The common lodging houses of Victorian Britain catered to a varied clientele.
Many times they were the place of last resort for their residents, the level below them being wither the streets or the workhouse.
References to the common lodging houses of Whitechapel and Spitalfields crop up time and time in the reporting of the Jack the Ripper case, and all the victims had, at one time or another, stayed at the area’s common lodging houses.
Indeed, to understand the predicaments of the lives of many of the residents in the Victorian East End, it is necessary to explore the lodging houses that were home to so many of them.
ALL OVER BRITAIN
However, these establishments were to be found in towns and cities all over the land, and many of the residents would stay at them as they made their way around the country.
In the latter half of the 19th century, journalists began to take an interest in these places of refuge, and many newspaper reports appeared for the preparation of which reporters had opted to spend nights in them.
A NIGHT IN A COVENTRY COMMON LODGING HOUSE
BY ONE WHO HAS ENDURED IT
One such article appeared in The Coventry Standard Friday, 12th July, 1889:-
“Surely you are not going out that figure!” exclaimed my wife, holding up both hands in astonishment, the puzzled look on her face suggesting doubts as to my sanity.
Certainly, my get-up was not very inviting. An old deer-stalker cap that had not seen daylight in the south, a disreputable-looking dust-coat that revealed the glories of Newmarket, and a pair of elongations long since discarded, constituted my temporary outfit.
PREPARATIONS FOR THE VOYAGE
After taking the precaution of sprinkling the contents of the birdcage on my boots, and shaking hands with the tea-kettle, to get the required grimy appearance, I assured my better half that she need never fear my being arrested as a burglar, and sailed forth on my voyage of discovery.
A MEETING WITH AN ACQUAINTANCE
It was just dusk as I cautiously left the house, and I must confess that I felt rather sheepish. My ardour arose, however, after I had gone about a hundred yards, for I met with an intimate acquaintance who I had left not an hour before in the smoke-room the “Queen’s,” my disguise proving effectual.
THE POLICEMAN’S STARE
Policeman X, standing on the corner, who generally greeted me with a friendly nod, rudely peered into my face, and dogged my footsteps for some distance, making me feel uneasy.
Taking a circuitous route, I reached that thoroughfare whose rural name calumniates itself, and I found plenty of scope for exploration.
I noticed the blue official tablets branding the various buildings as registered lodging-houses.
A LODGING HOUSE SELECTED
Finally deciding on one with the intimation, “GOOD ACCOMMODATION AND RESPECTABLE LODGINGS FOR TRAVELLERS,” displayed in large letters, I entered.
I was about to push open a door at the end of the passage, when a bloated-faced individual emerged from a side room, and, holding out his hand, demanded “Fourpence.”
Handing him the required fourpence, and receiving a metallic check, corresponding the number of my bed, he allowed me to pass in, and an extraordinary sight presented itself.
PEOPLE WERE CONGREGATING
In a room, apparently 30ft by 10ft, between forty and fifty persons were congregated.
Notwithstanding the hot weather, a large fire was burning in a huge kitchen range, and standing around it were several men and women engaged in culinary operations.
A fearful odour of herrings, onions, and tobacco smoke pervaded the atmosphere, and two large gas burners were flaring.
THE INMATES WERE OCCUPIED
All the inmates were more or less occupied.
In one corner, squatting on the floor, two adults and a child were busily manipulating coloured paper into fire-stove ornaments; on an opposite seat an evil-visaged man was sorting ferns in basket; some were smoking and looking vacantly into space, but eating and drinking seemed the chief object.
Presuming that was the correct thing, I asked a decent-looking old fellow if there was any chance of getting a smack of bread and cheese.
“If yer got the coin,” he answered, looking rather incredulous, and, raising his hand to his mouth, he called a shock-headed young lady of sixteen, who answered to the curious appellation of “Stumps,” her apology for an apron being as black as her hands.
“Watyerwant?” she inquired somewhat pertly.
It did not take long to enumerate my wants, and, in a few minutes, she returned with the viands.
As I rewarded her with a penny, I was puzzled to see her linger near me with a look of expectancy on her sooty face.
“Don’t mind if I do,” she blurted out after a while, and taking the hint I handed her the beer, of which she took a good draught and then went away rejoicing.
AN ATTEMPT AT CONVERSATION
Altho’ I made several attempts to swallow the food, I was compelled to give it up as a bad job, and the old fellow who sat near me, noticing my failure, enquired how it was I couldn’t “peck.”
A little stretch of imagination on my part afforded an explanation, and, seeing my chance, I endeavoured to get into conversation with him, but my most persuasive powers did not draw him out, and, abruptly turning his face to mine, he sulkily exclaimed, “Look here, mister, you’re either a blooming ‘tec. (detective) or copper’s mark (a man who gives information to the police), and you don’t get nothing out of me.”
THE CENTRE OF OBSERVATION
Upon hearing this, a greasy individual on my left gave a loud laugh, and I became the centre of observation.
