The Night Side of Dundee – Part 5

This is part 5 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 8, 1863.

THE NIGHT SIDE OF DUNDEE – No. V.

By our Special Reporter.

We presume all of our readers do not possess a calm and equable mind, the serenity of which is never disturbed by the discontent which too much leisure engenders, or the repining which is the fruit of unsatisfied ambition. In a town such as ours the business day is too long, and the business duties too absorbing, for the bulk of the population to be much afflicted with that shocking mental distemper our French neighbours call ennui. Still, even in a busy community like this, there will be many whose leisure time will sometimes hang heavily in their hands, and whose minds are, like our own, sufficiently ill-regulated not to find complete satisfaction in solitary reflection.

We hope nobody will be shocked, but think it only proper, before we write another line, that we should confess to having one of those badly balanced intellects which is not always a kingdom to its possessor. We have often thought that solitude which Rousseau and his imitators praise so highly, as conducive to mental improvement, would, if indulged by us in certain moods, be conducive in reducing us to a very low state indeed. If any of our readers can sympathise with us in this respect, by being similarly constituted in mind, they will agree that even before the luxurious enjoyment of looking out of a window and exercising the faculties of observation, by watching the countenances, noting the dress, and marking the different rates of speed, and the different bearings and gestures of the passers-by, the study of which has a wonderful effect in soothing, while it interests the disturbed mind, comes the pleasure of a slow saunter through favourite streets, and a lazy luxurious semi-scrutiny of the contents of favourite shop windows.

We think it no shame to confess that in some of our cheap pleasures we have very womanish tastes, for it is highly creditable to the fair sex that their perception of harmless methods of diverting the mind is cultivated to a very high degree. What true woman does not know the tranquillizing effect a stroll through the gas lighted streets of an early evening has, and the gentle excitement that is to be obtained by stray glances into the windows of well-stocked shops. Our feminine readers will then easily understand the value of the advice, when we recommend all dissatisfied and discontented men and women to take an observatory turn in the streets whenever they are inclined to take gloomy views of life; and unless their fit of ennui and repining is all the more severe, they will come home with more cheerful sentiments than those with which they set out.

In order that this recipe may be successful, we must however stipulate that those who try it have at least a small share of fancy and imagination, otherwise they will declare it to be a total failure. Matter of fact people are, fortunately for themselves, rarely over visited with the meagrimish vapours which sometimes afflict imaginative persons; but it will be found that when their minds become overclouded by the influence of some great misfortune or some distressing bereavement, their misery lasts longer and is far more acute than might have been expected from their prosaic nature. To such persons then, we know of no better remedy for grief or discontent than a visit to some of the wretched slums and squalid homes which are to be found in every great town. It has been said over and over again that there never was a bad state but that it might be worse—and that in every depth of wretchedness a still lower deep may be found.

Aphorisms such as these commend themselves to the dullest intellect, for in the broad features of dire poverty, squalid misery, and abject degradation, the most unimaginative man or woman may find lessons pregnant with the deepest meaning if they will only apply them. If, then, there are any of our readers, who with comfortable homes and sufficient means to obtain not only the necessaries but even the lesser luxuries of life, are still inclined to repine at the hardiness their fate, and to contrast it enviously with that those, whom from a material point of view they think more fortunate, we would say—follow us in our tour through some of the worst resorts of the miserable and the depraved members of the community.

We cannot, however, enter upon the description of this tour until we have introduced our readers to the last shebeen we intend to visit. It is true that, by postponing that description, we are violating a promise we made in our last; to shift the scene to the low lodging-houses of the town; but our narrative of life in the shebeens would be very incomplete without a notice of one of the most celebrated of those midnight caves of inebriety. As, imitating (very badly, we must admit) the good Haroun-al Raschid, we set out for another ramble with our official Giafar and Mesrour in company, it is suggested that we have not yet visited a nocturnal haunt we have heard spoken of. In a few minutes we find ourselves in the deserted street, the stillness of which is only broken by the steady tread of our escort, which is pretty large to-night, as the fair one we are about to visit has sometimes among her guests young swells, both exotic and indigenous, who have an ugly habit of using their “bunches of fives” on any or no provocation.

