Beggars in London

This material remains under copyright and is reproduced by kind permission of the Orwell Estate and Penguin Books.

Any visitor to London must have noticed the large number of beggars one comes across in the streets.

These unfortunates, often crippled or blind, can be seen all over the capital. You might say they are part of the scenery.

In some areas one can see every three or four yards a sickly, ragged, tattered character standing at the kerb carrying a tray of matches which he is pretending to sell.

Others sing some popular song in a weary voice.

Others, again, make discordant sounds with any old musical instrument.

They are all without exception beggars who have lost their livelihood because of unemployment and are now reduced to seeking the charity of passers-by in a more or less open fashion.

How many are there in London? No-one knows exactly, probably several thousand. Perhaps ten thousand in the worst part of the year. Anyway, it is likely that among every four hundred Londoners there is one beggar who is living at the expense of the other three hundred and ninety-nine.

Among these down and outs, some have suffered industrial injuries, others years of their lives to the war that was supposed ‘to end wars’ instead of learning a well-paid trade, and found, when they returned home, that their grateful country had rewarded their services by offering them nothing except the choice between a slow death through starvation and begging.

They have no unemployment insurance; or, if they did have, the period of twenty-six weeks laid down by law for which they could draw unemployment benefit has elapsed before they could find work.

In this confraternity, where old men rub shoulders with young men who are little more than adolescents, there are relatively few women.

The beggars, like the tramps I described in my last article, vary tremendously in their origins, in their character and in the trades they followed in more prosperous times, but they are all alike in their filth, their rags, their invariable air of wretchedness.

Before we go any further with the examination of the way the London beggars live off the public, we should be clear of the strange anomaly of their position with respect to the authorities.

* * *

London is full of people whose sole support is private charity. There are thousands of people asking for money, and yet begging is strictly forbidden in the metropolis of the British Empire on pain of imprisonment. How can it be that every day thousands of citizens break the law of the land and get away with it without being punished?

The answer is that it is in fact the easiest thing in the world to evade the law. To ask outright for money, food or clothing is a crime, yet on the other hand it is perfectly legal to sell or pretend to sell any objects, or to annoy one’s fellow citizens by pretending to entertain them.

These are peculiarities of the English law which defy the most elementary common sense.

* * *

Let us now see how the law can be evaded.

First, music.

Singers and devotees of the flute or the trombone are legion. Those who cannot play any instrument wheel a gramophone through the streets on a barrow, but the largest number of these street musicians are organ grinders.

The ‘piano organ’ is a musical instrument about the same size as an ordinary upright piano, mounted on a hand-cart. To play it, you turn a handle.

There are an enormous number of organ-grinders in London, indeed there are so many that in some areas it is well-nigh impossible to escape from their din.

You can find a poor devil grinding out a tune at every street corner. This plaintive music, which belongs specifically to London, is mournful in the extreme.

We must note in passing that organ grinders should not be confused with genuine artists trying their best to amuse and entertain their fellows. They are simply beggars in every sense of the word. Their dreadful music is the result of a purely mechanical gesture, and is only intended to keep them on the right side of the law.

Their–very real–misfortune is the subject of downright exploitation. For there are in London around a dozen firms specialising in the manufacture of piano organs, which they hire out for 15 shillings (90 francs) a week. As an instrument lasts for around ten years on average, the organ-builder makes a handsome profit; more than can be said for the wretched street ‘musician’.

The poor devil drags his instrument around from ten in the morning till eight or nine at night.

Once he has paid for the hire of his piano organ, he will be left with about a pound sterling (about 124 francs) all in all at the end of the week.

He would earn more if he could work alone, but that is impossible, for he needs an assistant to ‘pass the hat around’ while he is turning the handle.

For the public only tolerates them grudgingly. If they did not insist on passing round the hat (which is their begging bowl), no one would give them anything. So all street musicians, without exceptions, are obliged to team up with a mate with whom they share their earnings.

They prefer to play in cafes and popular restaurants, setting up outside the door at mealtimes. One of them plays an instrument or sings in the street, while the other collects the money.

Of course, this is only possible in working-class districts, for in the richer districts the police will not allow begging at all, even when it is disguised.

As a result, the beggars of London live mainly on the poor.

Let us now return to our organ grinder.

He works, as we have seen, some nine or ten hours a day, dragging his instrument, which weighs 600 kilos, round from cafe to cafe, stopping in front of each one just long enough to grind out a tune.

