In Darkest London: Ada Chesterton on charitable provision for homelessness in 1920s London

Background

This expands upon (with links to associated locations) my post that appeared on the Voluntary Action History Society blog earlier this year, which considers comments on charity provision for the homeless and ‘destitute’ in London, made by the journalist and ‘social reformer’ Ada Elizabeth Chesterton in her 1926 book In Darkest London (hereafter, IDL). This book records her experiences in February 1925, when, at 56,  she spent two weeks (Ward 1943) ‘undercover’ as (in her terms) an ‘outcast’ (i.e. destitute and homeless) on the streets of London; the experiences first appeared serialised in the Sunday Express. Unless otherwise noted, the quotes are those made by Chesterton within IDL.

Introduction

The main aim of Ada Chesterton’s experiment as a homeless and destitute ‘outcast’ was to challenge the commonly held belief that ‘for a woman who is willing to work, employment can always be found’; in particular, she wished to challenge the view of her peers that woman might easily find work ‘without reference or status of some sort’ (IDL). Her experiment sought to question ‘How then does the outcast live?’.

Her methods might now be seen as somewhat suspect (although TV programmes such as ‘Secret Millionaire’ show a continuing taste for – and  the acceptance of – artifice ‘for the greater good’). It is the acquisition of resources (which then, as now, were very limited) destined for those in genuine need that is perhaps hard to support; nevertheless, the outcome of this widely publicised (and popular) stunt did include the extension of provision for homeless women in London (rapidly enabling the  establishment of ‘Cecil Houses’ shelters – a charity named after her late husband, that she established in 1926, that continues to shelter homeless today), and within workhouses (with the provision of hot tea for women), and led to the cessation of one of the more archaic practices required of female workhouse residents (oakum-picking) (Ker 2011: 118, 146, 552).

Oakum picking in East End Workhouse (Photo: linked from National Archives)

The book is charged with a sentimentality; but, considering the intents of Ada Chesterton, and that as a journalist she probably knew her audience well, it might be expected. And, according to the author, publication of her experiences did indeed lead to change – for instance, the cessation of oakum picking, and provision of hot tea for women, within workhouses, her reports seem to have hit their mark. She demonstrated the effects of her experiences upon her personal  by establishing the Cecil Housing shelters for women in 1926.

Mrs Chesterton becomes Annie Turner

It’s perhaps surprising for us to accept today that a woman so clearly ‘middle-class’ may have passed among the ‘down-and-outs’; but the work of other investigators (such as, in the 1930s, George Orwell, John Brown, and Frank Gray) demonstrate that accent and ‘manners’ were no barrier to acceptance, largely due to  the numbers of previously comfortably off individuals and families plunged into poverty as a result of the depression. Ada herself seems surprised that her status went unchallenged, but puts this down to her supposition that ‘the majority of Londoners speak much better nowadays…Among the younger outcasts the Cockney twang is very rare…For this reason, I suppose, my own accent did not raise comment…I was never once challenged as to my origins’. In order to conceal her actual state, Chesterton adopted an alter ego: Annie Turner – a character clothed in shabby and worn apparel, with only a few pennies to her name, and a bundle containing a night-dress and a small number of necessary toilet accessories. There were, however, times that she almost gave herself away: she recalls an incident in a hostel when she was questioned by an ‘adjunct’ who asserted “there’s something wrong with you”. But for the most, her concealment was successful. She later return to some of the places in which she had stayed as ‘Annie’, to examine the accounts of shelters, and add statistics to anecdote.

