Down and out in a Chelsea back garden

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Homelessness is very much a part of life in London in the 21st century, something, I feel, we should – as a society – feel ashamed of.  London is the capital of one of the world’s richest countries; by GDP we are the ninth wealthiest country in the world, we have 54 billionaires (ranking us 7th in the world), and London is the sixth richest city on the planet.

However, in the 1870s Britain was THE richest nation on earth. In terms of GDP Great Britain far outstripped the US and generated more wealth than Germany, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Italy put together.  London was the premier city of empire in the 1900s with more goods and wealth passing through here than anywhere else.

So for there to be rampant poverty and homelessness in Victoria’s capital was even more of a national disgrace. And, just like today, no everyone that was homeless had started life in poverty, or had led a ‘dissolute’ life.

Take James Russell for example. James was a 58 year-old man, quite close to my own age. He was well educated and described himself as a tutor. He had studied at Trinity College, Cambridge and had earned a living teaching in various schools and most recently for the army and navy.

Yet despite this he found himself destitute and homeless in 1877, living a migratory existence sleeping on benches, in a baker’s barrow, and even an empty hansom cab. In September 1877 he was discovered sleeping in a garden in Pond Place, Chelsea by a policeman on patrol. The officer, PC Henry Skeats (328B) asked him his business and, since he couldn’t give a satisfactory account of himself, he arrested him.

Standing in the dock at Westminster Police court James Russell told Mr Woolrych his story.

He had a note from Dr Thompson, his master at Trinity, confirming his attendance there,  and promised that his situation was merely temporary; he hoped to get gainful employment soon. The magistrate sympathized with him: after all here was an educated man, a member of the upright middle classes, not the usual underclass he had to deal with. Russell promised that he would not return to sleeping rough on the constable’s patch (he made no such vow about alternatives however) and that was good enough for Mr Woolrych who released him.

Homelessness is not always a product of simple economics; mental illness plays it part, as does drug and alcohol abuse. If you want to help end homelessness in this country (or any country) then I would urge you to look to political solutions that favour a more equal distribution of wealth. Poverty is nothing new but then neither is wealth inequality that is controlled by the richest in society. For a more immediate and practical action you might consider, if indeed you can afford it, supporting one of the many homeless charities like Shelter or St Mungo’s.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 23, 1877]