Extract of story of 1912 walk from Plymouth to Exeter by journalist posing as tramp, staying in workhouses. Presented by John Heal. Part 2 of 4.
An Amateur Tramp in Devon - Part 2 of 4
Plymouth - Tavistock
In Part 1 of this story we left the journalist in the “casual ward” of the Plymouth Workhouse after lights out. I remind the reader again that some of the language and opinions in this article do not conform with modern day thinking.
The general yarning gradually subsided, being superseded by eloquent snoring on the part of those who had slipped into slumberdom. The respectable youth, I had met when we were waiting to be admitted to the Workhouse earlier in the evening, next to whom I was quartered, then related to me his pathetic story. He was only 19 years of age, and had lost both parents. His father had been in charge of the testing grounds of one of our largest seed merchants, being a member of the Royal Horticultural Society and a well-known judge at various shows. He had also been engaged as head gardener to various eminent folk. He (the son) had been well ground in horticulture, and had received good education, including a fair musical training. He was certainly a well-spoken young fellow, and had a refined type of countenance, which hardly harmonised with his present surroundings. Well, he secured a comparatively lucrative post as assistant gardener on the Devonshire estate of a well-known banker, and with half a dozen other jokers spent several happy years in a commodious “bothy” on the estate, and probably thought little of the future. His father died – a severe blow – and then the employer did likewise. The widow decided to sell or let the estate, and dismissed nearly all of the employees. With no relatives to turn to, our friend while endeavouring to gain another berth, had to live on what little he had saved. A few weeks later he was destitute and quite homeless. He wandered about the streets with practically no food for four days, sleeping in outhouses at night. His hunger became so maddening that he was obliged to beg. Asking an old lady for a little food, he was taken in and given a good meal and sixpence. This success encouraged him and he ventured to make other appeals, most of which were fruitful, people evidently sympathising with so young, refined, and well-dressed young man. He then took “to the road” and had spent some six weeks thereon. He called at every likely place to inquire for a job, but had only once secured any work. That was just before Christmas, when he called at the lodge of a large house. A little food was given him, and he had gone about a couple of miles further along the road, when a cyclist overtook him, and asked him if he were the individual who had been given some food, &c. Our friend evaded the query, thinking the man might be a policeman or an ally of one. The man however, soon proved his friendliness. He was taken back, given a substantial meal after which the man, who was the gardener, took him to the “lady of the house” and prevailed upon her to give him a job. The work lasted for a fortnight, our friend receiving 2s (5p) a day, while the kind hearted gardener paid for his lodgings. His term was up at Christmas, but the generous gardener and his wife apparently could not turn the young fellow away on the verge of the festive season, so they took him away to Paignton, where he spent a very jolly Yuletide. Further they gave him a pair of good boots and a shirt, and sent him on his way rejoicing, and when I met him he had exhausted his funds, and had been compelled to go “on the road” gain. On telling him of my intentions, he decided to walk along with me, and a fine young fellow he was. He was full of resource, pluck, energy, cheerfulness, and confidence, and it appeared lamentable that he should be rusting on the roads.
I awoke quite refreshed and agile. Shortly after dawn – then at eight o’clock – we were permitted to bring our clothing into the room and dress. Then hot sweetened coffee was served along with the inevitable hunk of dry bread. Half of the latter I placed in my pocket for a mid-day snack, and several others did likewise. It being Sunday, no task was given, and at about ten o’clock a score of variegated “vagrants” could have been observed sneaking out of the workhouse gates, sauntering off in different directions.
Dirty boots and an unshaven face, made one imagine that respectable citizens were scrutinising me with contempt, and in company with the young horticulturalist, I was glad to hurriedly escape out of a town which contained several esteemed friends. At Crownhill pipes were lighted. We set out to leisurely trudge to Tavistock. We were already hungry and reserved rations which only slightly appeased the clamour from within. Almost within sight of Yelverton my friend announced with determination that he was going to secure some food, and in a trice had disappeared through the gates leading to a large house. In a few minutes he returned smiling with a bag containing an apple pasty and a profusion of cakes, which had been given him by an old lady and her daughter. How we blessed those good people, and relished the excellent things handed us. Still, we were hungry, and at Yelverton my cheerful companion secured a large piece of buttered bread. Even yet our cravings were not satisfied, the moorland air being biting and keen. Just as we dipped into Horrrabridge, the enterprising youth, who was worthy of better things tapped at the door of a pretty cottage. The maid announced with a sorrowful air that she was not allowed to give anything, as her mistress was out. At the crucial moment, however, a motor car drove up, and there alighted the missing mistress – a kindly, handsome lady, who on being approached by the servant, smilingly went indoors, returning a moment later with an ample supply of bread and cheese, two warm mince pies, and an apple and orange, which she gracefully handed to the grateful supplicant. The thoughtful arrangement of this three-course fare (contained in a clean paper bag), and the cordial manner of the donor, greatly delighted the recipients, one of whom, at least, will always cherish a remembrance of the generous act. In the meantime, I had been patrolling outside, feeling somewhat alarmed at the belated appearance of my newly found “chum,” for, observing telephone wires were attached to the house, I had an idea the police might have been communicated with. The inner man no longer yearned when the triple fare had been consumed, and the remainder of the march to Tavistock was uneventful.
