For many of those who ended up living in Spitalfields, life was, quite literally, a daily, and nightly, battle for survival.
Those who could afford the necessary fourpence for a night’s accommodation, could find a bed in one of the common lodging houses that proliferated in the neighbourhood.
But for those who could not afford even this paltry amount, the choices were, to say the least, stark.
They might try their luck at the casual ward of the local workhouse.
They might opt to do what many in the district did when unable to find a night’s shelter, and bed down in some dark corner of a street or on the landing of a building, or in some other out of the way place, from which they, hopefully, would not be moved on by the police.
A SALVATION ARMY SHELTER
There was, however, one alternative to sleeping in the open, and that was the Salvation Army Shelter on Hanbury Street.
This shelter, for the homeless women of the area, had come about as a direct result of the Jack the Ripper murders having exposed the horrors, and dangers, of homelessness for the women in the area.
Although it wasn’t free, the price for a night’s board was set at a price that, so it was hoped, would be affordable for even the most destitute amongst its potential clientele.
But even this “haven”, as is demonstrated by the following story, which appeared in The South Wales Daily News on Thursday, 3rd January, 1895, wasn’t without its dangers:-
DEATH IN A SALVATION ARMY SHELTER
STRONG COMMENTS FROM THE JURY
Mr Wynne E. Baxter, the coroner for East London, held an inquiry at the Whitechapel Coroner’s Court on Tuesday with reference to the death of Ann Knight, aged about 65 years, who was found dead at the Salvation Army Shelter, 194, Hanbury Street, Spitalfields, on Sunday morning.
Agnes Braid, night officer in charge of the shelter, stated that she had known the deceased for ten months through using the shelter.
The witness did not see the deceased on Saturday night, but on going to wake her on Sunday morning found her dead.
The inmates slept in bunks.
NO COVERS ON THE BEDS
A Juror: “Will you kindly let me know what kind of shelter this is?”
The witness: “They have leather beds, and bring their own clothes to cover themselves over.”
The Coroner: “How many are there there?”
The witness: “Over 200 in that room.”
A Juror: “And even in this cold weather no covering is provided for them?”
The witness: “The room is heated.”
THE POOR LAW NOT WORKING
The coroner’s officer said that the place had been visited by an official from the county council, and passed as satisfying the requirements.
The Coroner: “This simply means that the poor law is not doing its duty. The shelters would not be required if the poor law coped with such cases.
In the meantime hundreds willingly go there, otherwise they would be sitting about on doorsteps.
I have it constantly brought before me that women open street doors and sit on the stairs all night.
You see what it is – people prefer the shelter to going into the casual wards. It is a very lamentable state of affairs that these shelters should be so sought after, and it shows that some remedy is needed.”
THE DOCTOR’S TESTIMONY
Dr. Michael Ryan, of 1, Mount-place, Whitechapel, stated that the woman had been dead about an hour when he was called on Sunday morning.
The probable cause of death was old age and debility, accelerated by exposure to cold.
The doctor added. “She had scarcely any clothing on her, simply a little sheet thrown over her.”
IT IS DISGRACEFUL
A Juror: “It is disgraceful in weather like this. It ought not to be allowed.”
The Coroner: “And the alternative is that she would have been out in the night air.”
The Juror: “I think we pay enough poor rates to provide properly for our poor. If they charge 2d per night, I think it is against common decency, and I think they ought to provide some sort of covering.”
THE INQUEST ADJOURNED
The Coroner: “After these remarks, I must adjourn the inquiry for a post-mortem examination.”
The inquiry was accordingly adjourned.
Some of the Jury said that they would visit the shelter.”
THE RESUMED INQUEST
The inquest was resumed and concluded on Tuesday, 8th January, 1895; and, the next day, The Birmingham Daily Post published the following report on the proceedings and the verdict:-
“Mr. Wynne E. Baxter resumed an enquiry yesterday at the White chapel Coroner’s Court respecting the death of a woman, supposed to be Ann Knight, who was found dead in a bunk at the Salvation Army Shelter in Hanbury Street.
It was asserted last week that nothing was given to the inmates to cover them, and the only clothing on the deceased was a little sheet.
THE CAUSE OF DEATH AND THE VERDICT
Dr. Ryan said that death was due to syncope from old age, and debility and exposure.
He said the body must have been exposed at some time during the night to account for its condition, but he did not attach any blame to the authorities at the shelter.
Evidence was given showing that the temperature in the shelter was always about 70 degrees.
The jury returned a verdict of “Natural death,” and exonerated the Salvation Army.”