When I was once in Baltimore
A man came up to me and cried,
"Come, I have eighteen hundred sheep,
And we will sail on Tuesday's tide.
"If you will sail with me, young man,
I'll pay you fifty shillings down;
These eighteen hundred sheep I take
From Baltimore to Glasgow town."
He paid me fifty shillings down,
I sailed with eighteen hundred sheep;
We soon had cleared the harbour's mouth,
We soon were in the salt sea deep.
The first night we were out at sea
Those sheep were quiet in their mind;
The second night they cried with fear --
They smelt no pastures in the wind.
They sniffed poor things for their green fields,
They cried so loud I could not sleep:
For fifty thousand shillings down
I would not sail again with sheep.
We found the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad easy to beat, and were at the end of our journey in a very few days. When we entered the cattleman's office, from which place owners and foremen were supplied with men, it was evident to me that Australian Red was well known in this place, hearing him make many enquiries of Washington Shorty, New York Fatty, Philadelphia Slim, and others. At this place I made the acquaintance of Oklahoma Sam, an extremely quiet man, very much respected in that he had a cold-blooded fashion of whittling wood and paring his nails with a steel blade nearly a foot long. Another queer character was Baldy...
We also had on this trip two thousand head of sheep, quartered on the hurricane deck. When we were six days out there came a heavy storm, and the starboard side was made clean, as far as pens and sheep were concerned, one wave bearing them all away. This happened at night, and on the following morning the sheep-men were elated at having less work to do during the remainder of the voyage. The cattle, being protected on the main deck, and between decks, and their breath filling the air with warmth, make the cattleman's lot far more comfortable than that of the sheep-men. The condition of the cattle can be seen without difficulty, but ten or fifteen sheep lying or standing in the front of a crowded pen, may be concealing the dead or dying that are lying in the background. For this reason it is every morning necessary to crawl through the pens, far back, in quest of the sick and the dead, and it is nothing unusual to find half a dozen dead ones. The voyage would not be considered bad if thirty sheep only died out of two thousand...
After stays in Bristol and London he migrated to North America in 1893, and for the next six years lived a vagrant's life. He picked up work as a casual labourer and seasonal fruit picker. Saloon adventures and misadventures segued into periods of panhandling and grifting. During these years he made a number of trips back to the British Isles as a deckhand and animal handler on merchant ships bound to Liverpool and Glasgow from Baltimore, where he had been spending his winters.
Davies wrote two poems about sheep are based on later recollections of such a voyage made in 1896. One of them is above. The other is "A Child's Pet":
When I sailed out of Baltimore,
With twice a thousand head of sheep,
They would not eat, they would not drink,
But bleated o'er the deep.
Inside the pens we crawled each day
To sort the living from the dead;
And when we reached the Mersey's mouth
Had lost five hundred head.
Yet every night and day one sheep,
That had no fear of man or sea
Stuck through the bars its pleading face,
And it was stroked by me.
And to the sheep-men standing near,
"You see," I said, "this one tame sheep?
It seems a child has lost her pet,
And cried herself to sleep."
So every time we passed it by
Sailing to England's slaughterhouse,
Eight ragged sheep-men -- tramps and thieves --
Would stroke that sheep's black nose.
Back in England, equipped with a wooden limb, he drifted from shelter to doss-house to Salvation Army hostel, enduring years of extreme penury as a peddler and beggar before finally managing to self-publish his first book of poems in 1905.
His tales of his years as a hobo enliven the colourful (and likely somewhat fictionalized) memoir he would write a few years later, The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp. George Bernard Shaw, who along with the poets Arthur Symons and Edward Thomas was a strong Davies supporter, contributed an introduction. Davies was "taken up," and began a long literary career.
The Autobiography is a work that capitalizes, and enlarges, upon Davies' wide early experience of the world and its several toils and miseries. Some of the more poignant passages concern his attempts to ease the routinely cruel mistreatment of animals on merchant vessels. These betray a gentle heart beneath the rugged surface.
W. H. Davies: Sheep from Songs of Joy and Others, 1911
W. H. Davies: The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (excerpts), 1908
View of the mainland from Eigg: photo by griff le riff, 2006
Ovis orientalis f. aries: photo by 3268zauber, 2008, image retouched by AlMare, 2009
Sheep at sea: photographer unknown, n. d., via Poems and Prose, Kendrive, 2006
A brown ewe: photo by Jim Champion, 2007
W. H. Davies: photographer unknown, n. d., via BBC South East Wales Arts