"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

25 Jan 2021

Review of 'Vagabond Girl', Jenny Steele Scolding

A delightful autobiography by an extraordinary woman.
Vagabond Girl chronicles Jenny Scolding’s life between the ages of 21 and 41, a rare combination of a committed workaholic—when in work—with her insatiable wanderlust and appetite for the the rare, exotic, abject and marginalised people and places of the globe. Equally at ease with expatriates, tourists, and the locals, Scolding’s travels go way beyond the regular tourist destinations and frequently by the most rudimentary means available, the better to experience total immersion in the object of her latest adventure.

Leaving a good job as a production secretary at the BBC at the age of 21, with only £20 in her pocket, Scolding embarked on the first of many adventures that would take her to the Middle East, Iran, Pakistan, India, the Americas (including a total of six years, on and off, working as a film researcher for Canada’s CBC and other film and media companies), Caribbean, East, West and North Africa. When the fancy took her, she would linger in places or with people that held a particular enchantment. For a more conventional Westerner, some of her closer, more intense, relationships could easily have resulted in setting down to a more domesticated existence. But even when life involved a regular job and intimate relationship for a period of time, Scolding was not ready to give up the freedom of the road: 

On the couple of occasions when I’d fallen desperately in love and been swept of my feet, there had always been a tiny part of me that remained rational, aware that the turmoil of love and passion was short lived.”

Even so, Scolding did find her lifetime partner Bill before the book concludes, and with whom she had some of her craziest adventures before eventually becoming a mum at the age of 39. Even then, and beyond the scope of this book, the wanderlust is never extinguished in the true vagabond. There were further tramping adventures to come, including Cuba, Thailand and Sri Lanka with Bill, and then, aged 64, a 10 week solo back packing trip around China. “I noted in my diary that I would travel forever; that I could envisage myself as a really old woman, still exploring the world.”

There were also times on her travels that Scolding was clearly irritated by her sometime reliance on, and unwanted attention of, men, even though such irritations were clearly outweighed by the generous hospitality she received from many locals, as well as other foreigners, encountered along the way: 

One or two men had offered to hitch to Ethiopia with me, but I had rejected them. I was angry at my dependency at travelling with others, particularly the opposite sex: I saw it as a cop out.”

My diary was full of analysis about my role as a woman in a world of rough travel: anger at
the dependency my body imposed on me; at the practical complications and temporary weaknesses caused by menstruation."

Nazareth 1964

Similar experiences are echoed by Kathleen Phelan in her own autobiography of vagabond life.

Aided by well kept diaries, correspondence to and from the friends from around the world, and an incredible archive of photographs—dozens of which illustrate the book—Vagabond Girl proceeds in a Chatwinesque style to chronicle not only her travels and adventures, but also reflections on colonial history (British and French in particular), politics, religion, geography, natural history, as well as the customs, culture and culinary habits of the people whose lives Scolding shared intimately in the course of her travels.

This book takes place in the 60s and 70s, a time before internet, email and mobile phone communication, but an era that had rejected the austerity of its parents post world war generation and indulged in new found freedoms. It was also a time, long after the ravages of colonialism’s enslaving and Christianising of local peoples—in spite of the book’s descriptions of certain expat’s still living as though the British Empire still existed—but before the rise of Islamic fundamentalism which would shut down travel by Westerners to many of the places described by Scolding in her book, and its catastrophic effects on the local population. Not least Timbuktu, being a brutal example of both invasions. 

Timbuktu 1980

What I most enjoyed about Scolding’s writing were the paradoxes and absurdities that she observed and describes in her unselfconscious and inimitable prose style. Highlights there are, but distinct from many travel writers, Scolding does not sentimentalise or romanticise her encounters with the human and natural world. But let Scolding’s writing speak for itself.

From India:

I was aware that people travelled from all over India to die in the holy city, but when I stumbled on the sick and dying it was a shock. They formed long queues which snaked their way towards wide flights of steps, the ‘ghats’, which descended to the sacred waters. Lepers, cripples and people who were barely alive, crawled, shuffled and dragged themselves along the ground, or were carried, in the direction of the great Ganges and their ultimate demise. … They did not always burn; either the relatives lacked the funds for sufficient fuel, or else the river doused the flames before the cremation was complete. From a rowing boat, I watched limbs floating past, birds pecking at the flesh. A baby and then a man sailed by, face downward, their bodies translucent, white below the waterline and a putrid yellow above. … Those who washed in this water, drank it, or bathed in it, could count on absolution from their sins.”

