Historical and Contemporary Approaches to the Mythical Tramp Culture

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Masaryk University in Brno
Faculty of Arts
Department of English and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Jan Přinosil
Historical and Contemporary Approaches to the Mythical Tramp Culture

Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: PhDr. Lidia Kyzlinková, CSc., M.Litt.

Brno 2009

Author’s Statement:

I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently using only the
primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.
Jan Přinosil


I would like to thank PhDr. Lidia Kyzlinková, CSc.,
M.Litt. for her kind help, useful advice and time dedicated to the revision of
my dissertation.
Table of contents

Introduction 5

1 Compassionate yet Orderly Society 7

2 Fear and Compassion of Tramps in Literature 18

3 Romanticizing Tramps in Literature 29

4 The Emergence of American Tramp 36

Conclusion 44

Works cited 48


In his essay M. A. Crowther suggests that tramps, being a heterogeneous group elusive to classification, have throughout the course of history evoked powerful and contradictory feelings and reactions in the majority of the settled population. Finding myself captivated by this perspective on the tramp issue, I decided to explore the aspects in greater detail and further examine how the respective emotions aroused by tramps in society found their reflection in popular literature. It was also Crowther’s essay that drew my attention to some literary examples tackling the tramp issue, namely the works by London, Stevenson, Dickens, Davies, Borrow and Orwell, which set me on course, as it were, and considerably eased my search for basic literary texts exploring the realm of vagrancy.

In my thesis, therefore, I aim to provide literary portrayals of the above suggested emotions tramps as a heterogeneous group have excited in the minds of the general public. In doing so I confine myself to some British and American texts of the nineteenth and the early twentieth-centuries, drawing on works by Charles Dickens (David Copperfield, Uncommercial Traveller), Jack London (On the Road, People of the Abyss), W. H. Davies (Autobiography of a Super Tramp), Robert Louis Stevenson (The Songs of Travel, Travel), George Borrow (Lavengro), George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London), James Greewood (A Night in the Workhouse), Jon Krakauer (Into The Wild), and Jack Kerouac (On the Road).

The first chapter focuses on a dual nature of public leniency and compassion shown to tramps. This chapter maintains that the compassion vagrants received was not indiscriminate, but rather earned by their eligibility contingent on their consent to follow oppressive protective measures laid down by government. One of the oppressive tools of local government to control and monitor the provision of relief to tramps was a system of workhouses. Literary illustrations of the general dislike the workhouse system found with the vagrants is provided as well as some historical background.

The second chapter concerns compassion and fear of tramps in literature. It intends to suggest an objective basis to both contradictory emotions the vagrants aroused in mainstream society. To illustrate instances of fear and pity of tramps in literature I draw on Jack London’s People of the Abyss, George Orwell’s Down and out in Paris and London, Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield and Uncommercial Traveller.

In the third chapter I ponder the possibility or romanticizing vagrant’s life in Britain of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. While critical social novelists such as London and Orwell dismiss as regards to the romantic potential of wandering tramps, Robert Louis Stevenson and George Borrow suggest otherwise.

The final chapter tackles the emergence of tramps in America. The focus of this chapter is the different American experience and its reflection in the works of London, Davies, Kerouac and Krakauer.

1 Compassionate yet Orderly Society

Crowther distinguishes three contradictory emotions tramps as a group inspired in the general public – fear, pity and envy (Crowther qtd. In Porter 92). Each of these different characteristics can be related to one of the different popular images and portrayals of tramps and each of them can to a certain level be justified and verified by experience. Exercising disruptive influence on the society, tramps were feared for their criminal potential and thus legal steps and measures were taken to tame and institutionalize them. At the same time, many wandering individuals being casualties of seasonal unemployment or sudden economic crisis were treated with sympathy and compassion and systematic charitable attempts had been made to eradicate or at least ease their suffering. Finally, some members of the reading public were charmed and lured by the romantic literary accounts of lives of wandering individuals, leading a foot-loose independent existence free from social conventions and rules.

