The Night Side of Dundee – Part 1

In 1863, the Dundee Courier and Argus didn’t shy away from exposing the gruesome underbelly of the town’s nightlife. The series of articles titled “The Night Side of Dundee” aimed to show the debauchery and vice prevalent in the town after dark. The author, David Scott, believed that smaller towns, like Dundee, also had an undercurrent of misery and vice that could be observed and detailed to interest readers and inspire social reform. To gather material for the series, he enlisted the help of experienced police officers to guide him through notorious shebeens or illegal drinking dens. The first article focuses on their visit to these shebeens on a rainy Saturday night after the public houses had just begun to disgorge their crowds.

We mention these articles on our Riddled walking tour (March to May 23), which was all about vice, vermin and venereal diseases, but to read about the full horrors witnessed by our intrepid reporter, we’ve transcribed all 8 of these articles for your reading pleasure.

But be warned, Scott wasn’t one to skimp on the details, and the articles can sometimes be a bit long-winded. Nonetheless, they’re packed with juicy tidbits that will keep you hooked.

THE DUNDEE COURIER AND ARGUS, Tuesday, November 24, 1863.


By our Special Reporter.

Some Cockney observers of the outer life of Dundee, judging by the smallness of the town, the absence of many of the temptations which beset the visitor to London, and the comparative quiet of even our worst streets, are apt to fancy that the night side of Dundee is as humdrum, monotonous, and destitute of interest as the aspect she presents when her tide of business life is at its height in the day time. They fancy that such a “one eyed town,” to use one of their phrases, can furnish the student of human nature in all its forms and phases with little worth observing and recapitulation.

London, they would contend, is really the only town where anything like exciting or impressive sights, whether of riotous revelry, abject misery, or brazen vice, can be seen and chronicled for the warning and instruction of a rising generation. But the cockney observers are very much mistaken. London any more than Paris or Vienna has no monopoly of mysteries. In dark deeds of crime, hideous alike in their monstrosity as in their grotesqueness, London like every large city has a baneful and unenviable pre-eminence over smaller towns, but, and alas that it should be so, there is in every village an undercurrent of misery and vice, which if observed and detailed from time to time, would interest the apathetic and rouse the social reformer to renewed efforts to improve the material and moral welfare of his fellow creatures.

Reflections like these led us to believe that some account of the night life of our own town would be acceptable to our readers, not as a mere sop to an idle and prurient curiosity, but as an attempt to expose some of the debasing practices, not only of what, by a conventionalism, men call the lower classes, but also of many who reared in a comfortable home, and educated to better things, choose in mere brutishness of lust to frequent filthy hovels, and riot in the most abject and repulsive debauchery. To obtain the materials for such an account, it was necessary to visit in person the dens where vice, such as that we speak of, rears its horrid front, and to that end we applied for the protection and guidance of experienced police officer.

Our request was made in person to Mr Mackay, who with the utmost courtesy granted it. He proposed that in company with an intelligent Inspector, to whom the community are deeply indebted for the firm manner in which he has carried out Mr Mackay’s instructions for the suppression of illegal drunkeries, we should first visit the shebeens. The present article will then be mainly devoted to an account of our visit to some notorious shebeens. It is Saturday night, and the rain, which has been falling in fitful showers ever since darkness set in, is now beating down with steady persistency on our still busy High Street as we keep tryst with our guide. The public houses are just beginning to disgorge their crowds, the performances at the theatre are not yet over, and therefore the Inspector suggests that, ere we set out on our tour of inspection, we must give time for the shebeen frequenters to seek their noisome haunts.

The night being wet, is, he tells us, against the shebeens. This being far from obvious to our non-official mind, we request our mentor to retire to the friendly shelter of an entry and unbosom himself of some preliminary secrets. It occurs to us that the night being a rough one, the harvest of the shebeens is likely to be the greater, but it seems we are in error. The experience of the Inspector goes to prove that rain is enemy to shebeens, and he accounts for this apparent anomaly by supposing that as the frequenters of the public-houses are turned out at eleven in the cold and wet, they meet with few female decoys to entice them to their filthy haunts.

