Ancestry UK

'The Tramp' (Extracts)

by Frank Gray

Frank Gray disguised as a tramp. In the late 1920s, newspaper proprietor and former Oxford MP Frank Gray recorded his undercover experiences in the casual wards of Oxfordshire workhouses which he visited disguised as a tramp. Gray was a strong advocate of helping young tramps escape the downward slope of life on the road. He regularly provided accommodation for such men at his own home, Shipton Manor. Gray was particularly struck by the dire conditions in the Headington "spike", which were in strong contrast to its much more well-appointed neighbour a mere two miles away in Oxford. However, Headington was still popular with tramps because there was virtually no supervision


We reach the gates. It is not six o'clock yet. With some eighteen others we loaf, huddle, and cringe before the gate. There is one woman among us. Women tramps are scarce; but all tramp women look like tramps. All men tramps don't. This is curious, for in every other walk of life women are the better dissemblers.

The gates open; we walk up the garden. A clerk takes particulars under a lamp at the front door, and we pass to the back, isolated from the higher grade of the workhouse, the permanent inmates. We shamble into this workhouse from the outer world, and then past the quarters of the permanent inmates to our den at the back midst the refuse heaps, wellnigh like lepers-the unclean.

I made a slip as I gave my answers, for I noticed the clerk momentarily start as he detected a pitch of voice unusual in a casual ward. I must be more careful thereafter.

In the Thame workhouse there is no strict search; there is no suggestion of a bath or a wash. We retain our clothes and sleep in some of them. To-night I have a pillow - my boots with my trousers wrapped over them. We sleep on boards on a gradient raised from the floor, and the slope helps sleep.

As we arrived at this workhouse and answered the stereotyped questions - as listlessly as they were asked - we received our hunk of bread, and with it we said good-bye to all officialdom and supervision and entered the casual ward. As the tramps have lost heart so have the officials.

Here the casual ward is a long narrow apartment with an overflow department upstairs. In the apartment I am in downstairs there is a sort of ante-room, just big enough for three; it is the antechamber of the lavatory - indeed it is part of the unsavoury arrangement whereby a tramp may wash, if he has not already lost heart and realized that in the general discomfort and squalor cleanliness has lost its meaning and its values.

Here, unclean and unhappy, I lie in a chamber already the home of body vermin and house vermin. With such hospitality as this, what do I owe to society?

So thinks the tramp, to whom society accords no future and no dawn.

I get into this ante-apartment with two other tramps. Of these, one has given his age as sixty-seven, and the other as eighty-four years. The first is "Bill," and the other "Dad." I don't think the latter is eighty-four, but think of him - if he is only seventy-four - aimlessly wandering through the sewers of society to reach no terrestrial home! This poor old man may be to blame - society must be.

He tells me he was once in the Oxford "spike" for six months as a permanent inmate, although they had not been able to establish any "settlement" by birth or residence. You can't in a tramp of sixty years.

You do not know his real name. Nor does he! He says he left Oxford because all the others had their local friends who left them little "delicacies," or money to buy delicacies. It seemed terrible to him to watch others have little delicacies like tobacco and to be denied himself. He could not stand it, and took again to the "open road." Afterwards I am to sleep in two other "spikes" with "Dad." All the officials are particularly good to him. "Bill" is a fund of information and deep cunning. He talks much to me before going to sleep. He opens the conversation as he crowds in to lie beside me, with a sniff and the words: "There are bugs in the walls here; I can smell them." He is right, for in fact at this time this casual ward is dirtier than the dirty men who use it.


The doors open, the "tramp major" in charge lets us in; we push to get front places, to answer questions hurriedly, and snatch our piece of bread. Then we go into the casual ward without any suggestion of a search or a bath, or indeed a wash. We are locked and bolted in. How curious it is that any one should be afraid that we may abscond from the hospitality given us!

The ward is a narrow building, perhaps eleven feet wide and eighteen yards long, four feet of the width being passageway till this stone passage becomes sleeping accommodation under pressure for space. On the right, as you enter, is a sloping platform, starting nine inches from the stone floor and rising to a height of eighteen inches against the wall. This platform is broken up by nine-inch upright boards, fourteen inches apart.

It looks in the gloom like a row of coffins, and each tramp who is quick enough to get in claims one. He thinks himself lucky in getting it. Every one else sleeps on the floor, under this erection or in the passageway.

At the end of this ward — a cold outbuilding — and only partly partitioned off, is a foul lavatory and bath, unused and unusable for washing. This was all we were given at Headington, however great or small the number requiring accommodation.

