Orwell and Paddy and a number of other tramps, including Bill, Fred, William, and a woman who considers herself entirely above the proceedings, enter the Lower Binfield casual ward for the weekend. Orwell gives his occupation as journalist, thereby earning the respect of the Tramp Major, who admires Orwell’s position as a gentleman. The spike offers the tramps straw beds, but it’s too cold for comfort and no one gets more than an hour or two of sleep.
Even in the casual ward, status counts for something, and Orwell, who is, in effect, slumming, is rewarded for his high-class background. While he does suffer along with the tramps, he is still not one of them. The female tramp gives Orwell further ammunition for his claim that women in general are less impoverished than men.
In the morning, the tramps are rounded up and herded into a dreary room that smells like a prison cell. Whereas the bulk of the tramps are fated to stay there all day, bored out of their minds, Orwell is lucky. The Tramp Major gives a few select men odd jobs, including Orwell, who goes to work in the casual ward kitchen. When there’s no work to do there, he sneaks off to a shed where paupers are peeling potatoes. The paupers tell Orwell that they’re not unhappy with their lives exactly. They just wish they weren’t required to wear clothing that robs them of their dignity. Orwell takes his midday meal with the paupers, stuffing himself with vegetables, meat, and bread. Workers then chuck the leftovers.
Having shown that the casual ward system shares much in common with the rigid class hierarchies at work in society at large, Orwell proves his point when he has the chance to leave the ward while the less educated tramps remain imprisoned. He then introduces the reader to yet another class of poor men: the pauper who has been jailed for his poverty. The pauper’s only crime is being poor, showing yet again that poverty is not only a figurative prison for those who endure it—for some, it is an actual prison.
Orwell returns to the spike and that prison-like room to find most of his fellow tramps too bored to talk. Orwell does find one man, identified only as a superior tramp, who is willing to chat. The man, who travels with tools and books, listens to Orwell’s account of the waste in the workhouse kitchen without rancor. In fact, the superior tramp says, such waste is a necessity. If tramps, whom he calls “scum,” were fed too well, casual wards would be overrun.
Like the employees at the Hotel X who perpetuated that restaurant’s rigid hierarchy, tramps like the “superior” man keep the unfair system alive by subscribing to its most insidious lies.
Orwell spends another miserable night in a spike. Barn-like and stinking of chamber pot, the room is at least warm, and Orwell gets more sleep than he was expecting. The next morning, William and Fred impale their rations of bread on a spike in protest of the bread’s hardness, and Orwell and Paddy begin the trek back to London. On their way, they meet Scotty, a Glaswegian tramp, who, grateful to Orwell for giving him a smoke, gives Orwell four limp cigarette butts in return for his kindness.
When life consists of nothing more than long, miserable walks and meals of bread and margarine, even small kindnesses can stand out as acts of heroism. William and Fred, the scallywags of the group, at least have enough spine to protest their poor treatment. The superior tramp would probably say they deserve it.