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Industrial Revolution: 1770s to 1830s



By Iain Hutchison

"Hawkie" was the nickname by which William Cameron (c.1784-1851) was familiarly known for most of his life. Born in Plean, Stirlingshire, he was crippled by a farming accident during his early childhood. A youth of some mental vigour, he abandoned his apprenticeship as a tailor and absconded to Glasgow. He continued intermittent work as a tailor, made a brief return to Stirling for schooling in Latin and mathematics, and in response to a wager after witnessing a "field preacher" on Glasgow Green soon found himself adept at captivating street audiences with his oratory. By the age of thirty he had adopted a life of itinerancy and, unimpeded by the need for a "stilt" (crutch) to support his damaged leg, his wandering took him far across Scotland and the north of England.

During the 1840s in the closing years of his life, when he was regularly admitted to Glasgow's Town's Hospital (the city poorhouse), Hawkie was encouraged by the publisher David Robertson to commit his memoirs to paper. He described his life of itinerancy and the ploys adopted in order to succeed as a "cadger". His experiences related the lives of a homeless society that was constantly on the move, living by their wits and by the goodwill of a population that exhibited a charitable disposition towards beggars and vagrants. He described the cheap lodging houses where they could share a bed for a pittance, but had to be constantly on the alert against the theft of their meagre possessions.

Hawkie's autobiography did not appear until thirty-seven years after his death. Although its editor, John Strathesk, claimed that its publication "was practically a genuine reproduction of Hawkie's original manuscript", Hawkie's candid narrative underwent considerable redrafting and was presented as an exposé in a crusade against "the great evils of promiscuous alms-giving, sometimes miscalled – CHARITY".

But Hawkie, like several of his acquaintances, did not rely solely on the proceeds of begging. He was a chapman of considerable talent, orating the contents of chapbooks of short stories and commentaries purchased from printers and some of which he himself wrote. He was a common sight, perched on his crutch and commanding an audience enraptured by his story-telling and humour that clamoured to purchase his booklets on such thoroughfares as Trongate and the High Street. In this respect, rather than being a beggar, he might be compared to numerous other small-scale business entrepreneurs to be found on Glasgow's streets.

Hawkie was recalled by the diarist Peter Mackenzie two decades before his posthumous autobiography appeared. Mackenzie wrote that Hawkie "was no common beggar. He was, in fact, a most uncommon one".

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