Tramping all over the internet

Tramp marks that were used to indicate whether a house was worth visiting or not
Warchalking was used in the 1990s to indicate where you could access free wireless broadband

As my dad explains in his 22nd September 1979 column, it was only around thirty years earlier that vagrants were still a regular feature of the countryside. A likely explanation is that many of these ‘gentlemen of the road’ were soldiers discharged after the war, but with no job or income to fall back upon.

Although they were often solitary characters, they were nevertheless part of a community that from the 17th century onwards developed a special ‘language’ as a way of letting each other know which houses were worth approaching and which were best avoided.

They did this through a series of symbols scratched or drawn on nearby gateposts or walls, easily missed by those not specifically looking for them.

There were two categories of mark, soft and hard. Soft marks indicated a household that looked kindly on vagrants, and there were five principal symbols. A circle around a cross revealed a charitable, possibly Christian, household; a simple tick indicated it was OK to approach; a row of three or four small circles meant money might be handed out; a horizontal line with two vertical lines coming down suggested they might be offered a meal at the table; an oval with three short lines inside symbolised a loaf of bread, meaning food might be handed out.

Hard marks were warnings. A series of crossed lines, like the bars of a prison cell, suggested that the police might be alerted, as did a small circle with a dot in the middle; a square with a dot meant that the occupants were likely to get violent if confronted by a beggar; a capital ‘T’ on its side signified ‘Nothing doing here’; a horizontal zig-zag line, like a sharp set of teeth, indicated a fierce dog on the premises.

Other marks, like a sickle shape, showed that work might be available, and a triangle told potential callers that too many tramps had already been before and now the inhabitants were fed up! A shape like half a square box suggested that those within might be persuaded to respond if they were told a heart-wrenching tale, while two interlocking boxes meant that using threats of violence towards residents usually reaped rewards!

Can you remember the days when the only way to access the internet was to have a cable plugged into a bulky computer? Today, most of us have wireless internet (Wi-Fi) in our homes, which we protect from outsiders by a network password. Well, back in 2002, Wi-Fi was still in its infancy, and businesses were just beginning to install wireless computer networks.

It was at this time that London web designer Matt Jones claimed that the old ‘tramp marks’ that I’ve described inspired him to come up with the idea of ‘warchalking’, a set of symbols which could be chalked outside establishments with wireless internet connection so that anyone with a laptop could gain (normally costly) free internet access from that spot. Although the idea became somewhat of a media sensation, it was short-lived as the corporates began to protect their Wi-Fi networks with passwords. Obviously now, practically everywhere has free Wi-Fi access.

I did do some in-depth research into whether ‘warchalking’ still existed anywhere, and that was by going upstairs and asking my very tech-savvy 23-year-old son Oliver. He had never heard of it.

When we first installed a wireless internet network in our home, I was fearful of people outside being able to hack into it. Now, most of us have Smart phones, so the internet is available almost anywhere, and the desire to hack a network just to ‘Surf the Net’ has vanished. People hack networks for much more sinister reasons these days.

According to Oliver, who works for a cyber security firm, the biggest threat to our internet personal security is people of my generation and older still using weak passwords for online accounts where important confidential information, such as addresses and payments details, is stored. In his words, “Any password that is just letters with no numbers or symbols can be hacked in seconds.”

He recommends using a ‘password manager’, a system that can generate and remember highly sophisticated passwords so that you don’t have to.

If that sounds too complicated, then I suggest you either get the most tech-savvy person you know to help you, or move to a desert island.

You have been warned!

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 20th September and the Gazette & Herald on 18th September 2019

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