Picture of William Adams

William Adams

places mentioned

Tramp Life

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THE lodging-houses of Preston were too filthy to be trusted; but they could scarcely have been filthier than that which I had the misfortune to sample at Chorley.  This place—described in my diary as "a small neat town, supported by its manufactories"—was only nine miles from Preston.  I was, however, weary and footsore when I reached it at six o'clock in the evening, for I had been walking about Preston for many hours before resuming my tramp at three o'clock in the afternoon.  "When in doubt, ask a policeman."  Could he tell me where I could get a bed for the night?  My appearance, I dare say, didn't suggest that I wanted one of the best hotels in the town.  Anyhow, he directed me to a lodging-house.  The Chorley constable was more helpful than a member of the same order whom I encountered when in much the same difficulty some years later on a tour through the Scottish Highlands.  The encounter took place in Callander.  Would the policeman be kind enough to give me the name of a good hotel in the place?  The reply was not a bad example of Scottish discretion.  He didna ken, he said, as it behoved people in autho-rity to be cotious!  But the Chorley policeman could hardly be suspected of recommending one fourpenny lodging-house more than another.  All the same, I ungratefully wished afterwards that he had sent me somewhere else.

The common room of the common lodging-house at Chorley—a dingy, dirty, squalid apartment—was full of people when I entered it.  Most of them were of the tramp type; but one or two girls—probably daughters of the proprietor—were apparently factory operatives.  I had not been much edified by the conversation I had heard in similar places.  Even that in the thieves' kitchen at Lancaster, though the place was clean and its occupants considerate, was of a coarse and vulgar character.  Here, however, I could not qualify the conversation, for the reason that I had not then made the acquaintance of the Lancashire dialect, which, as I listened to it at Chorley, was as much like a foreign language to me as anything I had heard before.  Only a word dropped here and there, such as "bobbin" and "mill," led me to infer that the people, for part of the time, were talking about work at the factories.  It was my practice while on tramp to go to bed early—always, however, in fear and trembling least I should have to put up with a bedfellow.  I had a couch to myself at Chorley, but I had more bedfellows than I quite knew about at the time.  The other three beds in the apartment were occupied by a weaver, a tailor, two labourers, and a bookbinder turned labourer.  These five gentlemen combined to produce such a concert in their sleep that night was made hideous.  If by accident the performers in the three beds took a short rest, my own bedfellows made the most of the interval.  Real repose was quite out of the question, so that I fled from the abode of horrors as soon as daylight enabled me to see that I was putting on my own clothes, and not somebody else's.  But my torments were not over when I had escaped from that registered inferno; for, after all, though I was careful as to the garments I donned, I carried off more than belonged to me.  That day was the most miserable I passed in the whole of my tramp.  My ankles ached; my feet were blistered; all the other unexposed parts of my unfortunate anatomy were in a state of intolerable irritation.  Overtaking a waggon, I gave the waggoner twopence to let me ride into Bolton.  There the newspaper offices were visited, with of course the usual result.  Then I limped away to Manchester, calling as I passed through Salford at Peel Park, with its Museum and Free Library, at that time an almost isolated example of municipal enlightenment.

The freemasonry of the road is one of the charms of tramping.  Every tramp chums with every other tramp, just as if he had known him from boyhood.  What is more, almost every tramp thinks it his bounden duty to do his best for his comrade of the hour.  It is only the curmudgeons of the profession who behave differently.  I fell in with the custom, and could therefore learn nearly all I wanted to know about a place before I reached it.  One result of the chumming process was that I did not stop in Manchester, except to call at the newspaper offices.  A young fellow who overtook me drew so dismal a picture of the lodging-houses there that I resolved to hurry on to Stockport.  But I was too tired and too miserable to walk the five miles further.  Consequently, I committed the extravagance of travelling by rail.  But I paid dearly for it; for, having to make the journey in an open truck, which at the period did duty for a third-class carriage, I got "a perishment of cold."  Then followed a further extravagance.  I put up at a coffee-house.  Here the bill for tea, bed, and breakfast amounted to 1s. 8d.  Fancy a tramp indulging in such luxuries!  However, I did not lament an expenditure that was so much out of keeping with my financial resources.  The comfort, the cleanliness, the quietude of the coffeehouse made me a new man next day.  All the same, I felt like a criminal, because I feared that I must have left behind many of the undesirable acquaintances I had made at Chorley.

