account of the heiroglyphics - The Slang Dictionary




One of the most singular chapters in a history of vagabondism would certainly be “An Account of the Hieroglyphic Signs used by Tramps and Thieves,” and it certainly would not be the least interesting. The reader may be startled to know that, in addition to a secret language, the wandering tribes of this country have private marks and symbols with which to score their successes, failures, and advice to succeeding beggars; in fact, there is no doubt that the country is really dotted over with beggars’ finger-posts and guide-stones. The subject was not long since brought under the attention of the Government by Mr. Rawlinson.[24] “There is,” he says in his report, “a sort of blackguards’ literature, and the initiated understand each other by Slang [Cant] terms, by pantomimic signs, and by hieroglyphics. The vagrant’s mark may be seen in Havant, on corners of streets, on door-posts, on house-steps. Simple as these chalk-lines appear, they inform the succeeding vagrants of all they require to know; and a few white scratches may say, ‘Be importunate,’ or ‘Pass on.’”

Another very curious account was taken from a provincial newspaper, published in 1849, and forwarded to Notes and[28] Queries,[25] under the head of Mendicant Freemasonry. “Persons,” remarks the writer, “indiscreet enough to open their purses to the relief of the beggar tribe, would do well to take a readily-learned lesson as to the folly of that misguided benevolence which encourages and perpetuates vagabondism. Every door or passage is pregnant with instruction as to the error committed by the patron of beggars; as the beggar-marks show that a system of freemasonry is followed, by which a beggar knows whether it will be worth his while to call into a passage or knock at a door. Let any one examine the entrances to the passages in any town, and there he will find chalk marks, unintelligible to him, but significant enough to beggars. If a thousand towns are examined, the same marks will be found at every passage entrance. The passage mark is a cypher with a twisted tail; in some cases the tail projects into the passage, in others outwardly; thus seeming to indicate whether the houses down the passage are worth calling at or not. Almost every door has its marks; these are varied. In some cases there is a cross on the brickwork, in others a cypher; the figures 1, 2, 3 are also used. Every person may for himself test the accuracy of these statements by the examination of the brickwork near his own doorway—thus demonstrating that mendicity is a regular trade, carried out upon a system calculated to save time, and realize the largest profits.” These remarks refer mainly to provincial towns, London being looked upon as the tramps’ home, and therefore too “fly” or experienced to be duped by such means. The title it obtains, that of “the Start,” or first place in everything, is significant of this.

Provincial residents, who are more likely to view the foregoing extract with an eye of suspicion than are those who live in a position to constantly watch for and profit by evidences of the secret intercommunication indulged in by the dangerous[29] classes, should note, in favour of the extract given, how significant is the practice of tramps and beggars calling in unfrequented localities, and how obvious it is that they are directed by a code of signals at once complete and imperious. It is bad for a tramp who is discovered disobeying secret orders. He is marked out and subjected to all kinds of annoyance by means of decoy hieroglyphs, until his life becomes a burden to him, and he is compelled to starve or—most horrible of alternatives—go to work.

The only other notice of the hieroglyphs of vagabonds worth remarking is in Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.[26] Mayhew obtained his information from two tramps, who stated that hawkers employ these signs as well as beggars. One tramp thus described the method of “working”[27] a small town. “Two hawkers (‘pals’[27]) go together, but separate when they enter a village, one taking one side of the road, and selling different things, and so as to inform each other as to the character of the people at whose houses they call, they chalk certain marks on their door-posts.” Another informant stated that “if a ‘patterer’[27] has been ‘crabbed’” (that is, offended by refusal or exposure) “at any of the ‘cribs’” (houses), “he mostly chalks a signal at or near the door.” These hawkers were not of the ordinary, but of the tramp, class, who carried goods more as a blind to their real designs than for the purposes of sale. They, in fact, represented the worst kinds of the two classes. The law has comparatively recently improved these nondescript gentry off the face of the country, and the hawker of the present day is generally a man more sinned against than sinning.

