Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Dottings of a Dosser, by Howard J. Goldsmid, 1886 - Chapter 2 - The "Beehive"

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I HAVE surveyed myself most carefully, and my impression is that "my own mother wouldn't know me". My face - well, perhaps the less said about it the better, for it is absolutely repulsive by reason of the dirt that covers it. My shirt matches my face, and my coat accords with the appearance of both. Waistcoat and shirt-collar have alike been discarded, and a particularly unclean neckcloth of the familiar costermonger type has taken the place of both. My boots are broken and patched. My hat is a frowsy looking specimen of the flexible "deerstalker" type. I don't exactly know what I look like. Portions of my attire are reminiscent of a broken-down clerk of dissipated habits. Other signs are suggestive of a welsher "out o' luck;" while, again, I'm afraid I am not unlike a returned convict who has allowed his hair to grow. But, at all events, I venture to flatter myself that if any of the strangely varied company whose acquaintance I am desirous to cultivate, present a more inharmoniously disreputable appearance than myself, they must indeed be very [-13-] far gone on what is sometimes termed the "downward path to destruction."
    I put the finishing touch to my disguise by inserting between my teeth a short clay pipe: and forth I sally in the direction of Brick Lane. That thoroughfare has been to some extent rendered classic by the facile pen of "Boz." But if it ever did produce a branch of the Grand Junction Ebenezer Temperance Association, times have materially changed. Temperance is the last thing the inhabitants of Brick Lane would think of in these degenerate days. There is no "young 'ooman" there now who would think of drinking "nine breakfast-cups and a half of weak tea;" and the principal idea relative to water appears to be that it is, of course, an evil, but to some extent a necessary one, inasmuch as beer cannot be brewed without it. There is a public-house at every corner, and it is needless to say that each and all of them are always full.
    I have selected the "Beehive Chambers" as my resting-place for to-night. It is a substantial looking building at the corner of one of the many narrow, squalid streets that intersect Brick Lane. There are always half a dozen filthy, drink-sodden, tobacco-breathing men lounging about the doorway, and it is to one of these that I venture, not without some misgiving, to introduce myself. I go up to him, and inquire if he has a light to spare. He looks round with a surly grin, and says with emphasis-
    "No, I ain't."
    This is unpromising, and I suppose I look as [-14-] though I think so, for he continues, "There's a pub, over theer, and you'll get one easy enough."
    The man is a jewel! He has given me the very opportunity for which I am seeking, and I instantly thank him for the information, and ask him if he'll come and have a drink.
    Will he? Of course he will. He says that I'm a good fellow, prefixing this expression of opinion with an expletive which I am not bound to record. He puts his arm through mine, at which I shudder inwardly, but try hard to look as though I like it, and conducts me into a low public-house, steaming with the foetid breath of half-intoxicated men and women, and reeking with the strongest and rankest of tobacco-smoke.
    We are supplied with two "'arf pints of four ale," and I am enabled to take stock of my companion. He is a stout man with a pale, flabby, clean-shaven face. His eyes twinkle with suppressed merriment, and the surly look his countenance wore when I first accosted him, vanishes like snow beneath the sunbeams as the pot is inverted and its contents trickle lazily down his throat. When the vessel is replaced upon the counter, a smile of ineffable content and peace steals over his features, and I am emboldened to unbosom myself to him, and tell him the story I have previously arranged, to which he listens sympathetically enough. I am, I tell him, in a terrible pickle. I haven't done a stroke of work for six months, and my landlady has turned me out, and seized my clothes and effects in lieu of the rent due [-15-] to her. I have no money, or next to none. Last night I walked the streets because I could not make up my mind to go into a lodging-house, but I'm afraid I shall have to now. And then I sigh heavily, and order my friend's pewter pot to be refilled.
    He hitches up his nether habiliments (he is lightly clad in a coat and pair of inexpressibles, both fearfully and wonderfully patched, and held together by all kinds of ingenious contrivances). Then he tells me, that as regards my goods, the landlady has no right to take them, and that were he in my place he would go and talk to the "madgestrate." He knows that it is hard to take to the lodging-houses.
    "It nearly broke my 'art when I fust did it," he says. "I'd walked about the streets a hull week before, and I shouldn't ha' gone then on'y I was that sleepy I dozed off with my 'ead agin a bloomin' lamppost, till a copper woke me up."
