London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry
1851

Cheap Lodging-Houses.

Cheap Lodging-Houses.

 

I NOW come to the class of cheap lodginghouses usually frequented by the casual labourers at the docks. It will be remembered, perhaps, that I described of these places, as well as the kind of characters to be found there. Since then I have directed my attention particularly to this subject; not because it came in order according to the course of investigation I had marked out for myself, but because it presented so many peculiar features that I thought it better, even at the risk of being unmethodical, to avail myself of the channels of information opened to me rather than defer the matter to its proper place, and so lose the freshness of the impression it had made upon my mind.

On my visit, the want and misery that I saw were such, that, in consulting with the gentleman who led me to the spot, it was arranged that a dinner should be given on the

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following Sunday to all those who were present on the evening of my interview; and, accordingly, enough beef, potatoes, and materials for a suet-pudding, were sent in from the neighbouring market to feed them every . I parted with my guide, arranging to be with him the next Sunday at half-past . We met at the time appointed, and set out on our way to the cheap lodging-house. The streets were alive with sailors, and bonnetless and capless women. The Jews" shops and publichouses were all open, and parties of "jolly tars" reeled past us, singing and bawling on their way. Had it not been that here and there a stray shop was closed, it would have been impossible to have guessed it was Sunday. We dived down a narrow court, at the entrance of which lolled Irish labourers smoking short pipes. Across the court hung lines, from which dangled dirty-white clothes to dry; and as we walked on, ragged, unwashed, shoeless children scampered past us, chasing another. At length we reached a large open yard. In the centre of it stood several empty costermongers" trucks and turned--up carts, with their shafts high in the air. At the bottom of these lay young girls huddled together, asleep. Their bare heads told their mode of life, while it was evident, from their muddy Adelaide boots, that they had walked the streets all night. My companion tried to see if he knew them, but they slept too soundly to be roused by gentle means. We passed on, and a few paces further on there sat grouped on a door-step women, of the same character as the last . had her head covered up in an old brown shawl, and was sleeping in the lap of the next to her. The other were eating walnuts; and a coarse-featured man in knee breeches and "ankle-jacks" was stretched on the ground close beside them.

At length we reached the lodging-house. It was night when I had visited the place, and all now was new to me. The entrance was through a pair of large green gates, which gave it somewhat the appearance of a stableyard. Over the kitchen door there hung a clothes-line, on which were a wet shirt and a pair of ragged canvas trousers, brown with tar. Entering the kitchen, we found it so full of smoke that the sun"s rays, which shot slanting down through a broken tile in the roof, looked like a shaft of light cut through the fog. The flue of the chimney stood out from the bare brick wall like a buttress, and was black all the way up with the smoke; the beams, which hung down from the roof, and ran from wall to wall, were of the same colour; and in the centre, to light the room, was a rude iron gas-pipe, such as are used at night when the streets are turned up. The floor was unboarded, and a wooden seat projected from the wall all round the room. In front of this was ranged a series of tables, on which lolled dozing men. A number of the inmates were grouped around the fire; some kneeling toasting herrings, of which the place smelt strongly; others, without shirts, seated on the ground close beside it for warmth; and others drying the ends of cigars they had picked up in the streets. As we entered the men rose, and never was so motley and so ragged an assemblage seen. Their hair was matted like flocks of wool, and their chins were grimy with their unshorn beards. Some were in dirty smock-frocks; others in old red plush waistcoats, with long sleeves. was dressed in an old shooting-jacket, with large wooden buttons; a in a blue flannel sailor"s shirt; and a , a mere boy, wore a long camlet coat reaching to his heels, and with the ends of the sleeves hanging over his hands. The features of the lodgers wore every kind of expression: lad was positively handsome, and there was a frankness in his face and a straightforward look in his eye that strongly impressed me with a sense of his honesty, even although I was assured he was a confirmed pickpocket. The young thief who had brought back the change out of the shilling that had been entrusted to him on the preceding evening, was far from prepossessing, now that I could see him better. His cheek-bones were high, while his hair, cut close on the top, with a valance of locks, as it were, left hanging in front, made me look upon him with no slight suspicion. On the form at the end of the kitchen was whose squalor and wretchedness produced a feeling approaching to awe. His eyes were sunk deep in his head, his cheeks were drawn in, and his nostrils pinched with evident want, while his dark stubbly beard gave a grimness to his appearance that was almost demoniac; and yet there was a patience in his look that was almost pitiable. His clothes were black and shiny at every fold with grease, and his coarse shirt was so brown with long wearing, that it was only with close inspection you could see that it had once been a checked : on his feet he had a pair of lady"s side-laced boots, the toes of which had been cut off so that he might get them on. I never beheld so gaunt a picture of famine. To this day the figure of the man haunts me.

