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Seeking shelter: the ‘houseless poor’ of 19th century London

Victorian Britain’s ‘houseless poor’ are given voice in a new exhibition, Lisa Vine writes

June 8, 2015
4 min read

homeless-london

‘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.

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