Amongst The Dossers

Having paid a visit to Christchurch Hall in Hanbury Street in a previous article, the correspondent form The Dundee Advertiser, expressed an interest in exploring some of the surrounding Spitalfields Streets, in order to witness at first hand the everyday lives of the people that he had encountered at the Sunday service in the hall.

Parson Collings, the clergyman who had conducted the service, strongly advised against venturing into the surrounding streets.

But the intrepid journalist persisted and, as a result, was able to view the lower class of residents of Spitalfields and Whitechapel in their everyday habitats.

His article about his experiences appeared in The Dundee Advertiser on Thursday 28th November, 1895, and provides us with an intriguing insight into the places that, just seven years previous, had been made notorious as a result of the Jack the Ripper murders.

The article read:-


“Before leaving the hall, we expressed a desire to visit several of the doss-houses in the neighbourhood, where some of these poor wanderers resided when they could afford it.

Contrary to our expectations, Mr Collings did not respond to our wish with any degree of heartiness.

Indeed, he tried to dissuade us from going, and he threw out the hint that it would be better not to indulge in what he evidently regarded a somewhat morbid curiosity.

Strangers, he remarked, were not gracefully received by the proprietors, because of the fact that the ubiquitous interviewer, with his usual enterprise, had unexpectedly let some kindly light in upon the obscurity of these rather darkened abodes.

The denizens of these places, he continued, if they thought that espionage was the object of your visitation, would have no hesitation in expressing their resentment in a manner that would leave a remembrance the reverse of pleasant.

“And do you think they would split upon their pals? – No, never,” added the courteous clergyman.

We had, however, seen most of the disreputable places of Edinburgh and Glasgow; and as for our own good city – Bonnie Dundee – didn’t we have every dirty lane and every slum in it at our fingers’ ends?

We were familiar, too, with the common lodging-houses of these cities.


We were not to be dissuaded.

We wanted comparisons, and were desirous of seeing for ourselves what sort of accommodation for itinerants was provided in London.

Accordingly, we were introduced to a gentleman who, as a lay missionary, frequently visited the worst of the common lodging-houses in the discharge of his duty.

A most intelligent and civil gentleman he proved to be, and while he agreed to go with us in the evening, he gave us the same advice as that of the clergyman.


About nine o’clock, an hour when most of the frequenters of these houses begin to gather in, accompanied by our friend we went on our pilgrimage in Whitechapel.

On the way, whole streets were pointed out to us as being the residences of the vicious, and the localities upon which we were about to enter had been rendered notorious by the “Ripper” murders.

Hanbury Street, which we had just left, was the scene of one of these diabolical crimes, and we were now approaching Dorset Street, Flower and Dean Street, Brick Lane, and Thrawl Street.

“Would any of the frequenters of these houses know anything about the perpetrators of these shocking deeds?” we asked.

“I do not think that Jack the Ripper’ would be known to any of them – he was too cunning for that,” was the reply.

A photograph showing Hanbury Street.
Hanbury Street As It Was



“But the victims were all known. Do you see these women over there?” he inquired, pointing to a bedraggled group of females standing under the shadow of a lamp.

We assented.

“Well, these were their companions.”

“Were they not frightened?”

“Oh, yes, they were; but what could the poor creatures do? They had no place to go, and the streets are too often their only home – God help them!”


Brick Lane is one of the scenes in which Dickens delighted to revel, and he has rendered it famous in one of his novels.

One of the common order of night homes is situated there, and to this place we wended our way.

The outside appearance, as well the number of rough, unkempt characters who were loafing round the door, at once proclaimed the nature of the domicile.

Before entering, our friend cautioned against taking notes.

A view along Brick lane.
Brick Lane, Whitechapel, 1900.


“If you do, do it mentally,” he said. “The recent remarks made in some of the London papers have set them against strangers. If they saw you use a pencil just now, I would not be answerable for the results. The people here, as rule, are birds of ill omen, and as the eye of the law is continually upon them they are sharpened up so that they can divine a person’s motives much quicker than the ordinary run of respectable mortals.”

We agreed to be as circumspect as any inquisitive Scotchman could possibly be.

“Just follow me, then. Do as I do, and they will think you are a deputy from some other mission – besides, you look it! Now, use your eyes!”

With considerable trepidation, we followed our guide through door, down a dirty, dimly lighted stair, and immediately found ourselves in a long, low-roofed apartment, which I was told was used as kitchen, dining-room, sitting-room, and in some instances as laundry.


Over 200 men at least were present, lounging on settles and spreading themselves over the place in every conceivable attitude and in all manner of garments.

They were of the same class as we had met in the Mission Hall in Hanbury Street – anything but an attractive lot of fellows, and as seen in the imperfectly lighted room, the variation in their features was startling.

Cunning, low and significant, was predominant.

In the faces of too many, there was a bland ferocity.

They could smile whilst knocking you down,

We have no wish to overdraw the picture. That probably could not done. It is one that can only be seen in the heart of a great city, such as London, New York, or Paris.

