Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Dottings of a Dosser, by Howard J. Goldsmid, 1886 - Chapter 6 - The Borough - "Phillips'."

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IT would be grossly unfair, and it would rather prejudice my case than otherwise, were I, in describing the deplorable condition of the common lodging- houses, to show only one side of the medal. It is my business to depict the best as well as the worst, and I cannot better preface the present chapter than by admitting that the house which forms the subject of it was one of the most tolerable I have visited. In some respects there was little to complain of and, in all, it was far less unpleasant than some of the places in which it has fallen to my lot to pass the night. I do not mean it to be inferred from this that it was comfortable, or even that it was a fit place for human beings to be housed in. But there was less of dirt and impurity there than in the majority of common lodging-houses; and if the reader peruses a description of it which certainly presents all that is to be said in its favour; keeping in mind the statement that it is one of the best of common lodging-houses, he will possibly be able to form something like an adequate estimate of the condition of the worst.
[-64-] Formerly, the Borough was one of the nastiest districts in the Metropolis, and Mint Street one of the nastiest streets in the Borough. Now, however, "we have changed all that." The Borough is comparatively respectable, notwithstanding the existence of a very large number of common lodging-houses, and a considerable portion of Mint Street has been altogether demolished. What still remains is, by night, dark and unwholesome-looking enough, in all conscience. A little way down on the right-hand side stands a house over the window of which is a board announcing that there you may have "good beds at fourpence a night." I had often been allured by a similar announcement; and it was with no very sanguine feeling as to the fulfilment of the promise, that one sultry evening in the early summer I knocked at the door and inquired if I could be accommodated with a lodgment for the night. I am uncertain as to the position of the gentleman who vouchsafed an affirmative reply. He might have been the "deputy," but my impression is that he was the actual proprietor.
    "Will you go to bed now?" he asked.
    "No, thanks, not just yet."
    "Very well then, there's the kitchen straight afore you," and he retired into his own sanctum.
    He was an elderly man, tall and lank, with a decidedly better appearance than that presented by the majority of his confreres; and he was the first and only lodging-house keeper I have ever seen with a clean shirt, and a face and neck that bespoke some acquaintance with the renovative powers of soap. [-65-] Following his direction, I crossed a square yard "straight afore me," and entered the kitchen, in which, of course, the inevitable coke fire was roaring loudly and blazing brightly. Strange to say, it was clean. Mind, I do not mean this statement to be accepted without a reservation. It should be taken with a due regard to the spirit of the Italian proverb, "Dove non sono i cani la volpe re" - "Where there are no dogs the fox is a king." Similarly, as there is not probably in any common lodging-house in London a "kitchen" that could be termed absolutely "clean," that adjective may - with, of course, a necessary qualification - be applied to the kitchen at Phillips'. The walls and ceiling were in a very much better state of preservation than in any other "doss-'ouse" I have visited. The cups, saucers, and plates were, without any reservation this time, clean; and the tables showed indications of being scrubbed now and again. In fact, honourable mention must be accorded to the proprietor, so far as his "kitchen" was concerned. It was cosy, fairly well ventilated, comparatively free from dirt; and if all "kip-'ouse" kitchens were as well looked to, the lot of the ordinary "dosser" would be far better and more bearable.
    But the company! Poor wretches! I never saw so much listless misery anywhere as in that kitchen. Not one man had a word to say to his neighbour. One was mending his coat, and silence on his part was therefore comprehensible; for the difficulty of the operation would assuredly have daunted a less bold spirit, the garment being completely in tatters.
    [-66-] Another had leaned his head upon his hands, his elbows resting on his knees, and was staring into the glowing fire before him. Others were stretched at full length on the benches, looking with dull, leaden, expressionless eyes at the ceiling. Not a word was uttered. Those who were finishing their suppers, ate with voracity; but it was the voracity of hunger, not of enjoyment. The silence was as wonderful as it was depressing. When the denizen of a lodging-house doesn't swear it is remarkable, but when he is altogether silent it is nothing short of marvellous. On this occasion the prevalent taciturnity was the more noteworthy as there was, one would have thought, every incentive to conversation. A comparatively clean room, and a few men in it, are usually the only absolute essentials for a palaver; yet here were both, and silence reigned supreme. It could not have been that poverty was the sole cause of their quietude, for I have often seen poorer men lively enough-perhaps, if anything, a trifle too lively. I could not satisfy myself as to the reason of their silence, unless it was that the poor folk whom I had seen among far more squalid surroundings had been obliged to talk in order to forget their miseries, and that these men being less badly situated as regards wholesome atmosphere and cleanly furniture, were deprived of that incentive to conversation which is furnished by the very destitution of many of their comrades. But this hypothesis appears too strained to be altogether tenable; and I will therefore content myself with recording the fact that, during the half-hour I was in the "kitchen," a [-67-] dozen men sat stolid, dull, and miserable; and that, the whole time, not a single word, good, bad, or indifferent, was uttered by any one present.
    So I tired of it, and I went into the yard. It was fairly large, and unevenly paved, with a small and unpleasantly smelling lavatory at one side, and other necessary erections round. There were about half a dozen ill-clad and miserable-looking men there, but they were a little more cheerful than those within doors, and were carrying on an animated conversation, the subject of which, as far as I could glean, was the science of navigation, illustrated, of course, by oaths and expletives unmentionable to ears polite. There was a more attractive spectacle for me, however, in the gambols of some children, belonging, I conjectured, to the lodging-house keeper. These youngsters had been undressed and put to bed, but perversely declined to stop there, and were causing their buxom and good-tempered mother an infinity of trouble. "Them little toads!" she ejaculated as, fairly out of breath, she bundled them for the sixth or seventh time back into their cribs. But it was useless. Out they bounced again in a few minutes-only, of course, to be recaptured as they ran, stark-naked, across the narrow passage between the sitting-room and bedroom that comprised the private apartments of their parents. At last, they were persuaded to remain quietly in bed; but for a long time the sweetest sound that can be heard, the merry ripple of a childish laugh, echoed on my ears as I sat smoking on the side of the coal-hole. The mirth and merriment of those two [-68-] babies constitute the pleasantest of all my doss-'ouse memories; and even the discomfort of my subsequent experience of Phillips' was compensated for by the pleasure I derived from listening to the merry ringing laughter of those provoking little rascals.
    It was a beautiful starlit night, and I sat smoking the calumet of peace till long after the bells had chimed the twelve magic strokes that announce the witching hour of night, when pubs do close and dossers go to roost; sat there, in fact, until I almost fell asleep with my head lying on my chest, as the drunken bargee on the ground in front of me had done. The kitchen had been left to the undisputed possession of the blackbeetles, and the only people not yet a bed were the one or two remaining in the yard. So I roused myself, yawned, and seeking the gentleman who had given me admittance, requested to be shown the quarters in which I was to pass the night.
    I have now fairly enumerated those particulars which constitute the superiority of Phillips' over the large majority of common lodging-houses; and here commendation must cease.
    The comparative cleanliness of the kitchen had inspired the hope that I should find the bedroom similarly comfortable - a hope destined to be rudely shattered. My conductor showed me to a room at the end of the passage on the ground-floor, and bidding me good-night, told me I was to occupy "that end 'un in the corner." The room was very low and ill-ventilated, the only means of admitting light and air being a small window at one end and a skylight.
[-69-]  Yet there were eight beds in it: and it would have been overcrowded had there been five. On the wall, however, was posted the notice, signed by the inspector, informing all whom it might concern that eight was the number of people who were permitted by law to sleep there; so there was nothing to do but lie down and make the best of it.
    As a matter of course the sheets and rugs bore the name "Phillips" in letters three inches long, a precaution which struck me as somewhat unnecessary, for neither "fence" nor pawnbroker would have been likely to receive them unless they were previously disinfected. "That end 'un in the corner," over which was roughly painted the number 60, was a rather dilapidated structure, being all on one side; but I was so tired and sleepy that any couch, almost, would have been welcome. I therefore tumbled into bed, and for perhaps five minutes I was not absolutely uncomfortable. But then I discovered that - to use the words of Tom Hood's famous parody:
    " A monster there dwelt, whom I came to know
    By the name of Cannibal Flea,
    And the brute was possessed with no other thought
    Than to live - and to live on me.

