Jane Hamlett and Rebecca Preston
Everyday, across London, thousands of people pass by hundreds of homes for the poor erected by Victorian philanthropists. Their exteriors often impress, but some are less noticeable, and probably very few Londoners realise what went on inside them.
Last summer, equipped with contemporary maps and illustrations, Jane Hamlett, Lesley Hoskins and Rebecca Preston from Royal Holloway’s ESRC-funded At Home in the Institution Project set out on a London street walk to rediscover some of these places.
Image one: the project team on a research trip to the V&A
As JVC readers know, housing the poor was an acute problem in Victorian London, and this was made worse by the construction of the railway network, rent rises and street clearances. Housing became increasingly cramped and expensive. Many people lived in common lodging houses exciting a chorus of criticism and disgust from middle-class commentators despite increasing separation of the sexes as the century progressed.
Early philanthropic intervention such as Peabody housing was typically intended to house families – and Peabody blocks are a feature of the streets will we visit. But other organisations would increasingly turn their attention to the plight of the single working man who was mostly associated with the common lodging house. Government attempted to control lodging houses through legislation. But philanthropists also tried to help and from the mid-century several charitable organisations made attempts in London to create ‘model lodging houses’ – clean, organised and disciplined spaces that were designed to help the poor live a ‘civilised’ life while providing a return for the institution or its shareholders. The houses were supposed to provide a model for the poor to follow, but also to influence the keepers of other lodging houses into adopting like practice.
We’ve been researching what the material life of these places was like for their occupants but we were also keen to discover their relationship to London’s streets and what it might have felt to enter one – so our lodging house tour is a chance to have a look at what survives on the ground.
Image two: Prince Albert’s Model Lodging House
Our first stop is the north side of Kennington Park – here a beautiful set of model lodgings, Prince Albert’s Model Lodging House, a large cottage style building divided into sections for four families, has been preserved almost intact. Part of an initiative led by Prince Albert, the model was first put on show at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, before being moved here in 1853. As it now houses offices, we are able to ring the door bell and step inside to have a quick chat with one of their occupants, who tells us that this is the contact address for the Friends of Kennington Park, which has uncovered much of the building history, and the home of Trees for Cities.
Following the Chartist demonstration in April 1848, Kennington Common, as it then was, was enclosed and its subsequent layout as a park by James Pennethorne in 1852-4 was, with the relocation of Albert’s model lodging house, a part of this civilising project.
The interior is substantially altered but we can just about make out the divisions that were set up in these little apartments, creating separation between family members that middle-class reformers viewed as essential. On the exterior a sign above the door still reads “Model Lodging for Families.”
Catching the bus a short distance towards the river, we go in search of the front of Rowton House, Vauxhall, the back of which we are familiar with from the train journey from Waterloo East to Royal Holloway at Egham. Opened in 1892 by the Tory peer and philanthropist Lord Rowton, a nephew of Lord Shaftesbury, this was designed as a “hotel for working men” and its success led to the founding of a company to build five further houses in the capital. Thousands of men dwelt in these houses, which were much praised in the press, and each offered a series of day rooms, a garden and individual cubicles upstairs for sleeping. The building is still a hostel when we visit.
Image three: former Rowton House at Vauxhall
We move on, catching the tube to Whitechapel for the East End, an area beleaguered by poverty in the nineteenth century but also a buzzing hive of philanthropists. We look first for the site of the Victoria Home No. II (a model lodging house for working men that we will come back to in a moment). This was originally entered from the busy Whitechapel Road. A large, recently built Salvation Army hostel now stands in its stead.
On to Fieldgate Street, which runs parallel with Whitechapel Road. Here we are able to identify another former Rowton House very easily. This was the fifth of the six houses built by Rowton Houses Ltd., much larger than Rowton’s experiment at Vauxhall. Although the Whitechapel Rowton House has been converted into private flats, its external features are still recognizable – in particular the scale of the building and the large number of small windows which originally opened from each cubicle. The impressive entrance – common to all the Rowton Houses – is no longer in use but its exterior carved stonework is still in place. The grand entrances must have given lodgers a sense of occasion when they entered the building for the first time; indeed, one particularly enthusiastic visitor described it as a “palace for working men.”
