The Absent-minded Beggar


by Dr John Lee, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Bristol

Following the Absent-minded Beggar…

“The Absent-Minded Beggar” is a poem which has attained a near-
mythical status. If you look on the web, or if you go a little ‘further’
and dig into books related to Kipling, you can find it mentioned many
times. Everyone agrees that it was published in the Daily Mail on
Tuesday 31st October 1899, was wildly popular, and helped raise a lot
of money for those involved in the South African war, or, as it was
often called at the time, the Transvaal or Boer War. Yet beyond those
large details everything becomes a little vague. There are some figures:
you will read, variously, that just under £250,000, or £300,000, or
about £340,000 was raised, which amounts to somewhere between £14
and £20 million at 2010 values. That’s a great deal of money,
whichever figure is used; but quite how different those amounts are
might be a little worrying. How reliable are these figures? How was
this money raised? Who did the giving? Who the collecting? Over how
long a period? Or to put those question in a different way: how popu-
lar was the poem, in truth? For how long? Amongst whom?

This is a paper, then, that arose from a desire to know more pre-
cisely the nature and extent of the poem’s success – to bring the poem
back into history. Doing that remains a work in progress, and one that
has been, so far, remarkably enjoyable, in part because the details of the
poem’s success have turned out not only to be more interesting, but
more impressive, than the myth. What becomes clear in following “The
Absent-Minded Beggar” is that the poem managed to create something
akin to the perfect cultural storm and, in having done so, it provides a
fascinating case-history of the workings of late-Victorian culture.

To try to understand better some aspects of the poem’s cultural suc-
cess, the Second Kipling Study Day, with the support of the Kipling
Society and the University of Bristol, was put on. Speakers were invited
who could address key aspects of the poem’s cultural progress. Peter
Bailey came to talk about the poem and the music halls. Simon Potter
addressed the systems of communication that allowed the poem to
become an event on an imperial and global scale. Tim Kendall placed
the poem in the context of early Boer War poetry. Edward Spiers fol-
lowed the poem to South Africa to explore the presence and impact of
Kipling’s poetry amongst the troops, as the war progressed. We were
also lucky enough to have Stephen Turnbull, of the Sir Arthur Sullivan
Society, explaining the history of some musical versions of the poem
and, thanks to John Cannon, of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, what
approached a curated exhibition of “Absent-Minded Beggar” memora-
bilia. Andrew Lycett, the Society’s Meeting’s Secretary, chaired a
question and answer session which rounded off the day.

The day’s papers, apart from Tim Kendall’s, are reprinted here, in
the order in which they were given. Together, they provide the best pic-
ture available of the poem, but they also offer many new insights into
Kipling’s presence in his culture more generally – as well as offering
authoritative statements on the present state of academic work in their
respective fields. My paper opened the Study Day, and attempts to give
a preliminary and general sense of poem’s life and times, and to offer
some evidence by which to measure some of the remarkable claims
made on the poem’s behalf.

By Christmas Day 1899, “The Absent-Minded Beggar” had been in
circulation for some 8 weeks. The Daily Mail, as usual, gave over a col-
umn to news of the poem’s progress. The main heading announced
‘Poem Fund Now £50,000’, and noted, in a subheading, ‘great
Christmas Gift to the Nation’s Heroes’.1 In the text proper it was more
loquacious: ‘The history of the world,’ it stated, ‘can produce no par-
allel to the extraordinary record of this poem’. Such a sense of the
poem’s importance was not new, though the claim for global and his-
torical pre-eminence was. On the 4th December, the paper had been
claiming that the poem had ‘been seized upon as the incarnation of the
national spirit, and has passed into history as the poem of an epoch’.
Further back still, on the 14th of November, a bare two weeks after the
poem’s publication, the Daily Mail was estimating that no less than
15,000 people in London had heard the poem recited or sung on the
previous night. ‘It is impossible to tell,’ the column-writer declared,
‘and at the same time to preserve a proper appearance of moderation,
the plain story of the hold which the “Absent-Minded Beggar” has
taken on the minds of the British people. It is extraordinary, amazing—
any adjective you like to select.’ ‘And yet, after all,’ he went on, ‘it is
only what might have been expected.’ This paradox could be explained
because of the people involved with the campaign based around the
poem. There was the author, of course, Kipling, the writer who best
knew how ‘to strike the vibrant chords of the nation’s sentiment’; then
there was Sir Arthur Sullivan, who had set the poem as a song, and was
the ‘master of English melody’; and there was the Daily Mail itself, dis-
tinguished by its encouragement of ‘the intense Imperialist enthusiasm
which is at the bottom of every true British heart’; and finally, but no
less importantly, Mrs Beerbohm Tree, who had first recited the poem
‘before the people [ . . . ] with a perfection of elocutionary art.’ The
result was an Enormous Vogue: ‘In theatres, music halls, masonic-
lodges, clubs, concerts, at meeting of friendly societies, at annual din-
ners, at parish meetings, at private at-homes, in barracks and schools,
even in churches and chapels’ you could hear the call of the poem’s
refrain, to ‘”Pay, pay, pay!”‘

It is a remarkable picture, and one that can be confirmed by reading
other newspapers of the time, including those outside the metropolis.
The Bristol Mercury of 13th November, for instance, records: that the
poem was recited at the annual Colston dinner of the Bristol North
Unionist Club, held in Stokes Croft, and a collection for the ‘war fund’
of £5 14s 5d taken; and at Captain H. Butt’s retirement dinner in
Weston-Super-Mare, at Glass’s restaurant, a collection for £8 6s 6d
being realised for the National Fund of the relief of widows and fami-
lies of men fallen in the Transvaal. There is also an advert in the same
paper for the coming Thursday at the People’s Palace, a music hall in
Baldwin Street: ‘J.J. Challenger, Esq., will recite Rudyard Kipling’s
Poem, “The Absent-Minded Beggar.” Come in Thousands.’ This was a
special performance, designed specifically as a fund-raiser for the Lord
Mayor’s Fund for Transvaal Refugees and the Wives and Children of
Wounded Soldiers.

