Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Dottings of a Dosser, by Howard J. Goldsmid, 1886 - Chapter 12 - Should Aught be Done, and What?

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Possibly more than one of the readers of these pages may say that nothing is contained in them that they did not already know or could not have surmised. "It is not surprising," they will say, "that the condition of common lodging-houses should be uncleanly and malodorous, for the people who tenant them are uncleanly and malodorous, too." Granting this, which I do not grant without some reservation, the question arises which is cause and which effect? Are the lodging-houses unwholesome and filthy because the tenants are so; or are the condition and habits of the dosser to be ascribed to the squalor and insanitary condition of their lodgings - it were a mockery to say their homes? I incline to the latter opinion. I believe that if the "doss-'ouses" were cleaner, the dossers would be cleaner; that if they had light and comfort and fresh air, they would learn to avoid the gin-palace and the beershop; that if there were in their surroundings more regard for the decencies of life, they would also show in their persons and their habits more remembrance of those decencies. [-121-] You cannot expect people whom custom and the law alike compel to herd and breed like swine to live like human beings. You cannot expect those to whom nearly all necessaries, and absolutely all comforts and refinements, are unknown, to be creditable or even decent members of society. You cannot expect those who only see a brightly lighted room in a public-house to be sober. In a word, if you allow the common lodging-houses to remain what they are, you must expect no improvement in the people who tenant them.
    Yes, but what can you expect for fourpence a night? Not luxury, certainly; but wholesomeness, cleanliness, and perhaps some slight attempt at comfort. Fourpence a night for a man and his wife means four and eightpence a week. If they were a little better off, they would probably take a small furnished room and pay four shillings or four shillings and sixpence a week for it. In many cases we find among the poorer, but not the poorest, class of artizans, a man and wife and one child living in a fairly comfortable furnished room, of which the weekly rent ranges from four shillings to four shillings and sixpence or five shillings a week. Such a man would have to pay for himself, his wife, and child, in a "doss-'ouse," tenpence a night or five and tenpence a week. His evenings he would have to spend in the filthy and foul-smelling kitchen, and during his nights he would have to sleep in a sort of magnified hog-pen-not a room. "Why, then," is the natural question, "does he not take such a furnished room [-122-] rather than pay more and put up with such infinitely inferior accommodation?" For the simple reason that when people come down to the lodging-houses it is because they are poor - very poor. They have no effects which would be security against possible arrears of rent, their clothes are tattered, and their general appearance is such that few respectable householders would take them in as lodgers. In nine cases out of ten it is difficult to secure the eightpence a night that must be obtained before there is a prospect of a shelter and a bed. So that, practically, it amounts to this. Because folks are only able to pay their rent nightly instead of weekly, they must be compelled to pass their existence amongst surroundings of the most unfortunate description. Their lives must be devoid of comfort and even of hope, their children corrupted and debased, and their whole prospect of doing good in the future blighted and lost. For, in sober truth, as matters stand to-day, this is what taking to lodging-house life means. There are few instances of people who have once taken to it ever returning to a more reputable sort of existence. It is far easier to degrade than to elevate, and the habits acquired-necessarily acquired - even during a short sojourn in common lodging-houses, are not readily to be shaken off.
    "But, after all," some good people will observe, "you won't deny, for your own account implies it, that these people are drunken, profligate, often dishonest, and unworthy the consideration you ask for them." Admitting that for a moment, it may be [-123-] fairly rejoined that the public interest lies, not in keeping them as they are, nor in suffering them to sink lower, but in endeavouring to raise them, and to improve their condition in order to secure those changes in their habits and manners which such an improved condition would bring with it. But I do not admit that the inhabitants of common lodging- houses are anything like as black as they are painted. They are very drunken, very foul-mouthed, very profligate, very uncleanly; but what can you expect? There are very many working-men who are neither sober, clean, nor scrupulous as to their language; and the majority of those who live in doss-'ouses are not so very much worse than the lower class of working-men. Many of them have themselves been working men, and have been driven to irregular and precarious means of earning a livelihood by the stagnation in trade. Many, again, are lads who, earning but very scanty wages, and who having no parents able or willing to maintain them, are compelled to resort to common lodging-houses. The very fact that the vast majority use every means in their power to avert the necessity of living in these places, before they have become habituated to their abominations, proves, to my mind, that were some means of escape from the dirt and stench and degradation provided for them, by far the larger portion would gladly and gratefully utilize them.
