Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Dottings of a Dosser, by Howard J. Goldsmid, 1886 - Chapter 5 - "Wilson's"

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"OLD DRURY "has witnessed the production of many a drama of what is generally, but not altogether sympathetically, termed "low life." The author of such a play need not have far to seek for his material. Clustered around the theatre lie many courts and alleys, the denizens of which exemplify the very lowest depth of misery and degradation to which suffering humanity can sink. When, at night, the last carriage has rolled away from the entrance, bearing its load of silk-clad and diamond-garnished pleasure-seekers; when the last Hansom door has been opened, the last "box o' lights sold, the last copper begged - the host of poverty-stricken wretches who have hung about for hours betake themselves to the squalid dens from which they issued in the morning. Mendicants, pickpockets, match-sellers, shoeblacks, flower-girls, who have been waiting in the hope of earning a few coppers beyond their "doss money," start homewards-and as Drury Lane itself grows gradually quiet and soon almost deserted, the narrow, stenchful slums around become crowded with people, and noisy with the [-53-] shouts and objurgations of dissolute men and women in various stages of intoxication. One of these delightful places is Parker Street. I have never seen it in the daytime, but at night it is the very embodiment of all that is most disgusting and offensive; though, alas! it is neither better nor worse than most of the narrow and unwholesome streets that are to be found in the neighbourhood, but is to a large extent typical of the majority of the slums in which common lodging-houses are to be found. Children lie on the pavement and in the gutters. You trip over them as you pass, and they either gather themselves up as if they were well used to it, or, if they are old enough to speak, assail you with a shrill curse that sounds horrible upon their baby-lips. On either side of the way the houses are mean and dilapidated. The doorways are filled with creatures who were once men and women, but whom the miseries attendant on lodging- house life, and their own evil habits, have reduced to something below the level of beasts of burden. Some of the "kip-'ouses" are set apart for the softer sex; others accommodate both men and women, and others again are exclusively tenanted by the sterner portion of humanity.
    It was to one of the latter that on a warm spring evening I bent my steps. "Wilson's" is fairly well known to the fraternity who dwell in "doss-'ouses," and, as such places go, has not a bad reputation. When I approached, the "deppity" was standing outside indulging in some strongly-flavoured chaff with some customers who had not yet succeeded in [-54-] obtaining the fourpences necessary to procure their hotel accommodation. He was a short, thick-set man with mutton-chop whiskers, and a decidedly good-humoured, if not too clean, countenance. My errand having been explained and my fourpence deposited in his dirty palm, he conducted me into a small paved yard. Words cannot adequately describe the unutterably unpleasant smell which pervaded this little enclosure, by reason of the sanitary (?) accommodation ranged round it, which was in an intolerably filthy condition. The deputy led the way into the "kitchen," which was neither more nor less than a cellar; access to it being obtained by a short ladder-staircase running from the yard. The usual combination of counter-tables and wooden benches constituted the furniture; and, if anything, the room was rather more dirty than the "kitchens" previously described. The odour which hung around the yard above was wafted into the room; and the guests who were partaking of the hospitality of Mr. Wilson were as dirty as the room, the furniture, and the cooking-utensils. It is impossible to say more than this, for, to speak truly, it would be most difficult to find a more unwholesome place than that "kitchen," reeking as it was with dirt, smelling most foully, and heated to excess by the coke fire at one end. There was, however, one exception to the general filth. This was a gentleman who was sitting near the fireplace, and who was simply and comfortably clad in a pair of - well, never mind - in a single garment, for he had [-55-] been washing his shirt and it was hanging upon a hook above his head to dry. Perhaps it was because he felt ill-at-ease with a clean skin that he was so exceedingly filthy in his conversation. But as the other occupants of the "kitchen" were snoring on the benches, he was compelled to hold communion only with the "deputy," who, to do him justice, soon disclosed conspicuous ability in the ingenious and artistic method of talk that generally commends itself to the dosser. By and by, however, the company was augmented by the arrival of a "cadger," an old man, whose body was bent almost double with the weight of years, and whose countenance was distorted with horrible grimaces as he counted the few coppers that he had "earned," and lamented the hardness of the times. And here let me remark, in parenthesis, that, from what I have been enabled to see of the many professional beggars who frequent common lodging-houses, I am disposed to entirely disbelieve those stories which are universally current as to the profits of the "cadger's" calling. It is often said that the sturdy men we see tramping the streets seeking alms, earn far more by those means than in all probability they would from honest unskilled labour; and there is no doubt that this belief restrains the generosity of many who would otherwise assist the peripatetic beggar. For my own part-speaking, of course, from the experience gained by association with such men in common lodging-houses - I am bound to assert that the majority of them hate and detest their "profession" with all their [-56-] hearts, and are only driven to it by sheer necessity and the irresistible influence of grinding poverty. And further, that the sums "earned" by them are by no means so large as is generally supposed, and in the preponderating number of instances are absolutely infinitesimal.