We are decidedly inclined to think the Inspector is sound in his hypothetical reasoning, and to see in it also an argument in favour of a more strict course with regard to the unfortunate women who at present parade so shamelessly in the public thoroughfares. Where the carcase is, there will the vultures be gathered together, and in like manner we may say that where temptation to vice is openly presented, victims that might otherwise escape are led to their ruin. The conversation then turns on the class of people who keep shebeens, and we learn that the majority of them are the low Irish. This being again opposed to our preconceived notions; we are forced to ask for another explanation. We at first, however, endeavour to refute our informant’s assertion quoting the experience of Mr Henry Mayhew, when he was collecting the materials for his “London Labour and the London Poor,” which is to the effect that the low Irish in London are more respectable and their women more chaste than the same class of Cockneys.

The Inspector doesn’t know anything about Mr Mayhew or the London Irish, and therefore won’t dispute Mayhew’s word, but he knows what his own experience has taught him with regard the Irish in Dundee, and he sticks to that experience, in spite of all the books that were ever written. Clearly this Inspector is a self-reliant man, and as difficult a subject for a book-taught man to tackle as old John Willett was when in an argumentative mood in his own kitchen. We are therefore forced to sacrifice Mr Mayhew at the shrine of practical experience, and allow our official guide, philosopher, and friend to tell his own story in his own way. His evidence then, is to the effect that, whether it is from the mills, or any other cause to him unknown, a great many prostitutes and shebeen-keepers in Dundee have been, and are Irish, and a troublesome lot they are. All this is corroborated by another Inspector who, being himself an Irishman, may be pretty confidently relied on as a confirmatory witness.

The Inspectors having thus disabused our mind of some erroneous preconvictions, request us to remain perdu where we are until they fulfil certain duties concerned with the distribution of their underlings. They seem to be reminded of this by two bright flashes of light which streak east and west in the middle of the street, and condescended to inform us that those flashes are photogic signals between one constable and another, therefore they must hasten off to ascertain the cause of the illuminatory telegraphing. Left to cool our heels until the guardians of the peace are regulated by our intelligent Dogberry and Verges, we beguile the time with remarking the different gaits of the pedestrians who are hurrying along the street. Women with baskets in their hands, or bundles in their arms, are wending their way homeward with the results of their marketing, the pledges they have rescued from the maw of the pawnshop, or the clean clothes they are carrying from the mangle to make themselves and their family tidy and clean the day of rest.

Some are walking side by side at an even steady pace with decent-like and sober men, and these we judge to be good wives blessed with an industrious and steady helpmate. Others, with a limp bundle over one arm, and a limp baby on the other, with a limp bonnet on their head, and limper shoes on their feet, are following with the gait and look of a dejected spaniel, some brutal-looking lout with tattered and begrimed fustians. Little speculation is required to divine the kind of home to which the unhappy females are following their human clods of husbands. A glance in the faces of some of these poor wretches shows the traces of beauty, and even the lines of intelligence, scarcely yet obliterated by harsh usage, by starvation, and by intemperance.

The heart must ache to think what many women are reduced to by being tied to brutal husbands, the grossness of whose nature has strength to drag an angel down. Other pedestrians of the male sex hurry by, clad in irreproachable broad-cloth and spotless linen. These are the frequenters of the hotels, seeking a comfortable home at the stern command of a landlord, carefully mindful of the behests of the dead legislator who has bequeathed his name to one of the best (all things considered) social laws with which Scotland has been favoured. Equally well dressed males pass us, talking gaily, but not loudly; and, from the direction they come from, and snatches of their conversation, we judge them to be visitors to that charming social reunion the Teetotallers have at last had the sense to inaugurate in the Union Hall.

