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



IT was a beautiful morning in September when I left the Ark with every prospect of fulfilling this mission. As I advanced towards the country, mile after mile, the sounds of commerce dying low, and the human race becoming more rare, I lost for the time being my vision of the future, being filled with the peace of present objects. I noted with joy the first green field after the park, the first bird that differed from the sparrow, the first stile in the hedge after the carved gate, and the first footpath across the wild common that was neither of gravel nor ash. I had something like nine shillings in my pocket, and I felt that business was out of the question as long as any of this remained. Reaching St. Albans on the first night, I walked through that town, and, making a pillow of my pack, lay down on the wild common. It seemed as though extra bodies of stars had been drafted that night into the heavens to guard and honour the coming of age of a beautiful moon. And this fine scene kept me awake for two or three hours, in spite of tired limbs. This seemed to me a glorious life, as long as summer lasted and one had money to buy food in the towns and villages through which he passed. For three or four days I walked and idled, standing on culverts and watching the water burst from darkness into light; listening to the birds; or looking at a distant spire that was high enough, and no more, to show that a quiet town was lying there under a thousand trees.

I reached Northampton, and it was in this town that I intended to start business on the following day, though I still had a few shillings left, having slept in the open air since leaving London. With this object I proceeded to examine my pack, with the intention of filling my pockets with the different wares, to draw them forth one or two at a time, as they would be needed. So, that night, previous to the great business that was to be transacted on the following day, I sought a quiet corner in the lodging house, and began to unroll my paper parcel. As I proceeded to do this, it seemed to me that the inner part of the parcel was damp, and then I remembered the two or three heavy showers that we had on the second day of my travels. On a further examination I discovered, to my horror, that the goods were entirely unfit for sale; that the parcel had been so bent and misshapen one way and the other, during my night's repose, that the needles had cut through their rotten packets, and were stuck in the pin papers, and that a great number of pins had concealed their whole bodies in the needle packets, showing plainly the guilty tops of their heads. The laces were twisted and turned, and their tags were already rusted. This was a great blow to me, as there seemed nothing else to do but send home for the few shillings that had now become due. But on second thoughts I made up my mind to travel without stock of any kind, not doubting but what I would rise to the emergency after the last penny had been expended, and I was under the force of necessity. Thinking Northampton too large a town in which to starve, I determined to remain here until my funds were exhausted, when desperation would urge me to action. With this idea I took life very easily for a couple more days, even inviting poverty by being unusually extravagant, going to the extreme of buying milk for my tea. But when I became reduced to the last sixpence, I decided to make all speed to Birmingham, as the resources of that city, it being so much larger, would be a better place to serve my wants.

Starting on this journey, without any more delay, I was soon going into the town of Rugby, tired, penniless, and hungry. What was I to do? Something had to be done, and that at once. I had to face the horrible truth that I was now on the verge of starvation. Whilst busy with these unpleasant thoughts, I heard a voice shout to me from the roadside, and, looking in that direction, saw a man sitting in the grass, eating from a paper parcel, which was half spread before him. On going over to see what this man wanted, I found an apparently tall man and large in proportion, who was dressed in seedy looking clothes, which were torn and patched in a good many places. In fact, something seemed to have been gnawing night after night at the bottom of his trousers, taking advantage of him in his sleep, for these hung in tatters and rags just below the calves of his leg. The man had a freckled face, which was almost lost in an abundance of red hair, and his head was as thick with the same. What helped to make his appearance strange, and perhaps ridiculous, was a schoolboy's small cap to cover the crown of such a large head. 'Have a mouthful of this,' he said, inviting me to partake of some bread and meat. 'It is dry eating, I must say, but, as we go into Rugby, we can wash it down with a pint or two of beer.' I thanked him for his kindness, and, accepting his invitation, seated myself on the grass. 'What's in your bundle,' he asked, looking askance at a small brown paper parcel, which contained a clean shirt, socks and a handkerchief, 'are you selling anything?' I explained to him that I was a licensed hawker, but had not yet been long enough at the business to make a success of it. 'What,' he cried with some surprise, 'a one legged man not to be successful? I get all I want byjust opening of my mouth,' although he added with some scorn, 'I know that some people cannot beg unless they have something in their hands to sell. But if you travel with me, all you will have to do is to pick up the coppers.'

