Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Dottings of a Dosser, by Howard J. Goldsmid, 1886 - Dedication - Chapter 1 - Who are the "Dossers"?

[back to menu for this book]



THIS book is dedicated to the public - to the public which feels, the public which reflects. Which feels for the miseries and sufferings of our poorer brethren; which reflects upon the causes that produce and intensify, and the methods which may alleviate or remove them. It was the public which supported the efforts of Howard when he arrayed the powers of his intellect against the continuance of the horrors that in his day marked the incarceration of criminals. It was the public which encouraged Wilberforce and Granville Sharp when they sought to uproot that system of slavery that disgraced humanity. It was the public which only a few brief months ago lent its aid and countenance to the efforts of the best hearts and brightest intellects of to-day, when they strove to rescue English girls and women from shame and degradation.
    Will that same British public do its duty now? Will it rescue the denizens of the common lodging-houses of London from dens, which permitted - nay, even encouraged - by the law, are little, if any, less loathsome than the prisons of bygone days? Will it rescue the poor from moral and intellectual slavery, which is almost as painful, and to the full as powerful for evil, as the physical slavery that once disgraced America? Will it rescue the daughters of the humblest and most helpless class in Outcast London from vice and degradation, which are none the less pitiful because they are engendered, not so much by force or fraud as by intense poverty, by the mischievous operations of inadequate laws, and the selfish ineptitude - or worse - of those who are charged with the administration of such laws as do exist?




But a short time has elapsed since the Press teemed with articles and the bookstalls overflowed with pamphlets treating of the woes of "outcast London." The "Bitter Cry," " Horrible London," and " How the Poor Live," threw a glare of lurid light upon appallingly miserable scenes. People's hearts were stirred, and many belonging to that half of the world which is proverbially ignorant on such subjects began to inquire "how the other half lived." "Slumming" became a popular amusement; and with this amusement, and the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into the matter, the public conscience was salved. A short Act was passed, which may be useful if properly administered, and then the interest which had been temporarily aroused subsided, and the sympathy excited, which had been more sentimental than real, went to sleep once more. Its slumbers will probably last until the curtain which shrouds the only partially depicted scenes of London wretchedness be lifted with a ruder hand, and the "bitter cry" sound more bitter and perhaps more menacing.
    [-8-] There is, however, a stratum of society even lower than that of the poor wretches who herd together in noisome courts and foetid, filthy alleys. These are the unfortunate creatures whose only home is the "doss-'ouse," whose only friend the "deppity"* [* "Doss-'ouse" and "Kip-'ouse" are synonymous, and signify a common lodging-house. The deputy is the man who super- intends the establishment.] ; who have, perhaps, for years never known what it is to have the shelter of a roof save that of a common lodging-house. There is no bitter cry from these, or at all events they have as yet found no spokesman to echo it in the public ear. Those who wrote - and wrote with power and pathos - of the squalid houses and still more squalid rooms in which the denizens of "horrible London" herd, and breed, and die, said little or nothing about the people who have neither house nor room that they can call their own, and who night after night, week in, week out, for many a weary year, "doss" in the nearest lodging-house, and hardly dare to dream of any other or better accommodation. While they live their principal care is to find the necessary fourpence each night, together with a few coppers more for food, or at all events for drink. When they die they depend upon the kindly feeling of their chums and fellow-dossers for the means of burial, or upon the scantier, if more certain, mercy of the parish sexton and the workhouse hearse.
     In the course of some work in connection with one of those grand East-end institutions which undertake the rescue of destitute gutter-children, I became [-9-] acquainted, in a practical form, with the class I have described. I came into contact with many boys, of all ages, who had known no other sleeping-place than the lodging-houses, from the time when they could first remember sleeping at all. Every one of these lads spoke with horror and disgust of them, and of the surroundings at present inseparable from them. Their accounts determined me to see the "kip-ouses" from within as well as from without; to learn from experience as well as from rumour the sort of accommodation with which our poorest brethren are compelled to be content, and to know from personal investigation who the "dossers" are, and what is their lot in life.
    In the following pages I have endeavoured - how imperfectly I can perhaps tell even better than the reader - to set forth my experiences in the common lodging-houses, and the conclusions I deduce from them. The sketches there depicted may be ill-drawn, but they are not exaggerated, and I have stated nothing which has not come under my own observation. In every case I have given chapter and verse for what I have written. It may be well, however, to say a few words as to the occupants of the lodging-houses generally, before proceeding to give the more particular descriptions, to which, in all humility, I venture to invite the careful attention of the reader.
    Amongst those congregated in a lodging-house, one may find every sort of man and woman whom poverty can compel to seek a refuge there. Firstly, there are the "loafers." The drones in the working-class hive [-10-] are always to be encountered in a "doss-'ouse." But it is a grievous mistake to imagine, as many do, that none but the idle and vicious are to be seen among the "dossers" - nay, the proportion of such characters is by no means so large as is generally believed. Many have seen better days; respectable artizans whom the waves of trade-depression have overtaken and submerged; clerks elbowed out of a berth by the competition of smart young Germans; small shopkeepers ruined by the poverty of the working-folk among whom their business lay; even professional men - land surveyors, solicitors, surgeons - are now and then to be found among the motley crowd in a "kip-'ouse" kitchen. Nevertheless, the greater number belong to the very lowest class of the community. The navvies, the costermongers, and the thieves of the East-end herd together in these places, and many of the men who are to be met there combine the characteristics, and follow the avocations, of all three. And the women, in those lodging-houses into which women are admitted, are even worse. flags who have for years gained their living on the streets, but whom age and hideousness have compelled to relinquish their loathsome calling; hawkers of flowers, the freshness and bloom of which contrast painfully with the pallor and decay of the vendors; girls prematurely old, gin-sodden and steeped in vice; these, for the most part, are the representatives of what in their case has long since ceased to be a softer or a gentler sex. Others there are, but these, thank God! are few. The honest seamstress whose work has failed her; [-11-] the widow left destitute, to find for herself and her little ones a home where she may; the wife deserted by a brutal husband; these occasionally find a refuge in the lodging-houses-but when they do, Heaven help and pity them!
    Are you prepared, reader, to meet such company? If so, come with me round some of the places I have visited. You will have the advantage that, while my tour was made in the flesh, yours may be completed in the spirit. And much is to be learned from such an expedition, even if made only in imagination, by those who have but very dimly realized the fact that there are dens of misery unutterable, and of vice indescribable, in some quarters of this wealth-teeming, yet poverty-producing, metropolis.