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
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
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
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-
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.