After I had finished eating, he proposed to set off immediately; and, as we walked leisurely along, I wondered how it was possible for a big healthy fellow like this to be able to exist in any other manner than by selling. On coming to the first public house he politely invited me to enter, which I did, when he called for two pints of beer. He then became communicative, telling me he was a gridler, and a good one too; which I understood to mean a grinder, although I had not seen tools of any description either in his hands or in his pockets. He paid for two or three pints of beer in quick succession, and, not having had much drink for a considerable time, I began to feel somewhat elated, and began to make a laughing joke of my circumstances. 'Now,' said this man, 'to business; for we must get the price of our beds and a little breakfast for the morning, not to mention the night's supper. All you have to do,' he said again, 'is to pick up the coppers as they come.' Wondering what these words could mean, I followed him, on this pleasant afternoon, up several side streets, until we came to the end of one very long street, which had respectable looking houses on either side of the road. My strange companion walked several yards down this street, and then came to a sudden halt in the middle of the road. 'Now,' said he, for the third or fourth time, 'all you have to do is to pick up the coppers. I ask you to do no more; except,' he added, grinning rather unpleasantly, 'except to see that we are not picked up by the coppers.' His joke appeared simple enough, and I could not fail to understand it, but it was not at all to my relish. The last named coppers were police officers, who would be likely to take-hold of us for illegally appropriating the copper coins of the realm. 'Are you going to pick up the coppers?' he asked a little impatiently, seeing me standing irresolute and undecided as to what to do. Scarcely knowing how to answer him, I said that if I saw any coppers he need have no fear but what I would pick them up. 'All right, that's good,' he said, at the same time moving several feet away from me. I stood still watching these mysterious movements, and thinking of the coppers, wondering from what source they would be supplied. He now turned his back, without more ado, and, setting his eyes on the front windows before him, began, to my amazement, to sing a well-known hymn, singing it in the most horrible and lifeless voice I have ever heard. In spite of the drink, which had now taken effect, making my head swell with stupidity, I still felt an overwhelming shame at finding myself in this position. I stood irresolute, not knowing whether to wait the result of this, or to leave him at once with short ceremony. But, whilst ruminating in this frame of mind, I heard a window open with a loud creak, saw the shaking of a fair hand, and then heard a copper coin fall on the hard earth within a yard of where I stood. Being penniless I was nothing loth to take possession of this coin, and had scarcely done so, when a front door opened on the other side of the street, and a fat florid old gentleman appeared and beckoned me across to him. Going immediately to this gentleman, I received twopence and, after thanking him, joined my companion in the road. Now, as I belong to a race of people that are ever prone to song, whether it be in a public house or a prayer meeting, it will not surprise many to know that ere long I was making strong attempts to sing bass to this man's miserable treble, and only ceased to do so when it became necessary to stoop and pick up the coppers, which continued to come in at the rate of two to the minute. The effect of my voice on my companion was immediately apparent. His limbs shook, his knees bent and knocked together, and his voice quivered and quavered with a strong emotion. He was now singing another well-known hymn, better known perhaps than the last; and what with his tall form bent double to half its height, and the wringing of his hands in despair-a poor wretch who was apparently broken both in body and spirit-he was, at this particular stage, the most miserable looking mortal I have ever beheld. He was in this old man's broken attitude when, to my surprise, he suddenly straightened his great body, and gazed about one second down the street. After which he quickly turned on his heels, saying, in short peremptory tones-'Quick march,' at the same time suiting the action to the words, in sharp military steps. What the people in their different windows, and on their doors, thought of this change, I cannot say. I looked down the street, and then saw that a police officer had just turned its far corner, and was coming slowly in our direction. My companion waited for me at our end of the street, where I joined him as soon as possible. 'It is getting harder every day for a poor man to get a living,' he said, when I stood beside him. 'Suppose you count the earnings,' he said. 'We work together well.' On doing this, I found twenty pennies to be in my possession, and, at his suggestion, we there and then shared them alike. 'Friend,' he began, 'before we commence again, let me give you a word or two of advice. First of all, you sing in too lusty a voice, as though you were well fed, and in good health. Secondly, you are in too much of a hurry to move on, and would get out of people's hearing before they have rime to be affected. Try to sing in a weaker voice: draw out the easy low notes to a greater length, and cut the difficult high notes short, as though you had spasms in the side. Your object is to save your voice as much as possible, indifferent to the demands of music, or the spirit of the song. When we start in another street,' he continued,-but at this admonitory point I cut him short, telling him that I had had enough of- eh- gridling. 'What, enough of chanting?' he cried in amaze. 'Why, my dear fellow, it is the best thing on the road, bar none. All right,' he said, seeing my determination not to make a fresh start, 'we will make our way to the lodging house: it is not far from here.'

