A Day in the Life of a Tramp

This material remains under copyright and is reproduced by kind permission of the Orwell Estate and Penguin Books.

First, what is a tramp?[1]

A tramp is a native English species.  These are his distinguishing characteristics:  he has no money, he is dressed in rags, he walks about twenty kilometres a day and never sleeps two nights together in the same place.

In short, he is a wanderer, living on charity, roaming around on foot day after day for years, crossing England from end to end many times in his wanderings.

He has no job, home or family, no possessions in the world apart from the rags covering his poor body; he lives at the expense of the community.

No one knows how many individuals make up the tramp population.

Thirty thousand?  Fifty thousand?  Perhaps a hundred thousand in England and Wales when unemployment is particularly bad.

The tramp does not wander for his own amusement, or because he has inherited the nomadic instincts of his ancestors; he is trying first and foremost to avoid starving to death.

It is not difficult to see why; the tramp is unemployed as a result of the state of the English economy.  So, to exist, he must have recourse to public or private charity.  To assist him, the authorities have created asiles (workhouses) where the destitute can find food and shelter.

These places are about twenty kilometres apart, and no-one can stay in any one spike more that once a month.  Hence the endless pilgrimages of tramps who, if they want to eat and sleep with a roof over their heads, must seek a new resting-place every night.

That is the explanation for the existence of tramps.  Now let us see what sort of life they lead.  It will be sufficient to look at just one day, for the days are all the same for these unfortunate inhabitants of one of the richest countries in the world.

*

Let us take one of them as he comes out of the spike at about ten in the morning.

He is about twenty kilometres from the next workhouse.  He will probably take five hours to walk that distance, and will arrive at his destination at about three in the afternoon.

He will not rest much on the way, because the police, who look on tramps with a suspicious eye, will make quick work of sending him packing from any town or village where he might try to stop.  That is why our man will not tarry on the way.

It is, as we have said, around three o’clock in the afternoon when he turns up at the spike.  But the spike does not open until six in the evening.  Three weary hours to kill in the company of other the other tramps who are already waiting.  The herd of human beings, haggard, unshaven, filthy and tattered, grows from minute to minute.  Soon there are a hundred unemployed men representing nearly every trade.

Miners and cotton-spinners, victims of the unemployment which is raging in the North of England, form the majority but all trades are represented, skilled or not.

Their age?  From sixteen to seventy.

Their sex?  There are around two women for every fifty tramps.

Here and there, an imbecile jabbers meaningless words.  Some men are so weak and decrepit that one wonders how they could possibly walk twenty kilometres.

Their clothes strike you as grotesque, tattered and revoltingly filthy.

Their faces make you think of the face of some wild animal, not perhaps a dangerous one, but one which has become at once savage and timorous through lack of rest and care.

*

There they wait, lying on the grass or squatting in the dust.  The bravest prowl around the butcher’s or the baker’s, hoping to glean some scrap of food.  But this is dangerous, because begging is against the law in England, so for the most part they are content to remain idle, exchanging vague words in a strange slang, the tramps’ special language, full of bizarre and picturesque words and phrases which cannot be found in any dictionary.

They have come from all four corners of England and Wales, and tell each other their adventures, discussing without much hope the likelihood of finding work on the way.

Many have met before in some spike at the other end of the country for their tracks cross again and again in their ceaseless wanderings.

These workhouses are miserable and sordid caravanserais where the miserable English pilgrims assemble for a few hours before scattering again in all directions.

All the tramps smoke.  As smoking is forbidden inside the spike, they make the most of their waiting hours.  Their tobacco consists mainly of cigarette-ends which they pick up in the street.  They roll it in paper or stuff it into old pipes.

When a tramp does come by some money, which he has worked for or begged on the way, his first thought is to buy tobacco, but mostly he has to make do with cigarette-ends picked up from the pavement or road.  The spike only gives him his board:  for the rest, clothes, tobacco etc. he has to shift for himself.

*

But it is nearly time for the gates of the spike to open.  The tramps have got up, and are queuing by the wall of the huge building, a vile yellow cube of brick, built in some distant suburb, and which might be mistaken for a prison.[2]

A few more minutes and the heavy gates swing open and the herd of human beings enters.

The resemblance between one of these spikes and a prison is even more striking once you are through the gates.  In the middle of an empty yard, surrounded by high brick walls, stands the main building containing bare-walled cells, a bathroom, the administrative offices, and a tiny room furnished with plain deal benches which serves as a dining-room.  Everything is as ugly and as sinister as you care to imagine.

