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The Dosshouses of Spitalfields

January 29, 2011
by the gentle author

Queen Victoria’s bust presides over a pretty corner at Father Jay’s dosshouse in Shoreditch.

A hundred years ago, there was a periodical called “Living London – its work and its play, its humour and its pathos, its sights and its scenes.” Many years before familiar titles like “Life” and “Picture Post,”  ”Living London” was the first mass-market publication to use photography to show its readers  aspects of society they had never seen before. Whilst studying the three volume compilation in the archive at the Bishopsgate Institute, I came across features about “London’s Drapers” and “London at Dead of Night,” that were not dissimilar in length and form to my own stories published here in Spitalfields Life.

Below you can read excerpts from T.W.Wilkinson’s feature which permits us a rare glimpse inside the dosshouse in Crispin St, that retains its doorbell and worn step to this day. The culture of the lodging house has been an essential part of the lives of thousands of itinerant casual workers in Spitalfields for centuries – porters, weavers, brewery workers and many others – most could not afford a room and simply rented a bed each night. They lived their lives in public, between the workplace, the public house and the dosshouse, often working each day to earn the night’s lodging. First there were the economic migrants from the English countryside, then the Irish, Asians in the twentieth century and currently Eastern Europeans who are destitute, without work, and filling the hostels of the East End. The history of Spitalfields cannot be told without these itinerant peoples, yet there is little evidence of their presence because they travelled light and left barely a trace behind.

“Wherever there are particularly mean streets in London, the signs of hotels for the poor hang high over the causeway. The dosshouses for men are the most numerous, and for a typical lodging house for men we cannot do better than go to that district of which Spitalfields Church is the centre. Dorset St, with its squalid air, its groups of dossers scattered over the pavement, as well as Flower & Dean St – of little better repute, and having the same characteristics in a minor degree – are almost under the shadow of that edifice.

And as to the time of our visit, let it be eight o’ clock in the evening.

Here we are, then. There is no need to knock, the door is open. At 4am, it swings back to let out the market porters and a whole posse of lodgers who carry under their arm the mark of their calling – a roll of newspapers, yesterday’s returns.

Through the ever-open door, along the passage, a sharp turn to the right and – phew! – this is the kitchen, the loafing place of the idle and the workshop of the industrious. Opposite as we enter, a huge fire glows and crackles, above, a serried line of tin teapots, battered and stained with long use, and above that again, the Rules of the House. In the corner beyond the fireplace a buxom female figure is eyeing the depleted collection of cracked crockery ranged on the shelves, her sleeves upturned to her massive biceps. She is the domestic ruler of about two hundred men, termed “the deputy.” This woman’s strong point is the celerity and dispatch she displays in carrying out certain very necessary operations connected with bed-making.

Distributed over the kitchen, three or four score men are having supper, and a grim, picturesque assemblage they make. Yonder a seedy, frock-coated failure, on whose black glossy curls Time’s hand has not yet been laid, is sopping some bits of bread – manifestly begged from the tea-shop –  in a concoction made from halfpenny tea and sugar mixed, his eyes wandering now and again to a pair of kippers which a market porter tossed from a frying pan on to a plate a few minutes since. At his elbow, an old man with a snowy beard mouths a greasy ham bone like a decrepit dog. In front of the fire is another figure that arrests the roving eye. A pallid youth has his meal spread out before him on an evening newspaper, which is his tablecloth. It consists of tea, bread and margarine, and that delicacy of which the dosser never tires, the humble bloater. He conveys the food to his mouth with Nature’s forks. Artificial ones are not provided, nor is it customary to supply knives or spoons.  Too portable – that is the explanation.

Next, the sleeping chambers. It is midnight. The door at the foot of the stairs is locked but at intervals the deputy opens it and takes from each lodger as he passes the numbered metal check given to him earlier in the evening as a voucher for fourpence. Here is the first room. No curtains or blinds to the window, no covering of any kind to the well-scrubbed floor, no pictures on the walls and number at the head of the bed corresponding to that of a room in a hotel. On going higher, and seeing room after room of exactly the same character as the first, you discover that most beds in the house are occupied. From the foot of one, a dark mass protrudes. A man has turned in without undressing – that is all. Look at the waistcoats peeping out from under pillows, or turn down the coverlets on that empty bed and read the legend stamped boldly on the lower sheet, “Stolen from -.” There is the clue. Many a man has woken to find his boots gone while he is asleep.

Now there is the last rush of feet on the stairs, the “last train” is coming up, the laggards who are loath to leave the kitchen have been turned out. Soon the whole house will be silent save the two cronies who have tarried overlong, and then there will be a howl from somebody they have wakened, and then, perhaps, a fight.

