"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

20 Jan 2015

A Philosophy of Tramping—Kathleen Phelan


As part of the research for Kathleen's story in Chapter 15 of The Lives and Extraordinary Adventures of Fifteen Tramp Writers from the Golden Age of Vagabondage published in 2020 (see below), I met Kathleen's younger sister Elizabeth and her closest friend Grace Jackman who shared with me unpublished manuscripts, diaries and hundreds of letters and postcards. These I eventually got around to scanning and emailing to Feral House in 2020. 

A re-edited version of the original 2015 post is published in Chapter 15 of
Published by Feral House February 2020


Kathleen, copied from her nephew's post, which includes memories of his aunt.
I will continue to update this post as the family say they have access to:
more than 20 lever arch files full of stories and documents that will tell a remarkable story.'

I first became aware of Kathleen Phelan (nee Newton) during my research into the life of the tramp writer Jim Phelan. Kathleen was Phelan's third wife and the story of how they met is repeated below, both by Kathleen directly, and as told to Jim Christy (hero of my last and next post) by Kathleen on a boat to Morocco in 1970. I have referred to all the other tramp writers in this series by their surnames, but I will refer to Kathleen Phelan simply as Kathleen to avoid any confusion with her husband.

Kathleen married Jim Pheelan in Hampstead, London, in 1944. As I said, the story of how Kathleen met Jim is told by Jim Christy below, along with his own memories of this remarkable woman. Until I had posted my biography of Jim Phelan, I had assumed that Christy was the last person ever to have met and been able to give a first hand account of Kathleen. Then three separate individuals left messages on the post to say that they knew of Kathleen more recently. In fact, she had only just died, on 26th November 2014,  the day before her 97th birthday, in the caravan where she was living in Cirencester—not much more than an hour's drive from where I live! Below is the obituary that appeared The Times:

'PHELAN Kathleen Tramp and Vagabond died peacefully in her sleep, in her caravan ... once met never forgotten.'

Imagine my feelings of deprivation; particularly as Kathleen is the first woman tramp whose story I have attempted to write. The owner of the caravan site had tried to contact me some time ago, when Kathleen was still alive, after reading my biography of Jim Phelan. The wretched contact form on the website was not working. I could have met Kathleen and talked with her face to face. But no good harbouring regrets; there must be hundreds of people who met and enjoyed Kathleen's company during her lifetime. 

I now appeal to those who knew Kathleen to come forward with their own recollections and stories.

Early Life

Kathleen Phelan (nee Newton) was born in Easington Colliery, County Durham, on the east coast of northern England, on November 28, 1917. Her father George Newton was the deputy manager of the local mine and, prior to her marriage, her mother had taught music and French at the Bede Collegiate School in Sunderland.

     Kathleen had an older sister Norma, a brother Tom, and her sister (by 10 years) Elizabeth, who contributed to the writing of this chapter. Both Kathleen and Norma attended university in the early 1930s. Kathleen studied Physical Education and English at the insistence of her father who considered teaching to be the most appropriate profession for his daughter because, “If you don’t get married then you’ll get a pension at the end of it.” Kathleen’s real passion had been to become a journalist and, as Elizabeth further recalls, Kathleen used to haunt Fleet Street, the journalistic centre of London. Writers were also regular visitors at the Newton’s house and as a child, Kathleen remembers sitting on George Bernard Shaw’s knee.

     Kathleen and her siblings grew up in a politically charged background that included having Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, and Lady MacDonald as house guests. This atmosphere had an influence on Kathleen who used to fool her father by going off with her sports gear on the pretext of furthering her career as a teacher, but instead made for the Fabian Society where she would listen to and join in political debate. Sadly, George Newton died just before war was declared and before he was able to witness his two eldest daughters graduating from university. After graduating, Kathleen got a job in Newcastle but shortly afterwards was evacuated to the Lake District. She did not return home following that event but taught, in what Elizabeth describes as, “all the ‘way-out’ schools like Rudolf Steiner.” When at the Steiner School in Gloucester, Kathleen was already spending her time off and holidays walking and hitchhiking around the country. Discussing Kathleen’s wanderlust, Elizabeth describes her as “the little girl who never wanted to grow up.” Elizabeth also refers to possible Romani ancestry:

She [Kathleen] always used to say that from way back we came from ‘didicoy’ on my father’s side … the odd ones, when you looked at them, with the jet black hair … and I think that has something to do with her nature and the wandering. … I had an aunt who had a little shop, and when it was Spring, at fair time, all the gypsy people went to the shop.

