Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - Going to the Dogs

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SOME few years ago it entered the heads of a few sensible and kind-hearted individuals that it would be a good thing to establish a sort of temporary asylum for dogs inadvertently lost, and for whose restoration the owners would thankfully pay recompense, and for sick, starving, and discarded dogs that nobody owned, and who were eking out a wretched existence, kicked from door to door, and made cruel sport of by those merciless little human savages that infest London streets. This small community of charitable ones convened a meeting at which the proposition for founding a "Home for Lost and Starving Dogs" was put and carried, and certain moneys told down at once to set the scheme afloat; and immediately afterwards advertisements appeared in the newspapers inviting the benevolent to contribute towards the good aim.
    If I rightly remember, however, the idea was not received by the public at large with that degree of enthusiasm the committee might reasonably have anticipated. People shook their heads and sneeringly demanded to be informed whether the very last little boy or girl had been fished out of the kennel to which the vice or poverty of its parents had consigned it - whether it had been set on its little legs, and cleansed and clothed, and sent to school, and permanently provided for - that these humanitarians felt at liberty to extend a succouring hand to mangy little puppy dogs and prowling curs generally, [-174-] orphaned and in distress. The funny periodicals of the day had their fling at the scheme, and drew a ludicrous picture of that soft-hearted creature, Violet Poudar, Esq., hugging beneath the breast-flaps of his dandy coat a forlorn little whelp recently rescued from the gutter, while at the end of his cambric handkerchief; converted for the nonce into a dog-collar and cord in one, he hauled along a gaunt, ill-favoured tyke, who resented this interference with his liberty in a manner that threatened the speedy destruction of V. P.'s trousers, one leg of which was already rent by the indignant and unwilling captive's teeth.
    One way and another such an abundance of ridicule and cold water was cast on the project and its promoters, that had the latter been actuated by any sordid motive, instead of the pure and simple one of benefiting creatures that could in no way express their gratitude except by wagging their tails, it is extremely probable that the institution would never have known existence; but the kind of persons who devote their lives to charities of this description, in their wrestlings with obstinacy and apathy and stupid-headed ridicule, rather enjoy than otherwise a contested battle; and having attained certain ground they stuck to it, and fought manfully for more.
    Foot by foot they have gained it. Their success is not enormous, but sufficiently so to save the national credit, and release us from the stigma of being mere wordy hypocrites as regards our intelligent and honest four-footed ally canis familiaris. We never tire of lauding the respectable qualities of the dog. We have all stories to tell of him, either derived from personal observation or from sources the truthfulness of which is beyond doubt. We acknowledge him to be brave as the lion, gentle as the lamb, patient as the camel, enduring in his affection, and of a fidelity that is staunch to Death's door. Books about dogs may be reckoned by the score. Poets have sung of the dog; painters have delighted to do him honour. Soon even as we in [-175-] childhood have mastered the letters of the alphabet, and are promoted to one-syllable stories, we read that "The-dog-is-both-kind-and-brave he-will-face-death-to-save-the-man-who-owns-and-feeds-him; gold-nor-rich-meats-will-buy- his-love,-he-gives- it-free- to-such-as-are-kind-to-him." A very ugly continuation of this easy lesson would be "So-when-he-grows-old,-or-too-sick-to-be-of-any-use-he-is-put-out-to-starve-or-be-beat-to-death-by-bad-boys.Once-on-a-time-there-were-good-men-who-would-aid-the-sick-dog-who-had-no-home-and-take-him-and-feed-and-cure-him,-but-some-made-fun-of-these-and-cried-them-down,-so-the-good-work-was-not-done.
    But the good work is done-or, at least, commenced, and, as far as it has gone, to the entire satisfaction of all parties concerned. It is situated at Battersea. 
    Never in my life did such a Babel of sound greet my ears as when I came in sight of the troop of prisoners playfully disporting, or cozily coiled up for a doze, or soberly sauntering in pairs and threes in friendly confabulation. A mongrel with a goodish dash of terrier breed in his veins seemingly gave the alarm, and instantly there was a pattering of feet and a rush to the rails, and fifty voices - there must have been more than fifty, I think - were raised against me.
    Nevertheless, it was good to observe the clamouring pack, and how clean and decent-looking they were. I had nearly written "how contented," but although this might apply to the majority, who joined with the others, and barked's for barking sake, and because it was the rule of the moment, very many there were - and these the first and most eager to rush to the bars - who barked with a purpose. These, no doubt, were the really bereaved dogs - the animals who somehow or another had lost sight of a well-beloved master in the street, and after searching miles [-176-] and miles, and all round about to find him again, were discovered muddy and miserable, and with worn and bleeding feet, and conveyed unresisting to the home. But it is not a question of paunch and kennel with this kind of dog. Other dogs, contemptible curs, all teeth and belly, may endeavour to persuade these honest creatures that nothing can be more foolish than to thrust themselves forward to be owned out of such snug quarters, retired from the cares and anxieties of the world, and nothing to do but eat and sleep; but the really faithful tyke turns a deaf ear to all such pernicious counsel. He wants his master. He has pined for him night and day ever since he has been an inmate of the refuge, and whenever he hears the outer gate slam, his heart is in his mouth. If one had a clever ear for dog language, he might note the various emotions that disturb the poor brutes by the various tones in which he utters his "bow-wows." "Bow-wow-wow! I hear him, I verily believe! It isn't his footstep exactly, but perhaps he has come out in his slippers! Bow-wo-ow! Ah, no it isn't him, nor anybody I ever recollect seeing with him. Bow-wo-o-ow! will he never come and fetch me out of this ?"
