The Night Side of Dundee – Part 3

This is part 3 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.

THE DUNDEE COURIER AND ARGUS, Tuesday, December 1, 1863.

THE NIGHT SIDE OF DUNDEE. No. III.

By our Special Reporter.

Those who have followed us thus far in the chronicle of our midnight perambulations among the obscene haunts of the shebeens, will remember that when the alarm of fire reached our ears, we were vainly endeavouring to obtain admission into a notorious house kept by an aged crone, whom evil fate had deprived of a limb. Punctual to the hour we met our official friend, who had promised to pilot us safely through another labyrinth of mystery. We suggest that we had better begin where left off.

The Inspector is quite agreeable, and sets off to obtain our trusty guardian, the stalwart sergeant. Meanwhile, we walk up and down the street, and augur, from the immense crowds we see everywhere around us, and the fineness of the night, that if there is any faith to be placed in official experience, the shebeens which are still defying the law will shortly be in full blast. Our escort re-joins us, and we set out on our expedition. A few minutes’ slow walking brings us to a sequestered court beneath the shadow of the Town Steeple. We stop before a roughly-made but strong door, at side which is an aperture in the stone wall, looking, for all the world, like a look-out port in some gloomy donjon-keep.

Anent this the Inspector tells us an amusing story of a visit he paid to the lady of the cave. One night he had knocked in vain for admittance, the lady, preferring his room to his company, having positively refused to open the door. It was therefore necessary to carry her stronghold by strategy, and, accordingly, the Inspector squeezed himself through the porthole, entered the passage, and unbolted the door to his comrades, who shortly afterwards surprised the unsuspecting garrison by walking into the kitchen. We do not knock long tonight, for, taught the experience of the past, the lady sends her husband to undo the fastenings.

We descend some steps, slippery with greasy mud, and find ourselves in a passage, dank and earthy smelling as a charnel-house. It has, however, been well washed; but all the water in the Tay would not sweeten the vile cavern. The husband, a down-looking, dissipated, and altogether seedy-like man, of some fifty winters, conducts us into a dingy room, the wooden panelling of which is so smoke-dried and dirt-stained as to bear no trace of its former aspect or colour. The apartment is pervaded by that sickening stench which shocked our olfactory nerves at “Mary’s” house; and as we breathe the horrid atmosphere, we can well understand the cause of that unwholesome leaden coloured complexion of the landlord’s face.

The whole house has evidently a guilty consciousness of the vile trade pursued beneath its roof. In the daytime it is shrouded in filthy obscurity, and spurns the pure sunshine as if it knew the radiance would blazon forth its shame, its loathsomeness, and its foetid squalor. The pavement of its gloomy passage blackened by many deluges from overflowing gutters in rainy summers and snowy winters. The murky torrent of every thunder shower invades this den, not to cleanse it, but to add to its hideous abominations. The walls are cold and clammy, and the air charged with a deadly damp, most nauseating to the unaccustomed visitor.

As we stand in the centre of the evil-smelling room, while the officers are searching for forbidden liquids, we cannot but wonder at the fatuity which can prompt any one above the rank of the most loathsome beggar to seek gratification of any kind in such a place. To no man should life be a perpetual round of toil and trouble; but how light to bear are trouble and toil when compared with the misery a man accumulates for himself, his family, and his friends, by persistent participation in the hideous orgies of a den like this. How utterly warped and twisted from the appreciation of innocent and refined enjoyments must be the mind which can snatch a horrid joy in the license of the drinking caves of Dundee. We can understand houseless and homeless wretches fleeing such hovels for shelter; but how even the worst housed labouring man, not to speak of others who are above that rank, and who have comfortable homes, can sit night after night, and share in the dreary soul crushing debauchery of such pandemoniums, is a puzzle to which the only key seems to be aberration of intellect.

Yet, with the semiconsciousness that such scenes are nightly to be witnessed in our midst, there are some who deprecate the depiction of them, and who argue that nobody can devise a remedy for such evils, and that they are best left in their hideous obscurity. This way shoving responsibility on “nobody’ ” shoulders is becoming rather too common now-a-days; and we are sure our reflecting readers will admit that it is high time “somebody” began to move. To cry, “Kismet, it is our fate, and on ‘nobody’s’ eyes be it,” is to outdo the Turks in apathy ; and it would be as well, when we think of this, not to praise our British civilization quite so much, and to reprobate Turkish barbarism a little less.