The picture becomes more remarkable still when it is realised that
even the writer of the Christmas edition of the Daily Mail, in pro-
claiming the poem to have the most extraordinary record in the history
of the world, was giving his sense of the poem’s impact to a large
extent in ignorance of the poem’s final success. For, at £50,000, the
Kipling Poem Fund was just getting going. A lot more money would
be raised by the end of 1900; then the Daily Mail calculated that the
poem had raised £340,000. That figure, though, contained a large
degree of speculation. The paper had received around £135,000 from
the public and it had itself donated £40,000. It added to this certain
£175,000, a further £165,000 which it believed had been raised thanks
to the poem, but which had been given to other funds.2 How that figure
was calculated is not stated, and perhaps may be unknowable. Yet,
though a large figure, it does not seem beyond the bounds of possibil-
ity. For the accounts of performances of the poem in other newspapers,
like the ones given above from the Bristol Mercury, very often do not
name the Kipling Fund as being the recipient of the money collected
after a recital of the poem.

Moreover, a lot more was done directly with the money raised after
1899. The Christmas edition of the Daily Mail mentions the Absent-
Minded Beggar Relief Corp (‘A.M.B. R.C). This Corp had been
recently set up to address perceived inadequacies in the care of troops
and their families. When the S.S. Jelunga had arrived, earlier that
month, at Southampton, it was carrying back from South Africa the
wives and children of serving soldiers. These, it was claimed, had dis-
embarked in a pitiable state, lacking the proper clothes for the English
weather, and lacking the ability to buy food or pay for transport
onwards. Kipling, according to the Daily Mail of 16th December, had
wired the paper asking if something could not be done. The A.M.B.
R.C was the response. Starting with a depot cum cafe in Southampton,
the A.M.B. R.C. pledged to meet all future transport ships, ensuring
that returnees had hot food, clothes, and help with arranging their travel
home. This quickly developed into a kind of mix between a transit ver-
sion of the Red Cross and a proto-NAAFI. A network of depots was
quite quickly set up between England and South Africa, looking after
those coming back from, and going out to, South Africa.

By April of 1900, a soldier might leave England having had a free
breakfast from the A.M.B. cafe, his ship being played off to the, by
then famous, tune of “The Absent-Minded Beggar”, and with free
A.M.B. cigarettes in his pockets (a copy of the poem in each packet),
and be similarly welcomed, and later again sent off, in South Africa.
On return in Southampton, as well as receiving a hot meal in the cafe,
he could send a telegram for free to his family, get warm clothes, and
crutches, if needed, and have his transfer onwards arranged. On 21st
June the A.M.B. R.C. reported that it had ‘clothed, fed, and assisted in
many ways, 15,896 sick and wounded soldiers, 627 soldiers’ wives,
and 1,022 soldiers’ children.’ More specifically, the R.C. had provided
83,679 articles of new clothing, 2,067 pounds of tobacco, 9,765 pipes
to smoke it in, 207,640 cigarettes, 10,268 free meals, 6,963 free
telegrams, and 6,857 free letters. By the end of the year, there was also
a newly built, 500-bed ‘Absent-Minded Beggar’ model hospital in
Alton.3 The A.M.B. R.C. also arranged the distribution of parcels and
other home comforts in South Africa, and did its best to supply the
requests for supplies it received from field hospitals.

The poem’s record, in other words, went on being extraordinary
well beyond Christmas of 1899, and perhaps became more practically
embodied after that date. The remarkable logistical achievements of the
A.M.B. R.C meant that the poem became a part of the experience of
most soldiers travelling from England and Ireland to South Africa, as
well as of other soldiers from countries of the empire when arriving,
and whilst in, South Africa.

How had all of this come about? “The Absent-Minded Beggar” was
first published on Tuesday 31st October, under the heading, ‘Rudyard
Kipling’s New Poem’. It was printed across two columns over the best
part of half a page. Underneath, there was a description of the ways in
which the poem was going to be used to raise a fund ‘for the benefit of
the women and children of our soldiers who have been ordered south
to fight for their country’. These ways were various, but there were
basically four. The first was going to be by the sale of copyrights. The
Daily Mail itself was paying £250 for the poem, which Kipling had
asked to be donated to the fund, but any publication, on payment of five
guineas, would be given permission to reprint the poem.4 22 newspa-
pers had already paid their five guineas. The poem was simultaneously
published in four countries – England, Scotland, Ireland, and America;
from the start, it had an international stage, and was read differently in
different places.5 On the 2nd November, for example, The Daily
Northwestern of Oshkosh wrote about ‘Kipling’s Latest Rot’. ‘The
reported popularity of Kipling’s Absent Minded Beggar’ puzzled the
paper, as the poem, from its title onwards, seemed to them more insult-
ing of the British soldier than patriotic. That a poem’s popularity
should be international news a couple of days after its first publication,
in a newspaper of a town in Wisconsin, may strike the modern reader
as more puzzling. That it was allows us to glimpse the different status
poetry enjoyed a hundred-odd years ago, and to get a sense of Kipling’s
stature within that world. That stature, of course, was not uncontrover-
sial; one imagines that The Daily Northwestern did not have a high
opinion of other of Kipling’s poems, as well as “The Absent-Minded
Beggar”. The political aspects to that controversy can be seen more
clearly in the Irish papers. The Irish Daily Independent, a nationalist
publication, printed the poem on the 31st, to be true, as it said, to its
role as an ‘organ faithfully recording matters of current interest’. It was
clearly wary of doing this, explaining that such an action should not be
seen as indicating a change in the paper’s editorial policy. The
Freeman’s Journal, one of the Independent’s nationalist rivals, was
having none of it: in a more-nationalist-than-thou vein it declared, on
the same day, that the Independent had subscribed its five guineas ‘in
the name of the most Jingo of Jingoes for the privilege of publishing a
Jingo poem in favour of the Boer War’. To certain sections of the Irish
nationalist community, Kipling, in fact, was akin to royalty – in a bad
sense. Lady Gregory, in February 1900, notes in her diary that when a
‘Mrs T’ came up to ask if a certain Justice of the Peace had refused to
have ‘God Save the Queen’ played at a charity concert, she replied:
‘”Yes, and much worse than that, he would not have ‘The Absent
Minded Beggar’! which she took seriously.’ That Justice of the Peace
was Edward Martyn, who would later explain that decision more sub-
tlety, in his letter of resignation from the bench, dated 22 March 1900,
and published in The Freeman’s Journal. He had forbidden both
anthem and poem to be sung, he wrote, because, of late, ‘the Queen’s
name has been inseparably associated with Mr Kiplng’s by the party to
which I refer [the Irish Unionists] in attempts to glorify and force upon
our acceptance a war which I believe to be unjust, unchristian, and
deplorable from every point of view.’

