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



YES, I returned to London, and to my surprise, began to look forward with pleasure to be again frequenting the old haunts for which, when leaving I had felt so much disgust. This feeling seems to be natural; that I felt inclined to see familiar faces, al- though they were red and blotchy with drink; to hear familiar voices, however foul their language might be. Therefore, On the first night of my return wonder not when I say that I was sitting comfortably in the Ark, as though I had not slept one night away. I looked in vain for my old friend the Canadian. Many recognised and spoke to me. One in particular, a toy seller, who was curious to know where I had been. Seeing that he suspected that I had been incarcerated in a jail, I told him something of my wanderings, and ended by making enquiries of him as to the whereabouts of the Canadian. Of this man he knew nothing, but gave information that 'Cronje,' the fish porter, another of my acquaintances, was staying at the Farmhouse, and no doubt would be glad to see me, he having been at the Ark to enquire of me during my absence. Of course it was not my intention to stay long at the Ark, so I at once made my way to the Farmhouse, to see 'Cronje,' where I found him.

The Farmhouse is very particular about taking in strangers, which certainly makes it a more desirable place than others of its kind; but, at 'Cronje's' recommendation, I was without much ceremony accepted as a lodger. This man, nicknamed 'Cronje,' who had been for a number of years in Australia, and had so many wonderful anecdotes to relate, was a sharp little man, the very image of a Jew in features, but fair, red, always happy and laughing, for a contradiction. He was clean in his habits, extremely generous to the poorer lodgers, and was well liked by all. It is true that many considered him to be a liar; but no man contradicted him, for no man was capable of talking him down. In his early days he had had a phenomenal voice, which he claimed to have lost through auctioneering. As a rower he had defeated all corners on the river Murrumbidgee, and had publicly disgraced the champion of Wagga Wagga at billiards. On seeing a man taking a hair out of his food, Cronje declaimed On the danger of swallowing this, relating how his friend Skinner of Australia-who had taken down all the best fencers of Europe-had swallowed a single hair which, taking root in his stomach, had grown to such a length that it had killed him before an operation could be performed. Again: hearing some one mention the names of two famous singers, one a tenor and the other a basso, Cronje, eager to create wonder, said that it was a most remarkable case that the tenor had at first become famous as a basso, and that the basso had at first received recognition as a tenor, and that each man's voice had changed after he had become famous.

What a strange house was this, so full of quaint characters. Some of these men had been here for fifteen, and twenty years. 'Haymaker' George was here, and had been here for some time; for he claimed to have gone haymaking from this very house, when he first came here; going and returning daily without the assistance of trains, buses or cars.

'Salvation' Jimmy was here; who had been so emotional that he had been desired as an acquisition to the Salvation Army, which he had joined, and donned the redjersey. At last the poor fellow had become so very emotional, probably influenced by such stirring music and the ready hallelujah of the members, that really, his frequent laughter, his fervent cries and his down-on the-knees-and-up-in-a-trice, had provoked so many smiles and sarcastic remarks from his audience, that not only was he not promoted to rank from a private, but was discharged the service altogether. Even to this day, he knew no reason for his dismissal. He was mad enough now, in these latter days, laughing, dancing and singing up and down the Farmhouse kitchen, so that I can imagine the effect on his nerves when marching to the sound of loud music, under the spread of a blood red banner. Even now, in these days, he drew every one's attention to his eccentric behaviour, so that what must he have been then?

I soon knew them all by name, that is, by their nick names, by which most of them preferred to be known. It was very interesting to hear, morning after morning, 'Fishy Fat' and John- the latter being in the last stages of consumption, and poor fellow peevish withal-sit down to breakfast and to abolish the House of Lords. It was often a surprise to me to see this noble edifice still standing, after hearing it abolished in such fierce language, and in terms of such scathing reproach. Strangely, these men had very little to say during the day; and did one get up earlier than the other in the morning, he would stand silent with his back to the fire, or pace quietly up and down the kitchen waiting the appearance of his friend. When one saw the other preparing breakfast, he would at once follow his example and when everything was ready, both would seat themselves opposite each other at the same table. Up till this time nothing would have been said, until each had tasted and sugared his tea to his own liking. After this being done, one would suddenly ejaculate a sentence of this kind 'Smother them lazy rotters in the h'upper 'ouse, the bleeding liars.' In accordance with that remark, the other would immediately answer-'Perish 'em all.' And then would follow oath after oath of the blackest character, and daring coldblooded designs that would have gladdened the heart of Guy Fawkes.

