The Night Side of Dundee – Part 7

This is part 7 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 15, 1863.


By our Special Reporter.


Those of our readers who take pleasant walks into the country a summer’s afternoon may sometimes have met decently attired men, travel-stained and footsore, plodding wearily on towards the town. If any pedestrian for pleasure is not so wrapped up in his own reserve as to pass such wayfarers without pleasant word or a little chat, he may learn that those fagged and dusty pilgrims are working men on the tramp. We have often fallen in with such companions ourselves, and have always made it a point (if they seemed social enough not to resent the liberty) of accosting them, and conversing for a brief period on the evil fortune which had for a season overclouded their destiny and made them wanderers on the face of the earth.

We used sometimes to wonder what sort of accommodation they received for the threepence a night, which was all they could afford to pay for their bed, but on this head very few were communicative. The truth probably was, that they were rather ashamed of the couches they had to repose upon in the cheap lodging-houses their straitened means compelled them to patronise; and we can well understand the feeling, after our experience of the indescribable nastiness of the licensed Dens of Dundee. A steady and respectable workman, travelling to a strange town for employment, contrasting the houses in which his poverty compels him to take up his temporary abode, with the comfortable, though humble, home he had quitted, cannot but feel considerable reluctance to detail their horrors.

To such men the inauguration of the Model Lodging-Houses must have been an immense boon. In such places bright fires, comfortable eating and reading rooms, snug beds perfectly clean and warmly covered, are to be shared in every decent pedestrian, at the same rate as he would pay in the filthy dens we recently described. Let the gentle reader permit us for the nonce to assume the character of a respectable tramp, and in that capacity we will detail as faithfully as our pen can do, a night in the Model Lodging Houses for males, which has long flourished in the Overgate. We have travelled, let us say, from Aberdeen, and in our journey have not been so well entertained as we would like. To-day we have walked, let us suppose, from Montrose, and having heard there, from a fellow tramp trudging northwards, of the comforts of the Dundee Model House, we beguile the weary way with pleasant anticipations of a cheerful evening beside a blazing fire, and a warm clean bed in a room not too crowded.

Darkness is descending as we reach the North-eastern approach to the town, and the long line of gas lamps are beginning to illumine themselves with tiny jets of flame, as we descend into the heart of the busy human hive, where we hope to find leave to toil. Hardly able to drag one leg after another, for it is a long and weary walk, remember, from Montrose, we languidly enquire our way to the Overgate, somewhere in the centre of which, we are told our Caravanserai is to be found. We have some difficulty in finding it, for the signboard is not very distinct in the gaslight, and a pardonable weakness makes us feel to ask for it. So, we wait until the friendly form of a policeman heaves in view. By good luck the first guardian of the peace who comes down the street is a Lieutenant, and him we submissively accost. He kindly says he has some time to spare and offers to conduct us to the wished for haven.

We walk a good way back again toward Montrose, for in our ignorance we have overshot the close. At last, we enter a low roofed pend and stoop to save our hat, for though it is a shocking bad one, knocked about by our travels, still as we are on the tramp, we must save it all we can. We go up the close, and up a scrupulously clean stair into an equally clean passage. Here we meet Mr Simpson, to whose hospitable care the Lieutenant hands us over and departs. Mr Simpson takes a very searching look at us, for it is not every one who is on the tramp that he will admit. The house which he has ably conducted for twelve years past is intended for working men actually travelling for employment or engaged in labour in the town. Of course, any one in reduced circumstances, whether he labours with his hands or his head, is admitted, if he deserves it, but the Superintendent is the sole judge of his eligibility.