In the end, the Daily Mail recorded some 55 papers who paid their
five guineas, though, as recurrent complaints in the paper’s columns
suggest, many more papers and journals were publishing the poem and
not paying. Clearly, however, this was only a small revenue stream.
The paper’s second means of raising money was to use the poem as a
spur to public donation. Copies of the poem, ‘in facsimile of Mr
Kipling’s handwriting, on fine art paper with a portrait of the author on
the front cover’ were to be sold, ‘at a cost of one shilling each’. The
details of the offer again speak to Kipling’s celebrity and status; part of
the edition’s attractiveness lies in the sense of authenticity provided by
the facsimile handwritten nature of the poem, backed up by a rather
aesthetic and ‘eastern’ portrait of the author. Whether the Daily Mail
realised quite how attractive the souvenir would be, or quite how well
it would provide an outlet for the urge to donate, is unlikely. By the
Friday of the first week, on 3rd November, they were reporting that 40
clerks were being employed to answer 10,000 letters a day. Two weeks
later, they were answering 12,000 letters, receiving 300 callers, and
taking a constant stream of calls, each and every day. They dubbed the
poem the Silver Snowball, and apologized to their readers that they
were failing to turn around orders on the day of receipt. The poem was
a ‘boom’.

The shilling cost of the souvenir edition is important. A shilling was
chosen as a democratic amount; the fund-raising campaign was
intended as a democratic campaign, to which almost all could afford to
contribute. There were other funds, such as the Lord Mayor’s Fund, to
which acknowledged contributions, in pounds, or hundreds of pounds,
or even, sometimes, thousands of pounds were made by individuals,
companies, and professional bodies. The Daily Mail constantly empha-
sized that its campaign was for everybody, filling a daily column with
stories of the continuing support the fund received. Often these
included stories of donations given in the teeth of hardship. On the 29th
December, the paper recorded that ‘yesterday’s pathetic contribution’
was a shilling ‘sent by a one-legged workman who has five children to
support, and who apologizes for “not being able to send before, being
out of funds.”‘ This was a campaign, it was continually stressed, that
was classless, and almost nationless; it united Great Britain, and, as the
poem continued to make its way around the world, it united the Empire.
Following “The Absent-Minded Beggar” around the world provided
more and more copy in the New Year. On the 23rd of January 1900, the
paper sees the poem as a kind of imperial and military Puck: ‘The A.
M. B. can put a girdle round the earth as long as he is on top of it to
keep it for the Queen.’ The column goes on to record donations from
Gibraltar, Australia, British Guiana, Trinidad, Canada, British America,
and talks of how the poem touches American hearts.

The paper, in other words, works to keep interest in the poem alive.
This includes other events. As announced on the day of first publication,
the manuscript of the poem itself is auctioned off. Over the course of
two and a half weeks the price rises, until it is bought on the 16th of
November for £525, making it, according to the Daily Mail, the most
expensive poem in history (they add the £250 they paid for the poem to
reach a total price of £775). The purchaser is a Mr Joseph Bibby, the
owner of the largest manufacturer of cattle feed in the world, and the
owner of Bibby’s Quarterly, ‘a high class literary and agricultural jour-
nal’. Some readers had, from early on in the fund’s life, sent objects in
for auction. These objects ranged from the literary, such as Robert Louis
Stevenson’s inkpot, to the live, such as a White Minorca cockerel. By
the end of November, the paper publishes firm statements that no more
deliveries of livestock will be accepted at the offices. More positively,
they hold a bazaar, on the 22nd of December. In the New Year they hold
a magnificently over-the-top concert in the Albert Hall on 20th January.
Eleven champion brass bands of the United Kingdom come down from
the North to play, amongst other things, Sir Arthur Sullivan’s setting of
“The Absent-Minded Beggar”. Once again, the scale of the event is
record-breaking. ‘At Bayreuth’, according to the Daily Mail of 13th
January, ‘at the most pretentiously rendered performance of Wagner’s
“Nibelungen Ring”, the orchestra had 128 performers. The Band
Festival orchestra will have well over 300 performers, picked from all
the best band musicians in England.’ It will be the World’s Largest
Orchestra in the largest, most important music room in England. It will
also be an opportunity for Londoners to appreciate the culture of the
Northerner, and to realize that the North is not all given to commerce.
Above all, Londoners will be able to see the Northeners passionate love
of music: on the day of the performance itself the paper explains how,
‘immediately before the performance’, band members ‘are often found
bathing their heads in cold water, to reduce their excitement.’

These events helped to maintain the visibility of the poem and
served to give a sense of the Daily Mail’s role as organizer of the fund-
raising campaign. In truth, however, the poem’s continued success,
both as a cultural phenomenon and in its ability to produce funds, owed
far more to the music halls. In this context, Maud Beerbohm Tree
played a key role. Mrs. Tree’s Plan, as the Daily Mail described it, was
the third way in which money was to be raised. She would recite the
poem nightly at the Palace Theatre, and donate the £100 per week she
received for doing so to the fund. This was to have large consequences,
but how Maud came to be involved is also of interest. The Daily Mail
had been trailing Kipling’s poem, in the week before the publica-
tion – as, indeed, had other papers, both those who would print the
poem on the 31st October and those who would not. Again, the sense
of the cultural status of poetry and Kipling is clear, and clearly differ-
ent from the present. Maud read one of these notices, and telegraphed
to Alfred Harmsworth, asking if she might have the poem in advance,
so that she might recite it at ‘The St James’s Hall Ballad Concert’
which was being held on the afternoon of the day of the poem’s publi-
cation. Up to this point, Maud had clearly been undecided as regards
what might constitute the right choice of poems for this programme.
The adverts for giving her role in the Concert change during the previ-
ous week. She is down first to recite, “Soldier, Soldier” and ‘Another
patriotic poem by Rudyard Kipling’, and then, later in the week,
“Soldier, Soldier” and Tennyson’s “The Light Brigade”.6 “The Absent-
Minded Beggar” replaces, in the end, “The Light Brigade”.

