In the so-called ‘developed’ societies since the end of the Second World War many children are brought up by unthinking parents to believe that work is something other people get. The idea of actually finding some work that pays rarely enters the mind of these children as they grown into adulthood. They have brought up in ‘The Welfare State’. In this demi-paradise they learn that the world owes them a living; they have their rights; ‘what do we pay our taxes for?’; ‘who needs education anyway?’ ‘who wants a job anyway?’ etcetera.
It may come as a surprise to know that in the English Poor Law of 1531, barely five hundred years ago, able-bodied persons who chose not to work were classed as ‘sturdy beggars’. Cynics today may pronounce these two words naughtily reversing the ‘u’ and the ‘e’, but that is not my province.
The 1531 Poor Law presumed there was enough work in England for everyone who wanted to work. People who tramped the country roads or city streets seeking charity (‘spare a penny gov.?’ were punished. Tudor governments routinely considered workless people as a threat to public order. In many cases this was perfectly true: consider the thousands of ex-soldiers, just returned from a war somewhere, where they were licensed to kill – indeed they were expected to kill. Not finding work, they often gathered into armed bands of marauders, robbing, raping, often killing travellers on England’s roads, or breaking into prosperous-looking houses.
At the tail end of the sixteenth century new poor laws were made whereby parishes were forced to provide work for the genuinely unemployed – those who wanted to work but could find none.
The sturdy beggars or incorrigible rogues (we could not call them that today without causing manifestations and riots) where rounded up where possible, whipped in public, returned to their own parish, or transported to the Americas.
There was a strange phenomenon in the Sixties of the last century, when young Americans from monied families, crossed the pond without a cent and lived like tramps as they progressed through a faintly horrified Europe. When things got very tough these fit youngsters (who never dreamed of taking a job) would command their parents in the States to send them money – which they invariably did. After a year or two of this odd life, during which the young people learned much more about human life than they would have done in the university, they got home somehow and settled down to the normal ‘drudge’ of work, pay, marriage, children of their own, and ultimately – respectability. They were ‘sturdy beggars’ no more.
I met two fine examples of the late-teenage US tramp in the UK myself: one, who never washed or changed his clothes, turned out to be a son of the family that owned the Forest Hills tennis club in California, which he probably now runs. He did his stint as a sturdy beggar – notice they did it in another country. Then I came across a sturdy chappie who chose to live in a commune in a tiny hamlet in deepest Kent. The old barn lent to them by a generous farmer smelled worse than your imagination can provide. The commune was multi-sexual, sturdy beggars not caring much about sexual mores. This fine fellow came to tea in my garden with three or four of his concubines, and happened to see a very old classic car I kept in a garage. Then came the surprise; he offered to buy it and take it back to Pittsburgh. I was astonished, but he kept his word to the letter. He got the cash from home, paid me in full, paid for the transportation of the rather grand old crock I had sold him; paid for shipping to New York harbour. Drove the car across the States to Pittsburgh, where he quickly married and settled down to the American Way of Life.
In Britain National Service rather deftly used to deal with sturdy beggars until 1961/2, when government found it too expensive; which is why there are so many beggars, sturdy or not, in Britain today, with no education, no work, no money, Falstaffian in aspect, redolent of bad beer and bad temper. They will never work in their life, not as long as there is a welfare state; such a pity there are no Tudor governments around.