Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Dottings of a Dosser, by Howard J. Goldsmid, 1886 - Chapter 11 - Lodging-House Law

[back to menu for this book]




WE owe to a great "parochial" authority the aphorism that "the law is a hass." This dictum might not only be applied, but extended, with regard to common lodging-houses the law which regulates them is not only "a hass," but a brute; it not only does no good, but it produces evil; it is not less a nuisance than a nullity, not more a blessing than a bother.
    It is a moot point for discussion whether the dossers would not be better off if there were no lodging-house law at all. It has been well said that a woman may be charming in maidenhood; but that, once married, she sets her back against her marriage-certificate and defies you. Similarly, the lodging-house keeper might be compelled by his customer to provide cleanlier accommodation, to get rid of the superfluous vermin, and to make his place more desirable generally, if it were not for the fact that there exists a beneficent law which enables him to make his lodging-house the horrible den which in most cases it is, and then point to the notice on the walls and say, "I comply with the Act."
    [-109-] It is a remarkable fact that there has been no legislation dealing extensively with common lodging-houses for five and thirty years. The Common Lodging.- Houses Act, 1851, and the Amendment Act of the following year, are the only attempts (and these are a great deal worse than useless) that have been made to deal with the lodging-houses of themselves. Incidentally, the Sanitary Act, 1866, makes some salutary provisions in regard to "a house or part of a house which is let in lodgings, or occupied by the members of more than one family," and then this statute proceeds to prescribe that "this Act shall not apply to common lodging-houses within the provisions of the Common Lodging-Houses Act, 1851, or any Act amending the same." The Public Health Act, 1875, which was ostensibly an Act for "consolidating and amending" the Acts previously passed, consolidates, but does not in a single particular amend, the laws that affect the doss-'ouses. So that, after all, practically, if not technically, "the Common Lodging-Houses Act, 1851, and the Acts amending the same," are the only measures that directly apply to the question in hand. While the artizan and the labourer are looked after by the vigilant eye of the law, the "dosser" has been left severely alone, Some people may say that this is because the artizan and the labourer have a vote, and the dosser has none. To endorse this assertion would be, in effect, to bring a charge of gross venality against both political parties in the state, and I refrain from doing so. I prefer to look upon it as a coincidence, and a coincidence only,. [-110-] that care is taken of the folks whom it is the interest of legislators to conciliate, while those who are unable to decide who shall enjoy power and place have been for five and thirty years unconsidered by the powers that be.
    Political teachers have recently enunciated the doctrine that the principle of a measure is to be considered without reference to the details. But some ignorant people, in whose ranks I am not ashamed to include myself, appear to consider that there are cases in which the clauses of a measure result in details which are diametrically opposed to, or, at all events, place material restrictions upon, the principle set forth in the preamble. The Common Lodging-Houses Act is such a measure. Its principle, as stated in the preamble, is to "tend greatly to the comfort and welfare of many of Her Majesty's poorer subjects," by making "provision for the well-ordering of common lodging-houses. Its principle as evolved from its clauses would appear to be to make just enough provision to prevent the inhabitants of .the kip-'ouses from becoming a dangerous nuisance. The law says in effect to the dosser, "Friend, you may be as dirty as you please, or as the lodging-house keeper may please; but don't become dangerous. Wallow in filth, if you like, but don't contaminate your wealthier neighbours. Roll in the dirt until you catch the itch, for no one would be likely to take it from you as you pass in the street; but don't get smallpox or fever, because these may possibly cause an epidemic. Breathe nothing but stench that half [-111-] chokes you, weakens you, and shortens your life. After all, that doesn't so much matter; for, though we love the poor, you are too poor to be interesting; but (and here the Law turns to the lodging-house keeper) don't let that stench escape into the streets, so that "'respectable people' have to breathe it too." Comfort! Welfare! The Law provides for the comfort and welfare of the "dosser" exactly in the same degree, and, to all appearance, exactly from the same motive, as the slave-owner in some States in America did for his human chattels. It makes them as comfortless and unhappy as can be done with apparent safety or without immediate loss. Occasionally the slaves objected to the application of this principle, and murdered their owner or burned his house. Then the policy was perceived to be rather shortsighted.
    But the details of the Act - what are they? Clause three, which is the first of any importance, states that "This Act shall be executed as follows, to wit:-
    "Within and for all or any part of the Metropolitan Police District by the Commissioners of Police of the Metropolis, or such one of them as is from time to time appointed in that behalf by one of Her Majesty's principal Secretaries of State."
