Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Dottings of a Dosser, by Howard J. Goldsmid, 1886 - Chapter 9 - Ratcliff Highway

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RATCLIFF HIGHWAY conjures up in the mind of a nervous or impressionable person all sorts of disagreeable imaginings. Visions of swarthy Malays and thick-lipped Lascars, of drunken Jack Tars and equally drunken women, flit before his eyes. The majority of good people would avoid a visit to Ratcliff Highway as they would the devil or the tax-collector. I admit that, from all I had heard about it, I rather dreaded a pilgrimage thither, and that the horribly unpleasant fancies I have hinted at above were not altogether absent from my mind. However, when I went there I found that, like the extraction of a tooth, it was more disagreeable in the anticipation than in the reality. Ratcliff Highway is by no means so black as it is painted. It is a dark, unpleasant street enough, and for the diversity and intensity of its smells would rival Cologne itself. The men are drunken, and the women simply horrible; but I would rather walk down Ratcliff Highway twenty times, in ordinary attire, than down Flower and Dean Street [-91-] twice. There is, of course, an amount of rough horse-play; but I never saw anything approaching to actual violence. I received the first intimation that I had actually reached this noted and somewhat maligned thoroughfare by feeling a shock like a small earthquake. A partially inebriated gentleman, who laboured under the impression, which he expressed with great emphasis, that I was a sanguinary Fenian, had pushed up against me with all his force. As I have an insuperable objection to being under an obligation to any one, I returned the push with all the interest I could, and somehow or other-it is not for me to explain how-my assailant found himself in the gutter, whence he immediately sprang, averring that I was a "jolly old cock," and offering to "stand a pot." Declining the proffered hospitality, I continued my peregrinations, seeing, for some considerable time, nothing more terrible than one or two fights between men and women. It must be admitted that the ladies who frequent Ratcliff Highway are deserving of the very worst that can be said about them. A short study of their idiosyncrasies is entertaining, but hardly edifying. Step into a public-house and you will see them, half a dozen of them perhaps, executing an abominable sort of can-can, accompanying it with the most indecent posturing, and hiccoughing out snatches of the most revolting doggrel; while the landlady sits behind the counter shaking her fat sides with laughter. No effort is made to restrain their ardent spirits, or to induce them to confine their mirth within the bounds of decency. It is but fair to [-92-] add that, even if made, such efforts would in all probability be unsuccessful.
    I had had enough of the Highway, and was seeking a resting-place for the night, when my progress was accelerated by an incident which might possibly have terminated unpleasantly for me. As I was passing a corner at which some half-dozen men were standing, one of them threw a particularly frowsy and evil-smelling cap. It struck me in the face, and as it was falling to the ground I caught it and pretended to throw it back. I then walked leisurely on, chuckling to myself as I watched them groping in the dark for the cap which I still carried in my hand. They found out their mistake, however, rather too quickly, and the whole lot came running after me, vowing vengeance and threatening all kinds of unpleasant consequences. I waited till the leader was very close to me, and then, flinging the cap with all my force full in his face, I took to my heels. Not a moment too soon, either, for they continued the pursuit, and had they overtaken me, I might possibly have been unpleasantly mauled. As it was, however, I darted into an open doorway, and, pushing a little inner swing-door, found myself in the kitchen of "King David's Chambers."
    There must have been some mistake. " Behold, I dwell in a house of cedar," said the Psalmist King; and he is also responsible for the assertion that "all men are liars." Perhaps the truth of the aphorism may account for the singular inappositeness of the title given to the "doss-'ouse."
    [-93-] King David's Chambers are reminiscent rather of loimopyra than Lebanon. The exterior presents a somewhat imposing appearance, and awakes expectations of comfort and cosiness which the reality by no means justifies. In the passage are painted, in conspicuous characters, two notices, one intimating that "no females are admitted," and the other requesting "gentlemen" not to stand about the doorway. The former, having regard to the character of the Ratcliff Highway damsels, is welcome and reassuring; the latter, owing to the scarcity of "gentlemen" in that salubrious district, is entirely unnecessary.
    The kitchen is by no means so large as one would imagine from the appearance of the building viewed from the street, but there is sufficient dirt there to allow of its being distributed over a much larger surface, and then appearing exceedingly unwholesome. The company at the time of my arrival was not very numerous, the majority of the lodgers having retired to rest. One of the most important personages present was a gentleman rejoicing in the name of Barrett, to which his comrades facetiously prefixed the Christian name of "Wilson," a compliment which I fear the eminent actor would hardly have appreciated. Another interesting specimen was an inebriated old gentleman who was offering to "harger" on any point, and to "conflute" any opposing "hargermint" that might be adduced. He confined himself, however, to "hargering" with a young man in a maudlin state of intoxication as to the advisability of his "standin' a pot." "You're a fule, Tom," said the [-94-] venerable sage, "an' the honly advice I kin give yer is to knock a 'ole into that thick 'ead o' yourn, take some o the himpudence out, an' put some common sense an' generosity in." "Yes, but," rejoined the young man, with a stupid stare, and evidently taking the recommendation in a literal sense, "w'ich part of my 'ead should I knock a nole in?" and here he removed a dilapidated hat, and disclosed an exceedingly unkempt and dirty-looking cranium. "W'ich part?" repeated the elderly gentleman, rising unsteadily, and working his arms up and down see-saw fashion- "W'ich part? wy, in the bump of hub-bub-bub-nevlence, to be sure," and then he stalked out of the room, with as much dignity as a man who can hardly support the weight of his own body can maintain. He was followed by the younger votary of Bacchus, and we heard them still "hargerin' the pint" - no pun is intended - with loud voices and many oaths, as they adjourned to the opposite public- house.
