Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Dottings of a Dosser, by Howard J. Goldsmid, 1886 - Chapter 3 - "Cooney's"

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THE resolution I had formed to persevere in my investigations was, as the reader will readily imagine, severely shaken by my experiences at the Beehive. The squalor, the destitution, the repulsiveness of the dossers' language, the foul smells, the vermin-covered rugs and sheets - these were enough to turn me from my purpose. " It is, after all," I argued with myself "no business of mine. I can do no good. If the public is aware of the existence of these haunts of destitution and degradation, my interference will benefit no one. If, on the other hand, they are ignorant of the state of things, does not that very ignorance demonstrate their apathy?" Possibly this reasoning was correct, and I should have done better in my own interest, and no worse in the interest of the inhabitants of common lodging-houses, had I relinquished the idea of examining into the truth of the reports which had reached me. But it appeared to me that it would have been the veriest cowardice to have abandoned altogether a task which I firmly believe to have been none the less necessary because [-27-] self-imposed; and I was not without hope that the things to be seen and heard in the various low lodging-houses might, if faithfully narrated without extenuation or exaggeration, speak for themselves, and, sounding clarion-tongued, direct popular attention to great and crying evils.
    Animated by this feeling, therefore, I have pursued the course which I was at first inclined to abandon. I have visited, in the guise of an ordinary "out o' work" who is compelled to go "where the devil drives," many of the worst as welt as the best of the common lodging-houses of London. One which is is in great request is Cooney's - or, stay, I am in error and should re-write this sentence. Let it read: Some which are in great request are Cooney's ;-for that enterprising gentleman owns several lodging-houses, all of which are, I believe, situated in Thrawl Street, Spitalfields.
    This thoroughfare, though short and narrow, contains probably as much destitution and depravity as any that are wider and more pretentious. It leads only from Commercial Street into Brick Lane, and in that short distance are concentrated elements of discord and degradation sufficient to shock even the most callous. The dwelling-houses are all poor and mean; the gutters in the daytime are full of squalling children; and refuse of all sorts is lying about in every direction. When closing-time comes, and the dram-shops and gin-palaces have sent their contingent to reinforce the representatives of sinning and suffering humanity that crowd the unwholesome [-28-] street, Thrawl Street is "a thing to shudder at, not to see." Women who have reached the lowest depth of degradation to which their sex can sink, are rolling unsteadily along the footpath, or quarrelling in front of the public-houses from which they have just been expelled. Men are fighting, swearing, and hiccoughing out snatches of objectionable songs. Babies, who have been taken in their mothers' arms to the drinking dens which rob them of their food and clothing, are wailing loudly; and the noise of quarrelling, intoxication, and lamentation, are to be heard on every side. It is needless to say, therefore, that it is the happy hunting-ground of "doss-'ouse keepers," and that nearly every second house is a common lodging- house.
    A few doors up this Elysian thoroughfare, on the right-hand side, stands a low, mean-looking house, from the door of which issue forth sounds of profanity and drunken revelry. The dirty yellow canvas blinds that ornament the windows bear the delusive inscription-
    Attracted by this announcement, I stepped into the doorway one evening and asked, "Can I have a bed?" A coarse-looking girl, with a shrill voice, and an eye which said, "Don't try to trifle with me," bounced out of a little kitchen, surveyed me from head to foot, and, apparently satisfied with her inspec-[-29-]tion, said sharply, "Yes, fourpence." Snatching the coppers from my hand, she pointed to the opposite door and remarked, "There's another kitchen there; you'd better go there." The hint clearly meant, "You must go there," for the young lady was being entertained by several gentlemen with some stories, in the chaste mirth derived from which she evidently did not wish a stranger to participate.
    Into the "other kitchen," therefore, I bent my steps. A more disagreeable place I never wish to see. It was a small room surrounded on three sides with a sort of counter, in front of which stood some rough wooden benches. An enormous coke fire made me end of the apartment unbearably hot, and the pen door rendered the other end cold in an equally unpleasant degree. On one side of the fire was a sadder-staircase leading to another "kitchen" underground; on the other side a passage which led, I was informed, to the "bedrooms" (!) for married couples. On the right-hand side was a door opening into a small paved yard, in which certain necessary accommodation was erected. On the occasion of my visit this yard was in au abominably filthy condition, and every time the door which gave access to it was opened, a horrible stench pervaded the little "kitchen," compelling the uninitiated stranger to brave the draught at the entrance in order to obtain a little fresh air - or what in Thrawl Street is so designated. The walls and ceilings were black and dirty, but the boarded floor had evidently been washed within a comparatively recent period. This was the only [-30-] redeeming feature about the apartment, which, in every other respect, was stuffy, close, ill-ventilated, and stenchful beyond expression.
