"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

16 Apr 2013

A Philosophy of Tramping—Morley Roberts

The notes of this post provided the background material for Chapter 2 of
Published by Feral House February 2020

London born Morley Roberts (1857–1942) was one of the most prolific tramp writers with over 80 published novels, plays, essays, biography and verse to his credit (many of which can be downloaded from this link). Yet apart from Roberts' biography of his close friend and fellow novelist George Gissing—thinly disguised as a fiction in the The Private Life of Henry Maitland—Roberts' work is sadly even more obscure today than Gissing's. Gissing himself is best known for his cynical critique of the writing profession, New Grub Street. Although both men were born in the same year, Roberts would outlive Gissing by 39 years. But it is, of course, Roberts the tramp, not the novelist, who is the subject of this post, and for that purpose I will focus on his travelogue A Tramp's Notebook (1904) to find out what kind of tramp he was. There are other autobiographies by Roberts, such as his debut novel, The Western Avernus* (1887), penned with Gissing's encouragement and weekly support, but Tramp's Notebook probably best conveys Robert's philosophy on tramping. The book consists of a series of memoirs and travelogues, not in chronological order, some describing Roberts as a professional tramp and others when tramping as a paid journalist. Yet, like W.H. Davies in my last post, even following his success as a writer and able to pay for his passage and lodgings, Roberts often preferred to rough it the better to appreciate the land and the people he encountered on his travels. In any case, the work Roberts acquired to survive, including stockman and miner in Australia and the Americas, often involved harsher conditions than simple tramping or begging.

(*'Avernus' is the entrance to hell in Virgil's The Aeneid)

A Tramp Education

Roberts describes his early life and education purely in tramping terms. Like many of the other tramp writers discussed in this work, he experienced feelings of wanderlust from an early age. Son of a civil servant and a family constantly on the move, Roberts mentions feelings of boredom and restlessness if the family had to stay in any English town more than two years: an itinerant lifestyle he acknowledges that was a sound training to complement his endogenous wanderlust:

Such a youth was gipsying [sic], and if any original fever of the blood led to wandering, such a training heightened the tendency. To this day even, after painful and laborious travel, Fate cannot persuade me that my stakes should not be pulled up at intervals. ... In the ferment of youth and childhood, which now threatens to quiet down, my feet stayed in many English towns and villages, from Barnstaple to Carlisle, from Bedford to Manchester, and I hated them all with fervour, only mitigating my wrath by great reading. I could only read at eight years of age, but from that time until eleven I read a mingled and most preposterous mass of literature and illiterature. It was a substitute for travel, and, in my case, not a substitute only, but a provoker. Reading is mostly dram-drinking, mostly drugging; it throws a veil over realities. With the child I knew best it urged him on and infected me with world-hunger and roused activities.

Reading, then, would not have the effect on Roberts that his teachers intended. For rather than make of him a model student with respectable career prospects, it only reinforced to the young cynic philosopher that his destiny remained elsewhere and that his hunger for true knowledge was being suppressed. Rather than provide a true education, Roberts describes his teachers as his jailers, whose only interest was the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake and the passing of examinations:

the opinion is rooted deep in many minds that to surrender one's wings, to clip one's claws, to put a cork in one's raptorial beak, and masquerade in a commercial barnyard, is to be a very fine fowl indeed.

For Roberts, reading would set him on an altogether different trajectory. He was saved from following in his father's footsteps as a civil servant by his 'spirit of revolt'. At the age of 18 he exchanged the university education at Owens College Manchester (where he met Gissing), for what he described as his 'new university', four months steerage passage on the 1600 ton sailing ship Hydrabad bound for Australia. Roberts' cynicism of academia continues in true Nietzschean style:

The ship in which I sailed for Melbourne was my first introduction to outside realities, to world realities as distinct from the preliminary brutalities of school, and it opened my eyes—indeed, gave me eyes instead of the substitutes for vision favoured by the Elder Brethren, who may be taken to include schoolmasters, professors, and good parents. How any child survives without losing his eyesight altogether is now a marvel to me. Certainly, very few retain more than a dim vision, which permits them to wallow amongst imitations. ... The professors at this notable college [the Hydrabad] were many, and all were fit for their unendowed chairs. They taught mostly, and in varying ways, the art of seeing things as they are, and if some saw things as they were not, that is, double, the object lesson was eminently useful to the amazed scholar.

