Friday, November 11, 2016

Book review: Dottings of a Dosser by Howard Goldsmid

I have been reading The Worst Street in London by Fiona Rule, which is about Dorset Street in the Spitafields area.

One of the main reasons why that street and the neighbouring area went downhill in the Victorian times and became such a place linked with vice, poverty and crime was because of the lodging houses that dotted Dorset Street.

Lodging houses were places where people that could not afford weekly rent could pay just a few pence for a night's lodging. They were desperate folk that spent their waking hours trying to scrape together the money for the night. In theory there were rules that governed just how these lodging houses were run, but in reality people were packed in to foul smelling rooms so landlords could maximise their takings.

In an effort to get a glimpse of what this world was like I discovered the useful Dottings of a Dosser, which saw Howard Goldsmid go undercover to find out what these places were like.

Dressed in his tramp gear the 19 year old Goldsmid bravely set out to share his experiences of spending some nights in the most notorious lodging houses.

The lodging house is not just about the beds lined up next to each other in a stuffy room but starts downstairs in the communal kitchen area. Here the characters emerge with drunken couples fighting, old men sharing their survival wisdom and shocking tales of families struggling with infants in that environment.

Goldsmid rarely lasts more than until the early hours in rooms that are so stuffy and toxic as a result of the foul smelling drunken men that you can really sense the terrible atmosphere in those places. There is one room where his desperation to open the window and breath in fresh air is tangible.

The upshot of his adventure is that he concludes that the law is failing because it is not being observed and enforced. He also warns that people in that situation will surely not stand for it for ever and fears there could be a revolution.

The language is of its time and the references are in the context of the 1880s and the author would have expected the audience to have known those. But it is very readable. The decision he makes to go to different parts of London make sure that any sense of repetition is avoided.

This is an ideal companion to any reading into the state of the East End in the 1880s. It provides a first hand account of a real world that is far more shocking than fiction.

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