    I was in bed and he was in bed,
    In the district called S.E.,
    When first, in his thirst, so accursed he burst
    Upon me, the Cannibal Flea,
    With a bite that felt as if someone had driven
    A bayonet into me."

    A bayonet! a whole armoury! For an hour I continued the struggle-and then the "chamois" won.
    [-70-] At about half-past one, all the beds being then full, the deputy entered, and, waving his hat at the smoky little oil-lamp, extinguished the light. It was not, however, too dark to see the insects of one sort and another which were crawling over the beds in all directions. Sleep-even of the most fitful sort, was therefore, to me, out of the question, though the other gentlemen in the room were apparently impervious to the attacks of the little wretches that were driving me half wild. As the night drew on the smell became intolerable. It was increased, as it always is in these places, by the effluvium proceeding from those necessary utensils which of course were in the room, and the contents of which were occasionally knocked over and slopped about the floor. It was horrible; and the only thought I could harbour just then would, if put into words, have read : "Would to heaven that the idiot of an inspector who authorized eight people to be put in this room, could just pass one night here. He would quit Mint Street a sadder and a wiser, or at all events less foolish, man. At last I could endure it no longer. I huddled on my clothes, and staggered rather than walked out into the yard. It looked far more uninviting than on the previous night. The house itself was a very tumbledown building, and in the grey morning light appeared very melancholy. But the atmosphere in the yard resembled the purest ether compared to that in the room I had just quitted; though even there, as in the kitchen, the walls had been recently limewashed, and there was some attempt at cleanliness. The unendurably nasty [-71-] state of the place arose entirely from the overcrowding and want of ventilation, and as that is condoned - nay, even encouraged - by the law and those who execute it, is it fair to blame the lodging-house keeper for it?
    The yard was not wholly deserted. A gentleman was reclining at full length on the flags, fast asleep. At first I was almost inclined to seize the opportunity and wash him as he lay there. But it might have given him cold - and he might have resented it. So I confined my cleansing operations to my own skin, and laved my burning face in the water-emphatically not aqua pu-a-that was in the stuffy little lavatory. And then I prepared to shake the dust of Phillips' from my feet, and leave "that end un in the corner to the frisky little creatures who made it their happy hunting - ground. But I couldnt get out. The fastening of the door baffled me. There was nothing for it but to rouse the somnolent gentleman in the yard, and beg him to show me some mode of egress. This I did, and unusually civil he was, and, the obstinate door being mastered-it was easy enough, I found, when you knew how to do it-I issued forth into the narrow street, and soon left the Borough, with its weary, leaden-eyed, out-all-night trampers, far behind me.