Latest from Peter Berthoud

Down and Out in 1930s London

03-April-2012 0:00
in Photography
by Peter Berthoud

Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell's classic book on his experience of rough living, was published in 1933.

These photos of London's rough sleepers, and the hostels and homes that they sheltered in, were taken around the same time.

I wonder how many of these faces and places Orwell would have recognised?

Homeless man asleep on a bench, the Embankment in the City of London, mid 1930sHomeless man asleep on a bench, the Embankment in the City of London, mid 1930s.

Orwell gives "Paddy's" account of sleeping on an Embankment bench:

"De whole t'ing wid de Embankment is gettin' to sleep early. You got to be on your bench by eight o'clock, because dere ain't too many benches and sometimes dey're all taken. And you got to try to get to sleep at once. 'Tis too cold to sleep much after twelve o'clock, an' de police turns you off at four in de mornin'. It ain't easy to sleep, dough, wid dem bloody trams flyin' past your head all de time, an' dem sky-signs across de river flickin' on an' off in your eyes. De cold's cruel. Dem as sleeps dere generally wraps demselves up in newspaper, but it don't do much good. You'd be bloody lucky if you got t'ree hours' sleep."

Homeless man, the Embankment, mid 1930s
Homeless man, the Embankment, mid 1930s.

Orwell slept on the Embankment himself and found that:

"It corresponded to Paddy's description. It is, however, much better than not sleeping at all, which is the alternative if you spend the night in the streets, elsewhere than on the Embankment. According to the law in London, you may sit down for the night, but the police must move you on if they see you asleep."

Rowton House
Rowton House "An Hotel for Working Men" at Arlington Road, Camden Town, mid 1930s.

Orwell also used some of the shelters, homes and hotels used by the homeless. In his opinion the Rowton Houses, illustrated here, were the best of the bunch.

"The best are the Rowton Houses, where the charge is a shilling, for which you get a cubicle to yourself, and the use of excellent bathrooms. You can also pay half a crown for a 'special', which is practically hotel accommodation. The Rowton Houses are splendid buildings, and the only objection to them is the strict discipline, with rules against cooking, card-playing, etc. Perhaps the best advertisement for the Rowton Houses is the fact that they are always full to overflowing."

A private cubicle in one of the Rowton Houses, mid 1930s
A private cubicle in one of the Rowton Houses, mid 1930s.

At the time there were six Rowton Houses in London. The Arlington Road house is still in use today as a homeless shelter.

A Smoking Room in one of the Rowton Houses, mid 1930s
A Smoking Room in one of the Rowton Houses, mid 1930s.

Other shelters were provided by a range of organisations including The Church Army.

Dinner at Church Army Home in Westminster, mid 1930s
Dinner at Church Army Home in Westminster, mid 1930s.

A contemporary of Orwell's, John Brown, wrote in his 1934 autobiography "I Was a Tramp":

“The Church Army ‘Captain’ had proved himself a good Samaritan, but his beds were occupied by the greatest set of villains in England, judging by their talk.”

The workshop at
The workshop at "Morning Post" Embankment Home, mid 1930s.

Chopping and bundling firewood in the workshop was technically voluntary. However it was "expected" that recipients of shelter, food and clothing would perform their daily, "voluntary" duties .

Inside the Salvation Army Shelter at Blackfriars Road, mid 1930s
Inside the Salvation Army Shelter at Blackfriars Road, mid 1930s.

For Orwell, the next best shelters were those provided by The Salvation Army.

"Next best, in point of cleanliness, are the Salvation Army hostels, at sevenpence or eightpence. They vary (I have been in one or two that were not very unlike common lodging-houses), but most of them are clean, and they have good bathrooms; you have to pay extra for a bath, however. You can get a cubicle for a shilling. In the eightpenny dormitories the beds are comfortable, but there are so many of them (as a rule at least forty to a room), and so close together, that it is impossible to get a quiet night. The numerous restrictions stink of prison and charity. The Salvation Army hostels would only appeal to people who put cleanliness before anything else."

"An hour snatched from care on Blackfriars Bridge.", mid 1930s.

Of course homelessness in London is still a current and pressing issue. Somehow the passage of time has rendered these tragic images strangely beautiful but if they also provoke a desire to support the homeless of today I would personally recommend the work done by St Mungo's. They "run over 100 projects and help thousands of homeless people make life changes every year".


Newsletter Signup