This is an excerpt from Chapter VII ("South Downs Villages") of Louis Jennings' Rambles among the Hills in the Peak of Derbyshire and the South Downs (1879), one of the popular books that Jennings wrote on returning to England after his time as editor of the New York Times (full details are given at the end). As a journalist, Jennings was as curious about the people he met as he was with the landscape itself, and recorded his encounters in detail, in the style of George Borrow (1803-1881). There is a particular resemblance here, because Borrow had great sympathy for gipsies and other such wandering folk. Like the good journalist that he was, Jennings simply records this episode and leaves the reader to reflect upon it — although his own feelings are clear. The relation of this episode today's refugee problem makes it particularly poignant. Thank you to David Morphet for drawing my attention to these books. In editing it for the Victorian Web, I have included numbers in brackets to indicate page breaks in the print edition. This is to allow readers to cite or locate the pages in the original text. — Jacqueline Banerjee
very old track over the hills, long known as "Jugg's Lane," leads from Brighton through Southover to Lewes. Before railroads were heard of, the fishermen of Brighton, locally called "Jugs," used to come to [236/237] Lewes with their wares by this path, and it is still used by people who know the country. Soon after leaving Southover one evening, and entering upon this old road, I saw a very strange party camped under a hedge, with a group of children round them, and a policeman ordering somebody to "Move on." There were a swarthy-looking man, with a red fez upon his head, a woman with a picturesque though ragged cloak over her, three little children, a white pony, and two bears. The man had stuck two long sticks into the ground, and put a third on the top of them, and was preparing to rig up some sort of a tent. There was a pot such as gipsies use, close under the hedge, and a bundle of sticks ready to make a fire. The man and woman were speaking together in a language which I did not understand.
"Come, get out of this," said the policeman; "you can't stay here."
Evidently the man knew not what was said. He looked blankly round at the little crowd, and pitched upon me in his despair, and spoke to me in French a mongrel French. "What does he say?" he asked, pointing to the policeman.
"You must get away from here."
"Where am I to go?"
I put that question to the policeman, and he replied that it was no business of his'n only he must move on. I offered to pay for a night's lodging for the party, but the constable assured me that he could not let them pass into Lewes, and even if he did, no one would take them in because of the bears.[237/238]
All this I explained to the man, who was in no small perplexity. He told me he was from Bosnia, and had been travelling seven years in France. He had landed two days before at Newhaven from Dieppe. Everywhere he had been allowed to travel in France, and sleep at night by the wayside why not here? The laws! Why should the laws interfere with him? Where was M. the Commissaire? Where was M. le Maire? What was he to do with his "trois petites," who were hungry and footsore? People afraid of the "ours"? Bah! Let Monsieur regard them. They would not hurt a fly. Why could he not stop there? Look at the children Monsieur would see that it was impossible for them to go on any further. And so, indeed, it seemed. The woman was thin and miserable-looking. One of the children was a girl of nine or ten, a pinched- up copy of her mother, with a weary, hungry sort of look upon her face.
"What made you come here at all?" I asked the man.
Because everybody told him this was "un meilleur pays que la France." It had cost him a hundred francs to come from Dieppe, and he had no more money. He would do no harm to the fields. In France no one interfered with him. Why was he not allowed to sleep by the hedges here? Then he turned to the policeman and made a "last appeal." He laid his head on his left arm, as if going to sleep, and said, "Coucher, coucher, vous savez."
"Move on," was the stolid and inflexible reply of the policeman. [238/239]
"Perhaps he could sleep over there by the hollow," said someone in the crowd, and the policeman seconded the suggestion, caring nothing, of course, where the party went so that they took themselves beyond his jurisdiction.
Illustration from a sketch "made on the spot" by Jennings himself, drawn on wood by A. H. Hallam Murray, and engraved by J. W. Whymper (p.241). The bizarre little "conducted party" is shown passing the "Jack and Jill" windmills above the village of Clayton in the South Downs, about seven miles from Brighton. "Jack" is now a private residence but "Jill" is a popular tourist attraction.
I knew where the hollow was, and was going that way. The moment I started, the man followed at my heels, as reluctant to lose sight of me as a drowning man is to let go of a straw. Quite unexpectedly I thus found myself leader of a "personally conducted" party just behind me was the Bosnian with a bear, then his wife with another bear, then two of the petites, then the white pony with a third petite upon its back, and the tent, pot, and other things belonging to the wretched family. On oar way we passed between two windmills, and it struck me that I bore at the moment a remarkable resemblance to Don Quixote.
The first bear occasionally made a sort of drive at me, but the Bosnian assured me it was nothing "Un joue, Monsieur, voila tout!" Would I explain why they let him sleep where he liked in France, and would not let him in England, which was a better country, so he was told? I did explain once more that the law was against him, and earnestly advised him to go back to France while still he was within sight of the sea. "Just over yonder hill it is," said I, "you will be sorry if you do not return." No, he would not do that ; he would go to Brighton, which he understood was a big town, almost as big as Dieppe. There his bears would make the people laugh, and he would be able to get some money. [239-240]
By and by we came to Kingston Hollow, which is in a secluded spot, far from the line of ordinary traffic. It was getting dusk, and in all probability no one would pass by that night. Therefore it seemed to me that the houseless wanderers could do no great harm there. The road was bordered with broad grassy banks and hedges, and consequently there was plenty of room. Somewhere beneath the road lies the ill-fated Nan Kemp; but she, poor wretch, would do no evil to her fellow outcasts, even if she had the power. The birds were singing their evening song; the sun had sunk beneath cloud mountains of strange shapes and hues, leaving behind it gleams of unearthly light; light which one almost fancied had come from afar, even from the land where the weariest of wanderers will at last find rest, and the heavy heart put down its burden.
The Bosnian mounted the bank, "prospected" round a minute or two, and then called out to his wife. Tbe bears were squatted on their haunches, and the white pony began to bite at the grass on the roadside. It seemed that at last they had found a fair anchorage for the night. At that moment a loud voice was heard shouting from the hedge opposite, "Hallo, gov'nor, get out of that — none of that! Get out of here! Move on!" It was a man who hired the shooting over the field.
The dejection which fell upon the face of the Bosnian, and the heavy sigh which his wife gave as she took up one of the children to carry it, I did not soon forget. I spoke to the man in the field, but he would [240/241] not hear of the party remaining there. "We can get no rabbits where they go," he said. Utterly cowed and broken-down, the wanderers "moved on" down the lane towards the Brighton road, while I was talking to the man in the field, and I saw no more of them.
Jennings, Louis. Rambles among the Hills in the Peak of Derbyshire and the South Downs. London: John Murray, 1880. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of California Library. Web. 8 February 2016.
Created 8 February 2016