On a friend's roof, Rajpura, Punjab, India 1965

From Ethiopia:

The journey north took us along terrifying switchback roads through range after range of spectacular mountains. Sometimes our heavily-laden vehicles crossed rickety bridges which spanned vast chasms. I felt like a hostage to fate; I would gaze into the abyss and wonder whether this time my number was up.”

From Egypt:

I had arrived at the Valley of the Kings to find there was no water at the souvenir shop and café, presumably to ensure tourists purchased overpriced fizzy drinks. When popping into the ladies, however, I came across a bucket of water standing in a corner. I had just topped up my water bottle when the door burst open and an Arab appeared, an impressive figure in traditional dress and, to my astonishment, male! ‘That’s my water!’, he said, snatching my flask and emptying the contents back into the bucket. ‘No it’s not,’ I protested. ‘Half that water was mine. I brought it with me from Luxor.’ ‘OK,’ he said, reluctantly, narrowing his eyes and fixing me with an angry stare. ‘OK …’ He held my flask beneath the waterline in the bucket until it was exactly half full. ‘There, this is your water. The rest is my water.’ He picked up the bucket and flounced out. What he was doing in the ladies toilet I can’t imagine, but our altercation served to remind me that water was a commodity precious beyond all else.

Onboard a ship from Alexandria en route back to Europe:

I had brushed with so many lives. Africans from wayside stalls in Tanzania to the slums of Addis Ababa, had shared their thoughts and dreams with me, had welcomed me into their lives and homes.”

I was in a bubble, floating between Africa and Europe. An Egyptian woman billowed back and forth across the deck in a long red velvet dress. While the warmth and sunshine lasted, everyone lazed on the deck, a weird assortment of characters whose enforced proximity lent a surreal edge to the voyage. I felt as if I were living in a 1920s postcard.” 

With Bill and brother Phil, Women Teachers' College, Birnin Kebbi, Nigeria, 1980.

From Nigeria:

A man with a bucket of paint was splashing his way up the drive which led to the Women Teacher’s College. The stones which lined the route were whitewashed regularly, particularly on special occasions. Painting stones white was a national preoccupation which not only delineated territory but also made the approach to any establishment look neat and official, belying the reality inside. The man ambled along in the heat and as he painted each rock he splattered the whitewash on the surrounding soil, leaving a mottled trail in his wake.

     As he was putting the finishing touches to the stones, another man appeared, wobbling along the drive on a bicycle, his back bent beneath a large sack. His dilapidated bike swerved dangerously close to the painted rocks and the vice principal, who had come to inspect the work, was furious. ‘Careful of those stones,’ she growled. ‘It is fresh paint for speech day tomorrow!” The cyclist juddered to a halt, took the sack off his back and threw it to the ground whereupon it took on a life of its own, writing on the pathway. ‘Maciji,’ he announced. ‘Three! Three snakes for the school science exhibition. You want snakes?’ The vice principal declined the offer and sent him packing.”

With Billl and his students, Haliru Abdu Teachers' College, Birnin Kebbi, Nigeria, 1979

From Mali:

Bar Mali was the star of all cat-houses: copulating couples glimpsed through doorways; drunks lying in the corridors among discarded bottles; the smell of urine pervading every nook and cranny. I loved the place for its craziness, its exuberance and blatant debauchery. The next morning found me queueing with the whores in front of the only two showers available for women. To my astonishment, an elderly white-haired English woman emerged from one of the cubicles. She smiled at me. ‘Good morning, my dear,’ she said. ‘Lovely day isn’t it?’ and, without pausing, she sailed up the corridor.

A Footnote on Culture Shock:

Culture shock does not always follow immersion in an alien culture, it can also result from the return to one’s own country following a prolonged period abroad. The two passages below, the first from Scolding, the second from my own memoirs, captures the same identical emotions. Below from Scolding on her return to Britain from her West African adventures, trip up the Nile, and departure from Alexandria by boat described above:

We arrived in Folkestone at dawn and I persuaded a lorry driver from Yorkshire to give me a lift to London. The dark, sodden English countryside slipped by, an alien colourless world. I needed silence to come to terms with my homecoming …”

Below, the almost identical sentiments following my own return from Africa in 1970:

If I experienced a culture shock at all, it was returning to Britain after two years of total immersion in African food, music, people, language and the land itself – spending 3 weeks out of every month camping in remote parts of Northern Zambia, trudging through miles of forests and plains, over hills, across rivers and lakes, to collect samples of soil and rock; then back to town and a week off with my monthly subsistence allowance, spent mainly in the township beer halls, after which I was happy to sober up and get back to another 3 weeks of nature. So imagine getting off the plane at Heathrow early one very cold and grey British winter day, boarding a bus with my single suitcase, and looking out of the bus window at streams of shivering workers walking or cycling to local factories, their canvas lunch bags across their shoulders containing cheese or ham sandwiches, probably in white sliced bread, accompanied no doubt by a packet of crisps, and thinking just what the fuck am I doing here.

