Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Drinking and Drugs - Public Houses - The "Blue Dog"

Turning into Baldwin's-gardens, and from thence into a whole labyrinth of courts, we arrive at a low dilapidated public-house, over whose sinister-looking front the hand of Time, in places such as these ever thickly encrusted with dirt, has passed heavily enough, partially obliterating the owner's (a former one's) name, and totally removing all vestiges of a curious hieroglyphic that once did duty as a representation of that canine wonder, the "Blue Dog." The entrance is low and narrow, and guarded by a surly Cerberus, whose one head is sufficiently frightful to compensate hi m for his dificiency in the other two enjoyed by his classical namesake. Either side of the doorway are two windows, whose dirty and cobwebbed panes are rendered still more opaque by curtains of a dingy red, through whose folds a light glimmers faintly - a dull, red, unpleasant-looking light - that makes the windows take a blinking and evil aspect, as they peer out, like two bloodshot eyes into the darkness of the street. Entering the doorway, we present our credentials, and are ushered through a dark passage into the "back-parlour" of the establishment. The room is long, the ceiling low, and the floor rotten and full of holes, that seemed to be made to afford means for entrance and egress to a whole colony of rats, who, from time immemorial, have led a life of reckless jollity among the walls and rafters of the tumble-down old house; a miserable-looking fire is vainly struggling to preserve an existence beneath the crushing effect of a large kettle, which an old crone has just thrust down upon it, and is now bending over with a vain hope that it will, at some time, boil. At one side of the room, facing the door, as you enter, are seated three cadgers, who bear about them, in their carefully-fashioned rags and ingenious wretchedness, certain signs of their "ancient" calling, and in the money scattered upon the beer-stained table unmistakable signs of its profitable nature. They are playing cards, with a blear-eyed, large-headed, cunning-looking man, who, a small tradesman in the neighbourhood, and a close friend of the landlord's, has used the "Blue Dog" for years; that worthy having allowed him the privilege of picking up whatever money might remain in the pockets of its frequenters, if such a thing were possible, after they had passed through his experienced fingers. This man is looked upon in such places as a necessary evil, and tolerated accordingly. Like a fungus, he has been bred and nourished by the rottenness and corruption around. Far different is the respect paid by this miscellaneous mob of vagrants, thieves, costermongers, what not, who throng the room, to that pale thin man, who attired in an old brown coat, buttoned to the throat, generally crawls in among them as the clock strikes ten, sits in a corner, smoking a short pipe, and carefully perusing an old newspaper, holding but little intercourse with the company around; and yet, in a society such as this, where the morals are as ragged as the clothes, ignorance does homage to mind, - the man has had "an education," and the "scholard" is a power in the room. They place implicit belief in him, consulting him on all points when "in trouble," and looking up to him as one of a superior to their level. There is a mystery about him which none of them can pierce; for he has been wise enough to keep to himself the reason of his fall, refusing to own the freemasonry of Vice, or to admit to the brotherhood of Crime.
    In the centre of the room a woman sits reading in a low monotonous voice, from a tattered news-sheet, an account of a "recent hanging" somewhere "down in the country." We look around at her audience, and in the glistening eyes and eager expressions of approval of the "pluck" shown by the hero of the day, learn the utility of this literature of the gibbet, and judge its effect upon the debased, because uneducated, poor.
    A rough-looking man, in a light hat and coat of velveteen, is talking earnestly to the "scholard," who has laid down his paper, and is penning an epistle on some paper stretched upon his knee. The penmanship is good, the paper soiled with tobacco and stained with beer; yet it will find its way into the hands of "my lady," and be welcomed in Belgravia. And the cause? there it is - with long silken ears and sparkling eyes - peeping from the pocket of the dog-stealer.
    The landlord has just entered the room: he is a coarse hard-featured man, with a large cotton nightcap drawn over, or partly over, a forest of red hair. He has but lately risen from his bed, as his appearance testifies; for, like the owl, he slumbers in the day to be the more wakeful of a night. This man is what, in the language of his fraternity, is termed a "returned lag," or convict, who, tired of that pleasant land of "convicts and kangaroos," Australia, has returned to become the proprietor of the "Blue Dog," and to reap the rich reward that always waits on merit.

Watts Phillips, The Wild Tribes of London, 1855