DEWITHON WEEK 4: The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies

A Brief Summation of Chapters 22-28 – From ‘The Ark’ to ‘On Tramp Again’

As I advanced to the country, mile after mile, the sounds of commerce dying low, and the human race becoming more rare, I lost for the time being the vision of my future, being filled with the peace of present objects.”

STWeek four of the inaugural Wales Readathon has almost ended. Here I summarize Chapters XXII to XXVIII of our official Dewithon 19 book: The Autobiography of a Super-tramp by the Welsh poet and writer W.H. Davies.

After experiencing a life-changing accident in Canada, which prevents him from seeking further adventure, Davies returns to London where he finds a hostel housed in a “fine large block of red buildings” that is furnished with “two large cases of books” Here he remains for two years, and we re-join him in Chapter XXII (‘The Ark’), having had little success with his writing career but glad to be living in place where conditions “could not have been bettered by a person of such small means”.

He now makes the unfortunate decision to move to a cheaper dwelling place in the borough of Southwark, so that he might send a “couple of shillings a week” to “one who would be thankful”. He finds the food there is cheap but “not fit for a human being” and has “nothing at all to say” in favour of this new accommodation. He dislikes the officers in charge, whom he describes as “hypocrites” and, after four months applies for a pedlar’s certificate intending to return to life on the road.

Following protracted and frustrating dealings with the Surgical Aid Society over obtaining a new artificial limb – his old one now “creaking” and threatening “at every step to break down” – he finally departs with a stock of laces, pins, needles and buttons, intending to “hawk the country from one end to the other”.

I walked and idled, standing on culverts and watching the water burst from the darkness into light; listening to the birds; or looking at a distant spire that was high enough, and no more, to show that a quiet town was lying there under a thousand trees.

In Chapter XXIII (‘Gridling’) he leaves London with roughly nine shillings in his pocket, reaching St Albans on the first night. He continues to walk for three or four days, sleeping in the open-air, before arriving in the town of Northampton, where hopes to do business. After finding a quiet lodging house he discovers the parcel containing his wares is damp and the contents “entirely unfit for sale”. He is compelled to survive for two days on his critically depleted funds before heading to Birmingham with only sixpence remaining. On his journey there he meets a fellow tramp who takes him in hand and attempts to recruit him as a fellow gridler – one who earns a living by song – but after a relatively successful day, which provides funds for a comfortable lodging house, Davies concludes that “such business [is] not in [his] line.”

He travels to Warwick in Chapter XXIV (‘On the Downright’), receiving survival tips from those he meets on his way, before arriving penniless in Stratford-on-Avon in the company of a “downrighter”. This “enchanted place” rekindles his writing ambition but he is vexed to think that he is “no nearer [his] object”. He has walked for three months but has been unable to concentrate his thoughts “on any noble theme” because of a daily necessity to procure the price of a bed plus “two or three coppers extra for food.” It is winter and he dreams of “a small room with a cosy fire”, filled with books. This chapter leaves him in a low state of mind tramping home for Christmas so that he might draw the few pounds due to him.

Chapter XXV (‘The Farmhouse’) sees Davies return to London and begin frequenting his old haunts. An acquaintance introduces him to the Farmhouse, a place “full of quaint characters” (many of whom he describes in detail) and he becomes friendly with a jovial chap known Cronje – who has been in Australia for many years and is full of anecdotes and tall stories about his time there. Here he remains, “respected” by his peers and treated with civility.

Chapter XXVI (‘Rain and Poverty’) is concerned mainly with describing the life of a tramp: differences between the homeless and those who live in “common lodging houses” and are “well satisfied with a place to sleep and enough food to keep body and soul together.” However, in Chapter XXVII (‘False Hopes’), his attention returns to his literary aspirations. It is now he begins to send his work to known writers, asking for their opinion. The Manager of the Farmhouse takes an interest in him and persuades Davies to submit his work to a publisher. Nothing comes of his best efforts, but he gains in confidence and determines to make sacrifices to reach his goal. With great sadness, he goes back to life on the road.

