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.

Flushed with Success!

Thomas Crapper was born sometime in 1836, not too sure when as the records are apparently not too clear.

He was plumber and founded the now world renowned Thomas Crapper & Co in London but despite tradition did not actually invent the flushing toilet. In fact the flushing toilet we all know and love was invented by John Harrington many years before in 1596, jump forward  to 1778 and Joseph Bramah of Yorkshire patented the first practical water closet but it took anopther 100 years for George Jennings to take a patent for the flush-out toilet.

But because Crapper’s products were up to such a high standard to the point where they received royal warrants. Infact it was in the 1880s when Prince Edward soon to be King Edward VII snapped up Sandringham House in Norfolk and Thomas Crapper & Co. were summoned to supply to thirty lavatories with cedarwood seats and enclosures. He also recieved  from King George V and his name has been forever associated (bit like the Hoover I guess!with the equipment to allow to ‘do our business’ in comfort.

An aside:

The word crap is actually much older than Crapper, middle english apparently! but it first appeared with its first application to bodily waste, appeared in 1846 under a reference to a ‘crapping ken’, Ken is a house!

Poverty and Greed

The Victorians poor really were poor, not like the poor today.who are fortunate to have the benefits for housing and the such not that unemployment and benefits is an easy way to live by any means. But the Victorian poor were very poor, starving. During the 1830s and 1840s, there was an enormous shortage of food, driving the prices much higher than many could afford. Many found themselves scrounging for food or simply not eating at all.

The English philanthropist and social researcher Charles Booth took a keen interest in the poor and created a map surveying London life and labour.

His most famed work on documented working class life in London at the end of the 19th century, he created his famous poverty maps of the early 1880s as an early form of ‘social cartography’ where different colours on the streets indicated the income and class of its inhabitants.

He worked alongside Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree and with a team investigated poverty in London. This research which looked at incidences of pauperism in the East End of London, and showed that 35% were living in abject poverty even higher than the original figure and it was this that finally led to the government and started the fight back against poverty in the early 20th century and actually led to the founding of pensions.

The map on the left shows the poverty and ill health hotspots but worryingly a modern-day look at Charles Booth’s influential health map has painted a similar picture of ill-health, but with very different 21st Century causes.

Diabetes, of which I suffer, if not controlled can be a fatal disease and the map on the right shows not the London of 100 years ago, not the starvation by certainly the ill-health.but the same areas in London today are rife with deadly Type 2 diabetes.

This is caused by junk food that is cheap and readily available.

Public health expert Dr Noble said:

‘It was no surprise to see that diabetes risk is high in areas where poverty was high.’What was surprising was that some of these pockets of deprivation and ill-health have persisted for more than 100 years. ‘But unlike in Booth’s time, we now know how diseases like diabetes can be prevented. Using electronic records to create maps like these throughout the country could improve health and save money for the NHS.’

It is well known that diabetes is linked to poor diet and poor health but I do find it astounding that this has continually for over a century in these places. The communities in the areas have changed as well, the majority of people who dwell in these areas nowadays are immigrants, maybe it is time for the government to fight back against ill heath yet again.

Pipes, puffing and concerts!

King James the first back in the 17th century declared that smoking was ‘hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, and dangerous to the lungs.’ and how right he was.

“Cigarettes also came home to England from the Crimea[with soldiers who served in the Crimean War. Early in the nineteenth century, gentlemen used tobacco only in the form of snuff. Working men smoked pipes. After the Napoleonic wars, cigars come into common use; intellectuals and artists took up pipes. Since the smell of cigars and pipes was very unpleasant when it got into heavy curtains or women’s long hair, men at home smoked in their private study or went outside to the garden. Working men smoked in pubs or in the street, not generally at home. Even at the end of the period only 17% of tobacco was sold in the form of cigarettes. Elderly countrywomen sometimes enjoyed a pipe, but women who smoked cigarettes usually did it in secret with a woman friend – cigarette smoking by women was definitely ‘fast’ behavior.” Daily Life in Victorian England by Sally Mitchell

I smoked for about 20 years more or less and now as a former smoker cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would want to undertake smoking, your breath has a certain bitter stench, your hairs smell, your clothes are ruined by the hideous redolence of tobacco and that is not mention the disservice you do to your body…

Anyway this was not always the case, smoking was generally accepted in the our era. The  upper and middle class houses had a smoking room where the man of the house could go and smoke a good pipe or cigar. Women just didn’t smoke, as per the quote above, fast women smoked.

