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No sketch of "doss-'ouse" life - or would it be snore correct to
say "existence" - however slight, would be in any sense complete if it
failed to include some brief mention of the condition and sufferings of those
who, not having the few necessary halfpence, are unable to obtain a shelter of
any sort. Their position is deplorable, and the more so because it is to a large
extent not susceptible of alteration. Filth and stench may be removed by state
intervention and private enterprise, but poverty is not so readily to be
displaced. Human beings can be prevented by legislative interference from
herding together like swine, but no Act of Parliament will put money into a
man's pocket or give him a night's lodging gratis.
When you enter the "kitchen" of a "doss-'ouse," it would be a mistake to suppose that all the people you meet there are going to spend the night under its roof. Many of them are "reg'lar 'uns," who, in consideration of their constant patronage are permitted to spend the evening, or a portion of it, before the blazing coke fire, for though the deputy will give no [-73-] trust, he knows better than to offend a regular lodger. As the evening wears on, however, these poor wretches become restless and moody. They pace the floor with their hands in their otherwise empty pockets, glancing towards the door at each fresh arrival to see if a "pal" has come in from whom it may be possible to borrow the halfpence necessary to complete their doss-money. At last, their final hope being gone, they shuffle out into the streets and prepare to spend the night with only the sky for a canopy.
The parks, of course, are the most favoured resort of the penniless dosser. No more realistic stage-picture was ever produced than "The Slips, Regent's Park," in "The Lights o' London." The scenes and characters there depicted are to be seen any night in all their stern reality; and it is pleasant to be able to write that not the least accurately limned of the dramatis persornae is the bluff, good-hearted "copper." The gentlemen in blue are often reproached and upbraided, but there is more real kindliness of heart and good-nature under the policeman's jacket than most people imagine. To the "dossers" who are obliged to sleep out they are as forbearing as their duty will permit, and many a little kindness have I seen Robert do to some poor starveling wretch, who, probably, would never dream of acknowledging or requiting it in any way, and would heartily curse the whole force five minutes afterwards. One exception, however, must be made. It is said that the policeman on duty at Trafalgar Square has recently adopted the practise of sousing the seats there with water "to keep [-74-] them casuals off." Of course this is done in obedience to orders, but it seems, nevertheless, a piece of wanton cruelty to which there is good reason to object; and the same condemnation will apply to the policy of eviction recently decided upon with regard to those who make the seats along the Thames Embankment their resting-place.
Thrawl Street, Flower and Dean Street, Dorset Street, Parker Street, and similar thoroughfares, are, night after night, thronged with "dossers" who have no money for a night's shelter. They lie on the kerbstone, in the gutters, on heaps of rubbish, anywhere; or walk up and down with their hands in their pockets, and their dull, sleepy eyes, almost closed. Some of them, of course, are wastrels on whom it would be idle to lavish any pity; but a considerable number are men and women who are, or have been, honest labouring folk, whom the depression of trade, which has for so many years blighted the happiness of the industrial population, has ruined. Some of the men have been walking about seeking for work since six o'clock in the morning, or even earlier. They have hung about the docks or the markets the whole day, and very possibly have not earned even a penny. The women and children are even more to be pitied, the latter especially so. I am acquainted with the case of a woman who tries to earn a living by hawking clothes-pegs, sometimes in London, and sometimes in the country. She tramps about with three little children, and during the whole of the winter of 1885-86 not one of them slept under a roof. Nor is this an excep-[-75-]tional or isolated instance. Many a stunted, sickly child, who, after lingering out a wretched, unwholesome existence, a burden to itself and its protectors, "goes into a decline," and succumbs at last to disease, can trace the inception of its malady to the nights it has spent crouched in a doorway, or huddled in a heap upon the pavement. The churches and churchyards, too, or such of them as afford any accommodation, have always their share of hungry, ragged men and women, hanging on to the railings, or crouching down by the walls. Christ Church, Spitalfields, and St. George's Church, Borough, are examples. Every night there are dozens of homeless creatures, male and female, half-leaning, half-lying on the low rail-topped wall that surrounds each building. Outside Christ Church, in particular, the scene is most painful, for the women there are all of the Flower and Dean Street type - that is to say, of the lowest type conceivable. One exception, indeed, I have seen - a woman of middle age crouching against the wall, half-crying. She said she had been out for the last three nights, and, as far as she could see, would be out for many more. She had eaten nothing all that day, for she was a needlewoman, and work was slack, "and," she added, as a couple of wretched girls came flaunting by, singing an obscene chorus, "I'd sooner starve twice over than get my living like them."
London Bridge, too, is a favourite haunt of the "dosser." The broad stone benches in the recesses on either side are always fully occupied, some of the folk sitting, some reclining at full length. There are [-76-] a couple of coffee-stalls at the Borough end of the Bridge, and these do good business, for there is nothing so comforting as a cup of coffee on a cool night when one misses the bedclothes. I have a kindness for coffee-stall keepers. Taking them as a rule, they are decent, well-behaved, civil people, and not devoid of pity for the unfortunate. Many a time will they cut the halfpenny slice of bread and butter larger and spread it more thickly because they see the wistful look of chronic hunger in the longing eyes of some unkempt, haggard customer.
But there are sadder sights to be seen among these homeless ones than men resting on a bridge or against a wall. Often have I met a man and his wife, each with a sleeping child in their arms, walking aimlessly about the streets, as they have walked through all the weary hours of the long, silent night. Gaunt, weak, hollow-eyed, they seldom speak to one another, but walk on in the same mechanical manner. "Kip-'ouses" are bad, with their close, foul rooms, and vermin-covered beds; but to these poor wretches anything would be better than tramping the hard flags, whose resonant echoes mock their heavy footfalls. Yet it is no uncommon sight this, and the only certain thing in addition to the misery and want that are so obvious appears to be that it is to a large extent irremediable.
But bad as all this is in spring and summer, it is ten thousand times worse when the autumn rains and the winter fogs supervene; when the sleet and snow pour pitilessly down, sowing the seeds of con-[-77-]sumption and death alike in strong men and feeble women and children. There could be no greater charity than the invention of some means, if any can be devised, to relieve the sufferings and alleviate the wants of those who are compelled to tramp the streets the livelong night because they have "no doss-money."