Toe-rag is used pejoratively these days to indicate a worthless, disreputable, deceitful type of person, someone rarely worth bothering with. I’m sure we have all come across people to whom this epithet would not be out of place.
For the well-dressed person, having a piece of hosiery between one’s bare feet and shoes is de rigueur. Of course, for those with very few possessions, there is often a need to make do. A toe-rag was a piece of cloth or rag wrapped around the foot as a sort of ersatz stocking. J F Mortlock was transported to Australia for a twenty-one year stretch in 1843. He survived and in 1864 published an account of his experiences called Experiences of a Convict, in which he wrote about the practice of binding one’s feet with rags; “ stockings being unknown, some luxurious men wrapped round their feet a piece of old shirting, called, in language more expressive than elegant, a toe-rag.”
In the late 1920s and the 1930s there was a prurient interest amongst the better sorts in the lot of the so-called down and outs. One who made his name out of this sort of thing was the Reverend Frank L Jennings who produced a series of talks for the radio, subsequently published in 1932 as Tramping with Tramps, described at the time as an exhaustive and first-hand study of the vagrancy problem. He spent a month living the life of a vagrant, begging for his food and doing odd jobs. When back in his comfortable normal life he entertained the great British public with tales of his racy and illuminating experiences, earning himself the sobriquet of the Doss House Parson. Naturally, he was concerned about apparel. “Socks”, he noted, “are very seldom worn. Instead you get a winding of cotton rag round the ball and toes of the foot as a safeguard against blisters. Toe-rags, the tramp calls them.”
Another purveyor of this poverty porn, although his fame has outlasted that of Jennings, was Eric Blair aka George Orwell. In his Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, he noted “less than half the tramps actually bathed…but they all washed their faces and feet, and the horrid greasy clouts known as toe-rags which they bind round their toes.”
This style of hosiery having been adopted by and associated with vagrants and other down and outs, it was inevitable that toe-rag would be used figuratively to describe those whom the speaker finds beneath contempt. One of the earliest examples of this usage is to be found in Thomas Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, published in 1875; “toe rags is another expression of contempt…used…chiefly by the lower grades of circus men, and the acrobats who stroll about the country, performing at fairs.” D H Lawrence, in a letter in 1912, wrote, “Remember, whatever toe-rag I may be personally, I am the person she livanted with. So you be careful.” And Harold Pinter, in The Caretaker from 1960, included the line “All them toe-rags, mate, got the manners of pigs.”
The link between poverty and moral deficiency has been a difficult one for those without much money to break since time immemorial.