The Night Side of Dundee – Part 2

This is part 2 of 8 of the Night Side of Dundee articles. These are a series of articles we came across while researching for our Riddled tour (running March to May 23) which is all about the vice, vermin and venereal disease in the city. We mentioned these articles on our tour, but to let you all see the full story we transcribed these 8 articles for you. Click here to see the full series, or click here to start at part 1.

Following on from last time’s escapades, here we see David visit the premier brothel and shebeen of Dundee.

THE DUNDEE COURIER AND ARGUS, Friday, November 27, 1863.


By our Special Reporter.

As we walk slowly through the rain, the Inspector gives us a picture of the conduct of the male wretch we found in Jean’s inner room that we are more than ever convinced of the truth of physiognomy and make a mental note to read up Lavater when we have time. “Where next?” says the Sergeant which sententiously replies the Inspector, ”Mary’s.”

“Mary’s” is in a certain wynd, which all who know it, and who have read Bleak House, will agree is an exact counterpart of that fearful alley, “Tom All Alones”, sketched by Dickens. We go down the wynd, accompanied by a private constable to watch one door, while we enter another, for “Mary” has two entrances to her cave.

The Inspector, however, changes his mind, and proposes that before we thread the alley so far as “Mary’s”, we shall visit a house notorious for harbouring prostitutes. Accordingly, we are conducted through a filthy entry, and up a filthier stair, into a still filthier house, where squalid misery seems to struggle with fearful dirt. In a smaller room than Jean’s kitchen we find two dirty-looking young women and a dirtier middle-aged matron, whose countenance and speech betray that she owns “the gim of the say” as her birthplace; and when we look at her we wish she had little more of the “say” laved on her, and rather less of the dirt which surrounds “gims” in their rough state.

One of the young women sings ribald songs in contempt our appearance; the other is simply sullen and stupid; the landlady says nothing but looks daggers; and all three are evidently much incensed that we have disturbed their vigils when “sitting up for Jack.” This wynd is a great net for catching both native and foreign “Jacks” when they come ashore, but the filthy sirens before us are evidently doomed to disappointment tonight, for though they have been “sitting up for Jack” till their eyelids are visibly red through the dirt, “Jack” perversely refuses to come; and we are glad of it. Behind the females is a wretched bedstead, which are reposing four squalid children, and a pale, haggard-looking man, unwashed, uncombed, and unshaven, and who, poor wretch, looks as if a full meal and his stomach had long been strangers.

Into another room, where there is nothing to remark beyond the usual miserable bed and the rickety chair and a half, common to the lowest class of lodging-houses. We leave the place and descend the lane to “Mary’s.” The constable guards the side-door, and we go to the main entrance. We are just in time to be too late for catching a bevy of gaily dressed damsels who, headed by a little pudgy fellow in good attire, sally out from “Mary’s”. This little rake heads the procession bravely as a pompous little, bantam cock leading the sultanas of the barnyard out to breakfast; but when he catches sight of the blue uniforms, lighted by the terrible bull’s-eye, he changes his stately strut for an ignominious run.

“Mary” is at the door herself, and holds it open for our admission, crying up-stairs “only the police,” as if our visit was a matter in which she had not the slightest concern. “Mary’s” takes the rank of being the premier brothel and shebeen of Dundee ; and consequently it is rather better furnished. It has a kitchen and bar downstairs, but we found nothing in the bar, and only a pasty-faced girl in the kitchen, reading the papers. “What on earth can that horrible smell be which catches the breath and shocks the nostrils,” we are forced to inquire, after we have got to the foot of the narrowest of all the narrow wooden stairs we ever saw.

Nobody knows for certain, but police and “Mary” herself think it must be “the damp.” What a horribly foul damp it must be which emits stench to which, of all the villainous odours which we can think, we cannot find a single one bad enough to compare to it. Let the reader imagine, if he can, a smell compounded of the sickening odour of decayed vegetation, a bad escape of the worst gas that the stingiest Gas Company ever made, a strong infusion of carburetted hydrogen, a dash of chloride of lime, and a sprinkling of asafoetida, and he will not fully realise the malevolent miasma of which “Mary’s” was redolent.

We go up the vile-smelling staircase, and into room furnished with a sofa and a chair. “Mary’s” sister was reclining a sofa studying a pennyworth of cheap literature, and she was as unconcerned at our presence as “Mary” herself. Mary and her sister are decidedly loyal subjects, as far as their taste for the Fine Arts goes, for we espy on the walls capital likenesses of the Queen and Prince Albert. The sight of the portrait of that pure and high minded woman hanging on the walls of a den devoted to vice and debauchery in its most repulsive forms was to our minds, however, calculated to raise many a saddening reflection over the scenes of vice, the tears of self-accusing anguish and the gestures of despairing remorseful women, who had sinned and sinned past all hope, which the pure eyes of that Royal Matron’s ” eidolon” had looked down upon.