Setting of for Sri Lanka with Bill in 2016

29 Dec 2020

A Photo Tour of Sophia Gardens and Bute Park, Cardiff, Wales

 During most of 2020, for reasons too obvious to warrant mentioning, I have confined my tramping to a 4 mile round trip starting at my home in Cardiff City Centre and proceeding down either sides of the River Taff.

Sophia Gardens and Pontcanna Fields (west of the river) and Bute Park (east of the river) represent a wide green corridor from the very centre of the City, northwards to the A48 Bypass, which then continues beyond the A48 out into the countryside to Castle Coch and beyond.

I’m always accompanied by my wife Angela, whose frequent stops to take photographs on our iPhone of seasonal changes and wildlife, in a variety of weathers and times of day, are recorded below:

Map of the area described above courtesy of Google

                                       Starting point: Cardiff Castle at Dawn, weather permitting


Better not leave out the predominant mammal


After the storm





And yes, we do have winters in the park--but this muddy snowman was taken February 1st 2019

17 Oct 2020

"On the Fly!: Hobo Literature and Songs 1879 to 1941", Iain McIntyre (Ed) 2018

I discovered this phenomenal collection of hobo writing shorty after my own book about 15 tramp writers, The Golden Age of Vagabondage, had been published by Feral House in February 2020. McIntyre’s anthology includes the prose, poetry and song lyrics from 85 ‘hobo’ writers, only 20 of whom are classified as unknown. The latter include the original authors of popular song classics such as Railroad Bill and Wabash Cannonball, the provenance of which is impossible to establish. The book is all the more remarkable because it contains 130 illustrations, many full page, of individual characters, hobo jungles, chain gangs, soup and unemployment lines, beating trains, etc., including the remarkable photography of Dorothea Lange who documented the Great Depression era which formed the back story to much of the writing that emerged.

Many of the selected excerpts of writings collected by McIntyre were originally published in book form, yet others appeared in publications such as Hobo News, Industrial Pioneer, Industrial Union Bulletin, Industrial Worker, The New Republic, and The Liberator. So in addition to collecting a comprehensive archive of hobo literature, McIntyre has also chronicled a unique history of the US labour protest movement covering the same period. That many of these writers were labour activists, sociologists, or journalists, rather than hobos by 'profession', does not minimise their contribution to tramp literature. Some spent part of their youth on the road, yet others engaged in ethnographic activity as participant observers that involved considerable time beating trains, living alongside hobos, and in many cases doing serious jail time for vagrancy or other 'un-American' activities.

The narrow inclusion criteria I used for Golden Age of Vagabondage, meant that many of the extraordinary characters featured in On the Fly could not be discussed in my own book. The list and mini-bio's below is included here to acknowledge those other prose writers, and to assist McIntyre in rescuing them from the trash can of history. It should also be noted that every time one picks up a book on hobohemia, the works of yet other tramp writersnot previously mentioned by myself or McIntyre—come to light. In this sense the discovery of forgotten tramp literature remains ongoing. So how did I decide which writers to include in my own volume?

Firstly, I included only prose writers and not poets or those who penned song lyrics, of which McIntyre’s book abounds. Secondly, with the single exception of Tom Kromer, I considered only published writing from those who at some point of their lives had embraced tramping or ‘hobohemia’ as a lifestyle choice—in contrast to the tramp of circumstances. They were, as Josiah Flynt’s friend Emily Burbank describes him, “the tramp writing, not the literary man tramping”. And so I excluded those who engaged in a single hobo adventure purely for research purposes as a journalist, sociologist, political activist, etc. On the Fly ignores such narrow categorisations to provide the most comprehensive collection of ‘hobo literature’ available in a single volume. So for those looking for a comprehensive record of this much overlooked genre, the two volumes together provide a complementary account of this unique cultural phenomena.

On the Fly includes writing from 9 of those who did make it into Golden Age of Vagabondage and so they are not listed below but can be found in the links to the right of this post. Those omitted from McIntyre's anthology were Thomas Manning Page, Bart Kennedy, Trader Horn, Stephen Graham, Jim Phelan, and Kathleen Phelan. Again they are linked on the right. McIntyre acknowledges that he also keeps discovering new writers and new texts—see, for instance, reference to Agnes Thecla Clare below.

