In 1897, a journalist visiting an East London homeless shelter described a restless night: “Ranged in banks along the floor, narrow passages between each row, and in the gallery were 300 men asleep or half asleep, a few talking. The bunks not unlike coffins and in the dim light the men in them looked like corpses arranged for identification after some great disaster.”
Over a century later, the voices of those taking refuge in the tomb-like beds are difficult to resuscitate, their experiences only echoed in the recordings of outsiders. Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London, opened in March at the Geffrye Museum of the Home in London, draws on paintings, photographs, newspaper reports, diaries, and the scarce personal objects left behind to recover their perspectives.
“The material possessions owned or used by the homeless and poor rarely survive,” Curator Hannah Fleming told Hyperallergic. Homes of the Homeless includes the sparest of artifacts, with some workhouse clothing and crockery, and goggles worn for stone breaking at the casual wards — the night-to-night workhouse lodgings. Fleming added: “Written and visual material does survive, however, and we particularly wanted in the exhibition to retrieve the voices and experiences of those who had experienced homelessness, and for the story to be told from their viewpoint, using their words where possible, from contemporary interviews and accounts.”
While the Victorian age in London was opulent and increasingly domestic for some, others suffered with industrialization. In the mid-19th century, railroad expansion razed many neighborhoods, driving up rents and pushing the margins of the increasing population into more cramped and dangerous parts of the city. Wages fell, and affordable housing was in short supply.
Journalists photographed and interviewed the “rough sleepers” of the sidewalks, benches, and doorways, as well as those in a slightly better situation at workhouses and lodging houses where for a penny a bed surrounded by strangers was yours for the night. One carpenter’s statement in Henry Mayhew’s The Morning Chronicle: Labour and the Poor, 1849-50 is included in the exhibition:
It’s not only me and my wife that’s made paupers on, but my two children as well. In course, they’ll be brought up in the [work]house as paupers […] I don’t think I shall ever get out of the house again when I goes into it next winter, as I know I must. I’m a broken down man, sir.
Against the somber journalism extracts and dramatic paintings of the impoverished, the exhibition shows the community of the shelters, and that people were far from passive even in the regimented systems. Referencing “punishment books” from workhouses and orphanages, resistance and strategic working of the system for a little gain are demonstrated. And although the old black and white photographs of people sitting in rigid rows for meals appear dreary, and those beds looked sepulchral, the charitable institutions established were offering more aid than had been present in the previous century. In Homes of the Homeless, one of those box-beds is recreated.
“At five-feet-seven long, it isn’t long enough for some people to stretch out full-length in, and the oilcloth sheet and mattress stuffed with straw provide little warmth, so I think to modern eyes it does look and feel rather horribly grim,” Fleming explained. “But some people at the time recorded that it did provide a sense of safety, and did at least allow for a personal sleeping space. Not everyone visiting [the museum] seems that keen to try it out though.”
The Geffrye Museum of the Home is itself housed at the site of 18th-century almshouses, one of which is restored and open to visitors. In this way it’s an ideal fit for the exhibition. As a museum devoted to the changing idea and design of “home,” it also offers a strong contrast through its fine period rooms. Fleming notes that the “story the exhibition tells of Victorian London is unhappily relevant today,” as housing shortages, high rents, unemployment, and social services cuts continue to contribute to a homelessness crisis. Alongside Homes for the Homeless, the museum is hosting a display on contemporary homelessness in London in collaboration with the New Horizon Youth Centre, adding the voices of the present to those retrieved from the past.
Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London continues at the Geffrye Museum of the Home (136 Kingsland Road, London) through July 12.