Letter to Dennis Collings from Eric Blair (near Trafalgar Square) in August 1931

[Sent from a lodging-house in Southwark Bridge Road.]

Thursday night, [27 August 1931]

Dear Dennis,

Trafalgar Square in London (1948)

Photo of Trafalgar Square in 1948. The steeple of St Martin’s Church is visible in the background.

Please excuse pencil & bad writing, as I am writing this in a lodging house. It is a 7d kip—& looks it, I may say—in Southwark, & I believe the only one at the price in London. We go down for the hopping tomorrow morning: 2d tram to Bromley, & hike the rest.

I have had an interesting 2 days camping in Trafalgar Square. It has, at this time of year, a floating population of 200 or so. You can make yourself fairly comfortable against the north wall & can get tea all day long, as a coffee shop nearby will give you boiling water free or 1d for a billyful (billies are called ‘drums’ by the way). I was there all yesterday & was to have spent the night in St Martin’s Church, but as you had to queue up for an hour to get a decent place we decided to stay in the square. You take my tip & never sleep in Trafalgar Square. We were tolerably comfortable till midnight, except that once in 5 or 10 minutes the police came round waking those who were asleep & making anyone who was sitting on the ground stand up. Every ten minutes it would be, ‘Look out, mates, ‘ere comes the flattie (policemen). Take up thy bed & walk’ etc. And then the police: ‘Now then, get off of that. If you want to sit, sit on the benches’ etc. There were only benches for 40 out of the 200, but we got some rest, as we kipped down again the moment the policeman r.ad passed. After midnight the cold was glacial. Perhaps a dozen people managed to sleep, the rest walked the streets, with an occasional sit-down for a rest— this for 4 consecutive hours. At 4 am someone managed to get hold of a big pile of newspaper posters & brought them along to use as blankets. “Ere y’are, mate tuck in the fucking eiderdown. Don’t we look like fucking parsons in these ‘ere surplices? ‘Ere, I got “Dramatic appeal from the Premier” round my neck. That ought to warm yer up, oughtn’t it?’ etc. We made ourselves into large newspaper parcels, & were comparatively warm, tho’ still not warm enough to sleep, apart from the police. I doubt whether more than 10 or 20 of the 200 people slept a wink during the night. At 5 we all went to Stewart’s coffee shop in St Martin’s Lane, where it is understood that you can sit from 5 am to 9 am for a 2d cup of tea—or even for less, for often 2 or 3 fellows who had only 2d between them clubbed together & shared a cup of tea. You were allowed to sleep with your head on the table till 7 am, after which the proprietor woke you up. This is the absolutely regular routine of Trafalgar Square “sleepers”. Two of the fellows I was with had had 7 consecutive weeks of it & some people do it all the year round. They make up the sleepless night by naps during the morning. The rules about what you may & may not do in Trafalgar Square are curious, & should interest you as an anthropologist. Till noon you can do what you like (even shave in the fountains) except that the police wake you if they see you asleep. From noon to 9 pm you can sit on the benches or the pedestals of the statues, but are moved on if you sit on the ground. After 9 pm you are also moved on from the pedestals of the statues. Between 9 pm & midnight the police wake those who are asleep every 5 minutes, after midnight every half hour. For all this no ostensible reason.

About 8 pm last night a woman came up crying bitterly. It appeared that she was a tart & someone had poked her & then cleared off without paying the fee, which was 6d. It appeared that of the dozen or so women among the 200 in the square, half were prostitutes; but they were the prostitutes of the unemployed, & usually earn so little that they have to spend the night in the Square. 6d. is the usual fee, but in the small hours when it was bitter cold they were doing it for a cigarette. The prostitutes live on terms of perfect amity with the other down & out women. In Stewart’s coffee shop this morning, however, an old girl who had slept in Covent Garden was denouncing 2 tarts, who had earned enough to get a few hours in bed & then a good breakfast. Each time they ordered another cup of tea she was yelling, ‘There’s another fuck! That’s for that fucking negro you let on for a tanner’ etc.

Today went much as yesterday & tonight, as we have a long day before us, I decided on getting a bed. My mates have gone to St Martin’s Church, preferring to spend their money on a meat breakfast. This place is an apallingsqualid cellar, as hot as hell & the air a1 sort of vapour of piss, sweat & cheese.

A pale youth, some kind of labourer but looking consumptive, keeps declaiming poetry in front of the fire. Evidently he is genuinely fond of it. You should hear him declaiming:

‘A voice so thrilling ne’er was ‘eard
In Ipril from the cuckoo bird,
Briking the silence of the seas
Beyond the furthest ‘Ebrides’ etc.

Also speaks of himself as ‘sicklied o’er with the pile cast of care’. I should love to hear him recite ‘O holy hope & high humility’. I have met other curious types of whom I will write to you when I have time. Also about the prevalence of homosexuality in London, & stowaways. The songs I have heard this time are ‘Alleluia, I’m a bum’, which I believe is American. Also one about

‘Tap, tap, tapetty-tap,
I’m a perfect devil for that,
Tapping ‘em ‘ere, tapping ‘em there,
I’ve been tapping ‘em everywhere.’

Tap = beg. Perhaps an old music hall song?

I hope this letter has not been too inconsequent & illegible. I will write when I have further news & a more comfortable place to write in. If you don’t hear within a fortnight it probably will mean I’ve been pinched for begging. as the mates I’m going with are hardened ‘tappers’ & not above petty theft.

Eric A Blair

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Source: CW10-110

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