Ancestry UK

'On Tramp With A Ticket.' (1897)

A 'way ticket' was a certificate issued by a casual ward or police-station to casuals judged to be the ‘honest unemployed’. It gave the holder preferential treatment at a specified destination workhouse casual ward, such as early release or exemption from work. It could also be combined with a bread ticket, redeemable for food at a designated ‘bread station’ — often a policeman’s house — en route. The tickets were intended to try and ensure that casuals kept to their supposed destination, and also aimed to reduce begging.

The implementation of the way ticket system is often attributed to the fourth Earl of Carnarvon who in the late 1860s promoted its use as a response to a huge rise in vagrant numbers in Hampshire. It was then gradually adopted in other areas including Berkshire, Dorset, Kent, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and North Wales. Despite early enthusiasm, take-up of the scheme was uneven and its use declined. However, in the early 1900s, a revival of interest took place, helped by the creation of County Vagrancy Committees. By 1920, way ticket schemes were operating in most of England and Wales.

This 1897 article, by T.W. Wilkinson in The Quiver magazine, illustrates how the system was then working in one part of the country. It also describes the author's experience in several casual wards at the time.

On Tramp With A Ticket.

By T.W. Wilkinson.


The road was hot, dusty, and as ugly as most Black Country roads are. I had left the train at Wolverhampton, and had set out for Dudley on tramp. Dressed as a "travelling tradesman," or respectable mechanic in search of work, I purposed to see how the ticket system of relieving casual paupers was worked — in what manner and to what extent it repressed mendicancy; how it softened the lot of the unprofessional wayfarer driven to enter a workhouse for his night's shelter; whether, in short, it did indeed solve the problem of the treatment of vagrants.

I sat there for two hours, anxiously looking for a typical "spike-ranger" — one of those gentry who roam from casual ward to casual ward, and who can tell you with amazing accuracy precisely what you may expect at any given workhouse. I was, in truth, in a difficulty. Certainly the way-ticket system was at one time in operation in Worcestershire; but was it so still? — that was the question I wanted answered. In any case, I had for some hours been doomed to spend at least one night in the Dudley casual ward. Apart from the fact that I had neither money nor the means of obtaining any, all my arrangements had been made on that basis.

The peripatetic guide to the administration of the Poor Law, however, came not. So I was still in a state of doubt when, later in the evening, I presented myself for admission to the Dudley Workhouse.

"If you come in here, you'11 have to break stones to-morrow," said the porter in a tone of friendly warning.

Mistaking his meaning, I merely thanked him for his kindness, and, having answered the usual questions, and handed over my pipe, tobacco, and matches, proceeded up the walk, and entered the tramp ward door. Little did I think, though I knew such a thing was possible, that thirty-six hours would elapse before I should again cross that threshold! Yet such was the fact. I entered the workhouse at seven o'clock on Monday evening; I left it at seven o'clock on Wednesday morning. Without going into much detail — for I am not writing a description of the general system of relieving "casuals" — I may say, that the task set me, in common with the other able-bodied men, was the breaking of thirteen hundredweight of stone. We all worked hard, yet my companions, notwithstanding that they were "spike-rangers" who made light of "cracking" stones, were fully occupied for ten hours, while I left more than half of mine untouched. So heavy a task is far beyond the strength or capacity of the average "travelling tradesman," and this the Union officials appeared tacitly to admit; for I was not urged on in any way, nor, I am pleased to say, was there any attempt at bullying me. About six o'clock in the evening the pauper in charge of the ward came to my cell, and, without saying a word, put down a spade, with which I immediately began to clear out the stones I had broken. That done, I presented myself for my supper, which, like breakfast, consisted of bread and water; for dinner we had cheese in addition. And so the weary, long-houred day closed, though not before I had ascertained from a fellow-lodger that the ticket system had for some time been discontinued in Worcestershire. Hence I had something to think about in my cell!

