‘Coffin’ beds and exhibiting material life in a Victorian homeless shelter

Sims Medway Hall

In June 1897 a Salvation Army officer was on patrol in the East End with the District Inspector of Police. At around nine o’clock in the evening they walked east down Commercial Road and turned into Medland Street.

Here, they came upon Medland Hall – the Congregational Union Refuge Hall and one of the few free shelters for the homeless in the area. On this warm summer night the shelter was packed full with 300 men.

The observer was struck by the sleeping arrangements: ‘Ranged in banks along the floor narrow passages between each row, and in the gallery were 300 men asleep or half asleep, a few talking. The bunks not unlike coffins & in the dim light the men in them looked like corpses arranged for identification after some great disaster. Some were dressed, some half dressed & others naked. Every now & then a pale corpse wd rise & flit across the room, silently with bare feet, quite naked in fact.’

These beds were relatively common in shelters across London at this point, and they were also in use in the numerous Salvation Army shelters.

Visitors often felt pity at the sight of masses of men and women bedded down in boxes that resembled coffins.

Today, they remain a powerful means of evoking the privations of life on the streets of nineteenth-century London, even for those lucky enough to find shelter for the night.

1429 (600x800)That’s why we chose to re-stage one of them as part of our recent exhibition Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London at the Geffrye Museum of the Home. By re-creating (as best as we could from available images and descriptions) one of these coffin beds and inviting visitors to get into it we hoped to help them identify with the physical, bodily experiences of the men and women who would have occupied them in shelters.

However, for their nineteenth-century creators and users, the meaning of these beds was quite complicated.

As an alternative to a night spent on the streets, on a bench, doorway or under a bridge, they offered a certain degree of comfort.

The Salvation Army were proud of their arrangements – describing the beds as ‘bunks’, that offered both a mattress and a form of pillow: ‘This Bunk is a wooden frame 6 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 11 inches deep. It is laid on the floor of the Shelter and in it is a Seaweed mattress about 4 inches thick covered with American-Cloth. One end of the frame is slightly raised, and the mattress lying on this forms a not uncomfortable pillow.’

But the occupants of the beds viewed them in different ways.

The social campaigner Mary Higgs, who interviewed tramps, found many who were critical of the beds: ‘I asked some question about preference with regard to plank, chain or straw beds … but all agreed that “they weren’t worth calling beds.” “You do get a shelter.” said one… The Salvation Army give you what they call a bunk, – like a coffin, and oilcloth to put over you – for 2d.! That’s charity for you and religion!”’

Others, however, were more appreciative.

According to an anonymous elderly woman, interviewed by the Salvation Army at their Hanbury Shelter, the bunks were particularly appealing because of their safe surroundings: ‘When I sets out like this of a mornin’, I feel as though I was leavin’ good a-hind me. The languidge up at the Markit is so terrible, and, somehow, I seems to notice it a deal mor’n I did afore I took on at this Shelter. One time I did used to think myself lucky if I’d the chance of a fourpenny lodging, but now I’d a deal sooner sleep in a bunk and have the feelin’ of safety there is about this place.”

It was difficult to communicate this complexity in the exhibition.

Most people’s reaction to the beds was one of surprise and shock — at the privations even those who were being helped would have experienced — and the coffin analogy occurred to many people who saw them, despite the fact that we didn’t label them as such.

We offset this by displaying the quote from the elderly resident of Hanbury Street prominently nearby – to get across the message that they would have been valued by many of their users. We also suggested this in text accompanying the image.

According to the comments in the Visitors’ Book, although people enjoyed trying the bed, it compounded their sense of the difficulties faced by the Victorian poor. Several visitors were struck by its small size, a reminder that the bodies of the nineteenth-century poor would often have been considerably less substantial than our own.

One contributor to the book, who had worked in hostels in the late twentieth century, pointed out that the experience of these privations had gone on far longer than the end date of the exhibition – some places still had the box beds in the 1970s.

There was some appreciation that these beds could be a haven, though. As one child visitor remarked: ‘It’s not as bad as the streets!’

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