Another use is also made of hieroglyphs. Charts of successful begging neighbourhoods are rudely drawn, and symbolical signs attached to each house to show whether benevolent or adverse.[28] “In many cases there is over the kitchen mantelpiece”[30] of a tramps’ lodging-house “a map of the district, dotted here and there with memorandums of failure or success.” A correct facsimile of one of these singular maps is given in this book. It was obtained from the patterers and tramps who supplied a great many words for this work, and who were employed by the original publisher in collecting Old Ballads, Christmas Carols, Dying Speeches, and Last Lamentations, as materials for a History of Popular Literature. The reader will, no doubt, be amused with the drawing. The locality depicted is near Maidstone, in Kent; and it was probably sketched by a wandering Screever[29] in payment for a night’s lodging. The English practice of marking everything, and scratching names on public property, extends itself to the tribe of vagabonds. On the map, as may be seen in the left-hand corner, some Traveller[29] has drawn a favourite or noted female, singularly nicknamed Three-quarter Sarah. What were the peculiar accomplishments of this lady to demand so uncommon a name, the reader will be at a loss to discover; but a patterer says it probably refers to a shuffling dance of that name, common in tramps’ lodging-houses, and in[31] which “¾ Sarah” may have been a proficient. Above her, three beggars or hawkers have reckoned their day’s earnings, amounting to 13s., and on the right a tolerably correct sketch of a low hawker, or cadger, is drawn. “To Dover, the nigh way,” is the exact phraseology; and “hup here,” a fair specimen of the self-acquired education of the draughtsman. No key or explanation to the hieroglyphs was given in the original, because it would have been superfluous, when every inmate of the lodging-house knew the marks from his cradle—or rather his mother’s back.

Should there be no map, in most lodging-houses there is an old man who is guide to every “walk” in the vicinity, and who can tell on every round each house that is “good for a cold tatur.” The hieroglyphs that are used are:—

cross No good; too poor, and know too much.

semicircle plus cross Stop,—If you have what they want, they will buy. They are pretty “fly” (knowing).

forked branch Go in this direction, it is better than the other road. Nothing that way.

diamond Bone (good). Safe for a “cold tatur,” if for nothing else. “Cheese your patter” (don’t talk much) here.

triangle pointing down Cooper’d (spoilt), by too many tramps calling there.

square Gammy (unfavourable), like to have you taken up. Mind the dog.

circle with dot Flummuxed (dangerous), sure of a month in “quod” (prison).

circle with cross Religious, but tidy on the whole.

Where did these signs come from? and when were they first used? are questions which have been asked again and again, and the answers have been many and various. Knowing the character of the Gipsies, and ascertaining from a tramp that they are well acquainted with the hieroglyphs, “and have been as long ago as ever he could remember,” there is little fear of being wrong in ascribing the invention to them. How strange it would be if some modern Belzoni, or Champollion—say Mr.[32] George Smith, for instance—discovered in these beggars’ marks traces of ancient Egyptian or Hindoo sign-writing!

That the Gipsies were in the habit of leaving memorials of the road they had taken, and the successes that had befallen them, is upon record. In an old book, The Triumph of Wit, 1724, there is a passage which appears to have been copied from some older work, and it runs thus:—“The Gipsies set out twice a year, and scatter all over England, each parcel having their appointed stages, that they may not interfere, nor hinder each other; and for that purpose, when they set forward in the country, they stick up boughs in the way of divers kinds, according as it is agreed among them, that one company may know which way another is gone, and so take another road.” The works of Hoyland and Borrow supply other instances.

It would be hardly fair to close this subject without drawing attention to the extraordinary statement that, actually on the threshold of the gibbet, the sign of the vagabond was to be met with! “The murderer’s signal is even exhibited from the gallows; as a red handkerchief held in the hand of the felon about to be executed is a token that he dies without having betrayed any professional secrets.”[30] Private executions have of course rendered this custom obsolete, even if it ever existed.

Since the first editions of this work were published, the publishers have received from various parts of England numerous evidences of the still active use of beggars’ marks and mendicant hieroglyphs. One gentleman writes from Great Yarmouth to say that, whilst residing in Norwich, he used frequently to see them on the houses and street corners in the suburbs. Another gentleman, a clergyman, states that he has so far made himself acquainted with the meanings of the signs employed, that by himself marking the characters square (gammy)[33] and circle with dot (flummuxed) on the gate-posts of his parsonage, he enjoys a singular immunity from alms-seekers and cadgers on the tramp. This hint may not be lost on many other sufferers from importunate beggars, yet its publication may lead to the introduction of a new code.

In a popular constable’s guide,[31] giving the practice of justices in petty sessions, the following interesting paragraph is found, corroborating what has just been said on the hieroglyphs used by vagabonds:—

“Gipsies follow their brethren by numerous marks, such as strewing handfuls of grass in the daytime at a four lane or cross roads; the grass being strewn down the road the gang have taken; also, by a cross being made on the ground with a stick or knife—the longest end of the cross denotes the route taken. In the night-time a cleft stick is placed in the fence at the cross roads, with an arm pointing down the road their comrades have taken. The marks are always placed on the left-hand side, so that the stragglers can easily and readily find them.”

From the cleft stick here alluded to, we learn the origin and use of forked branch, the third hieroglyph in the vagabond’s private list. And the extract also proves that the “rule of the road” is the same with tramps as with that body which is morally less but physically more dangerous, the London drivers.