NZOrgan Musings and Amusings, October 2008


Do those scribbles look familiar to you?
David Bridgeman-Sutton wonders if hobos were the forerunners of taggers

Oast Houses

Every winter, on the last two Wednesdays of November, the tramp turned up to the mid-day organ recital. Eventually, the audience concluded that he was one of the many who walked the same annual route, covering several hundreds of miles to be in the same place on the same date each year. He sat huddled against a radiator and may or may not have enjoyed the music No-one asked him to find out and, perhaps because he took his own atmosphere with him, most rather wished that he wouldn't come at all. Then one year he was missing never to be seen again; none knew of or cared about his fate.

The search for warmth was a preoccupation among tramps and a cause of friction with the more settled population. Phlegmatic householders could be shaken by unexpected and unkempt figures lurching away from sheltered spots near their homes. Farmers chased away tramps, blaming them for every barn blaze. Hay made a snug bed, but one that caught easily when a fire was lit for cooking purposes. Worse consequences could ensue in hop-growing districts. Oast houses (picture 1) are used to dry these crops and the kilns provided apparently ideal and accessible places to snuggle down for the night. The build-up of carbon monoxide produced fatal results for many a sleeping tramp. Limekilns also caused their share of fatalities, which sometimes rated two or three lines in the local press. Names of victims were rarely known.


Female tramps were to be met, though infrequently. In Thomas Hardy's poem A Trampwoman's Tragedy, a woman recounts real-life misadventure that befel "My fancy-man, and jeering John,/ And Mother Lee and I" on an afternoon in the 1820s. Numbers engaged in tramping increased throughout the 19th century and, especially, after World War I. Social policy toward the problems facing the many physically injured and mentally damaged people who took to the roads was not enlightened.

Today's fast moving traffic does not favour the shuffling pedestrian and freight trains - where they continue - rarely offer non-paying passengers a ride. Picture 2 suggests the hazards involved in train-hopping. It was the loss of part of his leg whilst thus engaged in Canada, that encouraged the tramp WH Davies to turn to writing. His autobiography was an instant success, built on his published verse. His lines: -
"What is this life if, full of care,/ We have no time to stand and stare?........"
perhaps sum up the philosophy of the hobo. If the philosophy continues, the tramp has disappeared from many parts of the world. (The last one I saw, some 40 years ago, was in a remote, rural area.)

Oppressed minorities usually organise themselves in some way as a measure of self-protection. Devoid of virtually all resources as it was , there was little the tramping community could do in this direction.

By the development of "smogger" - a system of secret signs - they were able to give others on the road advice about finding food, warmth and shelter and also about avoiding trouble with authority. These signs were chalked or scratched on walls and gateposts - often quite low, so that householders would assume them to be the work of children. Some three or four dozen were in general use; one who had tramped on several continents claimed that many were in universal use.

Those reproduced here (click the thumbnails to see enlarged versions) show that, if execution was crude, the use of symbols was well understood - the principles bear comparison with those governing international road signs. The originators might have been surprised at this. Still more would they have wondered at a recent news item.

The numbers of homeless people increase - though few are tramps in the historic meaning of the word. These too, need help in finding safe place to sleep, supplies of cheap food and other necessities. A University, once noted for its high standards, has awarded an MA to the designer of a modern "smogger" for their use. It has not been possible to discover how far the work original work of the tramps has been plagiarised.

Tramps of old would have been amazed to know that scribbling on walls would become an academic discipline

Step forward, remaining hobos and collect your degrees!

David Bridgeman-Sutton ~ October 2008


  • Picture 1: the late Mary Rickards.
  • Picture 2: collection of John A Summers.
  • Smogger based on detail from: Shepherd's Glossary of Graphic Signs and Symbols ISBN 0-460-03818-4
  • A Trampwoman's Tragedy (182-) "my fancy-man and jeering John and Mother Lee and I".