After satisfying himself that we have valid claims on his protection, and that we will not walk off with the bedclothes or steal the frying-pan, we are admitted to one of the kitchens. We take our seat in front of a blazing fire, and, being warmed and dried, proceed to cook the small rasher of bacon we bought entering the town, and to mask the portion of the ounce of tea still in our wallet. After doing justice to these necessaries, we have leisure to look about us. We are sitting in a roomy kitchen, the wails of which are washed with a warm size colour. Down the centre of this runs the large table where we partook of our meal. On each side of this table are wooden settles, and behind us a framework containing a large number of little presses for the use of the regular lodgers. One these will be allotted to us tomorrow if, after obtaining work, we decide to stay with Mr Simpson.

Our companions comprise young, middle-aged, and old males. Some are labourers from the sister land, and these are clubbing together to make up a good boiling of potatoes. Others are hacklers and weavers. Some are mechanics or blacksmiths if we may judge by the oleaginous stains on their moleskins. Some are cadgers, but there are not many of these. As seven o clock approaches the kitchen gradually fills, and the group around the fire increases. Many have only red herrings and tea others have a piece of steak and potatoes some are making potsful of substantial porridge; and some have nothing but dry bread. We are all sober, and on the best of terms with each other. The sight of some new-comers emerging from an adjoining apartment, with their faces all aglow, and as bright as hard friction and yellow soap can make them, suggests to us that a wash after our long tramp will greatly refresh us.

Mr Simpson kindly takes us to the lavatory, which is an apartment half as large as the kitchen we have just left. Here we find copper basins fitted up against the wall, and all are as bright as sturdy female arms and yellow sand can keep them. We wait our turn here, and after a good wash, and a hearty rub at the huge jack towel on the roller, are ready to be shown our bedroom. We will now, if our readers please, throw off the character we have assumed, since we have kept it long enough to enable them to appreciate the treatment a poor wayfarer may expect in the Model Lodging House. Resuming our own character of a curious visitor, we follow Mr Simpson up-stairs, and visit all the dormitories. Some of the rooms are very large, and some are very small, but none contain more beds than a due regard to ventilation and comfort will admit of. In some apartments we found six beds, in others, four—in a few, only two, and one or two, a single couch.

All the beds are iron, and contain a straw palliasse, a flock mattress, and a sufficiency of blankets. For the regular lodgers the bedclothes are changed once a fortnight, and newcomers must take their chance. If, however, the occupant of a couch seems to have been over-grimy or plagued with certain insects, the clothes are at once removed. On the whole, then, so far the petty price charged for accommodation will permit, the greatest attention to cleanliness is bestowed on the beds. The floors and the passages are all exquisitely clean and seem washed three or four times a week. The lodgers must all be in bed by half past eleven, and at that time the gas is screwed off from the rooms, but kept burning in the lobbies, which, and of stairs, there is quite a perplexing combination.

When the house is full, as it almost always is it can accommodate ninety-seven persons; and when we tell our readers that, with so large a family, Mr Simpson’s domestic peace is rarely ever disturbed they will understand that the selection he makes of lodgers, and the discipline he exercises, is worthy of all praise. Of course, little disturbances which will occur in the best regulated families sometimes mar the harmony of the mammoth domestic circle in Scott’s Close; but they are quickly quelled with the appearance of the Superintendent. These small shindies usually occur on a Saturday evening, when some of the regular frequenters of the house have got slightly disguised in liquor out of doors, and are inclined to disputatious in their cups. The majority the lodgers are keen politicians, and as they often discuss the items of public intelligence with considerable animation, differences of opinion sometimes cause breaches of amity.

On the whole, however, the Model lodgers are a happy family, as model lodgers ought to be, and the constant inmates are so friendly with each other that they let Mr Simpson accommodate batches of them in one sleeping apartment. Truth, however, compels us to say that the model lodgers are not famous for prudence or thrift. Scarcely one of them has more of the world’s goods than are comprised in the clothes on his back. ln all the twenty-seven rooms we visited we only saw two chests, one which belonged to a sailor and the other to a decent working lad from Aberdeen who had just arrived in search of work. The truth is that, were the inmates prudent, they would not be model lodgers. Many respectable, young tradesman come for a week or two to house after they reach the town, but so soon as they obtain steady employment they leave for private lodgings where they can have rooms themselves.