Brown was also here, and always in a state of wonder. He had very little faith in print, and every hour things happened which made him- to use his own words- 'know not what or what not to believe.' He presumed that the laity was a certain kind of religious sect, but to him they all seemed without difference. The only difference he could see between a vicar and a curate was that one had a larger corporation and a redder nose than the other. Brown, who was a simple, kind-hearted fellow, said that we were all born of woman; that we were born and that we must all die; that it was a great pity, and made his heart bleed, to see a man come down in life after he has been high up; and that we had to face a cruel fact-although it was almost beyond belief that a man's own relations often caused the man's downfall which, with his own eyes, he had seen done.

'Gambling' Fred was here, looking over the daily paper with 'Red Nosed Scotty.' They are both short sighted, and, un- fortunately, have but one pair of spectacles between them, which is now being used by 'Scotty.' Suddenly the red nosed man sees the name of a horse. 'There you are,' he cries exultingly; 'there's a sure winner.' 'Where?' asks his fellow gambler, taking the spectacles and adjusting them on his own nose. 'How can I show you now?' asks the red nosed gambler, in a fretful voice, 'haven't you got the specs on?' At last matters are arranged to the satisfaction of both, and Fred approaches his friend 'Yanks' for the loan of sixpence, to back his horse. But 'Yanks' unceremoniously tells his friend to go to hell. At this the gambler sulks all the evening and unfortunately the next day his favoured horse wins. On this transaction the gambler would have been ten shillings in pocket. After this another horse won, which Fred, in his penniless state, professes to have favoured. He would have backed this horse with the ten shillings won from the other race, and would now have been five pounds in pocket. 'Yes,' says the gambler, pointing to his friend 'Yanks'-'that man has done me out of many a golden pound.'

Poor old 'Scotty' Bill was here, a seller of fly papers; who disturbed the kitchen all day, because of the scarcity of flies, as though the lodgers were to blame. 'We are having damn strange summers of late years,' he said, 'different from my younger days; for there is now scarcely a fly to be seen.'

Here dwelt 'Hoppy' the bootblack, who had a rival in business on the opposite corner. He was certainly the dirtiest man I have ever seen going in and out of a house, but he earned good money, and often came home drunk to this lodging house in a cab, causing a great sensation among the poorer lodgers. His rival did less trade, and could afford to do less, a lodger remarked, seeing that his mother kept a flourishing cats' meat shop. When I have passed near these rival bootblacks, I have often wondered how the thousands of people walked daily between them without being singed, not to mention scorched, by their baneful glances, which were fired at each other across the way.

Here too had 'Irish' Tim come; a very small man with a sarcastic tongue; an out-of-date printer broken On the wheels of new machinery. Did you not want to be subjected to the ridicule of the kitchen it was necessary when expressing an opinion, to look this man straight and sternly in the face, and to speak with the utmost deliberation. He always sat at the same table, and in the same seat, if not already occupied; and his particular table was known as the House of Parliament, owing to the number of arguments conducted there, of which he was the leader. He passed judgment on public men, and although he rarely had a good word for any one, I must say, to Tim's credit, that he never lost an opportunity to stroke the cat. I believe Tim had just a little friendly feeling for simple, eccentric and impulsive Bob; whom he could scorn and contradict without being threatened or bullied in return. Bob was an idealist, a dreamer with a strong imagination; and it was Tim's delight to beat this dreamer back to the thorny paths of his daily life, speaking in the name of common sense.

Bob was full of the wonders of Nature, marvelled much at the undertakings of men, to make railways to cross mountains and bridges to span canyons; and was deeply interested in the early growth of things, ere they were manufactured into a form that every person could recognise. He was a most brilliant conversationalist, and was interestingly dramatic in his readings. He was a good companion for others, but, as I soon discovered to my disappointment, seldom had a comfortable moment when alone with himself. I had a small bedroom to myself, and unfortunately the near cubicle to mine was Bob's. Bob who, probably five minutes before, had been in the kitchen laughing, or reading with childish delight of the gorgeous pageantry of a coming play or a pantomime, or had been seriously wondering at some new discovery, would scarcely set foot in his own quiet room ere he was clutched by a devil. I have become accustomed to foul language from one man to another, but his bold way of di.rectly addressing his blasphemy to his Maker, stiffened the laughter on my lips, and shocked me, in spite of an indifferent faith. This unusually clever man-a genius, if this world ever had one-disappointed at his circumstances, after an indulgence of his ideal, would sit On his bed and try to throttle himself night after night; and then would smother his face in his bed clothes, and invariably end his mad fit by sobbing. When he reached this pitiful state, this simple, impulsive and childlike man, I felt like standing to his side, before the Outraged face of his Maker, so great was my pity for him.