Their gaiety seems a proof that cheerfulness and thorough enjoyment can be obtained where toddy is never brewed, and the frothing of the wine cup is never seen.  Now groups of lads pass over our field of vision, and the youngsters are decidedly much farther gone in drink than they have any right to be. Some of them have got quarrelsome in their cups, and, and as two knots of them come in collision in the centre of the street, a row begins, which bids fair to culminate in a fight. As to our eye the jostling group illuminated by a gleam light from the half-closed door the tobacconist’s opposite, we see figures swaying unsteadily about and arms brandished high in the air. Snatches of vulgar threats and sentences of ribald oaths are borne to our ears on the vapour-laden breeze; and, altogether, it seems evident that a hobbe-de-hoy battle is about to take place.

Another minute and the scene changes—streaks of light are perceptible advancing from right to left and herald the approach of half-a-dozen of those infallible composers of street rows, the policemen. The combatants are seized by the collar, and rudely shaken into a truce, and the non-combatants are summarily told to be off. Peace is restored, and youthful eye-lids are permitted to preserve their pristine colour. Gradually, the street becomes quieter under the combined effects of police supervision and the chilling pour of rain. The pedestrians are fewer and farther between, and the silence is only occasionally disturbed by snatches of comic songs, sung by dishevelled bacchantes, hieing home to their obscene haunts.

As midnight draws near, the street is comparatively deserted; and as the objects of observation are diminished, our cold post of observation becomes rather unpleasant. We are interrupted beating time with our feet on the stones to promote the circulation in our toes, by the return of the Inspector, accompanied this time by a stalwart Sergeant, who looks protectingly down on our smaller figure. The Inspector, in colloquial phrases, informs us that it is now the witching time of night when shebeens yawn, and the whisky fiend holds high revel. So we submissively follow our guides along the High Street, to a narrow thoroughfare, to visit a lady who is familiarly spoken of as “Jean.”

At the Burnhead, the services of our escort are again called into requisition another juvenile fisticuff demonstration. Some of the mob make off down Commercial Street to a new battlefield, while others are hounded down the Seagate, and counselled as they go, to behave themselves better, under certain pains and penalties. One young scapegrace gets cheeky, and slangs the Inspector, who catches him by the back of his collar, in a manner peculiar to Dundee policemen, raises him to an irksome attitude on his tiptoes, and in that unpleasant fashion hustles him down the street. The Inspector really ought to patent this manner of cooling a rioter, for it seems at once to take “the fight” out of him, and reduce him to a cowed and submissive demeanour, perfectly edifying to witness.

The little brawl being satisfactorily disposed of, are left free to attack the Trophonian cave of the redoubtable Jean. The Herculean Sergeant enters a low-browed entry; and illumining the obscurity with his lantern, we follow him through and up a narrow winding stair. In a wooden-floored passage of the first flat we pause and listen intently at a door, through the chinks of which gleams of light are streaming. Two other doors are to our right, and from all the sounds of voices are heard. Behind one, two women are engaged in domestic recrimination; but with that house we have nothing to do. Our business is with the door immediately before us, and through its crannies we can hear the sounds of conversation between men and women.

The Inspector opens the door cautiously and insinuates himself into the apartment in almost an apologetic manner; the big Sergeant takes his huge frame in after a similar manner; and we also enter, imitating very creditably the official mode of ingress. We are in a small lowroofed room, half of which is nearly occupied by a truckle bedstead, the clothes of which are by no means so dirty as might be expected. A cheerful fire is blazing in a common kitchen grate, and gilding with its rays a well-scrubbed dresser, groaning under a display of the gaudiest crockery of the most vulgar taste and the most vulgar potter could devise. In all the houses we visited, crockery seemed to be a favourite article of furniture, both in the shape of domestic utensils and mantelpiece ornaments.

The notorious “Jean” was, however, the greatest possessor of delf treasures we visited, and had heaped up quite plethora of achievements in bowls, basins, jugs, plates with hideous yellow rims, earthenware apples with impossible hues, and china lions and dogs with impracticable manes. Her property in what servants call “clear things” was, however, painfully limited, for, beyond a carrot grater of brobdignagian dimensions, she seemed to possess no specimens of the tinsmith’s art. A table on which the dirty plates used at the last meal were standing, and some stools on which her guests and family were seated, Jean herself being enthroned in state on the bed, completed the furniture of the lady’s reception room. We have often heard of places being so small that one couldn’t swing a cat in it. Jean’s house was decidedly one of those places; but, as she didn’t want to swing cats, she was probably quite contented with it.

