George Orwell referred to the work of American author Jack London repeatedly. London had been not only a radical writer but had experienced and investigated the working conditions of both his fellow Americans in California and of London, from which he wrote a book about his horrifying experiences, The People of the Abyss.
Now Orwell Society member Ron Bateman contributes another of his articles, discussing the connections between the lives lead by Orwell and London when they were down and out. He ends with a question: can you help answer it?
Good Beds for Single Men
In Chapter XXIV of Down and Out in Paris and London, (1933) Orwell writes that, having returned from Paris with only 19s 6d in his pocket, he discovered to his dismay that his new employer had ‘gone abroad for a month’, leaving him to fend for himself for the time being. Having pawned his second-best suit for some shabby clothes and a shilling, he checked himself into a common lodging house – (or ‘doss house’ as they were more commonly known) – that advertised Good Beds for Single Men. This of course is likely to be among the fictional elements of a book based largely on real lived experience. In his account Orwell places this location as being across the street from Waterloo Road in Lambeth – an area that Orwell knew well. In fact, his correspondence to his publisher Victor Gollancz’ to a question in relation to localities referred to in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, indicates that Orwell was particularly familiar with Waterloo Road (CW, X p416).
It is widely known that when Orwell began his tramping escapades he was following in the footsteps of the great American sociologist Jack London, who had embedded himself among the dispossessed of the East-End in a similar fashion. London frequented the doss-houses around the Spitalfields and Whitechapel areas, but we also learn from his resultant book The People of the Abyss (1903) that he also refers to Waterloo Road as an area that he is clearly familiar with; particularly owning to the large numbers of prostitutes he had seen congregating there.
In the very first edition of The People of the Abyss, London supported his findings by including photographic images of the slums, the squalor and the hardship that he had witnessed. Just recently, the images he originally used have resurfaced and have been included in the latest editions of his book. Among these images is the photograph below advertising Good Beds for Single Men – with no exact location given for the image. Dorset Street and Paternoster Row have been suggested as locations for the image in various social-media outlets, but neither has been verified to the best of my knowledge.
In another image taken in London’s East End (Below), we see the familiar advertisement Good Beds for Single Men again advertised above the gate. We can also see that this is obviously not the same location. Online research suggests that this was a ‘double-relay lodging house – where the same beds were rented out to sleepers both day and night
The exact location of Orwell’s ‘Waterloo Road doss-house’ is still inconclusive. Bernard Crick in George Orwell – A Life (1980) and Gordon Bowker George Orwell (2003) both state that the building was probably a place that Orwell referred to as ‘Lew Levy’s Kip’ which was in Westminster Bridge Road. This checks-out correctly in the geographical sense as being across the road from Waterloo Road as Orwell described. The only problem here is that when Orwell refers to another ‘Kip’ owned by Lew Levy’s in Tooley Street in his Hop-picking Diary (25-08-31), he complains that “nearly all the beds are now a shilling” – indicating that they used to be ninepence. In Down and Out he clearly states that he paid an ‘og (a shilling) for the bed. D J Taylor in Orwell the Life (2003), who I suspect did considerable research, places Orwell’s ‘Good Beds for Single Men’ doss-house rather surprisingly in Limehouse Causeway which is on the other side of the river, and a considerable distance from Waterloo Road, and he also states that the charge was indeed nine-pence. The beds are advertised at 4d a night in London’s day, but by the time Orwell arrived, the price had risen to either nine-pence or a shilling – depending on which account one believes.
Both of the above images above date from around 1900, which begs the question – Was ‘Good Beds for Single Men’ exclusive to the said ‘Lew Levy’s Kips’ – or was it a standard advertisement above many common lodging houses at that time. If so, would that still have been the case when Orwell entered the building in the late nineteen-twenties or early 1930s? If this seems unlikely, could it be that Orwell simply used the same advertisement for his own account of entering his first common lodging house ‘across the street from Waterloo Road’, as described In Down and Out in Paris and London? I was at first tempted to think that, because both writers had declared their familiarity with Waterloo Road and the surrounding area; that maybe one of these buildings could be the exact same lodging house that Orwell had in mind when he compiled his account, following his return from Paris. On the other hand, one can also suspect that, because Orwell was so familiar with Jack London’s book and the images that were included, he simply decided that ‘Good Beds for Single Men’ sounded like a good place to start.
The thing that many readers would find most amusing here is the word ‘Good’, for, if anything, these beds were a long way from being ‘Good’. Orwell describes the bed he slept upon as being
“As hard as a board, and as for the pillow, it was a mere hard cylinder like a block of wood. It was rather worse than sleeping on a table, because the bed was not six feet long, was very narrow, and the mattress was convex – so that one had to hold-on to avoid falling out”.
He also asserts that the bed-sheets stank so horribly of sweat he couldn’t stand them near his nose, and were so thin as to not provide even the slightest warmth… and this is a ’Good bed for a single man’?
Jack London is even more scathing of the average, privately-run doss-house, especially the “Filthy little ones” describing them as “Unmitigated horrors”. He railed against the total lack of privacy and the degrading notices on the walls. London spared his hottest coals for the monster doss-houses that were particularly awful, and were run “With prison regulations that impress upon you constantly that you are nobody, with little soul of your own and less to say about it”.
I would be very interested to know if any other research has been done to identify the Waterloo Road/ Westminster Bridge Road, or possibly Limehouse Causeway ‘doss house’, particularly among those members who partake in the Orwell Society’s very well-received London Walks that cover areas of historical interest in relation to George Orwell. Following multiple slum clearance programs and significant bombing damage in these areas, it is almost certain that the building is no longer in existence.
By 1909 the phrase “good beds for single men” had spread throughout the Anglo-sphere. An advertiser in Perth, Australia, used it when offering a room to let (far right column, “Rooms to let and wanted”). It’s almost as though the phrase was being widely used for the purpose of endowing ‘doss-houses’ with a hint of respectability!
Uploaded November 24 2018