Extract of story of 1912 walk from Plymouth to Exeter by journalist posing as tramp, staying in workhouses. Transcribed by John Heal. Part 3 of 4.
An Amateur Tramp in Devon - part 3
Tavistock to Okehampton
Left in the feebly-illumined cell, we quickly made our beds, utilising our overcoats for pillows, and placing the remainder of our raiment at the bottom of the door to stay an unwelcome draught. Then we dozed and talked for some time. Others came into the building, one outspoken fellow remarking: “It’s jolly cold here.” “Yes,” replied the custodian, “it will be colder before the morning.” Rather cold comfort. A little later broth and bread were served – not bad broth at all, being hot and nutritious, and most acceptable to the shivering recipients.
It was a relief to have a companion in the dreary cell – I think the other fellows were placed in separate cells. My companion slept soundly throughout the night, but I was only able to snatch an occasional doze, the scurrying rats constantly arousing me. Inky darkness prevailed, the lamp outside having been extinguished, and the rodents were having a ripping time. There was ample material to attract them, for in addition to the bread left over by some of the human occupants, there was other food lying about, which had been brought in by some of them. On recognising the character of our unwelcome visitors, I pulled the rug well over my head, but even then could frequently feel them running over me. At intervals they seemed to disappear – no doubt making a raid on some of the well-stocked knapsacks in other cells. A navvy, big and hardened, told me that he could not sleep for the cold and the rats running over him. “Things won’t be altered,” he added, “until someone dies in one of those cells. The rats will then gnaw their body, and there’ll be a fine fuss over it. They’re always on watch, and know at once when a bloke is dead, and soon go for him.” The next morning I noticed a large rat running about the yard where several men were moving about. He was quite cheeky, and declined to budge until someone threw a piece of wood at him.
The breakfast given at Tavistock, like the supper, was substantial and good, if very plain. It consisted of a mug of thick porridge and dry bread. I devoured the former, but kept the bread for later on. Whilst the men were breakfasting, one could hear the sound of stones being shovelled – an ominous sign of the nature of the task to be given, which provoked a surprising variety of oaths from some of the “guests.” Most of the men detest stone-breaking, some asserting that they cannot get proper hammers, and others that such a task is too stiff after an unsubstantial breakfast and exposure. The stones are known as “diamonds,” for when broken they have to be riddled through a grating, the holes being diamond shaped. The men are placed in cells, with the stones, locked in, and not allowed out until finished. At Tavistock the amount to be broken is three hundredweight, not a large amount, but the oldest hands were unanimous in saying that the material was the hardest they had been called upon to crack, and it took prolonged hammering before the slightest impression was made. At the outset it was somewhat entertaining to hear the heavy blows of the hammers and the violent outbursts of the wielders. One little Welshman was in lurid language threatening to hit the porter on the head – a mere bark – which was silenced by a counter threat to take the author “below” (the police station). Throughout the task intermittent growling could be heard.
My young friend the gardener and I were told to pack chopped wood into bundles. Stout strings already tied were given us, and we had to insert the wood therein, until quite tight, using a piece of wood, something like a baseball bat, to pat the wood in. The porter apparently could see that stone breaking was hardly in our category, and naturally we were very grateful for the lightness of our work. An old fellow, the human derelict alluded to previously at Plymouth, was ordered to clean out the cells. Although we had completed our task some time before we were not allowed out before eleven o’clock, which meant we could not waste much time on the road to Okehampton, our next port of call, having to be there at six o’clock. Now in the case of a man, say, after a little farm work, how could he spare the time to make thorough inquiries if there were any work going? In this connection I have often heard people complain that if they have offered tramps work they frequently refuse to do it. This generally is ascribed to laziness, and no doubt in some cases it is, but in many instances, unless a person can offer a man a good day’s work, sufficient for him to pay for a night’s lodging, it means that the man sensibly declines to run the risk of being locked out at the next “spike” for the sake of a few coppers, which would not pay for lodging, and would only buy for him the same quantity of food that he would obtain at a Workhouse.