    The reader will surmise from the descriptions given m preceding pages that the "kitchen" of a common lodging-house is not the most agreeable place in which to spend the evening; but as far as Wilson's is concerned, I can only say that the Beehive was Elysium, and Cooney's pleasantness itself when compared to this horrible hovel, though I am constrained to admit that I have seen many worse both before and since. However, I did not remain there long. The shirtless gentleman having notified his desire to seek repose, I expressed myself willing to do likewise, and he was requested by the deputy to show me to my couch. "This chap," he was informed, "will sleep in Slasher's bed;" and with a good-night I departed to seek the bed-chamber which was assigned to me.
    Oh, those stairs! Tortuous, winding, creaking, broken, and festooned with cobwebs, I thought we should never reach the top. The half-inch of doll's candle with which my conductor had been entrusted shed a feeble - a very feeble - light, and by the time that the ascent was completed my shins were decidedly uncomfortably bruised. But when, at last, our dormitory was reached, I felt less resigned than ever to the prospect of spending the night under Mr. Wilson's roof. It was very small, very stuffy, and [-57-] there were - horribile dictu! - eight beds in it. If a room of that size - imperfectly ventilated as it was - had had three people sleeping in it, it would have been unpleasant for all of them; but the idea of eight men, most of them half-drunk and all by no means cleanly, lying in such a place seemed to me then, as it does now, absolutely revolting. It was, of course, impossible to ascertain the size of the room by measurement without attracting the notice of my neighbours, or I should most assuredly have endeavoured to do so; but I am almost certain that, shamefully lax as are the requirements of the existing law, they were at the time of my visit to Parker Street most imperfectly complied with. However, the place is periodically "inspected," and we must suppose therefore that it is permissible for the proprietors of a "doss-'ouse" to half poison his lodgers, and compel them to inhale an atmosphere which would be regarded as intolerable at any well-regulated sewage-wharf.
    When my guide and I entered the room, however, there was only one other occupant, a gentleman of colour who was irreverently addressed as "Darkie." My companion soon denuded himself of his one garment, placed himself gingerly on his bed as though he feared it would collapse under his weight - a catastrophe which, by the way, was not at all impossible - and lighting a very dirty and disreputable-looking pipe, commenced to smoke. The odour of the worst kind of shag tobacco is not, as a rule grateful to one's olfactory nerves; but in this case [-58-] it was decidedly welcome, for it served, to some extent, to dissipate the infinitely fouler smell which pervaded the room. The smoker, apparently, had something on his mind which prevented him from enjoying his pipe to the full extent. At last he gazed for a moment at "Darkie," in order to see if he were asleep, and, removing the pike from his mouth, gave me the following friendly advice, garnished with a few oaths to which, as an old American backwoods farmer once observed, "I can't do jestice," and which I therefore omit.
    "Look ere, cocky, I tell yer if you've any wish to keep yer togs safe put 'em under yer piller; an' if yer've got any money, take care no one don't 'ear it chink."
    "Why?" said I, assuming an air of innocence; "surely no one would rob a man as badly off as themselves!"
    "I don't say they would, an' I don't say they wouldn't, but I do know that when there is a cove robbed it ain't very pleasant to us as sleeps 'ere reglar; so I just give yer that bit of advice. Things o' that sort 'as been done 'ere, and as you don't seem as if you was much used to these sort o' cribs, it's as well to take care."