Nobody has to sleep under the raised boards to-night, in the dirty, high-windowed, elongated cell, with the almost uncovered combination of bath and cesspool at the end. The young tramp and I sleep in our clothes, for there is neither search, baths, nor handing over of raiment in this hell, where all men are at last equal.

In society we all believe we have our inferiors, if not our superiors. This first belief fades in the Headington casual ward. Reproduce this casual ward in any gaol in England and the nation would cry "Shame!"

There is one candle to light the fifteen yards of humanity, and two Irish tramps arriving late and in drink quarrel with the rest of us locked in this cell as to the exact position where this candle shall stand. Why do we quarrel in this black hole — in this horror of filth and indecency ? Why, in truth, do we want this candle at all to cast shadows in this hole of shame?

Morning has come; the dirt-laden grills of our cell say so. There is a shout from the porter for the production of unemployment cards by those who can produce them. There is not one, for none of us here is a genuine worker. Had we cards we should produce them, for by doing so we gain our immediate release, without task or work. Like the rest I have no card, so I perforce do three hours' sawing.

The task is over. I am again on the "open road," on the outskirts of Oxford, and less than two miles from the Oxford workhouse, where I intend to stay to-night. I have passed through Headington Union. I might have passed in an advanced stage of carrying smallpox, at death's door, or mad, and yet have remained uncared for and unnoticed.


I reach the grounds of the Oxford workhouse, pass through the long foregrounds, and track out the casual ward. I sit on the ground outside. The concourse of tramps here gathers by twos and threes.

It must want many minutes to six o'clock when a permanent inmate passes and says: "Why don't you go in ? It 's been open for a long while." We enter a brightly lighted room with spotlessly clean tables and forms, and to these are brought bread, margarine, and cocoa, before any inquisition, search, or inquiry is held; for this is an institution which has not lost its soul.

"Dad" is of the gathering. He sits next to me. He pours a little sugar into my mug of cocoa — the widow's mite — a much greater act from a tramp to a tramp than it may appear.

.  .  .

The meal at the Oxford casual ward is over. The porter calls first for those who have come from Woodstock. A lot get up — so do I — and the porter says: "You are as deaf as I am." In a later class I get up again. I am searched. How well I know the porter and how well he knows me! But he does not recognize me. I am passed on to a permanent inmate, who is lending a hand — and he superintends me while I strip with others, pile my bundle of rags on theirs, and take my bath. There is certainly more ceremonial about the bath at Oxford, and no man is entitled to complain if he uses the water after another — some use it without complaining. You see this consideration becomes a mere unnoticeable detail in the general horror of life as a tramp.

I get a workhouse shirt, go into a spacious, healthy, and clean department, and, best of all, to a spring bedstead, straw mattress, and straw pillow. There is sufficient space, too, between the bedsteads. We are treated like decent men. Some of us are, and all have got a great deal of good in them. If men's hearts could be searched it would be found that this better treatment has more than once stirred that latent better spirit to rise from the level of the tramp and the outcast.

And so to sleep.

On the morrow my task before release is to scrub the floors of two large outhouse dormitories, apparently overflow casual wards.

.  .  .

We are now about to parade for our departure. I see "Dad" at the parade. I watch a young official go up to him and hear him say: "Why don't you stop here with us, Dad ? You are too old for this game now. You will be getting knocked down on the road." At this act of kindness a tear comes to the old man's eye — he is still capable of responding — and then he passes out, passes out to pick up the trail of death.

As I walked from the Oxford workhouse, released, I reflected that there were two "spikes" within two miles of each other conducted on very different lines. It might fairly be supposed that if my description of the two be correct, Headington would be deserted by tramps and Oxford overcrowded. This is not so, and there are good reasons why — reasons taking you to the heart of the problem of vagrancy.

Seven out of ten tramps stayed at both Headington and Oxford on the same journey. A tramp said to me: "I hate to be — — and — — about," and when he has said this he has expressed the terms in which many tramps think. They like to be left to their own devices, and to gain this they will put up with a lot of filth and beastliness.

We tramps are all the same just under the skin. We prefer a dungheap and a cigarette to a clean prison cell and fifty questions. Do not think, late Guardians, that by locking dirty men with hunks of bread in a dirty, insanitary hole without interference, question, or inquiry, you could have emptied your casual wards.


  • Gray, F. (1931) The Tramp: His Meaning and Being JM Dent.

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