Aligned to my own interest in tramping, McIntyre also refers the 'tramp of choice' in his Introduction, acknowledging that although many who rode the rails during America's depressions did so out of economic necessity, assisted by the expansion of the railroads, this was not the only motive for free rail travel: 

Lured by a desire for action and excitement combined with the call of a passing train many sought to escape the boredom of everyday life. Others wished to opt out of the mainstream altogether, as the life of a tramp, despite its hardships and dangers, offered an alternative for working-class Americans otherwise condemned to domestic drudgery and the factory floor.

McIntyre also acknowledges those middle and upperclass Americans who turned to the same lifestyle as a way rebelling against the boredom and stifling conformity of their otherwise bourgeois existence. Here then, is a parallel culture to that described by Luis E. Navia in his 1996 book Classical Cynicism: a critical study; a need that has existed in one form or another down through the ages. When discussing the attraction of the Cynic philosophy and lifestyle two and a half thousand years earlier, Navia tells us this extended to, men and women who were or felt illegitimate and foreign everywhere, and who lived ill at ease within the established civic community’. McIntyre describes hobohemia as presenting just such an alternative lifestyle choice by accepting into its sub-culture the odd, the eccentric, and those with sexual preferences outside of ‘accepted’ societal norms. 

Here, in the opening piece of On the Fly, 'A Tight Squeeze', McIntyre also introduces us to the raison d’être for ‘beating’ trains and writing about it: 

The ability to travel and find work, as well as build a reputation as a “profesh" or master rider, all hinged upon locating a locomotive and then hanging on for dear life while evading railroad police and unsympathetic workers. Little surprise then that almost every memoir and study of any length included one, if not many, tales of train hopping, as well as philosophising on the subject.

Tramp writers and their work from On the Fly! not included in my own book: 

William Staats, author of A Tight Squeeze; Or, The Adventures of a Gentleman, Who, On a wager of ten thousand dollars undertook to go from New York to New Orleans in three weeks without money as a professional tramp (1879)Based on a real-life adventure, this original full title of the book identifies it's central storyline; although whether it is an autobiography written in the third person or biographical is difficult to establish. In any event, it is the only tramp recorded by Staats’ who worked as a journalist for the Chicago Telegraph. eBook of the original volume

Sam T. Clover is author of Leaves From a Diary, 1884: A Tramp Around the World and the semi-fictional Paul Travers Adventures: Being a Faithful Narrative of a Boy's Journey Around the World (1897). Born in 1859 in Bromley, Southeast London, Clover’s family migrated to the town of Oregon, Illinois in 1873. By 1878 Clover was already engaged in journalism for the Chicago Board of Trade but by 1880, at the age of 19, he set out on a world trip lasting sixteen months and covering 40,000 miles. As both a sailor tramp and a road tramp, he supported himself labouring and as a circus performer. On his return he married and embarked on his career as a journalist and writer, first on publications in the Dakota Territory and then as a special correspondent for the Chicago Herald. By 1893 he had become editor of the Chicago Evening Post. In 1901 Clover moved to Los Angeles with his wife and family where he became editor of the Express, before launching his own paper, the Los Angeles Evening News.  Working for a string of other LA publications followed until, in 2016, Clover relocated to Virginia, after buying the Richmond Evening Journal.

Following only a brief time in Virginia, Clover returned to Los Angeles in 1920 where he became editor, and 2 years later owner, of the publication Los Angeles Saturday Night. He was assisted in this last venture by his wife, Mabel Hitt and employed several women writers on the staff. Clover continued working until his death in 1934. His wife died following a car accident  that year, shortly after the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary, and a month and a half later, Clover himself died of a heart attack in work at his desk. He was 74. No eBook available but full story on Clover can be read here

William Z. Foster (1881 – 1961) is best known as a former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USA from 1945 to 1957. Although a life long political activist (he had previously been a member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World), Foster served an apprenticeship as a hobo and had his own experience of beating trains. His prolific writings include his tramping adventures in his 1939 Pages from a Worker's Life. There is no shortage of biographical information on Foster which does not need to be repeated here.