    On the benches a couple of lads were stretched snoring. They must have been tired indeed to have been able to sleep with the Babel around them. One man was eating a supper, of course consisting of the inevitable "addick," while another was discussing the existence of religion with a loud voice, an abundance of gesture, and an equal abundance, perhaps a superfluity, of oaths. There were only three ladies there when I entered: one a very respectable-looking old person in black, whom I soon discovered to be about the worst of the lot, as far as blasphemy and obscenity were concerned; the second was the help-meet of the gentleman who had such a rooted antipathy to religion, and she sat listening in open-mouthed wonder to his eloquence; and the third was a girl, who sat on the hearth with her head against the side of the mantelpiece, fast asleep. There was a worn, weary expression on her countenance that was pitiful to see. She was quite young, and had probably been pretty, but her face was flushed, her eyes were sunken, and want and suffering - and possibly vice also - had robbed her of whatever charms she had possessed. She was a specimen of a class - the saddest class existing - the withered flowers in humanity's garden.
    The other occupants of the room at this period of the evening were about half a dozen cats of various sizes and hues. These appeared to be an "institu-[-31-]tion" at Cooney's, and were allowed to do pretty well as they liked, much to the annoyance of the old lady in black. "She couldn't abide 'em," she said; "they reminded her of so many witches." There are eleven words in this expression of opinion as recorded here, but as originally delivered there were certainly double that number, the difference being accounted for by oaths and expletives, which, in a "condensed report," it is undesirable to reproduce. The cats, however, were not entirely unnecessary - at all events so observed a gentleman who entered at this moment, and who lodged regularly in the house. He had that morning been disturbed by a rat upon his couch. Perhaps it may be said - and not unfairly - that people who pay fourpence a night for their lodgings should not be particular about trifles; but this gentleman, who was a cripple, and an extraordinarily foul-mouthed one, seemed to have an antipathy to rats just as keen as the objection to their natural enemies entertained by the old lady in black.
    To me, personally, however, rodents were less interesting than human beings, and I directed my attention to the contemplation of the latter. From the underground kitchen already referred to issued every few minutes a flaxen-haired child about eight years of age, clad in the tattered remains of an old red frock. Her face wore a wonderfully old and cunning expression, but was wofully pale and wasted withal. Her arms looked thin and - there is no other expression that will serve - brittle, as though you could have snapped them with a touch. Each time that she [-32-] emerged from the other kitchen carrying some article of domestic use, she passed through the passage on the other side, where she was greeted with sounds as of a drunken mother's upbraidings. By and by - she had been at work more than an hour, and this was nearly midnight - she brought a little child up in her arms, and, stumbling at every step (for her burden was far too heavy for her), disappeared in the passage for the last time that evening. She did her work well, poor little thing, but in a dull, heart-broken Sort of way, and the expression on her poor pinched face said as plainly as words could do, "Won't anybody help me?"
    Meanwhile, the conversation had been going on apace, and the room had grown fuller and more unwholesome. The oratorical gentleman had held forth in turn upon questions of religion, military discipline, church ritual, political economy, jurisprudence, medical science, and the higher education of women. It is but fair to him to say that he knew just as much upon one subject as another, and in order to show the extent of his information, it is only necessary to state that he had a firm impression that the Premier for the time being must be ex-officio head of the Church of England. An endeavour to explain the difference between a minister of state and a minister of religion was repulsed with more force than courtesy; but it should be distinctly affirmed that the oracle of the doss-'ouse was so firmly convinced of the exactitude of his information and the extent of his knowledge, that he rarely made an assertion with-[-33-]out calling on the Deity to deprive him of sight if what he stated were not the indisputable and irrefragable truth.
    Let me for a few moments act as flunkey, and chronicle the arrival of the guests in due order. First, then, a man entered the room with a sleeping child in his arms, and, laying it down on one of the counters or tables, sat down beside me. The child, he said, in answer to my inquiry, was two years old, and he added that his wife was at that moment out with another aged two months. She had gone to a relative's to try and borrow some money, for they had been walking about all day and hadn't a copper. They, he said, sadly, could stay out all night, but what were they to do about the children a chilly night like this. "Surely they wouldn't turn those babies out in the cold night air. " "Wouldn't they?" replied he, with a short laugh. "It's not much credit they gives at this shop. I've slep' 'ere now these two months, but if the brass ain't to be found I shall 'ave to sleep out all night, and the kids too. I don't say they'd want it all, but I must give 'em some; p'r'aps they'd trust me half, but that's a question." Here his wife came in, a poor, thin, evidently consumptive woman. Her errand had failed. That was written in her face. It was pitiful to see the despairing matter-of-course way in which, without a word, the man silently took up the child and prepared to leave the room and the house - but for that night at least they were not compelled to make their bed in the streets.
    The next arrival was an old Irishwoman, big, gaunt, [-34-]  and shrivelled. I found some difficulty in comprehending the greeting she gave us. It may be that she was only "uttering many a backward prayer that sounded like a curse." But the effect of her salutation was by no means pleasant, and she was fervently adjured, with many a forcible illustration of the meaning of the speakers, to "keep a civil tongue in yer 'ead." These appeals were not altogether successful. The lady included the whole company in a general execration, and, approaching the fire, lamented that she had neither a pipe nor the money to purchase one. With the view of conciliating her, I took mine out of my mouth and handed it over to her; but I frankly admit that had I been prepared for the consequences, I should have restrained my impulsive generosity. "Alas!" says Byron,
        "Alas! the love of woman! it is known
        To be a lovely and a fearful thing."