The dinner had been provided for , but the news of the treat had spread, and there was a muster of . We hardly knew how to act. It was, however, left to those whose names had been taken down as being present on the previous evening to say what should be done; and the answer from and all was that the new-comers were to share the feast with them. The dinner was then half-portioned out in an adjoining outhouse into platefuls—the entire stock of crockery belonging to the establishment numbering no more—and afterwards handed into the kitchen through a small window to each party, as his name was called out. As he hurried to the seat behind the bare table, he commenced tearing the meat asunder with his

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fingers, for knives and forks were unknown there. Some, it is true, used bits of wood like skewers, but this seemed almost like affectation in such a place: others sat on the ground with the plate of meat and pudding on their laps; while the beggar-boy, immediately on receiving his portion, danced along the room, whirling the plate round on his thumb as he went, and then, dipping his nose in the plate, seized a potato in his mouth. I must confess the sight of the hungry crowd gnawing their food was far from pleasant to contemplate; so, while the dinner was being discussed, I sought to learn from those who remained to be helped, how they had fallen to so degraded a state. A sailor lad assured me he had been robbed of his mariner"s ticket; that he could not procure another under ; and not having as many pence, he was unable to obtain another ship. What could he do? he said. He knew no trade: he could only get employment occasionally as a labourer at the docks; and this was so seldom, that if it had not been for the few things he had, he must have starved outright. The good-looking youth I have before spoken of wanted but to get back to America. He had worked his passage over here; had fallen into bad company; been imprisoned times for picking pockets; and was heartily wearied of his present course. He could get no work. In America he would be happy, and among his friends again. I spoke to the gentleman who had brought me to the spot, and who knew them all well. His answers, however, gave me little hope. The boy, whose face seemed beaming with innate frankness and honesty, had been apprenticed by him to a shoe-stitcher. But, no! he preferred vagrancy to work. I could have sworn he was a trustworthy lad, and shall never believe in "looks" again.

The dinner finished, I told the men assembled there that I should come some evening in the course of the week, and endeavour to ascertain from them some definite information concerning the persons usually frequenting such houses as theirs. On our way home, my friend recognised, among the females we had before seen huddled on the step outside the lodging-house, a young woman whom he had striven to get back to her parents. Her father had been written to, and would gladly receive her. Again the girl was exhorted to leave her present companions and return home. The tears streamed from her eyes at mention of her mother"s name; but she would not stir. Her excuse was, that she had no clothes proper to go in. Her father and mother were very respectable, she said, and she could not go back to them as she was. It was evident, by her language, she had at least been well educated. She would not listen, however, to my friend"s exhortations; so, seeing that his entreaties were wasted upon her, we left her, and wended our way home.

