Archive for the ‘Down Bowsy Lane’ Category

Vita Irrequieta

The Tramp & The Law
Part Two

In the reign of Cnut (1017 – 1035), while the law against harbouring travellers was confirmed and re-enacted, alongside was statute law giving the first evidence of succour being accorded to the wanderer, for provision was made against the application of lynch law to him…

…About this time England suffered much through the prevalence of robbery with violence and highway robbery, and there is some substantial evidence that those who entertained the stranger within their gate made him their cat’s paw for these crimes. Edward the Confessor accordingly passed legislation making the host responsible for the acts of his guests…

…In 1102 we have a first record of foreign vagabonds arriving in England, when in the week of the feast of Pentecost there came thieves, some from Auvergne, others from Flanders. During the weak reign of Stephen all conditions were favourable for criminals, vagrants, and vagabonds, and they increased in number accordingly…

…This resulted in fresh legislation affecting strangers and travellers. No traveller could be entertained or harboured for more than one night, and then only in a town or borough, and for the due observation of the Act both the traveller and the entertainer were held responsible, and moreover, the guest of the time was required to depart in the daytime. It was apparently found that this law was so stringent as to destroy all hospitality, and four years later an amending law allowed the guest to remain only two nights, and the host only became responsible if he stayed for three nights, and the host failed for a month and a day to bring him to justice if an offence was alleged against him…

…At the time of the commencement of the reign of Edward I vagrancy was very prevalent, and was said to be due to many causes. Some adopted it to escaped slavery – although there had been a cessation of foreign slave trade and villeins became entitled to freedom if they lived unclaimed for a year and a day in a town – others to save themselves from starvation or torture… Edward I’s reign was notable for many things, and one of these was that free labourers began to exist and persist…

Ad se ipse

…In the reign of Edward III a new phase arose which had a lasting effect upon the elements which go to make up the vagrancy world. Owing to the joint effect of the plague, which diminished the supply of labour, and the king’s action of selling freedom to his bondmen to raise money – an example readily followed by his nobility – wages rose. This made the labourers masters of the situation; and in their search for the best market for their labour the ranks of wandering vagrants were greatly swollen, and this at a time when the roads were infested with beggars of all descriptions. Many of the latter were cripples – real or pretended – some of them relied upon begging simple and unadorned, while others resorted to violence, and were, too, the spies of large bands of robbers. In the twenty-third year of Edward III, 1349, to meet the circumstances of, the first law associating conditions of unemployment and vagrancy came into force. Up to this date vagrancy and legislation dealing with it had reference either to the relief of poverty or the suppression of crime.

NPG D22804; King Edward II; King Edward III (fictitious portraits)

The Act of Edward III, fixed wages, limited the price of food, and sought to restrain the movement of labourers. It required less than two years to show the futility of this Act. An Act for its correction, imposing fines, imprisonment, and the stocks for defaulting labourers, had an even worse effect; for it not only drove labourers in greater numbers to flight in order to escape its provisions, but embittered the relations between the upper and lower classes, and forged a common bond of union among the latter. These acts of Edward III imposed penalties upon those who gave to beggars as well as upon those who received… Ten years later the legislature added to the punishments to be meted out to fleeing labourers and vagrants those of whipping and branding their forehead with a hot iron…

Impavidum ferient ruinae

…From the reign of Richard II to that of George IV a number of Acts – many of a purely local character – were passed which in their terms varied in the severity of punishment to be meted out to beggars. The provisions were of the strangest nature, particularly in Tudor times, when beggars were imprisoned, branded, and even hanged.

Dr. Burns says: “Almost all severities have been exercised against vagrants, except scalping, and as one severity fell short it seemed naturally to follow that a greater was necessary.”

Extracts taken from:

The Tramp by Frank Gray, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1931

Frank Gray, Liberal MP, 1931

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Forever Wander - Han Shan

Translated by Red Pine (Bill Porter)

The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, Copper Canyon Press, 2000

Painting: Portrait of Gao Yongzhi as Calligrapher-Beggar (Detail) by Ren Yi, 1887

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Weigh This Well - Han Shan

Translated by Red Pine (Bill Porter)

The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, Copper Canyon Press, 2000

Painting: A Beggar at Mt. Luofu (Detail) by Su Liupeng (1796 – 1892)

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Le Juif Errant - The Wandering Jew

The Tramp & The Law

Part One

The first tramp was Cain, the last will probably be the Wandering Jew. Between the two lies the history of a whole race of men, who sometimes deserve their ill-fortune and sometimes do not…

The vagrant is a figure in national life all through English history; “remote, unfriendly, melancholy, slow,” he goes on his way a picturesque and pathetic figure. True, he has sometimes been treated with brutality, sometimes with tolerance, but he has survived.

…Their history is, as might be expected, a record of persecution by their fellow-men, interspersed with attempts at coddling them, made in the best of faith.

The early history of the tramp can be dealt with very briefly. Legislation on the subject consists chiefly in devising primitive measures for the suppresion of begging and giving to beggars, wherever these worthy objects could possibly be attained…

…The earliest reference to vagabondage in the British Isles is to be met with in the “Roman History” of Ammianus Marcellinus under the year 368, and this in relation to the Picts and Scots roving over different parts of the country and committing great ravages.

Caledonian Pict

Laws are never made in advance of requirements, but to remedy existing evils, and therefore it may be assumed that vagrancy existed in Saxon times on an extensive scale, for the first record on the subject is that of the Kings Hlothære and Eadric, who respectively reigned in Kent from 673 to 685, and from 685 to 686, when a law was framed to make those who entertained travellers responsible for their acts of misfeasance, a law confirmed by King Edmund in 940.

At that time the lowest classes of the population were sunk in bondage. There were then no inns or workhouses to shelter the vagrant, and monasteries which could give him casual shelter were far apart, in most instances too far to enable him to cover the distance in a day, and only two sources of subsistence remained to him – private hospitality or plunder.

The beginning of vagrancy in England may be found in the old tramping friar, or the itinerant seller or chapman. To the friar it was permitted, by special licence, to wander at his sweet will, taking toll from the laity which materially lightened the load of sins always noticeable on the shoulders of the uncharitable layman. In all ages it has been found that those whose circumstances border on poverty have most sympathy with the poor, and the law of King Ine appears to recognise the fact, for it forbids the ceorl, who stood lowest in the rank of freemen, to harbour fugitives; and at this time the greater number of travellers or tramps, excepting chapmen and friars, were escaped slaves.

The next record is the law of Whitræd, King of Kent 690 to 725, directed against wandering monks, ordaining that they should receive hospitality but once; and this legislation may be taken as giving birth to the principle of vagrancy law of driving the casual or vagrant ever on…

Extracts taken from:

The Tramp by Frank Gray, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1931

Frank Gray, Liberal MP, 1931

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June 6th

At the foot of Splendid Cloud Mountain there is a small village of huddled roofs and great banyan trees called Chin-k’an-pei. Somewhere in this region is the Pekin Mining Syndicate, but rather more important than any syndicates are the small houses covered with vines and approached only by long avenues where a few distinguished scholars have retired. This afternoon we called on an old scholar who is famous because in a book of a hundred pages published more than thirty years ago he made a reasonable attempt to synthesise the philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.

It was one of the smallest houses I have ever seen, a single room which he used as bedroom and study. He wore an old tattered gown and a grey patched skull-cap; yet he was not poor. He was absorbed in his studies – those studies which would lead him in another ten years if he survived to write another small book of perhaps eighty pages on the religion of the Chinese. He was thin-boned and had once been tall. His skin seemed paper-thin in the light coming from the paper windows. His white beard, like his clothes, was torn in places; but the great jade ring on his wrist, his courtly manners, his sharp beaked nose and the small black eyes peering from behind heavy lead-coloured spectacles, suggested an enormous capacity for sustained thought. We talked about his first work – that small pamphlet which had changed a little the opinions of scholars ever since.

“But scholarship is dying,” he said. “The old order is dying – that is true. Yet scholarship is so precious in itself and as an example to others. In the West you have to put your trust in scholars who are scientists, and perhaps that is legitimate; but I would prefer that there should be some good scholars who remain.”

He apologized for not speaking English perfectly and confessed that he had neither read an English book nor spoken to anyone speaking English for forty years, yet he spoke perfectly. “You have a good few scholars still in the Universities – there is a scholar who has studied the Chinese calendar in all its phases, having read 80,000 books on the subject, in your University. Perhaps he will write a book of 300 pages, or even of 400 pages, for all these things are important. People speak too much – speaking is an excuse for not thinking – and they study too little. Before the revolution we thought carefully before we spoke: today we think little, and talk too much. I cannot read the newspapers. There are speeches; there are battles; there is no thinking. In the old days Chinese scholars were chosen by the Emperor. On them was imposed pure trust, and rarely did they misuse the trust. They lived frugally, governed honestly, wrote little and were content with the world. Our military commanders were scholars, Tu Fu and Su T’ung-po were scholars and officials – even Tao Yuan-ming was an official. This was a world in which the behaviour of scholars was the hallmark of everyone’s existence. Then how could we fail?”

His room was even poorer than the rooms of the Chinese scholars in the University; he was talking a language which they alone understood. There was the table; three or four ivory brushes, a tattered scroll on the wall, a jeweled fly-whisk, which, since it was high summer, he was occasionally flicking against our clothes; there was cheese-cloth mosquito curtain and the thick-soled slippers under the bed, and here and there on the walls, cut out from the scrolls which he had once possessed and considered insufficiently dignified to grace his bedroom, were single characters of Chinese, written boldly and elegantly, with tremendous passion and effrontery. It was as though the calligraphers at the moment of writing had seized the secrets of nature. There were perhaps twenty of thee characters written in different styles and at different epochs; and it was clear that the old scholar believed that in the whole history of Chinese handwriting no characters as good as these had ever been painted. Later, just as we were about to leave, I noticed what appeared to be a bronze umbrella-stand behind the door filled with rolled-up scrolls.

