The Night Side of Dundee – Part 4

This is part 4 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, Friday, December 4, 1863.


By our Special Reporter.

The Inspector proposes that “Mary Rafferty” shall be honoured with a visit, and to Mary’s we accordingly go. Mary lives in a street which runs between two well-known thoroughfares and is the most wretched garret of all the wretched garrets in Dundee. We go up two flights of stone and a flight of wooden stairs, and enter a camp-ceiled passage, which is so low that the Inspector and ourselves are forced to walk bent double, while the Sergeant is almost reduced to crawling on his hands and knees. We knock at a door at the very end of this passage, which for all the world looks like a rat trap, but for some minutes the only answer we receive is a low moaning sound as of an animal in pain.

At last we hear a husky female voice, with a strong Irish brogue, cry “Gilbert, why don t yez open the dure?” Gilbert replies with a groan, and we hear a shuttling sound as someone dragging themselves painfully across the floor. The door is opened, and we enter the garret. The she Hibernian orders Gilbert to light a candle and let the “gintlemen see about them.” Poor wretch, there is not much to see when the candle is lit. Mary is lying on a wretched pallet, and on the ground is stretched a well-dressed young man evidently in the last stage of intoxication. This poor fool, she says, is her cousin, but the impudent leer with which she says it, proclaims the falsehood of the declaration. Then, Mary changes her flippant tone, and lapsing into a whelp-like whine, peculiar to the lower orders of the Irish, asks the Inspector whether he thinks the landlord will have the heart to turn her into the street on Monday morning, perhaps to die in the pangs of maternity?

The degraded and unhappy wretch has been “summoned out” by her landlord; and no one looking at the drunken beast on the floor, and reflecting that she is to be expelled for selling poison to such fools, can wonder at it. We have now leisure to look at Gilbert, who stands before the tireless grate moaning piteously. Gilbert has the look of a once-buxom woman, swollen by drink and disease into a bloated wretch, and as her features are distorted with the agony of “a raging tooth” she looks a pitiful sight. “See here, Sir,’ says the Sergeant, and draws the screen from a low-mouthed recess not higher than the mouth of a dog’s kennel. We look into it and see that it runs back for about six feet, and contains a sack tilled with straw. ” What on earth can that be for?” we ask. “Do they in such a poverty-stricken house keep a large dog?”

“That is Gilbert’s bed, sir,” is the reply, and learn that well-dressed men have been seen, brutalised with liquid poison, reposing in the oblivion of drunkenness in that human kennel. The candle is held above the mantle-piece, and we see—what? Pictures of license and debauchery, prurient prints, and obscene engravings? No, none of these. In this filthy den, devoted to drunkenness and riot, the pictures on the mantle-piece were coloured drawings of our Saviour with the crown of thorns, the Virgin Mary and child, angels, and little pictures of saints. Let those who can, reconcile this anomaly—we cannot. It is not sufficient to say that Mary was Roman Catholic, and may have retained some relics of the time when she was yet a religious woman.

In the den kept by Mrs M, who was not a Roman Catholic, we found scriptural pieces adorning the walls of the obscene apartments. All we are inclined to ask is, can it be that in the heart of the most degraded woman, or the most abandoned ruffian, there is a germ of goodness which under the genial influences of kindness and compassion might blossom into bearing? If this be so, then with the knowledge that such people are growing worse and worse, and children are following their example, have we asked too much in requiring “somebody” to begin the work of reformation? We leave this hideous garret and crawling once more through the rat trap, descend the stair. A woman who sleeps with Gilbert flies down before us and meeting her afterwards in the street in company with a “Jack,” we see that she had been reconnoitring when our approach sent her scampering. We are next led towards the southwest, to a street which has “ancient and fish-like smell.” In this street is a notorious tenement, known in police parlance as “the land of cheepers.” A group of girls are standing at the foot of the stair, and slang us as we go by.

Some unusual commotion is disturbing the land, and as we gain the third storey, we see two constables standing at a door. They tell us to go in, and we follow the Inspector into a dirty house, in which a number of men and women are collected. We are conducted into a small and wretchedly furnished bedroom, by a woman whose hands are literally incarnadine with blood. “Take care of your feet” cries the Inspector, and we look down. Mercy on us, what’s this? Blood—not a stain, not even a pool, but a positive hillock of coagulated gore. A basin with water dyed with blood is on a side table, the chairs at the bedside are stained with blood. There is blood on the bedclothes, and on the bed is lying a powerful man with a fearful wound on his head, and with the ghastly pallor of death on his face.

His very hands, rough and muscular as they are, are blenched with the loss of blood. The wounded man has not the strength to articulate even a moan. The poor hands are contracted and expanded as if in agony or entreaty. His distracted wife is at his bedside unable to render him any assistance, and only one woman in the whole crowd seems to have self-possession enough left to minister to the unhappy sufferer. Had we been Possessed of any authority in that house, we should have turned the crowd to the door, and left that woman alone with her patient. The man, it seemed, had fallen downstairs and lighted on his head, and great delay had occurred ere a doctor was obtained. Had not the police been applied to, and the services of Dr Cooper obtained, the unfortunate man might have bled to death ere assistance reached. As it was, the pallor on his face and the motion his hands showed how low the of life was burning, and that it might in moment flicker away.

Our readers need hardly ask how it was that unhappy man was laid a bed of pain. It was the old, old story of too much drink— a story which will be stereotyped so long as “nobody” is responsible for certain social blots. After such a scene as this, we had little heart to pursue our investigations, but we followed our guides to the garret of “the land of cheepers.” Knocking a door behind which was heard a fierce altercation between two females, we were, after some delay, admitted by a repulsive-looking girl into a filthy room. A withered old witch of a woman, who, we were told, was the oldest prostitute in Dundee, was literally vomiting forth oaths on the girl who opened the door. A man of about forty, with nothing but a filthy shirt on, was sitting before the fire; and as he turned his face towards us, the Inspector said, “Oh, you are back again, are you?”, from which we inferred that the gentleman in dishabille had fled for some cogent reason or other, best known to himself and the officers of justice.