Knowing that this lodging-house might be taken as a fair sample of the class now abounding in London, and, moreover, having been informed by those who had made the subject their peculiar study, that the characters generally congregated there constituted a fair average of the callings and habits of those who resort to the low lodging-houses of London, I was determined to avail myself of the acquaintances I made in this quarter, in order to arrive at some more definite information upon those places than had yet been made public. The only positive knowledge the public have hitherto had of the people assembling in the cheap lodging-houses of London is derived chiefly from the Report of the Constabulary Commissioners, and partly from the Report upon Vagrancy. But this information, having been procured through others, was so faulty, that having now obtained the privilege of personal inspection and communication, I was desirous of turning it to good account. Consequently I gave notice that I wished all that had dined there on last Sunday to attend me yesterday evening, so that I might obtain from them generally an account of their past and present career. I found them all ready to meet me, and I was assured that, by adopting certain precautions, I should be in a fair way to procure information upon the subject of the cheap lodging-houses of London that few have the means of getting. However, so as to be able to check the account with another, I put myself in communication with a person who had lived for upwards of months in the house. Strange to say, he was a man of good education and superior attainments—further than this I am not at liberty to state. I deal with the class of houses, and not with any particular house, be it understood.

The lodging-house to which I more particularly allude makes up as many as "bunks," or beds, for which per night is charged. For this sum the parties lodging there for the night are entitled to the use of the kitchen for the following day. In this a fire is kept all day long, at which they are allowed to cook their food. The kitchen opens at in the morning, and closes at about at night, after which hour no fresh lodger is taken in, and all those who slept in the house the night before, but who have not sufficient money to pay for their bed at that time, are turned out. Strangers who arrive in the course of the day must procure a tin ticket, by paying at the wicket in the office, previously to being allowed to enter the kitchen. The kitchen is about feet long by about wide. The "bunks" are each about feet long, and foot inches wide, and the grating on which the straw mattrass is placed is about inches from the ground. The wooden partitions between the "bunks" are about feet high. The coverings are a leather or a rug, but leathers are generally preferred. Of these "bunks" there are rows, of about deep; rows being placed head to head,

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with a gangway between each of such rows, and the other row against the wall. The average number of persons sleeping in this house of a night is . Of these there are generally about pickpockets, streetbeggars, a few infirm old people who subsist occasionally upon parish relief and occasionally upon charity, or dock-labourers, about the same number of low and precarious callings, such as the neighbourhood affords, and a few persons who have been in good circumstances, but who have been reduced from a variety of causes. At time there were as many as persons lodging in this house who subsisted by picking up dogs" dung out of the streets, getting about for every basketful. The earnings of of these men were known to average per week. There are generally lodging in the house a few bone-grubbers, who pick up bones, rags, iron, &c., out of the streets. Their average earnings are about per day. There are several mud-larks, or youths who go down to the water-side when the tide is out, to see whether any article of value has been left upon the bank of the river. The person supplying this information to me, who was for some time resident in the house, has seen brought home by these persons a drum of figs at time, and a Dutch cheese at another. These were sold in small lots or slices to the other lodgers.

