Picture of William Adams

William Adams

places mentioned

On Tramp

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OUR little company at Brantwood was dispersed in the spring of 1855.  We had been working together for little more than a year.  But the public not wanting our wares or our politics, the English Republic expired.  This, however, did not mean that we had lost faith in our principles or intended to cease propagating them.  Linton went to London to try his fortune with Pen and Pencil , an ephemeral competitor of the Illustrated London News .  I, being the youngest of the party and then unmarried, left first, Hailing and Glover remaining behind to "sweep up."  Glover eventually resumed his old occupation of gardener in the neighbourhood of London, while Hailing, before returning to establish the reputation of the Oxford Press in Cheltenham, obtained employment at Windermere.  Mr. Garnett, stationer and stationmaster there, had also a small printing-office.  A rather large order had come to him from Harriet Martineau, then residing at Ambleside.  Mrs. Martineau—as she preferred to be called, though she was never married—had received what she thought was a warning to prepare for eventualities.  Wishing that the public should receive from herself after her death an account of the transactions in which she had been concerned, rather than learn of them from anybody else less qualified to tell the story, she set about writing her autobiography.  And to guard against any tampering with the manuscript when she could no longer prevent it, she wanted the work printed off at once—ready for issue, precisely in the form she desired, as soon as she had departed hence.  Hailing was engaged for the job, worked at it for some months, printed one volume and part of another, but, running aground for want of copy, had to leave it for other hands to finish.  This was in 1855; but the careful authoress lived for two-and-twenty years after she had brought her book to a conclusion!  Creaking doors do sometimes hang long on their hinges.

As for myself, I had a journey of two hundred and seventy-four miles before me, with only seventeen shillings in hand for the undertaking—obviously too small a sum even for a railway ticket.  How came this lack of funds?  Well, wages were of no consequence to us, so long as we had enough to pay our way.  We hadn't come to Brantwood to make money, but to serve a cause.  Besides, we had been preaching the virtue of sacrifice, and now we were practising it.  So it never entered our heads to murmur, except, perhaps, when the villagers seemed to doubt our honesty.  If subscriptions for the magazine were paid, we had our share of them.  But if subscribers failed to subscribe, we were at least testifying to the faith that was in us.  Of course we did not live like princes.  But what did it matter?  We gratefully ate our porridge, and devoutly believed that we were beginning a great work.

When the dream was over—at all events for the present—the prospect of having to take to the road did not alarm me.  The loneliness would be tiresome; nor was I without apprehension that I might fall among thieves—as, indeed, I did.  But the tramp was nothing, since I had money enough for a bed and a crust on the way.  During my apprentice days, I used to envy the ragged and dusty wanderers who were to be seen passing through the town all summer-time.  The fields and the woods, the hills and the hedgerows, the rills and the rivers, the songs of the birds and the odours of the flowers—these things, I thought, to say nothing of the chances of communing with Nature, lent fascination to the life of a tramp.  Yes, I hoped to be a tramp myself some day.  And now had come the opportunity.  So I set off from Coniston with a light heart and a bundle of tracts; for I reckoned that our mission, though we had failed at Brantwood, was by no means ended.  The tracts were of course explanatory of republican principles.  Some I gave to school children to give to their teachers; some I hung on bushes by the highway; others I distributed among the inmates of the common lodging-houses at which I slept.  I talked, too, with the tramps whom I overtook or who overtook me on the road; and I even entered in my diary—now a stained and almost obliterated record—that I thought I had converted a militiaman!  Also I called on Republicans whom I knew by name or repute in the towns that lay on my route.  There had been an association at Macclesfield.  This I endeavoured to resuscitate, but in vain.  The efforts that were thus made to spread the true political gospel, feeble and fruitless as they were, helped to relieve the tedium of the long journey.  Only once, I fancy, did I feel particularly sad and forlorn.  It was on a fine Sunday evening in April, when, at the end of a dreary tramp, I entered Lancaster tired and footsore.  The good folks of that town were enjoying their Sabbath strolls.  Then I thought that my own people were at that very hour sauntering through pleasant lanes and pastures at home, while I, a solitary wanderer on the face of the earth, knew not a soul that I met.  For a time I felt melancholy and depressed, and wished the long tramp was over.