Yet a hurried survey of Father Jay’s Hospice in Shoreditch will modify the impression that this fourpenny hotel in Spitalfields has produced. Here we are in a different atmosphere. A light, well-appointed kitchen, cubicles above, some of them very tastefully decorated by their occupants, and, still higher, the ordinary rooms, split up to a certain extent by fixing wooden screens, one of which is covered with brackets, busts, looking-glasses, pictures and odds and ends innumerable, the property of the man whose bed is beneath. All in striking contrast to the bareness and gloom of the typical East End dosshouse.”

Readers who wish to learn more of this world might choose to read Jack London’s “The People of the Abyss” or George Orwell’s “Down and Out in London and Paris,” both of which are drawn in part from their author’s experiences in East End dosshouses.

The very identity of Spitalfields has been bound up with these shelters since the twelfth century when Walter Brune founded St Mary’s Hospital outside the walls of the City of London as a refuge for the needy. And today, continuing this honourable tradition, there remain several hostels in the neighbourhood that provide a haven for those with nowhere else to go.

This dosshouse on the corner of Crispin St and Raven Row still stands, and the lines here were a familiar site until it was replaced by Providence Row in Wentworth St in the nineteen nineties. Today this building contains student accommodation for the London School of Economics.

The kitchen in a single women’s lodging house in Spitalfields.

The kitchen of a common lodging house in Spitalfields.

Outside a lodging house in Flower & Dean St, Spitalfields.

Cubicles in a couples’ house in Spitalfields.

Scene in Dorset St, Spitalfields.

Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to read

Clive Murphy’s account of Beatrice Ali, Salvation Army Hostel Dweller,

Terry O’Leary of Cardboard Citizens,

Sister Bridget & Sister Bernadette at Providence Row.

12 Responses leave one →
  1. January 29, 2011

    I saw this building on Crispin Street between Xmas and New Year and I pointed it out to my friend. I could only guess at it being a school as I saw ‘Men’, ‘Women’. signed above the two huge doors. A very grande substantial building compared to what they erect these days.

  2. January 29, 2011

    george orwell’s account of the dosshouse feels rather close too home – life hasn’t changed much for many people in the intervening years

  3. Gary permalink
    January 29, 2011

    A fantastic look into the past.
    Your site is a must, better than the T.V.
    Gary

  4. January 29, 2011

    OK so you have EXCELLED yourself with the recent posts. ADORED the Rondeau story and fabric designs, the Homer Sykes post and the vintage Columbia Road pictures. Reminded me somehow of Chiswick before it got so yuppified.

    I am still shivering with pleasure. Happy weekend!

    and yes, sadly, the doss house pictures reflect not such a distant reality. and are perhaps portents.

  5. Philip Wilson permalink
    January 29, 2011

    I’m a recently retired police officer who began and ended my career in Tower Hamlets – these posts always strike a chord with me and none more so than this – for some their conditions have not changed that much and it is saddening.

  6. Anne Forster permalink
    January 30, 2011

    Another fascinating glimpse into our past.

  7. Peter permalink
    May 17, 2013

    My Great Grandmother, Grandfather and their 4 children are all listed in Crispen Street in the 1911 census. My G Grandfather had come from Ireland and looked to be out of work for lengthy periods of time hence the stay there.

    Your work helps me understand the terrible prospects they faced. My Grandfather was in there in 1911 and then was in the Somme in 1915 aged 15 !

    How lucky am I in the sun in Sydney !

    Pete

  8. bob daniels permalink
    June 24, 2013

    daniels common lodging houses George st thrawl street keates street flowers of dean street did thay own them or run them?

  9. bob daniels permalink
    July 9, 2013

    I have traced my tree to keates George thrawl street do anyone know why these common houses were called daniels in 1871c that what they were called

  10. Sarah Sutherland permalink
    October 6, 2013

    Inordinately excited to see Flower & Dean Street photographed here, as this is where my Jewish grandmother lived the last part of her life. Thank you

  11. April 28, 2014

    I remember as a child being taken to visit someone in a large kitchen in a house/building between Wilkes St and Hanbury St called the two doubles or the bet doubles, do you know anything about it? I remember it being warm and having scrubbed tables with a lot of strangers and very capable women making tea. It was close to where the shire horses from Truman’s were stabled. I can’t say that I remember the area with fondness, but I miss the people. This was in the 50′s.

  12. September 30, 2014

    I am trying to find the dimensions of a dosshouse in the late 19th Century. I understand some were three stories high, but that does not really give me the detail I am seeking. Many thanks.

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