Ancestry UK

A Vicar As Vagrant

by Rev. George Zachariah Edwards


The common or model lodging-house, the doss-house, or kip-house is, perhaps, the greatest source of moral contamination in our land.

In the doss-house night by night, in the only living-room, the kitchen, for the whole long evening, there mix and mingle a motley throng. Honest fellows seeking work, professional beggars and thieves; prostitutes, cheap; hawkers, and gaol-birds. They come here because, it is the only place to come to, and it is comparatively cheap— 3d, or 4d. a bed are the usual charges in the larger towns.

I do not blame the doss-house keeper. He is a doss-house keeper. How can lie turn the beggar with money in his pocket away? As in every business, so in this. Some are more honest and cleanly than others.

In Preston there are at least thirty-four common lodging-houses of one description or another, twenty-three of which take in women. Some are small and need not count for much; others, with from fifty to seventy beds or more. Preston provides, night by night, perhaps one thousand beds, not counting the casual ward in which the men and women of the road sleep. The licensed common lodging-houses are under some sort of police supervision and inspection.

I do not know whether Preston is unique in one respect. I hope it is. It has a "Penny sit up." I call it "The house of despair." I have been there, so I speak of what I know. I went meaning to spend the night, one short night, there—short if you pass the hours of rest in refreshing sleep on a comfortable bed, but age-long if you spend it in this house of despair. I came out with a leaden weight upon my soul that men could sink to such depths of woe, and that we, had thrust them thither.

This is not a dream. This is not the wild imagination of a heated brain. It is sober, solid fact. This house of despair is to be found in Shepherd Street, Preston. Its only recommendation is its cheapness; but how dearly you buy that cheapness! For one penny you buy the privilege of entrance—this admits you to a room about twenty-five feet long by eighteen feet broad.

You enter it in the evening, when the day is done. Already there are some twenty or twenty-five men there. The room is literally bare, with nothing in it, nothing! No fireplace, no stove, no hot water pipes, no sink, no water, no beds, no chairs, no blankets, no mattresses—nothing, nothing whatever for the furnishing of the room except a small, very small oil lamp, very dimly lighted, and four long wooden kneelers about two inches off the floor sloping upwards towards the back. Two of these at either ends of the room, and the other two running right down the middle of the room back to back. What are they for? This surely is not a house of prayer? No, these are pillows, wooden pillows, and presently the floor of this room will be covered with bodies lying feet to feet in two double rows down the length of the room.

When you enter some are eating their bit of food; but remember, there is no stove, no warmth, no fire here, only a (washing) boiler in the yard, where you may get hot water. There are no cooking utensils; every man carries his own drum under his coat behind his back—just an old tin of some sort with a wire handle. When your food is eaten there is nothing to do but lie down on your length of the floor, some six feet by two feet, and then if your limbs ache with lying down on the hard boards sit up, and if you are privileged to have one of the select spots against the wall, you can lean against that if you will. If you are wet through you sit or lie in your wet rags till they dry, that is all!

Think of it! Ten, twelve, fourteen hours thus. Thirty to sixty men thus, night by night, in misery, wretchedness, filth of body, and starvation. The conversation is in the dull, hopeless undertone of exhausted men, except when it flashes forth now and again, in the tone of revenge, hatred and bitterness against us who have condemned them to this. It is always heavily laden with oath or blasphemy, and is of begging, pinching, roguery, trickery, beastiality, at the best of the criminal courts, their prisoners and judges. The leaden weight of exhaustion and despair is only lifted when a man is dead drunk.

And so these men try to settle themselves to sleep. Sleep? Were human beings, God indwelt, ever meant thus to rest, in dirt, in degradation, in depression indescribable?

No clean horse-box with freshly-strewn straw, this! No well-drained pig-stye with abundance of bedding, warmth and food, this! No rat-hole, this, where father, mother, and baby rats may live together and seek their meat from God!

But a vermin-infested room, bare of aught but men's bodies clad in rags—bodies which are not washed or groomed or cleaned from one twelvemonth to another, except when forced to go to casual ward or gaol. Bodies which are half-starved, emaciated, lean. Bodies which carry the germs of horrible disease, yet which are untended, uncared for. Bodies which, because they are so poor, so poor in rich life blood, are thereby fit and proper food for the tramp's, the dirty beggar's worst enemy, lice. Little crawling, clinging, biting lice, which breed in twenty-four hours in the seams of your clothes next your skin, and live upon you—biting, biting, feeding, feeding, like the gnawing worm of hell.

The atmosphere! Figuratively speaking, you could cut it with a knife! You yourself sleep next to an old decrepit man, who cannot always control his bodily actions; his trousers stink, stink; you will carry the stench in your nostrils for a week. Sixty thus, and if not quite thus, all unwashed, all with the smell of the unwashed. Add to this, rank tobacco smoke of all blends, some unknown even to connoisseurs, such as "kerb-stone twist" (old chews), old cigar ends, "o.p.s." (other people's stumps), and old dried tea leaves. Add to this foul breath, some very foul, add also the stale atmosphere of the room itself when empty, and remember scarce any ventilation during the night except the occasional opening of the door into the yard, and you may think you imagine what you never will, till you experience it.

Thus the poorest of the poor live by night in Preston, thus the local authorities allow them to live, thus we Christian men through our ignorance, our party strife, and our fear of businesslike reform suffer it, and shame on us all.

It is the cause of this great national evil of needless degradation I wish to fight; not any one result, disgusting though it be. Yet be it known in Preston that the "Penny sit up" is a Lancashire disgrace—a disgrace to the soul and spirit of man, and not a cause for pious rejoicing.

My mate when stranded has gone to beg for bread to many a house in Preston, at which instead of being helped he has been told, " Take this ticket to the Shelter in Shepherd Street; we've nothing to give you; we send all our broken meat to the Shelter." Do these people know what the Shelter or the "Penny sit, up" is like? Have they ever been there? Do they know that this broken food is placed in a basket on the floor of the room and scrambled for, in a wild mad rush of angry blaspheming men?

These are facts, indisputable—and one further,—do they know that these poor men, because they have slept the night in Shepherd Street Mission Shelter, and thereby, I suppose, touched the fringe of Christian sympathy, are refused admittance in the morning to a neighbouring doss-house of no great refinement, lest their living freight gathered the night before in Shepherd Street Shelter should fall off them!

This Shelter has, I believe, been open now for some few years. Doubtless the owners and instigators feel they are doing a good work for the very poor, and this makes me hesitate in saying anything; but I am convinced such a place only brings men down permanently to a lower level than the doss-house, and encourages them to stay there. If in those years it has not been possible to put a fire in the room, to put in American cloth covered bunks like the Salvation Army have, to put forms round the room, to provide some rugs, to humanise and put a touch of home into the place, to light the place up with real Christian hope and effort—I say deliberately it would have been much better for everyone, to have closed the shelter long ago. If Christian people can do no better than this, in God's name let them stand back; they put to shame the living Christ; and let the children of this world, who are often wiser than the children of light, be our guides.

"The Penny Sit-up" is an extract from A Vicar As Vagrant by the Rev. George Zachariah Edwards, vicar of Crossens, Southport. It was published in 1910 following his incognito experiences of the doss-houses of Lancashire.

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