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Slum Life in Edinburgh
Chapter VI. Tramps and Their Ways

We have arrived now at the fourth stage .in our descent in the social scale, passing the poor man as he-is found at home, in furnished lodgings, and in common lodging-houses, till we come to the habitual rover, who calls no place his home, who belongs to no particular town, county, or country, but is for ever on the move ; wandering, he cares not whither and knows not why.

Adopting a famous phraseology, it may be said that some are born tramps, some drift into tramp-life, and some have tramp-life thrust upon them. The first-mentioned class are those who have been born “ on the road,” the children of tramps, reared in the profession, and remaining in it all their lives. There is such a thing as hereditary tramphood; the tendency to rove seems to run in the blood like physical or mental traits; with this difference, that the wandering propensity does not jump one generation and reappear in the next, as inherited idiosyncracies commonly do.

We know of at least one noted tramp, whose father and grandfather were tramps before him, and who, at the present moment, is bringing up a large and promising family to his ancestral vocation.

Those who have tramp-life thrust upon them are not, we believe, a large section of the brother-liood, for the act of entering the calling is almost always more or less voluntary. Yet it frequently happens that a man may be dragged into the life against his will.

For example, a man living with his wife and family in Edinburgh, finds himself suddenly thrown out of employment. Unable to obtain work here, he sets off for Glasgow on foot. There he finds something to do, in a few weeks sends for his family, and they, selling off their modest furniture, join the bread-winner in Glasgow. But soon lie is again without work, and this time he migrates to Dundee, perhaps, whither the family follow him at the earliest possible day. A few moves of this kind soon begin to tell upon the habits of a household. The mother and the children, left behind while the father is looking for work in another city, become initiated into the mysteries of the begging business ; domestic stability rapidly goes; and in the course of time the family are enlisted in the ragged regiment that are constantly parading every highway in the country. Once they adopt that career they very, very seldom forsake it. Life then is but a slouch onward to the poor house, or until they lie down to die behind a hedge.

But the genuine, thoroughbred tramp—he who may be said to have of his own will adopted the profession—is a shiftless, lazy rascal whose chief aim is to get through life with the least possible amount of labour. His aversion to work might be said to amount almost to a passion, were it not that he is too easy-going to harbour such a strong feeling. His disinclination to exertion takes rather the form of a placid determination not to be moved from the passive attitude he has assumed with respect to the industrial system. To this line of conduct he adheres with a persistency quite pathetic in its steadfastness.

There is a story told of two tramps that deserves to be true if it is not. They had fallen asleep in a cosy corner in an out-house and were snoring as loudly as if they had earned their repose, when one of them began to stir uneasily and to give vent to half-stifled moans. These symptoms of dispeace increased until he awoke with a shriek, and trembling violently. “What’s the matter?” anxiously inquired his companion who had been roused by the commotion. “Oh, something awful,” groaned the man with the nightmare, as he buried his face in his hands. “I’ve had a terrible dream. I dreamt I was workmy!” Only a tramp could appreciate the horror of a vision like that.

Circumstances, however, arc sometimes more than a match for the tramp, so that he finds himself reduced to the absolute necessity of throwing off his coat and expending some of his precious energy. And this leads us to note that, broadly speaking, tramps may be classified for the sake of convenience into “working” and “nonworking.” .

The “working” tramp is a man (or woman) who wanders about the country “in search of work,” as he puts it when making his piteous appeal to charitable persons and societies. He works for a day or two or a week or two in a town, then off he goes to some other place. The demon of unrest seems to possess him. He cannot remain long in one place; he has not sufficient fixity of purpose for that. “Give a tramp the best job in Scotland, and, ten to one, he won’t stop at it,” said a man to us who had himself been in the profession, but had had the rare good fortune to be weaned from it. You may get him to work steadily for a little while, but just as you are beginning to believe in his reformation, he becomes restless and dissatisfied, drinks any savings he may have made, and breaks loose once more.

One of the worst instances we have known of temporary reform followed by complete relapse was that of a tramp who, coming under powerful influence, settled down to sobriety and the business of a fish hawker. Being a smart fellow, he prospered, and in the course of three years bought a horse and cart, and saved £133. But one unfortunate night he broke his pledge, and “got on the spin.” It seemed as if a devil had taken possession of him. Nothing could stop his mad career. In ten months he drank the £133 lie had in the bank, and his horse and cart, in addition to the money he earned in sober intervals during that time. Thus reduced to his former poverty he took to the road again, and is a more confirmed tramp than before. As well try to harpoon the wind as attempt to fix these rovers to any permanent employment.

