DEWITHON WEEK 2: The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies

A Brief Summation of Chapters 8-14 – From ‘A Prisoner His Own Judge’ to ‘The House Boat’

It is to be noted that Mr. Davies is no propogandist of the illusions of the middle-class tramp fancier. He does not tell you that there is honour among tramps: on the contrary, he makes it clear that only by being too destitute to be worth robbing and murdering can a tramp insure himself against being robbed and murdered by his comrade of the road.” – George Bernard Shaw

STAs the second week of the inaugural Wales Readathon comes to an end, I summarize Chapters VIII to XIV of our official Dewithon 19 book: The Autobiography of a Super-tramp by the Welsh poet and writer W.H. Davies.

In week one, we followed Davies from his childhood home in south east Wales across the ocean to America, accompanying him on the road as he worked his way around this vast country on foot and by railroad, taking casual work where he could – begging and sometimes thieving where he couldn’t. At the end of a lazy summer, we left him in Chapter VII beating his way towards Michigan with his travelling companions, Brum and Australian Red.

It is now winter, and in Chapter VIII (‘A Prisoner His Own Judge’) the three men arrive in the snowy north via freight train, seeking shelter from the bitter cold. They meet the town’s marshal walking towards the station and the ever-wily Brum takes command of the situation. Within minutes, he has arranged a thirty-day stay in the local jail with “…tobacco, and a drink or two of whiskey” thrown in. A deal is struck in which the marshal is to find them at Mr. Donovan’s saloon in a suitably inebriated state and arrest them for “drunk and disorderly” behaviour. Having successfully achieved this aim, the travellers are able to benefit from “a good rest, warmth, good food and plenty of sleep,” while the marshal receives a dollar for every arrest he makes, the judge gets three or four dollars per conviction and the sheriff is paid a dollar a day for “boarding each prisoner under his charge” – all expenses covered by the town’s “innocent citizens”.

Davies and his fellow vagrants “visited, and were entertained in several jails during this winter,” (a system known as “boodle”) emerging from the last in mid-April. At Australian Red’s suggestion, they make for a fruit farm on the shores of Lake Michigan to find work for the summer. However, while attempting to board a moving train, Brum is left behind. Davies never sees him again.

Chapter IX (‘Berry Picking’) sees the now 23-year-old Davies fruit picking for several months alongside Australian Red (a man he considers “above average intelligence”). They earn a decent wage, allowing him, by the season’s end, to have saved over one hundred dollars. They set off for New York with the intention of paying their passage to Liverpool and taking a train to South Wales, but having had “no intoxicating liquor for several months”, the money doesn’t last the journey. They revise their plans, make straight for the port of Baltimore, where, in Chapter X (‘The Cattleman’s Office’), they accept work as cattlemen aboard a ship sailing for England. Davies describes it as “a monotonous life” with “no work; nothing to do but eat and sleep” for thirteen days. He finds the experience disappointing and, on returning to Baltimore, seeks “more remunerative employment,” hoping to work his passage back to England and thence home with his earnings.

…cattlemen are recognised as the scum of America, a wild, lawless class of people on whom the scum of Europe unscrupulously impose. They are an idle lot, […] coming from a land of plenty, they never allow themselves to feel the pangs of hunger until they land on the shores of England, when their courage is cooled by the sight of greater poverty.”

Work, unfortunately, is difficult to find and, as we discover in Chapter XI (‘A Strange Cattleman’), he and Red are left with no option but to make further trips on the cattle boats through the winter months. This period in Davies’s life does, however, make fascinating reading, and some of the most entertaining, amusing and enlightening parts of Super-tramp are contained within Chapters X to XII. The characters he meets (such as the bully named Blackey, an accomplished thief going by the name of Cockney More and, in particular, the enigmatic Wee Scotty), enliven his reminiscences of day-to-day life as a cattleman.

Davies leaves Baltimore and heads alone to Chicago in Chapter XIII (‘The Canal’). He describes the waterway being built there “to facilitate commerce between that large inland city, and deep water,” as a place attracting “the riff-raff of America and the scum of Europe”. The banks are infested with gangs, loafers and thugs, and almost daily bodies are “dredged” from the water; at least two-thirds of which bear “the marks of murder”. This life has been risky from the outset, but now there is a constant sense of menace. In this chapter and the next, he appears more vulnerable and uneasy than at any time before.

Working as a labourer, he saves fifty dollars, and in Chapter XIV (‘The House-Boat’), beats his way west to St. Louis where he falls in with a middle-aged Scot and a young Texan, with whom he purchases a house-boat on the Mississippi. They expeditiously sell the vessel to a fisherman when the young Texan falls ill with malarial fever, and Davies finds work in a stave factory until he himself becomes sick. He intends to seek treatment in Memphis but “to [his] regret”, he sets off on foot instead of taking a train and finds himself “too weak to move” by a large swamp, where he remains for three days.

Before the chapter ends: fearing death he drags his feverish body to the next railroad station and pays to board a train to Memphis. Here he finds a hospital and is cared for by a doctor who tends him well, for they are “both of the same nationality” – he believes he owes his “speedy recovery” to this piece of good fortune.

