What follows is a rather bleak portrayal of the area around Dundee’s docks at night. Beginning at the Victoria Arch, our author descends into a (surely exaggerated) den of iniquity. This picture, it seems to me, outlines the way of life that ‘The People’s Journal’ was desperate to change through its messages of self improvement. This was the first of several similar sketches of Dundee by this author.
“What arch is that, sir?”
I had been gazing at a finely-chiselled fragment of stonework, half-doubtful in the dim light whether the skill that gave it birth was ancient or modern. In the deepening gloom it looked as if it were a weird sentinel keeping fixed watch over the surrounding docks. As it stood there, hemmed in with tall thin masts, furled sails, and quivering rigging, it seemed like a spectre of bygone days in a leafless forest of skeleton trees. Impelled by curiosity, I put the question, “What arch is that?”
“Weel, sir,” was the reply, “it’s maistly ca’d the Queen’s Arch, and was built, ye ken, in commemoration o’ her visit.”
Fancy, that notorious architect of castles in the air, had been building a nice little mansion of romance in connection with the arch when this matter-of-fact answer razed it to the ground, and, thanking my informant, I turned on my heel and strolled off in search of other matter for observation.
I turned into a square crowded with stalls and booths of various kinds, and found myself in the midst of what appeared to be a miniature fair. All was noise and bustle. Oil-lamps sputtered and shed forth their cloudy flame-light, sending out an offensive odour, which, blending with that of stale fish and other refuse, rose to my unacclimated [sic] nostrils with anything but a welcome kind of perfume. On all sides hoarse throats were howling incessant eulogies relative to certain wares. From a temporary pulpit, in the shape of a kitchen chair, an amateur disciple of divinity was striving hard to clear the impure atmosphere of sinful souls with the thunder of his eloquence. An elderly man, with a cracked voice, and a little womanly child, with a shrieky treble, were endeavouring, hopelessly, to harmonize a primitive ditty in praise of Scotland. It seemed to be a race between the two; the old man, being allowed a line and a half start, plodded along in plucky style, but the girl commencing quickly, caught and passed him, invariably winning each verse in a canter. A crowd of young aristocrats, without shoes or stockings, were huddled round a stall, spending in the most reckless manner halfpenny after halfpenny in the purchase of a curious mixture resembling dirty grease. I did not inquire the nature of the compound, but whatever that mystical pulp of sickly white might be the aristocracy in question seemed to like it, for each one carefully licked his wine glass both inside and out before returning it. Listless men were lounging about in mere idle curiosity; anxious-eyed women, with small purses and large baskets, fitted from stall to stall waging deadly war against inexorable vendors, and harassing them with cheapening skirmishes. Sickly faces, buxom forms, placid content, hungry looks, itinerant quacks, boisterous content, hungry looks, itinerant quacks, boisterous converts, perambulating fishmongers, pilgrim greengrocers, besotted men with irreclaimed Magdalenes, all mixing, crushing, squalling together, and eddying round and round like a living whirlpool.
A short turn brought me into a street adjoining. A line of rugged buildings, with all the massive appearance of so many prisons, are ranged on each side of the narrow way, scowling at each other as it were with sternly-wrinkled visages. The windows—completely glassless in many instances—are embedded in square little cells of strong stone work, one and all evincing a stubborn disposition to resist as much as possible any inquisitive visits on the part of daylight, as if the houses were built for owls instead of human beings. Short poles project half-across the street, festooned with scraps of underlinen, like signals of distress. One house has a most peculiar appearance, being partly castle, keep, and modern dwelling. A little further along is a passage which at first, judging from its low arched roof and the anything but fragrant scent issuing therefrom, I took to be a disused sewer; but as I had the curiosity to pass through I was soon undeceived; it was only a foul-aired tunnel leading to a nest of dirty houses.
