Homes 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.
The 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.
Similarities 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.