It was then that the room became charged with excitement. One could not ask him – even as a favour – to show us the scrolls. One could only hope that he would notice their presence before we had gone. I felt sure that they were good; and they were better than anything I had ever seen before – copies of T’ang Dynasty paintings, a painting of a monk, perhaps Bodhidharma, in a red robe, a single curlew on a swinging branch painted in thick monochrome like tempera, some golden birds and some court ladies dancing at the foot of the throne, and four or five other paintings and a few pieces of calligraphy.

“The rain has got at them,” he said sadly, pointing to the yellow spots, “but perhaps it is better like this. The world no longer appreciates good painting or good government. The world is covered with high clouds, and we hear only the murmur of the rivers and see nothing clearly. All that is good in China has passed and I am too old to hope for a resurrection.”

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Read more from Robert Payne’s Chinese Diaries: Leaves from a Chinese Diary, and, Chungking Diary – The Seal Carver.

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June 3rd

The blind old seal-carver still wears glasses. He sits behind the counter of his little shop, and sometimes he takes off his glasses and gazes up at the sun. He can see very faintly – the difference only between light and shade. The faint incisions which he makes on jade are for ever hidden from him, and perhaps it is not necessary to see, for the sensitivity of his fingers is three-dimensional. I have watched him pass his finger-tips over a seal-carving of my name and tell me exactly to what depth, and in what shape he had carved the letters. He has a long single strand of grey hair which trembles from his upper lip like the antennae of a moth. “These are in the characters of the old bronze seals,” he said, as he gave me the carving. “They are the best. China was great then.” I do not know why it is, but every peasant in China knows that his country was greatest in the Han Dynasty and speaks of past greatness with the terrible sincerity of those who know that it can never return again.

And as we walked down the dusty road in the broad sunlight, where everything dazzled and a clammy warmth came from the moist asphalt in the street, it was pleasant to touch and look at the jade carving done so delicately and with so much passion by a blind man who will never see his handiwork.

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Read another entry from Robert Payne’s Chinese Diaries.

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Leaves from a Chinese Diary

China to Robert Payne is more than a country; it is a way of life, of thought, of feeling. Few Westerners have sensed or pictured its beauty and its people more keenly than this young novelist and scholar. This is a long, rich book of wide range and variety, an eminently sophisticated and intelligent book, written in prose which will be an exciting discovery to the discerning reader.”

(from the preface to Forever China)

March 4th

Why did I come to China? Why does anyone come to China? There are moments in China when the dirt and poverty of the people make one suddenly decide to take the next airplane to India, and then a moment later a girl on a white donkey passes slowly along a dusty road, or a pair of pigeons rise high in the sky, or at night a courtyard opens silently, lamps are lit, you hear the click of tiles and the whispers of women down some deserted alley-way; and then the amazing vitality and beauty of these people, whose arts are so ancient that they have long ago forgotten the origin of their simplest customs, surprise one with their fine excess…

… China was made for the night and the dawn. A few days ago we began to live in a house near the Canadian Mission Hospital far away from the main traffic of the river. You reached the house by a long winding path over the foot-hills, climbing among steep fields of rice, small battered whitewashed houses, duck-ponds, tombs. We would cross the river from the north bank under a full moon, and it was not always a pleasant journey, for the boatman would think nothing of stopping in mid-stream and refuse to take us to the other bank unless we paid another ten dollars, and sometimes, knowing that we would have to walk for miles along the rocky coast, he would allow the boat to drift down-stream. But always the nights were beautiful. The shape of a curving roof against the stars, the songs of the boatmen, the small red fires in the boats along the shore, and the great white cliffs of Chungking would console us for the solitary journey. And even the gravestones, so gloomy and white in the moonlight, and even the dogs grubbing the earth at the root of the recently-made graves, were not real – they were reality raised to a higher pitch of excitement. So we walked alone at night, listening to the children and old men breathing under their poor matchwood sheds, while the moon rose and the great sweep of the river disappeared into a silver distance. Sometimes, too, but very rarely, there occurred the happiness which a Chinese poet of the Sung dynasty described in a long-forgotten poem:


I am old. Nothing pleases me any more. Moreover, I am not a great scholar and my ideas have rarely travelled further than my feet. I know only my forest, to which I always return.

The blue fingers of the moon caress my lute. The wind tosses the clouds and ungirds my silken robe.

You fool! You ask me what is the supreme happiness on earth. It is to listen to the song of a young girl as she passes along the road after having asked you the way.


Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Note: Chungking Diary was also published as Forever China, and was followed by a second set of wartime diaries, China Awake in 1947. Both of these books were published in one volume as Chinese Diaries, 1941-1946 in 1970.


Robert Payne (1911-1983) was a prolific British writer who wrote over a hundred books under a variety of pseudonyms. These include novels, biographies, poetry, travelogues and translations. He spent much of WWII in Asia working in British Army Intelligence as well as being a journalist and teacher. Payne edited The White Pony; An Anthology of Chinese Poetry from the Earliest Times to the Present Day in 1947. His colourful career and extensive writings are documented at the Stony Brook University Special Collections, to which he donated his manuscripts, correspondence and papers. Read a biblio-biographical piece on Robert Payne, entitled “Under Cover” (starts at page 35).

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