Seeing things were coming to a climax, I hastily recorded a mournful ditty, in which I suddenly became a widower and a childless outcast, suiting the action to the word by brushing an imaginary tear from my eye with my coat sleeve.
This had the desired effect, and my suspicious friend speedily melted.
THE SAW-SHARPENER’S DOWNFALL
“It’s no good crying over spilt milk, matey. It was my old woman as cracked me up; but there, it’s no good talking,” and, picking up a scrap of dirty newspaper, he pretended to read.
Handing him my beer, I assured him he was welcome, and that once more loosened his tongue.
“Ever at Sheffield?”, he enquired, “I used to keep a big shop there – on Snig Hill – and had a goodish business in the edge tool line. I began in a little way, and while at work missus looked after the place, but when trade was looking up and I had to leave my sit to look after the shop myself, then my wench took high notions and wanted to do the grand. Beer wasn’t good enough for her, she took to having goes of brandy all day long, and that did the trick.”
“Why didn’t you stop her before it was too late?”, I ventured to remark.
“Stop her! Could a man stop railway train? I tried all ways, mate, and went as far as to pay a woman to look after her, and stop her from kicking up a shindy when my best customers were about, but it was no go.
You see, I was a bit foolish like, for she was a good ‘un to me and the youngsters, when not in liquor, and I had a drop with her sometimes, and then we would be on the spree a week at stretch; then the chaps in the shop robbed me right and left, and I had to put the shutters up.
A HARDISH LIFE
I’ve been at this game nigh upon ten year.
It’s a hardish life – always on the move.
I come to Coventry about once in six weeks. I’ve got my regular rounds and customers, you know, and some pay better than others.
There’s a butcher in Cross-cheaping as always acts like a gentleman – he says he can never get anyone to sharpen saws like me.
Ah! poor Polly was a good ‘un – it was the blankety booze that was our downfall”, and the old fellow tried to hide a real tear.
No imagination there!
Calling “Stumps” once more, I had the beer mug replenished, to her ladyship’s evident surprise, for handing her the money, she sarcastically remarked, “Oh crikey, sixpenny an’ all!”
The man next us had been intently listening, and, turning to the saw sharpener, he said: “I know Sheffield well enough, very good town for my trade.”
“And what’s that – fiddle-bridge making?”, enquired the old man rather spitefully.
“No it aint, I’m in the printing trade, I am.”
“Ah! thought it was something d—d hard by the look of your donnies” (fingers).
A “RAT’S” EXPERIENCE
“Not a bad trade,” I remarked, passing the beer.
“Here’s wishing yer better luck than I get, mister, for I’m the most unlucky devil out. My trade’s overdone -too many youngsters in it.
When I was apprenticed, sir, they only allowed one apprentice to every six men; now, by George, there’s six kids to every man.
No, not a bad trade. When I was on the straight, I could always earn two quid, and when a rush was on I’ve knocked up sixty bob a week easy.
AN INFERNAL STRIKE
It was an infernal strike as done me. I was at Kelly’s, the directory people in London, and had a good shop, but our trade society, to which I belonged, wouldn’t let well alone, and we all had to turn out over a dispute. I stood it as long as I could, but when the missus told me there was nothing left for “uncle’s,” [this was slang or a pawnbroker] and four little uns crying for toke, it cut me up.”
A MARKED MAN
“Chuck it,” interrupted the saw sharpener, fidgeting in his seat.
“Yes, sir,” continued the typo, growing warm, “it cut me up; so I went off to my old shop and asked for a job, and they put me on again, and ever since then I’ve been a marked man.”
“How’s that? Why you see when fellow throws the trade society over, and works in a non-unionist shop, they call him a ‘rat.’
Every time I went to and fro to my work, some of my old chums on strike were sure to be standing about, and instead of going and having a drink together, would cut me and cry out ‘rat!’ That riled me. I never could abear the long-tailed gentry, so, like a fool, I turned up my job, and never done any blankety good since.”
BEAT ON THE POST
“Do I work in the town? No, that’s my luck – I generally get ‘beat on the post,’ as the saying is.
Tried ’em all, mate – Standard and Cyclist people seemed the busiest, and I picked up a trifle amongst the men, but it’ll be a dry journey to Leicester in the morning for me; after paying for 4d for my ‘doss’ (bed) I’m broke.”
“Why did I take to the road? Ah! that’s the rub,” and, opening his lantern jaws, the speaker pointed down his throat with a knowing wink.
THE HAYMAKERS ARRIVE
We were just getting quite confidential, and I was congratulating myself at the turn of events, when a tremendous commotion was heard in the passage.
The door flew open and in rolled four drunken haymakers, their scythes coming in dangerous proximity to our heads; their brogue at once proclaimed them sons of Erin, and the deputy had some difficulty in persuading them to hand their scythes over to his care and keep quiet.
