Hitch-hiking

Part II:
History of thumbing in Britain from 1914 to the present


Chapter 9: Lorry-hopping and the Slump 1914-1939

Many people born in the last days of Queen Victoria probably had their first taste of hitch-hiking in France during the First World War. The soldiers of the British forces in France did not use the term 'to hitch-hike'. This was not to come into everyday usage until the 1930's and according to Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang it was a migrant word from the USA. The Oxford English Dictionary includes `to hitch-hike' in its 1933 supplement but classes it as American usage. The word common among soldiers in the First World War was 'lorry-hopping' or 'lorryjumping'. In his Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves, describing the difficulty of adjustment to the post-war world, has this to say:

Other loose habits of wartime survived, such as stopping cars for a lift, talking to fellow travellers in railway carriages without embarrassment, and unbuttoning by the roadside without shame, whoever might be about ....

It wasn't only officers and soldiers who used lifting as a way of getting round behind the lines in wartime France. Nurses did it too. A woman who later became matron at Guy's Hospital, Miss Macmanus, did a lot of lifting on her days off:

Another sister and I decided to 'lorry-hop' forward, to see one of the recently released French villages that had been in German occupation during the whole war. Luck was with us, for a staff car passed and kindly gave us a lift .... They set us down with good wishes and we took a left hand turn. Soon a lorry came along and we were speeding on the road once more ....

A large number of individuals were involved in Great War lorry-hopping and in lifting on the way to football matches but these two types on hitch-liiking did not constitute mass activities. The first time lift giving and taking became a nationwide, mass activity was during the two week disruption of public transport in May 1926.

The General Strike lasted from May 4th until officially May 14th but in fact public transport did not get back to anything like normal until several days later. Almost all the million or so cars on the roads of Britain at that time belonged to the upper or the middle classes. Throughout the twenties these people had feared massive disruption of the nation's life by the working class in support of claims for decent wages. In point of fact the General Strike was called to avert a cut in coal miners' wages. The car owning bourgeoisie were therefore united in their opposition to the strike. With the Baldwin government's encouragement car owners in their tens of thousands stuck notices on their windscreens: Signal for a lift, and filled their cars to the brim with people hitching to work.

Now the T.U.C. had only called out certain key industries and plenty of trade unionists still had to get to their work places each morning and back again at night time. Blackleg public transport was a direct challenge to the strike and so most workpeople avoided using it as much as they could. For those too far from work to walk and those without bicycles the only solution was to hitchhike. This was how the Communist paper, the Workers Weekly, summed up the situation in retrospect:

...While such of the wage earners as were not called upon to strike were quite willing to accept a 'lift' in a car... they persistently and unanimously shunned the tubes and 'buses run by avowed scabs' even when these were operating.

In her book North Country Bred Stella Davies clearly expresses the quandary she and her husband found themselves in as socialists over the question of lift giving:

To give or not give lifts had been debated by my husband and myself. We were anxious not to do anything that would be harmful to the strike action. My husband was continuing to work, for his form of employment did not fall into the categories called out by the T.U.C.... We were anxious not to be identified with middle class blacklegs.... We decided, as a compromise, that my husband should take two neighbours of ours, who were cleaners at a public lavatory, to work, for this, we thought, could only be to the good.

On May 14, the T.U.C. called the general strike off and abandoned the miners to continue their stoppage alone. Public transport gradually returned to normal and lift- giving on the grand scale died a natural death. Its passing was mourned in a centre page article in the Daily Herald, the Labour Movement's paper:

Civilisation must, if it has any reality, any value, make us ready to give anyone a lift in any way possible, not only at moments of crisis, but in ordinary humdrum times.

Contrary feelings were apparent in a Punch cartoon on May 19th. This showed a large touring car pulling up for a chimney sweep, complete with his brushes. What consternation on the faces of the lady occupants of the car! Feelings of deep relief that lift giving was no longer a 'patriotic' and class duty were shared by Autocar. On May 21st it published a strip cartoon depicting the advantages of a new motoring accessory, the pneu innatable passenger. All the driver had to do was to pump the rubber dummies full of air and stick them in any vacant seats in his car: They provide an excellent foil to the importunate lift cadger.