The prison atmosphere can be found everywhere.  Uniformed officials bully the tramps and push them about, never neglecting to remind them that in coming into the workhouse they have given up all their rights and all their freedom.

The tramp’s name and trade are written in a register.  Then he is made to have a bath, and his clothes and personal possessions are taken away.  Then he is given a coarse cotton workhouse shirt for the night.

If he should happen to have any money, it is confiscated, but if he admits to more than two francs [fourpence] he will not be allowed into the spike and will have to find a bed somewhere else.

As a result those tramps – there are not many of them – who have more than two francs have taken pains to hide their money in the toes of their boots, making sure they are not observed, for this fraud could be punished with imprisonment.

After his bath, the tramp, whose clothes have now been taken away, receives his supper:  half a pound of bread with a little margarine and a half-litre of tea.

The bread made specially for tramps is terrible.  It is grey, always stale, and has as disagreeable taste which makes one think that the flour it is made from comes from tainted grain.

Even the tea is as bad as it can be, but the tramps drink it gladly, as it warms and comforts them after the exhaustion of the day.

This unappetising meal is gulped down in five minutes.  After that, the tramps are ordered into the cells where they will spend the night.

These cells, real prison cells of brick or stone, are about twelve feet by six.  There is no artificial light – the only source of light is a narrow barred window very high up in the wall and a spyhole in the door which allows the guards to keep an eye on the inmates.

Sometimes the cell contains a bed, but normally the tramps have to sleep on the floor with only three blankets for bedding.

There are often no pillows, and for this reason the unfortunate inmates are allowed to keep their coats to roll into a sort of cushion for their heads.

Usually the room is terribly cold, and as a result of long use the blankets have become so thin that they offer no protection at all against the severity of the cold.

As soon as the tramps have entered their cells, the doors are firmly bolted on the outside: they will not open until seven o’clock next morning.

Usually there are two inmates in each cell.  Walled up in their little prison for twelve weary hours with nothing to keep out the cold but a cotton shirt and three thin blankets, the poor wretches suffer cruelly from the cold and the lack of the most elementary comfort.

The places are nearly always bug-infested, and the tramp, a prey to vermin, his limbs worn out, spends hours and hours tossing and turning in a vain wait for sleep.

If he does manage to fall asleep for a few minutes, the discomfort of sleeping on a hard floor soon wakes him up again.

The wily old tramps who have been living like this for fifteen or twenty years, and have become philosophical as a result, spend their nights talking.  They will rest for an hour or two next day in a field, under some hedge which they find more welcoming than the spike.  But the younger ones, not yet hardened by familiarity with the routine, struggle and groan in the darkness, waiting impatiently for the morning to bring their release.

And yet, when the sunlight finally shines into their prison, they consider with gloom and desperation the prospect of another day exactly like the one before.

Finally, the cells are unlocked.  It is time for the doctor’s visit – indeed, the tramps will not be released until this formality is completed.

The doctor is usually late, and the tramps have to wait for this inspection, lined up half-naked in a passage.  Then one can get an idea of their physical condition.

What bodies and what faces!

Many of them have congenital malformations.  Several suffer from hernias, and wear trusses.  Almost everyone has deformed feet covered in sores as a result of lengthy tramping in ill-fitting boots.  The old men are nothing but skin and bone.  All have sagging muscles, and the wretched look of men who do not get a square meal from one end of the year to the other.

Their emaciated features, premature wrinkles, unshaven beards, everything about them tells of insufficient food and lack of sleep.

But here comes the doctor.  His inspection is as rapid as it is cursory.  It is designed, after all, merely to detect whether any of the tramps are showing the symptoms of smallpox.

The doctor glances at each of the tramps in turn rapidly up and down, front and back.

Now most of them are suffering from some disease or other.  Some of them, almost complete imbeciles, are hardly capable of taking care of themselves.  Nevertheless they will be released as long as they are free from the dreaded marks of smallpox.

The authorities do not care whether they are in good or bad health, as long as they are not suffering from an infectious disease.

After the doctor’s inspection, the tramps get dressed again.  Then, in the cold light of day, you can really get a good look at the clothes the poor devils wear to protect themselves against the ravages of the English climate.

These disparate articles of clothing – mostly begged from door to door – are hardly fit for the dustbin.  Grotesque, ill-fitting, too long, too short, too big or too small, their quaintness would make you laugh in any other circumstances.  Here, you feel enormous pity at the sight of them.

They have been repaired as far as possible, with all kinds of patches.  String does duty for missing buttons.  Underclothes are nothing but filthy tatters, holes held together by dirt.