    It is particularly fearful, and not in the least lovely, when the woman is old, ugly, and about three-fourths drunk, and the object of her passion nervous, embarrassed, and by no means disposed to reciprocate her tender sentiments. Yet there I was with that old hag making the most violent love to me. "I was of her own colour," she assured me, "and she loved me for it." Of her own colour! I was dirty enough, in all conscience, but I was by far the cleanest in the place, and by many shades less black than my demonstrative admirer. But nothing would quieten the old beldame. [-35-] She sat down beside me, and in a voice about as melodious as the croaking of a very asthmatic frog, she told me her whole history - in which, of course, I was compelled to feign an interest. Every moment she became more and more ardent, and I more confused; and that miserable cripple sat opposite, evidently keenly relishing the humour of the scene, and by no means indisposed to add to my embarrassment. "She's going to kiss you, man," he shouted at length and I was off "like a shot," amidst the guffaws of the entire company. I walked up and down outside the house until I saw the amorous lady wobble unsteadily along the passage that led to her bed-chamber, when I returned, and, sooth to say, somewhat sheepishly took the place I had so precipitately vacated. The seat previously occupied by the love-sick Hibernian was filled now by a decent woman, who wore a wedding-ring; the only female in the room who did so, or who had a claim to one. She was feeding her child, a pretty little boy, with bits of bread and morsels of fried fish ; and when he could eat no more, she commenced her own supper. That being ended, quietly, indeed without a word save a general good-night, she also passed into the passage by the fire and so to bed. But though she had not spoken, there was a world of eloquence in her widow's dress, in the tender care she bestowed upon the child, even in the manner of her shrinking from the conversation. She had "seen better days," and perhaps the best prayer that one could offer on her behalf would be that the memory of those [-36-] "better days" may never be effaced. If it be bitter, it may at least be preventative of a condition in which no gentle thought appears to exist, and into which no recollection of a happier past, no hope of a brighter future, seems to enter.
    I saw only one more arrival that night - another old Irishwoman hideously ugly and hopelessly inebriated. Down the one step into the "kitchen" she plunged, rather than walked, and lurched into the middle of the room, where she stood for a moment with an expression of maudlin contentment. "Ain't I - hic - bloomin' drunk?" she asked, as though there could be even a shadow of a doubt upon the subject. Then, walking sinuously up to the fireplace, she produced a short and unutterably filthy black pipe, lighted it against the glowing cokes, and seating herself on the end of a form, started smoking like - literally like -  "a house afire." At every puff she vented an eructation which filled the room with an ether more spirituous than spiritual. I could bear it no longer. I am not, I hope, unduly fastidious, but the sight and smell were too much for my nerves, and, leaving the room, I intimated my desire to seek repose.
    The damsel who had ordered me into the "other kitchen," called out to some one who was ascending the stairs, "Bill, show this man to bed ; he sleeps in number sixteen - by you, yer know." "Come on, old chap," cried Bill, and I meekly followed.
    "The way into the parlour"- I beg pardon, the bedroom - "was up a winding stair, and such a winding stair. That staircase was a wonderful example of per-[-37-]verted ingenuity; how any one could have planned and executed a structure so steep, so narrow, and so in every respect uncomfortable, is a problem of which no satisfactory solution suggests itself. But the bedroom was emphatically a pleasant surprise. Anywhere else than in a common lodging-house, it would probably have been termed a dirty comfortless hole enough. But remembering the state of things generally obtaining in a doss-'ouse, there was much cause for satisfaction on my part. There were only four beds in the room - that is to say, it was a place in which three people could have slept without being half poisoned, and it was only compelled to hold four; and candour compels me to state that if all kip-'ouses were as well regulated, there would be less cause for complaint.
    Bill undressed and got into bed. He was a lad of about nineteen, pleasant and good-humoured enough, and even if "his manners had not that repose that stamps the caste of Vere de Vere," he did not make use of more than one oath to every half-dozen words; and this, as every one will admit, was a comparatively small proportion. He enlightened me on several points. Mr. Cooney, he said, had once been as poor as he or I, but now he was worth thousands. The place in which we were was the smallest of his houses, but also, in the opinion of my informant, the best and cleanest; and altogether, if a fellow were not unreasonable, Cooney's was rather a desirable sort of habitation. Here the half-inch of candle which was provided for our accommodation incontinently went out, and Bill turned on his side and sought obliviousness in sleep.
[-38-] I saw no rats; but there were plenty of "chamois" and "small deer" of that kind. Quite enough, at any rate, to induce me to get quietly up when the grey light of morning was first stealing over the heavens, and to hasten homewards with the firm resolve that if ever I were compelled to live in an hotel for any length of time, no circumstances would make me eschew other hostelries in favour of "Cooney's."