We have not undertaken the task of daguerreotyping the dark social scenes of Dundee for the delectation of impersonal “nobodies” but in order that a few energetic “somebodies” may put their shoulders to a few dirty wheels, and push them out of the mud. Something like this has, we know, been often said before by better men than we are, but “nobody” is dead yet, and until he is buried, it is the duty of all to assist in bringing him to trial and condemnation for his great neglect of duty. We are disturbed in the midst of these reflections by a curious sound, something between a shuffle and stamp, which we hear coming along the stone passage. We turn to the door of the room, and in a moment afterwards there enters a repulsive-looking female, who seems to be driving a chair before her. This, we learn, is the mistress of the house.

She advances into the room, and we then see that the chair is used as a substitute for her lost leg. The style of locomotion the maimed crone indulged in was the most ludicrous of all the ludicrous peripatetic movements we ever witnessed. At first we thought the slow pace at which she entered the room was her maximum speed, but when, in answer to a knock which came to the back door, she darted out into the passage with the celerity of a lamplighter, we saw she was perfectly versed in the art of “chairing.” Scuttling up to the back door, she cried through it in a hoarse whisper “Ye canna get in i’ the noo, the polis is in.” The applicants, whose voices proclaimed them to be females, appeared to take fright, and flee forthwith at this announcement.

While the lady, who now returns, sits down and moans her hard fate at being fined for cheeping, the Inspector shows us a secret trap door, communicating with a well-like cavity beneath the floor. This he discovered, on a former visit, was the receptacle for a big greybeard; and the circumstances by which his attention was drawn to it will bear relating here, as showing the old lady’s cunning and activity of movement. Mrs M., it seems, is famous for her tongue when enraged or overtaken by liquor, and on the night the “greybeard” was seized, she had been rating the officers in no measured terms. She had been gyrating round and round the room on her perambulatory seat, gradually diminishing her circles until she got the top of the trapdoor.  There she sat down, quite naturally, on her chair-leg, and only resumed her activity by whirling round as on a pivot to scold the officers.

Her centre of revolution at last attracted the Inspector’s attention, and ordering her to move he discovered a  trap door, lifted it, and captured the greybeard. Our visit tonight renews Mrs M’s grief at her loss and the fine levied on her, and she piteously (being sober) adjures the Inspector to trouble her no more, pathetically assuring him that she will mend her ways, and sell nothing stronger than raspberry vinegar. To see if she has mended her ways yet, we enter another room, attracted by the sound of voices, and here find two young men in company with two abandoned women. In the lad seated on the sofa we were pained to recognise the son of a respectable tradesman. The foolish youth, as if to add ridicule his offence, had dressed himself in the uniform of an officer, and seemed as proud of the admiration of his borrowed plumes, which was lavished on him by his female companions, as if he was a young Nelson just come home after doing wonders in naval victory.

The Inspector chides Mrs M. for admitting this precocious youth and his companions and Mrs M., who seemed to have expected praise for only giving her guests raspberry vinegar, retires to the kitchen in the sulks. The amateur hero is advised to go home and take off his borrowed habiliments, and we follow the landlady into her kitchen, in which we find a hulking fellow of a carter, a mild-faced old man whom Mrs M. declares is her father, and a decent like woman with a clothesbasket on her knee containing scrupulously clean linen sheets. This we are told is a respectable washerwoman coming home with the first linen she has ever washed for Mrs M., and we believe the story, for the woman looks positively appalled at the presence of the police, and is evidently overcome with shame as a consciousness of the character of the house comes across her mind.

Mrs M. gradually recovers her spirits and wipes her eyes with dirty cloth hanging over the back of her locomotive chair, and this action calls our attention the fact that besides fulfilling the functions an artificial leg the chair is a sort of dumb waiter for carrying towels and dusters which Mrs. M. may require in cleaning up after her dubious guests.

The scene presented in this kitchen is one which would have rejoiced the heart of a Dutch painter of the old school; and as we gaze on it, wonder how it is we have so little realistic painting in the present day. It is positively exasperating to visit a gallery of paintings by living artists, and witness the canvas and art that are wasted on historical episodes which nobody cares about, or scenes from Don Quixote, the Vicar of Wakefield, and the Waverley novels, which everybody has by heart. Why is it that we have few pictures of the warm breathing existence which is to be observed around us every day, and in which ninety-nine people out of every hundred have a deeper interest than in all the scenes which historians and novelists have pictured of eras which are swallowed up by time?

Depend upon it, the Teniers, the Ostades, and the Rembrandts, were wise in their generation when they painted groups of boors drinking, misers counting their money, or any other social scene which had come within the sphere of their observation. Did they live in Dundee in the present day, it would not be the storming of the town by Monk, nor the groups of men and women kissing the hand of the first Pretender at the Cross, that would engage their brushes. They would rather choose their subjects from the every-day realities of life, and a group of Dundonian boors drinking in a shebeen would afford them more scope for artistic power than all the fanciful scenes they could imagine. Had one of the old Dutch masters been with us on Saturday evening, he would have been furnished with a series of natural studies which would have set him up for life, had he a reputation to make; and if there are any rising artists in Dundee, we strongly advise them to take a round with our friend the Inspector, and study low life at the fountain head.