Roberts describes the one hundred and two days sailing from Liverpool to Melbourne as his 'first real experience of the outside world ... a very valuable piece of schooling for a greenhorn.’ As a steerage passenger the conditions were very harsh, with poor food and dirty cramped quarters. But to add to what Roberts describes as ‘an astonishingly fertile trip for a young and green lad who was not yet nineteen’, his education was further enriched by time spent with crew members drawn from across the Asian continent:

I knew nothing of the world, nothing of the Orient, and here was an Oriental microcosm. The old serang, or bo'sun, was a gnarled and knotted and withered Malay, who took rather a fancy to me. Sometimes I sat in his berth and smoked a pipe with him. At other times I deciphered the wooden tallies for the sails in the sail-locker, for though he talked something which he believed to be English, he could not read a word, even in the Persi-Arabic character. The cooks, or bandaddies, were also friends of mine, and more than once they supplemented the intolerably meagre steerage fare by giving me something good to eat. I soon knew every man in the crew, and could call each by his name. Sometimes I went on the lookout with one of them, and one particular Malay was very keen on teaching me his language. So far as I remember the languages talked by the crew included Malay, Hindustani, Tamil and, oddly enough, French.

A Tramp Philosophy

In the chapter 'A Graduate Beyond the Seas', Roberts' critique of education becomes satirical when he presents the following parodic examination paper on tramping, a paper he is by now well qualified to formulate based on his experiences as an American, as well as Australian, tramp. Robert's satire highlights the absurdity of formal academia, at the same time forcing a reevaluation of the unique experiences and competencies of the American hobo:

‘... though I lack any learned degree earned by examinations, and may put no letters after my name, I maintain I passed creditably, if without honours, in the hardest schools of the world. ... My early work in New South Wales seemed to me then like sport. America was real life; it was for ever putting the stiffest questions to me. I can imagine an examination paper which might appal many fat graduates.

1. Describe from experience the sensations of hunger when prolonged over three days.

2. Explain the differences in living in New York, Chicago and San Francisco on a dollar a week. In such cases, how would you spend ten cents if you found it in the street at three o'clock in the morning?

3. How long would it be in your own case before want of food destroyed your sense of private property? Give examples from your own experience.

4. How far can you walk without food—(a) when you are trying to reach a definite point; (b) when you are walking with an insane view of getting to some place unknown where a good job awaits you?

5. If, after a period (say three weeks) of moderate starvation, and two days of absolute starvation, you are offered some work, which would be considered laborious by the most energetic coal-heaver, would you tackle it without food or risk the loss of the job by requesting your employer to advance you 15 cents for breakfast?

6. Can you admire mountain scenery—(a) when you are very hungry; (b) when you are very thirsty? If you have any knowledge of the ascetic ecstasy, describe the symptoms.

7. You are in South-west Texas without money and without friends. How would you get to Chicago in a fortnight? What is the usual procedure when a town objects to impecunious tramps staying around more than twenty-four hours? Can you describe a "calaboose"?

8. Sketch an American policeman. Is he equally polite to a railroad magnate and a tramp? What do you understand by "fanning with a club"?

9. Which are the best as a whole diet—apples or water-melons?

10. Define "tramp," "bummer," "heeler," "hoodlum," and "politician."

This is a paper put together very casually, and just as the pen runs, but the man who can pass such an examination creditably must know many things not revealed to the babes and sucklings of civilisation. From my own point of view I think the questions fairly easy, a mere matriculation paper.

Roberts exposes an attitude toward formal education that will be crucial to compiling my philosophy of tramping from the tramp chronicles currently being collected. For in addition to the wanderlust articulated by many of the tramp writers discussed on this website, there is also a sense of wanting to avoid the 'civilising processes' that most humans subject themselves to, fuelled, perhaps, by a desire to hang on to the childlike innocence and illusions that those who do submit to 'growing-up' relinquish. I referred earlier to Nietzsche, and Roberts, whose Tramp's Notebook was published four years after that philosopher's death, certainly concurred with Nietzsche's belief (albeit written from within the hallowed world of academia) that real education is a far cry from the art of passing examinations which 'produce merely the savant or the official or the business man':

Imagine a young head' says Nietzsche, 'without much experience of life, being stuffed with fifty systems (in the form of words) and fifty criticisms of them, all mixed up togetherwhat an overgrown wilderness he will come to be’.

