How tempting it is to imagine that life in South Down villages a hundred years ago or more was something of a rural idyll: yet for many people life was very hard, work was scarce, poorly paid, and unemployment a constant fear and possibility. The very poorest took to tramping the roads, seeking what work and charity they could find.
Writing in 1883, Richard Jefferies, the great chronicler of the English countryside, wrote that being poor in the countryside was no less wretched than it was for those living in towns and cities. “In real life,” Jefferies observed, living in the country was “frequently damp and rheumatic, and most hated by those who know it most.” Jefferies, who moved to Sussex in 1883, and died at Goring in 1887, aged only 38, noticed how the depression in agriculture was leading many men “to take to the road,” there being no work for them in the villages of their birth.
The farmers, many of whom were tenants, were themselves finding it hard to make a living, and consequently were compelled to carry on farming with fewer labourers, as Jefferies reported in his book Chronicles of the Hedges: “Hard necessity compels the farmer to do with as little as he can, and as the farmers are the only employers, when all the tenants for miles and miles follow this course, it begins to tell on the cottagers. We have heard of as many as forty men being idle in one hamlet, hanging about with nothing to do.” No wonder such a desperate situation lead to an exodus from the countryside into the towns.
Although South Down farming land was some of the best in England, new technology was reducing the need for labour and cheaper foreign imports were forcing farmers to accept lower prices. Writing in 1899, W. H. Hudson was astonished to find Chichester full of poor men, spending the little they had on drink –
“In the streets, near the railway station, at the Market Cross, and at various corners, you will see groups of the most utterly drink-degraded wretches it is possible to find anywhere in the kingdom – men with soulless faces and watery eyes, dressed like tramps – standing idle with their hands in their pockets. But there is no a penny there, or they would not be standing in the mud and rain; and as for doing any work, they are past that. Here that rare spectacle, a man without a shirt, has met my sight, not one or twice, but several times, the naked flesh showing through the rents of a ragged jacket buttoned or pinned up to the neck. these loathly human objects are strangely incongruous at the spot, under the great spire, in sight of the green open healthy downs, in perhaps the richest agricultural district in England.”
Hudson was a great admirer of Jefferies, and his own writing owed much to the former’s observational style, though perhaps lacking some of Jefferies empathy for his subjects. Hudson even went to stay at Jefferies’ old house in Goring, when he was writing his Sussex book, Nature in Downland. One evening he went for a walk through the village, and meandering down the path that led to the church, he saw a tramp coming towards him, “whose countenance” was just like that of Jefferies. For a moment Hudson was convinced that his mentor had been reborn on Earth as a tramp. He put some money into the tramp’s hand, and then quickened on his way, but the that face “so full of misery” stayed with him for many hours.
The actress and author Nancy Price was one of the most formidable and fearless figures to emerge onto the literary scene after the First World War. She moved to High Salvington (recently absorbed into the Borough of Worthing in 1929), and died there in 1970 aged 90. She campaigned successfully to halt the march of residential Worthing onto the Downs and ensured the preservation of Honeysuckle Lane as a rural byway.
Price believed you could only really find out about the lives of other people by living with them and experiencing their daily routine. To find out what life was like in the merchant navy she took on the persona of a man, and dressed accordingly, and joined a vessel as a crew member. She was at sea for many months, and later wrote about her experience.
She was befriended by other tramps, and as an earlier writer, Margaret Fairless Barber had observed a generation earlier, she found there was a code of living among these men and, in Fairless’ words “a brotherhood of the poor.” She realised that tramping for her was an interlude in an otherwise comfortable life, but one that taught her a valuable lesson about the fleeting nature of material possessions –
“Though I believe I pass as a respectable citizen, I am by nature a vagabond, never so happy when, free of houses, I join the brotherhood of the road. I would rather a knapsack than a trunk, a tent than a house………[Yet] I cannot call myself a true member of the brotherhood of the road because, though to adventure, to explore, to find the unknown track, to know solitude, all weathers, to sail the seas….all this gives me a zest for life, to me there must be a time limit: there comes a moment when I want to go home.”
In 1909, the South Downs writer and bee-keeper, Tickner Edwardes spent many months tramping from Devon to his home at Burpham, where he found he had to recover his “starched dignity,” with its stiff collars and buttoned waistcoat. Middle Class respectability romancing the life of a tramp may seem more than a little delusional and patronising, but it does highlight the disconnect that affluent people felt towards the natural world snug in their detached residential isolation.
Hilaire Belloc once sat and talked with a tramp he met on the downs, and the man shared with Belloc an onion, the only food he had with him. Belloc understood more than most that wisdom was not accrued through possessions and wealth, but by recognising each person’s common humanity and soul. He also saw a society where so many had “neither an acre of land or a wall to call his own.” Belloc advocated ‘Distributism,’ whereby every family in England would be given enough land to feed themselves, and would thereby be freed from poverty and the need to seek charity from either the wealthy or the state. That might have been a viable proposition in 1870, the year of Belloc’s birth, but how many families in England today would know how to farm an acre of land?
This short extract from my interview with Edith Geere very nearly wasn’t recorded at all. My interview with her took place in December 1999, when she was 92. She told me a lot about growing up in Sompting and the difficulties poorer people had in making ends meet. In those days all my interviews were recorded on C90 audio cassettes; and it was just as the tape was running out that Edith told me about the poor beggarman who called at her house on his way to the workhouse at East Preston.
Literally, as she finished telling me of the beggar being arrested and her mother’s reaction, the tape ran out. The indignation in Edith’s voice is still palpable, even though she was describing an event that had taken place so many years earlier, before the First World War.