    "How did it come about?" I ask; and he tells me a long story of the chanticleer and bovine quadruped type, about a legacy of "five 'undred pound," that lured him to drink and dissipation; about his desertion by his friends, who had dropped off "as I dare say yours ha' done now you're down upon your luck !" and about a quarrel with a nephew, whose ingratitude goaded him to conduct that led to an interview with a magistrate, and "fourteen days." Here he absently lifts my pewter pot to his lips and drains it of its contents. He starts, appears surprised, apologizes for his mistake, and then proceeds, at my request, to enlighten me as to the Beehive and its occupants.
    [-16-] "I've been there," he says, "ever since the 'ouse was opened, and that's a good ten 'ear -"
    "Ah, but it ain't wot it used to be," interrupts a voice, which, on turning round, I perceive to belong to a. short blear-eyed man, with a stubbly beard of gingery hue. "I remember it when the old proper-ryator was alive, and there wasn't a better 'ouse, nor a more conducted in all Lunnon, but now-" and he stops suddenly, leaving me to infer from his remarks, that the choice spirits that once were wont to frequent the Beehive have gone to that bourne from which no dosser can return, and that the establishment itself is in a condition of decadence.
    "That's Sandy," whispered my companion. "We all as nicknames 'erc. I'm Bluegownd, I am-haw! haw! haw!" and he bursts into a guffaw at the facetious humour which has invested him with that mellifluously sounding, but not altogether appropriate, pseudonym. "The 'ouse," resumes Mr. Bluegown, "ain't wot it wos, as Sandy says. There's a lot o' decent men, and there's a lot o' riff-raff. Some on em's thieves, and some on em's wuss. Bt the most is decent chaps. Rough an' ready, you know; you mustn't mind 'em. Some on 'em would come up an' give you a punch o' the nose by way of an 'ow-de-do, but it's all sport. It's better than most of the 'ouses, a'ter all. The beds is clean, and the deppity's a decent chap. There's a good kitchen, 'ot water, plates an' dishes, cups an' saucers an' tea-pots." Here he casts a furtive glance at his empty pewter mug as if to see if he will be asked to refill it, and finding that no [-17-] such invitation is proffered, he says - sooth to say with a somewhat chagrined air - "We'd better go now, if you're willin', an' I'll show you the rights an' wrongs of the place."
    Arm in arm we enter the narrow, dirty, dimly-lighted passage which leads the way into the inner cells of the Beehive. There is a little office there and I pay my fourpence, receiving in exchange a dirty piece of paper, on which is written "Sat. 259. pd." - which, translated for the benefit of the reader,  signifies that the night of my admission is Saturday, the number of my bed two hundred and fifty-nine, and that I have duly paid for the privilege of enrolling myself among the gentlemen whose lodging is the Beehive.
    "Come on," says Bluegown, "come on, 'ere you are; this it the readin' room."
    The apartment dignified by this title is so dark that I can but dimly perceive there are some rough forms and tables in it, and that Bluegown and myself are the only gentlemen of tastes sufficiently literary to be there.
    "Why do they call it the reading-room?" I ask.
    "Cause there ain't nothin' to read there, I s'pose," retorts my friend, seizing my arm and conducting me into another apartment, where he announces with conscious pride that "this is the kitchen."
    This the kitchen ! this the "good kitchen" that Bluegown had so proudly described, and the advantages of which he had so eloquently enumerated. "I ask your pardon, coach," says the Irish proverb, "I thought you were a wheelbarrow when I stumbled over [-18-] you." If Bluegown had not told me that this was a kitchen, I should have taken it for a magnified rat-hole - so dark, so stenchful, so unwholesome, does it appear. It is a large low-roofed room, furnished with tables and benches which are near relations to those I have already seen in the "reading-room." There is a disused cooking-range at the extreme end, on which I seat myself, and survey the room and its occupants. Most of the latter are dock-labourers, a few are pickpockets; some work in the various markets; some are hawkers, some only "cadgers;" while a shoe-black box or two lying about show that there are some few members of the boot-cleaning fraternity.