Wherever I went I found children strewn about in plenty; some comfortably clothed, some as lightly clad as the ancient Britons, some in arms, some hanging on by tattered skirts, some with haggard old-fashioned faces, some with ragged locks of matted hair; others had undergone a fleecing process, and looked in their shorn condition like maneless little cubs. Drunken men, staggering from hells of liquid fire, reeled home as best they could. Caresses were lavished and love made in the most open manner by amorous couples of all ages, the ladies wooing with playful wiles so sweetly primitive in their barbaric purity, the swains meanwhile returning each caress, when not engaged in squirting tobacco juice across the street, irrespective of passers by. Here ard there a woman with withered features and healed bruise or fading black eye might be seen hunting her truant lord and master. At the mouth of a narrow close—and, oh! what bad breath that mouth has—a small knot of barefooted women were congregated, smoking and gossiping, looking, in their dirty and unkempt state, like Indian squaws. But the calumet of peace was soon to be broken. A couple of men—husbands of two of the Celtic squaws—joined the group. Before many minutes elapsed, one of the men became markedly attentive to a neighbouring squaw, his own looking on the while. His sportive efforts at amorous playfulness were openly encouraged by the flattered fair one till the wife, goaded beyond human endurance, fastened at last with cat-like ferocity on the wall-eyed coquette, and a set fight was the result. This was not an ordinary feminine encounter—oh! dear no. The Amazonian denizens of this classic region disdain the vulgar hair-weeding method of warfare usual among the softer sex, and these two combatants proved no exception to the rule. They went to work in a wary, scientific, and upstanding manner, worthy of—of—well, in fact, worthy of the most brutalised members of the prize ring. The air was heavy with sounds of foul blows and foul language, till one of the combatants, fairly beaten, turned and fled. A rough, broad-shouldered hulking fellow here offered in the most courageous way to take the beaten one’s place, and continue the contest, but civilisation had at least one weak spot left to which the shadow of a blush might mount, and the offer was declined.
Under the down light of a public-house lamp I saw a woman leaning helplessly against the wall, holding a child by the hand. I was turning away with disgust for I found she was drunk, when my very hair started with horror as I saw the child was drunk too—they were mother and daughter. Both were decently dressed. The mother in maudlin fondness was muttering incoherent terms of endearment to her “bonnie, we bit bairn,” and the child, just able to walk, was swaying to and fro, her eyes staring stupidly about, her little hat at the back of her head, her yellow hair streaming over her forehead, like a golden veil anxious to hide from the passing scrutiny a sight so degrading to human nature as the tipsy imbecility expressed in that poor child’s face. Oh! woman, woman! is it not enough to stain your own soul? can you not spare that of your own child? As surely as there is a recording angel in the hour of your soul’s need, when the sins of your life and God’s mercy are hovering in the balance, the record of this crime will weigh you down everlasting despair.
A pot-valiant hero, who had just skulked away from a promised thrashing, was now turning the current of his baffled fury full against his poor wife, and on that abject writhing wretch he displayed his prowess, oh, so manfully! How artistically he tried to bruise her face, as clinging to him she buried her head in this protecting breast to avoid punishment. Oh, how he showed the strength of his bullocky form by dashing her to the ground, and standing over his prostrate victim like a gladiator. At this moment, an Irishman, with more pluck than stature, came up. He seeing at a glance how matters stood, and the woman not being his own wife, proceeded at once to administer a hard-fisted rebuke to the brutal husband. His wife, gathering herself up, perceived the danger of her playful partner, and immediately proceeded to rescue him by felling her Hibernian champion with a huge stone. The police arriving just as the fun was over, and wife and husband were disappearing “wraptin fond embrace,” poor Paddy was seized, and generously provided with lodgings gratis.
In the very heart of this vice-stained locality stands a mission church, looking in its squeezed-up condition as if it had crushed itself in edgewise among the stony crowd. Its presence there appears to be anything but desired, for the houses on each side seem to have a chronic wish to shoulder the clerical intruder out of the street altogether. But its presence is a proof that some good spirit is at work striving to unlink the chains of slavish ignorance, and snatch if possible those poor human waifs and strays from the gutter of iniquity. Pious charity has long been proverbial for its far-off look towards African shores, but I am glad to find in Dundee at least that the far off look has found time to cast a sidelong glance at the poor starvelings at home. They are entitled to equal pity, for their minds are darker than the negro’s skin. May the work prosper, for the morals of the people about here require spiritual chloride of lime as much as the place itself needs sanitary inspection.