It is therefore not to be wondered why some of them being swayed by what they had read, abandoned their previous conventional, predictable, secure conventional lives for uncertain, unpredictable existence “on the road.” In short, the tramp had come to be depicted as a ‘fearsome criminal’, ‘impoverished victim of social injustice’ as well as ‘free romantic wanderer and pilgrim’. Therefore, tramps can be studied and explored from three different, yet interrelated perspectives: from the perspective of law, from the social perspective and from the romantic perspective. As illustrated later, the social and legal perspectives are closely linked and therefore shall be dealt with together, while the romantic perspective will require an individual approach.

The social and legal perspectives on tramps are mutually inseparable and linked to each other. When considering an incentive of society to alleviate suffering of the unfortunate poor, it is important to note that no institutional charitable effort on a large scale is done purely out of charity and unconditional indiscriminative compassion and love. Any attempt at implementing a system of state-funded relief is motivated by a desire of society to bring thus targeted social groups, standing out of the line, under state control. In other words, when eradication of poverty is on the governmental agenda, it is motivated by government’s aim to eradicate, if possible, a distinct social class of citizens at whom this welfare policy is targeted, so as to prevent potential social outcry and unrest. Thus, the social groups that are to be brought under the state control have to be personally motivated to obey. Tramps, vagrants and other poor wandering population were granted social relief, provided, they agreed to find employment and get institutionalized. The goal of such provisions was either a total disappearance of tramps as a social group, or at least a considerable reduction in their numbers.

Tramp and vagrant population in England has excited both fear and compassion in the members of general public. While compassion resulted into various large-scale organized charitable attempts of government or local representatives to alleviate the poverty and suffering of the unfortunate tramping poor, fear brought about systematic attempts aimed at eradicating or at least suppressing the tramp population in England. It could therefore be argued that fear was the real guiding principle behind acts of compassion and the two powerful emotions can only properly be understood when considered as interrelated mechanisms.

Leaving aside unconditional indiscriminate acts of individual charity, whose sole driving principle has been sympathy for the wretched ones, any organized, collective acts of charity on the part of various government bodies, committees, Charity Organization or Salvation Army officers had thus an ulterior motive of fear behind them. In his autobiographical novel The Autobiography of a Super Tramp W. H. Davies narrates his negative experience of dealing with the Charity Organization officers whose real objective is “not so much to give alms as to prevent alms being wasted” ( 191).Tramps and masses of unemployed impoverished population in general found themselves exposed to the “carrot and stick” policy of the government who imposed a form of conditional relief and aid on those who were willing to reform themselves, abandon their vagrant precarious existence and embrace a new settled secure life. In other words, tramps, vagrants and paupers had no option but to concur to the government conditions to make themselves eligible for relief.

There can be no denying that many criminals were recruited from the ranks of tramps and vagrants and it is therefore not to be marvelled at the government determination to come hard on such individuals: “We never retire to rest without feeling that we may be maimed and terror stricken in our beds; or waking, may find the hard earnings of honest toil purloined beyond possibility of recovery by a set of worthless vagabonds who are too lazy to earn their own living” (Pare 9). However, due to preconceived ideas and inevitable oversimplifications on the part of official authorities, tramps as a whole group were invariably criminalized and ostracized by society for the very fact of their tramping lifestyle. Indeed, the Report of The Vagrancy Committee issued in July 1904, pondering the question why the vagrancy in England has not been rooted out, concludes that it is because “instead of being treated as criminals, they have been allowed the comfortable and generous treatment of the casual ward” (Lansbury 304). Further on in the report, as Lansbury maintains, the committee considers “this kind of poverty a crime, for which the individual, and not the society, is responsible” ( 304). On the other hand, it has to be noted that tramping populations as a whole did pose a real threat to the institutionalized settled society. Roving masses of the unemployed and unemployable for that matter struck at the very roots of the fundamental principles of settled society. Government and local authorities in order to prevent potential social unrest had to counter this threat by carefully implemented legal steps to tame the masses. This could not be achieved by crude force alone but rather by a delicate balance of repressive actions and broad national policy of compassion. Result of the government’s efforts to reconcile compassion with order found the fruit of its labours in the formulation and subsequent implementation of the Poor Law.

