New edition available February 2003.  Click here to order.

Excerpts from the book "TRAMP PRINTERS"
by John Howells and Marion Dearman
(Discovery Press, copyright 1996)


the Duke who came to dinner
Thomas W. Holson, of Bakersfield Californian
Every old-time printer you talk with has a favorite tramp printer story. The same names keep coming up time after time. Occasionally we find a narrative about less-famous travelers. Below is one of them:

Back in the mid 1920s, I worked in Texas down around the Mexican border, a popular place during prohibition because of the availability of liquor across the Rio Grande. A tramp printer used to frequent West Texas composing rooms in those days, a typesetter we knew as “Duke” Wellington.

A big, well-built fellow with a charming British accent, Duke was ruggedly handsome and about 40 years old. We all assumed that “Duke” was his nickname. We thought it a coincidence that at the time, there was a flurry of publicity over a lost heir to the title and estate of the British Duke of Wellington who was last heard of in Arizona. But for some reason, Duke kept a low profile.

Then one day, when Duke Wellington was working as a sub at the News-Globe in Amarillo, his cover was reluctantly blown. Turns out he actually was the missing heir! In Detroit, the British consulate arranged for his passage to England. The News-Globe capitalized on the story far and wide, printing his photo with the caption: “From Type to Title.” The Duke said goodbye to us, leaving for England and his estates—without much enthusiasm, oddly enough.

In the meantime, the Great Depression descended like a pall across the land. I ended up taking a job in Borger, Texas—an oil boom town about 50 miles from Amarillo. My wife Clarice lost her job and my wages were cut to a pittance. We were forced to surrender the equity in our lovely home and rented a modest house in a very modest neighborhood. Our first child was due. Oh, how we envied the Duke and his vast estates in Great Britain! Living the life of luxury.

The Borger Herald  hired only half a dozen printers, all members of the Amarillo Union. Work was scarce, and situation holders were in no mood to hire subs. (In those days there were no paid vacations, no unemployment benefits, and very few office hires.)

One winter afternoon—cold as only a Texas Panhandle day can be when a norther sweeps from the Rockies and across the plains—a vaguely familiar figure ambled into the Herald composing room. It was the Duke!

He wore heavy work clothes of solid, dark color, and sturdy boots laced over the ankles with clasp fasteners half way up to the calf. He had a toothache and grumbled about having to spend 50 cents for toothache medicine. There was no extra work, and I didn’t feel prosperous enough to hire him. But I did invite him home to dinner.

Clarice went on a hasty shopping trip for pork chops and extra food. At the dinner table, Duke told his story.

It seems that he was the younger son of a younger son in the Wellington family, ordinarily a position without the least prospect of inheriting a title. His father had been given an obscure government position and was sent to far-off Arizona. Mike learned the printing trade there, never dreaming he would someday inherit the title of “Duke of Wellington.” His father returned to England where he died, as did all others in the line of succession. Thus, the inheritance came down to “Duke”.

When he arrived at the Wellington estate (actually in Ireland), just as he expected, he found it so heavily in debt that it had no prospect of ever becoming solvent. Each succeeding title holder had borrowed heavily against the estate. Poorly managed over the years, there was no possible way the estate’s revenues could begin to cover the debts, much less support the Duke of Wellington, not even in the style of a tramp printer! The only assets were a quantity of peat to be spaded from the earth to be sold as fuel, and several full decanters of Irish whiskey the Duke found in the mansion. “No one seemed to bother them—except me,” he said.

Finding no joy in becoming a peer of title realm—particularly when he couldn’t afford it—he decided to renounce the title to return home to America. Somehow, he managed to arrange another loan against the estate to cover his passage and he sailed happily away, headed once more for Texas and the Mexican border.

After thanking us for his dinner, the Duke said goodbye again and walked away into the night, his boots scuffing gravel. Somewhere he would find work as a printer. He was sure of that. We never heard of him again.


History of Tramp Printers

"A Race of Men" . . . a tramp's poem by Robert Service

Mark Twain and the Country weekly

Early Demise of the Tramp Printer

The Missouri River Pirates

and a Battered Suitcase in Hand

Saratoga Printing Museum

Some early printing offices


Pages by John Howells and Marion Dearman, authors of "Tramp Printers"


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