"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

A re-edited version of the original post is now published in 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:

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.

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.






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.............

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