In her essay Why Is It a Crime to Be Poor Charlesworth traces the historical origin of criminalizing and harsh treatment of the roving destitute in the unfortunate historical association and relationship between Poor law and monitoring and suppression of vagrancy (149). The nature of this relationship was not fixed but rather changeable, undergoing some considerable development from 1601 when the first collective legal administration of providing relief to the poor was enacted in the form of Poor Law Act, through enforcement of the subsequent Poor Relief Act of 1662 to 1824 Vagrancy Act. Poor Relief Act of 1662 entrust the care and responsibility for the poor to the hands of local parishes which were to make material provisions for the poor who were native to the area. What was particularly relevant and important was the fact that only the poor settled in the area of their parish were entitled to relief. Thus, eligibility for the relief from local parish was conditioned by settlement in that particular area. However, complications arose when wandering paupers found themselves beyond the boundary of their parishes where they were formally attached to and whose responsibility it was to take care of them. In such a case, under the Poor Relief Act they were not eligible for the relief from the hands of local parish authorities where they were currently residing, but instead were sent back to the parish where they were registered and had legal settlement and where they could expect to be provided for. Such legislation aimed at meting out vagrancy and preventing dispossessed poor to roam the country in search of free food and other material provisions. Local authorities feared that poor people, having consumed and destroyed commons might “become rogues and vagabonds to the great discouragement of parishes…” (Charlesworth 151). By denying relief to those who illegally wandered from one parish to another, local authorities set up a precedent which was to define and influence the nature of ambivalent approach of local authorities to dispossessed poor. On one hand, they were willing to show compassion and leniency to those who were deemed pitiable and eligible for relief and on other hand they would strike heavily on those who were deemed unworthy of compassion and who were seen as a potential threat to the community. While the settled poor claiming relief were viewed as claimants “of their legal rights,” those who “moved around…or did not work or remain for a respectable period…were regarded as threat to resources, threat to social stability and were subject to either removal or the punitive vagrancy laws” (Charlesworth 152). What made the relation between the administration of severe measures against vagrancy and Poor law even tighter was the fact that the very same officials responsible for allocating relief to the ‘deserving’ poor were in charge of punishing the ‘undeserving’ ones. This on the part of the local officials led to passing subjective arbitrary judgments regarding the nature of wandering paupers. If such a person was deemed vagrant he was to be prosecuted under the criminal law and charged with vagrancy.

Policies tackling the issue of the vagrant unemployed, date as far back in English history as 1348, when the wave of a bubonic plague known as the Black Death, decimated approximately one third of the European population and left many people roaming the country begging for subsistence (Gillin 427). In 1378 under the rule of Richard II, Parliament enacted a regulation forbidding anyone to offer a material aid to “sound beggars who refuse to labour so long as they can live by begging alms, giving themselves to idleness and sins” (Gillin 427). Under the rule of Edward VI the policies against sturdy beggars attained a Draconian level. Under the then existing law any vagabond who turned down an opportunity to work, could be brought to trial and branded a letter V with a hot iron on his breast. (Gillin 427). Eventually in 1603 Elizabethan Poor Law was passed, stating that any “able-bodied vagrants were to be sent to a workhouse and there provided work” (Gillin 428). Elizabethan Poor Law continued to be applied throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries without any considerable alteration. It was not until 1834 that a new reformed Poor Law was passed, based on three basic guiding principles that were to define the government policy towards the poor until the end of the nineteenth century, before a new revised Poor Law was established in 1907. Interestingly, no provision was made for the care of the vagrant. Vagrants and tramps were to be treated on the basis of the Vagrancy Act, which came into operation a decade earlier.

The stated objective of 1824 Vagrancy Act was “suppression of vagrant mode of life” (Supra qtd. in Charlesworth 160). The peculiarity of vagrancy laws concerns their vague application:

“Vagrancy laws are unique; while most crimes are defined by

actions, vagrancy laws make no specific action or inaction illegal.

