The Salvation Army was very active on the streets of the East End of London in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.
Their hostels provided some semblance of night time shelter for homeless drifters who found themselves on the streets of the Victorian metropolis.
That the hostels were a source of curiosity for the well-to-do of the era is amply demonstrated by the number of newspaper articles that appeared in which journalists described their experiences of having spent a night in the Salvation Army shelters.
The following account of one such experience was published in The Western Mercury on 29th July 1902:-
A NIGHT WITH THE SALVATION ARMY
“The Salvation Army, despite their host of detractors, are no doubt doing no small amount of good.
To get at the bottom mass of this world it is certainly necessary to use unusual means, and the fanaticism of the Army services is one way in which to reach the soul of the godless.
Scattered about the great metropolis, they have established a number of night shelters.
The awful, ever-increasing number of homeless and shelterless seen in the streets of London at night is confounding in this so-called civilized England, and it is to counteract this that these shelters have been erected.
‘No man need go without food’, ‘No man need be without a bed’, ‘No man need commit suicide’, says the Salvation Army, and, in a measure, this is quite true; but – and there is a big but in it – the character of a night shelter is often distressing to anyone of a sensitive mind.
SHELTER SOUGHT FOR THE NIGHT
Finding myself one evening with the magnificent sum of fourpence in my possession, I set out to seek a shelter for the night.
The sun was just setting, and as I stood on Blackfriars Bridge, and watched its last yellow glow tinge tower and steeple, and kiss Old Father Thames until his waters were as molten gold, I wondered why a city so favoured should hold so much that was evil.
But weariness was creeping over me, so I wended my way down the broad thoroughfare, with people jostling me on every side, until at length I came to a building over which was the sign ‘Salvation Army Shelter, for Men Only’.
THREE HUNDRED SOULS
A long line of close on three hundred souls extended up a passage-way, at the end of which was an office, and, being ignorant of the exact price of the night’s shelter, I turned and inquired of one of the men.
He seemed surprised at my query, for though I had little money I was fairly respectably dressed.
“Yer doan’t want to go in ‘ere, do you?” he asked.
“Well, yer pays twopence fer yer “doss”, and if yer wants any “scrag” two more “steevers”.’
Privation had taught me that a ‘doss’ was a bed, ‘scrag’ was food, and a `steever’ a penny.
So I fell in behind him.
“Ne’er bin in ‘ere ‘afore?” he asked, as the line began to move forward.
“Never”, I replied.
“Ay, well, they’re rum viles; but keep wi’ me, I’ll see yer reight.”
OATHS, PUSHING AND CUSSING
The pressure behind kept us from further conversation.
Oaths rippled from one end of the line to the other.
One who attempted to force his way into the line was knocked back, and cleared off to the rear, nursing a fast-closing eye.
FOR THE COST OF FOURPENCE
At last I reached the office, where for the sum of fourpence I received a ticket, after the style of a railway ticket.
On it, at the top and at the, bottom, was stamped ‘One Penny.’
I followed the old fellow who had given me the information along a passage that seemed at one time to have formed part of a cellar.
Here were seated two officials, who, after taking my name and age, informed me that my bed was numbered 219; so, turning to the right, I entered my bed-chamber.
A FOUL STENCH
The sight and stench that met me almost turned me sick.
Seated on long rows of wooden benches were several hundred men in all degrees of wretchedness.
There was a dull rumble of conversation, but most of them seemed engaged in eating – eating as if the food before them were the first morsel they had had for days.
TIME FOR “SCRAG”
“Nar then, come an’ get some scrag,” urged my companion, as I hesitated; so I followed him.
“Wad yer fancy? Bread and jam; bread and burrer, soup, tea, corfee – give it a name. It’s a fine hotel, this ‘ere is.”
At a kind of bar two men served out, in return for a portion of the ticket, a certain amount of food.
I invested half my ticket, and secured about a pint of tea, served in a tin can, and half a slice of thick bread and butter.
My companion preferred to have soup with his bread, and together we took our seats on one of the hard benches amidst the motley crowd.
BUNKS, BEDS AND COFFINS
Round the room were bunks, in tiers of three.
This room would hold about two hundred dossers.
In another room were rows of coffin-shaped boxes on the floor. These were the beds of late-comers. The mattress was an oilcloth sheet, the covering ‘ditto’. This is necessary, for were cloth coverings to be used, the place would soon be uninhabitable because of vermin.
The crowd around me were engaged in many ways.
Some produced needle and thread and endeavoured to patch up their tattered clothing; one man did a small trade; and earned several sundries and ha’pence, by patching up worn boots; another sorted and set straight a few wares for the coming day’s trade. Many leant their heads on the rail of the seat in front, and fell either into thought or slumber.
Many a murder and many a robbery has been planned in a Salvation Army Shelter.
STORIES OF THE ROAD
A few related stories of the road, others recounted escapades in prison.
“Two threes, eh?”
“No, twelve months’ hard.”
“Seen Nockie lately?”
“He’s agon fer ‘is ‘olidays ter Portland.”
“W’er’ did yer swing yer kip larst night?”
“Runs up agenst a drunk an’ nicks ‘im fer a bob.”
And so the talk goes on until a bell rings out for silence. Very little heed is taken of it.
“Order!” cries one; his friend curses him.
“What yer pulling that face for, black-mug?”
“Go it, De Wet!”
TIME FOR HYMNS
“Hallelujah. Go to blazes!”
This directed to the Salvationist who conducts a short service every night in the place.
“Bring out the hymn-books!” yells another; but there are none, so the hymn draggles on to the end, and with another prayer the red-tuniced captain disappears.
AND SO TO BED
Then preparations are made for bed.
I climbed up to my bunk, which fortunately was a top one, and watched the scene.
It was like one of Dante’s Infernos.
The lights had been lowered, and most of the ‘dossers’ stripped to the ‘buff’ – that is, they took off all their clothes and lay down naked.
I could not sleep. Throughout the night the heat and stench were choking.
Some snored, others groaned in anguish of mind. Some babbled of bygone days, and others cursed their birth.
Never did daylight come more welcome to me. I rose, and washed in the lavatory, and after exchanging the other portion of my ticket for a pint of tea, I emerged into the streets; and seldom before had the air seemed sweeter to me than that morning when I came out of a Salvation Army Shelter.”