Help for Heroes… and Absent-Minded Beggars

In 2007, at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ‘Help for Heroes’ burst onto the scene, the aim of the new charity being to support and help injured British servicemen. An excellent and well-run organisation which does brilliant work, Help for Heroes has numerous patriotic and high profile celebrity patrons such as cricketing legend Sir Ian Botham, the outspoken Jeremy Clarkson and glamorous, former rear-of-the-year winner, Anneka Rice. It enjoys support from the Sun newspaper, and raises money via sporting events, music concerts, the sale of all manner of branded merchandise and various other avenues. The charity runs four ‘Recovery Centres’ in the UK, establishments which provide medical, psychological and welfare support for injured soldiers, assisting their return to service, or into civilian life.

This might all seem like a very 21st Century idea, but a remarkably similar charity was established during the Boer War. It was the brainchild of the Daily Mail owner, Alfred Harmsworth, who was moved to help the families of reservists who risked destitution. In early October 1899, with Kruger massing his Commandos on the borders of Natal, the British army called up their reserves for the first time in a generation – meaning those men who were called back to the colours suddenly only received army pay which was sometimes only a fraction of what they had been getting in civilian employment. Charitable organisations such as the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association did exist to support the families of these men, but there was only so much they could do and Harmsworth patriotically used the Daily Mail to raise both awareness and money.

Unsurprisingly for a media mogul, Harmsworth fully understood the power of celebrity, and just like Help for Heroes over a century later, managed to attract some very high profile patrons to his cause. The foremost poet of the time, Rudyard Kipling, quickly came on board, and penned the poem after which the nascent fund would soon be named:

The Absent-Minded Beggar

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 khaki ordered South?
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 of 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 !

There are girls he married secret, asking no permission to,
For he knew he wouldn’t get it if he did.
There is gas and coals and vittles, and the house-rent falling due,
And its more than rather likely there’s a kid.
There are girls he’s walked with casual. They’ll be sorry now he’s gone,
For an absent-minded beggar they will find him,
But it ain’t the time for sermons with the winter coming on
We must help the girl that Tommy’s left behind him!
Cook’s son—Duke’s son—son of a belted Earl
Son of a Lambeth publican—it’s all the same to-day!
Each of ’em doing his country’s work
(and who’s to look after the girl?)
Pass the hat for your credit’s sake,
and pay—pay—pay !

There are families by thousands, far too proud to beg or speak,
And they’ll put their sticks and bedding up the spout,
And they’ll live on half o’ nothing, paid ’em punctual once a week,
‘Cause the man that earns the wage is ordered out.
He’s an absent-minded beggar, but he heard his country call,
And his reg’rnent didn’t need to send to find him!
He chucked his job and joined it—so the job before us all
Is to help the home that Tommy’s left behind him!
Duke’s job—cook’s job—gardener, baronet, groom.
Mews or palace or paper-shop, there’s someone gone away!
Each of ’em doing his country’s work
(and who’s to look after the room?)
Pass the hat for your credit’s sake,
and pay—pay—pay!

Let us manage so as, later, we can look him in the face,
And tell him—what he’d very much prefer
That, while he saved the Empire, his employer saved his place,
And his mates (that’s you and me) looked out for her.
He’s an absent-minded beggar and he may forget it all,
But we do not want his kiddies to remind him
That we sent ’em to the workhouse while their daddy hammered Paul,
So we’ll help the homes that Tommy left behind him!
Cook’s home—Duke’s home—home of a millionaire,
(Fifty thousand horse and foot going to Table Bay!)
Each of ’em doing his country’s work
(and what have you got to spare?)
Pass the hat for your credit’s sake,
and pay—pay—pay!

Kipling sent the poem to Harmsworth on the 22nd of October with the modest and selfless instruction that the verses:
“are at your service. … turn
[the proceeds] over to any one of the regularly ordained relief-funds, as a portion of your contribution. I don’t want my name mixed up in the business except as it will help to get money. It’s catchpenny verse and I want it to catch just as many pennies as it can… It isn’t a thing I shall care to reprint; so there is no need of copyrighting it in America. If anyone wants to sing it take care that the proceeds go to our men”.[i]
Perhaps feeling he had rather rushed the piece, Kipling would later say, “I would shoot the man who wrote it if it would not be suicide”.

The poem duly appeared in the Daily Mail on the 31st of October 1899, and – despite Kipling’s reservations – was an immediate success. It was recited in music halls all across the Empire – including being read before the performance at London’s Palace Theatre every night for the next 14 months – with each giving a portion of their profits to the fund. The poem was publicly available, with anyone permitted to perform it, print it or use it in any way, so long as the copyright royalties were paid into the fund. Newspapers all over the world published it and hundreds of thousands of copies were quickly sold.

