Extract of story of 1912 walk from Plymouth to Exeter by journalist posing as tramp, staying in workhouses. Transcribed by John Heal. Part 4 of 4.
An Amateur Tramp in Devon, part 4
Okehampton, Crediton and Exeter
At Okehampton, tramps go straight to the Workhouse, and not first to the Police Station as at Tavistock. For a Poor-law Institution the one at Okehampton is a delightful place – clean, homely and warm, and, above all, the officials are so kindly and tactful. The master is “simply adored” by the inmates, as a gushing young lady would say, or, as an old inmate put it to me; “Eh, he is a proper master.” After a slight halt in the entrance hall, we were taken into a spick and span room, with a clean table therein, to wait until our turn to bath, only one being allowed in the bathroom – a very desirable arrangement which could be well established at other casual wards. Everyone was drenched, and the wet clothes were placed in a drying room – a man staying up half the night to attend to this operation. After bathing, in pairs we went into beautifully clean, well warmed, and nicely decorated rooms – they cannot be termed “cells” – and made beds on the floor with substantial rugs. Everyone, I imagine slept well that night at Okehampton. For supper we had well-made broth served in pewter tankards with spoons, the latter being a luxury for casual wards, and, of course, there was the usual bread.
At dawn our dry clothes were handed to us, and after breakfasting on porridge and bread, tasks were given to us. The hardiest were put to break stones, others to saw wood, and four of us to clean the place. A little seaman with a bad hand, bound for Falmouth, was deservedly given the easy task of cleaning a few door handles; a cute cockney bricklayer, who had announced his intentions of going to “chokey” (prison) rather than break stone, was awarded the arduous duty of dusting the rooms – arduous because there was little or no dust to be found; my companion washed the floors; and I had to merely sweep them, but assisted my chum to finish his work. Under an hour sufficed for this, and then ensued an amusing incident. The porter or tramp major not being in the immediate vicinity, I walked round to see if it were possible for us to leave. Seeing no one I picked up my belongings and departed. Everyone save the stone-breakers, who were under lock and key, followed suit, amid hearty laughter - one seasoned roadster remarking that he had never witnessed such an escapade before. We ought really to have waited. I learned that it is a criminal offence to leave before being told by the officials, whether you have finished your task or not. Apparently it was not considered a serious breach of the rules, for the authorities knew our destination and made no attempt to apprehend us.
The big navvy who had accompanied us from Tavistock was left behind. When the tasks were being allocated, not being fit, he hid himself in the drying-room, and was therefore unable to see our departure. Owing to this, he started an hour after us in this connection. I noticed that there was a hurried rush to the lavatories by some of the more pronounced “mouchers” at most of the “spikes” when the porter appeared to tell the men off to work.
The eighteen miles to Crediton extends over a vile mud ridden road, the worst I have trod on in the Westcountry. At Bow, about seven miles from Okehampton, intense hunger caused me to beg for the first and last time, when a kindly lady was generous enough to give me three hot roast potatoes, with nearly half a loaf of bread and a proportionate quantity of cheese. A sympathetic smile only greeted my expression of gratitude. In the meantime my companion had approached a house nearly opposite, where he obtained a meat sandwich, a text, and a fifteen minutes’ sermon from a grey-haired lady.
My boots were giving way on these horrible roads. So, I decided to make for Exeter after Crediton, where I arranged for funds to be sent me. Tramping is bad enough when you are well shod, but with faulty footgear it is excruciating.
There is nothing very striking about Crediton Workhouse, save that it is prettily excluded by a semi-park garden. We were not allowed in before six o’clock, and then, after a cold wait, given vile thin tea, with dry bread. Afterwards we were taken down to the basement – a cold, dimly-lighted brick-floor apartment. Here there was no bathing - on that night at any rate - and – after leaving our clothes, save shirts, in the general room, we were placed into cells. There were bedsteads with straw mattresses, not bad for a casual ward, but I could not obtain a wink of sleep for the cold. I only had a rug and a quilt for covering. Perhaps this may have been due to an unintentional error on the part of the porter, for my colleague had warmer bedclothes.