Within half an hour of leaving Tavistock we were soaked to the skin, the rain falling in torrents throughout the day. My boots began to let the water in, and this defect, with heavy wet clothes and growing hunger, made it somewhat difficult to assume a cheerful countenance. Nevertheless we were fairly optimistic, and sang, whistled, and smoked. At St. Mary Tavy, my companion dived into the garden of a house at the flank of the police station. Half an hour elapsed before he returned, radiant and rejoicing, for he had not only been given a good meal, but a shilling (5p) as well. The donor was an old gardener, who gave him the money to pay his fare to Okehampton from Lydford. Instead, however, tobacco and food were purchased, which were more needed than a ride in a railway train. We were now in an ugly plight, soaked to the skin and lumbering along under heavy coats. The rain changed into hail and sleet crossing Dartmoor, the former cutting ones face somewhat. Here we met fellows coming from Okehampton; most of them, I observed, had a sailor-like appearance, evidently making for Plymouth, or some of the Cornish ports on the chance of securing a ship. Most of them had no overcoats, and I imagine, few of them, if any, had any underclothing, so must have felt the cold and wet somewhat. In all the “spikes” we went into I noticed that my friend and I were the only two who wore underpants and vests. Travelling in cold January with only trousers, vest, and coat, and a thin shirt, cannot be very pleasant for anyone. I was beginning to feel miserable, and yet I was well clad and knew my tramping was but a temporary affair. But what of the ill-clad man with hardly a sparklet of hope? Truly, his lot is to be pitied.
Such a man joined us after leaving St. Mary Tavy – a big, tall, hardened navvy, who confessed that he was nearly dead beat. He was 45 years of age, had been engaged on nearly all the huge dock, reservoir and railway jobs in his time, and had just walked around from Bristol to see if there was anything doing. The cold “kip” (sleep) at Tavistock had given him neuralgia, bloodshot eyes, and a pretty cold. Then the hard task on top had left its effect on him. “They say” said he, “that some of us chaps on the road don’t want work. A man would be a blithering maniac to walk about like this and suffer as we do, when he had the chance of a job. I should like to see some of ‘em who say so on their beam ends like we are. Then at the spikes they make it as hard as they can for us. Some bloke in the North was presented with a watch and chain for keeping men away from the Union. I’d always take a job if it was offered me, and providing the wage is just enough to live on. One farmer not long ago offered me five shillings (25p) a week to work for him, and to sleep in a cold barn. I wouldn’t take it on. Do you blame me? He was a chap that had plenty. I should think, trying to take the rise out of me because I was on the road. The work that I would do for him would be worth at least £1 a week. There is a job going at Barnstaple now they tell me, and I’m having a shot at that.”
William Smith, for that was his name, did not go to Barnstaple, for at Crediton, there were several fellows who had been to Barnstaple, where some protective works were in progress. There were plenty of hands wanted, they said, but they had to leave because they could not get living accommodation. The sea entered a hut some of the men were quartered in, soaking the mattresses they were lying on. Two men – you could see they were near exhaustion – had travelled by road all the way form Portsmouth to this job, having been sent there by the Labour Exchange. They could not stay, however, asserting the conditions were so bad. “You cannot work unless you have proper food and sleep,” said one of them, “and so we are tramping back again.”
Arriving at Okehampton at dusk, wet, tired, and hungry, we experienced a curious adventure. I was for waiting until we got to the Workhouse, but my impulsive companion was too ravenous to wait for food. So passing a comfortable looking house, he went back and knocked at the door. Presently I heard him calling me. He hurriedly left the house, saying the gentleman wanted him to go inside. He considered it was a trap, and declined to go back. I had not begged up to now, and did not intend to if I could avoid it, but out of courtesy I thought an answer should be returned. Even supposing it had been a trap, it would have been comparatively easy for the house holder to have followed my friend and given him in charge. I therefore went to the gentleman, who was still standing at the doorway, and told him my friend could not go in because we should be too late for a night’s shelter. “Then why did he run off” was the pertinent rejoinder. “Because to tell the truth,” I answered, “he thought you we going to send for the police.” “Well, as a matter of fact, I am an inspector,” was the alarming response. He invited me to go in, which I unhesitatingly did, but with mixed feelings. He then cross-examined me, and, to my surprise, he then placed two sixpences (2 ½ p) in my hand, wishing me luck, and adding that there were so many frauds on the road. On reflecting, he could not have been a police inspector, I thought, and his house was too large and well furnished was my conclusion. At any rate, we were deeply grateful, and the whole shilling went in food that night and on the morrow. If this should meet the eye of our benefactor at Okehampton, I shall be only too happy to repay him if he will kindly send me his name through this journal.
[There are some details of Okehampton workhouse on the workhouses.org website]