The Slang Dictionary Etymological, Historical and Andecdotal

- By John Camden Hotten
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John Camden Hotten (12 September 1832, Clerkenwell – 14 June 1873, Hampstead) was an English bibliophile and publisher. He is best known for his clandestine publishing of numerous erotic and pornographic titles. Hotten was born John William Hotten in Clerkenwell, London to a family of Cornish origins. His father was William Hotten of Probus, Cornwall, a master carpenter and undertaker; his mother was Maria Cowling of Roche, Cornwall. At the age of fourteen Hotten was apprenticed to the London bookseller John Petheram, where he acquired a taste for rare and unusual books. He spent the period from 1848 to about 1853 in America but by mid-1855 had opened a small bookshop in London at 151a Piccadilly and went on to found the publishing business under his own name which after his death became Chatto & Windus.[1]
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 Queries,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 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 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. 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" a small town. "Two hawkers 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' 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. "In many cases there is over the kitchen mantelpiece" 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 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 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 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.

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Word Lists:

Tramp : walk heavily or noisily

Beggar : a person, typically a homeless one, who lives by asking for money or food.

Vagrant : a person without a settled home or regular work who wanders from place to place and lives by begging.

Nondescript : lacking distinctive or interesting features or characteristics

Importunate : persistent, especially to the point of annoyance or intrusion

Hieroglyphic : writing consisting of hieroglyphs


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