The Homeless Of Victorian London

Homelessness was a huge problem in Victorian London. Vast numbers of poverty-stricken drifters wandered the streets during the day, and sought rest at night wherever they could find shelter.

Doorways, the communal halls or stairwells of houses, benches along the Embankment, or even the corners of Trafalgar Square, were typical of the sorts of places that the homeless of the 19th-century metropolis would try to get a few hours respite from the hardships of their everyday lives.

An illustration showing homeless people in Whitechapel in 1888.
The Homeless of Whitechapel. From The Illustrated London News, 13th October 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Of course, the sight of so many homeless people on the streets of London caused a huge social problem for the Victorian authorities, and the question of what to do with this underclass was raised in the newspapers time and time again in the years leading up to the Jack the Ripper murders.

One intriguing thing that does come out of many of the articles is that, on the whole, the individual police constables, whose job it was to try and keep order on the streets of London by night, tended to turn a blind eye to any homeless they encountered as they went about their night duties.

It was only when their superiors decided to try to be seen to be doing something about the problem, that the constables would take action against London’s rough sleepers.

A group of men on a bench on the Embankment.
Rough Sleepers On The Embankment


The following article, about the police and the homeless,  appeared in The Epworth Bells, Crowle and Isle of Axholme Messenger on Saturday, 22nd October, 1887:-

“The police of London have at the present time a hard task before them.

Whilst highly praised by those who know them best for their sympathy and kindness of manner towards the poor, they are compelled to resist and keep down the open lawlessness of those, who, while appearing as the champions of the unemployed, would make their case still worse by inciting them to destroy property and life.

That there is, however, in London, a large amount of helpless misery, is a fact which ought to be widely known and kindly met.


A long article on the subject appears in Thursday’s Standard, from which we give one or two brief extracts.

While shewing that some noble efforts are being made to give a night’s shelter to the homeless, it says:-

One piece of evidence, which attests to the distress existing amongst the very poorest classes of the community at the present time, is furnished by the number of persons – men, women, and children – who are to be found nightly sleeping, or trying to sleep, in the open air.


They congregate under railway arches, upon the open staircases of industrial dwellings, in the recesses of the bridges, in sheltered doorways, and, indeed, wherever there is a chance of their being allowed to remain undisturbed.

The majority of these forlorn outcasts, however, seem to concentrate themselves in Covent Garden, Trafalgar-square, and on the Thames Embankment, and at each of these places they collect in scores, and even hundreds, to huddle together and impart to each other what warmth they may.


Such a spectacle as may be seen nightly in Trafalgar-square is, indeed, maddening in the extreme.

Usually the poor creatures begin to assemble and take up their quarters about half-past eleven, long before the tide of West-end traffic has appreciably slackened; but the police during the past two or three nights have kept the place clear until after midnight, and there has, consequently, not been a general muster for some time subsequent to that.

The people lie about in all directions, some reposing upon pieces of old sacking and covering themselves with newspapers or tattered blankets; others, not possessing even these mockeries for protection against the weather, simply lie down on the bare flags and shiver the long hours away.

Homeless people sleeping beneath newspapers in Trafalgar Square.
Sleeping In Trafalgar Square. From The Illustrated London News, Saturday, 29th October, 1887. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The police are extremely kind to them – that they all acknowledge – but necessarily the kindness is of that negative kind which consists in non-interference, supplemented by recommendations to seek the refuge of the casual ward.”


Another place that was a popular haunt for London’s homeless – particularly for homeless women – was Hyde Park.

Eddowes’s Journal, and General Advertiser, on Wednesday, 2nd November, 1887, published the following article about the homeless women in Hyde Park:-

“An official inquiry is about to be made concerning the outcast women who seek resting places in Hyde Park both day and night.

During the summer months, it was well known to the authorities that a number of women slept under the trees in various parts of the park, many of them night after night.

It was supposed that cold weather would cause them would cause them to discontinue the practice, but this has not proved to be the case.


Tuesday was bitterly cold, yet a number of women sought rest on the green-ward or on the fallen leaves in secluded spots in the park.

These were principally young women, many of them decent in appearance and, apparently, modest in conduct, but homeless.


Some inquiry was made as to the habits of these young women.

The police authorities state that many them are girls whose conduct has been anything but exemplary.

Some of them repose as best they can, during the day, and at night sally forth to the haunts of vice, returning in the morning to their usual resort.


The superintendent of police says that every opportunity is taken to induce the women who are homeless to go to the workhouse, to homes, or even to casual wards, but they persistently refuse, saying that they want to be “independent.”


Other young women there are whom the police believe be honest, but who are forced by poverty to seek some shelter for the night where there is nothing pay.

In the morning, after sleeping on the grass, or on the fallen leaves at this season, they wash in the Serpentine, which they are permitted to do as long as soap is not used, comb their hair, and go off in search of work.


Ingenious methods are sometimes practised to keep the cold out at night.

Two girls for many nights slept in the hollow trunk of an old elm tree, which was large enough not only to contain the young women, but two park chairs, which they took in with them, and, placing their shawls over the opening, managed to make themselves comfortable. One morning they were detected by the policeman on duty, and forbidden to take shelter there again.


The question now to decide is whether, in the interests of outcast women, authority should not be given to the police to turn them out of the parks at night, or whether they should not be handed over to some authority who would provide some humble shelter for them during the night.

Hitherto, the police have looked on it as an infringement of the “freedom of the subject” to interfere with persons seeking rest in the park, unless they commit some offence.

However, an order is likely to be issued by the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to arrest all persons rogues and vagabonds who are found wandering or sleeping in the open air at night during the cold weather.

It is a question whether such an order cannot be extended to the parks, to enable the policemen to compel the homeless to seek shelter elsewhere.”