     In spite of her yearning to stay forever young at heart, Elizabeth claims that Kathleen could have excelled in any conventional career of her choosing. Instead she chose the life of a vagabond and excelled at it; not least speaking thirteen languages including Arabic, Urdu, Spanish, French, Italian and Scandinavian, all of which served her well during her global ramblings.

Married Life on the Road

Kathleen’s unpublished autobiography with the working title What Lamp Has Destiny was discovered following Kathleen’s death and recounts her 22 years on the road with Jim Phelan. She would spend a further 48 years tramping solo following Jim’s death. At the time Kathleen met Jim Phelan, 23 years her senior, she was already an experienced tramp spending most of her time out on the road. She had been hitchhiking out of Wales northward, when on the outskirts of Chester a motorist stopped to offer her a lift. When asked where she was headed she just listed a string of cities to the north at random. The driver told her that he could take her as far as Garstang. Kathleen had no idea where Garstang was but hopped in anyway. When they reached the village the driver pointed out the A6 road continuing north and said that he was turning off for Blackpool and that she was welcome to come the rest of the way with him. Kathleen declined and and waited for another lift going on north. The story continues in Kathleen’s own words.

     It was late afternoon and for a long while the road was very quiet. I began to regret not having gone to Blackpool.
     Then I saw a man sauntering towards me on the opposite side of the road. Occasionally he turned back to flag a vehicle southbound. Cars were few and far between in those days, but so were hitch-hikers, so we eyed one another plenty. When he was directly opposite, he stopped and stared across.
     About six feet tall, he wore a leather jacket and corduroy trousers. A large black hat was pushed to the back of his head and around his neck was knotted a red silk scarf. A duffle bag hung from his shoulder.
     He strolled across the road and stood in front of me and grinned. He looked as though he hadn’t a care in the world. High, wide and handsome. I had never seen anyone more colourful or alive-looking.
     He stood and looked at me a while, I stared back. Then in a deep, lilting, Irish voice, he said, “And where might you be going.”
     Me—I said nothing, just kept looking.
     Then he spoke again. “You didn’t answer me. Where might you be going?”
     “Nowhere,” I replied.
     “I’m going there myself,” he said, “Do you mind if I come along a bit of the way with you?”
     We turned and headed out of Garstang together.
     I’m fond of saying that the road is like one great supermarket. Whatever you want is there for the asking.
     Even a husband.

     At the time Kathleen met Jim Phelan, he was already a published writer but, as he confessed to Kathleen, lived on the road and had no personal possessions apart from his typewriter and a few books which he kept at a friend’s place in London. He spent a few weeks of wintertime writing his next book, sent it off to the publisher, and then hit the road again. That was good enough for Kathleen who was already familiar with the writings of Jack London and W.H. Davies. “Here was a carefree irresponsibility to match my own. So I went off with him—and married him—just—like—that.” The pair were married in Hampstead, London, in 1944. Kathleen was then 27 years of age. 

Tramping Solo

After Jim died Kathleen came into her own as a professional vagabond, tramping solo for a further 48 years until she died alone in her caravan, two days before her 97th birthday.

Kathleen's first solo trip took 3 years in which she walked and hitchhiked through France, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and ending in Nepal. She then tramped the American continent for 7 years from Alaska in the north to Tierra Del Fuego at the tip of South America, and all points east and west. When in the United States, Kathleen had to cross the border into Canada or Mexico every 3 months to renew her visa.

Since publishing this post, I have interviewed Kathleen's sister and life long friend Grace Jackman. Both provided invaluable archive material and Kathleen's unpublished works which informed the chapter in the book version of Kathleen's life and adventures.  

