The Night Side of Dundee – Part 6

This is part 6 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 11, 1863.


(By our Special Reporter.)


Those of our townsmen, who walk every day from their offices, their factories, or their mills, to comfortable and cheerful homes, where luxurious fare and smiling faces await them, probably do not think, as they pace westward along our main thoroughfare, that, within a stonecast of that prosperous and busy street, within speaking distance almost of prim and decorous Tay Street, with its stately homes of our physicians, there are abodes of misery and vice to be found, which may be paralleled in St Giles or Whitechapel in London, or the worst part of the Faubourg St Antoine in Paris, but not surpassed. It was this part the town, to a certain wynd that leads from the Nethergate to the Overgate, that next directed our steps. Entering a noisome entry, our conductors stopped before a door, one panel of which had been staved out to admit fresh air, and which, after knocking once, was opened by haggard woman, with a cough which shook her as if it would rend her asunder.

We enter a moderate sized room, which served as a kitchen and parlour to all the inmates, and for a bedroom to some. A low fire was burning in the rusty grate, and cowering beside it for warmth was a girl of sixteen, with one of the most impudent old fashioned faces we ever saw. Young as this girl was, she had devoted herself to a life of sin, apparently from choice, for we learnt that she had a comfortable home to go to if she chose but preferred the hideous sociality of this noisome den. The house, we learnt from a ticket hanging on the wall, was licensed to contain four inmates besides the landlord and his family; but on the occasion of our visit we found the number exceeded by two. In the outer room were three women in one bed. On the stool was the girl we have mentioned, who was nursing a new-born baby. In the inner room were two beds, one of which was occupied by the landlord and his wife; the other by the woman who admitted us and her husband.

This miserable couple had not a single blanket or sheet to cover them. On a bitter cold night, all their bedclothes were comprised in a curious concentration of rags, looking like old coat collars and lapels sewn together. The place was indescribably filthy, and damp with its usual accompaniment of baneful odours, mildewed the walls, and blistered the roof. No wonder that poor wretch coughs in that manner. We asked her how long she had been subject to the cough, and were told, as we expected, that it was her constant companion. Leaving this lodging-house, we ascend a wooden stair, and enter another den, the door of which is also deprived of a panel. A young man, with a shy, sullen, furtive look, opens the door, but looks none of us in the face, and during the whole of our visit keeps his eyes obstinately bent on the floor, as if he were practising the art of “chain dropping,” or the “poor distressed family dodge.”

This house belongs to a certain Kate, and this is Kate’s temporary husband, her lawful spouse having visited Australia by the request of the State, and at her Majesty’s expense. Kate has a sharp intelligent face, and a pair of round bright eyes, with a depth of roguish and wicked meaning in them. Kate is in bed, and nestling in her arms there is one of the prettiest babies a kind-hearted woman who loves these ornaments of the domestic circle would see in day’s walk. We touched the smooth, peach-like cheeks of the poor infant, and it opened a pair of bright blue eyes, and gazed on us with a look of confidence. Shall we ever meet that child grown into a man and under what circumstances? Where have we read that story of the series of pictures representing the alterations in face of one man in his career through life, from the likeness of the golden-haired, blue-eyed babe, reposing in innocence and peace in his mother’s arms, to the portrait of the hardened, callous malefactor, tugging the oar; and why does the recollection of that dismal story flash across us now?

The answer is a sad one. The poor babe has been born in an atmosphere of crime, and will, probably, receive a felon’s education. Can the result not be imagined? Were we in Paris, or St Petersburg, we think we could snatch that child from its mother’s arms, and spirit it off to the hospital for enfants trouves, or the Wospitatelnoi. We are not in France, or Russia, however, but in a much superior country, where the cry of civilised apathy goes up every day of “great is the power of letting things alone, and nobody is its prophet.” What this behind Kate’s bed? Kate’s father’s bed, with whom sleeps Kate’s brother, aged eighteen, and a female lodger of Kate’s, age difficult to ascertain, but ranging probably from twenty-five to thirty. London has a monopoly of sad depravity, and shameless scenes, has it? Oh, profound Cockney observer, come with our friend the Inspector and his escort, and learn to pipe another note.

