Keys to the street

Keys to the street

Perspectives Exhibition Keys to the street www.thelancet.com Vol 385 May 2, 2015 almost 2 kg had to be unpicked for one night’s stay. Just a couple...

939KB Sizes 7 Downloads 72 Views

Perspectives

Exhibition Keys to the street

www.thelancet.com Vol 385 May 2, 2015

almost 2 kg had to be unpicked for one night’s stay. Just a couple of minutes of this and my fingertips were screaming. Touch-screens take the visitor on a photographic tour of the wide array of charitable shelters. A selection of audio clips, meanwhile, offer actor-voiced extracts written by Henry Mayhew and Jack London, along with the Salvation Army’s William Booth’s interview, in 1890, with a 54-year-old man who slept on the Embankment each night.

“London in the 1880s and 1890s was on fire with protest about housing and homelessness.” It’s a fascinating, non-sensationalised show about a distressing subject. But it’s too quiet, in fact. Nowhere is represented the anger and revulsion at the high rents, squalid housing stock, and lack of humanity of the Victorian Poor Laws. In 1883, Liberal Member of Parliament Joseph Chamberlain wrote in The Fortnightly Review of “the incurable timidity with which Parliament, largely recruited from men of great possessions, is accustomed to

deal with the sacred rights of property”. His attack on the national failure to deal with the working-class housing crisis was just one of many loud calls for change. From wealthy philanthropists mounting private prosecutions against slumlords, to the Daily Telegraph’s weekly “A Friend of the Poor” columns about unfit housing, to anarchists mounting “Pay No Rent” campaigns, London in the 1880s and 1890s was on fire with protest about housing and homelessness. But not one exhibit is to be found here that alludes to this. More worryingly apolitical, given how the UK’s present-day housing shortage is heading up the political agenda, is the accompanying small foyer exhibition, Home and Hope. Here, the 21st-century experiences of young homeless people are movingly told in their own words; but the overall impression created by both shows is a sort of shouldershrugging, “that’s just the way it is— always has been” defeatism; as though homelessness is a natural catastrophe against which all protest is hopeless.

Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London Home and Hope Geffrye Museum, London, UK, until July 12, 2015 www.geffrye-museum.org.uk

Sarah Wise is author of Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England (2014) and The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum (2008)

Sarah Wise

Geffrye Museum of the Home

The geography of London vagrancy in the 19th and early 20th centuries is explored vividly in the Geffrye Museum’s exhibition Homes of the Homeless. In the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, 1887, London’s Green Park, St James’s Park, and Trafalgar Square looked, by daytime, like gigantic open-air dormitories. As foreign dignitaries arrived for the royal celebrations, it was a national embarrassment that thousands of men, women, and children lived rough in the heart of one of the planet’s wealthiest cities. A wall panel features a blow-up of a Daily Graphic newspaper illustration of homeless people in St James’s Park; alongside this is a large map of the public areas where rough sleepers congregated. Jack London’s photographs from his book The People of the Abyss (1903) are reasonably familiar, but the curators have done a fine job of bringing together less well known material. So we see represented the many and competing charities; the much maligned common lodging houses; new “model” lodging houses erected by philanthropists and the London County Council to render obsolete the “common” version; and, of course, the space that looms largest in our historical imagination—the workhouse. Perhaps most striking of the oil paintings on display is Gustave Doré’s wonderful A Poor House (c 1869), a rare painterly exploration of the mysterious world of the “fourpenny kip-houses”; an estimated 27 000 Londoners lived in these dark, secretive places. A foot-high doll made by inmates of a workhouse in 1900 and presented in thanks to staff is unexpected evidence that not all such institutions were crushing to the human spirit. But visitors are also invited to try unpicking tarred rope. This is the notorious “oakum-picking” task that the 142 000 or so London workhouse “casual ward” admissions each year had to complete;

Men in St Marylebone Workhouse, London (c 1900), photograph published in Living London (Cassell, 1901)

1717