    On either side of the range is an open fireplace, in which an enormous coke fire burns fiercely. The hot water about which Bluegown has told me is hissing and boiling in a large copper. There are the tea-pots, plates, cups and saucers, the use of which is included in the value given for your fourpence; and in addition, the proprietor kindly provides with each utensil an enormous quantity of dirt gratis. A thin wan-faced girl, wearing a red frock and looking like a dilapidated Tilly Slowboy, flits, ghostlike, backwards and forwards; but the majority of the guests appear to wait upon themselves. There are gentlemen engaged in culinary operations at each of the fires, and the staple food of the place appears to be "'addicks." Close to me, and bending over the blazing coke, is a man whose villainously ugly face, matted hair, and occupation, forcibly remind me of that illustration in "Oliver Twist" wherein Cruick-[-19-]shank depicts Fagin frying sausages,  surrounded by his worthy friends and hopeful pupils; and, except that the place is larger and the company more numerous, the whole aspect of the room is by no means unlike that of the robber's dwelling as described by the novelist.
    The whole apartment reeks with dirt and filth. The blackened ceiling, the boarded floor, the plastered walls, are all begrimed and bedaubed with the dirt of months past. The atmosphere is stifling. There is not a farmer who breeds pigs for an agricultural show who would suffer one of his porcine treasures to live in a sty so filthy as this room, or to breathe an air so foetid as that in which these men are sitting. Prize pigs, however, have a monetary value, and these poor wretches have none.
    There are some sitting alone, sullen and disconsolate, speaking to no-one and answering no-one who speaks to them. Others are discussing their appetizing, if not too clean, suppers of whelks, "'addicks," or "sassages"; others, again, are chatting to their neighbours, and some few are enjoying a friendly hand at cards. I cannot understand much of the conversation, but I do grasp sufficient to comprehend what a wonderful amount of scope there is for the exercise of ingenuity in the pleasant and facetious arts of oath-framing and blasphemy.
    While I have been engaged in making these observations, the worthy Bluegown has been heaping coke on each of the enormous fires. He is, as he tells me, "respected in the 'ouse," and nearly every one has a [-20-] word for him. As I am a stranger, he kindly introduces me to "Ginger-beer," "Copper-head," and "Scotty," gentlemen whose faces, clothes, and conversation are apparently designed to illustrate the positive, comparative, and superlative degrees of the adjective filthy.
    Bluegown also entertains me with some particulars relative to himself and his avocations. He depends principally for a living, he says, on washing the shirts of the frequenters of the house, for which he charges fourpence apiece. I remark that, judging from the filthiness of the garments and the probable unpleasantness of the job, the work is well worth the money.
    "Bless yer," returns Bluegown, "there ain't a real dirty 'un - what I calls a real dirty 'un - 'ere to-night. Some on 'em as I get to wash is covered with wermin. W'en I gets old o' some o' them scaly-backed 'uns, as I calls 'em - haw-haw-haw! I just lays em out on the flags and scrubs em with a blessed long broom. 'Blue-gown,' the chaps says sometimes, 'Bluegown, you scrubs 'em in 'oles more'n a bit, but you do clean 'em, I'll say that for yer.' And by --- some of 'm wants some cleanin,' I tell yer."
    I now have an illustration of the kind of "friendly 'ow-de-do" alluded to by Mr. Bluegown during our conversation in the public-house. A man, evidently in good spirits, and presumably with a large quantity of spirits of some sort in him, lurches unsteadily up the room, and gazing intently at my worthy companion, aims a blow at his mouth which knocks the [-21-] clay pipe out of it and shatters it to fragments. Notwithstanding his previous injunction to me, my "guide, philosopher, and friend" appears inclined to resent this kindly attention, and makes a remark relative to the eyes and limbs of his assailant which induces that worthy to volunteer his opinion that Mr. Bluegown is a "bloomin' ill-tempered old" something or other which I fail to hear, but which the reader can possibly imagine. Thereupon the injured gentleman expresses sentiments decidedly depreciatory of the chastity of his comrade's mother; and facetiously hints at the existence of a bar sinister in his pedigree. The matter now threatens to become serious; but I effect a reconciliation between the friends by offering Bluegown my own pipe in lieu of the one so unfortunately destroyed. The offer is accepted, and I am grasped violently by the hand, and assured by each party that I am a good fellow of a sanguinary disposition, a compliment so remarkably contradictory in itself that for a moment I hesitate about receiving it without a modest protest.