But this is not all; there is human lair in the corner on which, when we retire and the frail oak is sported, this dirty urchin making faces up the chimney will repose. We have had enough of Kate’s, let us on and see something better. Alas! our search will be fruitless as Diogenes’ hunt for an honest man. The Court, to which we now bend our way, is a Satyr to Kate’s Hyperion. We go down the pend and up a precipitous wooden stair. We knock at a door on the top landing and are admitted into half a room? no; an angular box, for it is nothing more. There is no roof, for the walls sloping from each side meet at the top, and in trying to stand upright we damage our hat. The light from the Constable’s lantern shews us a wretched bedstead up against one wall, which (the wall not the bedstead) is so near the faces of the sleepers, that were they suddenly to awake and start up they would damage their countenances. In this wretched bed three women and a dog are sleeping. There is not another article of furniture in the house, but this bedstead and a rough wooden settle. The rent of this den is one shilling and ninepence per week, and the proprietor is—a lady!

Leaving this hovel we cross the landing, on which is standing a girl who may be truly called an abandoned female. She has no home, has been expelled from her lodgings, and is vainly asking admittance to the house we are now entering. Nevertheless, she is neither subdued nor remorseful; is, on the contrary, blasphemous, abusive, and obscene. We go into the house, box we mean, and find it as bad as the one we have quitted. In a bed like a square canoe, a stout young woman with a boy on each side of her is lying, and insolent at being awoke. In the corner is a lair, called by courtesy “a sawmill bed” because it is made altogether — bedstead, bedding, and blankets—of shavings. One and threepence per week is paid for this triangular human trap. We go downstairs again, and a warning from the constable saves us breaking our neck. We are passing along a wooden ledge overhanging the well of the staircase, and a false step would precipitate us some ten feet.

The ledge takes a circular turn and brings us to a door —anyone coming out of this door in the dark, if he has forgotten the mule’s path (for that ledge is like a mule’s path in the Pyrenees), would walk at one step to the bottom of the stair. There is nobody in this house but a discontented female, with a bad cold, and she tells us her rent is 3d per week; and that being an adjectived sight too much, she is going to give Lady So-and-so warning next week. The discontented female is millionaire in point of chattels to the poor creatures above her, for she has a dresser, a press, and two chairs, and has besides a cheerful spark of fire in her grate. We leave this establishment, and making mountain mules of ourselves, successfully brave the dangers of the wooden pass and reach the open air. Having had rather more of disagreeable sights and smells as is good for us, either mentally or physically, we arrange for another tour on a subsequent evening, and leaving our guides to their cheerless task of walking the streets, hie home, thankful we have a warm  bed and a snug roof to receive us.


On the shelves of the Dundee Public Library will be found a book with which, as it is very well thumbed, and rather dog-eared, a good many of our readers (who of course are all well-read people) may be familiar. This book is Mr Henry Mayhew’s “London Labour and the London Poor,” and it gives such a frightful picture of the low lodging-houses of the metropolis, that some of our townsmen who may have read it might regard as overcoloured and exaggerated. We have closely scanned that picture ourselves, and, comparing with our own experiences the lodging-homes in Dundee, are prepared to vouch for the accuracy of its every feature. In the previous part of this article, we have described a few of the smaller houses, and we now proceed to give an account of some of the larger ones we visited the other night.