“Mary’s” sister does not seem one who could see such matters in such a light. Look at that hard, remorseless, and yet, paradoxical it may seem, not unkindly face, and you will recognise the epitome of all that is animal and mercenary in female nature. Trade is evidently trade to Mary’s sister; and she will pursue it through life as calmly and with little self-reproach, as if she was in the enjoyment of a reputation and was the chastest of vestals. “Mary’s” sister may have her good qualities, but they are the good qualities the lower animals have. She would not be unnecessarily cruel or unnecessarily avaricious, but trade is trade, and so she continues to be “Mary’s” sister. “Mary’s” sister is evidently the commanding mind here, for it is to her the officers direct all their inquiries.

We come out of the little room at the top of the stair, and the Inspector demands who is in the next. “Mary’s” sister replies, “a foreign sailor drunk” and cries to ” Maria” to open the door. We find another Scandinavian (a Swede this time) helplessly drunk, and a female attending him. The Swede is shaken, but to all interrogatories replies for a time nothing but a feeble word or two about “Nicolai” and the “Feesmarket”. At last, a glimmering of this reply comes across our mind, and we ask the inebriated Swede if his meaning is that his name is Nicholas, and his ship is lying close to the Fishmarket?

The Swede smiles vacantly, stolidly nods his head, and incontinently goes off to sleep. Now, here was the mate of a foreign ship, with a responsible charge on his shoulders, decoyed into this vile smelling den, bereft of his senses by villainous whisky, to which the vilest Russian vodka is harmless nectar, and left to the ministering care of “Mary’s” sister’s handmaid. Surely the police are doing nothing more than their duty when they try to close dens where foreign and native fools get into such an ignominious plight.

We descend the creaking stair again; and the Sergeant, poking his inquiring nose into the bar for a last interrogatory sniff, smells whisky, and captures an empty ginger beer bottle in which the liquid fire had been contained. Clearly the house must searched, and it is searched, but the scent is cold, and the prey not unearthed. At last, the Inspector tells “Mary’s” sister that a certain secret press in the stair must opened, but “Mary’s” sister positively refuses to do anything of the kind, and, turning to us, gives her reason. “There, sir, I keep banknotes and diamonds.” “Now, mind it will tell against you,” says the Inspector. ” I warn you to let me search that press.”

“Mary’s” sister is, however, inflexible, and her inflexibility being deemed good evidence of the convertible character of her paper currency, we leave the house triumphantly. We go next to “Mary’s” mother’s, who lives, next door, but “Mary’s” mother answers through the keyhole that she has not the most remote intention of letting us into her house if she knows it. “Mary’s” mother is however politely but firmly assured that we must get in, whether she knows it or not, and accordingly she relents, and undoes the bolt. We enter “Mary’s” mother’s kitchen, which we find in a “mess;” and the black-lead brush on the dresser, the pail the middle of the floor, and the washing-clout in the old lady’s hand, evidently show, or are intended show that “Mary’s’ mother was on cleanly thoughts intent when we rapped her up.

“Mary’s” mother’s grandson, an urchin, with an old-fashioned, sly face, is mounting guard over a potful of mealy-looking potatoes on the hearthstone, and decidedly looks if he thought it would be prime fun to a good specimen to fling a good specimen of Irish fruit squash in the Inspector’s eye. “Mary’s” mother is of Milesian birth herself and is at great pains to assure us that her character is irreproachable, and that whatever “the gurls” may do, no one can say that “black was ever the white of her eye.”

“Her rint, Hivin be praised, is paid for her every year by a gentleman as is a gentleman, and she as dashint a house as is in the town.” “What about the girls that live here,” asks the Inspector. “Oh, av coorse, gurls come here, but they are my lodgers, and Nelly (by the same token this is her room, gentlemen), is as quiet a crater yell find.”

We enter Nelly’s room, which is not without evidences of taste. A green imitation Venetian blind is on the window, the coverlid of the bed is clean, and the walls are adorned with German prints representing large and happy families in the enjoyment of domestic felicity over the supper and tea table. Nelly’s not at home —is probably on the lookout for Jack —and we are assured there’s no one in the house but “the childer.” We go into another room, which is comfortably, nay, handsomely, furnished, considering the locale and we are decidedly suspicious that “Mary’s” mother’s is a Moloch’s chapel of ease to Mary’s.

We are taken into a bedroom, in which five children are sleeping peacefully, all unconscious of the atmosphere of vice in which they live, and the character of the den in which they were cradled. These poor innocents are the pledges and tokens of “Mary’s” and “Mary’s” sisters’ shame; but “Mary’s” mother, as she points out the respective maternity of each child, seems perfectly unconscious that she is fixing a brand of degradation on its brow. Here is a lesson for social reformers to learn. They are as-yet in the accidence of their education in learning to deal with depravity and vice. It is not by wasting time on the “Marys,” the “Marys'” sisters and mothers, that they can extirpate the seeds of pollution and crime.

