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A Brief History of Walting

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That's right Sir... Her Majesty's 49th Regiment of Parachutists


'There's nothing new under the Sun' as the old adage goes. Just as today's bluffer can be found propping up the bar regaling to all and sundry of his time in 'the pit' - single-handedly clearing minefields in deep sea diver's boots, in days of yore the tavern vagabond could doubtless be found quoffing goodly ale (at the expense of the impressionable) and spouting drivel about the French, Russians or Boers.

There follows an excerpt from a rather interesting document first published in 1862: the lavishly-titled London Labour and the London Poor - A Cyclopedia of the Conditions and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, And Those That Will Not Work. Comprising Prostitutes, Swindlers, Thieves, Beggars. With Introductory Essay on the Agencies at Present in Operation in the Metropolis for the Suppression of Vice and Crime With Illustrations. The author, the Reverand William Tuckniss, B.A. (Chaplin to the Society for the Rescue of Young Women and Children) was clearly on to something, and this is probably the first documented mention of walting as we know it today. It makes for fascinating reading.

Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves

Naval and Military Beggars are most frequently met with in towns situated at some distance from a seaport or a garrison. As they are distinct specimens of the same tribe, they must be separately classified.

This sort of vagabond has two lays, the ‘merchant’ lay, and the ‘Royal Navy’ lay. He adopts either one or the other according to the exigencies of his wardrobe, his locality, or the person he is addressing. He is generally the offspring of some inhabitant of the most notorious haunts of a seaport town, and has seldom been at sea, or when he has, has run away after the first voyage. His slang of seamanship has been picked up at the lowest public-houses in the filthiest slums that offer diversion to the genuine sailor.

The Merchantman

When on the ‘merchant lay’ his attire consists of a pair of tattered trousers, an old Guernsey-shirt, and a torn straw-hat. One of his principal points of ‘costume’ is his bare feet. His black silk handkerchief is knotted jauntily round his throat after the most approved models at the heads of penny ballads, and the outsides of songs. He wears small gold earrings, and has short curly hair in the highest and most offensive state of glossy greasiness. His hands and arms are carefully tattooed - a foul anchor, or a long-haired mermaid sitting on her tail and making her toilette, being the favourite cartoons.

In his gait he endeavours to counterfeit the roll of a true seaman, but his hard feet, knock-knees, and imperceptibly acquired turnpike-trot betray him. His face bears the stamp of diabolically low cunning, and it is impossible to look at him without an association with a police court. His complexion is coarse and tallowy, and has none of the manly bronze that exposure to the weather and watching the horizon give to the real tar.

I was once walking with a gentleman who had spent the earlier portion of his life at sea, when a turnpike sailor shuffled on before us. We had just been conversing on nautical affairs, and I said to him ‘Now, there is a brother sailor in distress; of course you will give him something?’ ‘He a sailor?’ said my friend, with great disgust. ‘Did you see him spit?’ The fellow had that moment expectorated. I answered that I had. ‘He spit to wind'ard!’ said my friend. ‘What of that?’ said I. ‘A regular landsman's trick.’ observed my friend. ‘A real sailor never spits to wind'ard. Why, he couldn’t!’

We soon passed the fellow, who pulled at a curl upon his forehead and began in a gruff voice - intended to convey the idea of hardships, storms, shipwrecks, battles, and privations. ‘God bless your 'onors. Give a copper to a poor sailor who hasn't spliced the main jaw since the day 'fore yesterday at eight bells. God love yer 'onors do! I ‘aven’t tasted sin' the day 'fore yesterday, so drop a copper to a poor seaman do.’

My friend turned round and looked the beggar full in the face. ‘What ship?’ he asked quickly. The fellow answered glibly. ‘What captain?’ pursued my friend. The fellow again replied boldly, though his eyes wandered uneasily. ‘What cargo?’ asked my inexorable companion. The beggar was not at fault, but answered correctly. The name of the port, the reason of his discharge, and other questions were asked and answered; but the man was evidently beginning to be embarrassed. My friend pulled out his purse as if to give him something.

‘What are you doing here?’ continued the indefatigable inquirer. ‘Did you leave the coast for the purpose of trying to find a ship here?’ (We were in Leicester.) The man stammered and pulled at his useful forelock to get time to collect his thoughts and invent a good lie. He had a friend in them parts as he thought could help him.

