Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Dottings of a Dosser, by Howard J. Goldsmid, 1886 - Chapter 10 - Out and About

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So many of the common lodging-houses are merely reproductions of one another, having almost every feature in common, and only differing in the quantity of dirt and the variety of smells, that to describe at any length more of the establishments that adorn the lower thoroughfares of the East End, would be merely to recapitulate a great portion of what has already been written on this subject. The remaining accounts of some of the places in which it has been my privilege to be a guest, will be as brief as even the reader can desire. It must be understood, however, that neither in the following nor the foregoing descriptions has it been found possible to depict with any degree of adequacy either the condition of the accommodation, or the sights and sounds to be heard in the "doss-'ouses." There is much that cannot, from its very nature, be set down on paper, and I am bound to confess that to present to the reader a description of these dens, conveying all the details which attract the notice of an inquirer undertaking a pilgrimage such as mine, would completely baffle me.
    [-100-] Here follow, however, depictions of some of the common lodging-houses, but even when added to the more detailed accounts which have preceded this chapter, they must not be held to convey an adequate impression, either of the number of such places which have been visited, on the one hand, or of their condition and that of their denizens on the other.
    It was on a particularly wet and unpleasant night that I visited SMITH'S CHAMBERS, the Smith's Chambers par excellence; for, though there are many common lodging-houses owned by gentlemen named Smith, the one to which I refer has more than a local celebrity. It is situated at the corner of Brick Lane and Flower and Dean Street, the entrance being in the latter delightful thoroughfare. A dirty and unhealthy looking boy took my fourpence, and told me the number of my bed, which was, if I remember rightly, forty-eight. I cannot say that I either looked or felt particularly happy that night. The rain had soaked my ragged clothes, and the mud had penetrated my broken boots, I was, to use the expression of the fascinating Mantalini, a "dem'd, damp, moist, unpleasant body." The huge fire, however, soon altered the condition of my clothes, and I sat before it steaming for some considerable time, during which I had leisure to make the acquaintance of my companions. There were two kitchens, and in the one in which I first took my seat the more respectable portion of the company was congregated. An old woman was making up artificial flowers with coloured paper, and I was saddened when I thought how many weary miles she would have to [-101-] tramp next day before she would obtain the money to pay for her "kip;" and that, too, at a time of life when she should have been able to abandon work and obtain the ease and quiet which in thought one associates with grey hairs. An old man was reading the Bible (it was Sunday night), and the fact particularly attracted my attention as I have never, before or since, seen the holy Book in a common lodging-house. Near him sat a thin, pale woman, nursing in her arms one of those doss-'ouse babies that are typified by the words of the prophet, "like corn blasted before it is grown up." The child was very ill, and the suffocating atmosphere seemed to choke it as it lay there, its fingers feebly clutching at its mother's wasted breast. Yet what could be done? To take it to the door, where the rain was pouring .down pitilessly, and the fierce night wind was blowing bitterly, would have been even more cruel than to allow it to stay gasping for breath in that close and heated room. But to watch people who are so palpably miserable, and who do not seem to have even that levity which enables them to bear their sorrows without a very great effort, is so unpleasant a task, that I was glad to relinquish my seat and step into the other kitchen, filthy and unpleasant though it was. The individuals who were seated there were about the most disreputable that even Flower and Dean Street could produce. To report their conversation would be to disgust the reader, and to annoy myself by an unpleasant reminiscence. Suffice it to say that the noise and discord were so great, the blasphemy and [-102-] profanity so abhorrent, and the smells so evil and nauseating, that, case-hardened as I was, I was glad to quit the room and go upstairs to bed. About the bedroom the less said the better. It was, as such rooms usually are, shamefully overcrowded, very ill-ventilated, and, as a consequence, foul-smelling and unhealthy. I was heartily rejoiced when morning came and I was free to depart - not soon, I hope, to encounter such squalor and filth as I had seen during the night I spent at Smith's Chambers.
    Hie we now further eastward until we reach St. George's Street, near Ratcliff Highway, where we will rest for the night at JULIER'S CHAMBERS. I don't know whether or not Julier's be a sort of phonetic spelling of Julia's, but as the buxom and not ill-favoured proprietress was sitting outside, it struck me as not improbable that such might be the case. The first thing that arrests one's attention on entering the narrow passage is the notice conspicuously posted on the wall, "No credit given at this establishment;" but the painter, apparently under the not unjustifiable impression that such a legend was superfluous, had partially blurred it out while it was still wet. However, I acted on the spirit of the intimation, and, having paid my fourpence, was shown down into the kitchen, which was underground. It was unutterably dirty, crowded by men who were by no means sober, and smelling abominably. The language that distinguished the conversation was, to use the expression employed by advertising tea-dealers, "of immense strength and very full-flavoured." It appeared principally to relate [-103-] to a gentleman who was known to his comrades as "Shivery Dick," and whose countenance was, to me, wonderfully reminiscent of the effects of my first pipe. He was pale and unhappy-looking, and very unsteady on his legs. He had apparently offended the company, for when I entered they were "going at him hammer and tongs." Poor Mr. Shivery Dick, who was in a maudlin state of intoxication, appeared neither able nor willing to give his friends the satisfaction they desired. I did not wait to see the termination of the dispute; for though at the time of my visit I was tolerably inured to evil smells, the atmosphere was such as to make me anxious to seek "fresh fields and pastures new," and I retreated up the ladder staircase and went to bed.