Maud was a distinguished actress, and her husband, Herbert
Beerbohm Tree, was the leading Shakespearean actor, and actor-
manager of the day. There were, then, plenty of reasons why
Harmsworth should have paid attention to Maud’s request, but, in fact,
Harmsworth already knew the Beerbohm Trees – as did Kipling.
Herbert and Maud had been trying to get him to adapt a story for a play
for them at least since 1897, and possibly since 1895.7 In Herbert
Beerbohm Tree: Some Memories of Him and his Art, published in
1917, Maud records how her request to Harmsworth was granted ‘very
courteously’, and with the sanction of the author, with the result that
she received ‘the proof, typewritten and corrected by Kipling’s own
hand [. . .] on Friday evening, after Herbert had left for the theatre’
(p.l 12). The story, in fact, seems to have been even more intricate and
small-worldy, and perhaps a little different. In a file of the Herbert
Beerbohm Tree collection at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection
there is a short, handwritten note from Philip Burne-Jones, the painter
son of much more famous painter father, Edward Burne-Jones. Maud
was very great friends both with ‘Master Philip’, as he signed himself,
and his father. His father was also Kipling’s favourite uncle, and Kipling
was himself a good friend to Philip. From Philip’s note, it seems that he
was the intermediary in this transaction. The note is dated Thursday
October 26th, and begins directly, without a salutation: ‘The poem will
be delivered to you to-day or tomorrow (type-written + in absolute
Confidence). // I have had Kipling’s consent, + also seen Harmsworth,
who is directing that the poem be sent to you at once.’ Philip was well
placed to get Kipling’s consent as Edward Burne-Jones lived, as did the
Kiplings, in Rottingdean.

However Maud received the poem, what is clear is that it impressed
her, and did so immediately: she read it, ‘and had the judgement to see
in it one of the greatest human appeals ever made’. She ‘took hansom’
and went straight to see Mr Charles Morton, the proprietor of the
Palace Theatre, and announced her plan to recite the poem. He, for his
part, not only agreed but offered the ‘king’s ransom of a salary’ of £100
per week. ‘So it came about, and for ten triumphant weeks, for the first
and only time in my life, I, without aid from anyone but my author (aid
enough, in all conscience!), drew the town.’ (p.l17) Maud’s sense of
her and the poem’s popularity is quite correct; her performances set
going a ‘reciting rage’ to go alongside the poem’s ‘boom’ (13th
November, Daily Mail). Not only was she drawing the town, but other
music halls, and theatres, wanted to share in that success. By the 14th
of November, the poem can be heard at the Tivoli, Alhambra, Oxford
and Canterbury music halls, as well as the Palace Theatre, and the
Daily Mail calculates an audience for the poem of about 15,000 people
per night. By early December, the paper carries daily listings of where
the poem can be heard. The 5th of December seems to represent the
height of the poem’s commercial popularity in London; 27 music halls
and theatres where the poem can be heard that night are listed, sug-
gesting an audience of something over 50,000. Still other music halls
are putting on their own rivals to “The Absent-Minded Beggar”. The
most famous and successful of these was Henry Hamilton’s ‘Ordered
to the Front’, which had its first night on 21 November at The Empire,
but there were many such. Alongside the pastiches and parodies, one
can, in fact, talk of an “Absent-Minded Beggar” flora, or perhaps
fauna: Howard Begbie wrote “The Handyman” to celebrate the sailor’s
role in the war, and was delighted when Maud agreed to recite it along-
side Kipling’s poem. All of this testifies to the power of the poem’s
appeal; for the halls and theatres were, in part, putting on the poem as
a way of attracting custom; in bringing in audiences the poem brought
in money, and in November the music halls reported record takings. In
the 18th of November Daily Mail, for example, The Palace Theatre was
noted as turning away hundreds a night, and having all its reserved
seats booked up for weeks ahead. The Alhambra expressed a similar
situation in monetary terms, reporting that it was turning away ‘over a
hundred pounds every night’. At The Oxford, where 700 people were
turned away one night, Miss Kate Tyndall was said to have been ‘phe-
nomenally successful’ with her recitation of the poem. She was
receiving seven curtain calls, ‘and has had a dozen invitations to recite
the poem at private houses’. The poem, then, not only brought public-
ity to its performers, which was useful in itself, but also might lead to
extra work. Recitals at tea and supper parties were a part of the culture
of the time. Kate Tyndall, as the paper made clear, was unable to accept
the invitations, under the terms of her engagement, which had her per-
forming at The Canterbury, The Tivoli, The Oxford, and The Strand
each night. Maud, however, was employed on a less professional basis,
could, and clearly did take advantage of these offers. By the time she
stopped her recitals in January, to begin work on her next
Shakespearean performance, she had earnt £1,000 pounds from the
Palace Theatre, and had donated this to the fund plus a further £2,000
from payments for ‘private’ recitals.8 The poem, in becoming a ‘phe-
nomenon’, had achieved celebrity status – it became famous for its
fame, as success bred more success. The perfect cultural storm was set
in motion.

There were other large contributors to that storm, most obviously
Sir Arthur Sullivan, who set the poem as a song. This was the fourth
way of raising money set out in the Daily Mail of 31st October.
Sullivan himself conducted the music for the first performance, which
was given at the Alhambra Theatre on the 14th of November. It was an
instant success, building on the existing popularity of the poem. In its
report of the first night, the Daily Mail noted that the audience ‘already
knew the words by heart’, and took up the chorus after the first verse.
This meant that those going out to the halls had a choice of whether to
hear the poem recited or sung, and it was probably as a song that the
poem enjoyed it’s widest and most enduring popularity. The recording
heard at the Study Day, courtesy of Stephen Turnbull, featured Ian
Colquhon, the ‘iron voiced’ tenor, who took over from the original
singer, John Coates, at the Alhambra. Colquhon’s version was not one
that could be described as catchy. Thanks to John Cannon, the Study
Day was also able to hear another version. This was not a professional
recording, but a recording of a member of the general public. Mrs Ada
Willoughby was a public servant who, in 1968, had given an interview,
a little on the lines of Desert Island Discs, to the BBC, when she was
in her seventies. Asked what she remembered about the Boer War, she
answered in terms of the songs, mentioning “Dolly Grey” and “The
Absent-Minded Beggar”. She then began to recite the poem, and that
recital, when it reached the chorus, became the song. The version as
Mrs Willoughby sings it is attractive and has a certain swing, even a
catchiness. That it was an authentic version of its time was confirmed
by the fact it was very much closer to the music box version, also
played to the Study Day by Stephen Turnbull.

