William Booth in court, for doing something about homelessness

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The Salvation Army is a well-established charity doing good work with the poor and homeless for well over a century. It was set up in London by William Booth in 1865, adopting the name Salvation Army (formally the Christian Mission) in 1878. Booth was an evangelist Christian who took his religious beliefs seriously, believing that the teachings of Jesus Christ impelled the better off to look after the poor.

As several articles in this blog series have shown the ‘Army’ wasn’t always well received. Their military structure and marching bands drew opprobrium and ridicule from all levels of society but by the turn of the century they were clearly established as a fixture in both British and American society.

In 1888 Booth, who started his mission in the East End of London, preaching in rooms above what is now the Blind Beggar pub on Whitechapel Road, set up a temporary night shelter in Hanbury Street, for the homeless female poor. He was prompted by the murders of Jack the Ripper, who preyed on vulnerable and often homeless prostitutes in the area.

The shelter was basic, and cost users 3d a night (2for children, and just a penny for infants in arms). In December 1889 Booth himself was summoned to the Worship Street Police court to answer a summons brought against him by the police, for running a shelter that wasn’t registered as a ‘common lodging house’, and therefore fell foul of the regulations.

This was the police’s report of their visit to the shelter, delivered by a sergeant (32H) and Inspector Ferrett:

‘The sergeant said that each sleeper had a “box like an egg-chest.” minus the bottom. A mattress made of American cloth and seaweed was in this, and the coverlet was sheepskin the size of the mattress, the sleeper putting their head through a hole at one end’.

The property, an old bath house, was well ventilated and quite warm, served as it was by hot water pipes. It had space for 192 women and for their three pence they got a light supper as well. The mattresses were cleaned regularly and the place was orderly, so what was the problem?

Well the summons seemed mostly concerned with it not being registered and that this ‘temporary’ solution to a crisis becoming permanent by default. The police did bring along some witnesses that to argue that the Salvation Army were operating not merely as a refuge but as a de facto lodging house but Mr Bushby wasn’t convinced by their line of argument.

He dismissed the summons and let Booth go back to his charity work.

We are once again in a period where homelessness and poverty are in focus. Winter is here and people are dying on the streets of British cities. Homelessness is a growing problem in the UK, despite us being in the top 10 richest nations on earth.

Changes to the benefits system (the introduction of Universal Credit and the bedroom tax) by the Conservative government (and before them the Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition), and a decade of austerity economic policies driven by a succession of Conservative chancellors from George Osborne to Sajid Javid have directly impacted the lives of the poorest.  726 people are known to have died on the streets in 2018, the highest number since recording began in 2013.

Something to think about when we cast our votes on December 12.

[from The Standard, Saturday, December 07, 1889]

A ‘poor man’ and ‘a most depraved and incorrigible beggar’: Contrasting attitudes at Mansion House as winter sets in

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We’ve just had a weekend of severe weather in which snow caught much of southern England by surprise. Many parts of London were covered in a white coating yesterday, all very attractive and fun for kids but a nightmare for commuters come Monday morning. My university is effectively closed as teaching is suspended and all the trains into central London are running slow or late or both. Mind you, I’m not sure how much difference that is to a normal day!

So winter is well and truly upon us and this is the season which hits the homeless and the poor the hardest. For those that have to decide between food and heating, or those sleeping rough in the capital, December through to the spring is particularly challenging.

That is why Shelter and the  other homeless charities campaign so hard to help people at this time of the year. We will all see the adverts on the tube or get a leaflet through the door asking for a one-off donation or a regular contribution. Each year the BBC supports the St Mungo’s charity, which does such good work with the homeless.

The early Victorians were certainly aware of the problem of poverty and homelessness. They had charities and dedicated people who worked, often through the church, to support those in need. What they didn’t have, as we know, is a system of poor relief that allowed people to be supported within their own homes. There was no housing benefit or  income support. If you needed ‘relief’ you went to the workhouse, and this was increasingly true after 1834 and the passing into law of the Poor Law Amendment Act.

Attitudes towards poverty had hardened in the 1830s and poverty, which had always been viewed in part as a personal failing, was now frequently associated with moral bankruptcy. At Mansion House Police court two cases came up in early December which highlight contrasting contemporary attitudes towards poverty and homelessness.

Peter Jordan was described as an ‘imbecile’. Today we would understand this as someone with learning difficulties and now, as then, we would have some sympathy with him. The sitting magistrate at Mansion House that morning was Alderman Pirie, who was deputising for the Lord Mayor. He certainly looked on Jordan’s case with compassion but he was fairly limited in what he could do.

Jordan had been brought it by Duncan Campbell, a parish officer for the City. He had found the man ‘soliciting for charity’. In other words he was begging and that was against the wide-ranging vagrancy laws. However, Campbell’s aim wasn’t to have him punished for begging but to help him. He wanted to ‘prevent him perishing in the streets’.

Had he applied for relief, the alderman wanted to know. This was complicated; there was no help to had at Cannon Street he was told, and the London workhouse had recently closed and a new one was not yet built. The City had also closed a house of refuge so that was no option either.

All that was left to the justice was to send Jordan to prison for begging. And so the ‘poor man, […] who used formerly to work in the coal pits, was removed to Bridewell, under particular directions’ (presumably not to be whipped or set to hard labour, but instead to be looked after).

The next defendant in the dock received far less sympathy. Maria Butcher and her two children were also presented for begging in the streets. A policeman testified that he had found the two children at five in the evening on the Saturday.

He said ‘he saw the poor children, half naked and shivering on the steps leading to London Bridge. He took them to the Station-house and found in their pockets eighteen-pence halfpenny.  Their mother, who was up to all the tricks of vagrancy, the officer said, was in the justice-room’.

Maria denied any knowledge of what her children got up to when she wasn’t around but no one believed her. She took in washing and had, she said, very ‘little to give them’. The alderman said he was sure she was happy to take any money they ‘earned’ by begging nevertheless.

‘I’d be very glad to get any’ she replied, ‘and I assure you I’d make good use of it’.

The magistrate was horrified:

‘What a wretch you must be to send out these poor infants in such dreadful weather’.

His feelings were echoed by a street keeper who said he knew Maria as a ‘most depraved and incorrigible beggar’ who exploited her children to avoid doing any work herself. She often sent then out without hardly any clothes or shoes, in all weathers, to beg for her. Another witness, a Poor Law Union official said the children were well known beggars and the police were obliged to bring them in under the law.

In the end although she begged for clemency Mr Pirie sent her and the children to Bridewell but – for her at least – there was no similar instructions for them to go easy on her. The children could expect some level of care but she would bread and water and the drudgery of hard labour, picking oakum most likely.

So that winter all four of the people brought before the Mansion House court ended up in prison. Their ‘crime’? Poverty. Today there will still be hundreds of men, women and young people sleeping rough and begging on London’s streets. So before we congratulate ourselves too much on creating a fairer and more civilised society than our early Victorian ancestors perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on that uncomfortable fact.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 11, 1838]