Two constables guard the front door, which opens into the street, and we, accompanied by the Inspector and two strong men (our friend the sergeant not being this bust) go up an entry to the back entrance. Police traditions speak of a period not very remote when the place was a quiet, respectable licensed house; a tenant having, for certain reasons best known to the Bench, been refused legal permission to traffic in spirituous liquids, it has become amenable to the visits of our patrol. We listen for a minute at the door, and having satisfied ourselves that there is conversation going on, knock gently. We are answered by a whine and a cough at our call, and the services of the “bull’s eye” being called into requisition, we discover a fine English terrier, with a bad cold, and in a state of evident anxiety as to the whereabouts of its master.

Had we the pen of a Sterne or a Wilkie Collins, we might favour our readers with some speculations on the scenes of riot and drunkenness into which this poor animal may have followed its master, but our powers being limited, all we can do for our readers is to knock again. This time we are answered from within by a female who, with a tone of voice that implies a suspicion as to the character of the answer, asks—” Who’s there ?” “The police, Ma’am,” is the mild reply. “Weel, ye canna get in.” “But we must get in,” says our guide. “Ye surely wadna come in on a nakit wummin. I tell ye, I’m in my bed.”

This last reply is decidedly inaccurate, seeing that the party pronouncing it is standing at the back of the door, and provokes suspicion that the hostess is manoeuvring to gain time. The Inspector suggests that she had better don her clothes, and “dup” the door, but the lady fails to see the propriety of this course, until she has wasted a precious quarter of an hour. At the expiry of that time the door is opened, and we find the lady herself standing behind it in dishabille. We pass along a narrow passage and ascend a narrow wooden stair to a comfortably furnished bedroom. The first articles of furniture (for they could be nothing else in such house) which catch our eye are two very fine engravings in handsome frames. The first is “Christ Blessing Little Children,” and wonder, as we look at it, whether it ever occurred to the proprietrix of that print to reflect if the school in which her children were being reared was one in which they would be suffered and not forbidden to strive for a benediction.

She is standing behind us as we turn from the inspection of the picture, and one glance shows us that no such thought is now animating her breast. Naturally of a pale complexion, her face at the present moment presents that strange cadaverous hue which makes it appear if it was moulded from clay heated to a white heat, a hue which our readers may have observed as that which certain visages assume when their possessor is filled with a consuming rage which must be subdued at all hazards. She is asked for the keys to a handsome wardrobe, and she walks sulkily over to open it. We find nothing in this room, though every article of furniture, from the bed to the eight day clock, is scrutinized severely. So we go downstairs and make a voyage of discovery round the kitchen, the lady all the while making the most solemn and sometimes blasphemous declarations that there is no-one in the house; and that, beyond a gill she sent out for a washerwoman, no drink has been consumed for weeks.

A regiment of ginger beer bottles, all empty and apparently recently in use, seem to our mind evidence that the lady, like the mock tragedy Queen in Hamlet, protests too much. We prudently keep silence, however, and begin wondering, as we look at the shelves, what on earth she could want with so many soup tureens, of which we counted as many as would have held calipash and calipee for a Lord Mayor’s banquet, or a dozen dinners for the “model board.” Of jugs, too, her property was embarrassingly large, and as for flour dredgers, she had more than enough to powder all the wigs in the Parliament House, and the Court of Chancery into the bargain. Can any of our readers tell us of what use those glass sausages, with a knob at each end, are. We thought they were for warming cold feet, and made that suggestion, which was received by the lady with such a look of withering contempt for our ignorance, that we positively quailed under it, and tried to hide our discomfiture with a facetious remark concerning an empty champagne bottle with a candle stuck in it.

