"He has robbed two clubs. The judge at Salisbury
Can't give him more than he undoubtedly
Deserves. The scoundrel! Look at his photograph!
A lady-killer! Hanging's too good by half
For such as he." So said the stranger, one
With crimes yet undiscovered or undone.
But at the inn the Gypsy dame began:
"Now he was what I call a gentleman.
He went along with Carrie, and when she
Had a baby he paid up so readily
His half-crown. Just like him. A crown's have been
More like him. For I never knew him mean.
Oh! but he was such a nice gentleman. Oh!
Last time we met he said if me and Joe
Was anywhere near we must be sure and call.
He put his arms round our Amos all
As if he were his own son. I pray God
Save him from justice! Nicer man never trod."
Edward Thomas wrote A Gentleman on 2nd April 1915, the day before he wrote his English epic poem, Lob. Like Lob and the previously written A Private, the poem is inspired by his Field Note Book (FNB54) from 10th and 11th May 1912, nearly three years before, in which he described in some detail his walk along the Ridgeway south from Chiseldon, near Swindon.
A Private was based on a joke ET probably heard in a pub on the eve of the walk and weaving into the poem the ploughmen he met on the slopes below Barbury Castle on the first day; the first three verses of Lob were based on the walk and his encounters the following day, from Avebury south through the Pewsey Downs, past the Alton White Horse and through the villages of Alton Priors and Alton Barnes and Honey Street. A Gentleman is drawn from an encounter with a gypsy dame, probably somewhere between Honey Street and Broad Street, later that same day. It must have been a magical, memorable time for not only did he write the days up in great detail, but it remained clearly in his memory for several years, until eventually he turned those experiences into poetry.
ET wrote A Gentleman probably to clear the decks before writing the much longer Lob, which he must have been mulling for some time.
In the FNB only the gypsy is quoted talking about the "gentleman" with much of the detail that appears in the poem. There is no reference to the stranger who was probably a figment of ET's imagination and brought in for dramatic effect. The entry in his FNB reads as follows:
Gypsy woman's "Nice gentleman"
Went w(ith) Carry - he had a baby w(ith) her
Had to pay 2/6 - wonder 'tweren't 5/- then
robbed club - then another club - tried now at
Salisbury - Oh he were a nice gent
Said whatever(?) I was that way I was to call & he
put arm round our Amos as if he were
his own - he were a nice gentlemen (very
unctuosly & as it were pitifully)
So the key elements of the poem are all there, including the gypsy woman talking of the two clubs he robbed, instead of the irascible stranger in the poem. In the FNB there seems to be a more direct cause and effect between the the money he has paid to Carry (Carrie in the poem) for the baby and the robbing of two clubs. As with the stranger, ET also added Joe, the gypsy dame's man to the poem, though his presence is assumed by "our" Amos in the FNB.
ET has further developed the speech of the gypsy dame in the poem to show and express better her tone, avoiding the direct description he used in the FNB of "unctuously & as it were pitifully".
In the poem he also added a location, "at the inn". This feels credible and seems likely to be where he actually encountered the gypsy dame. ET habitually jotted down in his field note books what he overheard in pubs and the entry gives the impression of having been hurriedly taken down. If this is the case, which pub did he visit on that day?
The description of the encounter with the gypsy in the FNB comes after a description of the chimney and weathercock(s) at Honey Street (see Lob post) and the comment "Broad St, Honey St & Bottlesford thinly spread along rd & lane". This suggests he was walking between Honey Street and Broad Street/Bottlesford which is also the route of the Ridgeway, The comment may also have been prompted by his examination of his map, which would have shown him the thin spread of housing along the road and up the lane to Bottlesford.
There would have been five pubs then in the vicinity: the Barge Inn at Honey Street; the Seven Stars at Bottlesford; the Station Hotel and Rose & Crown at Woodborough; and the Sun Inn at the turning from Broad Street into Bottlesford. Of these only the first two still exist.