    I had a glimpse of the usual dirty, overcrowded dormitory, but as I expressed my desire to be called at three o'clock next morning, I was ushered into a little room on the ground floor near the door. This apartment had quite a luxurious appearance. It was pannelled, and lighted by a small skylight, a window, and a gas-jet that was burning over the door, but which, as soon as I had had time to get into bed, was extinguished from the outside. My slumbers ought to have been peaceful, for they were watched over by no less a personage than the late Pope, a painted effigy of whom was suspended over the bed. But the protecting influence of the venerable pontiff was feeble and inefficacious when opposed to the persistent efforts of the insects. Two hours of restless tossing and tumbling, and then the clock struck three, and a [-104-] dirty gentleman with a bandage over his eyes, who acted as night-porter, came and shook me by the shoulder, bidding me tumble up. Tumble up I did, nothing loth, and out into the fresh air I. went, soon leaving Julier's behind me. The best thing that can be said of this house is that it is "not so bad as those that are worse." It is a horrible place for human beings to live in, but it is incomparably better than the squalid dens which line such slums as Parker Street, Widegate Alley, or Flower and Dean Street.
    To write about "doss-'ouses" without mentioning Whitechapel, would be like the proverbial representation of Hamlet with the melancholy Dane left out. So ere we say good-bye to our unsavoury subject, let us look in, if only for a little while, at the WHITECHAPEL CHAMBERS, Old Montague Street. The doorway is lighted up brilliantly, and a small passage only separates the street from the kitchen, which when I visited it had been recently painted. The room was not so filthy as that at the "Little Wonder," nor was it so clean as that at Phillips'. It was about as comfortable as a pig-sty which belonged to a very neglectful farmer might he, and the gaudy colours in which the wall was painted served rather to emphasize than to conceal the prevailing untidiness. The deputy or proprietor - for I am not quite clear as to which was his rightful position-was as dirty as any of his guests, but the filthiness of the night-porter entirely eclipsed his master's. He was a very unsavoury-looking object, this night-porter-a short, spare man, with a "cheese-cutter" cap, and an abnormally dirty blue neckerchief, [-105-] ornamenting a neck which Calcraft would have yearned to try his skill upon. After a brief survey of the room, I lounged out to the front door, when I suddenly received a slap on the back that drove all the breath out of my body. The gentleman who thus forcibly accosted me was drunk-very drunk, and between the hiccoughs which punctuated his speech he said: "I've got summat as'll soot you, guv'nor - some lettuces such as you never seed in all yer born days. I'll let you 'ave 'em at six a penny. They're worth a 'apenny apiece, but I must get my kip-money, so I'll let yer 'ave 'em wery cheap." I consented to become a purchaser, and he went into the house, speedily reappearing with six "lettuces" under his arm. These he pushed into my hands, snatching the penny I offered in exchange; but then he apparently thought better of the matter, for he pulled two of the vegetables away from me, and marched coolly into the house with them, saying, "Them's as many as you'll eat. Go and get them down your neck with a drop o' winegar, and you'll say it's the best grub you've ever et." By and by he returned, and began to enlighten me as to his past history and future prospects, the former being bad, and the latter worse. He seemed much annoyed at my not forthwith starting to masticate the greenmeat I had purchased; but I need hardly say that the idea of eating in a doss-'ouse "kitchen" was about as remote from my mind as anything could possibly be. He stuck to me like a leech for some time, but at length remarked that "he'd go to the pub and try to pross for a bloomin' pint." While he was [-106-] absent on this laudable errand, I seized the opportunity and retired to rest-I beg pardon, I mean to bed. It is unnecessary for me to weary the reader with a description of the bedroom, for any of the doss-'ouse dormitories already depicted would accord in all material features with that at Whitechapel Chambers. It was dirty, noisome, and vermin-haunted. The "dossers" sleeping there were also distinguished by the uncleanliness of their bodies, the evil odour of their breath, and the nastiness of their conversation. When I have said this I have said all that needs to be told, and need record no more than that I rose as early as was possible, and hastened by every means in my power the moment when I was at liberty to divest myself of my "kipping" costume, and resume the customary habiliments of a civilized human being.
    I might extend these descriptions ad infinitum. I might tell of semi-rural Leytonstone, and semi-infernal Seven Dials; of Fuller's Rents, Holborn, and of the charming hostelries of Wellclose Square; of Sugar-Loaf Chambers and of Kate Court - but it would only be to prolong a nauseating record of filth, stench, and abomination, of evil habits and disgusting surroundings, of misery and degradation unspeakable, and of legal unwholesomeness and state-regulated horrors that are a scandal to our age, and a hideous blot upon our vaunted civilization.
    There is one feature, however, in connection with common lodging-houses which is rather amusing than otherwise, and which, in a discursive chapter such as this, I may be permitted to mention. No one who [-107-] has seen anything of these places can have failed to notice the high-sounding names which, as a rule, they bear. "Osborne Chambers, Wentworth Street," sounds, for example, to the uninitiated, like an address which no one need be ashamed to have engraved upon his visiting-cards. But Wentworth Street is one of the most unpleasant of East-end slums, and "Osborne Chambers" is a miserably dirty doss-'ouse, over an equally miserably dirty little chandler's shop. I have slept in the "Empress Chambers," the "Alexandra Chambers," the "Royal," the "Imperial," the "Commercial," the "Princess's," and places that have been christened after every member of every royal family on earth; and my experience leads me to believe that, the loftier the name the lower the doss-'ouse, and that the proprietors only bestow these mellifluously sounding titles upon the abominable dens they own in order to endeavour to screen the unwholesomeness and filth that distinguish their hostelries, just as in some cheap restaurants they hash up the refuse of the previous day, and calling it ragout or potage a la something unpronounceable, rid themselves of their rubbish, and half poison their customers.