Another adventure befell me at Newcastle-under-Lyme.  On the way thither I conferred with the brethren at Macclesfield.  There, being among friends, I fared very well.  Arrived in Newcastle, I inquired for accommodation at a small inn—the Antelope—but neglected to stipulate for a single bed.  That, however, did not matter, I thought, since nobody else was in the house, except drinking people.  Even the appearance at a later hour in the evening of an old man and his wife was not disconcerting, because of course the venerable tramps would sleep together.  Wherefore I retired to rest in an easy frame of mind.  Still I thought it desirable to prepare for the worst.  Instead of getting in between the sheets, I got in between in the sheet and the blanket.  "Now," I said to myself, "if, contrary to present probabilities, anybody should share the bed with me, there will at least be a sheet between us."  Complacent and satisfied, I went speedily to sleep.  An hour or two afterwards I was aroused by the rest of the inmates fumbling up the stairs.  The bed was on a landing, with a room beyond it.  I listened.  Yes, there were three voices—the landlady's, the old man's, and the old woman's.  Gracious! they were not going to sleep together, were they?  I pretended to be oblivious; but I was wide enough awake when I heard the landlady solving the riddle.  "You get in there," she said to the old man; "and you," meaning the old woman, "come in along of me."  Sold!  Still the sheet would be a protection.  I chuckled at my own cleverness and forethought.  What it was to anticipate things!  The old man got into bed and blew out the candle.  Then—oh! horror!—I heard him mutter: "D! I'm in the wrong place."  And he got out of bed and got in again—this time beside me.  Sold again, and after all my precautions too!  But I fared better than I expected.  My new bedfellow behaved better than the drunken bugler at Kendal—better even than the weaver and tailor and labourers at Chorley.  I was neither kept awake nor kicked on to the floor.

It was my last unpleasant adventure on the road.  My final night as a tramp was spent at Stratford-on-Avon, which was out of my way, but I wanted to see Shakspeare's birthplace.  Here the woman at the inn, when I asked for a drink of water, was amazed.  "What!" said she, "can't ye afford a drink of beer?"  Well, she would take pity on my poverty.  And she gave me a glass of fourpenny.  It was vile stuff; but I was thirsty, and the gift was kindly meant.  Another day's tramp—thirty two miles—and I was among friends again.  These thirty-two miles seemed shorter than any twenty I had previously walked.  Such is the happy effect of the prospect of once more mingling with dear old folks at home.

Mark Twain knew something of the tramp in America—especially the travelling "comp.," who "flitted by in the summer and tarried a day, with his wallet stuffed with one shirt and a hatful of handbills; for if he couldn't get any type to set, he would do a temperance lecture."  I also knew the character, long before I became a tramp myself.  Some of the fraternity came once and were seen no more; others came round as often as the regulations of the trade society enabled them to draw relief.  A man belonging to the former class—this was in 1848—persuaded me to give him a shilling for writing an acrostic, and next night was seen gesticulating on a Chartist platform, partly for my edification.  Two members of the latter class were rather famous in their day.  One was the Bonny Light Horseman; another the Prince of Munster.

I had a pretty long acquaintance with the Prince of Munster.  Dominic Macarthy had worked for a few months on Galignani's Messenger in Paris, and on the strength of this circumstance was considered a person of some note in the trade.  He was a good workman; he possessed considerable intelligence; but he was afflicted with an incurable desire for roaming about the country whenever the proper season came round.  Every year, or at least as often as relief could be obtained at the societies in the various towns through which he passed, the Prince was accustomed to make his appearance.  It frequently happened that a job was to be had in the office in which I was apprenticed, and Dominic in this way became a familiar character in our establishment.  As a lad, I liked nothing better than a crack with the royal "comp."  Not that I think now that his habits or his influence were altogether wholesome for a youth of an impressionable temperament; for I recollect that he used, when he had the means, to bring into the office a supply of spirits to serve him till he could visit the public-house again.  Now and then his royal highness would disappear beneath his "frame," and emerge from his seclusion wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and discharging through the office an odour of Old Tom.

During the few days he remained at a time—and he never remained much longer than a week together—he had frequent "bouts."  I remember that he defended these weaknesses of his on the ground that Buchan or some writer on hygienic matters contended that occasional excesses in intoxicating drinks had a healthy effect on the person who gave way to them.  Dominic, as I have said, was never able to stay long in one place.  When he got his wages, or as much of them as he had not anticipated, on a Saturday night, we could never be sure that he would turn in again on the Monday morning.  Indeed, if he had nothing to draw, he was liable to disappear any day.  When this happened, we would see nothing more of him till he came his rounds again a year later.  The passion for roving was too strong to be resisted for many days together.  The Prince could no more settle in one town in summer-time than a swallow can resist the impulse to seek another clime.

Later on in life I made Dominic's acquaintance in London.  There he invariably spent the winter months hanging about the office of the society in Racquet Court, and getting an occasional job as a "grass hand," until the return of spring enabled him to resume his vagabond life.

Some years passed.  I was then in Newcastle.  One night, when leaving the office, I heard my name pronounced as I passed a ragged figure standing near the door.  Turning round, I discovered that I had been accosted by my old friend the Prince of Munster.  His highness was raggeder, haggarder, and dirtier than I had ever seen him before.  A quarter of a century of wandering hither and thither, together with the unknown quantity of spirits he must have consumed in that time, had told heavily on the Prince.  I took him home with me; I gave him a good supper; I supplied him with a suit of old clothes; and I set him on his way rejoicing with a few shillings in his pocket.  I never saw him again.  The probability is that he died in some workhouse hospital or other.

Dominic Macarthy always seemed to me a type of the vagabond class.  And I never think of him, and of my own feelings when I first made his acquaintance, without believing that I had a narrow escape of becoming a vagabond too.

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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