One thing impressed me very much during my stay in the Dudley tramp ward. Whenever I entered the common room, I found there two boys, aged respectively not more than ten and twelve years, whose mother was on the female side. They were evidently versed in the ways of the road. Each had retained his pipe, and each had a liberal supply of "hard up," mostly composed of cigarette ends. They also had with them a handkerchief containing food — food of a quality that enabled them to turn disdainfully from the boiled oatmeal supplied to them alone, and to hand it to one or other of the less fastidious adult vagrants — and that inseparable companion of the habitual roadster, a "drum," or tin can. Now, is it not monstrous that the making of tramps should be facilitated in this way? Surely youths of such tender years ought to be isolated from the ordinary associates of the casual ward? Surely, too, they might be taught something while they are in workhouses, if only to count and tell the time? — for I have met plenty of tramps' children who could do neither. Of course, no blame for the state of things in question attaches to the officers of the Dudley Workhouse; it is the system that is at fault.

My resting-place on the following night should have been Kidderminster. I resolved, however, to reach the borders of Gloucestershire, which I knew of a certainty to be what is called a "ticket county." On reaching the carpet town, therefore, I called on a friend, and with his aid I was able to take the train to Worcester, whence I walked to quaint old Tewkesbury. For a way-ticket, I found, it was necessary to apply at the police station, and thither I accordingly went. My name, age, height, trade, starting-point that day, and final destination — these were the only questions asked me; and as to my replies, I need only say that I gave Bristol as the end of my tramp; but on receiving my pass, I saw that the constable had noted, in blank spaces provided for the purpose, the colour of my hair and eyes, and further described me as of "fresh complexion." The object of recording such personal details, I learned subsequently, is to prevent the exchange of tickets, to make the casual pauper keep to the route laid down for him. But the description usually given is decidedly too vague to be of much practical utility. Passes do change hands, and rather frequently, too.

When I reached the workhouse, my ticket was taken from me, and I was directed into the bath-room, where I found a tramp drying himself. While undressing I looked very dubiously at the water in which I was to immerse myself. As usual, it had already done such good service that it ought to have been allowed to run away.

"Rather dirty, isn't it?" I remarked to the pauper attendant. "Oh, there's only been three in it," he naively rejoined.

This was conclusive. There was no more to be said. But what, I wonder, is the extreme number of vagrants permitted to perform their ablutions in one' lot of water? After washing myself, however, I put on a cotton shirt handed me by the porter, and, depositing my own clothes on top of a disinfecting apparatus, followed that individual to the sleeping quarters, which here much resemble the wooden-partitioned cubicles of a, model lodging-house; only the beds are of the plank variety, and all that softens them to the wearied frame is a single rug. To obtain anything more to lie on is practically impossible, for of the two rugs allowed to each casual one must be devoted to covering purposes.

Presently the attendant brought us a hunk of bread apiece, after which he came from cell to cell with a can in his hand, inquiring, "Want a drink?" A little altercation at the end of the passage made it plain that one must drink all one wanted at a draught. Such was supper. A little later the doors were opened again, this time by the tramp-master — a most humane and considerate official, let me say. "All right?" ho asked each of his charges, and on receiving a reply in the affirmative, he bade him "Good-night," and bolted him, in till the morning.

If I were to relate my subsequent sensations, I should be accused of exaggeration. It is difficult to believe, unless you know something of casual wards, that there may be times when all your bones seem in the way, and when a certain kind of pillow, wooden, fixed, rounded, and so high as nearly to dislocate your neck, may strike you as having been designed, not as an aid to peaceful repose, but as an instrument of, torture. For my part — and I speak as one who has known many strange resting places — I never could sleep on a plank bed. I believe such a couch is tolerable in prison, because the inmates are allowed to retain their clothes; but I have never been on one in a workhouse (where, of course, every shred of apparel is taken away from the tramp) without wishing myself, for choice, on a heap of broken stones by the roadside, with my boots under my head as a pillow. Enough, therefore, that we were woke at six o'clock on the following morning, and, after having eaten our breakfast — a mere repetition of the previous night's supper — were conducted into the yard.

