Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
‘What would you do if you were hungry and homeless on a cold wintry night in February?’ asks a fundraising leaflet from the Women’s Social Work branch of the Salvation Army in 1890.
The leaflet is part of a well-researched exhibition, Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London, at London’s Geffrye Museum, that goes beyond the narratives of the likes of Dr Thomas Barnardo, important as these were. It documents the predicament of those tens of thousands of people, with emphasis on the large numbers of women and their children, who made up ‘the houseless poor’ of 19th-century London – from those who slept rough to those who frequented the cheap lodging houses, the institutions that provided temporary shelter, and, at the bitter end, the workhouse.
The exhibition uses displays of large photographs, often covering a wall. It shows artefacts such as oakum from the workhouse (tarred fibre used in shipbuilding that inmates were required to prepare by unpicking strands of old rope) and a reconstruction of a ‘penny sit-up’, in which children and adults can try out the coffin-like beds provided by a Salvation Army hostel. Recorded reconstructions of oral testimonies provide new voice to the now-deceased destitute. These add to powerful accounts by contemporary observers.
This mass destitution – which William Booth thought to be twice as prevalent in London’s East End as anywhere else in the country – is described as structurally rooted: ‘The casual labour system, illness and old age left people vulnerable to unemployment and low wages, while slum clearances and demolitions for the railways pushed the poor into ever‑decreasing areas.’
Sleeping rough was often the only option for many. Photographs show women asleep in the daytime, hats covering their faces, often in churchyards, such as Christchurch, Spitalfields, where the homeless today still sleep. Sleeping upright was common: women, children and men are shown doing so in the recesses along London Bridge in an engraving by Gustave Doré.
People slept during the day and ‘tramped’ at night to avoid being moved on after the anti-vagrancy laws passed in the mid 1850s. Many walked all night to avoid the law, exhausting in itself. One man describes his descent from penny lodgings, with money clubbed together from friends, to the constant night-time tramping, hungry and unable to sit for more than a few minutes at a time. In cold weather, wrote the Ragged School Union magazine in 1864, people would congregate on the flags by bakery ovens, or near warm air vents, in doorways, or outside the workhouse when refused entry inside it.
Fear of the workhouse, for many a last resort, lingered long after it disappeared. Conditions seem to have varied. At one extreme, large numbers of men are portrayed eating in silent rows in the Marylebone workhouse. And conditions in the Casual Ward, or ‘the Spike’, as described by a user, George Meek, were ‘cruel and inhuman’: men were required to break stones in cells open to the weather; women were required to pick oakum. The verminous condition of the Whitechapel workhouse, meanwhile, was ‘the worst in London’.
In contrast, a growing awareness of the need to provide for comfort and sociability is shown in a painting of the Chelsea workhouse, where a smaller and cosier room suggests a different ethos. Similarly, a large photograph of a Salvation Army shelter shows women making their own tea in a more informal way. Both images suggest the growth of more humane thinking over the course of the 19th century by some providers for homeless people.
Homes of the Homeless draws carefully on a great mass of material. It avoids simple statistics and familiar photographs of the East End poor, instead presenting a vivid account through visually engaging displays and the words of some of the many thousands whose poverty made life unremittingly hard. The obvious parallels with homeless people today are left unstated, but the story is sorely familiar.
The Homes of the Homeless exhibition is open until 12 July, admission £5/£3, at the Geffrye Museum.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control.
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going