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



I DON'T know what it is that has always attracted me to ill-dressed people and squalid places. The man that interests me is not the one dressed in the height of fashion, but the bearded man who is wearing three common, dirty sacks; one wrapped and tied around each foot, and the other used as a shawl around his neck.

The very first time that I left home, and went to work at Bristol, I soon found my way into the worst quarters of that city. At that time I had little knowledge of life, and I was served a nice little trick, which is so plain to me in these days, but which I was then too innocent to see through. I was in a place called " The Pity," perhaps the worst slum in Bristol, and seeing a low, dirty-looking tavern, I made up my mind to see the inside of it. I had very little fear, but being too well dressed for that neighbourhood, I felt rather shy when I entered and found the place occupied by three slatternly women. However, I gave the landlord my order and was served with every politeness. While I stood at the bar, I could not help noticing that the three women began to whisper, and that the landlord had gone into a back room. In spite of his absence, I stood quite unconcerned until I became conscious that the three women were silent. This silence continued so long that I became unnerved, and could not help looking at them to see what they were doing. When I turned my head, I saw that the three of them were looking straight at me, and this made me more confused. At last the first woman said, looking from me to one of her friends, " The very image! I can see the likeness." And then the second woman said, with emphasis, " Mary Price, it is your son! " Hearing this the third woman struggled to her feet and made a rush towards me. Before I could utter a word her two arms were around my neck, and she was crying in a shrill voice, "My son! my son! my son! " After much difficulty I got free, and then began to tell her that she was mistaken, and that my mother was not only alive, but that I had only just left her. I had much sympathy with the poor woman in her disappointment, and paid for a drink for her and her companions. But they still persisted in saying that I was so much like Mary Price that it was very strange if we were not mother and son. Hearing them continue in this way alarmed me; for in my innocence I thought she would call a policeman, and the latter would have power to make me go home with her. Thinking of this I prepared to leave, but had scarcely made one step before one of the women - the first that had spoken - stood between me and the door. " Ah," she said, " this poor woman is in trouble. If she fails to get five shillings before twelve o'clock, for her rent, she will be turned out, and have no home at all. We thought you were her son, who has been lost for eight years. Now, be a son to this poor woman, and God bless you!" I lost no time in giving her the five shillings, and felt glad to escape at such a price. These women were more likely to be slum dwellers than wandering beggars - too poor to be able to buy drink, but full of artful tricks to get it.

It was at this time that I had my first experience of a common lodging-house. I met a strange man in the street, and inquired of him as to where I could get cheap lodgings. Now, I had a pound or more in my pocket, and seeing that I had work to go to on the following day, there was no necessity for going into very cheap lodgings. But knowing that the man was a complete stranger to me, I, after paying for a drink for him, came to the conclusion that he ought not to be trusted too much, and therefore told him that I had very little money. In this I did wrong, for, according to my after experience of him, he was an honest working-man, who was then out on strike and receiving strike pay. Naturally the man thought I was almost penniless, so, leading me farther into the slums, he entered a dark, dirty-looking old door, without knocking, and I then found myself in a common lodging-house kitchen, where a number of ragged men and women were seated on forms. The landlady came forward at once, and my new friend had a few minutes' quiet conversation with her and then left, telling me that I would be all right. No doubt it was through his introduction that I was treated with great respect and no one tried to rob me. I stayed in that common lodging-house for over a week, and then the dock labourer, who lived near, asked me if I would like to lodge at his house, to which I moved that very night.

At this time I had no notion and no interest as to how my fellow-lodgers lived, but I was soon to be enlightened. For after I had settled with the old dock labourer, and had made a number of friends in young mechanics, whom I would meet at night in various taverns - it was then I would be confronted by the inmates of that lodging-house. While we would be seated, drinking and smoking, all well-dressed young mechanics, one of these ragged men would enter with laces or studs, sometimes with nothing, and beg of us. I need hardly say that they knew me at once, but would show no recognition, except that they would approach me first to set an example in charity. One night an old man named Harrigan came into a place where I was, and seeing me there, came forward at once. So I took off my hat and made a collection for him, and he left, giving me a knowing wink. Of course, my companions had no idea that I knew the man. But this happened so often, for all these rascals remembered me, that I have often been surprised that my companions did not guess that I had some personal knowledge of these ragged men. It would never occur to them, seeing me there, looking so young and fresh and neatly dressed, that I had ever entered a common lodging-house and mixed with such men as those.

That common lodging-house had the usual strange characters, pathetic and humorous, although I was only there a few days and was too young to study them. But I remember well one man, who was a terrible drunkard, and yet every night saved one halfpenny for a clean paper collar. Before my arrival he was the only man in the house that wore a collar, all the others wore scarves. Although he could not afford blacking for his boots, or a halfpenny for a pair of laces or a piece of soap to wash himself, he must have a clean paper collar every morning. This man was supposed to be a great scholar, and he made a few pennies every day by writing letters for people that could not read and write, or were poor at it. Every once now and then he used to be visited by a fine lady, and it was always noticed that he drank heavily for a week after, and was free with money. The landlady could get no information from him, but told me that she believed the lady was his mother, for they looked very much alike; and that the son had been cast adrift by the father; and that the mother, more forgiving, paid these visits without his knowledge. No doubt this was so, for I have known quite a number of cases of this kind; of sisters or mothers quietly assisting brothers or sons that have gone wrong and been banished from the thoughts of the male part of a family.