This was an anxious moment — for me, at least — because my hands were still sore as a result of Tuesday's work. But not long were we in doubt as to the work required of us. Our tasks were soon allotted. One individual, who complained of his legs, was given oakum to pick, six or eight labouring men were set in front of three-hundredweight heaps of stone, and the remaining four "casuals" — two unmistakable "spike-rangers," a painter on the road in search of work, and myself — were put to wood-sawing. This arrangement appeared to satisfy everybody. Certain it is, at all events, that at half-past ten, the whole of the tasks then being practically done, we were returned our tickets and set at liberty — an agreeable contrast to my experience at Dudley.

Referring to my pass, I found that Gloucester had been entered on it as my "bread station" for the day, and that my next sleeping place was Whitminster. Ten miles before I was entitled to anything to eat! About nineteen, measuring from workhouse to workhouse, before I could claim a night's shelter! No alternative being open to me, however, I immediately started on my journey. For four or five miles I had a companion, an old soldier, whose route, according to his ticket, lay through Cheltenham. But after he had left me I had a solitary walk to Gloucester, which city I reached between two and three o'clock in the afternoon. I at once called at the police station, and my pass having been signed, I was directed to a little shop close by, where I was given half a pound of bread. This is a most important feature of the ticket system. In most counties vagrants cannot get any relief in the middle of the day — unless, of course, they are detained in the workhouse — and consequently hunger drives them to beg.

After I had eaten my dinner in a quiet corner, I took to the road again. About three miles out of Gloucester I threw myself on the grass for a rest. I had not been there long when, to my surprise, I saw coming down the road I had recently passed over the old soldier who had left me some hours earlier for Cheltenham.

"How is this?" I asked, when he came up to me.

"Oh, I've hit on another way," he said with a laugh. "I'll go with you to Whitminster. It's no use me going round there, and if it was, look at the stage they've given me! A man's not a machine."

"But what about your ticket?" I inquired.

He drew that document from his pocket, held it at arm's length, and, with a confidential nod to me, tore it in two.

"That for my ticket!" he said. "I'll get another, you'll see. I'll tell him I roughed it (slept out) last night near Tewkesbury, and get a new one."

Naturally, I was a little curious after this as to how he would fare at the Whitminster Police Station. It occurred to me that his way might not be as smooth as he supposed. But the sequel proved that he knew his ground perfectly. I handed in my ticket, as at Gloucester, through a little window, standing outside the building while it was signed. When it Was returned to me, my companion gave his name in a bold, confident voice — "John Smith." Without a single indication of suspicion, the constable made out a pass and handed it to the knowing vagrant, who, as he folded it and placed it in his pocket, gave me a quick glance of triumph.

Of the remainder of the day I need say little. The tramp ward of the Wheatenhurst Union is, with one exception, practically the same as that at Tewkesbury. The exception is that the plank beds in the former slope towards the feet, and are divided from one another by a partition only about a couple of feet high — a popular arrangement with vagrants, who dislike the cell system.

If anybody wonders at this, he would not do so if he had been in our room that night. Conversation was general till long after darkness had set in. At first the talk was of casual wards, on which point it was unanimously agreed that Gloucester provided the best "lie-down" in the county. This was interesting enough in its way; but afterwards came scores of wildly incredible yarns, till eventually I should have been glad of some cotton-wool with which I could have stopped my ears.