To imagine the impact of the poem, then, is to get a sense of the
connectedness the new technologies of the Victorian age had brought
about. There was the simultaneous publication in newspapers across
the country. Similarly, the recitals of the poem occurred not just in
London but across the country, in almost every town of any size, and
happened very quickly because of the syndicated and competitive
nature of the music hall business. And where there was no music hall,
the poem would be performed in countless ‘smokers’, or other local
meetings. On the 31st of October, the day of the poem’s first publica-
tion, for example, Jackson’s Oxford Journal records that the Working
Men’s Club in Watlington, Oxon, cancelled their smoker because of
the news of the disaster at Ladysmith. In its place the vicar spoke about
the military reverse; they sang the chorus of “Rule Britannia”; the vicar
‘gave a capital reading of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Absent-
Minded Beggar”‘; and they finished by singing the National Anthem.
Two weeks or so later, the song arrived on the scene, offering further
opportunities for performance, as well as new routes of dissemination.
There were barrel organs playing the tune on the streets, recordings on
gramophone records, and the sale of sheet music for those who wished
to accompany the song at home. The poem in its various forms
becomes an inescapable part of everyday life. The Daily Mail of 23rd
March notes that ‘it is practically impossible to walk along a London
street without it being whistled or hummed or barrel-organed in your
ears.’ The poem’s visual presence needs to be added in to this. Though
not a part of the Daily Mail’s original plan, the special art edition, by
the time it was printed, would have, as well as a photograph of Kipling,
a drawing by Richard Caton-Woodville of “The Gentleman in Kharki”.
This would go on to become one of, if not the, dominant image of the
war. It became a kind of ‘logo’ for the poem and the fund-raising cam-
paign, being used and adapted for use on a bewildering variety of
products. A. M. B. cigarettes have already been mentioned, and there
were also A. M. B. tea sets, match holders, pewter boxes, medals (by
Spink, in a variety of metals and at a variety of prices), brass trivets,
engraved glasses painted with gold leaf, handkerchiefs, cushions, oxi-
dized silver bas-reliefs, pickle-forks, butter-knives and spoons,
envelopes and writing sets, even, from March, tattoos. One has the
sense that not only was the poem impossible to escape, but that one
could live in an A. M. B. themed world.

One wonders how Kipling felt, looking on as the poem took on a
life of its own. “The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat”, a story
published in 1917, may offer oblique answers to that. The story tells of
how a group of men, wrongly prosecuted for a motoring offence, take
their revenge on the presiding magistrate, Sir Thomas Ingell, by mak-
ing the village of which he is the squire the laughing stock of the
country. A large part of the story’s interest is in the question of how this
is brought about: how the journalist sets going a story in the paper; how
the politician asks questions in the House of Commons; and, above all,
how the music hall impresario brings out a song that catches the atten-
tion of the nation. There are many points of comparison and shared
interest between the story of the revenge’s success and the story of
“The Absent-Minded Beggar”‘s triumph. The story’s attitude to the
main actors is, as often, equivocal. This is particularly the case in the
depiction of the impresario, Bat Masquerier; his ability to seize the
national mood seems a little too easy, and a little too untrammeled by
any sense of responsibility. Various of the persons of the story express,
at times, their fear of him. I would suggest that Kipling to a degree pic-
tures himself in Bat. The narrator hears the first performance of the
song, in a music hall, naturally. It is sung by a star of the time, ‘Dal

She swept into that song with the full orchestra. It devastated the
habitable earth for the next six months. [. . .]

‘Wonderful,’ I said to Bat. ‘And it’s only “Nuts in May” with

‘Yes—but I did the variations,’ he replied.


It’s a comment often made that the rhythms of Kipling’s poems are
‘only’ variations on famous tunes. Bat’s answer, it seems to me, is also
Kipling’s; and in the stories wariness over Bat’s ability I would suggest
we can also see Kipling worried by a sense of responsibility that Bat,
in the story, does not have. He, having heard ‘Dal triumph, is only con-
cerned to find out whether it has gone down equally well in Manchester
and Glasgow, where he is having it performed simultaneously. A series
of phone calls confirms it has become a national phenomenon.

I hope that gives some sense of the impact “The Absent-Minded
Beggar” achieved. How the poem managed to raise such a large amount
of money (whichever of the various figures is chosen) is a rather differ-
ent question. The publication of the poem, Maud’s salary, Sir Arthur
Sullivan’s fee (donated, like Kipling’s, to the Fund), the Alhambra
Theatre’s and others’ purchase of performing rights, all of these amounts
when put together do not seem to account for that much of the total. To
these must be added the donations raised by the sale of the edition of the
poem, first, and of the poem’s setting, second. Final figures for the first
of these seem hard to come by; the Daily Mail keeps a running total up
to the 5th of December, by which time 315,000 copies have been sold
(which implies a rate of about 70,000 copies a week). After that date the
paper no longer keeps count. This may have been because it increasingly
came to seem impracticable. Lily Langtree, for example, had printed a
‘souvenir’ issue on satin, to commemorate the 100th performance of
“The Degenerates”. Originally to be of 1,500 copies, a second edition of
600 was printed to meet public demand. Copies were also being sold
abroad, often having been printed locally. In March the Daily Mail
records that 12,000 copies of the poem were sold in the Lyttleton area in
New Zealand in the period leading up to Christmas. But also, presum-
ably, the ‘market’ had reached saturation point; certainly, by the end of
January, the Daily Mail columns stop offering the ‘facsimile edition’ for
sale, replacing the instructions of how to pay for that edition with
instructions of how to send money to the newspaper.