For knowledge, Nietzsche says, taken in excess without hunger, and contrary to desire, has no effect of transforming external life. It remains hidden in a chaotic inner world. The tramp philosopher would seem to be fully aware of such perspectives on real education, opposed as they are to conforming to society's norms and expectations. Importantly, the tramp, like the Cynic philosopher, appreciates more than anyone else, how best to reconcile the external and internal realities of being human, even if such a lifestyle choice comes at the cost of alienation from mainstream society. In his book, Critique of Cynical Reason, contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, refers to this conflict as ‘inner emigration’ because cutting oneself off from the fundamental values of society leaves one on the horns of a dilemma: ‘Get out or collaborate? Flee or stand firm?’.

And so, if there is something childlike about the compulsion to reject the perceived wisdom of others, as Robert's freely admits he does, the term 'childlike' should not be viewed here in its pejorative sense. For, as Nietzsche also acknowledged, there is something that the child sees and hears that others do not, and that something is the most important thing of all. Roberts admits to a desire for perpetual youth when stating that, 'without illusion one cannot write', and that (and herein lies a perfectly expressed manifesto for the life of the professional tramp):

'When the Queen of Illusion illudes no more youth is over.' [...] To do a little useful work (even though the useful may be a thousandth part of the useless) is the end of living. The only illusion worth keeping is that anything can be useful. So far my youth is not ended.

An Encounter with Christianity in San Francisco

Roberts was to spend three years tramping Australia and working principally in sheep stations and mining camps. When he returned to London he did make some attempt to settle to conventional life, including—in spite of the aversion to his father's profession—a spell as a civil servant at the War Office and the India Office. But wanderlust is an irresistible force and by 1884, now aged 27, Roberts bought himself a passage to America, initially heading for Texas where his brother was working on a ranch. Roberts then worked his way to Chicago on a cattle train, back to Texas (from where he adopted the tramp moniker Texas Charlie), then up to Iowa, St. Paul, and north across the Canadian border to Winnipeg. He tramped west through the Rockies on foot to Vancouver from where, after securing some work to raise further funds, he walked most of the way back across the American border to Washington and then on to San Francisco arriving penniless in 1985; and where, as he put it, his 'second great university' education took place.

The following passages are a testimony to Roberts' resilience and independence of mind and spirit. We are treated once again, as we were in my last two posts (on Thomas Manning Page and William Henry Davies), to a polemic on misplaced Christian charity. But here Roberts exchanges open satire for profound candour and tenderness. The first chapter of A Tramp's Notebook, 'A Watch-Night Service in San Francisco', aside from the obvious target of its invective, is a marvellous exposition on friendship and maintaining one's integrity in the face of seduction. The vulnerability Roberts exposes of himself in this piece of writing firmly endeared me to the author. Here then, are some extracts from that chapter—a full reading of which is recommend:

I came into the city with a quarter of a dollar ... in my possession. Starvation and sleeping on boards when I was by no means well broke me down and at the same time embittered me. On the third day I saw some of my equal outcasts inspecting a bill on a telegraph pole in Kearny Street, and on reading it I found it a religious advertisement ... At the bottom of the bill was a notice that men out of work and starving who attended the meeting would be given a meal. Having been starving only some twenty-four hours I sneered and walked on. My agnosticism was bitter in those days, bitter and polemic.


I starved another twenty-four hours, and I went to the service. I said I went for the warmth of the room, for I was ill-clad and wet. I found the place half full of out-o'-works, and sat down by the door. The preacher was a man of a type especially disagreeable to me; he looked like a business man who had cultivated an aspect of goodness and benevolence and piety on business principles. Without being able to say he was a hypocrite, he struck me as being one. He was not bad-looking, and about thirty-five; he had a band of adoring girls and women about him. I was desolate and disliked him and went away.

But I returned.

I went up to him and told him brutally that I disbelieved in him and in everything he believed in, explaining that I wanted nothing on false pretences. My attitude surprised him, but he was kind (still with that insufferable air of being a really first-class good man), and he bade me have something to eat. I took it and went, feeling that I had no place on the earth.


Then followed some days of more than semi-starvation, and I grew rather light-headed. The last day of the year dawned and I spent it foodless, friendless, solitary. But after a long evening's aimless wandering about the city I came back to California Street, and at ten o'clock went to the Watch-Night Service in the room of the first preacher I had heard.