Small as it was, there were assembled in it three men and five women. By the side of the fire there was seated a young sailor, with a reckless, defiant air on his face and as the Inspector emerged from the shadow of the doorway, he was saluted by the young salt as “Jamie,” and insolently asked what the devil he wanted there that night. Here we may mention that, while often exposed to insult and even menace in this house, the officers never for a moment allowed their temper to be ruffled, but went about their duties generally with a calm imperturbability, and sometimes with a cheerful good-nature which deserves the highest praise. To the young sailor the Inspector made answer that he only looked in to see if ” Jean” was behaving herself; but the mariner was not satisfied, and complained that the last time “Jamie” found him in a “house of the kind” he got him fined a pound.

Then he made it a special grievance that “Jamie” had brought a “doctor” with him. Throughout our stay the discontented mariner rings the changes on the presence of the doctor, the fine he last paid, and an assurance to the other guests that it would be “five bob apiece this time”. Two shamefaced Norwegian sailors were the other male members of Jean’s party, and they seemed nervously apprehensive of the bulky Sergeant, whom they suspected of an intention to convey them with Draconian severity to a police dungeon. They now and then began what was evidently intended to be a timid remonstrance with the word  “pollussman,” pronounced with a strong Scandinavian accent ; but the appeal died in their throats, and they subsided their stools with an aspect of criminal despair most ridiculous to witness.

Besides “Jean”, there were four young women, whom she declared to be her lodgers. All these girls, though far from having that degraded aspect so common among the class of “unfortunates,” still bore in their faces that look of abandon which speaks with unmistakeable emphasis of the life they have led. One young female, with an oppressive amplitude crinoline, stood in front of the dresser, with her arms akimbo, and surveyed us invaders of Jean’s domestic peace with a look of sovereign contempt. Another cowering in a corner near the fire, though the most impudent in face, was, strange to say, the most deprecatory in speech in speaking to the discontented and irate young mariner, whom she repeatedly adjured not to “haud a way o’ doin’.”

Opposite to her was a girl comfortably, and even expensively dressed, on whose shoulder reclined the head of a sickly-looking, and apparently wearied girl, of some ten or twelve years. These were two sisters; and no one who looked on the face of the elder and traced through the hardening lines of shamelessness the likeness to her young, and yet innocent sister, but must have shuddered at the fate and career before the poor child. Something of this feeling must have come across the mind of our burly guardian the Sergeant, for, looking at the eldest sister, he asked if she was not ashamed to keep a child like her in such a house. The words were no sooner spoken than up jumped “Jean”, who had as yet remained a passive spectator, and confronting the Sergeant, demanded the meaning of the expression “a house like this.”

“It’s no fair o’ ye —so it’s no—to assault me—an innocent wummin— wi’ a speak like that, noo Sairgint.” Here Jean began to whimper and retired in grief to her seat on the bed. The elder sister consoled herself with a big pinch of snuff and told the Sergeant he had ” a guid cheek.” The Inspector having satisfied himself as to the identity of the inmates of “Jean’s” outer chamber, cast his eye on a door, and demanded to know who was there. “0o, just a lad and a lass,” was Jean’s reply, “gang in an’ see.” The door was knocked at, and being unfastened from within entered a large room, containing two miserable beds and a sofa, with rather more pretentiousness. A mirror in mahogany frame on a tolerably good table, an American gong clock on the mantelpiece, and a very comfortable easy chair were tokens that this second room was the receptacle for Jean’s more cherished Largs and Penates.

On the sofa a man and woman were seated; and never would we wish to see a more painful expression of guilty fear, horrified astonishment, and utter confusion and shame than was pictured that woman’s face when she saw the Inspector enter the room. The Inspector himself seemed thunderstruck and positively smitten with sorrowful surprise. There he saw before him a married woman, whom he had hitherto considered a respectable person, and a good wife to a steady husband; he saw, we say, this woman there, in company with a married man, but that man not her husband.

