London’s Homelessness: Interview with Hannah Fleming

We have an interview with Hannah Fleming, the curator of the Homelessness in Victorian London Exhibition which will be on at Geffrye Museum soon.

You have an MSC in Social Anthropology and also the curator of the Homelessness in Victorian London which runs from Tuesday 24 March – Sunday 12 July 2015. This exhibition looks fascinating. Can you tell us how this came about?

The museum’s main galleries of period room displays represent the living rooms of middling or middle class Londoners over the last 400 years, but our exhibition programme expands beyond the focus of the period rooms to engage with the theme of home much more broadly – so Homes of the Homeless is the perfect exhibition for the Geffrye. It considers Victorian ideas of what home should be – a place of sanctuary and safety – against the lodging houses, often characterised as filthy, desperate places – where tens of thousands of Londoners rented a bed, as well as looking at the living conditions of those in workhouses, shelters or sleeping rough on the streets.

Homes of the Homeless is guest-curated by three historians; Jane Hamlett, Lesley Hoskins and Rebecca Preston, and the exhibition is born out of their research. Jane, Lesley and Rebecca – who have all worked with the Geffrye on other research and display projects – proposed the exhibition, and worked with the museum’s curatorial team and our exhibition and graphic designers to source objects and paintings and create ways of displaying and interpreting the archival material and the very few physical objects that survive.

Which artists are featured in the exhibition and how were they chosen?

There will be paintings by Thomas Benjamin Kennington, Augustus Edwin Mulready, James Charles and Gustave Doré in the exhibition. All were chosen because they illustrate a certain story. In the Mulready, ‘A Recess on a London Bridge’, this is the growing sympathy by the end of the century for ragged little children on the streets who, unlike adults, weren’t considered responsible for their own poverty.

Which works would you consider to be the most important from the view of a social comment of poverty in London during the Victorian Era?

jerrold william blanchard london c13856 07Gustave Doré is well known for his engravings that illustrate London: A Pilgrimage, many of which charted the workhouses, lodging houses and streets where London’s houseless poor were forced to live. The exhibition will reproduce several of these engravings, and we will also be borrowing his painting ‘A Poor-House’ from the Museum of London. This is a powerful painting and one which shows both the unease and suspicion with which middle class outsiders viewed these spaces, and the warmth and camaraderie they could offer to their inhabitants – seen gathered together, some smoking and playing cards.

Do you have any favourites among the collection that we should look out for when coming?

We’ll be borrowing from Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse a wooden doll dressed as an elderly female inmate from Thursford Workhouse in Norfolk.  The doll is a very pleasing thing in itself, and its coarse brown dress and white apron and bonnet are a very rare survival of the type of uniform that women entering the workhouse would have been obliged to wear.

With Homelessness on the rise in London again last year (with 112,070 people declaring themselves homeless and 6, 437 sleeping rough, growth of 75%) how relevant do you think the exhibition is to today’s London?

Horribly relevant. Victorian London was a city with a huge divide between rich and poor, in the midst of a population explosion with rocketing rents and living costs and falling wages. There was too little housing and the shortage was exacerbated by slum clearances and properties being demolished for the development of the railways. The similarities between the London explored in the exhibition and today’s London are there to be seen.

Do you think we should pause for reflection when we are so many years on from when these works of art were created and yet society is still facing homelessness on an alarming rate?

Certainly. There will be a small parallel display to the exhibition, Home & Hope, created as part of a collaboration with New Horizon, a day centre working with young people who are vulnerable, homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. This display will investigate young people’s experiences of homelessness in London today, exploring what has and hasn’t changed. This is what one of the participants, Sarah, said:

“It seems to be going back to the way this was, like in the last couple of years, particularly with the most recent government… 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, and it’s not just with the accommodation that we can sleep in, or rough sleeping, even things like the NHS and all of the public services that were once done by charities, were then made part of the state, are now things are going back to charities and philanthropy and today as the only way today that things happen.”

Thank you Hannah for your time.