It is difficult to imagine a more desperately monotonous existence just to earn, after six days of exhausting effort in all weathers, one miserable pound. And there are a thousand in London just like them.

* * *

The beggar must, as we have said, pretend to be a tradesman or artist in order to avoid falling foul of the law… a poor sham which, in reality, deceives no-one.

We have just looked at the work of the street musician; let us now turn to the ‘pavement artist’.

London’s pavements are usually made of broad flagstones, where our man, with his sticks of colour, draws portraits, still life and violently coloured landscapes.

I think that ‘artists’ like this do not exist anywhere else in Europe. Like the musicians, they are supposed to be working to entertain the public, so by following their ‘profession’ they are not technically breaking the law.

The pavement artist is at his pitch from nine o’clock in the morning until nightfall.

He begins by drawing three or four pictures very quickly, showing the King, the Prime Minister, a snow scene, or perhaps fruit, flowers etc. Then he sits on the ground and asks for money.

Sometimes, like the organ grinder, he relies on the help of a friend to pass the hat round as soon as a sufficiently large crowd has stopped to watch.

It goes without saying that the more wretched he looks, the more pity he will arouse.

So he spends his days squatting on the hard, cold stone. A stool or folding chair would make him look too ‘rich’ and would prejudice his success.

Clearly, a beggar must be something of a psychologist.

As you can well imagine the pictures are anything but masterpieces. Some of them would shame a ten-year-old child.

One has even some of these pavement artists who have never learnt to draw more than one subject, which they go on reproducing for years.

The life of these poor devils is as bare and empty as that of the street musicians.

This calling can sometimes bring up to three or even four pounds a week, but one must bear in mind the problems. It is impossible, for example, to draw on the pavement when the paving-stones are wet, with the result that, taking one year with another, weekly earnings do not exceed a pound.

Poorly dressed, ill fed, the pavement artists, who spend whole days exposed to the cold and wind, fall prey sooner or later to the rheumatism or pulmonary tuberculosis which will finally carry them off.

* * *

Let us now turn to those who sell, or rather pretend to sell, matches, bootlaces, lavender etc. in the streets.

The match-seller must buy his matches 23 centimes (a halfpenny) a box, and the retail price must not exceed 50 centimes (one penny).

A useful margin, one might think. Perhaps so at first glance, but we must remember that in order to earn 15 francs (half a crown) a day, the bare minimum needed to live in London, he will have to sell sixty boxes. This is clearly impossible, and our ‘sellers’, like the street musicians and the pavement artists, are only beggars in disguise; their lot is even less enviable than that of the others.

In good or bad weather, they have to stand still for six whole days on the kerb, peddling their wares in a plaintive voice.

There is no more stupid or more degrading trade.

No-one buys their matches, their laces or their lavender, but from time to time a passer-by takes pity on them, and throws a coin onto the little tray they wear wound their necks to display their wares.

Sixty hours a week of this stupefying drudgery will bring in just over a hundred francs (16 shillings) – just enough to avoid starvation.

Then there are those who beg openly. They are fairly rare, for sooner or later they will get caught, and will make the acquaintance of His Majesty’s prisons.

However and exception is made for the blind, who, by a sort of tacit agreement enjoy total immunity.

* * *

Now that we have cast an eye over the diverse forms of begging in London, let us look at the private lives of those who are obliged to live on charity.

Many beggars are married, and are at least sometimes responsible for children.

By what miracle do they meet their needs? One hardly dares ask this question.

Firstly, what about lodging?

The single man has the advantage here, because he can pay 4 francs (eight pence) a night for a bed in one of those common lodging houses which proliferate in the populous districts.

The married man, on the other hand, must rent his own room if he wishes to live with his wife, which will cost him a lot more.

Indeed, it is against lodging-house rules for both sexes to sleep under the same roof, even in separate dormitories.

As we can see, the London authorities take no chances with morals.

* * *

The beggars fed themselves almost entirely on bread and margarine washed down with tea.

They rarely drink beer or any other alcoholic drink, for beer costs 6 francs a litre (sixpence a pint) in London.

So tea is their only stimulant. They drink it at all hours of the day and night, whenever they can afford it.

Like the tramps, the London beggars talk together in a special language, a kind of slang full of strange expressions mostly referring to their dealings with the police.