Full story now available in The Lives and Extraordinary Adventures of Fifteen Tramp Writers from the Golden Age of Vagabondage

Some memories of Kathleen are published below in reverse date order (of knowing Kathleen):


It was high summer 2005, not long after we'd bought our caravan and camping site that Kathleen turned up at the door to interview us. She wanted to see if we would be a suitable place to bring her caravan for a few weeks. It seemed we were, as shortly after her van was towed in and put on pitch by a gentleman who waved her goodbye as he left her to settle in. Kathleen soon became friends with everybody, including us, and we were often entertained by tales from her past. Frequently we'd be kept from work by how she met her husband Jim on the road: how they'd drunk with Dylan Thomas and mixed with the London literati of the time. After Jim died she travelled abroad, hitching from continent to continent, staying with Picasso whilst travelling through Spain, playing football with Pele in the streets of Brazil, telling stories to the Shah of Iran - tales we were to hear more than once! In fact Kathleen's favourite phrase was 'Did I ever tell you about......?' 
Describing herself as a tramp and vagabond, in the true sense of the word, we learned a lot about life on the road, the welcome signs such travellers would leave on people's gate posts, the kindness she found from both rich and poor. She would leave us for days and weeks at a time to hitch a ride....to wherever! Itchy feet meant time to move on and in February 2006 we found ourselves towing her caravan to the next chosen site and pitching it for her before it was our turn to wave goodbye. 

Several years, sites and letters later ( she wrote beautifully, long newsy letters in her careful script) she once again turned up on our doorstep in October 2009.....could she come back 'for the winter'. Of course we welcomed her back and here she stayed until November 2014 when she passed away in her sleep, in her caravan, as she would have wished. 

We have many memories of Kathleen. The way she would dance everywhere rather than walk: her immaculate dress code: her carefully coloured hair: her pride in keeping her home clean and shiny, inside and out: her fierce independence: swapping cigarettes with our regulars: her light burning late into the night as she painted her little horsy booklets she would sell to raise 'a few bob': listening to her radio: her dislike of tv, computers, internet and any such modern contraptions: the friends she made with people on the bus (when nobody stopped for her outstretched thumb), at the bookies and, in the last years, the local taxi drivers (delivered to her door!) But most of all it's her stories we remember, we begged often for her to write them down -  I even bought her a posh notebook....it was found empty after she died and returned to me. However, what was found was file upon file of notes and memories. How I would love to read those tales again - maybe someday. 
One of life's great characters, the world is a richer place for Kathleen. She touched the life of everyone she met and will be remembered by many around the world. Certainly I will never forget her! 

HIKING A HITCH (1998), KATHLEEN PHEELAN (with thanks to Liz Shore who sent me this copy of Kathleen’s writing)

    This book is dedicated to the thousands of motorists who have carried me from Carlisle to Cairo and from Galway Bay to the Golden Gate and who have brought me always nearer to the land of Heart’s Desire

So reads the dedication on the back of Kathleen’s seventeen page pamphlet of poetry, prose and delightful watercolour illustrations. The pamphlet is typed, but the cover, penultimate and back page are written in Kathleen’s own handwriting. I do not intend to reproduce the writing here as Feral House are planning to publish a book of Kathleen's writings. What I will do is provide a flavour of the work, not least Kathleen’s personal philosophy on tramping. But to return to how I came to be in posession of a copy of the typed manuscript, and how Liz herself came by it, I share below part of the email I recently received from Liz:

I met her [Kathleen] a number of years ago. I was on a weekend away with my family at a caravan park in Wem, Shropshire and remember my father speaking to her, I went over to them and Kathleen was telling him about her life on the road and meeting Dylan Thomas and about the people she had met and the places she had been.  

Kathleen and my father then started to speak about writers and books, and I told her that I was very keen on being a writer. 
She then gave me a collection of some of her short stories and poems!
I was amazed.

I was about 10 or 11 years old when I met her, and 17 years later I still read her stories and think of her when I need some writing inspiration. Even though I only met and spoke to her for a brief amount of time, she is one of the most free spirited, inspirational and bravest ladies I have ever met. 

Every so often I go onto the internet and try and find out what happened to her, and I am saddened to find out that she has died.

The pamphlet of Kathleen’s prose and poetry, is one of those she carried with her and sold (or gave away) to people she met on the road. As with the pamphlet of Jim Phelan’s writing given to Jim Christy by Kathleen (see next memoir), it has been dedicated to the recipient (see below). 

The forward to the book describes how, as a teenager, Kathleen met a ‘professional hitch-hiker’ in London; a Californian who was tramping around Europe named Joe Cassidy: ‘Up to then I had never thought about vagabondage as a profession.’ From Joe, Kathleen learned ‘that if you did not like a place, you stood on a grass verge and jerked your thumb.’ In the lines below, Kathleen sums up the difference between the tramp and other mortals, a description that has parallels with descriptions by other tramps on this site. Jim Phelan himself talks about ‘heading for the horizon’, and, in the poem that follows the Forward, Kathleen declares ‘Worry folk carry a misery load / I just walk away’:

     ‘Other people, when things went wrong or when they were being ground downother people grinned and groaned and bore it. But Joe Cassidyand Imerely jerked thumb over shoulder and opened a car door and moved on to nicer things and more pleasant people.