‘How long since you were up the Baltic?’ ‘Year and a arf yer 'onor.’ ‘Do you know Kiel?’ ‘Yes, yer 'onor.’ ‘D'ye know the 'British Flag' on the quay there?’ ‘Yes, yer 'onor.’ ‘Been there often?’ ‘Yes, yer 'onor.’ ‘Does Nick Johnson still keep it?’ ‘Yes, yer 'onor.’

‘Then’, said my friend, after giving vent to a strong opinion as to the beggar's veracity, ‘I'd advise you to be off quickly, for there's a policeman, and if I get within hail of him I shall tell him you're an impostor. There's no such house on the quay. Get out, you scoundrel!’ The fellow shuffled off, looking curses, but not daring to express them.

The Sailor

On the Royal Navy lay, the turnpike sailor assumes different habiliments, and altogether a smarter trim. He wears coarse blue trousers - symmetrically cut about the hips - and baggy over the foot. A ‘jumper’ - or loose shirt of the same material, a tarpaulin hat, with the name of a vessel in letters of faded gold, is struck on the back of his neck, and he has a piece of whipcord, or ‘lanyard’ round his waist, to which is suspended a jack-knife - which if of but little service in fighting the battles of his country, has stood him in good stead in silencing the cackling of any stray poultry that crossed his road - or in frightening into liberality the female tenant of a solitary cottage.

This ‘patter’ or ‘blob’ is of Plymouth, Portsmouth, Cawsen Bay and Hamoaze – of ships paid off, prize-money, the ‘bosun’ and the first ‘le'tenant’. He is always an able-bodied, never an ordinary seaman, and cannot get a ship ‘becos orders is at the Hadmiralty as no more isn't to be put into commission’. Like the fictitious merchant sailor he calls every landsman ‘your honour’ - in accordance with the conventional rule observed by the Jack Tars in nautical dramas. He exhibits a stale plug of tobacco, and replaces it in his jaw with ostentatious gusto. His chief victims are imaginative boys fresh from Robinson Crusoe and Tales of the Ocean and old ladies who have relatives at sea.

For many months after a naval battle he is in full force, and in inland towns tells highly-spiced narratives of the adventures of his own ship and its gallant crew in action. He is profuse in references to ‘the cap'en’ and interlards his account with, ‘and the cap'en turns round, and he says to me, he says…’ He feels the pulse of his listener's credulity through their eyes, and throws the hatchet with the enthusiasm of an artist. ‘When we boarded 'em’ I heard one of these vagabonds say ‘oh, when we boarded 'em!’ but it is beyond the power of my feeble pen to relate the deeds of the turnpike true blue, and his ship and its gallant, gallant crew, when they ‘boarded 'em’.

I let him run out his yarn, and then said, ‘I saw the account of the action in the papers, but they said nothing of boarding. As I read it, the enemy were in too shallow water to render that manœuvre possible; but that till they struck their flag, and the boats went out to take possession, the vessels were more than half a mile apart.’

This would have posed an ordinary humbug, but the able-bodied liar immediately, and with great apparent disgust, said: ‘The papers! The noospapers? Damn the noospapers! You don't believe what they says, surely? Look how they sarved out old Charley Napier. Why, sir, I was there, and I ought to know.’

At times the turnpike sailor roars out a song in praise of British valour by sea; but of late this ‘lay’ has been infrequent. At others he borrows an interesting-looking little girl, and tying his arm up in a sling, adds his wounds and a motherless infant to his other claims upon the public sympathy. After a heavy gale and the loss of several vessels, he appears with a fresh tale and a new suit of carefully chosen rags.

When all these resources fail him he is compelled to turn merchant, or ‘duffer’, and invests a small capital in a few hundred of the worst, and a dozen or two of the very best cigars. If he be possessed of no capital he steals them. He allows his whiskers to grow round his face and lubricates them in the same liberal manner as his shining hair. He buys a pea-coat, smart waistcoat, and voluminous trousers, discards his black neckerchief for a scarlet one, the ends of which run through a massive ring. He wears a large pair of braces over his waistcoat, and assumes a half-foreign air, as of a mariner just returned from distant climes.