    Oddly enough, there are dogs within the enclosure that one would no more expect to find there than their missing masters. Two sheep dogs, to wit. The idea of a sheep dog being guilty of the weakness of losing itself! If there exists a more astonishing fact, it is that both animals had been at the home over a fortnight, and no application had been made for their recovery. I inquired of the keeper whether dogs ever came of their own accord, but he had no recollection of such an instance; otherwise a key to the mystery might have been sought in the speculation, had the two poor brutes, provoked beyond further endurance by the ruffianly behaviour of the drovers their masters, consented to run away together and stow here on the chance of finding a more comfortable home. To be sure, they sat apart and acted as entire strangers to each other; but if [-177-] they were artful enough for the perpetration of the main trick, this small matter of dissembling is no more than might be expected.
    Another dog of the incongruous pack was a great brown dog, curly and handsome, just such a creature as a man would trudge twenty miles to reclaim. Here he had resided for several months, as I was informed. Of dogs that are so continually losing themselves, and which must be held in high respect by petty printers on account of the large business in the handbill line they secure to them, there was no lack. Bandy-legged, long-bellied little dogs these, with a monstrous shock of hair overhanging their weak eyes. How on earth can a dog help "losing himself" when fashion suspends a thick fringe of tow before his optics? These are the sort of dogs, however, that are more profitable than any others to the institution, there being a demand for them; and their owners very willingly paying round little sums for their recovery or if not, at the end of fourteen days they are at the disposal of the home authorities to dispose of to any customer, the bargain being subject to this important condition that should the original owner afterwards claim the animal, its then possessor must part with it - the home authorities not guaranteeing the return of the purchase of deposit money, as I suppose it would be called.
    The dog most commonly to be met with on the society's premises is the ordinary mongrel with a dash of better breed in him, enough, perhaps, to perch him higher on his legs than other mongrels, or give to his coat an inclination to curl, and turn his honest head from his proper jog-trot concerns, and set him hankering and wondering after improprieties of the vicious town. If there is one of these misguided dogs here there are twenty at least-intelligent, bright-eyed brutes, both little and big, and which I beg to recommend "to parties in want of a dog" to guard a house or a garden, being quite convinced by their sorrowful and penitent air that they sincerely regret the [-178-] error of their ways, and if they are once again vouchsafed a trial they are steadfastly resolved to give satisfaction.
    The dog that does not put in an appearance at the institution is the out-and-out gutter-bred street cur. The keeper remarked this, and evidently saw something singular in the fact; so do not I. I know that dog, and can answer for him that he is the artfullest villain that walks on four legs. I will not go the length of expressing my belief that he may have made himself acquainted with that clause of the society's regulations in which it is so significantly intimated "that the public may rely that a dog once housed at the Home will never again be set at liberty with no better prospect than starvation before it," but I have not the slightest hesitation in declaring that the out-and-out street cur is least of all living dogs liable to starve while he keeps his shrewd head sound on his shoulders, and a stout set of legs to carry him swiftly out of danger, incurred through his dishonest practices. This is the dog that has his regular beat and attends it with ten times the diligence and punctuality of any policeman of the force. He has his coffee-shop, where working men go to breakfast early in the morning; he has his public-house tap-room, where working men dine, to investigate at noon; and come the dusk of evening, he finds leisurely and profitable employment in "snatching" from unguarded butchers' boards and laxly-watched tripe-shops. His worst time is of nights, since, being a marked character in the neighbourhood he haunts, lodgings he has none. Oh, he is an accomplished cadger! Are you out at midnight, hurrying home muffled from the cold, you hear a soft pattering of feet behind you, and looking, behold a poor dog - a forlorn, limp-tailed animal, with downcast eyes and wofully puckered mouth - who stands still as you gaze on him, and humbly awaits sentence. Sentence deferred. You go on again quicker than before, not caring to be bothered by dogs, and once again the pattering, and again you turn on him with "Hish! go home!" on your lips, but [-179-] this time he raises his eyes, that you may read in them by the light of the street-lamp a beggar confessed; but ah I if you only knew under what extenuating circumstances! "Poor old boy!" I say you, and that night he reposes on your door-mat. Next morning he is off, and is only impatient to get away ere some treacherous friend has forestalled him in the coffee-shop round, and appropriated all the bacon rinds and crusts of bread.
    Well, since he is independent of the aid the Dogs' Home affords, let him stay out of it and welcome. He can be very well spared as long as he can pick up a living for himself, but should he fall ill one day there is the hospital in question open to him, and he may rely on careful physicking and clean straw to lie on. This is the portion of all sick dogs taken to Battersea, while plentiful and wholesome food takes the place of physic in the case of lost healthy dogs. It is marvellous how a place providing accommodation for so many dogs can be kept so sweet and clean, and without doubt its condition reflects the highest credit on the keeper, who is a very civil person, cheerful and ready to give you any information concerning the home and its management. The most unsatisfactory item he furnished me with was that the money came in very slow indeed just now, and he hoped that matters might soon mend in this direction. So hope I.