The pickpockets generally lodging in the house consist of handkerchief-stealers, shoplifters—including those who rob the till as well as steal articles from the doors of shops. Legs and breasts of mutton are frequently brought in by this class of persons. There are seldom any housebreakers lodging in such places, because they require a room of their own, and mostly live with prostitutes. Besides pickpockets, there are also lodging in the house speculators in stolen goods. These may be dock-labourers or porters, having a few shillings in their pockets. With these they purchase the booty of the juvenile thieves. "I have known," says my informant, "these speculators wait in the kitchen, walking about with their hands in their pockets, till a little fellow would come in with such a thing as a cap, a piece of bacon, or a piece of mutton. They would purchase it, and then either retail it amongst the other lodgers in the kitchen or take it to some "fence," where they would receive a profit upon it." The general feeling of the kitchen—excepting with or individuals—is to encourage theft. The encouragement to the "gonaff," (a Hebrew word signifying a young thief, probably learnt from the Jew "fences" in the neighbourhood) consists in laughing at and applauding his dexterity in thieving; and whenever anything is brought in, the "gonaff" is greeted for his good luck, and a general rush is made towards him to see the produce of his thievery. The "gonaffs" are generally young boys; about out of of these lads are under years of age. They almost all of them love idleness, and will only work for or days together, but then they will work very hard. It is a singular fact that, as a body, the pickpockets are generally very sparing of drink. They are mostly libidinous, indeed universally so, and spend whatever money they can spare upon the low prostitutes round about the neighbourhood. Burglars and smashers generally rank above this class of thieves. A burglar would not condescend to sit among pickpockets. My informant has known a housebreaker to say with a sneer, when requested to sit down with the "gonaffs," "No, no! I may be a thief, sir; but, thank God, at least I"m a respectable ." The beggars who frequent these houses go about different markets and streets asking charity of the people that pass by. They generally go out in couples; the business of of the being to look out and give warning when the policeman is approaching, and of the other to stand "shallow;" that is to say, to stand with very little clothing on, shivering and shaking, sometimes with bandages round his legs, and sometimes with his arm in a sling. Others beg "scran" (broken victuals) of the servants at respectable houses, and bring it home to the lodging-house, where they sell it. You may see, I am told, the men who lodge in the place, and obtain an honest living, watch for these beggars coming in, as if they were the best victuals in the City. My informant knew an instance of a lad who seemed to be a very fine little fellow, and promised to have been possessed of excellent mental capabilities if properly directed, who came to the lodging-house when out of a situation as an errand-boy. He stayed there a month or weeks, during which time he was tampered with by the others, and ultimately became a confirmed "gonaff." The conversation among the lodgers relates chiefly to thieving and the best manner of stealing. By way of practice, a boy will often pick the pocket of of the lodgers walking about the room, and if detected declare he did not mean it.

The sanitary state of these houses is very bad. Not only do the lodgers generally swarm with vermin, but there is little or no ventilation to the sleeping-rooms, in which persons, of the foulest habits, usually sleep every night. There are no proper washing utensils, neither towels nor basins, nor wooden bowls. There are or buckets, but these are not meant for the use of the lodgers, but for cleaning the rooms. The lodgers never think of washing themselves. The cleanliest among them will do so in the bucket, and then wipe themselves with their pocket-handkerchiefs, or the tails of their shirts.

A large sum to be made by beggars in week is ; or a-piece, for looking out, and the other for "standing shallow." The average earnings of such persons are certainly below per week. If the Report of the Constabulary Force Com-

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missioners states that per week is the average sum earned, I am told the statement must have been furnished by parties who had either some object in overrating the amount, or else who had no means of obtaining correct information on the subject. From all my informant has seen as to the earnings of those who make a trade of picking pockets and begging, he is convinced that the amount is far below what is generally believed to be the case. Indeed, nothing but the idle, roving life that is connected with the business, could compensate the thieves or beggars for the privations they frequently undergo.

After obtaining this information, I attended the lodging-house in pursuance of the notice I had given, in order to ascertain from the lodgers themselves what were the callings and earnings of the different parties there assembled. I found that from to had mustered purposely to meet me, although it was early in the evening, and they all expressed themselves ready to furnish me with any information I might require. The gentleman who accompanied me assured me that the answers they would give to my questionings would be likely to be correct, from the fact of the number assembled, as each would check the other. Having read to them the account (in the ) of my previous interview with them, they were much delighted at finding themselves in print, and immediately arranged themselves on a seat all round the room. My question was as to the age of those present. Out of assembled, I found that there were; from to years old, from to , from to , from to , from to , and from to . Hence it will be seen that the younger members constituted by far the greater portion of the assembly. The between and were made up as follows:— There were of years, of years, of years, of years, of years, and of years. Hence there were more of the age of than of any other age present.

