The London Doss House

The common lodging houses of the East End of London – and in particular of Spitalfields and Whitechapel – play an integral role in the story of the Jack the Ripper murders.

With one exception – Mary Kelly – all the victims were “residing” at these establishments at the times of their deaths, and even Mary Kelly had spent time in them.

In addition, it becomes apparent, when reading newspaper accounts about the aftermath of the murders, that the police themselves entertained suspicions that the murderer was hiding out in one of the districts many “doss houses.”


We often see photographs and illustrations of the exteriors and the interiors of the common lodging houses, in which their residents stare back at us across the gulf that separates our age from theirs; but what were these people actually like, and what was it like if you actually ventured inside these places of last resort?

A group of people sitting and being served tea in a common lodging house.
People In The Kitchen Of A Common Lodging House.


On Saturday, February 20th, 1932, The Sphere published an article that gave readers the chance to venture – on the page at least – across the thresholds of some of these establishments and afforded them the opportunity to come face to face with some of their residents.

The article is intriguing in that it also provides us with an idea of the daily life behind the walls of a – in many ways thankfully – vanished side of East End life.

The article, which was written by Frank Delmer,  read:-


“There still survives in London an institution – the Doss-house – which is redolent of the days of  Charles Dickens.

The author would put the spirit of the dosser and the doss-house still further back.

Elizabethan is the word which most aptly describes them.

There is one institution that has not changed in England since the days of Dickens and that is the real, old-fashioned doss-house with its vast, almost medieval, communal kitchen, the type that Jack London must have known in the days when he was in London’s dockland.

The Rowton Houses, which are similar to the Mills hotels of New York and the Salvation and Church Army hostels, are comparatively modern developments and no self-respecting “dosser” would be seen inside them.

Too many rules, too much officialdom for him!

Your experienced knight of the road knows every “kip-shop” in the British Isles, but he is only a transient “dosser” who goes from town to town selling his wares according to the season.

If on occasion he becomes a tramp, in the sense of being a vagrant, it is because he has met with a temporary set-back probably due to having drunk his stock money.

But at least 60 percent of the 44 “dossers” are permanent lodgers.

They can cook their own meals, enforce their own code of rules, and live untrammelled by petty regulations.

Men in coats and flat caps paying thier admission fee for the lodging house.
Men Paying For Admission.


Down in the East End – in Stepney – are to be found the real old doss-houses. Go down Brick Lane, that celebrated thoroughfare, and you can see for yourself.

To these lodging – houses resort men who are in “small” jobs, decent fellows, and self-respecting by disliking any attempt to restrict their liberty.

They have their own lockers, do their own marketing and washing, and occasionally have a little too much ale – but only occasionally.


Some of these men are over seventy, and are still carrying on cheerfully.

Then there are the old pensioners, grousing old fellows who spend the days inside the huge kitchen as near the fires as possible, talking scandal and back-biting their neighbours.

Newspaper sellers and pedlars form another large division of the “dossers,” cheerful chaps as a rule.

Young men form a minor fraction. They usually follow a leader and group about him. They are generally employed in sweated tailoring or in small restaurants and cafes.

Old sailors abound, and when you can get them to talk they can be very interesting, but they resent the impertinence and levity of the younger generation.


A fair percentage of “dossers” in London’s East End are Irishmen who are temporarily out of employment, big navvies mostly.

Next to them in proportion come the Scots.

The Cockneys are in the majority, for there is a type of Londoner who cannot keep away from the “kip-shops” however well off he may be. When he does get away from them it is usually because he has been making money, and some woman has married him and taken him away.

I know several cases of young men who have lived in doss-houses ever since they were boys. Their fathers have lived there before them, and directly they could get away from the guardians or the good Samaritans who took them in as infants they also come to the kip-houses.

A group of men sitting on their beds in a comon lodging house.
The Mens Beds In A Common Lodging House


Besides the types I have already mentioned there are the professional beggars, who are barred by most of the other inmates because of their intolerable dirtiness.

There are the “incompetents” whom everybody helps. These are the men, sometimes slightly crippled, who simply cannot make a living although they try. They are weaklings, struggling unskilfully in life’s current, which is far too strong for them.


Professional thieves are also to be found, but they do not steal in the doss-house itself. That is the second unforgivable sin. The first is giving information to the police, or “grassing,” to use the latest slang of the underworld.

Fagin still exists among us, especially in the Whitechapel district of Stepney. But he is not always a Jew.

Most of the older thieves and organizers of thieving I have met have been pure cockneys or “Brummies.”


The trouble with these men is that they talk about their past exploits to the youngsters, are always tremendously sympathetic for anyone who has just “come out,” providing he has “been away” for stealing, and they give a false romance to the crooked life which the youngsters are only too willing to accept.

The really clever younger thieves keep away from these men.

I should say, “the really clever young men who have been thieves,” for I have found several cases of youngsters who have turned crook from a mistaken sense of romance and from youthful conceit, and who have come to the conclusion that it is better to “go straight.”

Several of these men are skilled workmen who can earn a good living, even in these hard times, but they work for themselves, not for any employer. That shows that they have grit and independence, but here I am straying from my subject.


Supposing you land in a doss-house in London’s East End, you will find yourself free of the place after you have paid for your bed.

You can buy groceries at a very reasonable rate at the office, and you will find cooking implements in the kitchen, also two or more huge fires.

You should contrive to get your own mug, knife, fork and spoon, also a billy can, but these will be lent to you at first.