Rather the laws are based on personal condition, state of being, and

social and economic status. Individuals merely need to exhibit the

characteristics or stereotypes of vagrants for authorities to make an

arrest” (Lacey qtd. in Ocobock 1).

From the above definition follows that the vagrancy legislation operated with the concept of ‘presumption of guilt’ rather than innocence, for it passed a collective judgement on the whole class of wandering individuals displaying certain characteristics.

The 1824 Vagrancy Act divided vagrant offenders into three broad categories and determined adequate sentences depending on which category the potential offender fell under. The three basic categories of vagrant offenders comprised the following: idle and disorderly, rogues and vagabonds and finally incorrigible rogues. For each separate category a broad definition was drawn up laying down particular offences punishable by imprisonment. While the first category of offenders, that is the category of idle and disorderly, included those were “found wandering abroad, or placing him or herself in any public street or highway, begging or gathering alms, or causing or encouraging children to do so,” the second category of rogues and vagabonds constituted those who were apart from the above mentioned offences also found “endeavouring to procure charitable contributions under any false or fraudulent pretence,”the third group of incorrigible rogues was formed by hardened rogues or vagabonds, that is those rogues and vagabonds who have repeatedly been found guilty of committing offences falling under the second category or rogues and vagabonds (Charlesworth 160). Each offence carried a statutory sentence. Being found idle or disorderly the offender was liable to one moths imprisonment, rogue and vagabond was liable to up to six month imprisonment and incorrigible rogues could look forward to the prospect of serving up to two years in prison, being flogged and transported to a place of their legal residence (Charlesworth 160).

The three principles contained in the Poor Law of 1834 were the Principle of National Uniformity, the Principle of Less Eligibility and finally the establishment of the Workhouse System (Webb in Bosanquet 183). While the principle of National Uniformity advocated a non-discriminative, universal treatment of all the destitute classes, the Principle of Less Eligibility in practical terms entailed that unemployed paupers subsisting on the state relief were to be “compensated” for being provided for by working in worse conditions, receiving smaller rations of food and performing more tedious work than the more “eligible” members of the lowest class of independent labourers. Clearly the underlying motive behind this principle was to discourage independent labourers to join the ranks of dependent paupers. This principle, however, was soon abandoned in relation to all destitute but vagrants. The new revised Poor Law policy enacted in 1907 replaced the original principles with the Principle of Curative Treatment – implying treatment of any destitute applicant for relief of such a quality and care as to bring about both physical and mental improvement of his health compared to the state prior to his applying for a relief, the Principle of Universal Provision – providing services by the State to any individual who will accept them, regardless of the extent of his destitution and the Principle of Compulsion – referring to the treatment of any particular individual in such a way that the local community deems best for him, irrespective of what his own views on the matter might be (Webb in Bosanquet 184). Bosanquet in her essay The Historical Basis of English Poor Law Policy critically replies to work by Beatrice and Sidney Webb – English Poor Law Policy, finding a flaw with their interpretation of the difference between the stated principles of 1834 and 1907 Poor Law policies as two contrastingly different unrelated sets of principles rather than as she maintains, a gradual evolution and development reflecting “changing conditions of social and industrial life” (Bosanquet 184).

The first attempts of public authorities to establish a system of workhouses and houses of correction for those who could not or were not willing to work can be traced back to the sixteenth century. Distinction was drawn between vagabonds and sturdy beggars who were not willing to work and other poor unemployed class of those who were looking for work but could not find any. While idle vagabonds were to be placed in the houses of correction to mend their ways, work-seeking members of the poor were to have a work arranged for them in the workhouse (Brewster 88). In 1572 Queen Elizabeth granted a charter to the Corporation of Ipswich to establish a house of correction (Christ’s Hospital) for “the vicious and curing of the sick” (Wodderspoon qtd. in Brewster 89). One of the stated objectives of the institution was for “…the slothful vagabonds and sturdy beggars, women of bad name and reputation, to be committed to custody and made to labour for their reformation” (Wodderspoon qtd. in Webb 89). Workhouses of the nineteenth century, established under the Poor Law of 1834 became one of basic tools with which the government hoped to control and suppress vagrancy and pauperism. Workhouses became an illustrative example of how the desire of government to control the roving crowds of the unemployed found itself in unison with compassion and charity. Workhouses unified in themselves a repressive semi-military regime and stringent rules to obey with free lodging and food for those who sought it. One of the obvious attractions of workhouse for the destitute ones was the fact that this institution offered completely free accommodation and food for those who could not afford even the smallest fee to pay their lodging in lodging house. Yet, the network of workhouses was established not with the aim of providing comfort and shelter for the poor but rather it aimed at eradicating the existence of the poor vagrant population. Workhouses with their cost-cutting administration of a compulsory work test functioned as deterrent facilities, reducing expenditure of local authorities on the traditional outdoor relief. From government statistics and records one could conclude that the destitute preferred outdoor relief to an indoor one provided by workhouses.