The joke will hardly bear repeating, but the reader with a turn for punning may make something out of it when we say its component parts were “sparkling”, and “light”. A little room off the kitchen attracts our attention ; but here beyond some loyal prints of the late Royal marriage, and a big chest, there is nothing to remark. The lady has not the key to the chest; but she is so energetically self-sacrificing in her endeavours to expose everything in the house to view, that she does not take time to arrange her words properly, but shouts out, “If ye want in there, I’ll bring a lid and knock the axe off.” Then we inspect a dark closet, with a bedstead containing nearly a dozen mattresses, between which official hands are thrust and noses poked. A dirty room, with a smell of washing, reveals nothing more, and we go along the narrow passage once more into a small sitting-room, in which was the inevitable chest of drawers, of which the lady seemed to have an unlimited supply.

“Sherry, sir,” and “Did you ring?” are the two very appropriate prints we catch sight of in here; but a further inspection shews that the landlady’s taste in the fine arts verges to even broader humour, for we find two German lithographs of Erskine Nicoll’s famous Irishman darning his inexpressibles. In this room there was a little window looking into a back yard, and it suggests itself to the official mind that this same yard has furnished a safety roost for the human bird, which had evidently flown, while the hostess was parleying with us at the door. Accordingly, the Inspector and one of his henchmen go out, and we wait in quite a small fever of expectancy for the result. We hear through the darkness the constable directing his superior to the traces of certain footsteps, and, at last, a loud “Aha” proclaims that the unfortunate bird is trapped. Deprecatory murmurs are heard from the featherless biped; but it won’t do, for he is peremptorily told that, unless he peaceably returns through the window to the place from whence he came, that he will be apprehended, as found on another man’s premises under suspicious circumstances.

This has a good effect, for we hear a heavy tread approaching the window sharply. When the game was run down, we stole a glance at the landlady’s face, which was a sight to see; but she immediately began a passionate disclaimer as to any knowledge of the party. We turn again to the window in time to see a stout, decent-like chield, with a very red face, on which was a look of comical embarrassment, come blundering through it. He looked at us, and then at the roof, and then at us again, as if he would like to make some stupidly false explanation. He evidently wants us to speak first though; but as we only smile, not being able to help it, he turns to the landlady for sympathy, but her attention is still devoted to the window, outside of which she hears the officers congratulating themselves on another discovery—so the shamefaced bumpkin is entirely nonplussed, and, as a “dernier resort” lugs out a huge snuff-box, which he hands to us, as if he was propitiating some horrible Indian deity with a peace offering. Now the officers come in, and bring with them a greybeard, which, five minutes before we entered, had been filled with best Glenlivet. The potheen had been poured out beneath the window, but the jar contained enough to establish its character. Of course, the lady denies all knowledge of the ominous vessel, and, after taking the name of the bird caught among the cages, leave the house, to the great relief of all parties.

We are now at liberty to begin our inspection of the lodging-houses, both licensed and unlicensed. We are taken first to the house of a Miss S. who is reputed not to be above selling a dram, if she could do so with safety. Miss S.’s establishment is situated on a vile smelling stair in the Overgate, and comprises a very small room, containing a very large bed; and large it need be, for Miss S. licenses it herself to carry four. Miss S., unlike the lady of our first narrative, has very few bowls, plates, or jugs, but she has a great many pot lids hanging on the wall, all of which are as brilliant as whiting and elbow grease can make them. Miss S. seems also to understand the merits of a spotless fireside, for the ingle which she and a female companion are “sitting up for Jack ” is as pure as “camstone” can make it.

She has also a taste for the fine arts, which is exemplified in pictures, purporting to be illustrations of the life of the Wandering Jew; but it is evident that the erratic Hebrew of the artist is neither Le Juif Errant of Monsieur Eugene Sue, nor the Salathiel of Dr Croley; for he is represented as a slim-waisted young gentleman, with pink cheeks, a blue surtout, with brass buttons, about to be joined in the bands of Christian matrimony, before a stucco altar, to a lovely young lady, who might pass as Mr Gompertz’s female ghost. Miss S., having assured the Inspector that she is behaving herself ‘as weel as can be expeckit,” an assurance which does not seem to contain great promises of amendment, we leave her and her companion to watch the faces in the fire.