    Humanity, at any rate, prescribes that something should be done to rescue our poorest brothers and sisters, from the unhappy surroundings in which their [-124-] poverty compels them to exist. We are continually recognizing this principle, and it is only for its extension that I plead. Little difficulty was found in collecting £100,000 for the "People's Palace" at the East-end, and many of the poor will beyond the shadow of a doubt, derive pleasure and profit, both physical and intellectual, from the expenditure. But imagine a "dosser" going to the People's Palace. The poor fellow would want a bath and a new suit first, and the projectors do not, I fear, propose furnishing intending visitors with these. But there are many ways in which the evils which surround and oppress the denizens of common lodging-houses may be mitigated, and several in which they may be entirely removed. The following suggestions are thrown out, - to use an expression which has now become almost classic, as "a draft for discussion."
    In the first place, the State might take over the common lodging-houses from their present proprietors, as they took over the prisons in order to rid them of the dirt and squalor that made them a by-word years ago. But though this would be a good speculation pecuniarily, and be of inestimable benefit to the dossers, it would be undesirable from many points of view. Still, to show what has already been done in this direction, it may be well to mention an experiment made by the Victorian Government, and the results that accrued from it.
    When the gold-fever drove so many hundreds to lead a rough and precarious life at the diggings, no difficulty was so great as that of obtaining shelter for [-125-] the night; for the prices charged at the hotels - which, by the way, were few and far between - were absolutely prohibitive as far as the working men who had ventured their all in emigration were concerned. The government took the matter up and established shelter-sheds, in which, for threepence a night, the miners, who brought their own blankets, were accommodated with a sleeping-bunk; and for a slightly increased fee they were provided with a good bed and the necessary bed-covering. The sheds were taken care of by men and women put in by the government, who received no wages, but took the fees paid by those who availed themselves of the accommodation thus offered. The experiment, which was at first purely tentative, was afterwards carried out more completely, and resulted in the greatest benefit to the miners and in no loss to the government.
    But State intervention in matters of this nature has already been carried too far, rather than not far enough, and there are so many other ways in which the necessary reforms may be consummated, that it as unnecessary to adopt what is generally the last resort of impotency. The first thing to do, if the lodging-houses are to remain in the hands of their present owners, is to pass a very drastic measure regulating them. In the first place, it should be provided that all houses receiving a large number of lodgers, should be compelled to afford adequate bathing accommodation. It may be argued that the erection of baths and washhouses in so many districts obviates the necessity for such a provision. But it [-126-] must be remembered that a man who has the greatest difficulty in finding the fourpence for his lodging, will almost certainly be unable to provide also threepence for a bath. The inflated profits at present made by the lodging-house keepers would allow them to provide such accommodation without ruining themselves, and would enable their lodgers to enjoy the luxury of a clean skin now and then, a luxury which at present is unknown to many of them.
    The administration of the Lodging Houses' Act should be taken out of the hands of the Commissioners of Police, who might be allowed to devote their concentrated and perfected genius to promulgating directions as to the art of capturing and muzzling the canine race. The size of London and the number of common lodging-houses constitute quite sufficient reason for appointing a special staff of inspectors, who might probably be trusted to execute the law better than is done at present, and might certainly be relied upon not to do it worse. They might, if they chose to exercise to their full extent the powers now conferred upon them by the existing act with all its imperfections, do an immensity of good; and when those powers are more clearly defined, and strengthened as they should be, they might so change the appearance of the doss-'ouses, that they could not be recognizable by their present habitués.
If, as I very much doubt, the walls and ceilings are at present limewashed twice a year, the operation should be performed at least four times, as the present rate is certainly insufficient. Most of all, a definite [-127-] principle should be acted upon with regard to the ventilation of the bedrooms, and the number of beds to be allowed in each. As it is hardly possible to regulate by Act of Parliament the number of vermin to be allowed each square inch of bedclothes, it might perhaps not be inadvisable to prescribe that each bed and its furniture should be cleansed and disinfected at stated periods. Regarding the question of the dissemination of infectious diseases, it would appear to be obviously desirable that when a lodger has fallen ill of such an ailment, the law should provide that the entire house should be thoroughly disinfected, and should enable the local authority to destroy or disinfect, if necessary, not merely the bedding of the person so affected, but of every lodger in that particular room, and, if necessary, of all in the house. In order to enable those who are compelled to dwell in these houses to protect themselves against the keepers of them, and to set the law in motion for themselves if any attempt be made to evade or nullify it, it would be advisable to make it compulsory for the lodging-house keeper to post conspicuously in every room in the house an intelligible epitome of the law regulating their houses, just as pawnbrokers are obliged to post up similar notices in their shops. These suggestions for the strengthening and improvement of the law are of course crude and imperfect, but it should be borne in mind that they are the result of practical experience, and the want of them or of others equivalent to them has been realized by me on more than one occasion.