Smoking concerts were something that proved very popular at the time for several reasons. Firstly they were for men only, secondly it was a chance for men to talk politics whilst being entertained by music and thirdly it was chance for the concert halls to introduce new music an audience. In fact they continued until about 1980 when the Annual Smoking Concerts were held at Imperial College London.

However not all were impressed, The Duke of Wellington absolutely
hated smoking and was annoyed and disgusted by the increase of cigar-smoking
among officers of the army.

In the early 1840’s General Order (No. 577) which contained a paragraph which goes

The Commander-in-Chief has been informed, that the practice of smoking, by the use of pipes, cigars, or cheroots, has become prevalent among the Officers of the Army, which is not only in itself a species of intoxication occasioned by the fumes of tobacco, but, undoubtedly, occasions drinking and tippling by those who acquire the habit; and he entreats the Officers commanding Regiments to prevent smoking in the Mess Rooms of their several Regiments, and in the adjoining apartments, and to discourage the practice among the Officers of Junior Rank in their Regiments. 

Medical opinions differed greatly: A certain Dr Hodgkin wrote in a letter approving of the objects of the Anti Tobacco League, he states ‘

‘Tobacco, in all its forms, is a poison. In the end, tobacco impairs the mind for the use of its faculties. In various ways it becomes the provocative and servant of sin, and is largely contributing to the vice of the age. The use of tobacco is a violation of the courtesy of a Christian, and the good manners of a gentleman’ Dr Hodgkin

and then from an named medical paper of the time (although I find it somewhat suspension that the there is no reference!)

“The first of these statements is calculated to mislead, for the ordinary use of tobacco is not poisonous in any of its forms. That the smoking of tobacco does not produce poisonous results, an inquiry amongst the pensioners of Chelsea or Greenwich will satisfy the most sceptical. There is no sufficient scientific evidence to warrant the conclusion that its moderate use at all impairs the mind. As to the last assertion, we should be veryloath, without better evidence, to denounce in such discourteous terms two millions of Englishmen, or to stigmatize, with such uncalled for bitterness, all who indulge in a habit that was loved by Raleigh, Milton, Newton, Parr, Johnson, and a host of great and good and learned men.” Unknown Source

or the romantic view

‘Sublime tobacco! that from east to west Cheers the tar’s labours or Turkman’s rest!’ Byron

back to the medical evidence. The British Medical Journal was fairly clear on the effect of smoking in 1860:

‘In smoking a hundred grains of tobacco, therefore, say a quarter of an ounce, there may be drawn into the mouth one of the most subtle poisons. The empyreutamatic oil is acrid and disagreeable to the taste, narcotic and poisonous. One drop applied to the tongue of a cat brought on convulsions, and in two minutes occasioned death.’ BMJ 1860

and goes onto say:

For amongst the patients who consult us for various nervous and stomach complaints, it will be found that tobacco form a large proportion. Indeed, we find, unexpectedly sometimes on inquiry, that the habit of smoking is the very source of the distressing ailments, which immediately or gradually subside on omitting the use of the drug. BMJ 1860

and to finish with the great Lord Byron again.:

