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Life as a tramp in Victorian Hertfordshire

An early example of undercover journalism

Image courtesy of Dr Peter Jones, Early Career Lecturer in Urban History After 1800  Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research, University of London
Image courtesy of Dr Peter Jones, Early Career Lecturer in Urban History After 1800
Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research, University of London

Almost 150 years ago, the journalist and writer James Greenwood disguised himself as a homeless person and walked the length of Hertfordshire in order to experience, first hand, what life was like for a tramp in Victorian England.

He wrote about the fellow travellers he met on the way and the degrading conditions they faced. His journey took him through North Mymms. Stopping at the White Swan in Bell Bar he witnessed confidence tricksters using their misfortune to try to eke out a living.

During his trip Greenwood took the time to speak to the characters he encountered. All those he wrote about had a trade. He met a French-polisher, a hatter, a tailor, a stableman, a blacksmith, an "umbrella mender and riveter of fractured crockery", and an agricultural labourer.

But, despite their backgrounds, all the people Greenwood spoke to looked like tramps or vagabonds. He described one as a "raw-boned ragamuffin" and another a "stout and hearty grizzly bearded ruffian". And he wrote about the old man he met - a potter by trade - who was carrying his boots around his neck to avoid wearing out the soles, and who spoke about sleeping rough, saying "the best bed in the world was a green clover field."

Greenwood, who has been described as a social explorer, wrote about his experience in 1877 in a booklet entitled "On Tramp". A hundred years later, in August 1977, an article appeared in Hertfordshire Countryside magazine about Greenwood's experiences.

The North Mymms History Project has reproduced and embedded the article below, and taken a brief look at the conditions that led people to wander the countryside looking for work.

Punished for being poor

Sketch of a gentleman giving alms to a beggar: Illustration for "Of Pride" in John Day's  A christall glasse of christian reformation, London, 1569 via Wikimedia Commons
Gentleman giving alms to a beggar: Illustration for "Of Pride" in John Day's
A christall glasse of christian reformation, London, 1569 via Wikimedia Commons 

The Great Plague (1348-1350) is estimated to have led to the death of 30-40% of the population of England. Agriculture was particularly badly hit with farms facing ruin because of a lack of labourers to work the land. Those who had survived were in demand. As a result, wages and prices rose.

Parliament tried to control both with the Statute of Labourers Act of 1351, which attempted to keep wages to pre-plague levels and restrict the movement of agricultural workers. But this failed to stop workers travelling in order to sell their skills to the highest bidder.

So in 1388, the Statute of Cambridge was introduced to punish those who fled their previous employers and restrict the movement of labour. The act particularly targeted beggars and vagabonds, and the word vagabond became synonymous with criminal.

But many of those who had either chosen or been forced into a life of travelling to earn a living would have been skilled workers, some with a trade.

A hundred years later the authorities were still trying to control those moving from town to town and attempting to sell their labour. The Vagabonds and Beggars Act 1494 allowed law officers to put vagabonds in the village stocks for three days and three nights, sustained only by bread and water.

Things got tougher for the poor in 1547 with the introduction of the Vagrancy Act, also known as the Vagabonds Act. Under the new legislation vagabonds could be sentenced to two years servitude and be branded with a 'V'. Persistent offenders would be sentenced to lifelong slavery or execution, although, apparently, there are no records of the extreme punishments being enforced.

The Poor Act of 1552 handed the responsibility for looking after the poor to the parishes. Two "overseers" from each parish were appointed to collect money to be distributed to any poor people who were considered to belong to the parish. But collecting enough money proved difficult. And, because some parishes were more generous then others, vagabonds were travelling further afield to try to find the best handouts.

The Vagabonds Act 1572 changed the way money was raised for the poor. Under the act, each parish had to set the amount needed to provide for their poor - those who could prove they were living within the parish. Meanwhile, justices of the peace were granted the authority to determine the amount that should be donated to the fund from each of parish's more wealthy property-owners.

But although the act promised to provide more funds for the poor, it also introduced stricter punishments for being a vagabond, including being "bored through the ear" for a first offence, and hanging for persistent offenders.

Another act in 1578 transferred power from the justices of the peace to church officials who were to ensure that "vagrants were to be summarily whipped and returned to their place of settlement by parish constables."

At the time James Greenwood set off on his journey across Hertfordshire, relief for the country's poor was provided under the terms set out in the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. According to Wikipedia:
"The Act was intended to curb the cost of poor relief, and address abuses of the old system, prevalent in southern agricultural counties, by enabling a new system to be brought in under which relief would only be given in workhouses, and conditions in workhouses would be such as to deter any but the truly destitute from applying for relief."

By the 1880s North Mymms had a number of savings clubs, set up by the parish in order to help the poor.  The clubs were funded by regular weekly or monthly payments by both the rich and poor in the parish, and were managed by the church. It's estimated that the club which provided clothing for the poor was used by 75% of people living in the parish.