The hall was a big square one, capable of seating some three hundred people. There was a raised platform at the end; a broad passage way all round the room had seats on both sides of it, and made a small square of seats in the centre. I sat down in the middle of this middle square, and the room was soon nearly full. The service began with a hymn. I neither sang nor rose, and I noticed numbers who did not. In peculiar isolation of mind my heart warmed to these, and I was conscious of rising hostility for the creatures of praise. There was one strong young fellow about three places from me who remained seated. Glancing behind the backs of those who were standing between us I caught his eye, which met mine casually and perhaps lightened a little. He had a rather fine face, intelligent, possibly at better times humorous. I was not so solitary.

A man singing on my left offered me a share of his hymn-book. I declined courteously. The woman on my right asked me to share hers. That I declined too. Some asked the young fellow to rise, but he refused quietly.


After the hymn followed prayer by the minister, who was surrounded on the daïs by some dozen girls. I noticed that few were very good-looking; but in their faces was religious fervour. Yet they kept their eyes on the man. The prayer was long, intolerably and trickily eloquent and rhetorical, very self-conscious.


It was past eleven when they rose to sing another hymn. Many who had not sung before sang now. Some of the girls from the platform came down and offered us hymn-books. A few took them half-shamefacedly; some declined with thanks; some ignored the extended book. And after two hymns were sung and some more prayers said, it was half-past eleven. They announced five minutes for silent meditation. Looking round, I saw my friend on the left sitting with folded arms. He was obviously in no need of five minutes.


The volume of the singing increased as the seats emptied, in it there was religious fervour; it appealed strongly even to me. I saw some young fellows rise and join the procession; perhaps three or four. There were now less than twelve seated. The preacher spoke to us personally; he insisted on the passing minutes of the dying year. And still the singers passed us. Some leant over and called to us. Our bitter band lessened one by one.

Then from the procession came these girl acolytes, and, dividing themselves, they appealed to us and prayed. They were not beautiful perhaps, but they were women. We outcasts of the prairie and the camp fire and the streets had been greatly divorced from feminine sweet influences, and these succeeded where speech and prayer and song had failed. As one spoke to me I saw hard resolution wither in many. What woman had spoken kindly to them in this hard land since they left their eastern homes? Why should they pain them? And as they joined the singing band of believers the girls came to those of us who still stayed, and doubled and redoubled their entreaties.


They knew their strength, and spoke softly with the voice of loving women. And not a soul had spoken to me so in my far and weary songless passage from the Atlantic States to the Pacific Coast. Long-repressed emotions rose in me as the hair of one brushed my cheek, as the hand of another lay upon my shoulder and mutely bade me rise; as another called me, as another beckoned. I looked round like a half-fascinated beast, and I caught the eye again of the man on my left. He and I were the only ones left sitting there. All the rest had risen and were singing with the singers.

In his eye, I doubt not, I saw what he saw in mine. A look of encouragement, a demand for it, doubt, an emotional struggle, and deeper than all a queer bitter amusement, that said plainly, "If you fail me, I fall, but I would rather not play the hypocrite in these hard times." We nodded rather mentally than actually, and were encouraged, I knew if I yielded I was yielding to something founded essentially on sex, and for my honesty's sake I would not fail.

"My child, it is no use," I said to her who spoke to me, and, struggling with myself, I put her hand from me. But still they moved past and sang, and the girls would not leave me till the first stroke of midnight sounded from the clock upon the wall. They then went one by one and joined the band. I turned again to my man, and conscious of my own hard fight, I knew what his had been. We looked at each other, and being men, were half ashamed that another should know we had acted rightly according to our code, and had won a victory over ourselves.

And now we were truly outcasts, for no one spoke to us again. The preacher prayed and we still sat there. But he cast us no word, and the urgent women were good only to their conquered. Perhaps in their souls was some sense of personal defeat; they had been rejected as women and as angels of the Lord. We two at any rate sat beyond the reach of their graciousness; their eyes were averted or lifted up; we lay in outer darkness.

As they began to sing once more we both rose and with a friendly look at each other went out into the streets of the hostile city. It is easy to understand why we did not speak.

I never saw him again.