Harry Kemp
(1883 – 1960) was a poet and prose writer popularly known as the "Vagabond Poet”. His writing, tramping and bohemian lifestyle made him a cult figure for many young Americans during the 20s and 30s. His two autobiographical prose works are Tramping on Life: An Autobiographical Narrative (1922
), and More Miles: An Autobiographical Novel (1926). Again, there is no shortage of biographical information on Kemp. Tramping on Life is available as an eBook here


Ben “Windy Bill” Goodkind, wrote 2 autobiographies, An American Hobo in Europe: A True Narrative of the Adventures of a Poor American at Home and in the Old Country (1907), and A Poor American In Ireland And Scotland (1913). McIntyre’s excerpt in On the Fly comes from the first, and describes Bill’s adventures on being desperate for work, blagging to a cattle herd boss that he was an experienced cowboy. Both books are available as eBooks: An American Hobo in Europe and A Poor American In Ireland and Scotland

                                                               Edwin Brown before and after donning hobo attire

Edwin A. Brown, born in 1857, was a social reformer who campaigned against poverty, homelessness and an improvement of housing conditions in America. In 1909, in his early 50s, he embarked on a 3 year trek across the Country in hobo apparel and documented his findings in his book, “Broke”: The Man Without the Dime (1913), available as an eBook here, complete with dozens of stark photographs in support of his report. 

"I am determined to create a systematic and popular sympathy for the great mass of unfortunate wage-earners, who are compelled by our system of social maladjustment to be without food, clothing, and shelter. I am determined our city governments shall recognize the necessity for relief.”

Glen Hawthorne Mullin’s
book Adventures of a Scholar Tramp (1925), is described by Nels Anderson (American Journal of Sociology, Volume 31, Number 4, Jan., 1926) as follows: “Perhaps no American has pictured more realistically such experiences as riding [the rods] under a passenger train or fighting sleep while riding the tops.” Unfortunately, as there is no free eBook of this volume available, the reader will need to obtain a copy to discover Mullin’s four month adventures as a hobo. The excerpt in McIntyre’s book is testimony to Mullin’s remarkable descriptive prose style as well as his neurosis fuelled imagination.

Charles Ashleigh (1892–1974) was a political activist, writer, poet and translator. His semi-autobiographical novel, Rambling Kid (1930), was reprinted by Charles H. Kerr in 2004, and has been described as, “one of the best and most informative books concerning the IWW.” IWW refers to ‘Industrial Workers of the World’ (Wobblies), the international labour union founded in Chicago in 1905; and of whom many of those featured in McIntyre’s book were activists and members.

The characters in Rambling Kid: “ride alongside IWW job delegates, bindle-stiffs, and gandy dancers [railroad section hands] as they crisscross the country hopping freights en route to jobs and strikes and everything in between.” Ashleigh also published poetry and several non-fiction texts on socialism and communism including Russia's Second Front in 1914-1916 (1943), a country he spent time in following his time in America. We also know he must have been fluent in German and Russian as he translated several books from those languages into English.

Ashleigh had travelled to Argentina from Britain to work on the railways, arriving in the US in 1912. During his time there as a political activist, Ashleigh worked to defend other activists at trial until, while working as a journalist in San Francisco, he was himself arrested in October 1917 as part of a national crackdown on radical leaders and organisers. He was put on trial for seditious conspiracy, conspiracy to injure civil rights and obstructing military service, and sentenced to 10 years in Leavenworth Penitentiary where he joined around 90 other IWW members. His sentence was commuted in 1921 on agreeing to be deported to the UK, however, in the event he did not immediately return to Britain but spent time living in New York supported by The Liberator. The magazine had helped raise Ashleigh’s bail money after publishing his prison poems. 

We are told that during his stay in New York, Ashleigh commenced a relationship with the Jamaican poet, Claude McKay, and later travelled with him to the 4th World Congress of the Communist International in Petrograd in 1922, Russia, then on to Berlin the following year, meeting up again in Nice in 1926.

William J. (Bill) Quirke, not to be confused with the University of South Carolina professor and former contributing editor of The New Republic, or the former Irish Republican Army Intelligence Officer who traveled in the Americas and later became Vice-President of Fianna Fáil—both of the same name. Bill Quirke was best known for his role on the editorial board of Hobo News and one of its main contributors, publishing both articles and poetry. What particularly got for my attention was McIntyre’s description of the tattoo that identified Quirke’s body after he had been killed in a hit-and-run accident, and which read “No God, No Master, No Country”—a sentiment probably shared by many dedicated to the hobo sub-culture.

William Edge. As with Bill Quirke above and some others listed here, there is little biographical information to identify his own life as a hobo and itinerant worker. It is included here for his description of hobohemia in his novel, The Main Stem (1927), a lively excerpt of which is included in On the Fly.

Samuel Milton Elam, who ran away to become a road kid at the age of 12, relates his encounters with four women hobos in an excerpt in On the Fly from the original piece published in New Republic in 1930. Again little biographical information is available on Elam. His obituary (aged 56) in the NY Times on February 19, 1963, describes him as editor of The American Satiricon, “a quarterly journal of sardonic commentary”. He was also author of a biography on the English writer and drifter, George Borrow (1929), Watch the Stars Immortal (1931), and his collection of bitterly satirical invectives on American life Hornbook of the Double Damned: an American Satiricon published the year before his death in 1962.

