An Amateur Tramp in Devon - intro and part 1

Extract of story of 1912 walk from Plymouth to Exeter by journalist posing as a tramp and staying in workhouses. Transcribed by John Heal.


In 1912 a local journalist walked from Plymouth to Exeter, posing as an ordinary tramp, and staying in the casual wards of the Workhouses on route. His experiences were published in four parts: "A night in the Plymouth Tramp Ward, Plymouth to Tavistock; Tavistock to Okehampton; and Okehampton, Crediton and Exeter". The reader should remember that the articles were written over 100 years ago, so some of the language does not meet the politically correct standards of today. The first part is printed below and the others will follow on a regular basis.

Part 1 - A Night in Plymouth Tramp Ward

Standing in front of Plymouth Workhouse we were a forlorn crew, cold and depressed, but withal a note of humour ran quietly along the file. There were four typical navvies, swearing in a semi-jocular grumbling way – navvies not comprehend each other unless they swore; a few general labourers, apparently chiefly accustomed to farm work; a pedlar with little stock, but no “ready” cash; a sailor who had tramped from London, well shod and spruce, as seamen generally are; several unmistakable “mouchers” (beggars), who glanced shiftily at everyone; a hairy human derelict, who hummed and cursed away to himself; and quite a refined, well-spoken young fellow, clad in neat black clothes, with collar and tie. Between the latter youth and myself there appeared to rise a silent but sympathetic understanding, and at the first opportunity we quickly “chummed” together.

A smart uniformed well-groomed porter insisted on our stating the last port of call, age, occupation, and destination. I stated “Liskeard” as my last place, which was a half-truth, seeing that earlier in the week I had journeyed from that town, eighteen miles distant, in a comfortable train. My occupation was put down as “clerk”. We were then ushered into the spacious entrance hall and handed over to the tender oversight of the “tramp major”. Most Workhouses have their “tramp major” generally a privileged inmate who attends to and supervises the casual ward. I quickly betrayed my ignorance of the customary procedure. Before you enter you are required to leave all your loose articles in a bundle, to which a number is attached, and it is placed in a locker. I was compelled therefore to hurriedly disgorge the varied contents of my pockets and place them in a handkerchief. Of course, you are not supposed to have any money on you, and even if the officials espied any article that could easily be converted into cash, they would reject you. I, was really penniless pro tempore and a genuine candidate for the “spike”. We were then searched. When thumping one of my coat pockets the porter declared, “Hullo, you’ve a razor here, take it back.” It was a correct surmise. I had quite overlooked the razor, and had perforce to put it in my bundle.

“Tea was then served in the lounge,” that is the hall, and consisted of a hunk of dry bread, 8oz, and a large mug of tea - not bad tea either for an institution of that kind. To affluent people such a meal may seem repulsive, but let them undergo a 24 hours fast in a gale of wind, and the majority will, I imagine, eat almost anything, and at any rate I heartily relished the rations, and so did the others, judging from the rapid manner in which the food was devoured. 

The meal over, the major shouted :-“First six,” when amid hearty laughter half a dozen of the older hands, who knew the ropes, leaped with one bound, and as one man, to open the door. They were going to be bathed, and the advantage of going first was that they could select their bed places. I noticed afterwards that the first six had all secured pitches near the hot-water pipes in the large room that had been allocated to us for sleeping.  

A wait of twenty minutes and the remaining batch of casuals found themselves in a stuffy bathroom, where one found just room to turn. Here we were ordered to strip and get in the hot bath, which contained strong disinfectants. The arrangement cannot by any means be called satisfactory. There ought either to be a larger room, or an ante-room wherein to undress. Imagine a half a dozen stripped men floundering about in a small room, one waiting for his turn, or another drying himself. It is not decent, and the men themselves do not like it. I heard a navvy complain on it, not an otherwise particular kind of a chap, who asserted that a screen at least ought to be placed around the bath. Even tramps, which included some genuine decency. In some “grubbers” I observed that only one was allowed in the bathroom, notably at Okehampton – a much more desirable arrangement. The bath was soon over and, secretly I was glad that we had to undergo this cleansing procedure. It made one feel more comfortable and secure as to avoiding the introductions of any unwelcome parasites. As a matter of fact, contrary to the general opinion, the average tramp is a very clean fellow underneath his clothes. I have seen caricatures of alleged gentlemen of the road running away from a bath, and they certainly libel many of those who frequent the casual wards, for when there is no bath, as there ought to be at every Workhouse, there is considerable grumbling on the part of the men who are mostly fond of a bath, and who always like to wash their tired “tootsies”. It is generally the ragged clothing that makes the average tramp dirty and unkempt. To see him unrobed would give one, as it did me, an entirely different estimate of him.

