Down and Out



I read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London in 2001, when I was 17. There were two things in the book that really struck me and have stayed with me to this day.

The first was the part about Tower House, the doss house on Fieldgate Street in Whitechapel, East London, where Orwell stayed. I was transfixed by the idea of this ‘Monster Doss House’ (although I think it was Jack London in fact who awarded it that title), and when I found out that it was still standing, abandoned and derelict, I went on a visit. This was around 2002 or 2003 (I in fact visited twice, so perhaps both), and Tower House looked like this. I have some of my own photos somewhere but this was the pre-digital world and they will be hardcopies. At that time, Whitechapel was pre-gentrification, Fieldgate Street was a grimy, unkempt little passage and the building itself was being squatted by homeless people. It was truly a dismal scene.

In around 2005, the building got converted into luxury flats. It is a ‘modern portered development’ of ‘contemporary apartments’. Fieldgate Street is ‘conveniently located in the heart of Whitechapel with pavement cafes, boutique shops and galleries’ nearby. And whilst I am generally in favour of progress, a small part of me felt an enormous loss.

The second thing that stayed with me was the Twopenny Hangover. So fascinated was I by the idea that for two pence you could spend a night on a bench with a rope to lean on, that I spent years seeking more information and in particular pictures of this doss house set-up. Unfortunately very little information exists, and even fewer pictures, but the one above has lately appeared online. It apparently shows a doss house in Hamburg, where they probably didn’t call it a Twopenny Hangover, but it is most certainly the same thing.

Watching the BBC TV series ‘Victorian Slum’, I was far more joyful than was probably appropriate to see that the recreated doss house featured its very own Twopenny Hangover. The participants in the series, in which modern families are ‘sent back in time’ to experience the hardships of life at the bottom end of Victorian society, understandably greeted the Hangover with baffled amusement. They were a nice bunch and it was a well-made and interesting series, so I mean no criticism here, but the format naturally encouraged frequent comments on the difficulties of Victorian life, and how lucky we are now, in the modern world, with all our creature comforts and safety nets in place. One of the participants, overwhelmed by the daily struggle to feed and house his family, commented on how nowadays, this wouldn’t happen, how we have housing associations and council services to help us.

I very strongly wanted to direct him and all those who may be nodding along at home to another BBC programme, the documentary filmed in the housing offices of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, where all but the most vulnerable (and ‘vulnerable’ is a very high bar) were turned away to fend for themselves on the streets, as there simply was no accommodation available. We may have one less derelict building and many more luxury flats, but how much use are they really at £1500+ per month rent? Watching the documentary, I wondered how far away we really are from the world of the doss house and the Twopenny Hangover.