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A guest post by London Historians Member, Jane Young.

Geffrye Union board250For anyone that is familiar with the Geffrye Museum it will be no surprise to find another skillfully executed exhibition there which displays the usual beautifully finished attention to detail that the Geffrye does so well.

Included in the exhibition are some spectacular original paintings. The centrepiece used for the exhibition literature, ‘The Pinch of Poverty’ by Thomas Benjamin Kennington 1891 is exquisite and Gustave Doré’s ‘A Poor House’ 1869 simply magnificent to mention just two of many.

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The Pinch of Poverty by Thomas Benjamin Kennington, 1891. (detail)

It is very refreshing to find that the curator has not restricted the exhibition to the tried and trusted method of using exclusively the East End of London as the only exemplar of all that denotes slums and poverty within this period. As a result the exhibition is well balanced, covering all of London from Bloomsbury to Greenwich and Deptford along with the lesser known ‘Potteries’ of Notting Dale in the west, one of the blackest spots to be found on the Booth Map.

All aspects of the conditions of life on the streets are illustrated, in addition to abject poverty and destitution, the human side of what it meant to be homeless is explored with documents, photographs and everyday objects, showing the camaraderie and humour amongst real people and their accounts of the time. Incorporating lodging houses and charity the response to social intervention and paternalism is demonstrated.

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Accommodation available to the homeless was spartan indeed. Interior of a workhouse.

 

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Street poor queueing.

Opened in 1914 in the buildings and grounds of almshouses built two centuries earlier in 1714 by the Ironmongers Company, the Geffrye is well worth a visit at any time if you do not already know it. For those travelling any distance to see the exhibition it might be useful to note that the restored almshouse which is open for visitors on certain days is superb and a good reason to time a visit to coincide with the open days. Also the permanent collection, which transports you through four centuries of detailed domestic interiors and houses further beautiful original paintings; an herb garden; garden reading room and beautiful grounds and gardens within the setting of the original almshouses; a little oasis off the Kingsland Road where it is very easy to forget you are in 21st Century East London.

‘Homes of the Homeless’ manages to achieve that rare thing, an exhibition which has in no way been ‘dumbed down’ but is still perfectly accessible and understandable for children too. Engaging and thoughtfully constructed it succeeds in having appeal for a wide audience. Now open and running until 12 July 2015 with a very reasonable admission price of £5. In conjunction with this runs a display in collaboration with the New Horizon Youth Centre: ‘Home and hope: Young people’s experience of homelessness today’ raising awareness of the contemporary experience of homelessness.

Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London runs until 12 July. 

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