My next inquiry was as to the place of birth. I found that there were belonging to London, to Ireland, to Bristol, to Liverpool, were from Norfolk, from Yorkshire, from Essex, from Germany, and from North America. The remaining were born respectively in Macclesfield, Bolton, Aylesbury, Seacomb, Deal, Epping, Hull, Nottinghamshire, Plumstead, Huntingdonshire, Plymouth, Shropshire, Northamptonshire, and Windsor. After this I sought to obtain information as to the occupations of their parents, with a view of discovering whether their delinquencies arose from the depraved character of their early associations. I found among the number, whose fathers had been labouring men, had been carpenters, millers and farmers, dyers, cabinet-makers, a tallow-chandler, a wood-turner, a calico-glazer, a silversmith, a compositor, a cotton-spinner, a hatter, a grocer, a whip-maker, a sweep, a glover, a watchmaker, a madhouse-keeper, a bricklayer, a shipbuilder, a cow-keeper, a fishmonger, a millwright, a coast-guard, a ropemaker, a gunsmith, a collier, an undertaker, a leather-cutter, a clerk, an engineer, a schoolmaster, a captain in the army, and a physician.

I now sought to learn from them the trades that they themselves were brought up to. There were labourers, mariners, weavers, bricklayers, and shoemakers. The rest were respectively silversmiths, dyers, blacksmiths, wood-turners, tailors, farriers, caulkers, French polishers, shopmen, brickmakers, sweeps, ivory-turners, cowboys, stereotypefounders, fishmongers, tallow-chandlers, ropemakers, miners, bone-grubbers, engineers, coal-porters, errand-boys, beggars, and called himself "a prig."

I next found that out of the could read and write, could read, and only could do neither.

My next point was to ascertain how long they had been out of regular employment, or to use their own phrase, "had been knocking about." had been years idle; , ; , ; , ; , ; , ; , ; , ; , ; , ; , months, and , months out of employment. A bricklayer told me he had been summers in, and winters out of work; and a dock-labourer assured me that he had been years working at the dock, and that for full -fourths of his time he could obtain no employment there.

After this, I questioned them concerning their earnings for the past week. had gained nothing, another had gained , had earned ; , ; , ; , ; , ; , ; , ; , ; , ; and , From I received no answers. The average earnings of the above enumerated are per week.

Respecting their clothing, had no shirts to their backs, had no shoes, and had shoes that scarcely held together.

I now desired to be informed how many out of the number had been confined in prison; and learnt that no less than among the present had been in gaol once, or oftener. had been in once; had been in twice; , in times; , times; , times; , times; , times; , times; , times; , times; and confessed to having been there at least times. So that the individuals had been imprisoned altogether times; thus averaging imprisonments to each person. I was anxious to distinguish between imprisonment for vagrancy and imprisonment for theft. Upon inquiry I discovered that had each been imprisoned once for vagrancy; , twice; , times; , times; , times; , times; , times; and , times; making in all imprisonments under the Vagrant Act. Of those who had been confined in gaol for theft, there were who had

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been in once; , who had been in twice; , times; , times; , times, and , times; making a total of imprisonments for thieving. Hence, out of incarcerations, of those had been for vagrancy, and for theft; and this was among individuals in an assemblage of .

The question that I put to them after this was, how long they had been engaged in thieving? and the following were the answers: had been years at it; , years; , years; , years; , years; , years; , years; , years; , years; , years; and , years; , months; , months; , months; and , months. Consequently, there were, of the half- and odd individuals there assembled, thieves of the oldest standing and the most recent beginning.

Their greatest gains by theft, in a single day, were thus classified. The most that had gained was , the greatest sum another had gained was , another, ; another, ; another, ; had made from to ; from to ; from to ; from to ; from to ; from to ; and from to Of the latter sums, was stolen from the father of the thief, and the other from the till of a counter when the shop was left unoccupied, the boy vaulting over the counter and abstracting from the till no less than notes, all of which were immediately disposed of to a Jew in the immediate neighbourhood for each.

The greatest earnings by begging had been , , and ; but the average amount of earnings was apparently of so precarious a nature, that it was difficult to get the men to state a definite sum. From their condition, however, as well as their mode of living whilst I remained among them, I can safely say begging did not seem to be a very lucrative or attractive calling, and the lodgers were certainly under no restraint in my presence.