More Tramping Memoirs and Wisdom

The fundamental activities of hoboism such as riding the rails, eating in jungles, doing time in jail, and strategies for begging, have been well covered in previous posts, so I will confine the rest of my portrait of Roberts to those unique experiences that contribute to the character of the man and have significance (disguised as research for his novels and travelogues) than it was a paying career. Like W.H. Davies, Roberts would continue to resort to begging on occasions, both out of necessity and to bring him closer to the subject of his research. But before reviewing further chronicles from A Tramp's Notebook, here are Roberts' first impressions of America from 'A Watch-Night Service in San Francisco'—note some parallels with the world we currently inhabit; in particular the legacy that Europe has inherited from America's love affair with free market economics:
for the wider philosophy under examination. By the time of Roberts' subsequent trips to Australia, America and other destinations, he had already established himself as a writer and journalist, even though in his middle years this was more of an excuse for further tramping

Roberts as cattleman
America is a hard place, for it has been made by hard men. People who would not be crushed in the East have gone to the West. The Puritan element has little softness in it, and in some places even now gives rise to phenomena of an excessive and religious brutality which tortures without pity, without sympathy. But not only is the Puritan hard; all other elements in America are hard too. The rougher emigrant, the unconquerable rebel, the natural adventurer, the desperado seeking a lawless realm, men who were iron and men with the fierce courage which carries its vices with its virtues, have made the United States. The rude individualist of Europe who felt the slow pressure of social atoms which precedes their welding, the beginning of socialism, is the father of America. He has little pity, little tolerance, little charity. In what States in America is there any poor law? Only an emigration agent, hungry for steamship percentages, will declare there are no poor there now. The survival of the fit is the survival of the strong; every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost might replace the legend on the silver dollar and the golden eagle, without any American denying it in his heart.


As other tramp writers have noted, Roberts observes that the full-time tramp, 'finds little time and little chance to read.' For this reason, Roberts acknowledges, he always combined wandering with working.
On one occasion, for instance, after tramping 8,000 miles in seven months and arriving in British Columbia with only twenty five cents in his pocket, he took a job in a sawmill near the town of New Westminster which had a small public library. As often as Roberts was able, he would go to the library after work, but not enough to satisfy his appetite for literature.

But the work in a sawmill is very arduous to everyone in it, and while the winter kept away I had little energy to read. Presently, however, the season changed, and the bitter east winds came out of the mountains and fixed the river in ice and froze up our logs in the "boom," so that the saws were at last silent, and I was free to plunge among the books and roll and soak among them day and night.

One of Roberts' observations from his reading is worth noting; his scorn of books on mountain adventure and exploration, which he describes as, ‘machine-made bits of description which are as inspiring as any lumber yard’, and his depreciation of the 'Alpine writer' whom he describes as using 'pumped-up admiration.' There is something about Roberts attitude to mountaineering that is akin to his dislike of religion; perhaps it is the obsession with staring heavenward when the natural habitat of the tramp and the cynic is the abject world at our feet. Of course Roberts appreciates nature, and is no feint-heart when it comes to facing personal challenges. So perhaps the target of his cynicism here is the vainglory of adventurers who exalt the virtues of 'conquering' nature; elevating themselves vertically from the rest of the human herd, instead of exiling themselves horizontally and anonymously in the world, as does the tramp.

In my own humble opinion, very little above the snow-line is truly beautiful. It is often desolate, sometimes intolerably grand and savage, but lovely it is very rarely. It is perhaps against human nature to be there at all.’

In The Western Avernus, written seventeen years before A Tramp's Notebook, we are given some insight behind the more measured cynicism expressed both in the passage above and also in the account of the church service in San Francisco. As Roberts admits, the nearly three hundred pages of The Western Avernus were written in four months, 'without notes, without care, without thought'. And so what Avernus exposes more than Tramp's Notebook, is an acknowledgement and explanation of the raw emotions that fuelled Roberts' cynicism:

I was raging, nihilistic, anarchist, a mutineer against gods and men, a sneerer, a scoffer, atheist even as to Nature and Loveliness; a misanthrope, a misogynist, a reviler of all things, a Sadducee, a Philistine. For the iron entered my soul. And I walked like a whirlwind, with a pestilence and despair in me, self-contained and wrathful. I ate in silence or went hungry in silence. I rose up in starvation, and lived on apple orchards like a bird of prey forced to hateful fruits, lacking blood and flesh. I passed men on the road and spoke not. If they spoke to me I did but stare at them, and went by in strange quiet.