He accosts you in the streets mysteriously, and asks you if you want ‘a few good cigars?’ He tells you they are smuggled, that he ‘run’ them himself, and that the ‘Customs horficers’ are after him. I need hardly inform my reader that the cigar he offers as a sample is excellent, and that, should he be weak enough to purchase a few boxes he will not find them ‘according to sample’. Not infrequently, the cigar- ‘duffer’ lures his victim to some low tavern to receive his goods, where in lieu of tobacco, shawls and laces, he finds a number of cut-throat-looking confederates, who plunder and ill treat him.

It must not be forgotten that at times a begging sailor may be met, who has really been a seaman, and who is a proper object of benevolence. When it is so, he is invariably a man past middle age, and offers for sale or exhibition a model of a man-of-war or a few toy yachts. He has but little to say for himself, and is too glad for the gift of a pair of landsman’s trousers to trouble himself about their anti-nautical cut. In fact, the real seaman does not care for costume, and is as frequently seen in an old shooting coat as a torn jacket; but despite his habiliments, the true salt oozes out in the broad hands that dangle heavily from the wrists, as if wanting to grip a rope or a handspike; in the tender feet accustomed to the smooth planks of the deck, and in the settled, far-off look of the weather-beaten head, with its fixed expression of the aristocracy of subordination.

In conclusion, a real sailor is seldom or never seen inland, where he can have no chance of employment, and is removed from the sight of the sea, docks, shipmates, and all things dear and familiar to him. He carries his papers about him in a small tin box, addresses those who speak to him as ‘sir’ and ‘marm’ (and never as ‘your honour’ or ‘my lady’) and is rather taciturn than talkative - and rarely brags of what he has seen or done, or seen done. In these and all other respects he is the exact opposite of the turnpike sailor.

The Soldier

Soldier beggars may be divided into three classes: those who really have been soldiers and are reduced to mendicancy, those who have been ejected from the army for misconduct, and those with whom the military dress and bearing are pure assumptions.

The difference between these varieties is so distinct as to be easily detected. The first, or soldier proper, has all the evidence of drill and barrack life about him; the eye that always ‘fronts’ the person he addresses; the spare habit, high cheekbones, regulation whisker, stiff chin, and deeply-marked line beneath from ear to ear. He carries his papers about him, and when he has been wounded or seen service, is modest and retiring as to his share of glory. He can give little information as to the incidents of an engagement, except as regards the deeds of his own company, and in conversation speaks more of the personal qualities of his officers and comrades than of their feats of valour.

Try him which way you will he never will confess that he has killed a man. He compensates himself for his silence on the subject of fighting by excessive grumbling as to the provisions or quarters to which he has been forced to submit in the course of his career. He generally has a wife marching by his side - a tall strapping woman, who looks as if a long course of washing at the barracks had made her half a soldier.

Ragged though he be, there is a certain smartness about the soldier proper, observable in the polish of his boots, the cut of his cap, and the disposition of the leather strap under his lower lip. He invariably carries a stick, and when a soldier passes him, casts on him an odd sort of look, half envying, half pitying, as if he said ‘Though you are better fed than I, you are not so free!’

The soldier proper has various occupations. He does not pass all his time in begging: he will hold a horse, clean knives and boots, sit as a model to an artist, and occasionally take a turn at the wash-tub. Begging he abhors, and is only driven to it as a last resource.

If my readers would inquire why a man so ready to work should not be able to obtain employment, he will receive the answer that universally applies to all questions of hardship among the humbler classes: the vice of the discharged soldier is intemperance.

The second sort of soldier-beggar is one of the most dangerous and violent of mendicants. Un-tamable even by regimental discipline, insubordinate by nature, he has been thrust out from the army to prey upon society. He begs but seldom, and is dangerous to meet with after dark upon a lonely road or in a sequestered lane. Indeed, though he has every right to be classed among those who will not work, he is not thoroughly a beggar, but will be met with again and receive fuller justice at our hands, in the (to him) more congenial catalogue of thieves.

The third sort of street campaigner is a perfect impostor, who being endowed - either by accident or art - with a broken limb or damaged feature, puts on an old military coat, as he would assume the dress of a frozen-out gardener, distressed dock-yard labourer, burnt-out tradesman, or scalded mechanic. He is imitative, and in his time plays many parts. He ‘gets up’ his costume with the same attention to detail as the turnpike sailor. In crowded busy streets he ‘stands pad’, that is, with a written statement of his hard case slung round his neck, like a label round a decanter.