William Attaway (1911—1986), was an Afro-American novelist, essayist, songwriter, playwright, and screenwriter. He is included here because on the death of his father, Attaway dropped out of college and spent 2 years as a hobo, itinerant worker and political activist, before returning to his studies in 1933. The excerpt from his novel Blood on the Forge (1941) in McIntyre’s anthology, describes a boxcar trip north based on Attaway’s own 1916 involvement The Great Migration of Afro-Americans escaping the inequalities of the South, only to encounter equal cruelty in the steel mills of Pennsylvania. Attaway’s earlier novel, Let Me Breathe Thunder (1939), also deals with the life and adventures of hobos. His most lasting legacy is probably the song "Day-O" (Banana Boat Song) which he co-wrote for Harry Belafonte.

Edward Dahlberg (1900—1977), was another novelist and essayist with 20 published works to his credit and plenty of biographical references that need not be repeated here. McIntyre includes an excerpt from Dahlberg’s first novel, Bottom Dogs (1929), drawn on his own time as an orphan and vagabond a decade earlier.

Henri Tascheraud wrote two articles for H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury about his life as a hobo, “The Art of Bumming a Meal” (1925) and an unnamed article about “celebrating high-speed hoboing”, featured in On the Fly. All searches for Taschereaud default to the Canadian lawyer, politician and judge Sir Henri-Thomas Taschereau—and so it was not possible to find an image for our Taschereaud!

James Lennox Kerr (alias Peter Dawlish) was a Scottish author of 32 children’s books and 23 for adults. But he started his writing career with an autobiography, Back Door Guest (1930), of his experiences, between being at sea and as a vagabond drifting around the US and Canada during the 1920s.

Barbara Starke, according to her ‘autobiography’, Born in Captivity: The Story of a Girl’s Escape (1931), is an account of the 17 year old’s flight from the tedium of upper-class life in New England for the life of a hobo, tramping and hitching up the East Coast into Canada and back. However, some doubt has been raised that the book was in fact a fictional work by an English writer Helen Card. Regardless of this, Card or Starke clearly had an authentic knowledge of life on the road. Wearing corduroys and carrying only a few spare clothes in a small pack, she discusses the practicalities of being on the road, including keeping herself and her clothes clean. As with the only tramp writer in my own book, Kathleen Phelan, The Story of a Girl’s Escape describes the shift from train hopping to walking or hitching rides with motorists, with all of the added dangers and unexpected liaisons that such a mode of transport invited. Unlike Phelan, Starke admits to never raising her thumb for a lift, but like Phelan, she was very particular about what cars she got into and turned down lifts if she had any doubts about the intentions of the driver (see further note on women tramp writers below).

George Milburn (1906–1966) started his journalistic career in his home town of Coweta, Oklahoma, at the age of 16. We are told he dropped out of university (Oklahoma A&M College) because “wanderlust prompted him to drop out and take to the road”. He then spent 4 years hoboing, doing itinerant work, writing joke books and pulp fiction before enrolling at the University of Oklahoma. His success with The Hobo Hornbook (1930) while at OU, an anthology of songs and poetry, led to writing a series of stories and articles for publications such as Vanity Fair and Harper’s Magazine, launching a more serious career as a novelist add screenwriter. McIntyre’s piece in On the Fly from American Mercury describes the often abusive and exploitative relationship between older experienced tramps (jockers) and their youthful ‘apprentices’ (prushuns). McIntyre explains that this piece later appeared in two anthologies: No More Trumpets and Other Stories (1933) and Hoboes and Harlots (1954).

Thomas Minehan, as with Edwin A. Brown and Glen Hawthorne Mullin, Minehan was a sociologist who embraced the hobo life, in his case for 2 years during 1933 and 1934, as part of his research. Minehan’s specific interest was the lives of child and adolescent hobos of which he compiled the stories of 500, both male and female. McIntyre claims that between twenty thousand and a million of these children hit the road during the Great Depression. The result of Minehan’s research was published in Boy and Girl Tramps of America (1934) and also provided material for his 1941 children’s novel, Lonesome Road.

