it is necessary to know something of yourself, for which reason I propose asking you a few questions, which, of course, you need not answer except you think proper." This he proceeded to do, at the same time making notes of my answers. After answering a dozen or more questions truthfully, dealing with particulars of my family, and my past life - he brought the case up to that time. ''Surely," he said, "you do not live on eight shillings a week. I should have thought that to be impossible." "As for that," I answered, "not only has that sum been sufficient for myself, but I have been able to make another an allowance of two shillings a week, but have not been able to do so since I applied to the Surgical Aid Society." "Now tell me what is the matter with that leg?" asked this gentleman. "I should have thought that it would last for another two years at least. Excuse me, did you get that through the Society?" "No," I said, "it cost me twelve pounds, ten shillings, when I could ill afford the money, but, unfortunately, I knew nothing then of the Surgical Aid Society." "The Society, no doubt, does a large amount of good," continued this gentleman, "but I don't altogether agree with their methods. You have written quite a number of letters?" he asked; "and I don't suppose any of the subscribers helped you with the postage, sending you a trifle to defray expenses^" At this point he made a long pause, and I began to tell him that all the help I had received was from a gentleman who, having no letters left to assist me with, had very considerately sent twelve stamps to help my correspondence. The Charity Organisa- tion showed much interest at this point of the conversation, and said that he thought quite a number of subscribers would have done the same. "As I have already said," he continued, "I don't altogether agree in the methods of the Surgical Aid Society; their cases are maintained too long without result, and allows too good an opportunity for writing begging letters." Not even now could I see the drift of this man's questions - that he suspected me of being an impostor, of writing begging letters. Yes, I, who was bitter at having to bear all this expense, and was grieved at having to withhold two shillings a week from one who was very poor, so that I might be enabled to do so. "How many letters do you now need?" he asked. "Two," I answered, "but I don't intend to be at any further expense in postage; I will take in what letters I have already received, and explain to the Surgical Aid Society the difficulty I have had in trying to obtain the requisite number." This ended our interview, and I went away satisfied that the Charity Organisation would come to my rescue in the near future. But I did not again hear from them for over two years, which will be explained in another chapter. How they answered the kind lady who had become interested in me, I cannot say, but it could not have been other than to my discredit.

The day following this interview, three letters were at the, office, all three coming by the first post. One of them contained a subscription letter, so that I now only lacked one of the required number. One of the other letters came from the Surgical Aid Society, saying that a subscriber had forwarded to them a letter to be entered to my account, and that if I would call at their office with the letters I then had, the Society would make up the number deficient. The required number was now made up, without having need to draw on the Society. I now took these letters to their office, and in a day or two received the article which had caused me so much bother in writing letter after letter, and such an expense in postage. By a sad irony, the worry and expense was by no means at an end, as I had expected. People were now returning from the continent, and other places where they had spent their summer holidays. Letters came to me daily from people returning home. Some of my own letters, which had been posted three, four, five and six weeks before, were now being considered, Several subscription letters came to hand - too late for use. Others wrote asking if I was still in need of assistance. I was now at as great an expense as ever, returning these subscription letters with thanks; and writing to others to tell them that I had now succeeded in obtaining the required number. Letters were still coming when I left the Ark for the country; and, it was told me afterwards, that a goodly number had come, been kept for a number of days, and returned during my absence.

I was more determined than ever to tramp the country until I was worth thirty pounds, for an offer had again been made by a publisher, during my stay at the Ark, and this offer was much the same as the other. Seeing that there was no other way of getting this amount than by hawking the country, I determined to set out as soon as possible. So, when my business with the Surgical Aid Society was at an end, I spent three or four shillings on laces, needles, pins, buttons, etc., and started with a light heart and not too heavy a load. The Canadian, who had had some experience in this kind of life, prophesied good results from it, adding that a man situated the same way as I was, need carry no other stock in trade than that which I had received from the Surgical Aid Society, and that success was assured, on that very account.