His bearing is most military; he keeps his neck straight, his chin in, and his thumbs to the outside seams of his trousers; he is stiff as an embalmed preparation, for which, but for the motion of his eyes, you might mistake him. In quiet streets and in the country he discards his ‘pad’ and begs ‘on the blob’ - that is, he ‘patters’ to the passers-by and invites their sympathy by word of mouth. He is an ingenious and fertile liar and seizes occasions such as the late war in the Crimea and the mutiny in India as good distant grounds on which to build his fictions.

I was walking in a high-road, when I was accosted by a fellow dressed in an old military tunic, a forage-cap like a charity boy's, and tattered trousers, who limped along barefoot by the aid of a stick. His right sleeve was empty, and tied up to a button-hole at his breast, à la Nelson.

‘Please your honour’ he began in a doleful exhausted voice, ‘bestow your charity on a poor soldier which lost his right arm at the glorious battle of Inkermann.’ I looked at him - and having considerable experience in this kind of imposition, could at once detect that he was acting. ‘To what regiment did you belong?’ I asked. ‘The Thirty sir!’ I looked at his button and read 30.

‘I haven't tasted bit o' food, sir, since yesterday at half-past four, and then a lady give me a cruster bread.’ he continued. ‘The Thirty?’ I repeated. ‘I knew the Thirty. Let me see… who was the colonel?’ The man gave me a name, with which I suppose he was provided. ‘How long were you in the Thirty?' I inquired. ‘Five year, sir.’ ‘I had a schoolfellow in that regiment, Captain Thorpe, a tall man with red whiskers. Did you know him?’ ‘There was a captain, sir, with large red whiskers, and I think his name was Thorpe; but he warn't captain of my company, so I didn't know for certain.’ replied the man - after an affected hesitation.

‘The Thirty was one of the first of our regiments that landed, I think?’ I remarked. ‘Yes, your honour, it were.’ ’You impudent impostor!’ I said; ‘The Thirty did not go out till the spring of '55. How dare you tell me you belonged to it?’ The fellow blenched for a moment, but rallied and said, ‘I didn't like to contradict your honour for fear you should be angry and wouldn't give me nothing.’

‘That's very polite of you’ I said, ‘but still I have a great mind to give you into custody. Stay; tell me who and what you are, and I will give you a shilling and let you go.’ He looked up and down the road, measured me with his eye, abandoned the idea of resistance, and replied:

‘Well, your honour, if you won't be too hard on a poor man which finds it hard to get a crust anyhow or way, I don't mind telling you I never was a soldier.’ I give his narrative as he related it to me.

‘I don't know who my parents ever was. The fust thing as I remember was the river side (the Thames), and running in low tide to find things. I used to beg, hold hosses, and sleep under dry arches. I don't remember how I got any clothes. I never had a pair of shoes or stockings till I was almost a man. I fancy I am now nearly forty years of age.’

‘An old woman as kep a rag and iron shop by the water-side give me a lodging once for two years. We used to call her 'Nanny;' but she turned me out when she caught me taking some old nails and a brass cup out of her shop; I was hungry when I done it, for the old gal gi' me no grub, nothing but the bare floor for a bed. I have been a beggar all my life, and begged in all-sorts o' ways and all sorts o' lays. I don't mean to say that if I see anything laying about handy that I don't mouch it (i.e. steal it).’

‘Once a gentleman took me into his house as his servant. He was a very kind man; I had a good place, swell clothes, and beef and beer as much as I liked; but I couldn't stand the life, and I run away.’

‘The loss o' my arm, sir, was the best thing as ever happen'd to me: it's been a living to me; I turn out with it on all sorts o' lays, and it's as good as a pension. I lost it poaching; my mate's gun went off by accident, and the shot went into my arm, I neglected it, and at last was obliged to go to a orspital and have it off. The surgeon as ampitated it said that a little longer and it would ha' mortified.’

‘The Crimea's been a good dodge to a many, but it's getting stale; all dodges are getting stale; square coves (i.e. honest folks) are so wide awake. ‘Don't you think you would have found it more profitable had you taken to labour or some honester calling than your present one?’ I asked. ‘Well, sir, p'raps I might’ he replied, ‘but going on the square is so dreadfully confining.’