The weather is piercingly cold, and the stars are shining in the dark blue say with that chilling radiance they assume on an evening which is only half frosty and half damp. On such night as this we can well imagine that the most squalid roof, the most filthy couch, if it can only furnish shelter, will be eagerly sought by the outcasts of the community. Few pedestrians are seen on the streets beyond the guardians of the peace taking their comfortless rounds. To-night the lodging-houses are expected be more than usually full, and our experience amply bears out the anticipation. Let us begin our pilgrimage by a visit to one of the lowest haunts in the town. There is an alley, the existence of which is probably unknown to many who may have occasion visit the neighbourhood even daily.

The place is not far from the docks and is overshadowed by some of the filthiest and dingiest tenements that can be found in a day’s walk. There is a quarrel going somewhere in this vile alley, for a confused noise of wrangling in male and female voices is borne to our ears on the midnight breeze. We ascend a winding outside stair which communicates with one of the dirtiest houses in the lane. A pale-faced woman opens the door, and we enter an evil-smelling kitchen, the walls, ceiling, and flooring of which have been toned down to a dingy grey by that great Scotch artist Mac Clarty. The chairs are dirty, the table is dirty, an oven built on the floor is dirty, the potlids on the wall are dirty, the landlady is dirty, the child in her arms is positively begrimed with dirt, and a grimy sailor, who has evidently not washed his face since he grew to man’s estate, is the dirtiest article in the dirty scene.

“Jack” has been in the dirty gallery of a dirty penny theatre, has tumbled downstairs and broken his dirty head, and his dirty blood has laced his dirty cheeks in streaks, like the snuffy stream from a dirty pauper’s nose. The lady of the house apologises for all this dirt by saying that she was in gaol for twenty days; and that, of course, we can appreciate the value of the proverb which states that, when a domestic feline quadruped is away, the mice are at liberty to indulge in illicit freedom. It strikes us, however, that this is not the sole cause for the plethora of “clort” we see around us, otherwise the lady’s own countenance, not to speak of that of the emaciated child in her arms, would be cleaner.

Off the kitchen is a room which is actually appalling for its filth and stench. We enter it and see on half of a mattress between the stoops of a bedstead which has broken down, a pallid-faced, gentle looking child, lying. We have promised to touch as lightly as possible upon the agonising sights we have seen in our midnight travels, but we cannot, in justice to the cause of humanity, conceal the state in which we found this poor child. He was absolutely lying soaked in human filth, and the only apology his drabbish mother could make (and she made it in a flippant tone, which would have caused an impulsive, kind-hearted woman to slap her in the face) was, that the poor child was weakly, and she had no time to look after him. We do not believe that even the most selfish man could look at that child’s face without feeling a pang of anguish.

There he lay, calmly and peacefully, sleeping the sleep of innocence. A quiet smile on “his patient but pain-worn lips illumined his face to the roots his golden hair, that clustered on his forehead, and suggested to the pitying beholders that, under the heavenly influences slumber, his tiny spirit was communing with angels in abodes of bliss. Oh, men, with children dear, for whom you would work your brains till they ached again, ere the blasts of heaven should visit them too roughly, think of the pitiful state of this poor child, and as ye contrast it with that of your own darlings, thank God for the prosperity which enables you to shield them from such a fate. Are we, after all, the creatures of circumstance, and is it only the accident of birth that shapes for us our career in life? is a question some might be disposed to ask on gazing on that poor infant. The reflecting man will not, however, answer that question absolutely in the affirmative, for his intuition will guide him to the perception that for many untoward circumstances which mar what might be fair careers, society is responsible. If we all talked less and did more, there would fewer social sores to shock the gaze of the benevolent.

Let us leave this sorry sight with the hope that someday “somebody” with power to influence society will see the necessity of beginning the work of regeneration at the lowest round of the ladder of life and think of some more efficacious means of rescuing the young from the abyss of vice, than the prison cell or the turnkey’s lash. We re-enter the kitchen and walk along a narrow passage, most of the rooms entering from which are yet empty. In the bed of one of them, however, there are two figures, the sex of which is perfectly indiscernible by the way the grimy bedclothes are huddled over the pillows, but a hiccup and a rough grunt from the figure in front, proclaims its gender. A sight of faces is demanded, and there surges up from beneath the rags a red face and a shock head of red hair, the owner of which is, to use a Russian phrase, “as drunk as oil.” The figure behind him is that of a female, and the landlady says they are man and wife, but a low and prolonged whistle from the Sergeant, assures us that the alliance must have been speedily contracted.