These tramps of intermittent industry are to be met with in great numbers on the roads leading to large commercial centres. From Glasgow to Dundee is their favourite route, thence through the small but busy manufacturing towns of Fife to Edinburgh, from which they slowly make their way back again to Glasgow. Many spend almost their entire lives on this tour, tramping and working, and working and tramping, doing the round over and over again, with an occasional excursion, perhaps, to Newcastle or Carlisle, or some other distant part. But wherever they go, it is with the same aimlessness, and productive of as little abiding benefit.

Even a more hopeless subject to deal with is the anon-working” tramp, who resembles his spasmodic relation in everything except that he is not “in search of work.” On the contrary, if he had the faintest suspicion that work was in search of him he would run till he dropped to escape from it. People of this class are simply itinerant beggars who rove at large over the country, wandering wherever they think they are likely to get the most with the least trouble. Many of them have not done a day’s work for years, but by begging, singing, or playing a whistle in the streets of the towns and villages they pass through, they contrive to make a tolerable livelihood. These mendicants do not confine their tramping to the highways connecting commercial towns, as their “ working ” brethren do, but ramble all over the country, scouring agricultural as well as manufacturing districts. Indeed, it is said that they fare better among country folks than with the sharper town-bred people.

A tattered and battered fellow whom wc got into conversation with some time ago, belonged to this class of tramps. He was one of those cool, brazen-faced individuals who could stare a sheriff-officer out of countenance; one of those calm, self-satisfied persons who are never disconcerted and never in a hurry.

“I have been a fortnight in Edinburgh,” he said. “Have been in it often before. It is a capital place for resting my feet, and I generally stay in it a fortnight at a time, for there arc any amount of ‘skippers’ [places for passing the night in] all round about. I get as good a living as if I was working. By a little mouching I can get as much grub as I need, and I can rest myself whenever I like. But a man would be better off if he could fiddle or whistle or do anything of that kind. I made the price of my ‘doss’ [bed] with a tin whistle yesterday on the High Street and Bank Street ; made sixpence in ten minutes, and that got doss, tea, and sugar. I do work occasionally to give myself a fresh start. I have been in two or three regiments and deserted. In the winter, when 1 was hard up, I gave myself up, but soon deserted again, and set off on the road in a fresh rig. I was a militiaman for four years, and that kept me from settling down, having to leave my work every year to go up for training. I have been on tour for two years ; during winter get into skippers; in summer-time travel through the night and sleep anywhere during the day, under a hedge or on the roadside, only occasionally getting a bed by singing ‘The Highlandman’s Toaro’  and ‘Flora Macdonald's Lament.’ I have got many a copper by singing them during the past six years. I learned them from a song-book. I am quite happy and contented with my lot. I could do like other folk, but don’t care to work.”

Another happy-go-lucky bird of passage, during one of his periodical visits to “ this paradise of tramps,” as Edinburgh has been called, explained his mode of travel to us; and his account we shall reproduce, omitting, of course, the tramp jargon, which would be unintelligible to most people.

“Say, now, that I left Glasgow, bound for Dundee. Well, the first day I would try to get as far as Stirling, for there is a good night-shelter there. The next day would be an easy one, only a six mile walk to Dunblane, where there is a kind inspector of poor who often gives us the price of our lodging. The next night would see me at Auchterarder, where I would find a sleeping-place of some kind; and on the fourth day I would reach Perth. Though that is a good-sized town, it has not got a shelter, but there are lots of cosy dosses to be got in the farmhouses round about. The fifth night I would sleep at Errol, where I would probably get my bed from the inspector of the poor; and on the sixth day I would reach Dundee. There, of course, I would put up at the night-shelter. The next morning I would perhaps look for work, or sing in the streets, or beg, and if I got any money, pass the night in a lodging-house. But if I got no money, I would sleep in the most comfortable corner I could find.”

This is a specimen tour; all tramps’ excursions are managed on the same general principles.

When a tramp shuffles into Edinburgh, from whatever point of the compass he comes, he usually makes his way at night to the Night Asylum in Old Fishmarket Close, adjoining the Police Office. There he takes his place among a waiting crew of poor wretches, who, like himself, are without place to lay their head.