I wanted to learn from them what had been their motive for stealing in the instance, and I found upon questioning them, that did so on running away from home; confessed to have done so from keeping flash company, and wanting money to defray their expenses; had stolen to go to theatres; , because they had been imprisoned for vagrants, and found that the thief was better treated than they; because he had got no tools to work with; because he was "hard up;" because he could not get work; and more because he was put in prison for begging.

The following is the list of articles that they stole: rabbits, silk shawl from home, a pair of shoes, a Dutch cheese, a few shillings from home, a coat and trousers, a bullock"s heart, "tiles" of copper, and sixpence from master, handkerchiefs, half a quartern loaf, a set of tools worth , clothes from a warehouse, worth , a Cheshire cheese, a pair of carriage lamps, some handkerchiefs, , some turnips, watchchain and seals, a sheep, and sixpence, and an invalid"s chair. This latter article, the boy assured me he had taken about the country with him, and amused himself by riding down hill.

Their places of amusement consisted, they told me, of the following: The Britannia Saloon, the City Theatre, the Albert Saloon, the Standard Saloon, the Surrey and Victoria Theatres when they could afford it, the Penny Negroes, and the Earl of Effingham concerts.

frequenters of that room had been transported, and yet the house had been open only as many years, and of the associates and companions of those present, no less than had left the country in the same manner. The names of some of these were curious. I subjoin a few of them. The Banger, The Slasher, The Spider, Flash Jim, White-coat Mushe, Lankey Thompson, Tom Sales [he was hung], and Jack Sheppard.

Of the congregrated, had signed the temperance pledge, and kept it. The rest confessed to getting drunk occasionally, but not making a practice of it. Indeed, it is generally allowed that, as a class, the young pickpockets are rather temperate than otherwise; so that here, at least, we cannot assert that drink is the cause of the crime. Nor can their various propensities be ascribed to ignorance, for we have seen that out of individuals could read and write, while could read. It should be remembered, at the same time, that out of the men only were thieves. Neither can the depravity of their early assoclations be named as the cause of their delinquencies, for we have seen that, as a class, their fathers are men rather well to do in the world. Indeed their errors seem to have rather a physical than either an intellectual or a moral cause. They seem to be naturally of an erratic and self-willed temperament, objecting to the restraints of home, and incapable of continuous application to any occupation whatsoever. They are essentially the idle and the vagabond; and they seem generally to attribute the commencement of their career to harsh government at home.

According to the Report of the Constabulary Force Commissioners, there were in the metropolis in , of such houses as the at present described, and each of these houses harboured daily, upon an average, no less than of such characters as the foregoing, making in all a total of vagrants and pickpockets sheltered by the proprietors of the low lodging-houses of London. The above twopenny lodging-house has, on an average, from to persons sleeping in it nightly, yielding an income of nearly per week. The -penny lodging-houses in the same neighbourhood average from to

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persons per night, and produce a weekly total of from to profit, the rent of the houses at the same time being only from to per week.

There is still question worthy of consideration. Does the uncertainty of dock labour generate thieves and vagabonds, or do the thieves and vagabonds crowd round the docks so as to be able to gain a day"s work when unable to thieve? According to returns of the metropolitan police force, the value of the property stolen in this district in the year was , of which only were recovered. The number of robberies was , the average amount of each robbery being The amount recovered averaged on each robbery.

 
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 Title Page
collapseChapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
collapseOur Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
collapseChapter III: - Street Musicians
collapseChapter IV: - Street Vocalists
collapseChapter V: - Street Artists
collapseChapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
collapseChapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
collapseChapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
collapseChapter IX: - Ballast-Men
collapseChapter X: - Lumpers
collapseChapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
collapseChapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
collapseChapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
collapseChapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
collapseChapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
collapseChapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
collapseChapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men
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