VT Coughtrey

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Chapter 27: Gordon Road
Chapter written 2001 & last revised 2013

I've since discovered from this excellent website that Headquarters had indeed evolved from a workhouse. The website owner is Peter Higginbotham, who has written extensively on the workhouse system and he tells me that the Gordon Road buildings have been converted to flats.
'Headquarters' was also known universally among the dossing fraternity as 'Gordon Road', without there ever being the need to add 'Camberwell'.  (After a while, the name 'Gordon Road' became so much identified with Skid Row, that the address was changed to 'Consort Road').  Most of the 17 or so remaining spikes (Reception Centres) in Britain had been taken over by the National Assistance Board and with the probable exception of Gordon Road, were not in the original workhouse buildings. These NAB ones were also sometimes called Rehabilitation Centres. Gordon Road apart, they were housed in former military camps, or were purpose-built and usually in very remote areas. Reception Centres not controlled by the NAB were run by local authorities and were inside hospitals in urban areas. They were usually called 'casual wards' rather than 'reception centres'. The few hospitals still containing casual wards by the 1960s were always in former workhouse buildings, which had thus retained a vestige of their former use.
The managers ('spikemasters') of these establishments, especially the NAB ones, were given or assumed great freedom to run the places as they saw fit and to make up the rules themselves.  There were certainly no other spikes run along quite the same lines as Gordon Road.  For example, it was unique in the fact that every day you had to go through the whole procedure for applying for admission all over again.  Furthermore, there was no fixed maximum for the number of times in a week or a year that you could apply, but the police occasionally took away half a dozen 'guests' whose names appeared too often in the book, and charged them with failing to maintain themselves.  The irony of this was that, with the help of the police, the NAB cruised the streets of central London in their infamous Green Vans every night, rounding up rough sleepers and taking them, often against their will, to Gordon Road.  This was probably illegal, but it went on.  The London cardboard box dwellers of today don't know how lucky they are !
Upon arrival at Gordon Road, you had to wait with dozens of other dossers in a dingy, unheated outhouse containing nothing but a few benches and reeking of disinfectant (which was just as well). You might have to wait here for several hours, even all night.  Four or five men at a time were called into the main building.  The first step was to be interviewed to make sure you really were homeless and destitute.   On my first visit, the NAB officer interviewing me noticed that I was clutching a carrier bag.  He asked me what was in it.  That same morning, at a convent, I had been given a stock of food to take away and, oddly, a very nice dinner plate, a mug and a knife and fork.  The officer said that this meant I wasn't destitute and couldn't be admitted.  As I had already waited for several hours on a hard bench in the outhouse and it was now late at night, I wasn't inclined to go away again, so I dumped the whole lot in the nearby litter bin.  He agreed that I was now destitute and could proceed to the next part of the rituals, but warned me that as I had deliberately made myself destitute by means of the litter bin, I could well find the police waiting for me the next morning.  They weren't.
The next stage was the bath-house.  Here, you had to remove your filthy clothes one by one (I hadn't changed any clothes since disappearing from home several weeks before) and hand them to an attendant who inspected each item carefully under a bright lamp for body lice and crab lice. You then had to get into a communal disinfectant bath with several other men.  When you got out of the bath you were either given your clothes back or, if lice had been found in them, you were given an absurd bright blue garment to wear until the morning, while your clothes were fumigated.  Strangely, no livestock were found in my clothes on this occasion.
Armed with a certificate to prove you had bathed and had your clothes inspected, you proceeded to the third step.  This was another interview, in which you discussed with the interviewer the whole history of your life (fictitious, of course) and did your best to persuade him of your absolute and unbending determination to get a job the minute you were released from that place in the morning.  He would then give you a meal ticket and a dormitory ticket.
The food was fairly substantial, partly because some of the dossers were too ill to eat theirs and passed it on to those, like me, with better appetites.  Some dossers had been offered permanent residence in exchange for working as cooks or 'waiters'.  These waiters grabbed sausages, fried eggs and boiled potatoes with their bare hands and dumped them on tin plates, which they then skated along the rows of trestle tables.  In the mornings, the 'full English breakfast' was the same as the evening meal plus porridge, which was ladled out of metal buckets, as in prison.  You were not given a ticket for breakfast unless you appeared for inspection smoothly shaven.  Very few of the inmates had razors, but those who had were very willing to share them, thus spreading facial herpes.
The dormitories were vast and the beds were packed tightly together.  There were said to be a thousand beds in all.  Not much sleep was to be had, due to the snoring, the fights and the various activities of the lunatic element.
After breakfast, you had a choice.  One option was to work (cleaning, shovelling coke into the huge boilers, polishing floors etc) until 1 p.m, then go for interview at the internal labour exchange.  Here, you would usually be given a green card for a job, with 'Camberwell Reception Centre' stamped across it, thus ensuring that you would not get the job.  If you were given a green card, you had to present a note from the employer on your return, explaining why he had rejected you, or you wouldn't be readmitted that night.  The employers always wrote something like "Reception Centre men not acceptable".
The alternative to this farcical job search was to volunteer for a chest x-ray at nearby St Mary's Hospital, under guard.  Having chosen this alternative, it was an offence to slip the guard and abscond before being x-rayed. There was no limit to the frequency at which you could volunteer for x-ray.  I went over there three mornings running.  The attraction of this for some was simply the avoidance of enforced work at the spike but for others it lay in the possibility of being seen early.  As soon as you had been zapped you could go, without having to return to the spike, so this seemed a much better bet if you were thinking of getting away from the place.  If you chose to work until one o'clock instead of going to the hospital you had to visit the spike's labour exchange afterwards, even if you said you were not returning that night.  After that it would be too late to get going on the road.  All you could do by that time was go through the charade with the green card in order to be allowed back in that night.
On the third x-ray morning, I was done early.  Two weeks at the spike, with the same admission rituals every day, had been just about enough for the time being, although I had enjoyed aspects of it, such as the company (except for the lunatics) and even the food, especially the quantities of it.  Besides, I thought I was probably about due to be arrested any morning now for using the place too many nights in a row.  Then there was the question of drink.  On the two week journey down from Leicester there had been plenty of opportunity to slake my English thirst, courtesy of a couple of NAB offices I had been able to tap, following the procedures outlined in the previous chapter.  But now I had been dry as a bone for two weeks, and I didn't much like it.  In The Book of Taps, I had recorded much information from fellow dossers about illegal daily-paid cash-in-hand work of all kinds, although by far the main kind was kitchen portering in hotels and restaurants.  Not fancying that, I decided to try a couple of much talked-about places in the Hammersmith and Fulham areas, and set out to walk the 6 or 7 miles, which by this time I regarded as a very short step.
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