Charitable provision and destitution

There were few enough ‘services’ for destitute and homeless provided by local authorities – only those associated with the Poor Law (see another post on Chesterton’s experience in the workhouse). Apart from deliberately making the physical conditions of the workhouse as unpleasant as possible (to deter what many saw as ‘scroungers’) – with incarceration within ‘coffin-like’ cells, as poor food and provisions as was possibly, and enforced hard-labour, the workhouse was a socially and psychologically disturbing experience, with families being split up, unmarried mothers at risk of losing their children (on the charge of neglect), and a very real fear of imprisonment (commonly for vagrancy); inmates were also subjected to prolonged inquisition by ‘the authorities, and the stigma of going to the ‘house’ was a very powerful one. These factors ensured that most would only enter a workhouse as a very last resort (‘casual wards’ were often not full, due to these issues), although there were occasional exceptions. In fear of dying from exposure, and of the other dangers faced by those forced into a night on the streets (again, including the threat of imprisonment for vagrancy), other sources of shelter were sought. The options included charitable shelters, and ‘doss houses’ (a subsequent post will consider this category of shelter; an excellent post on Spitalfields ‘doss houses’ by ‘the gentle author’ appears here); again, conditions were usually far from pleasant, to the extent that many continued to risk sleeping rough, rather than submit themselves to hostel accommodation.

Ada discusses the range of accommodation and subsistence support provided by charitable organisations for homeless women in 1925 London, not only emphasising the dearth of resources, but the lack of provision as compared to that available to men (she attributed this to a fear on the part of the authorities “that an ex-service man should be discovered bedless and starving in the streets”); however, there is still evidence for substantial numbers of homeless men on the streets of London at this time. Considering the inadequate, expensive, and oppressive alternatives, it is no wonder that the charitable shelters (primarily organised by Christian organisations, and all mentioned below) were always overwhelmed by applicants.

She describes hostel facilities (and their “inmates”), and outlines their other less obvious functions: such as effectively adopting the role of employment agencies (sending residents to work as domestic servants and factory workers, in response to outside enquiries), and in some cases serving as training centres (for domestic work). Several had soup-kitchens for non-residents, as at St Crispin’s shelter, Spitalfields; and some hostels (such as the King’s Road shelter, see below) were used for holidays and recreation – for example, the Mare Street hostel, Hackney (see below; now run by St Mungo’s as a hostel for homeless) provided a club house for the use of previous residents.

Mare Street, Hackney

St Crispin’s shelter, Spitalfiels, London (now LSE)

Chesterton indicates that facilities in Christian Mission shelters were generally of good quality, but notes that the rules governing eligibility varied. She relates that, despite her ability to pay the tenpence fee, she was turned away from the Great Porter Street Church Army shelter – but not before being ‘interrogated’, she believes, perhaps due to her untidy dress, but particularly as she had previously slept in the workhouse, and within a  ‘doss’ house with a less than favourable reputation. The experience ensured that, though desperate, she felt unable to seek help from another Church Army shelter (on Belvedere Road).

Hanbury Street Salvation Army shelter (Salvation Army website)

A Salvation Army shelter for women in Hanbury Street, Whitechapel drawn from life by Paul Renouard, The Graphic, 27 February 1892

Inside Hanbury Street, Whitechapel, Salvation Army shelter for women, by Paul Renouard, The Graphic, 27 February 1892 (BBC website)

Ada was very much impressed by the Salvation Army provisions – particularly as they limited intrusion into personal details; they also received praise for their willingness to accept ‘unmarried and expectant mothers’, of which there were many amongst the female residents – many having lost their work in domestic service. She claims that the Mare Street centre was “the only receiving station [‘clearing house’] of its kind in London”. Other Salvation Army hostels for women could be found, but they were run (and licensed by the L.C.C.) as commercial lodging house, such as that on Hanbury Street, Whitechapel. [1.]  A major problem in finding shelter was only “women in regular situations, who could pay a reasonable sum” were able to stay within many shelter, including the hostel near Tottenham Court Road.

St Martin in the Fields (Wikipedia)

Chesterton also briefly discusses a small hostel (mainly for discharged and remand prisoners, and only housing a few other homeless) in King’s Road, Chelsea; she further mentions less formal shelter, such as the crypt of St Martin’s Church.