Perhaps you will join a “mess.”


I know one man who supports himself by cooking for those dossers who are in regular employment, but who find it convenient to sleep near their work, which is in the markets and at hours when most people are in bed.

He has had some experience in some very good places, can shop on next to nothing, wastes nothing in the vegetable line, and is spotlessly clean, which is a considerable achievement because even the best conducted dosshouse is not exactly a hygienic resort.

Men sitting at the tables in a lodging house kitchen.
The Kitchen Of A Common Lodging House


Apart from the “management,” who do not trouble you, a day deputy, a night deputy, and two men cleaners are the only staff, and they do not worry the lodgers.

You are expected to be up in the dormitories by midnight.


On Sundays, there is a huge fire in the washing-rooms, where you can dry your washing after scrubbing it on the long wooden tables provided for the purpose.

On Sundays, worthy souls from various missions visit the doss-house and conduct short services; usually, they are well received by those dossers present, but occasionally there are growls of protest when one of the amateur preachers is not tactful in his remarks.

The Salvation Army is not a popular organization among the dossers for reasons that would be too long and too controversial to expose here, but the amateurs from the missions do not ask for money or moralize unduly about the evils of drink.

A female attendant stands by a bed at a common lodging house.
A Female Attendant At A Lodging House.


There is not much drunkenness in the “kip-shops” as a rule, far less than you would imagine, but that may be owing to the general scarcity of ready money.

There are occasional fights and these are pretty serious affairs in which the Marquis of Queensberry’s rules are not necessarily observed.


Now and again a detective pays a midnight visit in an endeavour to discover some wanted man.

He does not ask too many questions, however.

If he did, it would be no use.

Dossers are a close-mouthed lot where the police are concerned.

But among the lodgers, there is usually a “rat,” a “grass,” a “nark,” or “nose,” who is a professional informant or an unsuccessful thief who steals small things in the house itself and welcomes a few shillings of police secret service money for reporting something he has seen or heard in the doss-house.


For the dosser who is unlucky enough to “go inside,” there is always great sympathy.

When he returns, he must play the game, however, and whatever he does, he must not “grouse” about his experiences whilst in durance vile.

On the contrary, he must make light of them without posing either as a hero or a martyr.


A man will not starve in a doss-house.

Should he look really hungry, some kindly soul is certain to present him with a mug of strong tea and something to eat, and I know that the cook, to whom I have already referred, feeds at least half a dozen poor souls with the extra food he has purchased for Sunday’s special dinner.


But there is little begging among the dossers themselves.

If a man who is at all known in the place has not enough money for his night’s bed, the word goes round – “So-and-so has not got the price of his kip” and it is soon made up.

In these places, you meet with the most unexpected generosity as well as with a medieval and very cruel sense of humour.


Usually, you do not call anybody by his real name.

Possibly he has forgotten it; probably he does not want it mentioned.

Occupationary names such as “window-cleaner,” “jellied eels,” “Barber,” “snobbie,” are common; nicknames often of a very Rabelaisian nature are in order; also rhyming slang names.


As attendant spirits in the doss-house kitchen are the cats.

All sorts of cats! Ginger, black, tabby, black and white, fat, lean, pugnacious, friendly.

All sorts of cats!

One fellow is famous. He is a big chap whose claws are against all men except his master and a few, very few, cat experts. He will invariably turn and bite any dosser he meets on the stairs.


These cats are treated with the greatest of kindness by the residents, but it is when a child comes among the dossers that these men who have been battered by fortune show their extraordinary sentimentality (but perhaps I have not the right word).

They would overload her (or him) with presents if they were allowed, humour his or her every whim.

Girl children are favourites, as male children are expected to turn “tough,” and be able to fight for themselves at a very early age.

Two women looking out of the doorway of a common lodging house.
The Flower And Dean Street Lodging House For Single Women.


I have already referred to the professional beggars and should have written that the dirtier, the more disreputable they look, the more money they make.

One man whom I have in mind conducts himself something like a man under a vow.

He simply makes excursions out into the wide world and looks forlorn, unshaven, with matted locks and fearful black raiment, but he makes a living where others would starve.

There is another, an old ruffian doubtless familiar to many city workers, who is older and dressed in rags, in fact, he is known as Old Rags.

He makes quite a decent living out of mendicity, but unlike the first man mentioned, he never, or very rarely, actually asks for money. He just stands still or sits down looking like something chewed up by dogs, and kind-hearted folk drop alms into his unclean but ready palm.


Barrel-organ grinders, “whisperers,” and match sellers frequent doss-houses.

There are degrees of wealth even in those humble occupations.

The newsvendors are “steady” lodgers, look after themselves and might be termed the bourgeoisie of the doss-house community.

Should they happen on a good pitch by some stroke of fortune, they do not stay long in “kip-shops,” for there is a very good living to be made out of a good newspaper “pitch” in London.


One of the oddest characters who travels the country, going from one doss-house to another, as he moves from one town to another, is my friend the old wire-worker.

With an ancient pair of pliers, an old tin and a secondary pair of pliers, he can make the most ingenious toys and models out of wire.

He is known all over England; will go into a public-house, order his drink, sit down, twirl a piece of wire for a few seconds, and, lo and behold, you have a motor-cycle, an aeroplane, a motor-car, a lighthouse or some cleverly modelled toy.

He has regular seasons for his goods, is over seventy, has one useless foot, yet travels cheerfully all the year round and does not worry if he cannot scrape up his train fare.

He always reaches his destination somehow or other.”