FIVE – THE DOSS HOUSE
The Economist magazine tries hard to console its readers with numbers. It worries little about how wealth is distributed and sustains the conviction that any improvement in gross domestic product is beneficial for all. The magazine was first published in 1843. Ever since then it has preached utilitarianism and the supposed greatest happiness of the greatest number. Four years before The Economist was first published there were 220 common lodging houses in London. 2500 people used these lodging houses. The price was four pence for a single bed and eight pence for a double. The double beds were available for married couples. Prostitutes also used the beds for their clients. After their business was done the prostitutes could settle down for the night in something other than the typical narrow single bed of the lodging house.
After the Irish famine in 1848 the number of common lodging houses or doss houses increased. There was also immigration from mainland Europe. Jews escaped pogroms and poverty. By 1854 there were 1441 registered lodging houses in London. Between them all they provided 30,000 beds. Not every lodging house was registered. 3,276 known unregistered lodging houses had space for a further 50,000 people. The conditions in the doss houses were not good. The single beds were as narrow as a decent pair of shoulders, and the bedding was infected by vermin. The kitchens had insufficient space and facilities. Washing the walls with lime helped to control the vermin but the dosshouse owners resented the expense of buying lime.
Back then The Economist would have remained as calm about the hardship as it is today about communities that are obliterated by global businesses. The tragedy would have been excused by a superficial look at numbers. There were over three million people living in London by 1860. The Economist is still capable of relating 80,000 lost souls within a population of three million and concluding it qualifies as the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Apart from his books, Jack London wrote for American newspapers. He had too much heart for The Economist. In his book The People Of The Abyss he wrote about being poor in London. According to London, 300,000 lived in a single room but not necessarily alone and 900,000 slept in homes but in parts of houses that were not even rooms. These numbers reveal that over a third of the population lived in squalid accommodation. Single rooms and cramped cubbyholes did not, though, account for all the slum dwellers in Victorian London. Extensive squalor has secrets beyond statistics.
300,000 beds in a doss house does not equate to the total number of people who slept in them. Some of the beds were used by more than one customer. A bed could be let in three eight-hour shifts. Many of those living in London would have at some point in their lives had to endure the indignity of having to settle for a bed in a dosshouse. In between building work around the country Irish navvies would return to the doss houses. If some people were obliged to drift down the accommodation scale to the doss house, the destitute could sometimes drift upwards from the street. Some days were better than others. Money could be scrounged or something found that was worth a few pence. For a beggar it was easier to obtain a penny than the four pence needed for a single bed. A penny would secure a place in the rope room that most doss houses had. Men would stand next to one another, hang their arms over a line of rope, rest their chins on their chest and doze. For some sleeping this way when drunk was an improvement on trying to sleep cramped in a single bed when sober. The expression ‘can sleep on a clothes line’ was rooted in experience and not a product of a surreal imagination.
Jack London spent several weeks in lodging houses because he was researching The People Of The Abyss. London was not a typical user of a dosshouse. Neither was he a permanent resident of the City. This did not make him unusual. The lodging houses existed because people were poor and had unsettled lives. Haymaking and fruit picking were popular ways to earn money in the summer, and many Londoners deserted the City in those months. Others joined fairs and travelling shows. Navvies found more building work than normal, and some men would ‘go on the tramp’, sampling the countryside while they scrounged the odd job and handout. This seasonal movement of people coexisted alongside an urban restlessness rooted in the inevitable indebtedness and crime that the poor needed to survive. In 1890 the Islington murderer Thomas Neal killed his 24 years old wife at St Peter’s Street, which was the sixth address that Neal had occupied in the previous nine and a half months.
Women used the doss houses. Not all were prostitutes, and of them only some would have had customers. The Government must have ignored the calm reassurances of The Economist because it increased the powers of local government to regulate the doss houses. The presence of men and women together and the sharing of accommodation by the genders became unusual. The Common Lodging House Acts of 1851 and 1853 were meant to improve sanitation. The local authorities used their powers to regulate immorality but were less diligent in imposing sanitary standards. Immorality did exist. Drinking in the doss houses, though, was not widespread. People arrived drunk but after paying for their bed their purses and pockets were empty. The drunks were ready to flop. Thieving was a problem when there was something to steal. No doubt there would have been people all too willing to take advantage of others but the recorded memories of residents also refer to when shared company felt like modest social and emotional support. Most of the time, though, the experience inside a doss house was grim. Examples of starvation were observable in the East End, and some of those would have appeared in the doss houses. One account that was typical refers to 27 years old Ellen Munro who was found dead in a doorway. ‘Her bones appeared to protrude though her skin,’ said a witness.
The Rowton Houses were not much help to the starving but they did halt the slide in some. The first Rowton House was established in Vauxhall, London by Lord Rowton. Without his title he was just plain Montagu Corry. Rowton House charged six pence a night for a single bed, two pence more than the standard fare but it offered comfortable beds located in cubicles that provided a degree of privacy. The Rowton Houses were kept clean, and there was a serious attempt to prevent vermin. The washrooms had hot and cold water and footbaths. There were even coat hooks. The libraries were intended to help the men relax and be occupied. In a way they did because all the books in the first Rowton House were stolen in a couple of days. After that the books were kept behind locked cases. Rowton House was successful, and five others were opened in London. Rowton Houses were also built in Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle.
Black and Asian immigrants would have also used doss houses in between work. On the street black beggars were rumoured to be more successful than the white. The black beggar may have been poor but he had exotic dignity while his white counterpart appeared more pathetic and distasteful. For reasons we can imagine most Black, Asian and Chinese did not settle in the Victorian communities. At the end of the 19th Century there were fewer black people in London than there had been fifty years before.
Modest conversation and mutual sympathy may have been available between residents but survival depended on people being wary and keeping their distance. As a hiding place, the doss house would have suited a serial killer. He could move quickly to a bed where those next to him would have wanted to feel they had some space rather than experience intimacy. After night had arrived the washrooms and kitchens were dark and gloomy. No one would be sure who or what they saw there, and seeing a man stripped and washing himself clean would have looked normal, even if what he happened to be washing away was blood. It would be another low paid worker making himself clean after a long hard shift. Questions and curiosity were not appropriate in a doss house. Neither was sharing information with the police. Anyone suspected of being a police informant was beaten up and ejected from the dosshouse. Unless it was a Rowton House, the first of which opened two years after the murders, there was no space for clothes and no coat hooks. No one disrobed for bed. Jack the Ripper had to hide somewhere after his crimes. The dark shadows of the doss house, where the sheepish and anxious poor were desperate for sleep, may have provided in 1888 a refuge for someone who knew how to hide in the most overpopulated district of not just London but the world.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.