Changing London

Sleeping rough in Victorian London

“Last Thursday they were turned out of their lodgings into the streets because they were in arrears with their rent,” reported the Illustrated Police News in 1900. “She had seven children….“

London has, in years gone by, been a trying place for many to live as a result of slum clearances, unemployment, low wages and other factors. In Victorian times, tens of thousands of people were forced to sleep in the open air or have the uncertain existence of staying in night shelters or shared lodgings.

And as the opening account in this blog shows, things hadn’t got any better for some during Edwardian times, with families being forced out onto the streets through encountering financial woes.

This precarious world of 19th and 20th century London has been brought to life – through vivid images, objects, documents and audio recordings – in a new exhibition at the Geffrye Museum called Homes of the Homeless.

That a museum dedicated to charting the development of the home is a statement in itself. While many of the permanent galleries at the Geffrye Museum are mock-ups of living rooms from different periods of time, this exhibition starts off exploring quite the opposite of what a home should be.

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Rough sleeping locations in Victorian London

The poor souls that spent their days moving from parks to churchyards or sleeping by air vents for warmth or under arches to get some shelter could hardly say they had a home. They just existed. On a map showing some of the popular rough sleeping locations in the capital, an illustration depicts people about to be moved on from near Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment. Sleeping out was an offence.

But vivid photographs – splashed over the wall – depicting groups socialising together and written accounts presented on panels, like this one from William Booth in 1890, demonstrate there was often a spirit of camaraderie:

“Yes! It’s very fair out here of nights, seats rather hard, but a bit of waste paper makes it a lot softer. We have women here often alone, and children, too. They’re very well conducted, and there’s seldom many rows here, you see, because everyone is tired out. We’re too sleepy to make a row.”

As the exhibition (roughly presented chronologically) progresses, there is a sense of increased optimism as support provided many destitute is – slowly – improved.

One step up from sleeping on the streets, were homeless shelters (often known as casual shelters) when people could stay for a night or two. As I found when I visited such as establishment in Guildford, conditions were harsh. This account presented in the Geffreye exhibition sums them up:

“I didn’t mind the bath. I needed it, and my clothes must have been in a bad state through sleeping out. But I did object to the plank bed….. the loneliness of the cell night and day, but most of all the brutal manner of the officials.”

Inmates often earned their keep through conducting gruesome work, such as breaking rope. And as well as being operated by local authorities, casual shelters were in time also run by charities such. By 1894 the Salvation Army ran nine night shelters for example (some slept in some very basic, boxed-in wooden beds which were laid out in a line).

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Boxed-in wooden beds

The gruesome conditions of workhouses – which accommodated longer stays than spikes – has been documented extensively over the years. What I therefore found particularly interesting was how the exhibition depicted the ‘other side’ of life in these institutions, including for example through a programme for an evening’s New Year entertainment at Rotherhithe Workhouse in 1873, for example.

And there is a wooden doll that inmates of a workhouse in Norwich gave to staff as a Christmas present in 1900. It suggests that life wasn’t a continual fight between ‘them’ and ‘us’.

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Wooden doll dressed as an elderly female inmate of Thursford Workhouse in Norwich (c1900)

For those that could scrape together a few pence, it was possible to rent a night in multi-occupancy rooms in what were known as common lodging houses. Furnished were also available, but cost extra. These properties were said to be dirty and cramped, as well as attracting criminals.

But there was an attempt to bring these under control, with keepers of common lodging houses required to register accommodation with the police from 1851. Tickets also recorded how many people were permitted to sleep in individual rooms.

As the century progressed, the conditions in accommodation were improved. These so-called model lodgings frequently had individual sleeping cubicles providing privacy. And some of the fixtures and fittings were very plush – the exhibition includes a wooden armchair that residents in one of these would use to sit around the fire and also a mounted stag’s head that, as the display suggests, wouldn’t be out of place in “West End clubs for elite men.”

They might have seemed plush, but model lodgings could still be noisy places:

“…the partitions (in the cubicles) did not go to the roof and every sound could be heard. The noise of snoring was loud, but louder still was the persistent banging on the wall, accompanied with cries of ‘shut up, you bloody swine!’so that sleep was generally impossible.”

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Mounted stag’s head – shot in Glenmore, Scotland (1912)

Sadly, however, homelessness in Britain hasn’t been eradicated. Just as early on in the exhibition there is a map plotting the popular places where those without a place to lay their heads spent their time, outside the main gallery this exercise has been repeated. Contemporary interviews reveal that it is still parks, along with other places like railway stations that some destitute Londoners today call home.

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