    So the evening wears on. When the public-houses close the room becomes full; the oaths are more frequent and ingenious; the smell is more unpleasant, and the legs of the company are more unsteady. Most of them, as Mr. Bluegown complacently observes, are " more'n a bit rafferty." The various degrees of intoxication are exemplified to an extent I have never seen before. There is the old cripple in the corner who is "mad drunk," and who is brandishing his wooden leg, and vowing the destruction of [-22-] any one who comes within its range. There is the sweep opposite him who is merely jovial, and who is hiccoughing out, in his drunken merriment, the disgusting refrain of a repulsive song. There are two old men close to me who have reached the maudlin stage of inebriety, and who are discussing some matter or other with a grotesque solemnity which is inimitable. Lastly, there is that majority of the guests whose intoxication is only made manifest by the thickness of their utterance, the unsteadiness of their nether limbs, and, worst of all, by the foulness of their breath, which makes the atmosphere absolutely unbearable, and determines me to quit the kitchen without delay and seek the couch distinguished by the number 259.
    The night-porter takes me in charge, and shows me where I am to "doss." Up a narrow, ill-lighted staircase we go, the boards creaking unpleasantly beneath our feet, until we reach the second floor. Here the night-porter bids me "good-night," promising to call me at half-past four. And for the first time I begin to realize what a very unpleasant task, to say the least of it, is now before me.
    The room is ill-ventilated, stuffy, and unpleasant. The beds are narrow wooden structures about a foot high, and are packed so closely together that there is no room for a man to stand between them. There are notices at each end of the room, posted in compliance with the Act regulating these places, which state how many beds are permitted by the inspector, whose signature is appended, to be placed in the room. On [-23-] what principle the inspector acts who attends to the regulation of the Beehive it would be impossible for me to say. Whatever it may chance to be, its absurdity is sufficiently demonstrated by the condition of the dormitory in which I am to pass the night. When I enter there are only about half a dozen dossers in bed, and the room holds several times that number. Yet already the atmosphere is distinctly unwholesome, and one can readily imagine what it wil1 be like when all the beds are occupied by men whose personal cleanliness is an unknown quantity, and who exhale an odour which, however suggestive it may be of the quality of the exciseable liquors sold in the district, is unpleasant in the highest degree.
    I undress, placing my clothes under my pillow, partly to raise it to something like a reasonable height, and partly in order to prevent the disappearance of my apparel during the night - a precaution which is adopted by most in the room, and which speaks volumes as to the character of my neighbours. Turning down the bed-clothes, I discover that the rug, the two dirty sheets, and the scanty coverlid bear this inscription-
        "Stolen from
            J. SMITH,
        Beehive Chambers,
            Brick Lane."
    So that any larcenous intention I might have harboured is hopelessly frustrated.
    There are insects in the Beehive-but they are not [-24-] bees. I believe Mark Twain has termed them "chamois"; and "a military officer," whose identity has been lost among the many sons of Mars that flourish on the shores of Green Columbia, has delicately alluded to them as "darned catawampous chawers that graze upon a human purty strong," so "strong," indeed, as to make one temporarily oblivious of the advice tendered by the same gallant officer, "Don't mind them; they're company."
    It is some little time before I am enabled to sleep. The stertorous breathing of my fellow-dossers disturbs. me. Half-drunken and wholly-drunken men are continually lurching up the stairs and knocking against the corners, until I wonder how they contrive to reach the top at all; the noise of street-brawls is borne in through the open windows; and, lastly, "chamois-hunting" occupies a considerable portion of my time, and keeps me, as one of my neighbours observes, "on the kee-veevers." At length I fall asleep, but only for an hour-an hour of restless tossing to and fro, of unrefreshing dozes, of starts and twitchings, and most unpleasant dreams - and then I wake up to find that the room is full now, and that the foul breath of the drunken fellows who lie there like so many hogs, snoring and grunting with far more sonority than melody, has poisoned the air so that it seems almost plague-stricken. Many of them are stark naked; most thin and emaciated; all filthy and wretched. Beds, sheets, coverlids, are all covered with vermin, and the walls are spotted with foul creeping things almost as large as cockroaches. It is disgusting! It is horrible!
    [-25-] Hastily, and with a feeling of inexpressible nausea, I huddle on my clothes. Down the stairs I creep, and through the dirty passage into the grey dawn-light. The cool morning breeze feels more delicious than words can express, and to me, hot and fevered, sick and faint as I am, it is the keenest of pleasures to feel that I am quit of the horrible place in which the last few hours have been spent. I would not mortgage the prospect of a change of garments and a. bath for all the fabled wealth of El Dorado. Uppermost among the thoughts that struggle for utterance is the reflection that they told me that the den I have just left was "one of the best of the 'ouses;" and as I hurry through the almost deserted streets I murmur to myself, "Great God! What must the worst be!"