By the 5th December, then, 315,000 copies have been sold at one
shilling a copy, making a contribution of £15,750. The next day the
Fund’s total to date is given as £26,805, making the facsimile edition’s
contribution about 65% of the total. To that can be added sales of the
musical setting. That adds 175,000 copies at one shilling (again),
adding, roughly, another £8,750. (The final figure for sales of the music
seems to be on 1st March, where 225,000 are said to have been sold,
and a 6th edition of a further 25,000 have been printed.) That makes a
total of £24,500 out of £26,805, a figure which seems too close to the
total when the other sums are taken on board. Allowing for some
imprecision, however, what is clear is that the contribution of the dona-
tions via purchase of the editions was clearly a very substantial one.
(There are also stories within these figures: the Daily Mail claims that
the sales of the music on the first day – 10,000 are bought in person
from their offices, and another 10,000 ordered by telegraph – are a new
record in the industry. 25,000 bands are reckoned to be playing the
music by the middle of December. By the same time 1,000 permissions
to sing the poem have been given to ‘Yorkshire vocalists’, a third of
whom are in Leeds.)

Yet we are still a long way from the total of £135,000. Some of the
remaining £100,000 or so will have come from licensing arrangements,
though these do not seem to have been particularly generous. So, for
example, Macintyre, the pottery maker, are occasionally recorded in
the Daily Mail as having sent in £50 in royalty fees for the use of the
poem. The exception here may be the A. M. B. cigarettes, which at one
point bring in £300 in 10 days. However, none of these seem likely to
have raised anywhere near £ 100,000. The bulk of the rest of the money,
then, probably came from straightforward donations; and it is here we
begin to approach the poem itself more nearly. For the poem not only
exceeded the Daily Mail’s expectations in terms of the demand that
was shown for the facsimile and musical editions. It also became some-
thing quite unenvisaged by the paper.

The beginnings of this can be seen at the second night of Maud’s
recital of the poem. The audience, as she described it, ‘rose and show-
ered gold and silver on to the stage’. It was an action that was to
repeated many times on many other stages, even though at the Palace
Theatre it was only allowed to occur once, as ‘Mr. Morton came on to
the stage, making a speech in which he miscalled the feverish generos-
ity of the audience “an outrage,” and in which he entreated them to
desist’, out of fear for Maud’s safety.

Alas! notices were placed all over the theatre begging that enthusi-
asm money should be placed in boxes provided for the purpose! Of
course this meant a loss of thousands of pounds: there is all the dif-
ference in the world between the act of soberly and after reflection
dropping a cold coin into a casket and the joyous abandon of fling-
ing in a fine frenzy every valuable one has even the brooch from
one’s breast in answer to a passionate appeal, with outstretched
hands, to “Pay, pay, pay” (Herbert Beerbohm Tree: Some
Memories, p.l13).

One has a sense here of style of Maud’s delivery of the poem, if only
of the last line of its chorus, the ‘pay— pay—pay’. Whether ‘thousands
of pounds’ were lost is another matter, though large amounts were
thrown. Two weeks later a Mr Van Biene sends in to the fund £70
which has been thrown at him at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, at the
rate of about £10 a night. (That is a fair number of coins: somewhere
in the region of 200 shillings or 2,400 pennies; one can see why many
managers forbade the practice.)

The poem, in other words, began to function as a kind of offertory;
and here it is useful to talk about the elephant-in-the-room in discus-
sions of the poem. For all of the Daily Mail’s claims for the poem at
There was nothing in the programme to excite enthusiasm—that is
to say, patriotic enthusiasm—up till ten o’clock. The turns were of
an average sort, but the house waited expectantly for what was to
come, so long and so patiently that when Turn 13 was reached there
was a round of applause which developed into a storm when Mrs.
Tree, gowned in a deep tint of scarlet, came on. With the brief intro-
duction, “‘The Absent-Minded Beggar,’ by Rudyard Kipling,” she
read the poem, simply and eloquently, with one solitary dramatic
gesture at the last line of the last verse, leaving the words—and they
could be heard distinctly in every part of the theatre—to make their
own impression. The poem may not be a high poetic inspiration, but
it fell through a pleasant medium upon sympathetic ears, and
moved all hearts. The effect was remarkable. It was not a Union
Jack outburst, the prevailing note is not struck in that key—it was a
warm but steady and somewhat restrained outburst, as if the senti-
ment of pride in the army was at the moment dominated by the
determination that the nation would do its duty to the Absent-
Minded Beggar. There was plenty of opportunity eagerly availed of
later on when the orchestra played the National Anthem, and when
the time, and for all of the claims since, one may well question the
extent to which the poem could claim to have raised any of this money.
The occasion of the charitable urge was the war, and the public desire
to support those caught up with that war – on the British side. Without
that war, and that urge, there would have been no charitable giving.
Yet, without wishing to claim too much, I do think the poem provided
an appropriate form for such giving; it was written – and in that lies one
part of its literary skill – in a way that allowed it to become a kind of
national charitable anthem. It allowed people to follow their inclina-
tions, and perhaps better to understand them, by giving them a public
form, a kind of small scale liturgy, through which to express their own
desire to help, as part of a statement of political and social aspiration.
In doing so, it both created the opportunities for giving and fostered an
environment of giving. Without the poem, the various funds for the sol-
diers and their families would, one suspects, have been the poorer.

The poem, that is, was able both to express and to shape the public
mood, and it was that two-fold ability that gave it, I would suggest, its
power. For the poem was, in a number of ways, unexpected, as can be
seen in the accounts of the poem’s history. The shower of gold and sil-
ver, as has been described, came on the second night, not the first.
Accounts of the first night suggest, by contrast, that the audience is a
little unsure of its response. Here is the Pall Mall Gazette’s description
from the 1st November: the military pictures were shown, for the expression of national and
military enthusiasm, but for the time being the warlike sentiment
was chastened by a deep touch of pathos.

‘The effect was remarkable’; the response was ‘not a Union Jack out-
burst […] but a warm and steady and somewhat restrained outburst’ in
which pride is dominated by a sense of duty.’ That is all rather vague,
but the description can be seen to fall between the description of the
Daily Northwestern, with its sense that the poem lacked patriotism, and
the Freeman’s Journal, with its sense that the poem was absurdly patri-
otic. Here was a poem that was not evidently patriotic or militaristic,
particularly when compared, say, to Swinburne’s “Transvaal”, pub-
lished in The Times on the 11th October.9 Kipling’s poem, in its
opening lines, takes aim at the simple-minded jingoism of the music

WHEN you’ve shouted “Rule Britannia”—when you’ve sung “God save the Queen” —
When you’ve finished killing Kruger with your mouth—
Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tambourine
For a gentleman in kharki ordered South?