We were not allowed to take away our clothing into the sleeping room, but were each given a long nightshirt. The room at Plymouth is not by any means an unsuitable one for the purpose. It is lofty and spacious, and ward – a good deal to be preferred to wandering about the streets at night, or in a desolate shelter on the sea front, and there are hammocks with a quilt and a couple of rugs for each man. None of the fellows at Plymouth, however, swing their hammocks but lay down on the floor. I have not yet discovered why the old hands do not take full advantage of the hammocks at the various “spikes,” for a swinging hammock is decidedly more comfortable than sleeping on a hard floor. Later on I swung a hammock at Exeter, and found it so pleasant, that I felt like kicking myself for not having done it before.

An ordinary oil lamp stood at the door between the bathroom and the large ward, and in the faint glimmer we had to arrange our bedding. The lamp was soon extinguished and the door locked upon us. Immediately several of the casuals drew forth short clay pipes and began to light up. Despite a vigorous and practically double search, they had managed to elude the vigilance of the officials. A search is known as a “touch.” At some places they do not “touch” one, but at Plymouth it is a thorough search, as was proved by the finding of my razor. Naturally the advent of the pipes created hilarious laughter at the craftiness of the artful ones. How they had smuggled their pipes through in this case I do not know, but such feats were general along the road I traversed. In one case, I was told, as old fellow carried his pipe in his long hair, and another, took his “baccy” concealed in his beard. Of course, little or no harm is done. Personally I envied the smokers, and if this should reach the eye of any Guardian, I trust no one will get into trouble especially the officials who were kind and considerate, yet just and dutiful. It is the men who have been in prison, and there are generally a few to be found in every casual ward, who are adroit in these species of jugglery. Most of these were rather proud than otherwise of having been in “quad” (prison) and vied with each other in yarning of their experiences.

A casual ward was not so bad after all, was my reflection. It was clean, comfortable, and warm, and despite the abnormal amount of swearing and other minor objectionable practices on the part of my co-sleepers, it was certainly very tolerable. Yarning was now the order. Begging experiences during the day were related; both genuine unemployed and the professional beg. They have to, unless they wish to subsist on two pieces of dry bread per diem, with an interval of twelve hours between. One navvy asserted that a constable had asked him if he had been begging. The reply was: “You know jolly well I have. How do you think I live?” No action was taken, but the navvy apparently would not have minded if he had been hauled up before the local Bench. Prison was better than being on the road in such weather, and no work in sight, was his sagacious conclusion. Another man related how he had gone to a door to beg, and it was opened by a policeman. Quite unabashed he pulled out his pipe and asked for a match. “A narrow shave,” remarked the policeman, as he laughingly gave the supplicant a Lucifer. If, however, he had searched him, several boxes of matches would have been found, for as the gentleman in question aptly explained; “I was well up in the department.” Then the ears of many police officers throughout the kingdom must have tingled, for the casuals began to dissect the qualities and characters of notorious men in blue. The “Hot uns” were dealt with recent police change discussed. Strangers were warned to beware of certain policemen, and occasionally told where they might find food. A little Welshman told how he had been detected asking for food by a police sergeant, who searching him found bread upon him. “What d’ye mean by begging when you already got some bread?” sternly chided the sergeant. “You know what the Bible says?” “Yes” quickly responded the Welshman “man cannot live on bread alone”.

The general yarning gradually subsided, being superseded by eloquent snoring on the part of those who slipped into slumberdom.

part 2       part 3      part 4