Press release: Homes of the Homeless

Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London

Special exhibition at the Geffrye Museum of the Home
Tuesday 24 March – Sunday 12 July 2015 (5/£3 concs)

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A Recess on a London Bridge (detail) by Augustus Edwin Mulready, oil on canvas, 1879
Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK/© Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums/Bridgeman Images

We tend to imagine the Victorian home as a family affair, a place of stability and a retreat from the outside world. And that was the ideal for the Victorians themselves. But for huge numbers of Londoners the reality was very different. Tens of thousands made their homes in lodgings and lodging houses, renting a room – or often just a bed – by the week or the night in a building shared with strangers. And there were countless others who could not even scrape together the few pennies for this and who turned to the workhouse or refuges or who slept rough in whatever shelter they could find.

This special exhibition tells the story of these ‘other’ London homes in the 19th and 20th
centuries, exploring the places and spaces the poor inhabited, bringing them to life through
paintings, photographs and objects, and, importantly, through the diaries and oral histories of the men, women and children who sought shelter in the capital.

While the poor undoubtedly struggled, Homes of the Homeless will draw on recent research to show that they also exercised choice and agency. The exhibition considers how people fought against the notorious workhouse system or used it to their own ends. It reveals the excitements and camaraderie as well as the privations of living in a common lodging house.

And it looks at how the inhabitants of London’s new philanthropic and municipal ‘model’
lodging houses managed to make themselves ‘at home.’

Beginning in the 1840s, the exhibition charts how, as the century wore on, the problems of
accommodating London’s poor became more acute. Slum clearance and the demolition of
housing to make way for the railways pushed the poor into ever decreasing areas. Rents
soared and living conditions plummeted.

The journey starts on the street, looking at where the homeless slept rough in the
metropolis. Moving on, we consider where the destitute or those who were able to eke out
only a precarious and intermittent living might turn – places like homeless shelters, ‘casual
wards’ for those on the tramp, and the workhouses for longer stays. Men and women who
could scrape a few pence together might just about be able to afford a night in a common
lodging house (state registered houses with multi-occupancy rooms) or furnished rooms. The
dirty and cramped conditions in these lodging houses excited both sympathy and disapproval from contemporary observers. Later in the century more efforts were made to provide housing for the poor, for families and for single men living by themselves, as well as specialist accommodation for children.

Homes of the Homeless will represent these endeavours and deal with the changing homeless problem in Victorian London. However, above all, it will give a voice to the people who lived on London’s streets, and recreate their visual and material world.
A smaller display in the adjacent lower concourse area will engage with contemporary
homelessness in London via a collaborative youth project with New Horizon Youth Centre,
Kings Cross. New Horizon is a day centre working with young people who are vulnerable,
homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

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