The Shelter In Hanbury Street

In May, 1892, The Pall Mall Gazette published two articles, written by a lady reporter, who had spent the night in the Salvation Army Shelter on Hanbury Street in Spitalfields.

The concluding instalment appeared on Tuesday May 3rd, 1892:-


“I daresay I may have had four hours’ sleep altogether. Once I awoke with a start. I had dreamt that somebody had found the shilling that I had sewn in the hem of my petticoat, and that I had nothing to pay my train fare home.

The coughing was bad then, but it got worse later on.

Getting-up time was six o’clock, but at half-past five most of the women were bestirring themselves.

I sat up in my bunk and looked round.


Oh, dear! the same sickening sight – the scratching – that I saw going on at night I saw all over again.

I began to be sick- literally sick. It was the awful smell. The smell of one dirty tramp is bad enough, but the smell of over two hundred dirty women is something too horrible to imagine.

There must have been considerably more than two hundred in the two dormitories that I saw – the place holds three hundred and fifty – and then there were the women and children in the creche.

Adjoining the creche was a small dormitory occupied by the girls living in the house and a few other young women.


Directly the call-bell had been rung I got out of my bunk and went downstairs. Some of the women were already down and grumbling because breakfast was not ready. The person who was in authority this morning – the officers were not present – was a pleasant-faced, buxom young woman of five or six and twenty.

She came into the room with a large hand-bell, about a quarter of an hour alter I had been down.

“How I dread going in there,” she said, standing for a second outside the dormitory-door with her hand pressed to her heart.

At half past six the room was pretty full, though a good many of the women had gone out without breakfast.

“Have a drink of tea, my dear,” said a woman sitting near me, offering her own basin.


While wondering what had become of my friend the Yorkshire girl, I was startled by receiving a slap on the cheek. Turning round sharply I saw that it was she herself who had treated me thus familiarly.

“Hello,” she said in her blunt way, plumping herself down by my side, “how did you pass the night?”

She had the same hangdog expression on her face as I had noticed at night, and I learned on inquiry that she had gone to bed without supper, her stubborn spirit forbidding her to say she was hungry.

I caught sight of my other friend, the Irish woman, presently, and went and sat by her.

She had just come in with her breakfast, and insisted on my having a drink of her tea. She offered me half of her roll and jam.


There was plenty of conversation at our end of the room.

One woman, rather cleaner looking than the others, dressed in a brown ulster and pork-pie hat, was talking nineteen to the dozen. She was abusing the General, and the words which follow must be taken as only an expurgated sample.

“The damned old swindle! What’s he doing with all the money he’s getting? Going about the country with his family for the benefit of his health. You can hear his character wherever you go. I lost a good place last week through saying I was here. It was enough for ’em when I told ’em that. They didn’t want me any longer.

I’ll tell him what I think of him some of these days. Wait till they go to the Crystal Palace again. I’ll go up and tell him what the bunks ‘re like.

They wanted me to go in the persession. Would I go about with a strap across my chest with Women’s Shelter written on it? My God, not me! I’ve never seen him. I see his physihogomy there (pointing to the portrait at the end of the room).

What ‘ud they say to me at my shop if they was to see anything on me? My God, I should go out pretty quick. How er you to help getting things on you in such a place as this – among such a dirty, filthy lot. Look at the nasty, dirty things they take in. You’ll hear all about what General Booth is at the Infirmary. And this is what they call roll and jam. Look here.”

A photograph showing General Booth reading a book.
General Booth. From The Illustrated London News, Saturday, 30th December, 1905. Copyright, The British Library Board.


” Yes, you’ll be bilious if you eat that,” said one of the other women.

“They ought to have scraped some of it off,” said another ironically.

“Look at mine,” said another. “If I was to eat all that jam I should be ill and have to go to a doctor.”

“It’s that big, fat girl that’s gets breakfast now,” said another, “the mean thing.”

“I think I must have some more tea,” said a pale-faced young woman, with a laugh. “It’s so nice.”

Some of the old women were taking snuff, and giving away a pinch here and there to a friend.

Others were mending their rags.

“Will you be good enough to thread it, my dear,” wheedled an old woman, bringing her needle and cotton to me.

Those who were not doing anything sat in groups or couples gossiping.

“Yes, and so’ll you scratch yerself if yer here a bit,” snapped the woman in the pork-pie hat, whose quick ears had caught a remark I had just made in an undertone to my Irish friend.

“Put on some clean thing and see how soon they’ll come.”


Later on, when a few more of the women had gone out, I found myself sitting next to this woman. She talked to me for some time. I learned that she had a trade. She wired the brim of hats and bonnets, but had had no regular employment for more than year.

Turning the conversation from herself, she talked about the girls who come to the shelter “in trouble.”

“There’s one of ’em,” she said, pointing towards a young woman who had just come in with a baby – a little thing with red hair that I had seen in the arms of half a dozen different girls at night.

“She’s heavy, you see; but that ain’t her child; it belongs to the carroty-haired girl.

“The tall, nice-looking girl?” I inquired.

“Well, I don’t call her nice-looking myself. I hate carroty-headed folks. Thank God there’s no carroty-headed ‘uns in our family.”

“What are they going to do with the child?”

“Oh, God knows. The young man’s dead – the father of it. There’s lots more like her here. There’s a nursery and a girl to look after it. She takes care of the young uns while the girls do the work. It’s a French girl, and they daren’t let her out of the place for fear she’d run away.

They’re a nice lot as comes in here, I tell you. You can hear that when they give out their testimonies.

One captain – a man as was here – said he’d been as bad a man as ever lived.

Some of the officers are commoner than we are ourselves. I like them as is over me to be my superiors.