There she sat, the picture of confusion and fear, the fingers of one hand nervously twitching the strings of her bonnet, and the other spasmodically clutching a basket on her knee. One can fancy with pleasure that woman leaving her home, her innocent children, and her  unsuspecting husband to spend in the necessaries of life the money won by that husband’s industry; but who can fancy without a shudder the sight of that woman—home, family, and husband all forgotten —rioting in drunkenness and nameless debauchery, with a ruffian who had equally brought down shame on his home, his family, and his partner in life.

Confusion on the woman sits, but how looks her partner in guilt? A drunken leer, which he intends to pass as a rollicking and good-humoured defiance of the police, passes across his countenance as we enter the room. As we look at him, a certain comical turn of face suggests the hope that he is not the hardened ruffian we take him for. Look closer at him, and you will see that Lavater was right in setting down a face of that stamp as the sure index of a cruel licentious nature. Watch that face, as for a moment it is in repose, as the Inspector sorrowfully chides the Woman for her shame, observe that long slit-like mouth bevelled in towards the teeth, like the chink in a savings box ; mark the long hook-like nose coming down over the flat upper lip; note the crafty twinkling black eye, and the coarse crisp dark hair, and you will take in the outward senses a mental photograph of a bold bad man, who, but for a certain degree of crafty caution, would spare neither man in his revenge nor woman his lust.

On the dressing table beside this shameful couple stands a common black pint bottle containing whisky. The Inspector lifts up, pours out a glass, smells, tastes the contents, and spits the vile vitriolic compound on the floor. The Sergeant does the same. The human beast in the sofa, loud enough to be heard in the outer room by Jean, declares that he brought the spirits from Laurencekirk, and Jean takes the hint. This, however, makes no impression on the officers, who calmly proceed to take the names of the inmates of the house, and to note the time at which they found the whisky. The man on the sofa gives his name at once, and declares himself to be “a commercial traveller,” which is his pleasantly periphrastic manner of describing a hawker.

We go out to the outer room, and take all the names there, amid a running fire of indignant comment from the discontented young mariner, who only interrupts his condemnatory estimate of the whole proceedings to assure the rest that “it is five bob apiece this time.” Some difficulty is experienced in getting the names of the timid and disconcerted Scandinavians, in consequence of the low tone in which they persist in giving their outlandish patronymics. At last, all are booked; and the Sergeant, giving a last inquisitorial glance round about, discovers a mug, stained with the dregs of porter. He pounces upon it—appeals to the landlady, who confesses it is porter, but thinks it “a gey hard case a body canna hae a pint o’ porter in their ain hoose without a pollusman kickin’ up a row aboot it.” The discontented mariner is livid with indignation by this time and has not even strength left to ejaculate his doleful refrain about “five bob this time.”

At last, he finds speech, and declares there no justice extant, for the law has swallowed it all up. The young lady with the overpowering crinoline is more derisive than ever and suggests that the officers had better smell all the empty bottles in the house. “Jean” is required open all her lockfast places, and Jean tearfully, but with most edifying submission, obeys. Presses are searched, drawers are ransacked, and beds are probed, but nothing is found. “Jean” is requested to take us to the cellar, and we leave the house enveloped in the odium of the discontented mariner’s wrath, and with the last derisive sneer of the crinolined damsel ringing in our ears. We find nothing in the cellar, and depart, leaving Jean bathed in tears at the “assaults ‘ she has been exposed to. This, so far, we can do justice to it, is a fair specimen of the scenes we saw this shebeen; and were it only for the horrible fact that a married woman was found there participating in shameful debauchery, we are sure our readers will agree with that no measures which are taken to suppress such sinks of iniquity are too severe. We learn from the police that the shebeens are nothing to what they were; but seeing what we have seen, we must declare that much has yet to be done, and that the officers of justice deserve all the support the public can give them.

(To be continued.)

Read part 2 here.

– DD Tours operates walking tours in Dundee city, covering dark local history such as wars, battles, murders, diseases, riots, disasters and executions. Walk with us for an unforgettable storytelling experience.


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