The Barge inn at Honey Street was a thriving canal-side pub which would have attracted bargees, "the gypsies of the canal", but it was some way off the track of the Ridgeway. Given his description of the walk's trajectory in his FNB, this seems a less likely location. From a subsequent entry, he turned off Broad Street on to a track, which was a continuation of the Ridgeway, before he would have reached the Sun Inn and the lane turning up to Bottlesford and the Seven Stars. So these two can also be excluded. It seems, therefore, most likely that ET encountered the gypsy dame either in the Station Hotel or the Rose & Crown at Woodborough, at the junction half way between Honey Street and Broad Street on the route of the Ridgeway. The Station Hotel had been built between 1903 and 1907 to serve Woodborough Station (since closed) on the main railway line between London and the West Country. The Rose & Crown, across the road from the Station Hotel in Smithy Lane, was a much older establishment. However by this time it was a temperance hotel and, though ET stayed in temperance hotels (eg In Pursuit of Spring), it seems unlikely that as an enthusiastic beer-drinker he would have stopped for refreshment there! So the Station Hotel seems the most likely location, with the Rose & Crown a possibility.
So for the purposes of scene setting.....ET is sitting in the Station Hotel in Woodborough, on a busy Saturdav afternoon after a long walk from Avebury. He overhears, or possibly chats to, a gypsy dame who may have seen in the local newspaper, probably the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, a picture of her "gentleman" friend, currently on trial at Salisbury.
ET used the gypsy's refrain of "gentleman" for ironic effect in the poem. But "gentleman" may also have been connected in ET's mind with a place he had passed earlier that day which would have raised a deeper question. He had met a labourer who had pointed out the long barrow as "Adam's Point" on Walkers Hill, which he said was "where they dug for coffin" - presumably 'they" being Victorian archaeologists. It was marked on the maps of the time as "Adam's Grave", as it is now. ET would have been aware as a student and writer of history of the famous call to arms in the Peasant's Revolt by John Ball, the hedge priest and preacher: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" So was ET making a link between the gypsy's "gentleman" and this historic verse, the earliest, well-known rhyme in the English language, which extolled the equality of man? The sharp triangular point of Walkers Hill, on top of which is Adam's Grave, is in view on the northern horizon from the garden of what was the Station Hotel (and also from the possible site of the Rose & Crown).
The final piece of the jigsaw lies in the trial records at Salisbury. Old trial records are not straightforward and are difficult to access. The most reliable records can be trial calendars detailing prisoners tried and sentenced at assizes or quarter sessions, which also included place of incarceration and release date. Examining these for Salisbury for the month of May 1912 there is only one obvious candidate for the gypsy dame's "gentleman": George Saunders, aka George Thomas Saunders b 1889. He was tried for larceny which he had committed in Malmesbury and he was sentenced on 18th May 1912 ie the week after ET's encounter with the gypsy. Malmesbury had a number of clubs which may have proved easy pickings for George Saunders in need of a bit of cash to pay Carrie for her baby. Larceny usually involved small amounts of money and effects, normally stolen from persons or business. As a result offences of larceny received much lighter sentences than crimes such as burglary or felonies involving force or fraud. Saunders was sentenced to 9 months, presumably as a first offender, which he served in Winchester prison, and he was released on 3rd January 1913. It would have been a sentence the stranger felt was derisory! If George Saunders was the gypsy's gentleman (which is highly speculative), one could hope he went back to his labouring job at Malmesbury and continued to be a "gentleman" to Carrie and their baby.
ET would have walked from Honey Street through The Sands to the Woodborough crossroads and the beginning of Broad Street, following the path of the Ridgeway. The road is now quite busy and narrow so is not ideal for walking, though it is possible, and there are good views up to Woodborough Hill across the meadows from the road.
Both Honey Street and Broad Street may have acquired their names from a misperception that the Ridgeway was a Roman road - hence Street. Honey may have been used to describe the sticky, muddy state of the track there prior to the canal being built, while Broad is self-explanatory.