I had a dream—it was not all a dream:
Methought 1 sat beneath the silver beam
Of the sweet moon, and you were with me there,
And every thing around was free and fair;
And from our mouths upcurl’d the fragrant smoke,
Whose light blue wreaths can all our pleasures yoke,
In sweetest union, to young Fancy’s car,
And waft the soul out thro’ a good cigar.
There as we sat and puff’d the hours away,
And talked and laugh’d about life’s little day,
And built our golden castles in the air,
And sigh’d to think what transient things they were,
As the light smoke around our heads was thrown,
Amidst its folds a little figure shone,
An elfin sprite, who held within her hand
A small cigar, her sceptre of command.
Her hair above her brow was twisted tight off,
Like a cigar’s end, which you must bite off;
Her eyes were red and twinkling, like the light
Of eastern Hookah, or Meerschaum, by night;
A green tobacco-leaf her shoulders graced,
And dried tobacco hung about her waist;
Her voice breathed softly, like the easy puffing
Of an old smoker after he’s been stuffing.
Thus, as she roll’d aside the wanton smoke,
To us, her awe-struck votaries she spoke: —
“Hail, faithful slaves! my choicest joys descend
On him who joins the smoker to the friend,
Your’s is a pleasure that shall never vanish,
Provided that you smoke the best of Spanish;
Puff forth your clouds”—(with that we puff’d again)—
“Sweet is their fragrance”—(then we puff’d again)—
How have I hung, with most intense delight,
Over your heads when you have smoked at night,
And gratefully imparted all my powers
To bless and consecrate those happy hours;
Live on,” she said—I started and awoke,
And, with my dream, she vanished into smoke.
(unpublished works) Lord Byron 1828

London’s Underworld Part 1

There are quite a few films and Novels that show the seedy side of Victorian London.

Dickens recognised it with characters like Fagin, The Artful Dodger and Bill Sykes.

Back 1912 by Thomas Holmes called London’s Underworld and he writes about the 25 years since 1887, late Victorian, that he has known the people and describes them thus:

The odds and ends of humanity, so plentiful in London’s great city, have for many years largely constituted my circle of friends and acquaintances.

They are strange people, for each of them is, or was, possessed of some dominating vice, passion, whim or weakness which made him incapable of fulfilling the ordinary duties of respectable citizenship.

They had all descended from the Upper World, to live out strange lives, or die early deaths in the mysterious but all pervading world below the line.

But our acquaintance was of sufficient duration to allow me to acquire some knowledge, and to gain some experience of lives more than strange, and of characters far removed from the ordinary.

But with others I spent many hours, months, or years as circumstances warranted, or as opportunities permitted. Some of them became my intimates; and though seven long years have passed since I gave up police-court duties, our friendship bears the test of time, for they remain my friends and acquaintances still.

But some have passed away, and others are passing; one by one my list of friends grows less, and were it not that I, even now, pick up a new friend or two, I should run the risk of being a lonely old man.

Quite how Mr Holmes ended up in this way I am not so sure but he spreads some invaluable light into the plight of the poor and impoverishment of the downcast and destitute.

It certainly seems that not all the underclass were ill-educated or ill-bred and that I guess some may say that about our burgeoning underclass today. Holmes certainly describes his friends as:

Others were intelligent, clever and even industrious, quite capable of holding their own with respectable men, still they were helpless. Others were fastidiously honest in some things, yet they were Others had known and appreciated the comforts of refined life, yet they were happy and content amidst the horror and dirt of a common lodging-house! Why was it that these fellows failed, and were content to fail in life?persistent rogues who could not see the wrong or folly of dishonesty; many of them were clear-headed in ninety-nine directions, but in the hundredth they were muddled if not mentally blind.

As with today many of the homeless that adorn London’ dark streets have Continue reading

On hygiene

Cleanliness is next Godliness

The Victorian middle and upper echelons had much pride in their dress but what hygiene. Queen Victoria when ascending the throne in 1837 found not a single bathroom in Buckingham Palace.

She apparently bathed in her bedroom with a portable tub but how often has been a much asked question…probably daily though as recommended at the time.