The title of the pamphlet, Hiking a Hitch, is a reference to the opening piece of prose that describes the origins of the term hitch-hiking. According to Kathleen, the term originated in the days of horse-drawn wagons and refers to the two ropes (or hitches) that hung down on either side of the rear of the vehicle, providing a hoist by which one could pull oneself up into the wagon. See illustration by Kathleen below:

     ‘If that wagon passed a person walking up a hill, the person often called out to the driver, “Hitch-hike?” The accent was on the second syllable in those days.’

Hike meaning to hold, and hitch referring to the rope. And so asking the drivers permission to hold onto the rope to ease one’s passage up an incline. After wagons became motorised, the term was still used to refer to getting a lift on a lorry, but later became the general term it is today for getting a lift with the driver of any vehicle.

Under the caption ‘Going Nowhere’, Kathleen opens the piece by giving her curriculum vitae: ‘Profession; — Vagabond.  Money; — Nil.  Address; — No fixed residence.’ She then discusses the fortuitous nature of tramping by relating a story about a car pulling over to give her a lift. When the driver asked her where she was headed, Kathleen named several cities to the north, not really caring which. The driver said he was going to some place that Kathleen had never heard of, but took the lift anyway. And it was after alighting from the car sometime later that Kathleen met her husband-to-be. Compare this account with the one that Kathleen related to Jim Christy (see further below). The Christy version provides the background as to why Kathleen took to the road in the first place:

     ‘It was late afternoon and for a long while the road was very quiet. I began to regret not having gone to Blackpool [the destination of her lift].’

     Then I saw a man sauntering towards me on the opposite side of the road. Occaisionally he turned back to flag a vehicle southbound. Cars were few and far between in those days, but so were hitch-hikers, so we eyed one another plenty. When he was directly opposite, he stopped and stared accross.

     About six feet tall, he wore a leather jacket and corduroy trousers. A large black hat was pushed to the back of his head and around his neck was knotted a red silk scarf.

     He strolled accross the road and stood in front of me and grinned. He looked as though he hadn’t a care in the world. High, wide and handsome. I had never seen anyone more colourful or alive-looking.
     He stood and looked at me a while, I stared back. Then in a deep, lilting, Irish voice, he said, “And where might you be going.”

     Me—I said nothing, just kept looking.

     Then he spoke again. “You didn’t answer me. Where might you be going?”

     “Nowhere,” I replied.

     “I’m going there myself,” he said, “Do you mind if I come along a bit of the way with you?”

     We turned and headed out of Garstang together.

     I’m fond of saying that the road is like one great supermarket. Whatever you want is there for the asking.

     Even a husband.

And in the following piece entitled ‘Riding the Road’, Kathleen continues her theme about the bountifulness of the road in the following vein:

     ‘Any professional hitch-hiker knows that if you stand on the outskirts of Samarakand thumbing lifts for Wigan, those lifts will come along just a surely as people can walk and cabbages can’t. Even if that roadster takes along a dog and a cat and a parrot in a golden cage.’

There is then a story of the adventure that followed Kathleen's meeting with Jim Phelan (which I will leave for publication of Kathleen’s works), and then, in the next piece, Kathleen takes a further philosophical look at roadcraft in an essay titled ‘Faith in the Road’, illustrated by another story that I shall not relate here: 

     ‘It can’t be learned from other people. And it can’t be learned out of a book. It is a complete and unquestioning belief—that everything will turn out allright. [...] Ask, and thou shalt receive. Everyone believed that at one time. Nowadays only the tramps on the road will trust their lives to such a faith. And that is true for all vagabonds. The fullfilling of one’s needs happens all the time.


People often ask me, “What happens when you’re ill?” That’s easy. You sit by the side of the road and you hitch a car. It stops, you get in, and the driver is always a doctor! And if you didn’t have that kind of faith, you wouldn’t last a month on the road.’

This piece of advice is followed by a tale about the time that Kathleen required urgent dental treatment, the punchline of which is as follows:

‘When everything was done, he [the dentist] said, “You know, I am a very proud man. Do you realise that I am the only dentist who can boast to his colleagues that he has a patient who travels all the way from the Himalaya Mountains to Newmarket for his services!”