We were soon comfortably settled in this place, and when, after having had a good tea, I was sitting smoking, and enjoying a newspaper, I felt more pleased than ashamed of what I had done; for I was going to bed with an easy stomach, and had coppers in my pocket for a good breakfast. Therefore, when a fellow lodger, a hawker, who was now taking an inventory of his wares, and who had probably seen and heard us singing that day, when following his own calling-when this man enquired of me if the town was good for gridlers, I answered him very pleasantly indeed, that there was nothing to complain of.

After breakfast, the next morning, my companion of the preceding day proposed putting in a good eight hours' work, but I at once cut him short saying that such a business was not in my line. Now, several women were at this place; some of them were married, and some single, and most of them made and sold fancy work of embroidery. After I had spoken so decisively to my companion he had sat near to one of these women, at the other end of the kitchen. This woman, who seemed to be the wife of a knife and scissors grinder, had a little girl of about seven years of age. 'Yes,' said this woman, in answer to some question my companion had made, 'you can have the kid all day; it's not the first time, by a long way, for Mary Ann to be used by gridlers, and she knows as well as you what's wanted of her.' Not long after this remark my companion and the woman's child left the kitchen together. This I, subsequently, often saw 'done. Almost any woman, if she called herself a true traveller, would lend her child for this purpose; the woman or child, of course, deriving some part of the profit: so that when a man is seen with one or more children, it is not. always to be granted that he is the father of them. These children are rarely subjected to ill usage-except that of enforced tramping-but are more often spoilt by indulgence, especially if they show early signs of that cunning which is needed for their future, and which is the boast of their parents.

What a merry lot of beggars were assembled here; and how busy they all seemed to be, making articles for sale, and washing and mending their clothes! two or three of them sitting shirtless during the process of drying.

It has become a common expression to say 'dirty tramp', or, 'as dirty as a tramp'; but this is not always true, except occasionally in the large cities; although such a term may be applied morally to them all. There is one species of tramp who wanders from workhouse to workhouse; and this man, having every night to conform strictly to the laws of cleanliness, is no less clean, and often cleaner, than a number of people whose houses contain bath rooms which they seldom use. Another species of tramp is proud of being a good beggar, who scorns the workhouse, but who knows well that a clean appearance is essential to his success. For this reason, anyone that enters a common lodging house can at once see what efforts are being made to this end. It seems strange to say, but the dirtiest looking tramp is often the most honest and respectable, for he has not the courage to beg either food or clothes, nor will he enter the doors of a workhouse. I have seen this so often the case that I would much prefer to believe a dirty ragged tramp who might tell me that he had a good home six months previous, than to believe his cleaner namesake, who seems so eager to impart this information unsolicited. It is certainly the man who has had a good home, and has been waited on by other hands, who soon succumbs to a filthy condition, when it becomes necessary to wait on himself by washing and patching his own clothes; and the higher his former position has been the lower he sinks in the social strata.

