Oliver Betts, Review: Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London Exhibition

The Geffrye Museum, London, 24th March – 12th July 2015

Dr. Oliver Betts is an early-career researcher based at the University of York, where he completed a PhD on working-class domestic space before the First World War.  You can follow him on twitter and he has an academia.edu profile which can be found here.

Domestic spaces, and the experiences of home, in the nineteenth century have, in recent years, finally achieved critical attention. The work of historians such as Judith Flanders and Thad Logan on middle-class spaces has been matched by studies, spearheaded by Vicky Holmes, on the domestic worlds of the working-class. There has, however, been little attention paid to the other side of the coin – namely, the lived spaces of the Victorian city that extended beyond the domestic. The history of modern homelessness in Britain has lagged behind developments in the United States where the work of Kenneth Kusmer especially has placed the homeless experience firmly back into the urban landscape of the late nineteenth-century city. Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London is, then, a very welcome development. Curated by The Geffrye Museum, which has been at the forefront of both academic and popular histories of the home through its permanent exhibitions and its co-hosting of the Centre for Studies of the Home, Homes of the Homeless is a bold and challenging step into a very different sort of history.

The exhibition as a whole, housed in the temporary space on the ground floor of the museum, is a visual treat. Familiar depictions of the destitute poor from artists such as Gutavé Dore and Sir Luke Fildes compliment less commonly utilised images from sources such as The Graphic, The Sphere, and the collection of photographs of East London taken by Jack London for his 1903 The People of the Abyss. Indeed the beautiful layout of the exhibit as a whole, which wends its way around a series of corners in a looping circuit, puts serious strain on the camera battery of the interested visitor. A series of maps locate particular sites of homeless activity such as Hyde Park and the Embankment for the visitor, harkening back to The Museum of London’s recent exhibition on Sherlock Holmes, yet unlike that exhibition there is only peripheral mention of the fictional here. Visitors hoping for Oliver Twist, possibly the most famous manifestation of Victorian homelessness, will be disappointed and, perhaps rightly, perplexed by his absence considering the powerful influence of texts such as this on shaping attitudes to the homeless in the period.

Our Homeless London Poor - 17 Sept 1887

The exhibition instead takes a decidedly historical approach to its subject matter. Starting with sleeping out rough in Victorian London, it guides visitors through a series of shelters and lodging houses, via the not-so-tender mercies of the Workhouse system, through to those institutions devoted to rescuing the homeless. The work of Dr. Barnardo, the Salvation Army, the Rowton House movement, and other such groups receives deserved space within the exhibit, drawing on the research of the two lead curators, Lesley Hopkins and Jane Hamlett, presenting a compelling picture of the spectrum of late Victorian social reform to the visitor. Throughout the exhibit static displays are broken up by interactive elements, often highly original in conception, such as touchscreen displays of captioned pictures, headsets with pre-recorded snippets of social investigation and working-class autobiography, and tactile elements. These seemed to captivate visitors judging by the strands of discarded rope from a have-a-go hemp picking exhibit depicting punitive labour in the Workhouse Casual Ward and the crowd of bemused onlookers who gathered to watch this reviewer, 6’3”, attempt to fit himself into one of the Salvation Army coffin beds that would have been reserved for homeless wanderers. Such displays, whilst undoubtedly entertaining, also carry a significant academic value given the considerable need for sensory studies of the nineteenth-century city that currently faces Victorian studies.

When breaking any such new ground, especially in an exhibition designed for both an academic and a public audience, there are bound to be a few thorns. At times the curatorial voice seemed a little too damning of the Workhouse, particularly in contrast to other institutions where a more rounded portrayal was in evidence, and this could jar when compared to the slightly unquestioning use of working-class voices of opposition. Balancing the voices that surround such a subject is, of course, difficult, but more could have been done to bring the complexities of the Workhouse, with its confused mixture of care and control, into line with recent scholarship. It is also lamentable that, given the emphasis on the visual and the use of new source material, an exhibition catalogue was not produced.

Such nit-picking should be left to the de-lousing room of the Casual Ward, however, and definitely not detract from the appeal of Homes of the Homeless. The exhibition is a bold, innovative, and fascinating venture into a critically under-studied and, crucially for the general public, under-emphasised aspect of Victorian culture. Such a pioneering move is worthy of praise, and even more worthy of a visit. The exhibition lasts until 12th July. This reviewer did, eventually, locate Oliver Twist hidden amongst a project sponsored by the museum that gave young people with experience of homelessness in present day London the chance to express their own feelings in artwork. Here, amongst the jumbled emotions of the present, he served as a guide into a less familiar but fascinating world of the Victorian homeless.

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