The Dusthole Woolwich

The “Dusthole” was one of the most notorious locations in Victorian London, possessed of a reputation so bad that even the police would not dare patrol it alone at night, and soldiers from the nearby barracks at Woolwich were advised to keep away from it after dark – indeed, it was said that the army would place sentries at the entrances into the “Dusthole” in order to stop any soldier who might be tempted to stray into this lawless, crime-ridden and violent enclave.

It was situated in the Riverside district of Woolwich, and covered an area that was, roughly, bordered by the approach to the Woolwich foot tunnel and the boundary of the Woolwich Arsenal.

In essence, it was the area surrounding present day Woolwich High Street.

WHERE COAL WAS OFFLOADED

The name “the Dusthole” is reputed to have been derived from the fact that, in the early to mid 19th century, several riverside wharves grew up here at which coal was offloaded – and the resultant coal dust from this trade, hanging heavy in the air and becoming the most noticeable feature of the otherwise nondescript streets made “the Dusthole” the ideal nickname.

Obviously, the more “respectable” members of society would not want to live in streets where the air was heavy with coal dust, and thus the enclave was abandoned to those who weren’t that bothered – or who had little choice – about living there.

BULLIES, PIMPS, THIEVES AND TRAMPS

Philanthropist and poverty map compiler Charles Booth (1840 – 1916) had this to say about the unsavoury residents who settled here:-

“Practically all the houses are brothels, used by sailors, loafers, waterside labourers and the lowest paid soldiers, although for soldiers it is out of bounds and patrolled by the military police.

The male inhabitants are bullies, pimps, dock and waterside labourers, costers, hawkers, thieves and tramps. The women are mostly prostitutes.

No law runs in these streets. The north side of the High Street between Nelson Street and Collingwood Street was ‘perhaps the roughest of all the points in the Dust Hole. Women with broken noses, swollen faces, bare dirty unkempt faces and heads, bedraggled skirts, frayed edges everywhere, coarse Irish faces, bare arms.”

SCARCELY A LOWER CLASS OF GIRL

General William Booth (1829 – 1912), the founder of the Salvation Army – and no relation to Charles – had this to say about it in his book In Darkest England And The Way Out:

“There is scarcely a lower class of girls to be found than the girls of the Woolwich “Dusthole”… The women living and following their dreadful business in this neighbourhood are so degraded that even abandoned men will refuse to accompany them home.”

Of course, with such a reputation for vice, villainy and degradation, “the Dusthole” featured in many Victorian newspaper articles, and journalists, ever anxious to shock the delicate sensibilities of their readers, were more than happy to venture there and report back on what they had uncovered in their researches.

One such newspaper was The Kentish Independent, which, on Saturday, 12th March, 1887, published the following article about this notorious Woolwich enclave:-

CLASSIC WOOLWICH

“The first visit of exploration one may be tempted to make into the region of the “Dusthole” will probably be attended by a feeling of extreme disappointment, especially if one has been in the habit of occasionally casting his eye down the police records of the town, and thence expects to find himself in a seething hotbed of lawlessness and disorder.

Generally speaking, “Dusthole” life will appear the incarnation of tameness to a superficial observer, if he goes “down there.”

MAPS HARD TO COME BY

The first time I went I half expected to find a descent to it by steps, like there is to the Tower Subway, or to discover it mapped out into circles, one beneath the other, the same as in that delightful world described by Dante in the first book of his immortal “comedy,” – and, by the way, how scarce maps of Woolwich are.

If he goes, I say, upon his journeys in the day time, nine times out of ten he will see nobody about but the regular “unemployed” loungers at the corners, and the busts and upper portions of such matrons as are given to gossiping as they hang out of their doors and windows to compare notes with each other on any stragglers who may chance to pass, and on various other topics of importance that occur to the feminine mind.

A SIGHT OF WOOLWICH

If he has the good fortune to see one of these ladies at full length, he will have seen one of the sights of Woolwich.

He will observe with curiosity the tasteful manner in which she dresses her hair, the sweetness and delicate pitch of her voice, the remarkable extent of apron she gets around her, and that distinguishing habit of hers of folding together her hands beneath it.

METAL-LUNGED YOUNGSTERS

Then, again, if he goes down between or after school hours he will find his footsteps impeded by such a noisy host of metal-lunged youngsters that he will be astonished to think how they can all be got together at nights beneath the “Dusthole” rooftops.

I know of no more exacting effort than picking my way through them as they surge about utterly intent on their shuttlecocks, their “black-bulling,” and their “buttons” – and can’t some of these innocent little urchins pass pleasant remarks, too?  – unless it be trying to cross from one side to the other of the “Square” when the men are coming out from work.

BEST GO IN DISGUISE

If the visitor has any regard for his reputation he will not be seen down here after nightfall, but, supposing he shall have ventured, in disguise we will presume, and has been able to evade or pass that most unpleasant nuisance of all, the degraded females who litter and cluster about every point of access to the region, then when he gets into Classic Woolwich proper he will still be surprised to find it as quiet or quieter than the most select of our more refined neighbourhoods.