    There are many people who think that if an Act is intended to be inoperative, or at the best to have its letter studiously adhered to, and its spirit studiously ignored, the best way to ensure such an object is to entrust the execution of the measure to "the Dodo of Scotland Yard." From the fact that the notices in [-112-] the bedrooms, regulating the number of beds to be placed there, bear the printed signature of Colonel R. L. O. Pearson, one is led to conclude that he is "such one of them" (the Commissioners) "as is appointed in that behalf by one of Her Majesty's principal Secretaries of State." If the gallant officer were to assume the guise of a dosser and to penetrate some night at midnight to a kip-'ouse - say, for example, to the Little Wonder - I fancy he would believe, firstly, that the existing law is badly - not to say shamefully - administered; and, secondly, that it wants strengthening. But Scotland Yard has quite enough to do without the lodging-houses. Scotland Yard is incapable. Scotland Yard is played out; and Scotland Yard has no more right to regulate the lodging-houses than it would have had to control the movements of the Evolutionary Squadron when it was blowing itself up and making itself ridiculous out at. Berehaven.
    All the common lodging-houses must be registered, the registers preserved, and a certified copy of them. is to be received as evidence in all courts of justice without the production of the original. A copy of any entry in such a register may be obtained by any person applying at a reasonable time. There is no. particular good or harm in these provisions, except that the keeping of the register facilitates inspection; but, as the inspection itself is a mere farce, the advantages resultant from the register are not at first sight readily discernible.* [*All clauses of the Lodging Houses Act, 1851, or the Amendment Act of 1853 quoted in these pages, are represented by clauses in the Public Health Act, 1875. I have preferred to quote the Lodging House Acts, firstly, because they refer exclusively to the subject, and secondly, because they are cheap and readily accessible.]
    Inspection ! The act is worded ("for it's English, [-113-] you know, quite English") so that inspection under its provisions may mean anything or nothing. Most frequently, of course, it means nothing. Says the Act:
    "The keeper of a common lodging-house, or any person having or acting in the care or management thereof, shall at all times when required by any officer of the local authority give him free access to such house or any part thereof."
    Now, if this clause were well administered, it might be of very great importance, but its whole purpose is nullified because for some occult reason the inspection takes place in the daytime! That is to say, that when the rooms are clear and the evil smells of the previous night have to some extent passed away, the inspector goes his rounds. He sees that the rooms are filled with beds, but he does not see the vermin on the clothes and bed-furniture. He knows that so many men will sleep in that room at night, but he does not know - or, at all events, he acts as if he did not know - the class of men they will be. He doesn't reckon for the effect produced on an atmosphere which at best would be impure by the breath of a dozen, twenty, thirty, or even more men who have been drinking the filthy and noxious decoctions which are sold in low beer-houses and drain-shops as ale and spirits. All [-114-] these are matters that ought to receive careful consideration, for the inspector calculates that the sleepers will have so many cubic feet of air; while, as a matter of fact, they are compelled to be content with so many cubic feet of stench. The expression is not elegant, but it is far more endurable than the state of things it describes. The inspection is a farce, and I have met many dossers who say, outright, that it is a farce because the inspectors are susceptible to bribery, and are in league with the lodging-house keepers, who know when to expect them, and who make things straight before their visits. In all probability there is but small foundation for this; but the certainty that the employés of the Commissioners of Police are corruptible in other matters, renders it at least possible that they are not entirely above suspicion in this.
    The duties of the inspectors are not, however, confined entirely to the regulation of the sleeping accommodation of a lodging-house. In addition to the provisions already enumerated, the Act prescribes (clause 13) that-
    "The keeper of a common lodging-house shall thoroughly cleanse all the rooms, passages, stairs, floors, windows, doors, walls, ceilings, privies, cesspools, and drains thereof to the satisfaction of, and so often as shall be required by, or in accordance with any regulation or by-law of, the local authority; and shall well and sufficiently and to the like satisfaction limewash the walls and ceilings thereof in the first week of each of the months of April and October in every year."
    [-115-] With regard to the provisions of this clause, it may be observed that, if the surmise of the dossers be correct, and the lodging-house keepers are warned before the inspection takes place, nothing can be more easy than to have the houses in, comparatively speaking, apple-pie order when the inspector comes round. But if, on the other hand, the inspectors visit these places without previous communication with the keepers, if they visit them as I did, when they are full and when no one is prepared for their arrival, it is absolutely certain - and the statement is made with all possible emphasis - that the provisions of the Act are grossly and shamefully disregarded. The local authority must be easily satisfied indeed, if it regard the dirt and filth I have always seen in a lodging-house as not rendering them unfit for the habitation of human beings. As to the latter portion of the clause, it can only be said that if the lime-washing prescribed therein be done "to the satisfaction of the local authority," that satisfaction must be most easily secured. I have visited lodging-houses within a month after the prescribed date of the limewashing and I should have been loth to believe that the walls and ceilings had been touched at all, not within two months, but within two years. If it be done it is in a perfunctory and negligent manner, but as far as I have been enabled to observe, the provision which directs this cleansing operation is, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, absolutely nugatory.