In the room adjoining this, were two female lodgers, one of whom was the wife of a blind musician, supposed at that moment to be on a speculative tour of mendicancy in the west of Scotland, but expected every day to come back to his cara sposa playing the tune of “money in both pockets.” Leaving this human pigsty, we wend our way down the alley, and pay a visit to a land of lodging houses in Butcher Row. The houses here were perfect palaces compared to that which we had just left. Some of them were well furnished and very clean, not only as regarded the floors, walls, and ceilings, but also in respect of the linen and bedclothes. We were painfully surprised however, in two of them, to see for the first time men and women, strangers to each other, sleeping in the same rooms, and even in beds not a yard apart.

A house on the top flat kept by a journeyman painter was in every respect irreproachable. The painter opened the door, and looked a steady, sober, and industrious man. The evidences of his profession were to be found in the clean snug manner in which the whole house had been newly painted and white-washed. Here all the lodgers were males and seemed respectable tradesmen and apprentices. The Inspector tells the painter he keeps the most respectable lodging-house of the kind in the town, and we wish him prosperity in his undertakings. Now we go to the Overgate and visit a series of the most horrible dens which tongue can describe or imagination conceive. We will spare our readers a detailed description of the sights, sounds, and smells which shocked our senses in this street. In our walk through these abodes of misery we learnt where all the street beggars, itinerant musicians, the Hindoo and Mussulman tract sellers, the German hurdy-gurdy flayers, the houseless prostitutes, and all the dissipated outcasts of the town, harbour.

Much as is done by the Inspector of Lodging-houses to keep these places in proper order, and prevent overcrowding, we say it is a crying disgrace to the Police Commission that he is not invested with more powers. In rooms which were so crowded that the stench of accumulated bad breaths and vile odours positively turned us sick, we found married couples and single men, unmarried women, and young boys. In one room we found in a bed two Bengali Lascars; in another couch, not three feet from it, were another Bengali and his wife, a bold-faced young Scotchwoman. Opposite them were two beds, containing young men, who were lying stark naked beneath the coarse rug and single blanket that covered them. Whether it is to avoid vermin, to save their shirts, we know not; but the majority of the men we saw in the lodging houses had not a shred of body-clothing on. In another room were three German girls—organ players—sleeping in one bed, according to their own desire; but in the same room were several young men, and the two old blind women our readers may have seen singing plaintively in the Nethergate.

A peculiarity of the men in these dormitories was to wear their bonnets in bed. Many of them were smoking as they lay, and this pernicious custom seemed to be an all pervading one in the Overgate dormitories. There is a Russian proverb which says “a labourer works like a slave, but sits down to table like a lord.” They may do that in Moujikland but they don’t it in the Overgate of Dundee. In that street they sleep like hogs and feed like wolves in dingy vile smelling kitchens. Lords don’t live on bad and boiled tea, red herrings, and coarse bread, and it strikes us we have heard that their lodgings cost them something more than threepence a night, soap and blacking not included. Are we taking too great a liberty when, after visiting these dens, we suggest to the Commissioners of Police the propriety of only licensing houses for males or for females. Will it be deemed obtrusively impertinent on our part when we hint that where without regard to sex lodgers are permitted to pig together, their morality must suffer? Shall we be considered overweeningly insolent if we remind their Commissionerships that such indiscriminate association may exercise rather a deteriorating influence bodily and mental health of the boys whom cruel fortune has forced to find shelter in these retreats.

(To be continued.)

Read part 7 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.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Discover more from DD TOURS

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading