harbouring the harbourless

June 29, 2011

The night shelter, after some more research, turns out to have had a very interesting history. Set up in 1860 it was one of the first shelters for the homeless. The building on that site remained as a shelter until 2001 when it was sold to the Osborne group and Manhattan Loft Corporation. (btw MLC strap line is: Bringing New York loft-style living to London with a collection of beautifully designed and executed loft conversions….) Providence Row still exists as an organisation that helps the homeless but now has an office at Wentworth Street.

The above is a letter written in 1896 soliciting funds for the shelter.

There are a couple of interesting sections in it. Firstly that although supported by the ‘Sisters of Mercy’ the establishment is non-sectarian :

It is specially desired to call the attention of the charitable to some distinguishing marks of the Charity. In the first place it is absolutely non-sectarian. There are no questions as to nationality or creed. Whilst there is accommodation in the Refuge, no bona-fide applicant is refused, the sole passport necessary being genuine poverty and want.

The second is the list of the ‘distressed’ who took shelter there:

As an example of the distress, which exists in our midst may be mentioned that in the Refuge last year, amongst those assisted were an Architect, an Optician, clerks, waiters, valets, woodcarvers, ivory-turners, weavers, painters, a professor of music, a linguist, certificated teachers, dressmakers, domestic servants, etc., etc.

As well as shelter, Providence Row also provided training for servants:

In addition to the Refuge, there are two homes, one for Servants, who partially support themselves by work, the other where women out of engagements can board and lodge at a small cost per week, whilst searching for situations.

The writing has a formality and tenderness to it, which feels a million miles away from government statistics. As I’m reading this, I’m also checking on the news from The Guardian that:

a leading banker warned that Britain is facing a “tsunami” of house repossessions as soon as interest rates start to rise.

Richard Banks, chief executive of UK Asset Resolution (UKAR), the body that runs the £80bn of mortgages bailed out by the taxpayer during the banking crisis, said 23,000 of his group’s 750,000 mortgage holders are more than six months behind with repayments, adding that projections for the number of people falling behind could get “scary” if lenders did nothing to prepare for higher rates.

I think about night in the city, especially night in an area like that of the SLICE with its cheek-to-cheek juxtaposition of very different communities. Where to find shelter at night? The shadow of Spitalfields church at night is both peaceful and stern.

(Alongside thinking about the night shelter, I’ve been thinking about church and its bells. A set of church bells is called a ‘peal’ and spitalfields has had three peals. The original peal of twelve was destroyed in the great fire of 1836, to be replaced by a peal of eight cast in Whitechapel that lasted until the nineteen twenties, then the tower became silent until 1971 when the current peal of eight bells (cast by Gillet & Johnston in 1919) was acquired second-hand from the demolished church of St Stephens in Clapham… )

Earlier today I read Steve’s post about his proposal for a park in the car park. Such a lovely idea met with the kind of beaurocratic response that either makes you giggle or weep, (depending on how resilient you’re feeling…)……

More from the letter:

During the Winter Months, the Refuge provides every night nearly three hundred night’s lodgings, suppers & breakfasts to homeless wanderers free of cost. From the foundation of the Refuge thirty six years ago by the late Rev. Dr. Gilbert, nearly one million two hundred and fifty thousand night’s lodgings suppers and breakfasts have been provided.

The work of the charity does not end at “feeding the hungry” and “harbouring the harbourless”. It is also the means of enabling many of those, who find shelter within the walls of the Refuge, to begin life afresh, and to obtain again a position for themselves in the world. Those, for example, who through dire necessity, to save their families from starvation or worse, have parted with their tools, are enabled to recover them: sellers of fusees, flowers, newspapers, bootlaces, and the like, without hope or money, are supplied with a little stock: rent is paid and a small allowance granted to mothers and children, when the breadwinner through sickness is unable to work: the ragged are also clothed and situations obtained for them.


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