    Of course I thanked my mentor, who received my expressions of gratitude with a sort of surly good-nature which seemed to say, "I thought I ought to tell you, but p'r'aps it was scarcely fair to spoil my pals' chances. It was some time before I could make up ny mind to divest myself of my clothing, but I did so [-59-] at length and laid myself on the bed assigned to me. Such a bed ! All of those at Wilson's were abominable, but I firmly believe that an unkind fate had assigned the worst of the lot to me. All the structures on which we were condemned for our sins to recline were the usual lodging-house pieces of upholstery, narrow and dirty, and raised but a very little way from the floor. But they differed from "the ruck" in that they were more than usually rotten and dilapidated, and seemed to be held together by some occult means known only to the proprietor or the deputy. Creak! creak! creak! they went, every time one turned or moved in the slightest degree, till it was impossible to avoid wondering how they were prevented from tumbling incontinently to pieces. The couch on which I reclined afforded me conclusive information as to its usual occupant, Mr. "Slasher." He must have been exceedingly filthy and abnormally pachydermatous. Otherwise, he could never, in the first instance, have harboured, and, in the second, could never have survived the attacks, of the enormous number of vermin that swarmed about his resting- place. I wished him no harm, however; I only regretted that I had replaced him, and that the uncomfortable mattress was not as usual graced by his manly form. But I was prevented from indulging in speculations as to his habits and whereabouts by the entrance of a couple of gentlemen who had apparently disagreed somewhat below stairs, and who continued their very forcible arguments for some time after their entrance into the dormitory. One of them exhibited [-60-] a passionate yearning to "chuck" his companion "out o' winder," while the latter expressed very decided doubts as to his ability to do it. Their colloquy, which was rapidly becoming painfully interesting to the other occupants of the room, was, however, interrupted by the advent of an Irish gentleman, who told them plainly that "if they didn't shut up their (adjective) row, he'd be (expletive) if he didn't break every (adjective) bone in their (expletive) bodies." He was an old man, this, but tall and raw-boned enough to convey a fairly strong impression that he could and would be as good as his word. So, after a few muttered threats and recriminations, the quarrelsome gentlemen desisted; and, for a while, there was comparative tranquillity. The last corner informed us that he had just left Hyde Park, where a large number of his friends and acquaintances were "dossing out," and the opinion was generally expressed that, if it were not for the "coppers," it was much pleasanter to sleep out of doors than in-at all events in the summer. There were two windows in the room, which the suffocating and mephitic atmosphere compelled us to keep open, and a by no means pleasant draught came from them, as a result of which I had a stiff neck next day. It often happens in these lodging-houses that one has to endure an immensity of discomfort for the sake of a little fresh air. I remember on one occasion sleeping in a small close room with, I think, nine beds in it, where the only pretence at ventilation consisted of a single skylight in the sloping ceiling. Although it was a miserably wet night and [-61-] the rain was pouring in torrents, it was absolutely imperative that this aperture should be kept open; so the beds were moved about so that there was none under the skylight, and the water was allowed to enter together with the air. The sloppy puddle on the floor was, of course, a nuisance; but the necessity for ventilation of some sort was so urgent that the former was endured patiently, because it was only by those means that we could obtain the latter. So at Wilson's. The draught that came from the windows was unpleasant enough, but to close them would have been almost suffocation, and I was the less inclined to do so as the bed next to me was occupied by a gentleman who came up just as the clock finished striking the midnight hour, and who had evidently been imbibing the noxious and nauseous stuff which, in the neighbourhood of Parker Street, is by courtesy termed ale. He had thrown himself upon his pallet with his clothes on, and there he lay, snoring like a pig, and smelling like a litter.
    But even if the sounds within had not been so decidedly unpleasant, those without were sufficient to prevent any one from sleeping. From the streets came the noise of quarrelling and fighting, which continued unintermittently until, about three o'clock in the morning, it occurred to me that I had had sufficient experience of Wilson's lodging-house; and that it would be advisable to transport as much of my body as had not been devoured by the "chamois" into the less impure and fcotid atmosphere outside. Many of the "dossers in the rooms above and below were rising to com-[-62-]mence their day's work in Covent Garden Market, and I therefore attracted no notice by leaving thus early. I was not loth to hear the last creak of my bedstead as I rolled off it, the last snort of my drunken neighbour as I descended the rickety and winding staircase; still less was I averse to inhaling the last whiff of the peculiar atmosphere of Wilson's as I walked hurriedly through the low doorway I had entered four or five hours before.
    Through Drury Lane, where two "nymphs of the pavement" were, thanks to the kindness of a cabdriver, indulging in chaste repose in a hansom; along the almost deserted Strand; and homewards to the ever welcome bath and change of garments, I walked by no means leisurely. I bought a cup of coffee at a stall on the road, and I verily believe that I enjoyed that drink better than any I have ever quaffed. Not that it was by any means genuine Mocha - probably it was an infusion of home-grown horse-beans. But it served to remove from my throat the last lingering traces of the stench and vapour I had been compelled to inhale during one of the most unpleasant nights I can ever remember to have spent.