If any young painter, who despises social scenes, and is all for exciting episodes, has subdued his impatience sufficiently to follow us through this pictorial digression, we promise to reward him with fresh scenes of the most thrilling character. Leaving Mrs M’s. house by the front door, which has been guarded by a constable, we take one backward glance and see the human daw with his borrowed marine plumage, leading his companions out by the door at which we entered. The daw bids good night to us, and we issue into the street with the hope that he will speedily relapse into his own character, and try if possible, to amend it. A sound of many feet trampling over the stones, the shouts of many voices, and the sight of a carter galloping madly on stout cart horse along Dock Street, are indications that our perambulations are doomed to be once more disturbed by fire.

We run to that ill smelling mart which disturbs Councillor James’s peace of mind, and a fierce light in the east tells of some “dire combustion and confused events new hatched to the woeful time.” We hurry eastward and find Gellatly Street all in a glow with the lurid flames from a burning warehouse. Every window in this densely populated lane is thrown up, and out of each, night-capped heads are anxiously protruding. Some gentlemen have rosy Kilmarnock cowls, which the glare of the fire illumines in quite resplendent manner. The ladies, of course, have white head-dresses, and one can easily distinguish the tidy house-wife from the sluttish drab by the contrast of spotless with dingy night-rails. The inhabitants of the flats immediately opposite the burning warehouse are actively engaged in throwing water upon the windows from jugs, bowls, and pitchers; and as the splashes fall with unwelcome profusion on the unruly and semi-drunk mob below, shouts of unreasoning indignation arise.

One besotted ruffian runs into the carriage way, and, seizing a stone, flings it at a window, fortunately with erring aim, and he is hustled and jostled as he deserves by the bystanders, who have discovered the cause of the splashing. The building in flames is a rag and flax waste store; and it is evident, from the progress the fire has made, that nothing can save it. The attention of some of the bystanders is therefore turned to an adjoining shed, and some of them rush for water from the docks and pour it upon the roof. The roof of this shed has been selected by a drunken fool as a good situation for enjoying the fire, and he is mildly requested to come down. He pays no attention to the summons, and his position being a dangerous one, he is required in still stronger terms to descend, and then he replies with an argumentum ad hominem in the shape of a few loose slates shied at the heads of his advisers.

A sporting publican makes preparations for dislodging him, upon which the fellow decamps, and on being afterwards brought before the police, has the effrontery to state that he was not the guilty party, but an unoffending gas man, who was removing a meter and cutting some pipes. We all wait anxiously for the hose, which is a good while of arriving, and after it does come there is some difficulty in getting water. At last, it is turned on, and the firemen play away right merrily. They are sadly annoyed by the crowd, which persists in pressing in on them in an unpleasant manner. At length the irritated firemen turn the nozzles of the hose on the inquisitive fools and set them running in all directions like drowned rats. A strong body police arrives, and clears the street, and the firemen have room to work.

We have been so much interested by all these scenes that we have hardly perceived the disagreeable plight in which we are standing. The water from shocking leaks in the hose, has been playing in miniature cascades on the road, and has produced a series of lakelets in every hollow. The bystanders say the state of the hose is a disgrace to the town, and we quite agree with them. An inebriated local politician with a very red face undertakes to demonstrate that it’s all the fault of the “Proaperty Committee.” “Ye see they suld ken fat like the hose is, an’ if I wus Captain Fyfe I wud juist say noo I’ll no come oot tae the next fyre till ye mend thae hose.”

The bystanders coincide, and a general opinion pervades the crowd that Capt. Fyfe must go at daylight on Monday morning to the “Proaperty Committee,” and tell them that if they don’t darn their hose, he’ll be darned if he comes out. Interesting as this conversation is, it is insufficient to induce us to stand any longer up to the ankles in water, and accordingly we retire to Mr Gibson’s yard where, on the top of a heap of smithy coals, we dry our legs right above the blazing warehouse.

The coaly mound is covered with spectators, and one officious fellow whom we have not yet forgiven, roars to the firemen who can be seen working gallantly down below amid the smoke and flame to “play farrer east.” The firemen resenting the impertinent intermeddling of this officious donkey, turn the hose due south, and as we get the most of it at the back of the neck, we rush off the coals in a state of abject wretchedness. We return into the street and getting close up against a hot wall are soon dry. The flames are now gradually lessening and half an hour afterwards the fire is nearly extinct, and with our official friends we are at liberty to resume our exploratory tour.

(To be continued.)

Read part 4 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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