It is possible that some of our readers may have been slightly incredulous regarding our statement as to the consumption that horrible liquid called, methylated spirit. If any of them have ever entertained the slightest doubt on the subject, let the following brief narrative remove it. Some twenty years ago there was employed at one of the large dispensaries which are scattered throughout Liverpool a young surgeon. Recently married, and in the receipt of a good salary, clever at his profession, enjoying the respect of his superiors, and the esteem and affection of his friends, a most successful career seemed opening before this young man. As his family increased, he started in independent practice in Manchester, and succeeded even beyond his most sanguine expectations.

Whether it was that his success was too much for him, or from the temptations of society, we are unable to say, but from some cause or other he fell into dissipated habits. Patients became fewer and farther between. Friends dropped off one by one, until at last the unhappy man, without resources and without hope, was left to face the world anew, with the horrible burden of drunkenness to drag him down whenever he attempted to rise. He must have fallen from one precarious method of living to another, until we find him in Dundee, an emaciated and worn looking man, shabbily attired, and with that indescribable expression in his eyes and on his lips, which bespeaks the confirmed drinker. His medical education led him to the fatal knowledge that for a few pence he could obtain a large quantity of corrupted alcohol, and accordingly we find him a regular purchaser of methylated spirits.

He obtained it in the druggists 1 shops, where he represented himself as a French polisher, and had long been drinking it ere his unhappy and long enduring wife had discovered the secret of his perpetual intoxication. At last, she did discover it, and stopped the supplies, but not until the day that he had drank a fatally large quantity of it. Leaving him on the afternoon preceding the evening we visited the house sitting, as she thought, sleeping off the gaseous and alcoholic fumes of the vile draught he had taken, his wife went out to purchase some of the scanty necessaries of life she could afford from the pittance her eldest son earned. She returned to find him sitting in the same posture. On endeavouring to arouse him, the fatal truth flashed across her mind.

The landlady was summoned, and the corpse of the wretched man was laid on the thin, humble pallet. Here we found it, the last offices properly fulfilled, stretched in all the chilling solemnity of death. We turned down the coverlet and gazed for a moment on the waxen face. No trace of all the degradation and suffering through which the man must have passed was there. Death, which levels all distinctions, had smoothed out every wrinkle; and but for the knowledge of what he had been, the spectator could have fancied that was gazing the countenance of one who had passed a useful and a happy life, and whose spirit had passed into a purer sphere in presence of affectionate relatives vying with each other in kindly solace of his last moments. It is many years since we first looked on death but from the first vague dread felt at its presence—an impression which will remain with us until pallida mors assails our own breast— we have never received so chastening a lesson as when we looked at that wretched man and militated on what his end might have been but for the fatal irresolution that led him down the facile slope of ruin.

We gained from his wife’s own lips the story we have just told our readers. She spoke with a dreary monotony, and with a tearless grief, that spoke far more not only of the past misery she had endured by that man’s misconduct, but also the affectionate regret with which even yet she mentioned his name when released from the burden his life must have been to her, than could have floods of tears, or any other more palpable demonstration of sorrow. Some women, ay, and some men too, cannot imagine grief without tears; but those who know what it is to have a heart surcharged with woe, to the relief of which not one tear will spring, can tell how heavy the sorrow that knows no weeping. As we looked at that woman, we thought that if ever there was one who deserved the compassion of the benevolent it was she. We cannot imagine a woman like her soliciting the bounty the charitable; but hope it may flow in to her relief with generous spontaneity.

Let us here draw the curtain over a great sorrow, and the dismal record of a life misspent. Said we not right that a walk through the abodes of suffering was a cure for the repinings of discontent which has no cause. None can doubt it who have seen a sight such that we have quitted, or even those which elsewhere are waiting for us. But that we had a duty to perform, we could well have made that scene suffice us for the night; but we have promised to draw aside for a moment the veil from human suffering and degradation, and we will keep our word.

[To be continued]

Read part 6 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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