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George Orwell > Down and Out in Paris and London > Chapter XXVII

Down and Out in Paris and London

Chapter XXVII

At about a quarter to six the Irishman led me to the spike. It was a
grim, smoky yellow cube of brick, standing in a corner of the workhouse
grounds. With its rows of tiny, barred windows, and a high wall and iron
gates separating it from the road, it looked much like a prison. Already a
long queue of ragged men had formed up, waiting for the gates to open. They
were of all kinds and ages, the youngest a fresh-faced boy of sixteen, the
oldest a doubled-up, toothless mummy of seventy-five. Some were hardened
tramps, recognizable by their sticks and billies and dust-darkened faces;
some were factory hands out of work, some agricultural labourers, one a
clerk in collar and tie, two certainly imbeciles. Seen in the mass,
lounging there, they were a disgusting sight; nothing villainous or
dangerous, but a graceless, mangy crew, nearly all ragged and palpably
underfed. They were friendly, however, and asked no questions. Many offered
me tobacco--cigarette ends, that is.

We leaned against the wall, smoking, and the tramps began to talk
about the spikes they had been in recently. It appeared from what they said
that all spikes are different, each with its peculiar merits and demerits,
and it is important to know these when you are on the road. An old hand
will tell you the peculiarities of every spike in England, as: at A you are
allowed to smoke but there are bugs in the cells; at B the beds are
comfortable but the porter is a bully; at C they let you out early in the
morning but the tea is undrinkable; at D the officials steal your money if
you have any--and so on interminably. There are regular beaten tracks
where the spikes are within a day's march of one another. I was told that
the Barnet-St Albans route is the best, and they warned me to steer clear
of Billericay and Chelmsford, also Ide Hill in Kent. Chelsea was said to be
the most luxurious spike in England; someone, praising it, said that the
blankets there were more like prison than the spike. Tramps go far afield
in summer, and in winter they circle as much as possible round the large
towns, where it is warmer and there is more charity. But they have to keep
moving, for you may not enter any one spike, or any two London spikes, more
than once in a month, on pain of being confined for a week.

Some time after six the gates opened and we began to file in one at a
time. In the yard was an office where an official entered in a ledger our
names and trades and ages, also the places we were coming from and going to
--this last is intended to keep a check on the movements of tramps. I gave
my trade as 'painter'; I had painted water-colours--who has not? The
official also asked us whether we had any money, and every man said no. It
is against the law to enter the spike with more than eightpence, and any
sum less than this one is supposed to hand over at the gate. But as a rule
the tramps prefer to smuggle their money in, tying it tight in a piece of
cloth so that it will not chink. Generally they put it in the bag of tea
and sugar that every tramp carries, or among their 'papers'. The 'papers'
are considered sacred and are never searched.

After registering at the office we were led into the spike by an
official known as the Tramp Major (his job is to supervise casuals, and he
is generally a workhouse pauper) and a great bawling ruffian of a porter in
a blue uniform, who treated us like cattle. The spike consisted simply of a
bathroom and lavatory, and, for the rest, long double rows of stone cells,
perhaps a hundred cells in all. It was a bare, gloomy place of stone and
whitewash, unwillingly clean, with a smell which, somehow, I had foreseen
from its appearance; a smell of soft soap, Jeyes' fluid and latrines--a
cold, discouraging, prisonish smell.

The porter herded us all into the passage, and then told us to come
into the bathroom six at a time, to be searched before bathing. The search
was for money and tobacco, Romton being one of those spikes where you can
smoke once you have smuggled your tobacco in, but it will be confiscated if
it is found on you. The old hands had told us that the porter never
searched below the knee, so before going in we had all hidden our tobacco
in the ankles of our boots. Afterwards, while undressing, we slipped it
into our coats, which we were allowed to keep, to serve as pillows.

The scene in the bathroom was extraordinarily repulsive. Fifty dirty,
stark-naked men elbowing each other in a room twenty feet square, with only
two bathtubs and two slimy roller towels between them all. I shall never
forget the reek of dirty feet. Less than half the tramps actually bathed (I
heard them saying that hot water is 'weakening' to the system), but they
all washed their faces and feet, and the horrid greasy little clouts known
as toe-rags which they bind round their toes. Fresh water was only allowed
for men who were having a complete bath, so many men had to bathe in water
where others had washed their feet. The porter shoved us to and fro, giving
the rough side of his tongue when anyone wasted time. When my turn came for
the bath, I asked if I might swill out the tub, which was streaked with
dirt, before using it. He answered simply, 'Shut yer--mouth and get on
with yer bath!' That set the social tone of the place, and I did not speak

When we had finished bathing, the porter tied our clothes in bundles
and gave us workhouse shirts--grey cotton things of doubtful cleanliness,
like abbreviated nightgowns. We were sent along to the cells at once, and
presently the porter and the Tramp Major brought our supper across from the
workhouse. Each man's ration was a half-pound wedge of bread smeared with
margarine, and a pint of bitter sugarless cocoa in a tin billy. Sitting on
the floor we wolfed this in five minutes, and at about seven o'clock the
cell doors were locked on the outside, to remain locked till eight in the

Each man was allowed to sleep with his mate, the cells being intended
to hold two men apiece. I had no mate, and was put in with another solitary
man, a thin scrubby-faced fellow with a slight squint. The cell measured
eight feet by five by eight high, was made of stone, and had a tiny barred
window high up in the wall and a spyhole in the door, just like a cell in a
prison. In it were six blankets, a chamber-pot, a hot water pipe, and
nothing else whatever. I looked round the cell with a vague feeling that
there was something missing. Then, with a shock of surprise, I realized
what it was, and exclaimed:

'But I say, damn it, where are the beds?'