Despite the 'pneu inflatable passengers' dreamed up by the Autocar cartoonist the 'importunate' continued thumbing lifts through the late twenties and the thirties. A new category of 'importunate' was the working man on the road not football bound but because he had lost his job. Men on the dole would move out of their home areas to try and find work. What little unemployment henefit they got had to be left for their families so they had little choice but to walk and to lift. Lorry drivers whose memories go back to this period vividly remember the plight of the unemployed whom they gave rides to. One driver I interviewed told me of a man he had picked up while leaving the London docks for Liverpool. They stopped off at the driver's home in East London before taking the A.5 Northwards. There was rabbit for dinner and 35 years later the driver still clearly recalls how ravenously the hitch-hiker ate his way through it.

But not only the 'importunate' of the 'lower orders' thumbed lifts. Right from the first decade of the century there seems to have been a kind of free masonry among car drivers which impelled them to pick up their own kind when stranded or broken down. Toad of Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows (1909) expects this sort of solidarity from fellow motorists. He has just escaped from prison and is walking along a country road when suddenly he hears the sound of a motor behind him. He thinks:

This is something like! This is real life again, this is once more the great world from which I have been missed so long! I will hail them, my brothers of the wheel, and pitch them a yarn, of the sort that has been so successful hitherto; and they will give me a lift, of course....

Toad's expectations of his fellow motorists are paralleled by those of an angry gentleman writing in Autocar on 26 April 1929. At 1 a.m. he found himself without his car at Acton and needed to get back to his club in Kensington:

I set out to walk. As a gentle hint to any generously disposed car driver to offer what one was always glad to offer in earlier motoring days -- the 'helping hand' -- I walked in the roadway. Several cars sped past; then emboldened by a painful shoe, weariness and the rain, l very apologetically signalled a car to stop....

None did, and he was eventually picked up by a lorry. He ends his letter:

I wonder if some of my fellow car owners, not my 'mates', did not feel a little of the shame I felt for them as they sped on comfortably into the night.

Apart from giving lifts to other motorists in trouble, some car owners seem to have given lifts to the 'lower orders' out of a sense of paternalistic generosity, manfully shouldering what they saw as their white man's burden. In 1929 a correspondent in Autocar wrote:

Whenever we can, we give our fellow creatures a lift. We consider that much class hatred, particularly that directed against the motor-car classes, would disappear if only the motorist would offer lifts to pedestrians. There should be a feeling of noblesse oblige in the breast of every owner-driver.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the history of hitch-hiking between World War I and 1939 is that it has been largely forgotten. The mass myth through the sixties and seventies has been and is that hitch-hiking started in Britain in the early forties. The bulk of the working population today have memories going back to World War II and in their consciousness hitch-hiking is something strongly associated with that war. The people who know different, who remember the Great Strike and slump hitching, are now of pensionable age and death is rapidly thinning their group out. Their scattered memories of prewar hitching have been submerged in the gigantic folk awareness of thumbing between 1939 and '45.

This is a fascinating example of the selectivity and historical inaccuracy of the group memory of a nation, and of how the collective consciousness of a new generation can engulf and erase the collective consciousness of the previous one.

Hitler's war was to considerably alter the social pattern of thumbing in Britain. Hitch-hikers prior to 1939 tended to be 'cads of the lower order' and they usually received lifts from people of their own social stratum. 19th century hitch-hikers got 'casts' from stage coach men and waggoners, while the Mr Oakroyds of Priestley's Good Companions of the 1930's Depression were picked up by sympathetic lorry drivers. In pre-war days the non-manual rarely solicited lifts and certainly gave them much less than poorer folk.

The Second World War was to radically alter this picture: though far from marking the beginning of hitching in Britain, it ushered in a completely new period in the history of the habit.


Hitch-hiking

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