28.8.31

The next day in the afternoon four of us started out for the hop-fields. The most interesting of the men with me was a youth named Ginger, who is still my mate when I write this. He is a strong, athletic youth of twenty six, almost illiterate and quite brainless, but daring enough for anything. Except when in prison, he has probably broken the law every day for the last five years. As a boy he did three years in Borstal,[1] came out, married at eighteen on the strength of a successful burglary, and shortly afterwards enlisted in the artillery. His wife died, and a little while afterwards he had an accident to his left eye and was invalided out of the service. They offered him a pension or a lump sum, and of course he chose the lump sum and blued it in about a week. After that he took to burglary again, and has been in prison six times, but never for a long sentence, as they have only caught him for small jobs; he has done one or two jobs which have brought him over £500. He has always been perfectly honest towards me, as his partner, but in a general way he will steal anything that is not tied down. I doubt his ever being a successful burglar, though, for he is too stupid to be able to foresee risks. It is all a great pity, for he could earn a decent living if he chose. He has a gift for street selling, and has had a lot of jobs at selling on commission, but when he has a good day he bolts instantly with the takings. He is a marvellous hand at picking up bargains and can always, for instance, persuade the butcher to give him a pound of eatable meat for twopence, yet at the same time he is an absolute fool about money, and never saves a halfpenny. He is given to singing songs of the Little Grey Home in the West type,[2] and he speaks of his dead wife and mother in terms of the most viscid sentimentality. I should think he is a fairly typical petty criminal.

Of the two others, one was a boy of twenty named Young Ginger, who seemed rather a likely lad, but he was an orphan and had had no kind of upbringing and lived the last year chiefly on Trafalgar Square. The other was a little Liverpool Jew of eighteen, a thorough guttersnipe. I do not know when I have seen anyone who disgusted me so much as this boy. He was as greedy as a pig about food, perpetually scrounging around dustbins, and he had a face that recalled some low-down carrion-eating beast. His manner of talking about women, and the expression on his face when he did so, were so loathsomely obscene as to make me feel almost sick. We could never persuade him to wash more of himself than his nose and a small circle around it, and he mentioned quite casually that he had several different kinds of louse on him. He too was an orphan, and had been ‘on the toby’ almost from infancy.

I had now about 6/-,[3] and before starting we bought a so-called blanket for 1/6d and cadged several tins for ‘drums’. The only reliable tin for a drum is a two-pound snuff tin, which is not very easy to come by. We had also a supply of bread and margarine and tea, and a number of knives and forks etc., all stolen at different times from Woolworth’s. We took the twopenny tram as far as Bromley, and there ‘drummed up’ on a rubbish dump, waiting for two others who were to have joined us, but who never turned up. It was dark when we finally stopped waiting for them, so we had no chance to look for a good camping place, and had to spend the night in long wet grass at the edge of a recreation ground. The cold was bitter. We had only two thin blankets between the four of us, and it was not safe to light a fire, as there were houses all round; we were also lying on a slope, so that one rolled into the ditch from time to time. It was rather humiliating to see the others, quite younger than I, sleeping soundly in these conditions, whereas I did not close my eyes all night. To avoid being caught we had to be on the road before dawn, and it was several hours before we managed to get hot water and have our breakfast.


[1] Borstal: A town in Kent which developed a system designed to reform young offenders through punishment, education, and job training. It was applied more widely to a series of such institutions but was abolished by the Criminal Justice Act, 1982, and replaced by youth custody centres.

[2] Little Grey Home in the West: sentimental song, composed 1911, words by D. Eardley-Wilmot; music by Hermann Lohr. It was popularised in the First World War by the Australian baritone, Peter Dawson, who fine voice readily overcame the disadvantages of acoustic recording and shellac discs.

[3] 6/-: six shillings and, later in the sentence, 1/6 = one shilling and sixpence or 18 pence. In pre-metric currency, one pound sterling (£1) was divided into twenty shillings and each shilling into twelve pennies – so £1 = 240 pence. It is difficult to give precise equivalents of value with today’s prices because individual items vary considerably. However, rough approximation can be gained if prices in the 1930s are multiplied by forty to suggest current values. Thus, six shillings is equivalent (roughly) to £12 today. Peter Davison

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