     From such encounters springs the faith of a vagabond. A complete and unquestioning reliance on the road. Somehow one's needs are fulfilled.’

The following epigram could have been lifted straight from Diogenes' own handbook, if he’d had one:

Have no great posessions.

Take no thought for the morrow.

Ask and though shalt receive.’

I will finish this overview of Kathleen’s Hiking a Hitch with the verse at the end of the book, but for a full appreciation of Kathleen’s wisdoms on tramping, one needs to compare them with the thoughts of the other tramp writers whose biographies are included on this site. Without exception, they parallel Kathleen Phelan’s own attitude and strategies for survival on the road. This is the writing of the first woman tramp I have studied so far. What one is left with, even from this brief pamphlet, is someone who expects nothing from life, never complains about her lot, whose life is brimming over in spite of it, and, most importantly, brings joy to all those she encounters (providing they are open to it) with no more than her simple philosophy and sheer force of her personality.


Life’s like a poker game
Some get a bad hand
Some have the aces
Secure from the start.
More curse the dealer
And play with a bad hand.
Our kind are glad 
We’re allowed to take part.
Win we, or lose,
We receive but one sole break.
All cards bring gain
If you play them aright.
Only the non-player
Loses the whole stake
So up and get moving
It’s burning daylight.


It is now thirty years since I spent time with Kathleen; it's difficult to remember more than fragments of events or conversations, though some of these remain and more may return if others come forward and share their memories. I don't wish to reconstruct a false Kathleen in the effort to create a coherent piece of writing. She's by no means an easy person to "sum up", either.

Kathleen Phelan and I met in London in 1983 and reconnected in Paris the following year. I was then a 23-year-old Australian taking the traditional post-university overseas tour. Kathleen was some decades older. Her base was a caravan in the English countryside, from which she hitched and sold or exchanged handmade, illustrated booklets of her writing. Kathleen financed her London stays by placing bets on horse races.
One winter evening, in the common room of a youth hostel in Holland Park, Kathleen initiated conversation about the book I was reading—I think one of Fay Weldon’s acerbically funny novels. We talked all night, smoked copious quantities of cigarettes and became firm friends.

Kathleen was petite, probably not many inches over five feet, dynamic and lively. Her face was handsome, by that time quite lined, with large, hooded and engaging (emerald green? blue?) eyes, a hawkish nose and strong jawline. She kept her hair coloured dark and wore it neatly parted and at neck length. She dressed simply in jeans, jackets and walking shoes, without embellishment, but with a nod to Bohemian style in perhaps a scarf or 60s style shoulder bag and a dash of scarlet lipstick. She told me, with a laugh, that she couldn't imagine being attracted to the young backpackers who populated the London youth hostel because, while she may have lived quite a wild life, and made love on wine-splashed sheets, these guys just didn't look CLEAN.

In the daytime, we were turned out of the youth hostel. We’d linger outside in the cold mornings to chat and drink coffee. At intervals, Kathleen would disappear to listen to the racing results on a small transistor radio. Then Kathleen and I would go our separate ways.

In the evenings, we’d reconvene to continue the wondrous extended conversation of which our friendship largely consisted. Kathleen was an expert storyteller; without this skill she couldn’t have hitched the roads as extensively as she did. She possessed a rich sense of humour, formidable intelligence, a well-honed interest in and understanding of humanity with all its foibles, strength of character and joie de vivre, and great warmth without effusion.

From Kathleen I learned much about the “tramping” lifestyle—non-consumerist, sustainable, highly principled and free. We kept in touch for close to twenty years, though neither of us seemed to stay in the same place for very long. In 2002, I moved from Hong Kong to Hangzhou in mainland China. Kathleen’s last postcard, in her familiar writing and with her current address, was sitting on the ledge of the bay window on my last evening in Hong Kong. In Hangzhou, I looked for it in vain.

On many occasions, over the years, I have tried to locate Kathleen but never succeeded. I am comforted by the knowledge that Kathleen would never have been without companionship and the fact that she was both a highly independent spirit and a survivor par excellence.