    But when the dirt and the ill smells have done their work, and some poor wretch takes to his bed [-116-] with a "fever or other infectious or contagious disease," the law intervenes, not, be it remarked, in the interest of the dosser, but in that of the public - or, at all events, of that portion of the public which does not dwell in lodging-houses. The keeper of the house must "give immediate notice to the local authority, or some officer of the local authority; and also to the poor-law medical officer and the poor-law relieving officer of the union or parish in which the lodging-house stands." The local authority (always bear in mind that the "local authority" is, within the metropolitan police district, represented by the Commissioners of Police) may then order the removal of the sufferer to an hospital or infirmary, may have his bedding disinfected or destroyed, and may award compensation to the owner "for the injury or destruction thereof." Observe that there is no compulsion. The authorities "may, if they see fit," do this, that, or t'other; but if, as some good people believe, the authorities in this thrice blessed metropolis are pigheaded and negligent, there is, to say the least, a remote possibility that they may "see fit" to do just nothing at all. And, above all, observe that the clause applies only to the one person who is ill, and makes no provision for the complete disinfection of the house, in which forty or fifty other people may be living, any and all of whom are almost certain to be in that condition of physical weakness in which all human beings most frequently contract disorders.
    "When a keeper of a common lodging-house, or [-117-] a person having or acting in the care or management of a common lodging-house, is convicted of a third offence against the recited Act, or this Act, or either of them, the justices before whom the conviction for such third offence takes place may, if they think fit* [* the italics are my own] adjudge that he shall not at any time within five years after the conviction, or within such shorter period after the conviction as the justices may think fit, keep, or have, or act in the care or management of a common lodging- house without the previous license in writing of the local authority, which license the local authority may withold or may grant on such terms or conditions as they think fit."* [* The Common Lodging Houses Act, 1853, s12]
    If "the combined and concentrated wisdom of Bedlam and Colney Hatch" had endeavoured to formulate an Act of Parliament, it is probable that the result would have been just such a clause as that quoted above. Justice Shallow may, if he thinks fit, inflict a penalty which in reality amounts to nothing at all. He may say that the keeper of a lodging- house shall not keep one for five years "or any less period," and the interesting delinquent can, metaphorically speaking, like the sacristan in Barham's famous legend of "Nell Cook"-
            "say no word which can imply a doubt,
        But put his thumb unto his nose and spread his fingers out."
    He can take another house, put his deputy's name over the door; and, by not appearing in the business, [-118-] be perfectly safe in receiving all the profits. But, not content with this, the sapient gentlemen who drafted this Act have provided that the magistrate's decision can be rendered nugatory by the granting of a license by the local authority, which license the local authority may give or may withhold on such terms and conditions as they think fit. The idea of making the Commissioners of Police practically a court of revision for the decisions of the magistrates in lodging-house cases, is entertaining and original, but hardly creditable to the intelligence of those who conceived it. Of course it is hardly likely that the local authority would attempt to override a justice's decision, but they may do so if they like; and experience shows that the most certain way of rendering an enactment useless, is to establish conflicting authorities charged with the duty of its administration.
    This is a brief abstract of the law relating to common lodging-houses. The whole matter may be summed up by saying that the law is bad, and its administration worse. Such provisions as are not foolishly lax are imperfectly enforced. To expect the dossers themselves to take any steps to put the law in motion would be absurd; firstly, because they do not know what its provisions are; secondly, because they have neither the time nor the money to do it; and, thirdly, because any such attempt on their part would not improbably result in unpleasant consequences. Nor would it be just to blame the lodging-house keepers unduly. There is a law. They observe it- at all events, so far as is absolutely necessary in order [-119-] to avoid pains and penalties. The proverb tells us that we can't get juice out of a flint. It would be as absurd to expect to find the milk of human kindness in the ordinary lodging-house keeper as in that bailiff who is reported, when there was nothing else on which to levy execution, to have distrained upon the ashes in the grate, saying that he'd come to-morrow for the smoke The jess they do, the greater their profit; an as long as dirt and foul smells are made by law more profitable than cleanliness and proper sanitation, so long will dirt and foul smells be the inseparable characteristics of the lodging-houses.