Peter Kingsford, in his book North Mymms People In Victorian Times, published on this site, wrote about the clubs in Chapter Seven - Thrift and Philanthropy.

So it was in such a climate that James Greenwood disguised himself as a tramp and walked across Hertfordshire in order to understand better what it was like to live as a homeless and jobless person in Victorian England.

James Greenwood (1832–1929) - journalist

Screen grab of a page from James Greenwood's book On Tramp courtesy of Abe Books (permission pending)

According to Wikipedia, the author of "On Tramp", James Greenwood (1832–1929), was a British social explorer, journalist, and writer:
"... who published a series of articles which drew attention to the plight of London's working poor. He was one of the first journalists to cover stories incognito, and is regarded as one of the pioneers of investigative journalism."
In the book, 'Street Arabs and gutter snipes: the pathetic and humorous side of young vagabond life in the great cities, with records of work for their reclamation', published in 1888, Greenwood is described as follows:
"James Greenwood, whose clear light shines into the darkness of low life, and whose pen calls aloud to his generation to lend a helping hand, has dug out of unseen quarries many a hero with a heart as big as czar or emperor, beating right royally behind a ragged jacket. Shame upon us that we cry ourselves hoarse applauding many an undeserving man and allow the nobler character go by unheeded. There may be a child at our feet, whom we impatiently spurn from us, worthy of at least an encouraging word."
The volume "On Tramp" was part of a three-work book written by Greenwood entitled On Tramp AND Rattletrap Rhymes and Tootletum Tales AND Life in Lodgings.

In it, he writes about his journey through North Mymms, and about some of the characters he met along the way, including stumbling across a man and woman attempting to con locals at the White Swan at Bell Bar.

Below are three images. The first is a section of an Ordnance Survey map published 21 years after Greenwood walked through the parish showing his possible route. The second is a picture of the pub known as The White Swan or The Swan. And a third is a sketch produced by the former North Mymms Local History Society showing the location of the pubs of Bell Bar.

copy of the OS 25 inch England and Wales, 1841-1952  Hertfordshire XXXV.16 (Bishops Hatfield; North Mimms) Revised: 1896 Published: 1898  Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland  Released under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0
OS 25 inch England and Wales, 1841-1952
Hertfordshire XXXV.16 (Bishops Hatfield; North Mimms) Revised: 1896 Published: 1898
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Released under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0

Photograph of The Swan, Bell Bar, in the 1900s, still an important stopping place for horse-drawn carriages Image from the NMLHS archive
The Swan, Bell Bar, in the 1900s
Image from the NMLHS, part of the Images of North Mymms collection

Map of Bell Bar showing the sites of four inns or alehouses  Image from the NMLHS, part of the Images of North Mymms collection
Map of Bell Bar showing the sites of four inns or alehouses
Image from the NMLHS, part of the Images of North Mymms collection

What was life like for a tramp

a hundred years ago? 

James Greenwood, who walked the length of Hertfordshire, left some revealing thoughts about life under the open skies.

by M. Tomkins

    One hundred years ago -- on Monday June 18, 1877 - James Greenwood set out to discover what the life of a tramp was like. "It was the custom," he learnt, "for tramps to commence somewhere near Barnet" and follow the hay-harvest north; and that, therefore, is what he did. He shouldered his stick and bundle, and before he had walked half a mile a watch-dog satisfied him "that there could be no doubt what he took me for."

    Near Hadley Highstone he encountered his first fellow-tramp, washing in a horsepond, "drying his face on the legs of his cotton stockings", hanging them round his neck to dry in the sun, and "combing his hair with his outstretched fingers." A French-polisher by trade, he had only recently taken to the road and, having got through all he had in his bundle and "sold the hankycher it was tied up in, coming through Hatfield," he declared: "it is my first time and my last."

    Greenwood passed more tramps between Barnet and Potters Bar, but none to speak to till within a mile of Bell Bar. Here a red haired Irish woman carrying on her shoulders a son of about 14 explained, on being offered a pipe of tobacco, that he was "a-wasting" and that she was carrying him into the country for the air. "He must be a heavy load," said Greenwood. "I wish it was heavier," replied the Irish woman.

    At the White Swan, Bell Bar, Greenwood was enjoying a pint when a woman came in, "sun-burnt and brown as a berry" and with one bandaged eye "scorched out by a stroke of the sun." She was carrying a tattered black jacket: it was nearly new, she said, and would the landlady give her two shillings for it to relieve her husband, an out-of-work tailor with a paralysed leg? On leaving the inn, Greenwood soon met, "lounging lazily against the 18th milestone, a stout and hearty grizzly bearded ruffian, smoking a filthy pipe." "Didn't you look in at the White Swan just now?" the man asked; "I thought you might be able to tell me whether my old woman is pulling the right string there."

   It was the "paralysed" tailor, to whom that jacket had been "beer and bacca and wittles" for him and his wife for days and "will last us through the summer if it ain't wore out with handling." His paralysed leg seemed "pretty strong" and, as for his wife's scorched eye, he explained: "I blacked it."