THE NAME’S PHELAN by Jim Christy

In early January, 1970, twenty-four years old, I was on a ferry, traveling to Morocco from Spain. Most of the passengers appeared to be Arab, many in western garb; the rest, or so it seemed, were young western men and women, hippies, in other words. But walking the deck half an hour after boarding I saw a white woman, older than the rest, and certainly no hippie. She had grey hair, a lined face and to me, she was nearly ancient, fifty, at least. She must have seen me look her way because a minute or so later a voice at my side said, “You look different from the rest of them.”
“I could say the same about you!”
She smiled and told me her name was Kathleen and we began talking as if were old friends who were continuing a conversation we’d been having just the other day.
After a few minutes, she asked me what I did. I shrugged, told her I worked various jobs. She nodded, and said, “Yes, but what do you want to do?”
“Well I guess I want to be a writer.”
She nodded, as if she’d known it all along.
My husband was a writer. He died a few years ago.”
“A real published writer?”
Writers were an exotic species to me.
“Yes, widely published.”
“What was his name?”
“You’ve probably never heard of him, coming from North America. Jim Phelan”
“’Bell Wethers’.”
Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, rearranging the deep lines in her face. Her eyes which I remember as gray-blue seemed to sparkle.
“Yes, that’s Jim’s.”
We talked about books and traveling and by the time the boat docked, we might have been the closest of friends. Kathleen suggested we could set out together, and I readily agreed. We avoided Tangiers, tramping the roads and calling at small towns, and all along the way people seemed drawn to her. I saw men who would ignore other foreigners, approach her, smiling, it was as if they wanted just to be in her presence. People offered us rides on camels and in donkey carts. We had tea sitting in the fields with shepherds. Men and children approached to tell her things. The women regarded her from a polite distance.
     A man stopped Kathleen along the road and began talking earnestly. She nodded and turned to me, “This man’s son has gone to Casablanca and he is worried about the boy.” And while she translated the man looked at me and nodded his head solemnly, as if acknowledging the sound advice she had given him. I nodded back and we all pondered the problem. After the man went on his way, I asked if he was an old friend of hers. It was possible, I figured, if not probable; I’m sure she had dear friends down in the Kalahari.

“Just met him,” she laughed.
In one town, we stopped to have tea on an outdoor patio, and soon a small crowd gathered around us. Kathleen was the focus of attention for children, teenagers and adults. While we drank our coffee and talked, a chubby boy of about thirteen came running across the square, holding the hem of his djelaba in his hands and smiling—coyly it seemed to me—as other boys of the same age ran after him. Many in the crowd watched the chase and some, especially the kids, laughed. After some talk Kathleen said, “A boy like that, that age, especially a chubby boy, well, he is what might be called a sex symbol to the other adolescents. He’ll tease the others until finally giving in.”  
We talked about travelling and about books and her life with Jim Phelan: “I was working in the office at a factory in England. The boss had been taking liberties with me. Brushing against me and touching me and pretending it was all innocent. Finally, one day, I couldn’t take it anymore and just walked out of the factory and down to the road. When no bus appeared, I began to walk and then I stuck out my thumb to hitchhike. After awhile, a man came walking in my direction on the other side of the road. He told me he didn’t encounter many women on the road. We talked back and forth and after a time, he said, ‘Why don’t you come over here.’ And I did and I never left his side until he died twenty years later.” 

We stayed in other small towns, in lodging places that were unadvertised, beautiful rooms behind unmarked doorways, rooms arranged around mosaic courtyards with fountains. Our relationship was chaste, we took separate quarters for five nights. On the sixth night, Kathleen came into my room and asked if she could get in bed with me. She saw the question in my eyes and answered it, “I don’t want to seduce you. I just want to be close. I haven’t been held since Jim died, and that’s nearly five years ago.
And so we lay there and fell asleep in each other’s arms. And it was the same the night after that.
Finally, I felt I had to go on my separate way. I should have stayed with her. I have often regretted going off. Before we parted, she gave me a pamphlet of writings by Jim Phelan that she sold along the road to support her travels. She inscribed it on the cover, to recall a meeting on the road in Morocco. 

Sometime in the Eighties with the landlord breathing down my neck, I sold the pamphlet Kathleen had given me to Don Stewart, of MacLeod’s Books in Vancouver. Another twenty-five years passed and I was preparing a book of my own for publication, Jackpots, a selection of travel tales. I wondered about Kathleen Phelan and what might have become of her, and I thought about Jim. It occurred to me to consult the internet.  There were plenty of entries for Jim Phelan, most of the information repetitive. Some of his books were available online and I ordered three titles. [...] The first book arrived: The Name’s Phelan, an autobiography of his first thirty years. [...] There is but one mention of Kathleen in the book. Of course, he wasn’t to meet her until years later, after release from prison, but he does offer “Kaye Newton’s version of a tramping song called ‘Pad’n It’.”  
The next to the last paragraph of The Name’s Phelan consists of one short sentence, “And where was my son?”
I finished the book at night before going to sleep. The next morning brought an email from out of the blue, out of Australia, from Seumas Phelan, the author’s son. Having read my brief memoir of Kathleen, he wrote, “That’s Kaye all right—she never lost it. She was a remarkable woman and you can see how she would be Jim’s soulmate. As a boy I resented her for two reasons, both unfair—she was not my mother, whom I missed terribly, and she came between me and Jim, as was natural because she was his partner but I didn’t want to share him with anyone else. She always looked after me but we weren’t close—I would never have let her mother me, and she only cared for me because it was a package deal because I was with Jim.” [...]
My recent and unexpected journey into the world of Jim Phelan has been fascinating and I intend to continue to trace his route. He was a complex character, all right. A tramp who could write a book called Churchill Can Unite Ireland. He must have been a hell of a man if Kathleen loved him so much.
But of Kathleen or Kaye Newton, I have been able to discover nothing more. People in the family tell me I’m the person with the latest information about her. 
Thinking about her again after all these years, I decided to write to the bookseller in Vancouver, Don Stewart. I recalled he had an interest in proletarian and radical literature, in tramps and itinerant workers, and that this interest extended beyond the commercial. Maybe he still had that pamphlet I sold him back in the Eighties. He wrote back immediately; he did indeed have the pamphlet, and made a photocopy for me.  I had forgotten the title, Vagabond. I was pleased to see again the inscription Kathleen wrote across the front cover. “ … To commemorate a meeting along the road in Morocco.”
When Seaumas Phelan learned of my encounter, he wrote to say that he wouldn’t all be surprised to learn that Kaye was still out there “on the road somewhere—or everywhere.”

Maybe she is and I hope she’s sitting in the middle of a field singing.

THE BLUE MOSQUE, Graham Marriott

It's only in the last few years that I was trying to find whether Kathleen was still around and whether I could contact her but I could only find reference to Suemas. I thought it was only just possible she was still alive. I am 70 now and was just 22 when I met Kathleen in 1968.

I attach the letter Kathleen wrote to me from Kuwait and the magazine article (see Kathleen Phelan, Part 2). I don't know which magazine it is from but thought it would be interesting (possibly Woman’s Own). The following is some of what I wrote in my journal:

1st August 1968

"In the waiting room [at Beirut Airport] I met an American boy I had met in Sidon and an Irish woman hitchhiker … The woman, Kathleen Phelan … told me she had been travelling for 20 years, had no home, and was a professional vagabond. All her worldly goods were done up in a huge shapeless bag … Kathleen had the address of some American guys living near [Adana] Airport. I helped her find the place and she asked me along.

Kathleen was a great talker. She told us she had been married to the late vagabond writer, revolutionary, ex-prisoner Jim Phelan.
… Kathleen described how she had met him years ago when as a student, she had been hitchhiking in one direction and he
in another. They had ended up travelling together which they had done for many years … Jim had died a couple of years
previously and Kathleen had carried on travelling. He was considerably older than Kathleen - some twenty years I think,
and had served [a] life sentence [prior to meeting her].
She was, she said, penniless but always managed to scrape together the where-with-all to get by. She had broadcast on radio and TV all over and was often interviewed by newspapers and other publications, fascinated with her lifestyle. She also gave talks. She
had slept everywhere from cafes to King's Palaces. One could listen to her for ever. She was fascinating."

I spent a couple of days with Kathleen and the Americans. We had a high old time! It was an eye opener for me listening to Kathleen's
stories. We went our separate ways hoping to meet again. I said I would leave a message for Kathleen under the corner of a specific carpet in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, hence the reference in Kathleen's letter! Sadly we never did meet again.


  1. Thank you, Ian! I'm very much hoping others will come forward with recollections of Kathleen.

  2. I met Kathleen Phelan on a bus in Oxford in the late 1980's. We got chatting and she told me she was in Oxford because she wanted to consult the university library in order to read some of her husband's work. She then told me a little about Jim Phelan (including the famed George Orwell correspondence). Then she told me how she passed her time hitch-hiking around the world, and how she offered little sketches to the people who gave her rides.

    I was very struck by her enthusiasm for life on the road and her obviously enduring love for Jim Phelan.

  3. Great to see the additions to the page!

    I keep thinking there must be many others who met Kathleen and who check for news of her online!

  4. I am Liam Phelan, son of Seumas and grandson of Jim. I had my first big adventure away from home when Kaye took me hitchhiking to England when I was about 13. She had been drifting in and out of our lives for quite a few years, and between visits she regularly wrote me long letters telling me of her life on the road.
    We caught the ferry to Holyhead and then hitched through Wales, to Chester, Chesterfield and down to Nottingham. We stayed a few days at her caravan and then hitched back.
    I remember her ability to charm complete strangers, talk to everybody, her dancing walk. I remember how carefully she smoked, her daily trip to the bookies. I remember how she taught me to never get in a car without looking at the driver in the eye. If they didn't look right, you didn't get in. I remember her strong face and her sharp voice and her occasional fierceness.

    Later in my life, I used her techniques to hitch across Ireland, England, Greece, in Australia from Sydney to Ayers Rock and back via Queensland, and in Cuba.

    She taught me to live life in the moment, to trust in the universe, and to always follow your heart. She warned me against mug punters and becoming dreary.

    I have lost the letters and drawings she sent me, but still carry her memories with me wherever I go. She helped make me the man I am, and, to quote another. she always carried the flame.

    There is only one road. And it goes everywhere. That's where she'll be.

    Liam Phelan, Bundeena, Australia.

    1. Hi Liam,
      My name is Les Singleton Grandson of Jim, son of Catherine Singleton, the daughter of Jim's first wife. There has been a lot of interest (as I'm sure you are aware) in Granddad, bringing to light lots of connections I never knew were there. I've tried (once) to contact your Father Seumas, but no reply. Anyway, if YOU want to contact me, I'm at lessingleton@hotmail.com

    2. Dear Liam, thank you so much for your fascinating comments. Please write to me on the contact form on this site with your email address so that we can chat more. All best wishes, Ian

  5. Liam, it's wonderful to read your memories of Kathleen (as I knew her). I hope life is good in Bundeena. (I'm an Aussie currently living in North Carolina, USA). Great to hear from Les, too. I'd be pleased to hear from anyone at bondjf AT gmail.com. Cheers to this blog and to the interwebs for bringing us all in touch. Kathleen would be thrilled. ~ Jan

  6. ‌I am over the moon that I have found this blog however I am also incredibly sorry and sad to hear Kathleen has passed away, I have often thought to find her but never knew where to look. She obviously had no email address in 2008 and as we were both travellers both had no fixed abode. I was actually Kathleen's nextdoor neighbour for about 8 months. She was the very first person to meet my son after I bought him home from hospital with my sons father. I have very fond memories of sat in Kathleen's caravan listening to her `autobiography' of her travels around the world. She was one of the most amazing ladies I have ever met and she honestly has had a huge impact on the way I live my life. I would absolutely love to read her tales again. I know she wanted to publish her travelling stories. I often think of many of her tales and of the pictures she painted. I am actually currently reading '9 murderers and me' again, the book she gave me when we left the site near Salisbury at Alderbury. I also have a few poems she gave me. I would love to hear off anyone with more information about her tales. Thanks Beth.

  7. I found what was left of one of kathlKathl books going through my father's things. It wasn't taken care of well over the years but I know that it is very old with the crumbling paper beneath my fingers as I read through the pages. I am sorry to hear she passed away. I will ask my father (72 yrs old) when exactly and where he had met her.

  8. I met a Kathleen Phelan in a bar in New York in the late 70's - early 80's. She told the same story, meeting her husband the same way. I would go Sunday nights to the Eagle Tavern on W. 14th Street and listen to her tell stories. Is this the same Kathleen Phelan?

  9. MaryCate,
    I'd expect it was the very same Kathleen Phelan.
    Kathleen told me that she had a friend named Gracie (or Gracey), if I recall correctly, who had a high-powered job which enabled Kathleen to share luxurious hotel rooms with her from time to time. I think this friend was from New York.

  10. I have been fascinated by Jim Phelan’s story for so many years but knew little about Kathleen .. and glad to have read this. I wonder if her writings have been published since this post was written ..