Homes of the Homeless – Seeking Shelter in Victorian London

i)Men at dinner in St Marylebone Workhouse, London, c1900 Credit: Geffrye Museum of the Home

i) Men at dinner in St Marylebone Workhouse, London, c1900
Credit: Geffrye Museum of the Home

Special exhibition at the Geffrye Museum of the Home

136 Kingsland Road
London E2 8EA

Tuesday 24 March – Sunday 12 July 2015 (£5/£3 concs)
Open:   Tuesday–Sunday & Bank Holiday Mondays 10am-5pm

We tend to imagine the Victorian home as a family affair, a place of stability and a retreat from the outside world. And that was the ideal for the Victorians themselves. But for huge numbers of Londoners the reality was very different. Tens of thousands made their homes in lodgings and lodging houses, renting a room – or often just a bed – by the week or the night in a building shared with strangers. And there were countless others who could not even scrape together the few pennies for this and who turned to the workhouse or refuges or who slept rough in  whatever shelter they could find.

This special exhibition tells the story of these ‘other’ London homes in the 19th and 20th centuries, exploring the places and spaces the poor inhabited, bringing them to life through paintings, photographs, objects and the personal stories of the men, women and children who sought shelter in the capital.

While the poor undoubtedly struggled, Homes of the Homeless will draw on recent research to show that they also exercised choice and agency.  The exhibition considers how people fought against the notorious workhouse system or used it to their own ends. It reveals the excitements and camaraderie as well as the privations of living in a common lodging house. And it looks at how the inhabitants of London’s new philanthropic and municipal ‘model’ lodging houses managed to make themselves ‘at home.’

Beginning in the 1840s, the exhibition charts how, as the century wore on, the problems of accommodating London’s poor became more acute.  Slum clearance and the demolition of housing to make way for the railways pushed the poor into ever decreasing areas.  Rents soared and living conditions plummeted.

The Pinch of Poverty by Thomas Benjamin Kennington, 1891 Credit: Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

The Pinch of Poverty by Thomas Benjamin Kennington, 1891
Credit: Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

The journey starts on the street, looking at where the homeless slept rough in the metropolis.  Moving on, we consider where the destitute or those who were able to eke out only a precarious and intermittent living might turn – places like homeless shelters, ‘casual wards’ for those on the tramp, and the workhouses for longer stays. Men and women who could scrape a few pence together might just about be able to afford a night in a common lodging house (state registered houses with multi-occupancy rooms) or furnished rooms. The dirty and cramped conditions in these lodging houses excited both sympathy and disapproval from contemporary observers. Later in the century more efforts were made to provide housing for the poor, for families and for single men living by themselves, as well as specialist accommodation for children.

Homes of the Homeless will represent these endeavours and deal with the changing homeless problem in Victorian London.  However, above all, it will give a voice to the people who lived on London’s streets, and recreate their visual and material world.

Contemporary homelessness will be explored in Home and Hope, a free parallel display showing young people’s experiences of homelessness in London today.  This is a collaborative project with New Horizon Youth Centre, a day centre in King’s Cross working with young people who are vulnerable, homeless or at risk of becoming homeless (


Homes of the Homeless walk in the East End
Explore the hidden history of the homeless in Victorian Whitechapel with exhibition curators.
Saturday 25 April.  Tour 2-3.30pm, meet at  Whitechapel Station.
Tickets £16, £13 concs (includes free exhibition ticket).
To book: or 020 7749 6024

Homelessness Past and Present
Gain a greater understanding of homelessness over time in these lunchtime talks.
Fridays 17 April & 15 May, 1pm, free

Journey Home
Join author Jennifer Kavanagh for an exploration of home and homelessness today.
Saturday 9 May, 2-3.30pm, free

Exhibition talk
A highlights tour of Homes of the Homeless with a curator.
Saturday 9 May, 3.30-4pm, free with an exhibition ticket.

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