Women’s entrance to St Crispin’s hostel, now LSE (author’s collection)

Ada Chesterton dedicates more than a chapter claims to St Crispin’s, Providence Row, Crispin Street, Spitalfields (see above), ‘the largest and most kindly run’ (having one hundred and twelve box beds for women) shelter, which was run by the Convent of Mercy sisters. The hostel was free to those in low-paid employment or unable to pay; the minimum intrusion into personal details was a welcome attribute of this shelter. This hostel was notable in providing security and stability, with the potential for semi-permanent residency (at least over the winter, when it was open between early November and May), if references from employers were produced; generally, residents were permitted to stay for five nights. Both this, and the attached school (perhaps enabling some mothers to find and undertake casual work), was especially important for women, who were mostly accompanied by their children.

Que for St Crispin’s  (Bishopsgate Archive, Spitalfieldlife)

In Darkest London – a useful text?

Chesterton skills as a journalistic are certainly put into use in writing this book; she certainly displays her gift as a dramatic writer (see Ker 2011: 398, 491) within IDL – though avows that she is not herself sentimental. Her greatest asset is in promoting the message (as a strong, middle-class woman) ‘There, but by the favour of circumstances, might go you or I’. Nevertheless, she makes a valiant attempt to contest many commonly held assumptions, by humanising those whom she encountered; her elucidation of the evident social and cultural variability of those who found themselves homeless and destitute, and of some of the unforeseen circumstances (including falling victim to profiteering and unscrupulous landlord) that led them to this state, is very effectively achieved. This is supported by her frequent references to the dearth of alcoholism and “drugging” among the homeless community; she also tries to show prostitution as an effect, and not a cause, of homelessness, in a sensitive manner.

The outcomes of the text, its accuracy, and its context, must be considered with caution, however. The book, and the earlier serialisation of the events it purports to describe, were popular. But when we put the two forms of evidence together, the are occasional inconsistencies. We may perhaps assume some degree of  ‘artistic license’, if not manipulation or misrepresentation of the facts, if only to accommodate the impossibility for Ada to take notes throughout all of her experiences (particularly when we bear in mind that in many hostels, and in workhouses, personal possessions were removed on entering). Doubts must therefore be raised as to the extent that her observations accurately reproduce dialogue and events. We should also perhaps be cautious in our estimates as to the extent that her work changed attitudes regarding notions of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor: she enthralled many, but any influence of her narrative was surely compounded by the support of her note-worthy friends and family. She was clearly a forceful (and perhaps to some extent domineering) character; this, it seems, has not helped others accept the truthfulness of her testimony in general. Contradictions have been claimed within her biography, The Chestertons, which was described as both “vulgar and inaccurate” (Greene 2007 [1944]: 725). The recent G.K. Chesterton biography also calls into question her comments on family history; her ‘melodramatic’ style – and its target audience of ‘women readers’ is seen to count against her (Ker 2011: 185).

Despite these problems, Chesterton highlighted some important issues, and effected change for the better, proposing a number of ideas as to how welfare provisions for the homeless and destitute might be improved; she believed that both local authorities (regarding workhouses) and “capitalist” (regarding the development of rental properties) might find good example in some charitable shelters. IDL provides a valuable insight into the conditions of, backgrounds to, and attitudes towards, homeless in the 1920s, and remains a rich resource for the exploration of both destitution and charity during this time.

Bibliography

Chesterton, A. 1926 In Darkest London, Stanley Paul & Co., London

Greene, G. 2007 [1944] ‘Graeme Greene on Chesterton’, The Chesterton Review 33, 3 / 4, pp. 724-25

Ker, I. 2011 G. K. Chesterton: A Biography, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Ward, M. 1943 Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Sheed and Ward, New York

Notes

  1. Other Christian Missions ran as commercial lodging houses include the Union Street shelter (although providing free lodging for a small number of destitute) – initially referred to as the Christian Herald Mission, later as the “Willow Street Philanthropic Mission”. (At some point this was incorporated into the Elizabeth Baxter Hostel – a charity that continues to today) A full – and favourable – description of this House derives from a visit by Ada Chesterton after the conclusion of her ‘experiment’.
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