In the morning we were aroused at the usual hour — six o'clock — and subsequently taken to the task yard. Five or six of the vagrants, without waiting to be ordered, immediately entered the stone-breaking cells; but an old carpet-weaver and I, having shown our hands to the porter, were ordered to saw wood. Our task proved to be the dividing into short lengths of four railway sleepers — not a very heavy one, considering that we had a good tool. The other vagrants, including the old soldier, had then gone their several ways, and when I was ready to start, I discovered that, by a blunder of the pauper attendant, one of them had taken my ticket with him. In the end, however, the only pass that remained in hand — a pass recognised by the counties of Wilts, Berks, and Gloucester, whereas mine was for the last-named shire only — was endorsed and altered to suit my route.

For Friday, it appeared, my "bread station" was the village of Newport, and my resting place Thornbury, about seventeen or eighteen — some even say nineteen — miles distant, again too long a stage for a man who cannot obtain proper rest, who is insufficiently fed, and who does three and a half hours' hard work before he can begin his journey. Poor Law authorities, in certain parts of distant, again too long a stage for a man who cannot obtain proper rest, who is insufficiently fed, and who does three and a half hours' hard work before he can begin his journey.

Poor Law authorities, in certain parts of the country, when they want to rid themselves of vagrants — when they are anxious to cast the burden of relieving them on other shoulders — sometimes pay the boat fares or ferry tolls of these pariahs. It is a proceeding analogous to the conduct of the policeman who, finding a man insensible in the gutter, dragged him round the corner and deposited him on the next beat, that somebody else might have the trouble of taking him to the station. If such an expenditure is justifiable, would it not be wise, on the grounds of economy alone, for the police in some districts to assist approved working men to cross bridges and ferries?

In passing through Newport I called at the constabulary station. The wife of the village policeman did not, for some reason of which I am ignorant, "visé" my ticket, but she directed me to a shop, and I duly obtained my allowance of bread. I then pursued my way to Thornbury, which I reached soon after seven o'clock. After my pass had been signed, I remarked to the officer —

"I shall be liberated to-morrow, I suppose? I am very anxious to reach Bristol at some time on Saturday."

"The rule here is to keep men in a clear day," he replied.

"The invariable rule?" I asked.

"Yes, the invariable rule," he said. "If you enter the workhouse, you won't get out till Monday morning, for they'll detain you over Sunday, too. Better walk on. It's only ten miles, and a good road, with only two hills."

Behold the object of the detention regulation! My mind was soon made up. I did precisely what a bonâ-fide "travelling tradesman" would have done in like circumstances — entered at once on the last stage of my tramp. I fully intended, if I could drop across a farmer who regarded vagrants with a tolerant eye, to sleep in a barn, or, failing that, to rest for a few hours by the roadside, and enter Bristol early in the morning. But I plodded steadily on, passing every now and again a mechanic or a navvy who had been resting all day that he might walk during the cool hours of the night, till at last I was told on inquiry that I was within five miles of my destination. What should I do — go on, or search for a sleeping place? While I was pondering this matter, one of the happy chances of the road decided it for me. I had met a couple of cyclists — lady and a gentleman — and the male rider quite spontaneously handed me threepence-halfpenny, remarking that I had better get something to eat on my journey. It was this pleasant incident that shaped my course of action. I pressed on with renewed vigour, and about eleven o'clock I arrived at Gloucester Lane, the heart of the Dosserdom of Bristol.

Obviously, whatever the ticket system may effect in decreasing vagrancy in any given county — and I believe that in this particular it is successful — it does not help the working man on tramp. The relief given at mid-day is an excellent step in the right direction, and the only fault that can be found with it is that it is not enough. Doubtless man could live for a short time on one and a half pounds of bread per twenty-four hours, but doubtless man never will as long as he has liberty. But against this allowance must be set the fact that a nomad is expected to do a great deal of walking, whereas in non-ticket counties he is rarely obliged to travel more than eight or ten miles a day. The cardinal defect of the system, however, is that it makes no distinction between the worthless "spike-ranger" and the respectable casual wayfarer; and any system which fails in that respect is profoundly unsatisfactory, no matter how perfect it may be from the point of view of a Vagrancy Committee.

(Transcription by Peter Higginbotham, 2023.)

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