Image four: photograph of the Whitechapel Rowton
We then head west to the Commercial Road. From here, standing on the east side, we peer through the haze of traffic at a site on the corner with Wentworth Street on which stood the first Victoria Home, a large and spartan lodging house for hundreds of men, opened in 1887. Hewn from converted warehouses, the Victoria Home offered clean and regulated living spaces, but was also the most overtly religious of the model lodging houses, insisting on temperance, and boasted cavernous lecture halls where preachers tried to win over the lodgers. It has gone.
Taking the bus west across town we arrive in Bloomsbury and make our way through the little network of streets south west of the British Museum, to St Giles, the site of another notorious rookery in the early nineteenth century.
On Streatham Street, we’re excited to find that an impressive block of model lodgings for families is still being lived in. Now known as Parnell House and managed by the Peabody Trust, the block was built in 1849 as part of the efforts of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Working Classes, headed by the Earl of Shaftesbury. John Hollingshead, writing for Good Words in 1862, was not overly impressed, describing it as: “rather gloomy, built in a very heavy style to last for centuries, and disfigured by galleries with broad flat brick columns, when iron would have been so much lighter.”
The block’s courtyard is closed to the public, but by chance a door has been left open and we peer inside. The little balconies, adorned with washing and bicycles, are clearly much used, as they probably were by their Victorian occupants, despite the censure of architectural critics – there is a contemporary painting that shows the well-lit courtyard busy with well-behaved people and pot plants, but not a scrap of washing.
Image five: the Streatham Street block
Just round the corner, on Dyott Street, which used to be George Street, we aren’t quite so lucky. We’re looking for the building that would have housed a model lodging house established by the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes (SICLC). This lodging House for 104 single men was opened in 1844 and renamed as the smarter sounding ‘Bloomsbury Chambers’ in the 1880s. It was abandoned by the 1890s, partly because of the number of model lodgings in the area. A large building towers over us on the corner where it stood – it’s a hotel.
From here we walk through Seven Dials towards Covent Garden, now an upmarket shopping district — but formerly a vegetable market and theatre district in the centre of a warren of streets that, in the nineteenth-century, was notorious for common lodging houses. This area was settled by Irish migrants fleeing famine in the 1840s and ‘50s, traces of whom are marked by the presence of St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School. It was thus an early target for evangelical Protestant missionaries, but also for philanthropists and the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes experimented with a range of model housing hereabouts.
Entering Drury Lane from the north, we take the narrow second street on the left. Macklin Street (formerly Charles Street) was the site of SICLC’s Charles Street Model Lodging House for 80 working men. This was created from three houses into ‘one uniform establishment’ in 1847, and was later refurbished with separate sleeping accommodation and renamed as “Shaftesbury Chambers” in 1892. Notwithstanding its new Superintendent being a former assistant warder at Pentonville Prison, it would have been quite a cut above its common lodging house neighbours. Here we find a plain, substantial four-storey building with 1892 carved decoratively above the arched entrance. The doors here, however, are firmly closed.
It is not surprising that the London County Council also made its first forays into providing model lodging for single men in this district — and our next stop is the first LCC lodging house, Parker House, which still dominates the narrow Parker Street. This was opened in 1896 and, designed along the lines of a Rowton House, catered for hundreds of men.
A few streets down on Kemble Street is the massive Bruce House, built in 1905, the Council’s third and last lodging house — a gigantic institution that contained beds for over 1,000 single men, and contained in addition to dayrooms, a shop, barber, tailor, and bootmender. While Parker Street is still used as a hostel, Bruce House has been completely transformed inside — it’s basement is now a Turkish restaurant, where, coincidentally, one member of the team recently went for a hen night. But philanthropic traces remain here, too, as Peabody runs creative projects for homeless men and women from an address at Bruce House.
Image six and seven: Parker Street and Bruce House
Passing through Wild Court, the site of another former lodging house for working men opened by the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes – Ashley Chambers – we end at Kingsway, the major road ploughed through the east of Drury Lane as part of LCC clearances in 1905, and head home.
To find out more about our research see our online gallery Snapshots of Institutional Life