In place of ‘killing Kruger with your mouth’, as an entrance fee to join
the community of the poem, is suggested a donation of a shilling,
which, when given, turns the poem from one addressing the reader or
audience as a misbehaving ‘you’ into one of the ‘we’ who are making
common and proper cause:

He’s an absent-minded beggar and his weaknesses are great—
But we and Paul must take him as we find him—
He is out on active service, wiping something off a slate—
And he’s left a lot o’ little things behind him!

Duke’s son—cook’s son—son of a hundred kings—
(Fifty thousand horse and foot going to Table Bay!)
Each of ’em doing his country’s work (and who’s to look after their things?)
Pass the hat for your credit’s sake, and pay—pay—pay!

This is a poem that takes quite aggressive aim at its audience, and
asks them to change their attitude. It is also a poem full of word play
and verbal wit. Take, for example, the final line of the chorus: ‘Pass the
hat for your credit’s sake, and pay—pay—pay!’ This is a nice paradox,
depending for its effect the fact that in giving away money you typi-
cally incur a loss or debt, not a credit; in this context, however, the
reverse is true, for one’s social credit, in contrast to one’s financial
credit, is determined less by what you have than by what you have
given. Or take the title itself: is the soldier ‘the absent-minded beg-
gar/bugger’ because he has forgotten to take care of all those ‘little
things’, such as his wife, partner, and children (mentioned in the next
stanzas)? Or is he ‘the absent minded-beggar’ because he has, in his
pride, refused or forgotten to ask for help? (As this makes clear, ‘beg-
gar’ cannot in any simple sense stand in for ‘bugger’, though ‘bugger’
may be heard in ‘beggar’.) With this sense, an attitude of admiration
comes into the poem. Then, as the poem progresses, there is a clear
sense that it is we, the reader or member of the audience, who run the
risk of being the true ‘Absent-Minded Beggar’ if we do not come to the
aid of his family in its need, a failure which, if allowed to happen, we
must hope that he, being an ‘Absent-Minded Beggar’ will forget, if not
forgive. That, of course, seems unlikely, for though he may be absent-
minded ‘he heard his country call / And his reg’ment didn’t need to
send to find him!’ The poem suggests, in fact, that his remembering of
his duty to his country is the cause of his forgetting of his family. The
poem, in other words, turns upon its audience as it progresses, inviting
us in to chuckle at the roguish soldier, known since Shakespeare’s
times for his weaknesses in wiving and swiving, but finally showing us
a mirror in which we see ourselves as the likeable rogue we set out to
find, minus the likeability – for we have no exonerating excuses for our
forgetfulness, bar selfishness. The poem’s movement is deft, and sharp,
and understated. The poem is also interestingly allusive. For it is hard
to hear the title, or think of the titular figure, without thinking of what
is perhaps the single-most famous phrase concerning the British
Empire. In 1883, John Seeley had published The Expansion of
England. As the Dictionary of National Biography notes, it was an
immediate and hugely influential success, setting out to explain, from
its reading of history, where Britain’s future lay. To Seeley, the future
was one of a Greater Britain as a kind of ‘World Venice’. For ‘we
seem’, he wrote, ‘as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the
world in a fit of absence of mind’. The ‘absent-minded beggar’, in this
sense, is no less or more than the imperial soldier, the ‘poor beggars’
that make ‘up the forces / O’ Missis Victorier’s sons’ in “The Widow
at Windsor” rephrased.

All of which is impressive, but the poem’s real ideological work
gets going with the line ‘For a gentleman in kharki ordered South’. ‘A
gentleman in kharki’ is a great phrase; in a poem full of quotable
phrases, it is perhaps the most famous. It serves as the tag-line to
Caton-Woodville’s illustration, and one can see why; “The Absent-
Minded Beggar” is not a good tag-line for the simple reason that, as has
been seen, it’s meanings are various, and progressively developed. The
phrase is, in a sense, too complicated or inflected to stand happily on
its own. ‘A gentleman in kharki’, while also a rich phrase, is rich in a
manner which allows it to be self-standing. It is another paradox; pri-
vate soldiers are, by definition, not gentlemen – gentlemen, by
definition, are officers. The poem, however, aims to rewrite this defin-
ition, by placing the private soldier within a notion of service that
ennobles all, and which pictures a very different England to the one the
Absent-Minded Beggar is actually sailing away from. In this England,
everyone is a king. That is the force, first, of the chorus: ‘Duke’s son—
cook’s son—son of a hundred kings—’. It is the force, also, of the
variations of the chorus: ‘Cook’s son—duke’s son—son of a belted
earl— // Son of a Lambeth publican—it’s all the same to-day!’;
‘Duke’s job—cook’s job—gardener, baronet, groom— // Mews or
palace or paper-shop’; ‘Cook’s home—duke’s home—home of a mil-
lionaire.’ The persons, jobs, and places can be transposed because they
have become equivalent, if not in rank and social worth – for those dif-
ferences remain – then in weight and dignity and place within the
structure of the poem and the poem’s values.

More could be said here, both about the conception of soldiering at
the time, and about the deeply contested nature of the notion of the gen-
tleman. Kipling’s subtlety, and the heart of the poem’s success, lies in
his use of the music hall idiom to these ends. Peter Bailey talks in his
paper of how Kipling draws on the language of fraternity and mutual
self-help. It is an important insight. I would like to suggest that Kipling
not only understands and uses that idiom of the music hall, but engages
with some of its more ‘political’, and equally central, dynamics. In an
earlier paper on the music hall, Bailey looks at the arrival of the ‘swell’
song in the music hall of the 1860s, the most famous example being
“Champagne Charlie”.10 As Bailey reads it, these ‘swell’ songs are
troubled constructions of fantasy and political striving, and those ten-
sions inhere in the figure of the ‘gent’. The swell songs are, at one and
the same time, proudly working-class, and socially aspirational, and
deeply distrustful of the new world of the emergent culture of mass
consumerism. The music hall of 1899 is very different, of course, from
that of the 1860s, and the very idea of it as a place of working-class val-
ues or authentic Englishness was subject to debate at the time, and has
continued to be so. I think, though, that what Kipling does in “The
Absent-Minded Beggar” is to recast the swell or gent as the soldier;
‘the gentleman in kharki’ stands as a figure, or fantasy, of social rec-
oncilement, in which working-class culture is granted gentlemanly
status by a bourgeois audience who acknowledges its dependency upon
that culture. This is Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech rewritten for
modern times, or, as Bailey might say, for the ‘bully-pulpit’: ‘For he to-
day that sheds blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
/ This day shall gentle his condition.’

