Arising out of the exceptional distress of the winter of 1819, a number of philanthropic business men and bankers spent several nights visiting the most destitute localities of London.
Appalled by what they saw, they made an appeal to the public through the Press, for at the time the Poor Law Authorities had not begun to provide shelter for the homeless, and no other Voluntary Societies had been founded to grapple with the problem in London.
A public meeting was held at the Mansion House under the presidency of the Lord Mayor, and contributions flowed in so rapidly that, within six hours of the meeting, premises were secured and the first Refuge opened in London Wall.
Trustees were appointed to administer the funds, and it is recorded that in the first seventy-three years, from 1819 to 1891, more than four hundred thousand people secured relief at the Refuges of the Society, and nearly three million nights lodgings were given.
A most interesting occurrence in the annals of the society took place in 1856, when a visit was paid to the Houseless Poor Asylum (as the Refuge of the Society was then called) by Charles Dickens. A few days later he published an article on his visit in Household Words, No. 309, February 22, 1856.
The heart of the great novelist was deeply touched by what he witnessed in Playhouse Yard, Whitecross Street, where the Refuge was then situated, and his description of the scene and the inmates is full of that pathos with which his pen could stir the heart as perhaps no other author of that or any period. He was not content merely to put before his readers the sorrows and distress of the inmates of the Refuge, but held up to the good-natured ridicule the critics, of whom there were then and ever will be many, when efforts are made to relieve those who have become destitute.
The Trustees continued their kindly efforts in an earnest and practical way, in spite of the fact that, during the first eighty years of the work, the more humane Poor Laws provided shelters, and other Societies had started voluntary Institutions for the same kind of relief.
Amongst these Societies was the Church Army, and so impressed were the Trustees with the efforts made by this Institution, not only for the temporary and physical relief of these homeless destitutes, but also in their endeavours to improve the moral and spiritual welfare and to reinstate their applicants in good citizenship, that three leading honorary officials of the Church Army were co-opted Trustees, and eventually the management of the Society was practically carried on by the Church Army for sixteen years.
During the first ninety years of the Society’s existence other organisations had been founded for very similar purposes; and the Casual Wards of London had passed under the control of the Metropolitan Asylums Board, who organized an excellent scheme of co-ordination amongst all the Institutions working for similar objects, so that overlapping should be avoided, help afforded mutually in many details, and discretion used in allotting applicants for the shelter or relief.
In 1912 the Trustees thought it advisable to ask the Charity Commissioners to lay down an official scheme for the regulation of the Houseless Poor Society in order to make it once again an independent Charity. It had, by this date, though the generosity of the public, become endowed to a considerable extent. In 1915 a Scheme was approved by the Charity Commissioners under which the Society has since been administered.
Soon after the outbreak of the First World War it was found that there were so few out of employment, that the work of the Society came almost to a standstill. A good offer, therefore, having been made, the Society’s Refuge in the City was sold, and the work suspended in anticipation of the period of distress that would certainly follow the War, as was the case in 1819 after the Napoleonic Campaigns, again in 1856 after the Crimea, and again in 1901 after the South African War.
After careful consideration of the needs which began to be felt in the early party of 1921, it was thought advisable that the Society should devote itself to helping the better educated homeless and destitute men, of whom, alas, there were not a few. Between 1921 and 1924 The Society operated from Grove Lodge in Higbury before resolving to purchase a Georgian Mansion House at Clapham Common West Side called “Western Lodge”. The property was purchased for £4,500 with an additional £2,000 spent adapting and furnishing it so that it was ready to house 30 homeless men. Further information about this historic property can be found here.
In 2009 The Society took the decision that it was time to move from Clapham Common partly due to the huge maintenance cost of such a large Grade 2 listed building and the limitations of work they were able to do with clients; as a result they started viewing suitable properties in the Borough.
In 2011 The Society purchased a Victorian town house in Tooting Bec, the original plan was for 15 rooms and shared facilities such as bathrooms kitchen and sitting room. However, the local authority was keen for The Society to provide self contained units which resulted in only having the space to provide 10 rooms which have en suite toilets, showers and a mini kitchen in every room. This change was a challenge for Western Lodge as they had been running as a community with shared facilities for so long and the Residents, Staff and Trustee’s were keen to continue with that model as so many had benefited from being a part of a community that valued them for who they are.
The Society moved to the newly renovated site in Tooting Bec on 4th December 2012 with 10 residents from the old site (all the others had been re-housed back into the community or moved into other supported housing projects in the Borough). Since this time The Society has worked hard to create a warm and supportive community in Tooting Bec where residents past and present can continue to get help with addiction, mental and physical health problems, housing, benefits and life skills training.
The move to Tooting Bec has been a positive one and almost 4 years on The Society continues to help and support some of the most vulnerable men in the community. The Society’s work continues to grow as they provide tenancy support to ex-residents, and have reached out to new people in the community via a joint project with Holy Trinity Church to offer advice, support and hospitality on a Monday afternoon every week at the Trinity Homeless Support Café.
We are sure the next 200 years will be just as interesting!