I remember paying the place a visit one Guy Fawkes night, when rowdyism everywhere else was rampant, and not unnaturally expecting to find some display of it down here, but found, on the other hand, the place in comparative quiet and darkness, and bearing quite a deserted aspect.

In fact, while the shops are open in the town, Cannon Row, and Beresford Street even, are much to be preferred before Church Street and Artillery Place by those who desire neither to obtrude themselves or be obtruded on by others.

A photograph of Beresford Square.
Beresford Square, Woolwich.

THE RESIDENTS RETURN

It is when the townsfolk have completed their round of toil for the day, and commence to betake themselves to the rest they have, or ought to have earned, that the inhabitants of Classic Woolwich return to their homes from the uppermost parts of the outside world.

Then they begin to flow back in a continuous tide, the coster with his empty barrow (though he may himself be slightly overladen), the shoeless tramp to his quarters for the night, the restless ne’er do well to his favourite “house,” the worker to his repose, the wifebeater to the bosom of his family, and the blackguard-in-general to his ordinary haunt of mischief.

THE CRIES OF THE NIGHT

Then the flickering lights go up and the babble of voices (from the weazen cry of the pitiably clad and half starved child to the coward tones of the loud-mouthed bawling drunkard) begin to rise out of the silence that erstwhile held this wilderness.

“MURDER” AND “POLICE”

Now, if anyone likes to come and pay us a visit of inspection (it will be better, perhaps, in the company of a policeman), and will stay till five or six o’clock next morning, I guarantee he will be kept alive the whole while by such trifles as cries of “Murder” and “Police;” by shrieks and oaths and blows in such abundance that when they come to be added up together they will afford quite sufficient evidence of proximity to a bevy of uneducated, besotted, and uncared-for people.

I do not intend this epitome to include all the folks of Classic Woolwich. I should be very sorry to dispose of them with these ungenerous words.

SOME MORAL AND GOD-FEARING SOULS

At the same time, I confidently state that they do not convey an untrue or overcoloured estimate of the leavening of humanity that taints the whole population of this neighbourhood.

But there are patient and long-suffering, aye, and good God-fearing souls in Woolwich “Dusthole,” such moral, conscientious, industrious, and well-principled people, that they would be an ornament, and a rare one, amid the big people of Woolwich Common and Plumstead Park.

A FINE SUGGESTION!

The more reason, then, that they should be brought away out of the contamination of such a packed-in neighbourhood, and separated among the decent folks of the brighter parts of Woolwich.

“A fine suggestion, this,” I fancy I hear Woolwich exclaim, “that we should be overrun, for no fault of our own, by these vandals!”

But, if my fancy is what Paddy calls an “echo beforehand” of the fact, and Woolwich is really actuated by this fear, I can assure her that she has no cause to dread an invasion from her unfortunate neighbours.

MOST OF THEM ARE HARMLESS

Nine-tenths of them are practically harmless as it is, and if they could be parted and dissociated from each other so as to be more readily attainable by the authorities, if need be, the remainder would soon become as inoffensive.

The worst of them require very little looking after, and I am one of those who believe in the influence of happy rather than unhappy associations of character and surroundings.

In fact, I think that we would transform them quicker than they would demoralise us.

AN INCIDENT FROM TRUE LIFE

For those who entertain misgivings on this subject, perhaps the following little incident from true life may prove interesting and to the point.

In one of my recent peregrinations, I came upon a party of the fearful social democrats who had intruded upon the more business-like orators of Beresford Square, and were declaiming from the lamp-post there in so wild and fiery a manner, that a more rash and hot-headed community might have been incited to mischief by their words.

The audience was composed of a good surrounding of the lower orders, and among their number I discovered one esteemed old acquaintance of mine who was standing open-mouthed, apparently taking in all their pernicious doctrines.

I need not say how disturbed I felt at this apparition; and alas, thought I, for Felix O’Brien, he will be no longer the well contented, old-fashioned being I have always known him, but, like the peasantry of Ireland, who have been ruined by the atrocious Parnellites, and the working men of London, who have allowed foreign incendiaries to sow the seeds of sedition broadcast in their midst, he will become polluted and degraded.

HE THOUGHT THEY WERE THE SALVATION ARMY!

A day or two after I came upon my old friend again, and as he did not appear to have been transformed into such a dangerous character as I had expected, it was without much fear or trembling that I went up to and exchanged salutation with him.

“And now, Felix,” said I, “what were you doing with the Social Democrats when I saw you the other evening?”

“The Soci-wal Demmycrats!” said he, “Why I thought it was the Salvation Army.”

“What! do you mean to tell me,” I asked incredulously, “that you did not perceive the difference in their preaching?”

“Well,” said he, with a new light seeming to down upon him, “I did think that some of their sayin’s was a bit mixed like.”

THEY WON’T BE BACK

“And how did it all end, Felix?”I asked, after he had described the meeting to me.

“Well, sir,” he wound up, “if they was the Soci-wal Demtnycrata, I don’t reckon as they’ll be payin’ us another visit in a hurry.”

With this little anecdote I shall close the present curt summary of my gleanings in Woolwich “Dusthole.”