The bath-room should be arranged according to the pecuniary resources at one’s disposal; but here, as everywhere else, one should do one’s best. The Lady’s Dressing Room, by Baroness Staffe, trans. Lady Colin Campbell, 1893 – Part I

Of course hygiene is a huge consumer product now with multitude of soaps, cleansers, shampoos, conditioners, toothbrushes, combs, hair brushes, shower gels, deodorants, anti-perspirants, scrubs both normal and now organic, hair dyes and a billion other products at our disposal…such choice! Of course our Victorian fore bares had a choice be it somewhat limited in comparison with to ours, but dress and hygiene was as important in the Victorian era as it is in the modern era.

In the early Victorian period you generally caught an illness as a matter of inherited susceptibility, a very basic idea of genes of running in the family and of course ‘individual intemperance’ or your own lifestyle, the way you lived your life and where you lived.

Sometimes these were deemed productive of ‘noxious exhalations’ and bearing in mind here that London must’ve have been appalling without any sewage system bar the river and no environmental concerns. Of course we know that many diseases are water or airborne but this was sadly yet to be not generally accepted.

The causes of fever included injury, bad air, violent emotion, irregular bowels and extremes of heat and cold. Cholera, shortly to be epidemic in many British cities, was said to be caused by rancid or putrid food, by ‘cold fruits’ such as cucumbers and melons, and by passionate fear or rage. Buchan’s Domestic Medicine 1848


Well some treatments relied heavily on a change of air, to Brighton maybe or Worthing together with vomiting and diachronic purges, even bleeding by leech (this thankfully disappeared around the 1850’s) these apparently cleared ‘impurities’ from the body. Along with this, a few medicines and prayer were the only alternatives and it was not just the poorer classes it effected. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s Consort contracted Typhoid in December 1861 died. Typhoid is caused by drinking either dirty water or milk, or eating dirty food. The usual cause of typhoid was allowing drinking water to be polluted by sewage. Another big killer disease of the mid-nineteenth century was Cholera an imported disease (probably from China in the 1830’s).

So with the example of poor hygiene what was the level of personal hygiene and grooming?

So lets start with the mouth…

The brushing of the teeth preventing your teeth from falling out and of course breath that would curdle milk?

The first toothpaste were in the form of powder, which you mixed with water. A dentist called Peabody was the first to add soap as an ingredient to toothpaste, in 1824, it must’ve tasted disgusting!

John Harris added chalk in 1850 and The first commercialised toothpaste in a jar was produced by Colgate (a name we still know and love) in 1873. If you fancy making you own here’s a recipe I came across:

2 oz cuttlefish 
1oz cream of tartar
15 drops clover oil
(from Farmers Almanac 1850)

So most Victorians cleaning your teeth with a toothbrush and toothpaste or powder was a luxury but as a luxury it was gritty and tasted of tartar and fish.

Many people cleaned their teeth with salt because it was abrasive and toothbrushes were bristle in wood.

Poor people were offered advice to either regularly eat brown bread because they thought that the flakes in it would clean their teeth or to chew on a piece of tough celery so that the fibres would get between the teeth and clean them… how very helpful!

So breath must’ve been pretty farty or funky in the Victorian Era but I guess it really came down to what you ate and drank:

Lord Thurlow meets a gentleman with bad breath. The latter man says he has been out for a stroll to get some fresh air. He adds that it was an unpleasant walk, “as I had a damned north wind full in my face all the time.” Thurlow responds that he doesn’t need to complain, since “the north wind had the worst of it.” 1838 volume titled Scottish Jests and Anecdotes.

and now the body

Well deodorants or antiperspirants didn’t exist as such so it would’ve been natural remedies.

Lemon juice was used and is an apparently a great deodorant. The citric acid with its low pH breaks down the cell membranes of the bacteria and dries up excess oil although some people can be really sensitive to it especially after they have shaved under the arms…ouch!

It can be mixed with baking soda to make more of a ‘powdery’ texture which is easier to apply and dries quicker – the baking soda absorbs excess sweat or you can water down juice which has been strained through a cheesecloth and put it in a spray bottle to spray directly under arms.

Make sure the juice is completely dry before you put on your clothes as it may stain clothing or alter the color of the dye when it is subsequently washed.

You can substitute Lemon for Vinegar if you really wish too. I think I’d stick with soap.