Two great fires, used for cooking and other purposes, ranged at one side of the apartment, threw out a strong heat, which, combined with the lowness of the roof, the gas jets, the crowded state of the benches, the dirty people and greasy surroundings, was anything but seductive, and beat the smells we have felt Miller’s Pend, Session Street, and Foundry Lane.

People in the kitchen of a Spitalfields Common Lodging House.
The Kitchen of A Common Lodging House. From The Graphic, 24th April 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


There had been a religious service previous to our entrance.

The choir was singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

We joined their ranks at once, and helped, with harmonium accompaniment, to swell the chorus with tremulous bass.

True to the hint, our eyes were kept wide awake, and we felt queerish when we saw a number of fellows with their keen eyes upon us.

We thought we were spotted, and shook accordingly; and as soon as the benediction was pronounced we were the first to get upstairs and out into the street, thinking for the moment that some of the wakeful light-fingered gentry were at our heels.

Again we felt to see if our watch, &c., were in their places, and were gratified to find them still safe.


“We are well out of that den,” remarked my friend. “Did you ever see such a set of ruffians?”

“What do they pay for their beds?”

“Fourpence a head.”

“What do they work at?”

“Nothing, as a rule. Some of them will do a day at the docks now and again, but they’d rather not. They prefer to beg, borrow, or steal.”


“Could we have an opportunity of visiting the dormitories?”

“No, sir; it would be as much as a man’s skin is worth to venture into any of the sleeping apartments just now. Be content as you are.”

“Have you ever been in any of them?”

“Oh, yes; often.”

“What are they like?”

“Anything but desirable places. I have seen the people lying on the floor, on truckle beds, iron beds, any way and every way, with covering and without it. Oh ! it is not an agreeable sight – so be content.”

We, however, still persisted, and our friend agreed, if we “tipped” the janitor, to try to have us shown over some of the dormitories on the following day.

The beds inside a common lodging house in Spitalfields.
From The Graphic 24th April 1886. Copyright, the British Library Board.


Our next visit was to some better class homes in Commercial Road, These were certainly of a superior type, and were frequented by persons a shade less degraded than those in Brick Lane.

At the same time, a stranger was not welcome, and we walked gingerly through the different apartments asking for a Mr Smith who, of course, had no existence.

This place could accommodate several hundred lodgers, and the price per bed was 4d and 6d per night.

We afterwards visited other houses, where the arrangements were similar.


From Commercial Street we went to Dorset Street, one of the vilest, if not the worst, street in London.

It is a noisesome, slummy, reeky, narrow thoroughfare. It is haunted by the worst characters, and as there are several of the lowest 4d “doss” houses in the city located there, frowsy loafers and bloated women hung about the entrances in dirty crowds.

There are three public-houses in this street – one at each corner and another in the centre.

A large doss-house is situated immediately opposite the central tavern, and it was remarked that the sashes of the lower window of the lodging house were removed, and that the glass window of the public-house was also absent.

Both parties, therefore, could mutually exchange compliments over the way without inconvenience.

The evening air, besides, was sultry, and the heavy smoke-laden atmosphere helped to taint the surroundings from basement to housetop.

Of course, the public-houses were crammed.

Looking along Dorset Street where Mary Kelly, Jack the Ripper's last victim, was murdered on 9th November 1888.
Dorset Street in 1902


The lowest class of people patronised the “Homes” in Dorset Street, and the outsider, in looking at the dismal, depressing environments, only wondered that they should hold their lives so cheap.

The question might fittingly be put – Are such lives worth living? The doss-house – or the street, that’s the alternative!

There is little variation in their habits, the continuity in too many instances being only varied by a spell of imprisonment. Their pleasure is gin, beer (half-and-half), and whisky. That is their happiness, and many of them know little else from the day they enter this world till they ignobly leave it.


At the further end of Dorset Street, we visited a house of a very low type.

A number of women were sitting on benches, and I was informed that it was a night house devoted to the lodgment of females.

The equipments were the same as in the houses devoted to the use of men – anything but desirable.


The Church of England has not left this place out in the cold, and its workers night after night labour hard to stem the tide of unrighteousness.

They have established a small mission hall in Dorset Street, and if they cannot reach the older people, they are doing their best to rescue the young.

In the Rev. J. H. Scott, rector of Spitalfields and rural Dean, the Church of England has a most devoted servant, and it is to his unremitting and enthusiastic endeavours, and to those of his corps of earnest assistants, that the missionary work of the district owes its progress.

We visited in all some nine houses, and after fully two hours’ of hard trudging we thanked our courteous conductor and bade him goodnight.


On the following day he conducted us over one of the better-class houses in Thrawl Street.

There was little to find fault with.

The dormitories, we thought, could have been improved in many respects; and, in our opinion, they were not equal to those in the lodging-houses in Glasgow and Edinburgh.


I still hankered after the dormitories of the common “doss” house, but our friend declined to gratify my wish.

It was unsafe to intrude, even in daylight!.

We, therefore, had to be content.

In London, there are many sights calculated to gratify and enlighten the visitor, but the slum hunter will find that a day in Spitalfields and Whitechapel can be well and advantageously spent.”