Besides the bundle of tracts, I was not burdened with much baggage.  A small parcel contained everything.  Printers need to carry few tools.  A composing stick and an apron were all I required to begin work anywhere, and even these were not indispensable.  I called at all the newspaper offices on the route, begging some brother man to give me leave to toil.  Not an odd job anywhere, nor any relief either except a shilling at Birmingham when I showed my indentures, for I was not a member of the union, there being then no branch at Cheltenham or Coniston.  The times were out of joint.  It was the winter of the Crimean War—the severest as regards weather, the dreariest as regards depression, the direst as regards distress, that we had had for years.  I find in my old diary a note on the state of the country:—"Everywhere the cry is want of work.  In Macclesfield especially, steady men, industrious men, have great difficulty in obtaining bread.  The militia, some of whom may not perhaps be so steady, recently disbanded at Stockport, went home to Macclesfield, failed to get work, and returned to re-enlist.  The weavers 'play' nearly as often as they work, some of them oftener.  'I have never known such a winter,' has been the expression of all with whom I talked at Macclesfield.  One young man in Newcastle-under-Lyme, now compelled to seek bread by 'busking' (singing in public-houses), a thrower by trade, said he had been offered 6s. 6d. a week at a factory in that town.  Another man—a plasterer by trade, who had been out of work for weeks—was offered 25s. to do a job for which he would have had to pay 15s. to his labourer.  The number of tramps I meet on the road—some limping with sore feet, others bending beneath their burdens of care—is positively alarming.  Every other man one meets is almost sure to be in search of employment.  But notwithstanding all this distress, the beer shops are not without customers.  Men come and spend their last penny—in one particular case I saw at Preston leaving wife and family at home to starve.  In the midst of poverty there is still a deeper degradation—the degradation of drunkenness."  When this was the general condition of things, it was not wonderful that the letters of introduction with which I had been furnished availed nothing.  Three of these letters were to gentlemen of the press or having influence with the press—Joseph Livesey, proprietor of the Preston Guardian , Edward Peacock, a director of the Manchester Examiner , and George Dawson, lecturer and preacher at Birmingham.  Mr. Livesey and Mr. Peacock received me courteously; but work there was none.  Mr. Dawson was away from home; but Mrs. Dawson saw me instead.  She wanted to know what we had been doing at Brantwood.  I told her.  "You are a pretty lot," she said, laughing, "and we are not much better."

My first night on the road was not comforting.  It was spent at Kendal.  I knew nobody there: so I asked for accommodation at the sign of the Black Bull.  The house seemed small and humble enough to suit my circumstances.  I slept with a double-thumbed musician—a drunken performer on the key-bugle who shoved me out of bed.  The company at the Black Bull was not much to my liking.  It was rowdier than any company I had ever been thrown into before.  Early in the evening every man in the tap-room (the only common room in the inn) was maudlin drunk.  And the language!  Our army in Flanders couldn't have sworn more horribly, not even if there had been a competition in blasphemy.  Tired of the men and their conversation, I went out and bought materials for next morning's breakfast—coffee, sugar, bread, etc.—and then to rest.  I was awoke at midnight.  The roisterers were coming to roost, bringing bottles of beer with them.  The key-bugler, helplessly drunk by this time, was, much to my horror and disgust, put in beside me.  He stank like a fitchet, and snored like a saw-mill; but fortunately his back was towards me, as of course mine was towards him.  Soon he was fast asleep.  And then the trouble began.  The strange bedfellow with whom poverty had thus made me acquainted commenced to back himself like a stubborn horse.  I shouted to him to desist; but the more I shouted the more he backed—the further I got away from him the nearer he came to me.  I was on the edge of the bed by this time.  To avert the prospect of a violent ejectment, I reversed the order of things—got out on my side of the bed and got into his.  "Now, my friend," I thought, "if you go on backing, it is yourself, and not me, that you'll back on to the floor."  My scheme was successful.  The musician bothered me no more.  I was glad, however, to take an early departure from the Black Bull.  Perhaps it should be added that the lodgings there, if nasty, were at all events cheap; for I find a note in my diary, written at noon next day, some miles from Kendal, that my total expenses thus far had been one and threepence halfpenny.

The second night was connected in a rather curious way with the first.  I was overtaken on the road to Lancaster by another musician—a fiddler this time.  It turned out that the fiddler had been travelling with the bugler—that they had quarrelled and dissolved partnership.  I was in luck's way now; for my new acquaintance, who had been a sailor on board the Imperatrice, and intended to go back to the sea, would take me with him to a house where he was known.  The house, kept by one Bartholomew Kelly, was clean and orderly.  The company also was an improvement on that of the Black Bull, though most of the component parts of it were beggars and thieves.  One of the men was chaffingly asked about his friend Captain Blank.  "Oh yes," said he, "I left him yesterday morning."  Captain Blank was the governor of Lancaster Gaol!  I was seen to be writing—much to the wonderment of the company.  "Ah!" said a man who was looking over my shoulder, "I'll put ye on to a splendid lay."  It was to start business as a writer of begging letters!  Beggars and thieves as they were, the men and women in Bartholomew Kelly's lodging-house treated me as kindly as I had ever been treated anywhere.  This, perhaps, was not an uncommon experience, since the very poorest of the people are frequently the most generous.  My friend the fiddler arranged for everything and paid for everything.  We were going together to Preston next day—I bound for Manchester, he for Blackburn.  For some modest refreshment at Garstang on the road he insisted on paying also.  Nor did his consideration end there; for he took me to all the places I wanted to find in Preston—the printing-offices, the lodging-houses, etc.  Here the lodging-houses were so filthy that I preferred taking my chance at a tavern; but I had to sleep in the same room with two drunken market men.  The following day I met my friend again.  Again I begged him to let me pay my share of our joint expenses.  "No," said he, "I am among friends; you are not."  And we shook hands and parted.  We shall never meet more; but I should deem myself guilty of gross and contemptible ingratitude if I did not retain in my memory to the last day a warm place for John Connolly—sailor, fiddler, tramp.

But I had other experiences of life on the road—curious if not edifying—that must be told in a new chapter.

William Adams, Memoirs of a Social Atom (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1903) Copyright Ian Pettigrew. A transcription of the full text of the book is available on-line at http://www.gerald-massey.org.uk/adams/b_autobiog.htm

Placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall.

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