Being ashamed of my unkempt appearance, we sat on a little bridge outside the town, and when nearly dusk made for the police station where casuals have to obtain tickets from the police before they are admitted to the “spike.” A genial, smart police sergeant greeted us with a “Good afternoon, sir,” somewhat disconcerting in view od the nature of our mission – but to his credit when our request was made the officer still maintained his courteous demeanour. “It is a little early yet, “he remarked, “but if you’ll go straight to the Workhouse you can have tickets.” Apparently this concession was won by our comparatively respectable appearance. On the ticket I observed that the time of our departure was noted, without a view, one would imagine, of ascertaining whether the recipient loitered or not, and really with a view of preventing begging. At the Workhouse, too, the porter appeared surprised at our early appearance. It was not five o’clock, and the usual reception hour was six. He must easily divined that we were not accustomed “to the road” for no one short of a maniac would have ventured into that cold, repulsive den at Tavistock a minute before he was obliged to. Indeed a seasoned hand would not have gone to Tavistock at all, and as we afterwards discovered, men frequently took wide detours to avoid the “hospitality” of this Union. Nevertheless, the porter, an even tempered and level-headed man, from what we saw of him, escorted us to the casual cells, situated in the Workhouse yard. Away from the “house” proper, the cells were contained in a forbidding, but substantial structure – a cold dismal place, which might have been rendered somewhat habitable had the hot-water apparatus been going. Taking our bundles from us, our custodian gently ushered us into a fairly large cell, a formal search being disposed with because, I take it, there was nothing of the “desperado” aspect associated with us; and, ugh, it was cold. On Dartmoor we had encountered sleet, and I should say it was almost freezing outside. However, we were handed some nice warm rugs, and by the dim rays of a lamp in the corridor, which faintly penetrated through a barred aperture at the door to, we had to make our beds such as they were. There was no bathing to be undergone here, and I noticed the hot water apparatus was not working. Of course, it may only have been for that night, but I have a shrewd suspicion that it rarely did operate – and not that it was out of order, but with a view of making the place as uncomfortable as possible to keep the patrons away.
In carrying out the latter policy, Guardians in various parts of the country inflict severe hardships on many unfortunate men, and I would be honestly happy to see some of these rubicund gentlemen undergo the various mild tortures they have devised in order to frighten “tramps” away. Of course, the system whereby each locality has to entertain impecunious gentry on the road, passing through the district, is responsible for many of the hardships. For some Guardians wince at nothing, however harsh, if the ratepayers are to be saved a few pence. If the cost were borne by the Imperial Exchequer we should hear nothing of the difficult tasks and tricks set to harass already broken men - treatment in many cases that dare not be extended to hardened criminals - and the casual labourer or navvy who takes to the road when out of employment will hail the day when labour colonies* are established, providing there is a classification of the colonists. They imagine that under that system a man could go there for a month or two, perform some useful work, and receive some slight remuneration – a shilling (5p) a day would satisfy many, just enable them to turn the corner after the winter.
Tavistock bears a horrible name amongst the nomadic fraternity. “There are worse,” said one hardened fellow – a fitter whom I met later on – “but very few.”
The only occupants of the Tavistock “casual” ward that appear to have a good time are the fat big rodents which scurry over the weary casuals throughout the night. If the inmates of the house are half as sleek as these furry creatures are, the Guardians have at least something to be proud of. A night with the latter might prove instructive to some gentlemen who are entrusted with the administration of the Poor-law at Tavistock. Here, I ought to say to prevent any misapprehension, the officials, the porter, and the “Tramp Major,” were just and considerate, and can hardly be blamed for any sufferings inflicted on the unfortunate roadsters.
* Labour Colonies were first established in the 1890s, they were places where unemployed or destitute men could live and undertake work in return for their board & lodging, and in some cases a small wage. These colonies were seen as an alternative to the Workhouse, or a corrective institution for those unwilling to find work.
There are some details of Tavistock Workhouse on the excellent Workhouses.org website.