Seeking Shelter in Victorian London. Homelessness was an acute problem in the 19th-century city

Back when Penguin published The Buildings of England: London Except the Cities of London and Westminster, they had to defend themselves from the charges of defamation due to a sentence fragment in the book: the Rowton Houses in Camden Town were referred to as 'still belonging to the slums'. Today, if you asked anyone about Rowton Houses you’d be likely to receive a blank stare, unless that person’s been at the Homes of the Homeless exhibition at the Geffrye Museum where they made an appearance.

The lives of the then-homeless were pretty grim – they had to reverse their sleep schedules, because they had to stay awake during the night when the police would be on the lookout for them. Homelessness was an even greater problem in the early 1800’s than today, due to the rapid urbanization of the country. People moved in with their families to dig the canal network and build the country’s railway, and when they lost their jobs, they would be homeless.

Naturally, slums started popping up near the houses of the wealthy, and this disturbed the nation, the religious zealots in particular. Magazines such as the Graphic, the Illustrated London News and the Sketch started showing a lot of graphic reproductions of the shocking poverty of the slummers and the aforementioned zealots handed out pamphlets. The curators of the exhibition focused on showing housing provisions for the unfortunate people who had to lodge together. If you want to find out what ‘picking oakum’ is or how it feels like to sleep in a ‘coffin bed’, you can find out at the exhibition.

It was Prince Albert’s mission to provide better housing for people struck by poverty and he took Henry Roberts, a renowned honorary architect to the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, up to the task. Roberts had to come up with a solution: how do you design a building large enough to house several families separately without being liable to the then famous Window Tax? Houses with six or fewer windows would be exempt, leaving larger buildings liable. Some of his solutions were built in 1849 and some model cottages were shown at the Great Exhibition in 1851, which was the year when the tax was finally repealed and larger block were now cheaper to build. Watercolours and models of Roberts’ solutions are also show at the exhibition.

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