The Absent-Minded Beggar

The Absent-Minded Beggar

(sometimes known as the Boer War), and exhorted its audience to "pass the hat for your credit's sake, and pay— pay— pay!"


In September 1899, it was clear that the crisis in South Africa was likely to turn into war. By the 2nd October, all military leave had been cancelled, and urgent preparations were under way to send a large expeditionary force to the Cape, with horses and supplies being requisitioned and mobilised. ["The Transvaal Crisis", "The Times", 2nd October 1899] On 7th October, a proclamation was issued calling out the Army Reserve; of 65,000 liable men, around 25,000 were intended to be called up for service. ["The Transvaal Crisis", "The Times", 9th October 1899]

Many, if not all, of the men thus mobilised were ex-soldiers in permanent employment; returning to the Forces meant a significant cut in their income. In addition, there was no contemporary legislation of the time protecting the permanent employment of reservists; employers could – and often would – replace them with other workers with no guarantee that if the soldier returned he would be able to take back his job. [Letter dated October 9th from "Acta non Verba", "The Times", 19th October 1899]

As a result, a large number of families were quickly plunged into poverty – a lifestyle comfortably maintained on a workman's wage of twenty shillings could not be kept up on the infantryman's "shilling a day." As if this were not enough, there was no guarantee that the husband would have a job to return to, even without the prospect of injury or death. A number of charitable funds existed to support these individuals, most notably the Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association, but a number of private appeals were also made. [Letter dated October 31st from Lansdowne and Wolseley, "The Times", 1 November 1899]

Simultaneously, a wave of patriotism was sweeping the country, catered to by jingoist newspapers such as the "Daily Mail"; many of these newspapers were also involved in the charitable fundraising efforts. The "Mail"'s proprietor, Alfred Harmsworth, hit upon the idea of commissioning Rudyard Kipling, the foremost popular poet of the day, to write a poem for the newspaper's charitable fund. Kipling agreed, and produced "The Absent-Minded Beggar" on 16th October. [ "The Absent-Minded Beggar": an introduction] ]

Reception of the poem and song

treatment, etc.?" [cite book|last=Jacobs|first=Arthur|year=1992|title=Arthur Sullivan – A Victorian Musician|location=Portland, OR|publisher=Amadeus Press|edition=Second Edition p. 396.] Alternative arrangements of the song were published, such as "The Absent-Minded Beggar March". [ [ MIDI files and sheet music cover to "The Absent-Minded Beggar March" (1899),] at The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive (2004). The arrangement includes additional material not found in the song.]

The popularity of the poem was such that allusions to it were common. By 18 November, a month after publication, "a new patriotic play" planned to open the next week was titled "The Absent Minded Beggar, or, For Queen and Country". [Advertisement in "The Times", 18 November 1899] The same month, the Charity Organisation Society called "The Absent-Minded Beggar" the "most prominent figure on the charitable horizon at present." Even a critical book on the conduct of the war published in 1900 was titled "An absent-minded war".

The "Mail"'s charitable fund was eventually titled the "Absent Minded Beggar Relief Corps" or the "Absent Minded Beggar Fund," providing small comforts to the soldiers themselves as well as supporting their families. It raised a total of about £250,000. The money was not raised solely by the "Mail"; the poem was publicly available, with anyone permitted to perform or print it in any way so long as any resulting profits went to the fund.


External links

* [ Text of "The Absent-Minded Beggar" at Newcastle University]
* [ "The Absent-Minded Beggar", notes with a midi file of the Sullivan music and pdf of the score]
* [ Musical Score of a version of "The Absent-Minded Beggar"] with music composed by Esther M. Lewin. State Library of Queensland, Australia

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