Porridge and bread formed the morning meal. Then half a dozen men were put on stone breaking - not hard stone, but plenty of it. Two strapping navvies - the Mr William Smith mentioned previously, and another Mr William Smith – my companion, and myself were then deputed to pump water into a tank at the top of the house. “You can finish in an hour, if you’re smart,” said the artful porter as he left us. So, two at a time, we pumped strenuously, hoping to finish quickly. Casually, one of us asked an old inmate how long it took to fill the tank. The man, laughing heartily, replied that he had never known anyone to fill it. The porter’s little joke hardly worked that time because we slackened down, and in an hour or so we were released. My friend, worn out by exposure, lack of proper food, and exertion, displayed signs of faintness, when, all honour to them, the navvies would not allow him to work any more, but took his share on their shoulders. This mild chivalry was evinced, mark you, by a man who had just come out of prison for assaulting a porter. I refer to “Mr Wm Smith, No. 2”. I found him a genial good-natured honest fellow, and could hardly imagine him giving trouble, unless he had received severe provocation. A good-tempered, courteous official, I noticed, was always respected, nay, venerated by casuals, and a little tact would frequently save local magistrates much time.
Creditonians may be interested to learn that their town is considered by tramps “a hot place” – that is not a good place for begging, and where the police quickly snap at “mouching”. Small wonder, for from what I could gather, at one time the late Sir Redvers Buller was very kind to roadsters, especially old soldiers; and there is no doubt that his generosity not only attracted a host of supplicants to the town, but was shamefully imposed upon. The pilgrimage became a regular pest, and now Crediton naturally frowns upon roadsters of any description. Sir Redvers, it is stated, held his hand when he discovered that his generosity was being abused. His enlightenment in this respect was due to an old soldier, who had been well treated by the gallant general, lending his papers to another man with a view of obtaining further “booty”. The attempt was detected, and Sir Redvers’ annoyance was so great that he declined to assist any more men on the road. Crediton was pleased, for the majority of the roadsters are old soldiers. When we passed “The Downs” (sic) I saw a little dilapidated Welshman going up the drive to try his luck. “Going for orders?” sarcastically shouted a workman to him. I ascertained later from the Welshman that he obtained nothing.
Speaking of Crediton as “hot place”, it may interest Plymouth folk to know that men on the road like their town, and call them good hearted people. Tavistock they detest, and avoid if possible. At Exeter they obtain food without much difficulty, but the police are very alert there. Okehampton is considered a good town. Saltash and Torpoint are detested which may be taken as a compliment by Police Inspector Broad, who is in charge of the district. With reference to the failure of the Cornish system whereunder tramps were provided with bread and cheese at certain places in the day, the men allege that they could not always obtain the cheese. But I could never extract any precise particulars from any of them, and rather suspect they did not love the system because it removed an excuse for begging.
After a short stretch of eight miles to Exeter, and a very hungry day, we entered St. Thomas, Exeter, where supper consisted of dry bread and water ad lib. But St. Thomas is not so bad on the whole. It is a “warm kip” (sleeping place), and, although not very commodious, fairly comfortable, having a good stove in the centre of the room and a gas jet, which is left alight all night, as it should be, in case of anyone being taken ill in the night. It was, however, the only place I passed through where such a luxury ruled. Slinging a hammock, I spent a very tolerable night, and was sorry when daylight came. Some of the occupants warmed tea and eatables on the stove. One dilapidated, repulsive fellow produced a few pieces of raw meat, which he soberly announced had been in his pocket for days. How could he cook it? “Why man, its cooked already,” exclaimed Wm Smith, the big navvy, amid a roar of laughter. “Put it on the end of a broom handle and hold it over the stove,” added another. The wretched man placed the meat on the stove and actually devoured it.
The officials at St. Thomas, Exeter, are kind-hearted and firm. The taskmaster is very popular, and on that account can extract the best work out of a man. It being wet, about six of us were put to clean the room and polish a few mugs. In average places the work would have been scamped, but out of respect for the taskmaster everyone did his best.
At Exeter having found letters and funds awaiting me at the G.P.O., I was glad to be able to obtain a good shave, make myself generally presentable, and tackle a good all-round British meal, which, of course, my fellow-roadster shared. I accompanied him as far as Chard, walking throughout the night, after a luxurious, leisurely day in Exeter, and then entrained for London.
This copy of an article, published in the Western Times in 1912, was given to me by the late Dr Jean Shields of North Tawton, who was, for many years, an active member of the Crediton Area History and Museum Society.
The excellent The Workhouse website has pages featuring the Crediton and St Thomas institutions