‘Minehan estimated that 10 percent of those he met were girls, dressed in overalls or army breeches and boys' coats. They traveled in pairs, sometimes with a boyfriend, sometimes with a tribe of ten or twelve boys. Minehan described "Kay," who was fifteen: 

 "Her black eyes, fair hair, and pale cheeks are girlish and delicate. Cinders, wind and frost have irritated but not toughened that tender skin. Sickly and suffering from chronic undernourishment, she appears to subsist almost entirely upon her fingernails, which she gnaws habitually.” ‘ From Encyclopadia.com

A Note on Women Tramp Writers

                             Kathleen Phelan

Other than Kathleen Phelan, and in spite of rigorous research, I have failed to identify a single woman tramp who has documented her own life and adventures. Biographies and fictions there certainly are, such as Barbara Starke referred to above.

Ethel Lynn's The Adventures of a Woman Hobo (1917), while certainly authentic, describes a single trip she made with her husband by tandem bicycle and boxcars. Having said which, the trip was prompted by the triple disasters of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1907 financial ‘panic’, then receiving a diagnosis of tuberculosis, all of which succeeded in putting an end, for a time at least, to her work as a medical doctor. Yet this is not the biography of someone who has chosen tramping as a lifestyle choice for any extended period of time. Kathleen Phelan spent the best part of 70 years on the road, dying alone in her caravan two days before her 97th birthday. eBook available here 


Bertha Thompson’s adventures in Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Box-Car Bertha (2010), while a fascinating and informative read, was written by former hobo and radical activist Dr. Ben Reitman (later a medical doctor and husband of the anarchist Emma Goldman). The character Bertha is based on a composite of the many women hobos that Reitman encountered, both as a hobo and in his role as “whorehouse physician”—he served a 6 month jail sentence for advocating birth control. Reitman included a thirty-page classification of women tramps in his book.

Poster for the 1972 movie, Boxcar Bertha

Former hobo and Chicago sociologist, Nels Anderson, did not go to the lengths of Reitman to categorise women vagabonds but in his own study, which included five main divisions of male tramps, with 30 subdivisions, he simply dismisses women as a subdivision of “Other Classes” along with Cripples, Stew Bums, Spongers, and Old Men, further subdividing women tramps into three groups: prostitutes, dope fiends & drunks, and mental defectives. 

It is worth noting that Reitman and Anderson’s ‘studies’ coincided, not only with Chicago becoming the hobo mecca of America, but also the birth of the Chicago School of Sociology, responsible for popularising 'urban sociology' as a specific research area for the first time. Consequently, many works on tramping from the time concentrate on socio-political and historical investigations rather than getting underneath the very essence of tramping itself in the way that McIntyre has done in On the Fly. 

Jacqueline Schmidt deserves a mention before leaving this discussion on women tramp writers for her contemporary collection of hobo tales, Done and Been: Steel Rail Chronicles of American Hobos (1996), including biographical details of her father’s hobo adventures. 

"While other children were hearing Mother Goose, I thrilled to adventures of my dad's real-life experiences. The stories were varied accounts of his hoboing days—riding the rods, jumping a rattler, or camping in the jungles - after he left his home in 1911 at the age of thirteen.

Agnes Thecla Fair was introduced to me by McIntyre as one of the hobo writers he had wished
he'd included in his anthology and discovered only following publication of On the Fly.

Given the dearth of women tramp writers, I’m making an exception here to excluding poetry from my biographies of tramp writers, to refer to Agnes Thecla Fair’s Sour Dough’s Bible (1910), a collection of her poetry that includes unique descriptions hobo life in north western America at the start of the 20th century. Fair, whose own hobo adventures are referred to below, also published articles on her extraordinary exploits as a feminist and labour activist. These included a lengthy piece for the Seattle Socialist, the entire edition of which was confiscated by the Seattle police on the grounds that it contained “indecent matter”.

At the age of 37, convinced that her failing health would make it impossible for her to continue her campaigning work, Fair ended her life on January 11 1917 by stepping in front of an electric car on the interurban rail tracks in Sellwood, a neighbourhood of Portland, Oregon.

Harriet Chervin, whom Fair had been staying with in Sellwood, "knew of her guest's mental stress, but did not anticipate her act … She had been in failing health ... was in straitened  circumstances and appeared moody.” The Oregon Daily Journal, January 12th 1917.

Originally from the East Coast where she had been married, then divorced, from a W.P. Dougherty, Fair moved to Washington then Oregon by way of Vancouver where she became very active in the IWW and feminist movement. Her work as an activist started with the infamous Spokane free speech fights in November 1909 for which she was jailed along scores of other demonstrators. “She “spent three days in a rancid cell and was sexually harassed.” To a friend who asked her if she was afraid of men taking advantage of her, Fair laughed, shook her head, and replied:

None of the workingmen ever do, some of the silk stocking chaps do once in a while. But I have a sharp tongue and a hat pin, and know how to put any man down and out who gets foolish.” 