    Their exit was the signal for the entrance of a little old man, whose pinched and haggard features were quite sufficient, without the aid of his shrill, piping voice, to tell us that he was hungry. Having enlightened us, however, to this extent, he commenced to prepare his supper. Shade of Soyer! what cookery! Hanging by the side of the chimneypiece was a piece of thick iron wire. During the evening it had been utilized for stirring the fire and beating the cat, and one gentleman had used it for the purpose of cleaning the bowl of a particularly filthy [-95-] clay pipe. The hungry gentleman simply poked this through two large bloaters, and set them in front of the blazing fire to toast. He was not fastidious. He made no pretence of cleaning them, but as soon as they were well warmed through, he sat down and ate them, gills, bones, heads, and all. I was glad when the last morsel had disappeared down his voracious throat, for they were, to put it mildly, rather high, and the smell of them, no less than the manner of the cookery and the meal, was sickening and disgusting.
    A puffy-faced youth having started to go to bed, the deputy turned to me and remarked, "This cove sleeps next to you; if you like to go to bed now 'e'll show you yourn." The recommendation was delivered too much in the tone of a command to be lightly disregarded, and I followed the fat-cheeked young man upstairs. Never before or since have I seen such a staircase in a common lodging-house. They were absolutely luxurious in their breadth, and the ease and the comfort of the ascent filled me with the most sanguine expectations as to the probable nature of the bedroom I was to occupy.
    I was soon disillusionized. The bedroom - Heaven save the mark ! - was a narrow slip of a place, with a small gas-jet burning at one end. And here let me direct the particular attention of the reader to a fact which is important as exemplifying the wisdom and care exercised by those who are responsible for the inspection of common lodging-houses. The inspector had given his permission, which of course was prominently posted on the wall, to place five beds in [-96-] the room. It was absolutely impossible to screw in more than four, owing to the size and shape of the apartment, and even with four the heat was overpowering and the stench unbearable. Of course, if he could, the proprietor would have put five people to sleep in the room. The law, as executed by a sapient inspector, said he might. Fortunately for us it was an utter impossibility, but what can be said of the common sense, not to say the humanity, of the man who authorized a lodging-house keeper to place in a room more beds than, with any amount of planning and contriving, could be squeezed within its four walls.
    The apartment, however, was cleaner than the ordinary "doss-'ouse" bedroom. The walls had been recently papered, and my visit was, happily for me, paid on "clean sheet-day." But nothing could atone for the absolute brutality - there is no other word for it - of placing four men to sleep in a room so small. The stench was unendurable, and things were not rendered more pleasant by the fact that we were lying just above the kitchen fireplace; and that the intolerable heat made the entomological specimens that infested the room more lively than they would have been in a cooler atmosphere. I had the monopoly of the one window which was just by my bed, and I threw down the sash as far as it would go; but as the only things to be seen outside were brick walls and tiled roofs, and there was not a breath of air stirring, I failed to derive much advantage from the proximity of the casement.
    [-97-] My puffy-faced friend, although he had lived in common lodging-houses for years, and had slept in the bed he then occupied for six months, did not seem to be able to find words in which to express his abhorrence of the disgusting smell that pervaded the room. He was not a bad fellow, however, and as some one had to curse the stench, perhaps it was better that he should do it than I. There were seventy beds, he told me, in the house, which he declared, with many an oath, was "a sight better than most kips, though none on 'em ain't too bloomin' grand." And then with one final volley of oaths, all in reference to the horribly malodorous state of the room, he turned over on his side, and the stertorous snorts that issued from his corner of the room soon told me that "Nature's soft nurse" had "weighed his eyelids down, and steeped his senses in forgetfulness."
    There was a large room next door to that in which I was lying, in which some ten or a dozen men were located. These gentlemen, who were all more or less under the influence of liquor, were disposed to be quarrelsome, and the noise of their altercations would have been sufficient, even without the persecution I suffered from the vermin, to preclude me from snatching the proverbial "forty winks." I lay there, tossing from side to side, feeling, to say the truth, much as Will Waddle did in the bed "immediately over the oven." About one o'clock the deputy came in to turn off the gas. "W'y, sonny," he said, "you does seem wakeful." As soon as I heard a neighbouring church clock strike two I rose, dressed myself, and [-98-] slipped quietly out. It was the first time I had eve slept in the apartments of an Oriental potentate ; and as I left King David's Chambers I mentally determined that, if they all resembled those, it should most certainly be the last.