A PAIR OF BROWN BOOTS

By Len A.Hynds

One night in December1953, as a 23year old policeman, in Camberwell London, I was sent by my sergeant to a Common Lodging House where an inmate had died suddenly. A doctor had been called by the warden, but was unable to issue a death certificate, as he had never seen the man before, whose name was not known. It was a case for the coronerís officer and a subsequent post mortem.

I drove the car to Camberwell Road, where the entrance to this particular Common Lodging House was along a poorly lit alleyway, at the front of which was an old clothes and junk shop. These lodgings were licensed by the local council for the overnight accommodation of tramps and penniless young men. They were all dreadful places, and this one was no exception. I am sure that officers of the council never visited such places.

This one consisted of two floors, a fairly tall building, sandwiched between warehouses, and on the upper floor was a room of toilets and wash basins, and the only other room was like a small hall, that contained thirty low iron single beds, placed so close together, that there was barely room to walk between them.

The lower floor consisted of a grubby entrance hall, a kitchen, and a small dining room, where the tables and benches were bolted down. The room behind the kitchen was where the warden of the establishment had his private room. The whole place was dirty, gas-lit and Dickensian.

Upon my arrival the warden appeared from the kitchen, saying, "How soon can you move the body. I'm full up, and I've got people waiting for beds, "indicating with his drooping cigarette the adjacent dining room, where three tramps were fast asleep, with their heads in their arms, sprawled across the table. Above them, on a card on the wall, I read, "MUG OF TEA - SLICE OF BREAD AND DRIPPING - BED - Sixpence"

I followed the swarthy, unkempt Warden, who wore a filthy apron and a string vest, up the stairs to the upper floor, the bare wooden treads thick with dust and grime. There were two gas mantles on the walls, both being broken, with a blue flame shooting out of the side of them.

We went into the sleeping room which was similarly lit, and I could see that every bed was occupied. Everybody slept fully dressed, with just one threadbare blanket covering them. There were no sheets or pillowcases. The smell in the room was awful, for a variety of reasons. The warden showed me where the body lay, and returned downstairs.

I removed the blanket covering the body, and shone my torch upon it. It was of an old tramp, a man probably in his seventies. He looked almost noble in death, and it was certainly a face of character. I thought to myself, "What an awful place to die in. You were somebodyís son once. Maybe you are a father or even a grandfather. What dreadful things have happened in your life, for you to finish up in a place like this?"

Everybody there was pretending to be asleep, with me in their midst, and I spoke to the room generally, saying, "Does anybody know his name, or if he has any family that I can contact? There was no reply, so I started writing down his description, and then to list his pitiful belongings, when I suddenly realised that his boots were missing. I thought in disgust that they could only have been taken from his feet after he had died. I said loudly to the whole room, "His boots have been stolen, I am disgusted. You know what happens to people who steal from the dead. A curse is put upon them!"

A blanket moved exposing the face of another old tramp, who said, "He thought the world of those boots guv'ner, we both got the same sort from the Salvation Army last week." I asked him what they were like, and he stuck a foot out from under his blanket, and on it was an almost new, light brown boot.

I went downstairs and into the street to the nearest telephone where I contacted Mr Simpson the undertaker, and waited outside for about ten minutes for him to arrive. Together we carried the plain wooden coffin up those awful stairs and into that dormitory. I had to get the chap out of the adjacent bed so that we could rest it on it, in order to load the corpse into it.

As we carried it out of that room with difficulty, passing it over many pretending to be asleep, I said to the room in general, "I am coming back with other officers to search this place. Of course that was not remotely possible, just wanting the thief to worry that I might. As we slid the coffin down those stairs, the warden passed us with the next sixpenny customer for the bed.

I told Mr Simpson that I would have to take fingerprints sometime during the night, and he promised to leave the key to his mortuary under a stone. I telephoned the station stating that I was returning to get the fingerprint box, but got sent on to another assignment and it was two hours before I had a chance to get back to the station for the box.

I saw a young man standing on the front steps, facing the black curved iron railings, and holding on to them with both hands. His heads was bowed and he appeared to be sobbing. I went to him, asking if he was alright, and had he been crying. He told me that he was lost. He had a look of fear on his face, but relief at seeing me. He told me that he was trying to get to a Common Lodging House called the Spike, at Peckham. When I told him there was one much nearer, he literally shuddered, and started crying again. Wondering what to do with this young man, who was acting so strangely I glanced down, and saw that he had on a pair of almost new light brown boots! I asked him if he already been at the Camberwell Lodging House that night and he nodded, clutching hold of me in fear, with his eyes wild and staring. I asked him if he had stolen those boots and crying he agreed that he had.

I asked why he was so upset, and he said, "I got out of there as soon as you left and for two hours I've been asking people how to get to Peckham, but it doesnít matter which way I go, I always finish up on these steps, the boots are haunted." I frankly couldnít charge him with theft, as we had no loser, and he had been punished in a strange sort of way. I drove him all the way to Peckham, and let him keep the boots as he had no others.

When I later took the fingerprints of the old gent, it may have been a trick of the light, but I could swear that he was smiling.

Brown Boots