(for a detailed critique of The Western Avernus see this link)


In the chapter of this title, Roberts expands on his philosophy of asceticism, and as though to reinforce his disdain of those constantly staring heavenward to discover the truth, he finds his own truth in the flat, barren wastelands of South Africa, America and Australia. He poses the questions of the relationship between humans and their environment:

What happens when the people are plastic and their circumstances rigid? What when the people are rigid and unyielding, and their surroundings fluent and unabiding? And does character depend on what is outside, or does the dominant quality of a race remain, as some vainly think, for ever?

As with all true cynic philosophers, Roberts criticises those who seek truth through scientific discovery. Truth, he says, will always elude those who search for it: ‘The real observer is he who does not observe, but is gradually aware that he knows.’ And in answer to his own question about racial characteristics, he indirectly expresses the same 'citizen of the world' sentiments as did the Cynic Diogenes. Those who seek truth will always find differences between peoples, while those who position themselves outside the civilising process remain open minded, aware of what is common in humanity. Roberts admits to encountering this wisdom amongst the flat places of the planet, answering his own question of what is different between the people's of the bush, the plains and the prairies that he has tramped and ridden on three continents:

There is much difference; there is little difference; there is no difference. The great difference is racial, the small difference is human, the lack of any difference is animal and primaeval. In all alike, in any country where spaces are wide, the child that was the ancestor of the man arises with its truthful unconscious curiosity and faith in Nature. Here it may be that one gallops, here one trots, here again one walks. But all alike pull the bridle and snuff the air and find it good, and see the grass grow or dwindle, and watch the stars and the passing seasons, and find the world very fresh and very sweet and very simple.’

Roberts goes on to describe how his own particular truth dawned on him in South Africa when he came upon the veldt one night in the darkness half-way between Krugersdorp and Mafeking:

Betwixt sleep and waking as I walked I felt infinite peace pour over me. So had the silent Campo Santo at Pisa affected me; so had I felt for a moment among the ancient ruins of the abbey at Rivaulx. In this dawn hour came a time of reversion. I too was very solitary, and loved my solitude. The necessities of civilisation were necessities no more: I needed luxury even less than I needed news. I cared for nothing that the men of a city ask: there was space before me and room to ride. The lack of small urgent stimuli, the barren growth of civilisation's weedy fields, left me to the great and simple organic impulses of the outstretched world.

Roberts is, of course, expressing his own personal philosophy, but it is not difficult to imagine how the same lure of anti-civilisation would entice many a tramp looking for the same kind of inner contentment. Roberts hits the tramping nail on the head when he acknowledges that the essential character of the true wanderer has sunk so deep within him that he is unaware of it. And so the true tramp has no option but to tramp, he is born an exile. Or as Roberts puts it: ‘He belongs not to this age, nor to any age we know.’


Roberts was to retrace his steps several times, and at the age of 36 he would do so in spectacular style by embarking on a tramp around the world for reasons not fully discussed in this chapter of A Tramp's Notebook. In any event, he was able to part fund his trip by publishing an account of his adventures. Sailing to New York, he made his way to San Francisco, recollecting how he had previously made his way by jumping trains rather than paying his fare. Roberts philosophy of the practical side of tramping was never plan in advance but let each stage of his journey take care of itself:

It is most useful to think of no more than the matter in hand, for then we can use one's whole faculties at one time. Too much forethought is fatal to progress, and if I had really considered difficulties I could have stayed in England and written a story instead.

Roberts arrived in San Francisco with insufficient funds to pay his steerage fare to Sydney, on top of which he picked up a cable from his London agent to say that the writing deal had fallen through, and so once more he had to resort to hustling. Having by now some reputation as a writer, he was able to pen some copy to fund the continuance of his trip. Roberts had never sailed that section of the Pacific and while he greatly enjoyed being in the tropics, he was vexed that his funds did not allow him a stop over in Honolulu. He did however manage to go ashore for several hours on the island of Upolu, home of Robert Louis Stevenson, and spent several hours in Stevenson's company. There is an entire chapter of A Tramp's Notebook, 'A Meeting with Robert Louis Stevenson', devoted to that encounter; more remarkable for the fact that Stevenson was to die later that same year. Here are a couple of passages from that piece:

I was prepared then for a personality, and I found it. When his name is mentioned I no longer think of any of his works, but of a sweet-eyed, thin, brown ghost of a man whom I first saw upon horseback in a grove of cocoanut palms by the sounding surges of a tropic sea. There are writers, and not a few of them, whose work it is a pleasure to read, while it is a pain to know them, a disappointment, almost an unhappiness, to be in their disillusioning company. They have given the best to the world. Robert Louis Stevenson never gave his best, for his best was himself.