It is no difficult matter to get company when travelling. The pedlar, whom I have mentioned before, asked me if I was going towards Coventry, and if I intended to do business on the road. To this question I answered that such might be the case, but I could not say for sure-at the same time knowing that it was very unlikely. 'Come along then,' he said, 'and do business if you feel inclined; but, I warn you, it is a very poor road for a gridler.' We started at once, and, in the course of our journey I told him everything-my first experience of gridling and my dislike to it, and how my wares had been spoilt by the rain, which had prevented me, through having no stock, nor money to buy it, from earning my living in a respectable manner as a pedlar. 'Of course,' he said, 'you have a pedlar's certificate?' I answered him in the affirmative, and added that I had not earned one penny with it up to that moment.

As we jogged along talking in this way, we came to a small village, when the pedlar, stopping short, asked if I would like to help him to do a little trade. Knowing that something had to be done, as I had but twopence halfpenny in my pocket, I assured him that I would. Hearing this he took two bundles of laces from his pack, leather and mohair, and placed them in my hands, at the same time saying-'You work on one side of the village and I'll attend to the other.' I passed several houses before I had the courage to knock at their doors, but seeing him go calmly from door to door, I nerved myself to follow his example, and was soon doing the same, and, as far as I could see, was meeting with more success. This so encouraged me that I was soon regretting that I had no more houses left on my side of the village. But, instead of waiting patiently until he had done, I took a desperate notion and went back to the houses which I had at first passed. After this we jogged on towards Coventry, which we reached that evening.

We worked Coventry together for four or five days, and the result was nine shillings and some odd pence in my pocket. This pedlar was going to spend a week or two with a brother in Birmingham, whom he had not seen for a number of years. But, before we left Coventry, he persuaded me to stock myself with three shillings' worth of stuff, and, said he, 'never let a day pass you without doing some business, however little; and never allow your stock to get low.' We reached Birmingham, and, after he had shown and recommended a lodging house, he wished me good-bye, with many hopes that we might meet again.

As usual, my first enquiry, after I had settled for my lodgings, was for the public library. This place I found so much to my liking, what with its variety of journals, its number of papers, and so much comfort and accommodation for its visitors-that business was entirely out of the question until the third day, when I woke to the awkward fact that my last three coppers were then being spent on a meal. At this I made up my mind to hawk on the outskirts of Birmingham for a month or more, so that my evenings might be enjoyed in its library. But, apparently, I was not cut out for this kind of business. Hawking required a perseverance which I certainly did not possess. For when a person declined to make a purchase, instead of crying up the cheapness of my wares, I walked away dumbfounded to the next house. Yes, the success or ill success of this buying and selling was all a simple matter of tongue. A big able-bodied fellow, with a persistent tongue, can talk charity out of the people who indifferently pass the silent blind man. Of course this business of hawking with a few cheap laces and a few packets of common pins or needles, was after all only another name for begging, and it was well for us that the people knew it, for they often paid for what they declined to receive. They knew that these things were to be had much cheaper at a store. In exoneration of this fraudulent selling, a man was expected to tell some tale of distress. This I found difficulty in doing, except on being asked direct questions; and the people would often stand after refusing to purchase with their hands in their pockets ready to assist on the first confession of distress. The number of times people have called me back, after I have left their doors, and assisted nie, has often proved to me how they had waited to have their first feelings of pity strengthened by some recital' of poverty. No doubt there was some sort of living to be made in this way, providing a man talked incessantly and went for hours from house to house, and from street to street; and when he failed in the line of business to plead for the sake of charity. It must have been over two hours and my takings had amounted to ninepence, nearly all profit I admit. Looking at this paltry amount I now reversed my former opinion as to the resources of a large city, and came to the conclusion that the small country towns and villages were after all more willing, if not better able to support me. Therefore, instead of returning to the city I took the road towards Warwick, intending when I reached that town to use my tongue to some purpose. And how many houses have I visited with this same resolution, but, alas, many of the towns were passed through without anyone hearing the sound of my voice.