'BEDS?' said the other man, surprised. 'There aren't no beds! What yer
expect? This is one of them spikes where you sleeps on the floor. Christ!
Ain't you got used to that yet?'

It appeared that no beds was quite a normal condition in the spike. We
rolled up our coats and put them against the hot-water pipe, and made
ourselves as comfortable as we could. It grew foully stufiy, but it was not
warm enough to allow of our putting all the blankets underneath, so that we
could only use one to soften the floor. We lay a foot apart, breathing into
one another's face, with our naked limbs constantly touching, and rolling
against one another whenever we fell asleep. One fidgeted from side to
side, but it did not do much good; whichever way one turned there would be
first a dull numb feeling, then a sharp ache as the hardness of the floor
wore through the blanket. One could sleep, but not for more than ten
minutes on end.

About midnight the other man began making homosexual attempts upon me
--a nasty experience in a locked, pitch-dark cell. He was a feeble
creature and I could manage him easily, but of course it was impossible to
go to sleep again. For the rest of the night we stayed awake, smoking and
talking. The man told me the story of his life--he was a fitter, out of
work for three years. He said that his wife had promptly deserted him when
he lost his job, and he had been so long away from women that he had almost
forgotten what they were like. Homosexuality is general among tramps of
long standing, he said.

At eight the porter came along the passage unlocking the doors and
shouting 'All out!' The doors opened, letting out a stale, fetid stink. At
once the passage was full of squallid, grey-shirted figures, each
chamber-pot in hand, scrambling for the bathroom. It appeared that in the
morning only one tub of water was allowed for the lot of us, and when I
arrived twenty tramps had already washed their faces; I took one glance at
the black scum floating on the water, and went unwashed. After this we were
given a breakfast identical with the previous night's supper, our clothes
were returned to us, and we were ordered out into the yard to work. The
work was peeling potatoes for the pauper's dinner, but it was a mere
formality, to keep us occupied until the doctor came to inspect us. Most of
the tramps frankly idled. The doctor turned up at about ten o'clock and we
were told to go back to our cells, strip and wait in the passage for the

Naked, and shivering, we lined up in the passage. You cannot conceive
what ruinous, degenerate curs we looked, standing there in the merciless
morning light. A tramp's clothes are bad, but they conceal far worse
things; to see him as he really is, unmitigated, you must see him naked.
Flat feet, pot bellies, hollow chests, sagging muscles--every kind of
physical rottenness was there. Nearly everyone was under-nourished, and
some clearly diseased; two men were wearing trusses, and as for the old
mummy-like creature of seventy-five, one wondered how he could possibly
make his daily march. Looking at our faces, unshaven and creased from the
sleepless night, you would have thought that all of us were recovering from
a week on the drink.

The inspection was designed merely to detect smallpox, and took no
notice of our general condition. A young medical student, smoking a
cigarette, walked rapidly along the line glancing us up and down, and not
inquiring whether any man was well or ill. When my cell companion stripped
I saw that his chest was covered with a red rash, and, having spent the
night a few inches away from him, I fell into a panic about smallpox. The
doctor, however, examined the rash and said that it was due merely to

After the inspection we dressed and were sent into the yard, where the
porter called our names over, gave us back any possessions we had left at
the office, and distributed meal tickets. These were worth sixpence each,
and were directed to coffee-shops on the route we had named the night
before. It was interesting to see that quite a number of the tramps could
not read, and had to apply to myself and other 'scholards' to decipher
their tickets.

The gates were opened, and we dispersed immediately. How sweet the air
does smell--even the air of a back street in the suburbs--after the
shut-in, subfaecal stench of the spike! I had a mate now, for while we were
peeling potatoes I had made friends with an Irish tramp named Paddy Jaques,
a melancholy pale man who seemed clean and decent. He was going to Edbury
spike, and suggested that we should go together. We set out, getting there
at three in the afternoon. It was a twelve-mile walk, but we made it
fourteen by getting lost among the desolate north London slums. Our meal
tickets were directed to a coffee-shop in Ilford. When we got there, the
little chit of a serving-maid, having seen our tickets and grasped that we
were tramps, tossed her head in contempt and for a long time would not
serve us. Finally she slapped on the table two 'large teas' and four slices
of bread and dripping--that is, eightpenny-worth of food. It appeared
that the shop habitually cheated the tramps of twopence or so on each
ticket; having tickets instead of money, the tramps could not protest or go

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