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The Absent-Minded Beggar

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Kipling in his study in Naulakha ca. 1895

The Absent-Minded Beggar is an 1899 poem by Rudyard Kipling, famously set to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan. It was written as part of an appeal by the Daily Mail to raise money for the dependents of soldiers fighting in the South African War (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. 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 Relief of Ladysmith. Sir George White greets Major Hubert Gough on 28 February, 1900. Painting by John Henry Frederick Bacon (1868–1914)

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.

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.

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.

Reception of the poem and song

The poem was highly popular, with performers at music halls and theatres adding recitals to their acts. The poem was set to music – to what Kipling described as "a tune guaranteed to pull teeth out of barrel-organs" – by Sir Arthur Sullivan. The setting was completed on 5 November 1899, and the first public performance of the music was sung by John Coates on 13 November at the Alhambra Theatre. Sullivan's manuscript was later auctioned for £500 towards the fund. Critic Fuller-Maitland disapproved of the composition in The Times, but Sullivan himself asked a friend, "Did the idiot expect the words to be set in cantata form, or as a developed composition with symphonic introduction, contrapuntal treatment, etc.?"

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.

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. 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.

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