THE ARTILLERY MAN
No sooner had that been accomplished, than the entry of an artilleryman in an uproarious state, with a young lady of the demi-monde fraternity on his arm, again caused a disturbance.
To the credit of the management, the offending couple were’ peremptorily ordered out by the “dep.”
Whether the simple-minded Irishmen mistook the meaning of this or not, to the surprise of all present one of them unceremoniously floored the soldier, and a general melee followed.
A novel incident here occurred.
Immediately the deputy perceived a row imminent, he shouted in a stentorian voice, “Cups up!” and instantly everyone seized their mugs or platters from off the table to prevent them being broken.
“Stumps” was dispatched for a policeman, and it speaks well of the efficiency of our local police force that no fewer than five of them appeared on the scene in less than as many minutes, and they soon restored order.
REPLENISHING THE BRANDY
The atmosphere (which had now become almost unendurable) and excitement of the uproar had such a deterrent that I was obliged to produce my pocket flask and revive myself, and out of courtesy I felt bound to pass it round.
Of course, the contents did not go far, and upon my suggesting the refilling of it, the fern-seller volunteered to fetch further supply.
Meanwhile, the conversation turned upon the Irish haymakers, and the condition of the Irish in general.
We had been discussing the subject at some length when it was noticed that the man was a long while gone on his errand, and the saw-sharpener was deputed look him up.
After a time, he returned from his reconnoitring with a comical expression on his face.
“By blank!” he shouted, “the blankety-blank swine has mizzled. How much did you give him, mate?”
A hasty explanation revealed the fact that I might say good-bye to my flask.
“I’ve heard talk of him afore,” said the old man indignantly; “that fake with the ferns is only a blind. He’s a bad lot. He’s a brief-snatcher (one who steals betting tickets) and got in a mess at Warwick Races. Blank him – he’s half-way to Kenilworth now.”
We had to console ourselves with more beer, over which we were bemoaning the ingratitude of human nature, when a faded wreck of a man, who had joined the group, suddenly exclaimed, “Look at me.”
We looked at him.
There was nothing particularly enchanting about him; apparently, about fifty, with Dundreary whiskers tinged with grey, had scamp stamped on his soddened features.
A CHEMIST TRAMP!
“Look at me,” said the wreck, “if it had not been for man’s baseness I should have had a flourishing business by now.”
“In the rag and bone line, I s’pose,” jocularly interposed the printer.
“No, sir. I’m a chemist by profession, and have passed all the competitive examinations.”
This was a poser. Who on earth ever heard of a chemist tramp?
Several incredulous remarks were made, and the saw-sharpener laughed outright, raising the ire of the man of physics.
“If you don’t believe me, read that,” he said, unfolding a greasy paper, which proved to be a certificate from the Pharmaceutical Society, stating that John —– had passed both minor and major examinations, and was duly qualified to act as a chemist.
“Follow the line now? ” I asked.
“That’s a sad question, and wants explaining, besides I have no desire to trouble people with my woes.”
By way of drawing him out, I blush to say, I reminded him that I was once a flourishing tradesman myself, brought down to my present pitiful condition by the vileness of mankind.
He was not very communicative, however, but related how he was once in a good situation in a town near Windsor, but owing to his convivial propensities, and eloping with his master’s daughter, he was the victim of revenge of that man, who succeeded in getting him discharged from every situation.
Then, it seems, he rubbed along as locum tenens, but finally came down so low as to go on the tramp, sponging on his former shop-mates, and living in common lodging-houses, where he occasionally picked up a sixpence by prescribing recipes for “all the ills that flesh is heir to.”
A STAMPEDE TO BED
Our conversation was cut short by the “dep” asking if we intended stopping up all night, a hint at once acted on, and a general stampede made for bed.
Following my companions’ footsteps, I found myself in a large room full of hammock-like beds, or, as Mr. Whistler would have put it, “arrangements in rope and sacking.”
The manner in which most of the inmates’ retired to rest was rather amusing, for nearly everyone divested himself of every particle of clothing and rolled into bed in a state of nudity.
The printer occupied the bed next to mine, and, as he was inclined to be chatty, we sat a few minutes, but a voice ordering us to “Shut up!” brought our chat to a close, and, lying on my hammock, I made hollow pretence of sleep, and awaited developments.
THE CHANCE TO ESCAPE
Gradually, one by one fell into the arms of Morpheus, and now I thought was my chance of escape.
But no, vain hope, measured footsteps were approaching, and Mr. Inspector came round and flashed his bull’s-eye in our faces, and the sharpener of saws (who I thought was asleep) exhorted him to “run in” the “long hound of a fern-seller.”
Once again all was quiet, and boots in hand I descended the stairs, to the amazement of the “dep”, after a hasty explanation as to feeling indisposed.
I was thankful to breathe the pure air of heaven once more.
Retracing my steps, I reached home to find my wife in a state of anxiety.
A bath soon put me right, and I retired in earnest, vowing never to endure another such night for “a gold watch as big as a frying pan.”