The exclamation of the Inspector roused the old hag’s wrath again, and she made a dart at the girl to strike her, at the same time accusing her of having brought the man back. Beside the man was his wife, smoking a short pipe, and she jumped up and fiercely pushed the aged Delilah back into her seat with a “Yez would, would yez? But ye shan’t, so ye shan’t.” The man turns round to us and begs to assure us that he is an intellectual man, and is ashamed of the conduct of his family. So he might be, for his imp off a son pulls him by the shirt over on his back on the floor. “No more of this, Mr Inspector, let us go; pounds of civet will not sweeten our imagination.”

The Inspector looks round for drink but finds none. We come away, the girl flying out before us, and the Sergeant seizes her to see if she has not carried off a bottle, for it seems that this shameless minx has been known to tie bottles of whisky round her waist beneath her gown. She declares solemnly she has none and is allowed to go. We descend the stair to visit another shebeen, but find the nest flown. We re-ascend to another we have missed, which is kept by certain Kate who has lost an eye. Kate’s house is scrupulously clean, but all her guests are not, for here we find one of the dirty sirens we saw “sitting up for Jack” in the lodging house off the wynd we visited on our first expedition. She as impudent as ever and is countenanced in her insolence by two youths dressed like mechanics, one of whom suggests the propriety of turning us out. A glance at our friend the Sergeant, however, convinces him of the folly of that course, for the Sergeant looks a match for a dozen youths like him.

The Inspector asks after “Bob Ridley”, which we learn is the soubriquet lodger, whose real name is that of an illustrious American statesman, and who relieves her professional duties at low concerts by “sitting up fir Jack.” Bob Ridley is, however, not at home, but we see her flit past us as we descend the stair. Just we are leaving the house, a woman runs down from the dwelling of the wounded man for hot water for his feet; and the cheerfulness with which Kate bestirs herself to find stone bottles and cloths, proves that her life of sin has not yet effaced from her woman’s heart the traces off compassion with human suffering. This “land of cheepers” was, we learn, as we descend the stair, once famous for the residence of a quondam boxer, who long cunningly evaded the efforts of the police to convict him of cheeping. He used to station scouts at various outposts, who ran in to inform him of the advent of the officers, and then, when his house was entered, nothing could be found.

At last, one unlucky night for this ci-devant member of the Prize Ring, the Inspector took it into his head to look out of the window and found on the ledge an array of black bottles containing the true shebeen Stingo. Crossing the street, we go up a celebrated wynd, and up a narrow stair, the steps of which are rendered roughly irregular by the droppings of mud and filth. We go right up to the garret, and rapped for a long time at another abode of illicit spirits before the medium condescended to answer; and when we got in, although the house was quiet, it was pretty clear that the aforesaid medium must have had a long spiritual seance, from the red blush of her brow, the mazed expression in her face; and the codfish glare in her eye.

This house contained rooms within rooms, like a set of pillboxes, or a Chinese puzzle, and in the inmost room of all we found a “Jack” in bed, shewing that the inmates had been “sitting up” to some purpose. Nothing more culpable being found, we depart; and as three ‘ o’clock is drawing near, we request the Inspector to put up his Harlequin’s wand and reveal no more low habitations to our gaze. As proof of the good effect of putting down the shebeens, we are asked to walk up the worst part of the Overgate, and find it comparatively quiet. Before the Public Houses’ Act came into force, the Overgate, between Saturday night and Sunday morning, was the scene of innumerable rows between Irishmen and Scotchmen; and no wonder for, after drinking the liquid poison retailed in the shebeens, they sallied into the streets in a state of frenzy, ready, like a drunken Malay, to run “amok.”

We have used the phrase “liquid poison” often, that, in case our readers may suspect it is only a figure of speech, we will analyse shebeen liquor for them. It is composed of the fiercest raw grain whisky, which is popularly known as “Kill the Carter.” To this is added sulphuric acid, sulphate of copper, and cayenne pepper. Sometimes the spirit it contains is not even pure raw grain whisky, but spirits of wine, which, for excise purposes, has been methylated with naphtha, and which is obtained cheap from the druggist. It is dens where such perilous stuff is sold that the Police have been working with might and main to suppress, and yet there are not wanting politicians who will tell you that prosecuting a shebeen keeper is “a sad infringement of the liberty of the subject.” We admit that, but we go on to say that imprisonment for theft is a sad infringement of the liberty of the subject, and so is the restraint of a straitjacket for a madman. No doubt, the thief thinks he is grossly ill-used, and the madman fancies that everybody is mad but himself; and it may that the shebeeners believe that they are the victims of gross oppression.

Yes, we admit it again; repressive legislation is “a gross infringement of the liberty of the subject,” but only of the liberty of those subjects who make a bad use of it. Three o’clock is about to strike when we say goodbye to our guides, and hurry home through the silent streets. So far then into the bowels of shebeen-land have we marched on without impediment, and it is to hoped that the scenes we have described on our route will not be without profit to our philanthropic readers. In all that we say, we desire not to write one word which may shock the most fastidious mind, for in unveiling the truth we shall always endeavour to do with a gentle hand, just as the practised touch of the skilful surgeon exposes the sore without needlessly hurting the patient or wounding the feelings of the bystanders. In our next we shall shift the scene of our nocturnal panorama, and present to our readers a few sketches of low life in the lodging-houses.

(To be continued.)

Read part 5 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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