About eight o’clock the applicants for a night’s shelter are gathered together in the hall of the asylum, and one by one, arc brought before the superintendent, who asks them their name, age, occupation, when and where they last worked and where they are going, and some other personal details. The rule of the establishment is that none but strangers are admitted, and not more than once in three months. The superintendent, however, has power to relax the regulations in social cases, and frequently considerable pains are taken to give assistance to persons of whose good character assurances have been obtained. It is impossible in the nature of things to guard , against imposition altogether; consequently, it is to be feared that many lazy, skulking fellows get better treatment than they deserve.

Be that as it may, when all the applicants have passed through the catechism, and got back to their seats in the hall, where they sit a silent, dirty, ragged company, a supper of porridge and milk is handed round in tin basins. For a few minutes nothing is heard but the scraping of the spoons on the bowls as the hungry outcasts put themselves outside the porridge with amazing rapidity. Then they all flock upstairs to the dormitories. These arc not sumptuous apartments, but they are warm, comfortable, and scrupulously clean. Down both sides of a long room sloping platforms arc raised about a foot from the floor, and on these, wrapped in a rug. the homeless creatures sleep. A stove in the middle of the room keeps the temperature agree able. Smoking is forbidden, but it is difficult prevent men having a whiff during the night, an possibly, the tobacco fumes may act as a disinfectant, which, it need scarcely be said, is powerful argument in favour of permitting the practice. In the morning the lodgers get breakfast, and are then allowed to shift for themselves. Our friend the tramp will probably “mouch about the city during the day, and if when nigh draws near, he has not enough money to get f bed in a lodging-house, he will trudge down to Leith and creep on board a coal-boat, or a tug, or lie will leave the town and make for the nearest pithead, brickwork, coke-ovens, farmhouse, or, in fact, any place where he can find a warm shelter. He delights to coil himself up in a boiler-house or beside a glowing ash-heap. Not unfrequently, poor fellow, he pays for this comfort with his life, for while he sleeps he is suffocated by poisonous fumes, and in the morning his charred body is found lying on the cinders.

It is a curious fact that tramps seldom pass the night in stairs and such-like retreats of the destitute in towns. It is usually street loafers and resident beggars who do that. The true tramp prefers the open country.

A tramp’s knowledge of the country through which his beat lies is as peculiar as it is varied, e knows the farms where a shakedown of straw in outhouse may be counted upon; he remembers also the steadings whose owners discount his visits and where the watch-dogs are corruptible. Towns and villages arc mapped it according to their relative hospitality. If lie in a communicative mood he will tell you that Dalkeith is one of the “hungriest holes in all Scotland ” for tramps, and that lie would give lie palm for parsimony to the village of Cockburnspath. On the other hand the place where tramps receive the most generous treatment is, lie thinks, in the fishing village of Eyemouth: the reason why, he docs not know, except that it is because fisher-folks are simple-minded, kindly people.

With such knowledge as this at his finger-ends, a gentleman of the road can lead not an unpleasant life in summer-time. In winter, however, he has to put up with many hardships. But if he is a man of resource, he can usually hit upon some plan to secure his comfort during the cold months. He may retire gracefully to the poor-house or the hospital and lie there snug until the -return of weather favourable to travelling. To make themselves eligible for residence in the infirmary, tramps, resort to all sorts of tricks, They have been known to run a knife into their hand or to disable themselves in some other way. One man we were told of could simulate pals so well as to defy detection by the doctors, and another could so contort his face as to make the medical men believe that he was in a very bad way indeed. .

Another aimiable weakness that tramps have is that of passing themselves off as unemployed during strikes or in times of commercial distress. Whenever a strike occurs in any district thither the tramps flock, and for the nonce take up the profession of the unemployed, and a very easy and paying job it is too.

There are some tramps who save money. One we know of is roving about at this present moment 'with £90 sewed in the lining of his coat. Another, the last time he left Edinburgh, earned with him a bank book showing a credit balance of over £100. But these are rare exceptions. The ordinary tramp lives from day to day,

from hand to mouth, at the expense of the public; and when at length lie has trudged his last mile, and lays himself down to die in the poorhouse hospital, he makes his last exaction upon society for the amount of his funeral expenses.

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