The majority of the lodgers live in a hand-to-mouth fashion, and at the end of the week have squandered all their earnings in a most imprudent manner. The frying-pan is a great institution in the beginning of the week, to cook steaks, chops, and ham, on which the lodgers will revel as long they can; but by the end of the week, a clasp knife, on which to roast red herring, is an extemporised roasting-jack greatly in vogue. The accommodation for cooking and eating is ample, comprising three large kitchens. Salt, plates, and drinking-mugs are furnished gratis, and so at one time were knives and forks; but as some of the Model lodgers had rather indistinct notions of meum and tuum, the latter had to be withdrawn. Off the larger kitchen is a spacious reading-room, which, however, contains very few papers, and no periodicals, want which some charitable individual might remedy. Here, however, all who have journals of their own repair to study politics, and here, also, religious services are conducted by the city missionaries, and one or two clergymen.

The Model lodgers are not very devout, for hardly more than twenty can be brought together. Perhaps, if the experiment of giving them some good-humoured advice on the necessity of economy were tried, the lodgers might gradually be brought to see the propriety of living prudent and exemplary lives. The suggestion is worth adoption, and we commend it to the Directors. Mr Simpson receives no married men who belong to the town, but sometimes he is deceived, and is disagreeably surprised by the visit of a shrill-voiced female, highly irate at the abdication of her spouse from his hearth and home. When the Model Lodging-House was first established the expectations of its founders were not very sanguine, but we are glad to say that, under the careful management of Mr Simpson, it not only pays all its expenses, but leaves a surplus to be applied in effecting improvements. The separation of the sexes alone is a feature of the model system which the authorities ought to see carried out in all the licensed lodging-houses and if, at the same time, the scrupulous cleanliness which characterises Mr Simpson’s establishment was imported into them, it could not but have most beneficial effect on the inmates.

The Directors of the Model Lodging- House are unwearied in their efforts to keep up the character of their institution and we much wish that the same supervision were exercised over the dens where the outcasts of society seek a cheap and nasty shelter from the elements. Our next article will be devoted to the description of the Female Model Lodging-House in King Street, another institution in the town which has done more to establish habits of order, regularity, and decency among the lower classes than any other with which we are acquainted. We look on the Model Lodging- Houses as a step in the right direction, and we repeat we would be glad if the Magistrates would see the propriety of forcing the private lodging-houses to imitate them. In Dundee, as well as in London or Paris, there are mysteries which are hard of solution, and the way to solve them is not for the “somebodies” to wash their hands, and, Pontius Pilate like, shove the responsibility on to crowds of “nobodies,” who, whether their fellow-creatures sink or swim, care not one brass farthing.

Dives, clothed in purple and fine linen, may feel offended that our sketches come between the wind and the nobility of his apathy ; but if Dives has a heart at all, and can profit by the example of his scriptural predecessor, he will see the necessity of dunning, in season and out of season, the truth into his ear. One of the most acute political thinkers of the present day has said that a man may make a career for himself as well as follow in one which has been made for him; and, for our own part, we make bold to say that we know of no nobler career for the men whom God has blessed with wealth and leisure than to devote some portion of both to the amelioration of the condition of their fellow creatures, be they sinful or merely unfortunate.

In the noble English of Ruskin, to such among us we would say “Raise the veil boldly; face the light; and if as yet the light of the eye can only be through tears, and the light of the body through sackcloth, go thou forth weeping, bearing precious seed, until the time come, and the Kingdom, when Christ’s gift of bread and bequest of peace shall unto this last as unto thee; and when for earth’s severed multitudes of the wicked and the weary, there shall be holier reconciliation than that of the narrow home where the wicked cease (not from trouble but from troubling), and the weary are at rest.” Noble words indeed are these with which fitly draw the curtain once more over the Night Side of Dundee.

(To be continued.)

Read part 8 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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