He has no “courage to beg or sell” but still finds ways to exist. In Chapter XXVIII (‘On Tramp Again’) he travels alone, “in spite of the civilities of other tramps” who desire company, “so as to allow no strange voice to disturb [his] dreams.” He moves from “town to town, from shire to shire”, never begging “unless forced to the last extremity”. We complete week four as summer turns to autumn and he finds himself in severely reduced circumstances, making for London in order to prepare his manuscript.

We have seen in these chapters a far more circumspect and brooding Davies than has previously been the case. He was content for many years to idly wander from place to place with little consideration for the future, but he now senses the passing of time and realises he has made no discernible progress towards achieving his desire to write for a living. Maturity and disability have combined to change his perspective on life.

The poor man, who has his daily duties to perform, has his quiet evenings at home, with friends to lend him books, and being known in the locality, a library from which to borrow them, but what privileges has the wanderer?”

Please share your thoughts on chapters 22-28 of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp.


This is my eighth choice for The Classics Club.

Categories: Reading Wales

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20 replies

  1. Paula, I have read your summation with deep interest and am quite taken with this Davies and his varying decisions and events. It seems to me that he really has a book full of charachters and
    places to create several books.
    I am now really interested to read this book. Will see if it is available.

    Thank you


  2. I found the description of his time in Canada interesting of course (I think this was actually in the last set of chapters) and it’s interesting how he seems – in general – more interested in the people he meets than in the landscape or cultures. His struggle to get started as a writer is of great interest to me too. But I also don’t feel like we see him working at it very much. Tramping is too time-consuming, I think! (Else, drinking.)

    • Yes, I get the distinct feeling from Davies’s comments in the latter part of the book that he regrets all the time frittered away on idling and carousing – although he describes himself as virtually teetotal by the time he is living in London. It’s sad he didn’t reach the Klondike region – it would have made interesting reading. I wonder if he would have made his fortune there? Somehow I doubt it!

      • Heheh Yah, I have a feeling there would have been a lot of distractions up there too!

  3. I enjoyed this section of the book, Paula, as Davies tries his various schemes to get his work published. I’m finding him increasingly likeable and admire his fortitude. I finished the book this morning; it’s been a fascinating read 🙂

  4. It’s such a change in his personal journey. Now his American adventures are over he longs for a quiet warm place to read and write. I was impressed by him sharing what little money he had. And I understand his wish for solitude and to not feel obliged to get his means of living in ways distasteful to him. He keeps an integrity which he sometimes seems to question – but I like him all the more for it and felt as these chapters progressed that his ‘discovery’ as a writer could bring a transformation. I was willing him on!

    • I felt that too, Maria. It was in these chapters that he became a truly rounded individual: still mindful of his foibles and weaknesses but with a greater goal which perhaps gave him the maturity to face them down. I find myself liking him enormously!

    • I agree, Maria. Davies is finally maturing as an individual and obviously starting to take responsibility for others in his life. I bet he could have written at least a second memoir from his experiences. I can’t help but feel there is a great deal left unsaid.

      • That is quite a thought. I don’t really know what happened next! I would like to though.

      • Not exactly more about his adventures as a young man, but there is ‘Young Emma’ – available very cheaply on kindle. From Amazon: “At the age of fifty, towards the end of the First World War, W. H. Davies decided that he must marry. Spurning London society and the literary circles where he had been lionised since the publication of his Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, he set about looking for the right partner on the streets of London.

        Young Emma is a moving and revealing memoir told with disarming honesty and humour. Davies records his life with three women: from his affair with Bella, the wife of a Sergeant Major, to his year-long liaison with the gentle Louise, to the turbulent brushes with a society woman who fears for her own life at his hands. He finally meets Emma, then pregnant, at a bus-stop on the Edgware Road. This is the story of their love affair.”

        I’m tempted -though I really must break away from Wales for a bit! It certainly sounds like he continued in his very particular ways!

      • Well spotted, Sandra. I will definitely seek that one out. Aside from his grandmother and the odd landlady, women barely feature in Super Tramp, so it will reveal a completely different side of Davies. Many thanks indeed for the heads-up.


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