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)


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.


Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London, the Geffrye, London, 24 March-12 Jul

Mealtime-at-the-in-St-Mar-010Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London, the Geffrye, London is an exhibition running from 24 March-12 July.

People are still sleeping rough in London tonight, sadly thanks to government policies 6,437 people were seen rough sleeping in 2012-13, compared with 5,768 the previous year, a 13% rise year on year and an increase of 62% since 2010-11, an alarmingly sad statistic for such a wealthy country.

William Booth interviewed many homeless men in the capital in 1890. The story of Booth’s Salvation Army hostels will form part of a major exhibition this spring.

319eaa7c-035b-4889-9abf-a19e3bc75913-1020x612The men of 1890 didn’t seem think they had found too bad a bed. “It’s very fair out here of nights, seat’s rather hard, but a bit of waste paper makes it a lot softer. We have women sleep here often, and children too,” one told him. There was rarely any trouble: “We’re too sleepy to make a row” and yet it must have been a hard life.

This exhibition will include photographs and paintings, but the poorest who went through the hostels owned almost nothing. Treasures in the exhibition include a few colourful bits of broken pottery excavated from a pit at Gun Street in Spitalfields, once the outdoor privy for a common lodging house. These institutions were mainly regarded with horror – one report called them “extremely filthy and disgusting”. The crockery, however, is a different story: the pink roses and willow pattern fragments could have come from any middle-class house.

“If you were elderly, or ill, or a child, then often there was no alternative to going into an institution. You were stuck, and it could be very grim. But some of the able-bodied learned to play the system very well, went into and came out of shelters repeatedly, and some learned a trade and managed to get themselves out of poverty. The experience of the Victorian homeless was far from uniform” says Hannah Fleming, a curator at the Geffrye in east London.

With a choice between a coffin bed (wooden boxes barely big enough for a body) or a wet cold doorway, many thought a hard but dry, clean bed was a fine thing. Hannah went on to say that “The Salvation Army in particular was very keen on carbolic, and put a very high store on keeping everything clean” A woman in Hanbury Street shelter, Whitechapel, in 1894 told a visitor: “I did used to think myself lucky if I’d the chance of a fourpenny lodging, but now I’d a deal sooner sleep in a bunk and have the feelin’ of safety there is about this place.”

Middle-class Victorians expected the poor to be meek and grateful for their charity, but many were not, undertandably like today there is a resentment building up at the disgust of the wealthy 1% having a say how the rest of us live and it was no different then.

Homeless man in LondonSimilarities to the growing problem of homelessness in 21st-century British cities are brutally obvious, and deliberate. The Geffrye a museum devoted to the home in a charming square of 17th-century almshouses will have a parallel exhibition created by the New Horizon Youth Centre, whose members are themselves homeless or vulnerable.

One told a Geffrye researcher: “It seems to be going back to the way this was … it seems that all the changes that were being made in a positive way … to try and make things better for homeless people… you know, it’s just going backwards.”

Victorian values play a part for many in today’s Britain but they are not the value of leaving the poor to fend for themselves and leaving the homeless to die on the streets…

If anyone is going to this a review would be great.