Friday, 11 December 2015

Coffin beds and camaraderie: a review of an exhibition of homelessness in Victorian London

Tens of thousands of people made their homes in rented rooms and bedsits - in extreme cases, hallways of houses were let to those willing to pay the rent. Individuals were often left to while away a short term lease wondering what the next month would bring. Homes would be shared with strangers, and mandatory upkeep of a dwelling was not an easily enforceable concept. There were also numerous others who could not scrape together the pittance needed for this, as jobs were hard to come by and state assistance was subject to strict eligibility criteria. Those at the poorest end sought protection from the harsh world by entering refuges or by sleeping rough in the most decrepit shelter one could find.


This description of modern-day London is practically interchangeable with the same streets of the 1800s. This parallel hasn’t gone unnoticed by the curators at The Geffrye Museum, itself a former almshouse. Their Homes of the Homeless exhibition sought to depict the lives of the poorest of the poor during the Victorian times. The collection consisted of art pieces, domestic debris and furniture all aimed at visualising this common, yet frequently under-looked narrative, juxtaposed with quotes from William Booth, George Orwell and Jack London as well as snippets of interview audios from the workhouse residents themselves. Ultimately, serving as a stark contrast to its house exhibition of upper-class period rooms through the ages.


The layout of the curation started on the ‘streets’, looking at the plight faced by Victorian rough sleepers in the capital - depicted perfectly by Augustus Edwin Mulready’s unnamed painting of a young angelic recess on London Bridge, and Thomas Benjamin Kennington’s ‘The Pinch of Poverty’ portrait of a widowed mother and her two children selling flowers on a street corner.


At the turn of a corner, the exhibition displayed areas of refuge for the destitute poor, images of ‘spikes’ (workhouses); refuges and shelters; and common lodging houses. A real-life construction of the coffin beds used to sleep those residing in a Salvation Army night shelter was open for visitors to climb into - hay lined the bottom and a hard ‘step’ at the top of the coffin served as pillow, however the said beds were still better than the harsh outdoors.

There was also an extensive map depicting all the hostels built by the philanthropist and politician Lord Rowton, where for a shilling one could reside in a cubicle rather than a shared room.




The exhibition ended somewhat prematurely albeit optimistically with a series of images depicting the camaraderie and togetherness that sharing a communal space brings. From local Londoners and colonial sailors sharing room space, to women bible studying together.

Interestingly, within ‘Down and Out in London and Paris’, whilst referring to the poor, George Orwell states that “poverty frees [the poor] from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work”, the fact that displays of solidarity were frequent amongst the poor of Victorian Britain suggests that despite the freedom of societal norms, cohesion still existed amongst the underclass.


The Geffrye Museum’s Homes of the Homeless kindly provided the public with a space to reflect upon the divisive nature of societal poverty. Where industrialisation created richness and poverty in Victorian Britain, the modern banking system has had the same effect, redistributing wealth from the poorest 90% in Britain to the richest 10%, inadequate and unaffordable housing being a by-product of this.
This paradox has been highlighted through the commissioning of a sister exhibition entitled Home and Hope, a collaboration between The Geffrye Museum and the New Horizon’s Day Centre - a homeless young person’s day centre in Kings Cross. Following a similar spiral layout, this exhibition proves promising to once again demonstrate the infinite nature of societal poverty.

However a full review of this exhibition ought to be reserved for another blog entry

-Watch this space.

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