   In Hatfield, where Greenwood found "the lodging business being done by owners of back street little houses, with a room or two to spare," he secured a bed for fourpence. True, he had to share it with another tramp, who came in drunk at midnight, forgot to take off one boot, kept "lunging out with it against the foot-board," woke himself up each time and bawled out: "Come in!"

   In the morning, however, he stood Greenwood a breakfast of bacon and eggs in return for his writing a letter to his "Liza". He also confided to him his way of "working the ticket", "which he took from a breastpocket, carefully wrapped in brown paper": a hatter by trade, he attached himself to a benefit society so that he could get relief at its lodges. And before they parted he took him to Pryor's Hatfield brewery, where (wrote Greenwood) "declaring ourselves tramps and wayfarers we were supplied with as much small ale as we could drink from a measure."

   On the way to Welwyn Greenwood met an Irish tramp who had been literally dogged for two days by his "bob-tailed, raw-boned, ragamuffin ... cur" despite all his attempts to shoo it away; and a mile or so further on he reached a bridge over a stream in which another tramp, naked to the waist, was washing his linen and spreading it out to dry on a hawthorn bush. He had been a stableman who, he claimed, had been ruined by a horse: it had taken "a regler spite agin me". and, as "it wasn't gallus likely that a man was going to be beat by a horse," he had been sacked.

   As he spoke he was joined by two more tramps --- one who had been a blacksmith, the other an agricultural labourer. Greenwood left them together but was soon accosted by a gentleman at his garden-gate who had seen him "in company with three ruffians ... And you are as bad," he added, "I'll warrant." When Greenwood protested, the gentleman offered him a chance to prove his worth by putting in two or three hours weeding his overgrown garden — for threepence!

   Greenwood soon abandoned his post and took to the road again, tramping through Welwyn with no further encounters, "the dust of the white road" choking him "on a highway where the ale-houses are two or three miles apart.'

   At Stevenage he found a bed in a wayside cottage which cost him "twopence more than at Hatfield." The following morning, on the road again, he fell into conversation with "an umbrella mender and riveter of fractured crockery" and mentioned that he was going to Hitchin. "Through Wimley?" said the other and remarked: "Lord! What a difference there is between the number as takes that way now to when Mad Lucas was alive." This was the hermit of Redcoats Green, who had handed out largesse through the window to passing tramps. "Tuppence was his money .... 'cept your religion was the Irish religion, like his was, and you could patter a 'noster to him, and then you got fourpence and sometimes a glass of gin as well."

   They parted at Ippollitts, but later Greenwood took up with an old fellow "tramping Hitchin-ward ... who, for economy of shoe-leather, wore his boots about his neck, pendant by the laces, while he forged along the stony road barefoot." A potter in the winter, every summer he felt the call of the fields. He could earn 3s. 6d. a day hay-making, 6s. harvesting; and his expenses were few: "a penno'th of soap would last him a month," and "the best bed in the world was a green clover field."

   For Greenwood, however, he recommended a bed in Hitchin at the Shoulder of Mutton in Back Street. This turned out to be a long narrow street of slum property swarming with male travellers, sitting about and smoking, and female natives of Hitchin, plaiting. When he found the Shoulder of Mutton, "an odour wafted down the stairs" that consoled him for the news that it was full. But Back Street had plenty of other lodging-houses for travellers, where a "fourpenny pallet" could be had; at some, indeed, as little as threepence secured a kitchen to sit in, a fire to cook by, a locker to keep things in and a bed to sleep in.

   But Greenwood found the experience of sharing his dormitory with eleven snoring fellow-tramps made him say to himself as he "joyfully stepped across the threshold" in the morning: "Never again!"

Original article

The text above is from an article that appeared in Hertfordshire Countryside magazine in August 1977, embedded below.

On Tramp in Hertfordshire 

Below is a video of a research-led walk following in the footsteps of the 19th century dispossessed entitled "Without Visible Means: Tramping on (and off) the Great North Road".

The walk, in September 2017, was led by Dr Luke Seaber (UCL), Dr Peter Jones (IHR) and Esther McManus.

Acknowledgements and copyright

The top image of the On Tramp booklet cover is courtesy of Dr Peter Jones, Early Career Lecturer in Urban History After 1800, Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research, University of London. The picture of two pages of the book is from Abe Books. Permission to use this image has been requested and is pending.

The black and white image of the Swan Inn and the map are from the Images of North Mymms Collection.

Hertfordshire Countryside magazine, where this article appeared in August 1977, closed 35 years later in December 2012. The cutting above is from the Peter Miller Collection.

We have transcribed the text from the cutting for ease of reading. However we have so far failed to find the copyright owner of the original work in order to seek their permission. If you are the owner, or know the owner, please contact the North Mymms History Project using the contact form at the bottom right of any page. If you have any objection to the transcript appearing, it will be removed immediately.

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