He spoke like an exile, but one not discouraged. Though his physique was of the frailest (I had noted with astonishment that his thigh as he sat on horseback was hardly thicker than my forearm), he was alert and gently eager. That soft, brown eye which held me was full of humour, of pathos, of tenderness, yet I could imagine it capable of indignation and of power. It might be that his body was dying, but his mind was young, elastic, and unspoiled by selfishness or affectation.’

Arriving at Sydney, Roberts had just enough money for the cost of the mail train to Melbourne where he planned to renew acquaintances from his teenage tramping debut and spend a year in Australia writing a book. But on his arrival he received a cable demanding his immediate return to London. His round-the-world trip would be completed at something of a rush: by sea to Naples via Adelaide, Columbo (Sri Lanka), the Red Sea and Suez Canal to the Mediterranean and Naples. Roberts made London overland from Naples in 4 days.

Three years after this trip, in 1987, Roberts married Alice Bruce Hamlyn, a widow with three children. Sadly one of his stepdaughters died in 1909 and Alice herself died from cancer two years later in 1911. Although Roberts continued to travel, including a return trip to British Colombia forty years after his first visit, his time was now increasingly taken up with his writing—even if his reputation as an author had diminished—and his role as a raconteur in literary London. After Alice's death, Roberts was cared for by his step-daughter, Naomi. Naomi was to die in 1941 and Roberts died in London the following year aged 84.

Footnote on Tramping

When discussing tramping directly, as opposed to autobiographically and philosophically, Roberts presents a very different and contradictory approach to the subject. As a tramp, in Australia, America, Canada, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, and other places, Roberts claims to belong to the itinerant worker variety as opposed to the purely begging kind—although a beggar he was forced to become on occasions. For unlike some of the more complex categorisations of the tramping genus that other tramp writers have engaged in, Roberts limits his definition of tramps to just these two basic types: ‘those who take the road to look for work, and those who look for work and pray to heaven that they may never find it.’ The following passage gives some insight into Roberts' prejudices against a certain class of tramp:

When I was on the tramp myself in Oregon I was much annoyed by being taken for one of the truly idle kind. I remember at Roseberg, or a little to the north of it, I once stopped and had a talk with a farmer whom I had asked for work. Although he had none to give me he was very civil, and we talked of tramps and tramping. He looked at me keenly. "I can see you are not of the regular professionals," said he. "Thank you for your perspicacity," I answered, and though perspicacity fairly floored him, he saw it was not an insult, and went on talking. "Now look here, my boy, they say we're hard on tramps, and perhaps some of us are, but I reckon we sometimes get enough to make us rough. Last summer I was in my orchard, picking cherries, I think, and a likely-looking, strong young fellow comes along the road. Seeing me, he climbs the fence, and says to me, 'Say, boss, could you give me something to eat? I haven't had anything to-day.' I looked at him. 'Why, yes,' said I. 'If you'll go up to the house I'll be up there in a few minutes when I've filled this pail; and while you're waiting just split a little wood. The axe is on the wood pile.' Now, look you, what d'ye think he said. 'I don't split wood. I ain't going to do any work till I get to Washington Territory.' 'Oh!' said I, 'that's it, is it? Then look here, young fellow, don't you eat anything till you get there either; for I won't give you anything, and just let me see you climb that fence in a hurry.' So he went off cursing. Ain't that kind of thing enough to make us rough on tramps?

This simple distinction between tramps who work and those who beg, belies Roberts' deeper appreciation of tramping outlined above. Without going into the more extreme categories and sub-categories of tramps described in earlier posts, Roberts simply reinforces popular tramp stereotypes. He himself was not always able to find work to sustain himself, as is clearly evident from his chronicles. Neither did the tramp-beggar avoid work simply out of idleness; the motivations for tramping are many and complex as I have discussed elsewhere. There is incongruity then between Roberts' discussion of the externalised idea of the physical tramp and his more profound insights into tramping as a philosophical mindset. The latter will contribute greatly to my work in progress, Roberts all-too-human comments I simply acknowledge for what they are, but I do owe a debt to this writer for many thought provoking and entertaining insights into the subject under investigation.

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