Look at that dirty old woman over there she’s swarming with ’em. See her scratch herself in the night! That’s her lad. He comes from Dr. Barnardo’s homes. She’s got nowhere else to take him, so he’s come here for his holidays. She’s obliged to keep his things down here – not the bunks. My God! if he was to go in there with anything on him there’d be ruckshuns.”


The boy was nursing the little red-haired baby – kissing it, hugging it, and playing with it. He pretended to cry, and the little thing rubbed her tiny fingers in his hair.

I should hardly have expected him, with his coarse face and sullen expression, to have the subtler emotions at all.

He didn’t look much like the boy of five minutes ago now.

“That baby’s a favourite with everybody,” said the woman in the pork-pie hat. “Aren’t you, Edie” (patting the little thing on the cheek)?

“One of the officers says if anything happened to its mother she’d have it. Look at that nice young woman over there; she’s a stranger. Came in last night. Oh, but she seems to be a friend of that dirty old woman’s, just behind,” watching the girl cross the room to speak to the woman.

“The dirty old faggit. She’s one of ’em as never washes theirselves. Just you look at her hands. She’s going out to fetch some more tea. Look at ’em as she comes back. You can see ’em creeping about on one I could mention not far off.

You’ve got to be careful here, I can tell you.


Just look there at Old Telegraph. She carries all the messages – tells all about what you say to the officers. She never washes herself.  The officers stoops her sometimes – pour the water right over her. You’d die a laughing to see her. She went in the persession to the Palace.”

“Mind what yer saying over there about me,” said Telegraph, raising her arm and shaking her fist. “I’ll come over to you in a minute.”

“I suppose yer in service,” said the woman in the pork-pie hat to me. “Take no notice of her. Most of ’em as are here get their living picking about the streets – rags and bones and things chucked in the gutters. You’ll see some of ’em when you go out. Some of em shells peas at Covent-garden. They go out as early as three o’clock in the morning. That old woman they call ”Urry up’ because she shouts out in the mornin’, “Urry up, ‘urry up, ‘urry up.'”

“Give me five minutes, mothers,” called out the young woman who rang the call-bell. “I only ask you for five minutes; I let you talk all the rest of the time.”

A group of women shelling peas.
Women Shelling Peas In Covent Garden.


It was eight o’clock now, and no one is allowed to stay later.

The lass who seemed to be in charge of the place shut her eyes and offered up a fervid prayer, there was a hymn or two, and all that were left of us – between a hundred and a hundred and fifty – trooped out together, I to hurry off and change my clothes. It was too dangerous to keep them as a memento of my experience. I have burned them.


And now that I have told my story I suppose some “impressions” will be expected of me – some sort of contrast between casual ward and shelter.

This, though, would be hardly fair.

In the first place the casual ward I went to was not one that is largely patronised by women – you will remember I was the only one there; so it was possible to breathe an untainted atmosphere, and I wasn’t sickened by the sight of others’ personal uncleanliness.


It is only on these points that the shelter compares unfavourably with the casual ward, and General Booth might well consider the wisdom of pushing his dictatorship so far as to make a bath compulsory.

Roughly speaking, the same women come to the shelter night after night, so in time they would become positively clean, and that is next door to godly.

In this matter the Casual Ward shows to a great advantage as compared with the Salvation Shelter.

But, horrible as were some things in the latter – and I have not ventured to put down half of what I saw and heard – I never-the-less found my visit to the Casual Ward far more distressing than that to the Shelter.

I had imagined myself a woman tramping for work, and tried to realise what such a woman would feel.

What, then, struck me as so cruel was that for the shelter of the cold cell and the supper and breakfast of skilly and bread I should have to do a task that would keep me prisoner for the whole of the next day.


If you complete your task by eleven you are free to go.

That might be all very well if you could do it. But you can’t. It is simply impossible. Nobody knows this better than the officials in charge. The matron warned me that the task was impossible at the outset.

It is said that Old Casual Hands can get it done in time.

But what of that? It is for the holiest, occasional tramp that the work should be made possible.

If Mr. Ritchie would only go in himself and try, he would, I am sure, insist that in future the task should really, and not only theoretically, engage the casual only for the first hour or two of the morning, and leave him free to seek the work that would make him independent.


I take exception, too, to the nature of the work, especially for women.

To begin with, it is extremely painful – of course, it would be less so if there was less of it.

Besides that, it is from its prison association degrading.

Of course, all labour is honourable to those clear-sighted enough to see it so, but I can imagine poor but very honest people feeling very much like pickpockets after they had picked oakum.

The honest poor are foolishly susceptible, but these susceptibilities should be considered.

It would help to keep them honest.


General Booth appears to understand all this fully.

The bunk – a box with a bed of straw covered in leather – is not at all uncomfortable, and although the only covering provided is a leather wrapping you don’t feel cold, because the rooms are warmed.

The food they sell may not be so nutritious as the Casual Ward skilly, but it is nicer.

Most important of all to the out-of-work, there is no impossible task to keep you a prisoner for a whole day, and you can get out as early as you please in the morning.

Women bedding down in the boxes in the Hanbury Street Salvation Army shelter.
The Women In The Salvation Army Shelter On Hanbury Street, From The Graphic, 27th February, 1892. Copyright, the British Library Board.


But the great difference between the Casual Ward and the Salvation Shelter, and what makes the latter infinitely superior, is the kindly sympathy of the devoted women whom General Booth has persuaded to work his shelter for him.

The kind word, the gentle manner, the human sympathy: these are what differentiate the Salvation Shelter from the Casual Ward – perhaps they are what differentiate all private charities from State agencies even at their best.

And I cannot conclude without paying my humble tribute to the good women who spend, not one nigh nor a night every now and then, but every day and every night in these shelters.

The sight of such self-sacrificing goodness makes one feel very small.”