From Railway Carmen’s Journal, April 1914

And from Appeal to Reason, February 10 1917:

She was a rare character-a real woman hobo. She never hesitated to ride the rods. She went to hundreds of cities via the boxcar route. On such trips she wore overalls.”

Descriptions of two of the innovative projects Fair started to support the destitute and impoverished are described by her friend, Alfred D. Cridge in Railway Carmen’s Journal of April 1914:

In Spokane she established a down and out restaurant and with capable mechanical adeptness attached a gas stove she had “rustled” to a main with no meter between, and for months she was steward, chief cook and clerk of that strange institution. When taxed with her disregard for the sacred property rights of the gas company she laughed at the threats of arrest. Ascertaining that no jury in Spokane would convict her, no prosecution was made.”

In Los Angeles one winter she found a number of the “Side Door Pullman” tourists suffering from exposure, hardships, hunger, perhaps wounds and injuries. She established a rude hospital and interested a number of people in her activities until things got going, when she flitted to where there were ‘lots of sick babies and hungry women to look after,’ without telling me the locality.

In the same article, Cridge relates a conversation he had with Fair about her time in San Francisco just prior to her last visit to Portland. He describes her as suffering and thin:

I worked too hard in Frisco. There was so much to do. A lot of those labor leaders are awful crooks! I had to come away. I had no more strength. I am going to take a long rest. I have friends.

But, as Cridge continues, “Her mind wavered. She sought death to end it, and Thursday, January 11, she jumped in front of an oncoming electric train.”

Sour Dough’s Bible is available as an eBook here

Tramp Writers not Included in On the Fly or Golden Age of Vagabondage (listed by publication date) others of whom come to light every time I read yet another book on tramping!

   Charles Dryden, On and Off the Bread Wagon: being the hard 

   luck tales, doings and adventures of an amateur hobo (1905), is 

   his account of several years down and out on the road before he 

   embarked on a successful career as one of America’s foremost 

   baseball writers. 

John R. Peele, From North Carolina to Southern California Without a Ticket and How I Did It (1907). From Preface: 

I have decided to write an account of a few of the many adventures and dangers that befell me while making my way, practically without a penny, from Tarboro, North Carolina, to Tucson, Arizona; and thence to the stricken city of San Francisco, Cal., and other points of interest throughout the West, including New Orleans, Dallas, Texas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Dalhart, Texas, Alamogordo, New Mexico, Juarez, Old Mexico, Bisbee, Arizona, Los Angeles, California, San Pedro, California, Searchlight, Nevada, Denver, Colorado, and more than a hundred other points of interest, coming back home on a telegraphed ticket, via Chicago, Cincinnati, and Richmond, Virginia.

eBook available here 

   George Witten, Outlaw Trails: A Yankee Hobo Soldier of the Queen 

   (1929). We are told Witten was an “upper-class Englishman whose 

   family tree traces back to A.D. 800”. As a young man Witten escaped

   his aristocratic upbringing for the adventures of a hobo in America. 

John Brown, I Was a Tramp (1934)        no image available

John Worby, wrote two autobiographies of his tramping experiences: “The Other Half: The Autobiography of a Tramp (1937) and Spiv’s Progress (1939). In the latter “the reader meets many strange and not always desirable persons, and is enlightened as to the various methods by means of which Heaven's irreclaimables, eke out their precarious existence." West Australian, 10 June 1939

eBook available here 

Paul Townend, Amateur Hobo (1953)

Charles P. Barth, Hobo Trail to Nowhere (1969)     no image available

Charles Elmer Fox (“Reefer Charlie”), Tales of an American Hobo (1989), eBook available here

Oscar Dexter Brooks, Legs: An Authentic Story of Life on the Road (1991), was a Canadian hobo during the early 1900s whose part-fictional autobiography was not published until 8 years before his death at the age of 92.

From obituary in Toronto Globe and Mail, May 4, 1999. 

Oscar was orphaned in his early teens and was sent to live with relatives on a farm in Saskatchewan, but by age 15 he set out on his own and in the ensuing years he traveled all over Canada and the United States, riding the rods and working as a farm labourer, horse handler, and on railroad gangs. He also worked in traveling carnivals where he learned a wide range of con games; and at one time sold magazine subscriptions to gullible farmers.

Fred Thompson, Fellow Worker: The Life of Fred Thompson (1993), is the autobiography of the IWW historian and includes his own early experiences as a hobo.

A comprehensive list of hobo books and articles can be found on this website

NOTE: I would be pleased to hear of any other tramp writers not included above