This second segment of the memoir is far bleaker and much more unsettling than were the first seven chapters and Davies is less ebullient (though equally engaging) – as well he might be after losing a dependable companion. He seldom discusses his innermost feelings, but it seems evident to me that he was fond of Brum, despite his indolence, and he must now rely solely on his wits and fists to survive among some of the nastiest rogues and roughnecks in the USA.

The illustration on the cover of my 1980 Oxford University Press copy of Super-tramp is: Details from Men of the Docks (1912) by the American realist painter, George Bellows. Here, Susanna Avery-Quash, the Senior Research Curator of The National Gallery provides more in-depth information about the history of this painting.

Please share your thoughts on chapters 8-14 of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp.


This is my eighth choice for The Classics Club.

Categories: Reading Wales

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23 replies

  1. ‘Middle class tramp fancier’ 😀 That arrangement with the marshal is hilarious but this does sound bleak too. A fascinating life – I feel like I’ll be saying that on all your Davies posts!

  2. Your review reminds me of a book I bought when I was in Wales, “Diary of a Welsh Swagman” by Joseph Jenkins whom it is suggested could have inspired the iconic line “Once a jolly swagman” in the song Waltzing Matilda as he travelled throughout Victoria in the late 1900’s working as a swagman. He came here at the age of 51 and stayed for 25 years having left his family back in Wales. Apparently his 25 volumes have been important as a history record of life at that time. Another interesting life of a travelling Welshman. 🙂

  3. I am so pleased you liked my post recently as I had realised a while ago that WP had stopped me following you and I couldn’t for the life of me remember your blog name to put it right again. I am really glad to be back!

  4. Was GBS making a comparison with middle class pigeon fanciers of the time or is it ‘just’ a neat turn of phrase? The whole document is fascinating. And thanks for the insights on the painting. I think the ‘autobiography’ is appealing in its clarity and honesty – you feel there is much more left unsaid and in some ways it is rather like a memoir, picking out certain events that convey the life and restlessness of the tramp. #diwethon19. Thanks, Paula!

    • Heh, heh! I think GBS was definitely having a sly dig at the middle-classes there.

      I agree, you do feel there is so much more to Davies’s story than the words on the page – and it certainly seems more memoir than autobiography. Anyhow, Maria, I’m really pleased you’re finding it interesting. Thank YOU!

  5. Another excellent summary, Paula. We are entering darker chapters now, where Brum’s code of behaviour fades with the summer. The boodle system and the winter passed comfortably in various jails had me smiling although it isn’t long before the boot shifts onto the feet of the establishment: the men are tolerated on the railways until they’ve picked their hops and filled their pockets with earnings – then the police and judges will take their pick of the vagrants’ pockets. Davies at his most amusing best when he describes this! The canal chapter is harsh; I really felt that I was seeing life on the road at its worst. But overall in these chapters, I was most disturbed by the descriptions of the sheep and cattle making the sea crossing. I was also intrigued by the woman ‘cattleman’. I would love to know more of her story!

    • Thank you, Sandra. I’m glad you brought up the chapters concerning the transportation of livestock. I found certain parts of this quite difficult to read and didn’t say much about the animals in my post because… Well, because I’m rather a wuss when it comes to discussing such things. I can’t bear to think of animals suffering – but to be fair, Davies didn’t seem happy with their treatment either. The poor creatures obviously stuck in his mind. The female cattleman intrigued me, too. I wonder what became of her? I really didn’t see that coming until shortly before the revelation. Did you?

      • Nope, I didn’t see the female cattleman coming at all, though of course, it was obvious once I’d been told!. And I agree, Davies clearly wasn’t comfortable with the animals’ treatment – indeed, he tried to leave one steer lying down for as long as he could, although that may have been a misplaced kindness in the end.

  6. I’m going back to read what you wrote all over again to let it sink in…

  7. You’ve done a fantastic job of summarizing things here, Paula. I love the way you’ve pulled short phrases to keep his voice present throughout.

    The part that stuck in my mind was the part Sandra has mentioned above, the abuse of the animals. (The woman passing as a man was very interesting: we tend to forget how often this had to happen for women who longed for a less restrictive/more adventurous life.)

    Because I have just finished chapter fifteen last night, which I shan’t mention in any detail, I am really left to wonder whether he was truly so sensitive to the bull’s plight on the ship, and the cattle in general, or whether it was simply another observation to add action/colour to his story. I’m left to wonder whether he was really only attuned to suffering of his own kind. Particularly given his mention of believing he only received good care from the doctor because he was of the same nationality.

    • Thank you, Marcie. I think Davies could be quite conceited and self-centred – he was also rather reckless – but I don’t sense that he was without feeling. He no doubt saw the worst of humanity on his travels and, of necessity, became somewhat cynical and thick-skinned. In order to write about his experiences I expect he had to distance himself emotionally to a degree. While I don’t always like him as a person (or agree with his views), I respect his honesty. I may be completely wrong about his character but I think that although he was a man with many flaws and weaknesses, underneath, he had a good heart.

  8. I read this some years ago, and had forgotten how fascinating his story is, and how relevant still. I must take another look.


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