Kipling and Harmsworth were not satisfied with just a poem, though, and approached one of the most high profile composers of the age, Sir Arthur Sullivan[ii] – one half of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan – to set the words to a suitably rousing and patriotic piece of music. Sullivan agreed and, like Kipling, refused to take any payment for his work, banging out a stirring tune in just four days. The song was first performed on the 13th of November and absolutely raised the roof of the packed theatre. Sullivan noted in his diary that the response of the over-flowing audience was truly electric: “Wild enthusiasm. All sang chorus! I stood on the stage and conducted the encore – funny sight!”. The Daily Chronicle reported the wild scenes: “It has not been often that the greatest of English writers and the greatest of English musicians have joined inspiring words and stirring melody in a song which expresses the heart feelings of the entire nation”.

The song can be listened to on this YouTube link, though it has not aged especially well and is unlikely to prompt terribly much ‘wild enthusiasm’ today:

Kipling summed up the progress thus far in his autobiography, Something of Myself:

‘Money was wanted for small comforts for the troops at the Front, and to this end the Daily Mail started what must have been a very early ‘stunt’. It was agreed that I would ask the public for subscriptions. The paper charged itself with the rest. My verses (‘The Absent-Minded Beggar’) had some elements of direct appeal but, as was pointed out, lacked ‘poetry’. Sir Arthur Sullivan wedded the words to a tune guaranteed to pull the teeth out of barrel-organs. Anybody could do what they chose with the result, recite, sing, intone or reprint etc, on condition that they turned in all free and profits to the main account – ‘The Absent-Minded Beggar Fund’.

As if the ‘celebrity endorsement’ of both the foremost poet and foremost composer of the time was not enough, Harmsworth also managed to attract one of the leading artists of the period to the appeal too. Richard Caton Woodville[iii] had covered the Russo-Turkish War and the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War, for the Illustrated London News, and was renowned as a brilliant painter of military action who would go on to produce some of the best artwork of the Boer War. Within days of the poem being published, Caton Woodville produced a picture entitled ‘A Gentleman in Kharki’[iv]:

The evocative image of this bloodied, but defiant Tommy caught the mood of the nation in the same way Kipling’s words and Sullivan’s music had. Indeed, the poem, song and piano music sold in extraordinary numbers, as did all kinds of handkerchiefs, plates, jugs, postcards, and other assorted memorabilia, merchandise and tat, all emblazoned with the iconic “Gentleman in Kharki” image, the poem itself, the sheet music, or a combination of the three. At the height of the rush, 40 clerks answered 12,000 requests a day for copies of the poem, and it was included in 148,000 packets of cigarettes within two months of the first performance. As one contemporary observer noted:

‘the humanity of the poem and its simple message had an astonishing impact: accompanied by a drawing of the wounded but undaunted Tommy, the verses soon cluttered tables and mantelpieces throughout Britain, stamped on mugs, ashtrays, tobacco-jars, plates, biscuit tins and other souvenirs’.



By December, £50,000 had been raised, leading the Daily Mail to rather excitedly claim: “The history of the world can produce no parallel to the extraordinary record of this poem”. The money raised by the appeal – by then known as the ‘Absent-Minded Beggar Fund’ – provided comforts to the soldiers at the front, as well as supporting their families at home. Among other activities, the fund “met the soldiers on arrival in South Africa, welcomed them on their return to Britain and, more importantly, set up overseas centres to minister to the sick and wounded”. Kipling himself travelled to South Africa to help distribute the supplies bought by the fund.

The appeal would go on to raise the unprecedented amount of more than £250,000 – or almost £30,000,000 in today’s money.[v] Local ‘Absent Minded Beggar Relief Corps’ branches were opened as far afield as Trinidad, Cape Town, Ireland, New Zealand, China, India and in numerous other places across the Empire; all contributed to the fund, to other war efforts, and even to the building of hospitals. The Absent Minded Beggar Fund might not have staged a concert with Robbie Williams and Tom Jones, or have had a celebrity backer with the famously pert bottom of Anneka Rice, but is widely accepted to be the first mass charitable effort in war and has been even been referred to as the inspiration for the welfare state.



[i] The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, offered Kipling a knighthood for his contribution, but – as always with such honours – the poet modestly turned this down

[ii] Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan MVO (1842 – 1900). Best known for his collaborations with Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, such as Pirates of Penzanze and HMS Pinafore, Sullivan also composed the music for the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers. He died shortly after writing the music for The Absent-Minded Beggar

[iii] Richard Caton Woodville Jr (1856 – 1927). Studied at the Dusseldorf School of Painting before working as a war correspondent and artist, his art work would cover much the height of the Colonial period. Despite being regarded as one of the finest artists of his generation, Woodville would die penniless, committing suicide at the age of 71

[iv] It is not entirely clear why Caton Woodville used the spelling ‘kharki’ rather than the conventional ‘khaki’, as Kipling did. It was noted at the time that ‘kharki’ was the ‘vulgar spelling’ of the word

[v] When one considers relative population size, that there was no radio to promote it and no wide-spread record sales at the time, this compares pretty favourably to the c.£20,000,000 raised by another rather more recent charity song, Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ in 1984 – a sum which would be about £60,000,000 today

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