They observe a certain etiquette among themselves. Each one has a pitch reserved on the pavement, which no-one else will try to steal.

No organ grinder or pavement artist will take up his pitch less than thirty meters from another.

These established rules are rarely broken.

Their great enemy is the police, who have quasi-discretionary power over them. A policeman can order them to move on when he feels like it, and can even arrest them if he wants to.

If he thinks a pavement artist’s picture indecent, if an organ grinder ventures into the road in a ‘smart’ district where music is forbidden, the representative of law and order will quickly send him packing.

Woe betide the beggar who does not move on; prison awaits him ‘for obstructing a policeman in the course of his duty’.

* * *

Sometimes one of these poor devils sinks even lower.

Perhaps he was ill, and could not go out to earn the 4 francs needed to pay for a bed for the night.

Now, the proprietors of lodging houses never give credit.

So every night he has to pay 4 francs or resign himself to sleeping in the open.

Spending the night out of doors has nothing attractive about it in London, especially for a poor, ragged, undernourished wretch.

Moreover sleeping in the open is only allowed in one thoroughfare in London.

You can, if you so desire, wander up and down all the streets you like during the night, sit down on a flight of steps, on the kerb or anywhere else, but you are not allowed to sleep there.

If the policeman on his beat finds you asleep, it is his duty to wake you up.

That is because it has been found that a sleeping man succumbs to the cold more easily than a man who is awake, and England could not let one of her sons die in the street.

So you are at liberty to spend the night in the street, providing it is a sleepless night.

But, as I have said, there is one road where the homeless are allowed to sleep. Strangely, it is the Thames Embankment, not far from the Houses of Parliament.

Here there are a few iron benches where every night some sixty or seventy people come to sleep, representatives of the most abject poverty to be found in the capital.

It is bitterly cold beside the river, and their worn and tattered clothes are no protection against the severity of the cold. So, as they have no blankets, they wrap themselves in old newspapers.

The uncomfortable seats and the freezing night air are no inducement to sleep, and yet these poor devils are so exhausted that in spite of everything they manage to sleep for an hour or two, huddled up one against the other.

Some of them have for decades known hardly any other bed but these Embankment benches.

We advise all those visitors to England who would like to see the reverse side of our apparent prosperity to go and look at those who habitually sleep on the Embankment, with their filthy tattered clothes, their bodies wasted by disease, their unshaven faces, a living reprimand to the Parliament in whose shadow they lie.


Le Progrès Civique, 12 January 1929. Translated into English by Janet Percival and Ian Willison.


This article is one of three from ‘An Inquiry into “Civic Progress” in England: The Plight of the British Workers’, published by Le Progrès Civique in 1928 and 1929. For each, Orwell was paid 225 francs (about £1.80 – some £70 at today’s values). He also wrote articles on John Galsworthy, the exploitation of the Burmese people, and on censorship in England, for French journals. They, with an article on ‘A Farthing Newspaper’ published in England, are an epitome of the interests he would pursue as an essayist: social and political issues, literature, popular culture and imperialism. The very short paragraphs are not typical of Orwell. Orwell wrote in English (in a version that has not survived), and the French translator, Raoul Nicole, is almost certainly responsible for breaking Orwell’s prose into short bites. It is possible that the divisions marked by asterisks represent Orwell’s original paragraphing. For later reworkings of the experiences described here, see ‘The Clink’, published by The Adelphi, April 1931 (CW X, 104), and chapters 27 and 35 of Down and Out in Paris and London. There were once about 750 spikes (casual wards or workhouses); a government order closed the last (at Bishopbriggs, near Glasgow) in 1996. The French text has asile for workhouse and usually prints tramp(s) in italic but occasionally translates it as vagabond(s). The square brackets are Orwell’s.

Ironically, some former workhouses are now being converted into luxurious apartments, for example, at Marlborough.

The pen-name ‘George Orwell’ was first used in January 1933 for Down and Out in Paris and London. It was not regularly used for reviews and articles until December 1936. For much of his time at the BBC (1941-3) Orwell was known as Eric Blair. In correspondence, he tended to sign himself, and be addressed, as Eric or George depending on whether the correspondent originally knew him as Eric or George. Occasionally, if a secretary typed a letter for him, he would sign Eric Blair over a typed George Orwell.

Peter Davison, adapted from Orwell’s England.