Statements have recently been made, by secretaries of companies and others, to the effect that many of the blocks of artizans' dwellings recently erected are wholly or partially unoccupied. If arrangements could be made by which the rent of such tenements could be paid nightly instead of weekly, I venture to say that this would afford the means of relief to many a poor family at present involuntarily compelled to dwell amidst the dirt, dissipation, and discomfort that are the invariable surroundings of a lodging-house.
    But if all the suggestions set forth above were drafted in an Act and passed into law, they would only constitute, to use Carlyle's description of the poor- law, "an anodyne, not a remedy." The only real and effectual way in which to improve the common lodging-houses is to improve them off the face of the earth; and the problem that demands consideration with a view to its solution is how is this to be done so as to be a benefit to the dosser without adding to the burdens of the public.
    The profits on the lodging-house business are enormous. The expenses are so small, the accommodation provided is so horribly bad, and therefore so very cheap, the damage that can be done to the furniture and fittings so infinitesimal, that the lodging-house keeper is enabled to go on his way rejoicing, while his customers wallow in the filth and dirt in which he keeps them in order to increase his own gains. Would it not be possible, by the formation of companies promoted for the purpose of buying out the present lodging-house proprietors and erecting [-129-] new and sanitary buildings, to rid the metropolis of foul and abominable dens which are a disgrace and scandal to it? Such companies should be empowered, by private bill legislation or otherwise, to purchase compulsorily and at a fair valuation, hut without giving compensation for disturbance, any lodging- house, or cluster of lodging-houses, which could be shown to be in an insanitary condition, or to be ill-regulated. On the other hand, the company should be bound to erect, within a brief space of time, other houses in the place of those they demolish. For it should not be forgotten that there is a dual object to be served: firstly, to get rid of the existing doss-'ouses; and, secondly, to provide others which may answer their purpose without possessing their imperfections and disadvantages.
    "Would you, then," some people may say, "build palaces for people who are as low and depraved as those whom you yourself have described in these pages?" By no means. Luxury would only frighten away the very people for whom it is necessary to provide. The sort of lodging-house it would be desirable to build, would be a plain, solid erection, with large and, above all, lofty rooms, well ventilated and airy. Bathing accommodation and proper lavatories should be provided. The furniture should be as plain as it is possible to procure, but substantial withal. It would be desirable, too, for plain wholesome food to be sold on the premises at similar prices to those charged in coffee-houses, so that the lodgers should be able to obtain a meal which did not consist of a [-130-] decayed "'addick," or a bloater in a state of putrefaction. There would be, of course, a profit on the sale of these provisions, and benefit would thus be conferred on the dossers and the shareholders at one and the same time.
    "Would it pay?" Such a company should pay a dividend of about ten or twelve per cent, and as times go, that is not bad interest for money. At present of course the profits are many times as large proportionately, but I am calculating on the hypothesis that every effort would be made to give thoroughly good value for money. It is easy enough to see about what amount the present proprietors make, and, taking their gains as a basis for an estimate, to arrive at some sort of an idea as to the probable profits. Take, for example, the case of the Beehive. There are three hundred beds there, some of which are let at four- pence, and some at sixpence per night. As some are occasionally unlet, it will be well to reckon them all at the lower price, which leaves the gross takings at about £35 weekly. The working expenses do not amount to more than £5, or at the most £7, per week, and we shall be making a handsome allowance if we deduct another £3 for interest on money laid out. Deduct, if you will, another £3 for sundries, and you will still leave the lodging-house keeper £20 a week clear profit - a profit, be it remarked, which is entirely derived from his poorer brethren, whom he, in order to increase his gains, keeps in a horrible condition of filth, squalor, and degradation.
    One or two precautions would have to be observed [-131-] in order that such a company should be successful. It would be necessary to dissociate all idea of charity from the matter, for human nature is averse to considering as a favour that for which cash is paid. It should be undertaken as a commercial speculation, in which it is intended to give the best possible value for money, but in which the relative positions of purchaser and vendor are maintained. Above all, in order to secure the adherence of the very lowest it would be advisable to keep the parson away from such an .enterprise. I do not say this because I am unaware of, or fail to appreciate, the noble work which is done by the clergymen and ministers of all denominations among the poor. But we are dealing with a class of people who are most of them indifferent or inimical to religion, and to try and force it down their throats would he to repel the very folk whom we most earnestly want to attract. The first object to be gained is to make them decent. Cleanliness is not only next to godliness, but it is the first station on the road. Once make those who have lived for years in filth recognize the desirability of a clean bed, a clean room, and a clean skin; give them light, warmth, and comfort elsewhere than in the dram-shops, make them understand that there are higher objects to be attained in the world than the mere securing of their kip-money, and much will have been done towards the great work of the social and moral regeneration of the outcasts of society. In a word, make them fit for earth, and you will be, indirectly perhaps, but still practically, doing a great deal towards making them fit for Heaven.