Many others were here, whom I was to become better acquainted with-such as the 'Major,' 'Australian' Bill, 'Never Sweet,' 'Cinders,' and 'The Snob,' who was sent to prison so often through having an over-liking for other people's pockets; and who, when questioned as to his absence, always said he had been to see his youngest brother. All of these were here, with many others of note.

For the 'Blacksmith' was here, who, every time he saw me preparing to go out, thought I must be On a begging expedition, and he trusted that I would find the ladies kindly disposed. On thanking him for this kind wish, he confided his intention of visiting Deptford, saying that he had given that part of the city a long rest.

'Boozy' Bob was here, 'Drunken Dave' and 'Brummy Tom'; three small men with a large capacity for taking ale. All these men were quiet or at least not objectionable, and none of them could disturb me in my room. The sleep of the house was disturbed more from without than from any cause within. Cats -by day the most docile of God's creatures, every one of them in the night enlisting under the devil's banner-took the place by storm after the human voice had ceased. But perhaps the one who accounted for more than two thirds of my sleepless nights, was a woman, an outsider living in an adjacent block. It was her custom to come home drunk early in the morning, singing and swearing. 'Little Punch,' a sickly consumptive, who had lived in this neighbourhood of Southwark all his life, had no difficulty in recognising the voice of Mrs. Kelly. So whenever I enquired as to the origin of a disturbance, the name of Mrs. Kelly was the beginning and the end of it. Mrs. Kelly was not satisfied with a single fight; she occasionally instigated a riot. On the night of that memorable day when Southwark, and in particular the Borough, was visited by royalty, this was the lady that murdered sleep. The police always appeared tolerant with her, and more so on this occasion. As a general rule it is people that live in private houses who have to complain of the presence of a common lodging house, of being disturbed by its low-class inmates; but this lodging house, with beds for nearly two hundred men, was kept as quiet as a large mansion with its one small family and half a score of servants. In its kitchen was a continual din up till twelve o'clock at night; but this did not disturb the sleepers in other parts of the house. Seldom would a loud voice be heard inside; but it was nothing unusual to hear at night the fighting and swearing of men and women, and the screaming of children. This could be expected without fail on Saturday nights and the close of holidays. These horrible and inhuman cries so affected me On one Saturday evening, when, for the sake of the study, I had retired early to bed, that I could neither think, sleep nor lie quiet, and felt compelled to get up and return to the kitchen. This I did, and found thirty or forty men assembled there, most of them more or less drunk, but none of them appeared quarrelsome. Of course it was impossible to sit long here before I was surrounded by them; and sat fearing to breathe deep enough to inhale the fumes of drink which came from both their mouths and their clothes; and being in good favour with these hopeless fellows, was continually invited good naturedly to shake hands with them. Instead of going back to my room, I left the place and entered a public house for the first time in three months. 'Brummy' Tom was there, with another fish porter of his acquaintance. 'Have a drink with me,' he said, 'I have often thought to ask you, but thought you were a teetotaller and would refuse.' '"Brumm"' I said, rather bitterly, 'a teetotaller who lives in a common lodging house is to be heartily despised, for he shows himself to be satisfied with his conditions.' With 'Brummy' Tom and his friend for companions, I took a number of long sleeping draughts, and just after twelve o'clock that night was fast asleep in bed. The following morning some of the lodgers were telling of murder cries heard just after midnight, but I praised the power of Bacchus that I had not heard them.

It was always a mystery to me that these men respected me and never failed in civility in their dealings with me, for I did everything that these men dislike. I wore a white collar, which they at once take to be a challenge that you are their superior. Few other men in the house, except they were fighting men, could have produced a toothbrush without being sneered at. True it induced Brown to ask the question whether I felt any actual benefit from cleaning my teeth; that he had heard so many different opinions that he did not know what or what not to believe; saying that he had often watched me, and wondered at so unusual a custom. They all detested the 'Masher,' because he was earning more than a pound a week on a good paper stand, and was also in receipt of a good pension; and they all cried shame on him for living in a common lodging house. This man, to my discomfort, showed so much inclination to confide in me, pointing out the different lodgers who owed him money, and calling them low vagabonds and ungrateful scamps, in a voice that was not meant to be a whisper, that I was almost afraid of losing their good will in listening to such words, without saying something on their be-. half Again I was almost a teetotaller, and that was the worst charge of all. In spite of all this, I do not believe that I made one enemy, and am certain that I never received other than kindness and civility from the lodgers of the Farmhouse.