Some of them have no underclothes.  Many do not even have socks; after binding their toes in rags, they slide their bare feet into boots whose leather, hardened by sun and rain, has lost all suppleness.

It is a fearful sight watching tramps get ready.

Once they are dressed, the tramps receive their breakfast, identical to the previous night’s supper.

Then they are lined up like soldiers in the yard of the spike, where the guards set them to work.

Some will wash the floor, others will chop wood, break coal, do a variety of jobs until ten o’clock, when the signal to leave is given.

They are given back any personal property confiscated the previous evening.  To this is added half a pound of bread and a piece of cheese for their midday meal, or sometimes, but less often, a ticket which can be exchanged at specified cafés along the way for bread and tea to the value of three francs [sixpence].

A little after ten o’clock, the gates of the spike swing open to let loose a crowd of wretched and filthy destitute men who scatter over the countryside.

Each one is making for a fresh spike where he will be treated in exactly the same way.

And for months, years, decades perhaps, the tramps will know no other existence.

*

In conclusion, we should note that the food for each tramp consists, all in all, around 750 grammes [2 pounds] of bread with a little margarine and cheese, and a pint of tea a day; this is clearly an insufficient diet for a man who must cover twenty kilometres a day on foot.

To supplement his diet, to obtain clothing, tobacco and the thousand other things he might need, the tramp must beg when he cannot find work (and he hardly every finds work) – beg or steal.

Now begging is against the law in England, and many a tramp has become acquainted with His Majesty’s prisons because of it.

It is a vicious circle; if he does not beg, he dies of starvation; if he begs, he is breaking the law.

The life of these tramps is degrading and demoralising.  In a very short time it can make an active man unemployable and a sponger.

Moreover it is desperately monotonous.  The only pleasure for tramps is coming by a few shillings unexpectedly; this gives them the chance to eat their fill for once or to go on a drinking spree.

The tramp is cut off from women.  Few women become tramps.  For their more fortunate sisters the tramp is an object of contempt.  So homosexuality is a vice which is not unknown to these eternal wanderers.

Finally the tramp, who has not committed any crime, and who is, when all is said and done, simply a victim of unemployment, is condemned to live more wretchedly than the worst criminal.  He is a slave with a semblance of liberty which is worse than the most cruel slavery.

When we reflect upon his miserable destiny, which is shared by thousands of men in England, the obvious conclusion is that society would be treating him more kindly by shutting him up for the remainder of his days in prison, where he would at least enjoy relative comfort.

E. A. BLAIR[3]

First published by Le Progrès Civique, 5 January 1929. Translated from the French by Janet Percival and Ian Willison.

Notes

[1] This article is one of three from ‘An Inquiry into “Civic Progress” in England: The Plight of the British Workers’, published by Le Progrès Civique in 1928 and 1929. For each, Orwell was paid 225 francs (about £1.80 – some £70 at today’s values). He also wrote articles on John Galsworthy, the exploitation of the Burmese people, and on censorship in England, for French journals. They, with an article on ‘A Farthing Newspaper’ published in England, are an epitome of the interests he would pursue as an essayist: social and political issues, literature, popular culture and imperialism. The very short paragraphs are not typical of Orwell. Orwell wrote in English (in a version that has not survived), and the French translator, Raoul Nicole, is almost certainly responsible for breaking Orwell’s prose into short bites. It is possible that the divisions marked by asterisks represent Orwell’s original paragraphing. For later reworkings of the experiences described here, see ‘The Clink’, published by The Adelphi, April 1931 (CW X, 104), and chapters 27 and 35 of Down and Out in Paris and London. There were once about 750 spikes (casual wards or workhouses); a government order closed the last (at Bishopbriggs, near Glasgow) in 1996. The French text has asile for workhouse and usually prints tramp(s) in italic but occasionally translates it as vagabond(s). The square brackets are Orwell’s.

[2] Ironically, some former workhouses are now being converted into luxurious apartments, for example, at Marlborough.

[3] The pen-name ‘George Orwell’ was first used in January 1933 for Down and Out in Paris and London. It was not regularly used for reviews and articles until December 1936. For much of his time at the BBC (1941-3) Orwell was known as Eric Blair. In correspondence, he tended to sign himself, and be addressed, as Eric or George depending on whether the correspondent originally knew him as Eric or George. Occasionally, if a secretary typed a letter for him, he would sign Eric Blair over a typed George Orwell.

Peter Davison, adapted from Orwell’s England.