A good round walk can be had between Woodborough and Honeystreet, avoiding the road, with an optional tangent from the Kennet & Avon canal up to the heights of Woodborough Hill and back. As ET describes the landscape in the FNB: "Some meads wired by Society for Preventing Cruelty to Dandelions" (a theme he picked up subsequently in Lob). He goes on "This is all mead & elm or oak, w(ith) little hazel copses, sheets of bluebells under the oaks, warblers and black caps." Much of the landscape of oak trees and hedgerows, mead and stream still exists (sadly not the elms), and the views up to Woodborough Hill and further heights of the Pewsey Downs remain much the same - if one can ignore the electricity pylons and telegraph poles!
Starting at the Woodborough crossroads, you walk a few yards north to the red brick Edwardian Station House on your right, which used to be the Station Hotel. Following the footpath you walk through its garden and over a stile into a field whence you get a view north to the Pewsey Downs in the distance, including the distinctive peak of Walkers Hill, the location of Adam's Grave. Further east is the closer, and so more substantial, Woodborough Hill, which remains prominent throughout much of the walk.
You walk across the field in the direction of Woodborough and Picked Hills, cross a stream, and then go past the back of gardens and keeping left through a small field, get to Church Lane via a passage between houses/gardens. If you visit the church you can take a short cut through the church yard into Church Farm Lane which leads to the path up to the Kennet & Avon canal. Or you can follow Church Lane a hundred yards or so down to the turning on the left into the start of Church Farm Lane. At the canal the bridge frames a fine view of Woodborough and Picked Hills. You can detour up the short, sharp climb to Woodborough Hill for an excellent views and some fine flowers (it was on this hill that ET saw the field of dandelions which featured in Lob - see post). Returning to the bridge you go right along the footpath on the south side of the canal (left if you're coming from Woodborough village) towards Honeystreet.
The canal and canal path follow the lower contours of Woodborough Hill keeping its top always in sight. Walking along the banks of the canal, one feels one has entered a different world, distinctly apart from the surrounding countryside and rural communities. There are usually some barges moored up along the bank or travelling at a slow pace, but less so than in ET's day, when it remained busy with freight, despite the ascendancy of the railways. The canal path goes under two bridges - the first was where ET crossed the river as he sought the Ridgeway path (as described in the Lob post); the second is the bridge at Honeystreet. Honey Street had been a major centre of the canal economy with sawmills, barge builders, warehouses etc. It is now somewhat reduced though it still has barge rental businesses, a sawmill, thriving shops and a cafe.
If you follow the tow path after the bridge, you arrive at The Barge Inn, an attractive, busy pub on the canal, which draws its custom both from passing barges and crop circle enthusiasts. Turning south away from the canal you follow the footpath through big fields, with the occasional oak. Past Hursts's Farm, you continue on the footpath south (not going right along the bridleway by Hurst's Lane). Keeping to the side of the fields, you reach the end of Smithy Lane, Woodborough. Walking along the lane you pass the Woodborough Social Club, which may have been on or close to the site of the Rose & Crown pub. At the end of Smithy Lane, you are back where you began, with Station House opposite.
ET continued from here south along the road and the path of the Ridgeway, crossing the railway line into the village of Broad Street. He wrote in his Field Note Book:
turn at where houses on left end &
those on r(igh)t begin & go SSW. Only a path, tho
a p(aris)h b(oundar)y"
ET took this path, tracking the Ridgeway, heading south and west. That day he continued via Urchfont (where he visited the Nag's Head) ending up in Market Lavington where he spent the night at the tobacconist's "just past Volunteer Arms". The path is as it was then, taking you along field boundaries south towards Wilsford, Marden and the Salisbury Plain escarpment.
Maps, coordinates, refreshments, acknowledgments
Maps: OS Landranger 173 Swindon & Devizes, OS Explorer 157 Marlborough & Savernake Forest
Woodborough - Location Grid Ref: SU 1061 6041
Honeystreet - Location Grid Ref: SU 1040 6150
The Barge Inn, Honestreet - https://thebargeinnhoneystreet.uk/
Honeystreet Cafe - http://www.honeystreetmillcafe.co.uk/
The Seven Stars, Bottlesford - https://www.thesevenstarsinn.co.uk/
My thanks to Ben Mackay for editorial help.
Field note books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York.
Caravans courtesy of White Horse Gypsy Caravans - https://www.whitehorsegypsycaravans.co.uk/