They must begin by plucking these as-yet unpolluted souls from the fire of contagious vice, and when they have well learned that lesson, they will be in a fair way to extirpate the nurseries in which Moloch recruits his armies. We leave ” Mary’s” mother’s and pass from the wynd into the Greenmarket, where a strong smell of burnt wood assails us. The Sergeant thinks at once of a house on fire, but the Inspector suspects only someone burning green wood, and therefore we go on to the door an aged matron, who is reputed to keep another shebeen. This lady, we are told, has lost one leg, but she supplies the deficiency with an old chair, on which she revolves round the house in an eccentric orbit.

We knock at the door, but knock in vain, for the old lady is a sly fox, and doesn’t answer until she has satisfied herself that there are no hounds abroad. As we knock a third time, we are answered from the other side of the street by the hollow clack, clack, clack, of a policeman’s baton struck sharply on the pavement. We rush across and learn that fierce fire is raging near Tay Street; so, leaving the shebeeners to hold high revel in our absence, we start off at a rapid pace to the scene of more pressing duties. As we run westward, we learn that a bakehouse and granary are on fire in the lane behind Morgan’s Buildings, and in reaching the lane find it a scene of the wildest commotion. Frightened women are flying hither and thither; excited men are bawling out the most contradictory orders, and the whole lane is bathed in the lurid light of a burning building, which, from garret to basement, is enveloped in flames. A group of bakers and carters are tearing in and out of the burning building, madly bent on risking their lives to save some sacks of flour, and they work with almost superhuman energy at their self-imposed task.

At last, when the roof is falling in, they are peremptorily ordered out by the police, and then the fire-brigade arrives, and in hardly longer time than we take to tell it, the hose is fitted, and the brave firemen are in the building playing on the fierce flames. As we stood on a staircase watching the exertions of these gallant fellows and their captain, it was impossible not to think of the scanty meed of praise their noble efforts to save property receive. When the very rain that fell on the faces of the bystanders was half scalding with the flames, and the stones of the building were white with the heat, and the window-shutters of the upper lofts were moulded by the fire into a quaint likeness of Gothic windows made of red-hot metal, these men ventured into the most dangerous places and braved a horrid death to do their duty.

We saw three firemen standing in a staircase, and the masses of burning timber falling in an appalling shower around them. There they stood guiding with steady hand the powerful stream of water, and utterly regardless of the cries of the bystanders urging them to run for their lives. There they stood until the floor above actually fell in, and came tumbling down upon them in horrid grandeur. Escape from such red ruin seemed almost impossible, but they fought their way through the burning mass and blinding clouds of suffocating smoke into the lane. After they had extinguished the blazing wood on the staircase, they were up again braving fresh dangers, and slackened not their efforts until a mass of charred blackened ruins was all that was left to tell of the fierce conflagration.

Possibly our readers, who have read how small a building it was that was destroyed, may fancy we are colouring our picture too highly, but none who know the danger which the adjoining church and dwelling-houses in the Nethergate ran, or who witnessed all the scenes in the lane that night will accuse of exaggeration. In a lowroofed house adjoining the burning building lay a dying man, who had to be carried through the pitiless storm of rain, and none who saw the wondering look of fear and agony on that man’s face, or the distracted emotions of his family, will forget that sight. Scarcely a less painful spectacle was that to which our attention was directed by Mr Mackay, the superintendent of police.

In a house adjoining that from which the dying man was carried, was a family which, in the alarm of the conflagration, had been forced to carry their furniture into the lane. The water from the hose had deluged one of their rooms, their bed and bedding were soaked by the pelting rain, and all their cherished household gear was, when we entered the house, lying in a confused heap on the floor. In the inner room was a group of pale and frightened children, cowering together for warmth, and looking with speechless amazement on their mother, who was vainly striving to kindle a fire in the wet grate. Sir Mackay kindly suggested that the father should go to a comfortable lodging-house for the night, but the thought was evidently repugnant to the man, who courteously but firmly rejected the advice, and worked on with might and main to make the shelter of his own roof-tree sufficient for the night.

We must say we admired this man for his sturdy self-reliance, and could not, however much we were disposed to pity the forlorn plight of his family but sympathise with the feeling which made him shrink from entering a refuge for the houseless. Two o’clock was striking as we bade this sturdy Scotchman good night; and conceiving that we had had excitement enough for one evening, we sought the shelter of our own home.

We have, feebly it may be, but still truthfully, endeavoured to sketch the events of a single night of Dundee life, as witnessed by ourselves; and we are sure our readers will admit that in the largest city, or the most crowded capital, it would be difficult to find many more incidents of a more thrilling nature. Let us not, however, be misunderstood. All we have chronicled is nothing for our townsmen to boast about. We have undertaken our self-imposed task in order to show the most apathetic of them, that within their own gates there are incidents occurring which ought to stimulate them to take an active interest in the reformation of the depraved, and the improvement of preventive measures against every social evil. We have, with this view, sketched the inner life of the shebeens, and detailed the exertions of the fire-brigade, because we think the police, in the suppression of vicious haunts, and the firemen, in their noble efforts to save private property, ought to receive more than they do the intelligent support and thanks of their fellow citizens.

(To be continued.)

Read part 3 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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