This is political cunning on a grand scale, particularly if you think
that the poem succeeded, as some do. So, for example, Miller, in his
book about the South African campaign, claims that,

Kipling almost single-handedly restored the strong ties between
civilians and soldiers and put Britain and its army back together
again. Thanks to the ‘Absent-Minded Beggar,’ Tommy Atkins
became a national hero for the first time since Waterloo.”

This is all well and impressive, but what, though, if these are not
your politics? What if you were a Liberal, who had seen the increasing
demilitarization of British society through the Nineteenth Century as
an example of progress? In The Influence of the Press, published in
1913, Scott-James, saw the South African war as a turning point for a
mass audience newly created by the Education Act of 1870:

It was not only the moment when the working classes were being
aroused to a feverish effort to think and feel and stretch themselves
out towards life, but when the whole nation, aware perhaps of that
deep stirring within its womb, was becoming conscious of itself in
a new way, was perceiving the processes of change, was wearying
of the old and unreal formulae, and was experiencing a new excite-
ment, a lust for some collective action on the part of the organism,
some demonstration of its eagerness for revolution or war […] As it
happened, Mr. Chamberlain, Mr Kipling, and the Daily Mail,
plumped for war—for the most sensational, the most diverting, and
at the same time a supreme national topic.12

Where things might have turned out for the better, Chamberlain,
Kipling and the Daily Mail, a kind of unholy trinity, ensured the clock
was turned backwards. To give Kipling so much ‘credit’ seems to me
unpersuasive; one cannot imagine any one person as such a truly terri-
fying Bat Masquerier. What Scott-James makes plain, however, is the
extent of the Liberals’ fear of Kipling, and their belief in the claims of
the Daily Mail about the influence of the poem. It is probably no coin-
cidence that Robert Buchanan’s famous attack on Kipling, “Is this the
Voice of the Hooligan?”, was published in December 1899, at the
height of the poem’s commercial popularity.

But perhaps the best evidence of the importance of “The Absent-
Minded Beggar”, and of Kipling, is given by the ways in which, having
placed a girdle around the world, the poem entered into the world of lit-
erature. In Joyce’s Ulysses, published in 1922, but set in 1904, Mr Best
talks to Stephen Dedalus:

—Mallarmé, don’t you know, he said, has written those wonderful
prose poems Stephen MacKenna used to read to me in Paris. The
one about Hamlet. He says: il se promène, lisant au livre de lui-
même, don’t you know, reading the book of himself. He describes
Hamlet given in a French town, don’t you know, a provincial town.
They advertised it.

His free hand graciously wrote tiny signs in air.

HAMLET ou LE DISTRAIT, Pièce de Shakespeare

He repeated to John Eglinton’s newgathered frown:

—Pièce de Shakespeare, don’t you know. It’s so French. The French point of view. Hamlet ou…
—The absentminded beggar, Stephen ended. (II, 9)

The comparison is a neat one. Hamlet is, of course, absent-minded
about his revenge, as well as a beggar, even poor in thanks. Beyond
those similarities, though, is the recognition that both figures, and their
respective authors, can stand for English literature, and stand for
English literature as an imperial force. Though that imperial dimension
has other, quite unHamlettian aspects. The Prince and the beggar are
not everywhere comparable; as Stephen goes on to say, ‘Khaki
Hamlets don’t hesitate to shoot’.


1. The Daily Mail and other papers can be read at the British Library, Colindale, on
microfilm. There is also a relatively new, and remarkable, digital resource, ‘British
Newspapers 1800-1900′. This does not include papers which are still published, or
papers which, though no longer being published, might have a commercial interest
in digitizing their archives.

2. These figures come from James Gildea, For King and Country: Being a Record of
Funds and Philanthropic Work in Connection with the South African War.
1899-1902 (London: [n.p.] printed by Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1902). The Daily
Mail provided Gildea with the figures.

3. The hospital, also known as the Princess Louise Military Hospital, can be seen in its
second life as the Lord Mayor Treolar Cripples’ Hospital and College on a Pathé
newsreel at:’.’id=72438. The hospital and its


site has now been largely redeveloped for housing, though at least one of the original
buildings is said to remain.

4. The poem was not published free of copyright, as it is often said to have been.

5. See Simon Potter’s paper, however, for a discussion of the ways in which travel east-
wards, to Australia and New Zealand, was very much slower, and presumably by
ship. Interestingly, the Japan Times published the poem on 29th November, but did
so after it had been cabled from its New York Journal correspondent.

6. See, for example, Daily Telegraph, 27th and 28th October.

7. Henry Irving had been making similar requests in 1897. The Trees would eventually
succeed; in 1903 Herbert put on The Man Who Was, a single-act play adapted from
the story of that name by Kinsey Peile with help from Kipling. It was a considerable
success, mainly because it allowed Herbert to show one extreme of the range of his
(sentimental?) acting as Austin Limmason.

8. Maud is often reported as having earnt £70,000 from her recitals at The Palace. All
such statements are based on Julian Ralph, War’s Brighter Side: The Story of THE
FRIEND Newspaper edited by the Correspondents with Lord Roberts’s Forces,
March-April, 1900 (London: C. Arthur Pearson, 1901).

9. Tim Kendall’s paper compared Kipling’s, Swinburne’s and Hardy’s responses to the
South African war.

10. Peter Bailey, “Champagne Charlie and the music-hall swell song”, in Popular
Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1998), pp. 101-127.

11. Stephen M. Miller, Volunteers on the Veld: Britain’s citizen-soldiers and the South
African War, 1899-1902 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), p.23.

12. R.A. Scott-James, The Influence of the Press (London: S.W. Partridge, n.d. [1913]),
pp. 194-95.


©John Lee 2010 All rights reserved