Introduction of a work test was only a part of a broad cost-cutting scheme known as a “crusade against outrelief” advocated in the latter half of nineteenth century by officials who wished the workhouse system to force the vagrant poor to seek alternative ways of charity outside (MacKinnon 501). Tramps and vagrants were indeed disinclined to seek shelter in workhouses which by the half of nineteenth century had established an infamous reputation for being unhygienic, dreary, filthy places offering inadequate housing and diet. Repulsive conditions of the workhouse, known in tramp vernacular also as a “dosshouse” or “spike” was shared by those novelists who personally ventured to spend at least one night within its walls wondering whether the workhouse would live up to its notorious reputation. Their account only confirms the reputation the workhouses enjoyed among the tramps and casuals: “No language with which I am acquainted is capable of conveying an adequate conception of the spectacle I then encountered” (Greenwood 11). Elsewhere Greenwood describes his anxious longing for the night experience to end to be released back to the outer world: “It still wanted four hours and a half to seven o’clock-the hour of rising-and never before in my life did time appear to creep so slowly” (Greenwood 31). Likewise, Jack London in his social novel The People of the Abyss paints a rather bleak picture of a typical London workhouse where he had the “pleasure” to take a night’s lodging: “The smell was frightful and sickening, while my imagination broke loose, and my skin crept and crawled till I was nearly frantic” (London 65). Tramps, vagrants and other destitute individuals were forced to earn their daily bread and accommodation by performing manual labour: …eight of us were convoyed to across the street to Whitechapel Infirmary, where we were set at scavenger work. This was the method by which we paid for our skilly and canvas…“ (London 65). This practice, along with the ticket allotment principle, made it virtually impossible for tramps to find a permanent employment. Having endured a night in the workhouse, inmates were assembled in the morning on the yard, served breakfast and consequently driven to work. After few hours of often tedious employment that many work-shy individuals boycotted, they were distributed with the so-called ‘meal tickets’, entitling them to free food in coffee houses situated along the way to the next workhouse that the tramps were bound to follow. As they were usually released from the workhouse late in the morning and had to tramp their way to the next one where they were to announce and register their arrival at a certain preset time, very little time was left to search for employment. Even those tramps, who were initially genuinely willing and interested to work found themselves with the passage of time discouraged and settled in their tramping existence: “It's hell bein' on de road, eh? It breaks yer heart goin' into dem bloody spikes. But what's a man to do else, eh?” (Orwell 126). Thus, tramping their way from one workhouse to another, many of them lost even the last glimmer of hope of ever finding a work: “The law sez I can’t get in another casual ward that night less’n ten miles distant. Have to hurry an’ walk to be there in time that day. What chance does that give me to look for a job” (London 49). As suggested above, the workhouse system played a vital part in monitoring vagrancy and yet it served an illustrative example of puzzling and sometimes incomprehensible government policy which effectively helped whether intentionally or not to perpetuate vagrancy through imposition of unnecessarily strict rules regulating the conditions upon which the dispossessed roaming poor were entitled to enjoy its benefits. Allegedly, the workhouse system’s ultimate objective was to make economies in the provision of outrelief but one is given a wondering whether slacking the tight rules surrounding the whole system and offering genuine support to the unemployed to find a means of sustainable employment might not have been more cost-saving strategy in the end.
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