Luke Seaber is the author of Incognito Social Investigation in British Literature: Certainties in Degradation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), as well as other chapters and articles on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature.  He currently teaches on modern European culture at University College London.  The question of how ‘the poor’ are represented in writing, film and painting is a long-standing interest of his.


‘Homelessness’ is now a concept all too sadly familiar to all of us.  When we talk of it, and of the homeless, we should though bear in mind that it is a concept with its own history, and that that history is perhaps less simple than one might at first expect.

Still from ‘Cathy Come Home’ (1966), Dir. Ken Loach

Incognito social investigation texts are those that describe how their authors pretended to be poor for a certain amount of time in order to write about it.  The tradition began in 1866 with ‘A Night in a Workhouse’ by James Greenwood.  It later split into various subtypes, but the narrowly Greenwoodian tradition lasted at least up until 1933, which saw the publication of one of the most famous examples of this type of text, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.  These texts focus on the extreme poor: tramps, those in workhouse casual wards, rough sleepers and the denizens of lodging houses.  In other words, those who now may reasonably described as ‘homeless’.  Yet in not one of the dozens of Greenwoodian texts between 1866 and 1933 known to me is ‘homelessness’ used as the chief identifier of these men and women.  People are certainly categorized, however: by their moral status (deserving vs. undeserving poor, for instance); by whether drink is to blame for their situation; by whether they are urban or rural (which rather means static or nomadic).


One might put Orwell forward as an exception to this lack of recognition of ‘homeless’ as a category, as in Chapter XXXVII of Down and Out in Paris and London he does give a breakdown of the ‘sleeping accommodation open to a homeless person in London’, examination of Orwell’s list in fact further reinforces my contention, I would argue.  He first gives the three options available to those who cannot raise sevenpence, the minimum price of a true bed for the night: the Embankment, which, with a few other odd corners (one behind the Lyceum Theatre), was one of the handful of places in London where by tradition the police would not move you on if you slept; next, the Twopenny Hangover, where one slept sitting leaning on a cord that was cut in the morning; finally, at fourpence a night, the Coffin, where one slept covered by tarpaulin in a wooden box.  After this there come places with true beds ranging between sevenpence a night and a shilling and a penny.  These range from the splendid Rowton Houses to the filthiest common lodging houses.  In other words, we range from rough sleepers to the vulnerably housed – indeed, as can be understood reading between the lines of Orwell’s account of trying to get lodging at a Rowton House, people lived long term there.  Given the amount of people in  London in the 1920s and ’30s precariously paying weekly rents, one wonders what distinguished the ‘homeless’ from those paying (not necessarily precariously) the equivalent of a daily rent.  However, Orwell’s list is purely descriptive: he in no way uses it as a basis for classification amongst the poor.  The nearest he gets to this is when, whilst waiting for meal tickets under Charing Cross Bridge he notes (very much in passing) that of those there with him some ‘were truly appalling specimens – they were Embankment sleepers, and the Embankment dredges up worse types than the spike’; to claim this suggests in any way a system of classification based upon one’s position vis-à-vis housing is clearly untenable.

‘A Rowton House’ from George R. Sims, Living London, vol. III

Orwell comes the nearest to using access to housing as a classifier, but in fact does not do so.  Even those social investigators whose actions clearly show that they recognized the problem of homelessness did not use it on a classificatory basis.  Olive Christian Malvery around 1904 and Mrs Cecil Chesterton in the mid-1920s both came out of their experiences with the decision to do something practical to alleviate the problems of homeless women, and both financed the building of what would now be considered homeless shelters or social housing; neither, however, in their writings shows any evidence that she used ‘homeless’ as a classifier in anything approaching the modern sense.


Why might there have been this absence? The reason is to be found, I would suggest, in the existence of the casual ward system and common lodging houses.  The former – those parts of workhouses set aside for tramps since 1837 – were where vagrants could sleep and eat, the price being that they had to perform a certain amount of work (if unable to pay) and could theoretically not return to the same casual ward except after a certain period.  After the end of the workhouse system in 1930, some casual wards continued in the 1960s and beyond, normally becoming known as Reception Centres.  The latter, common lodging houses, (a.k.a. doss-houses) were cheap (and usually nasty) regulated lodging.  Interestingly, the standard of facilities in Rowton Houses was often such that they were classified as hotels and therefore were not obliged to have the inspections undergone by common lodging houses.  Reception centres in London after 1894 were licensed and controlled by London County Council; an idea of just how many people – usually segregated by sex – slept in their dormitories can be seen in the fact that in London in 1927 165 common lodging houses offered 17,045 places, which was still a marked descent from when the law had changed in 1894, when 625 offered 29,574.   The nearest equivalent to the common lodging house today would now be the hostel, but the modern version is much less likely to be used as reasonably long-term lodgings for itinerant or newly-arrived workers, a function that has rather been taken over by bed-and-breakfasts and pubs, and the night shelter on the other.  I would not necessarily argue that no similar institutions existed after a certain point, nor that they no longer exist now, but after the 1930s the widely recognized concept of the common lodging house faded from people’s memory: if I had walked out of the room where I’m currently writing ninety or more years ago and asked the first person I saw for direction to the nearest common lodging house, they may not have been able to help but the concept would have been clear; it certainly would not be so now, when I would have to be far more specific – a cheap B&B, a night shelter, a homeless hostel, or a pub welcoming contractors, all of which the lodging houses were.


The existence of casual wards and common lodging houses meant that those working in the Greenwoodian tradition had, as it were, half their job done for them.  They did not have to gain the trust of the people they were studying and reporting on in the same way that would have been necessary had they been investigating rough sleepers; they were in spaces where it was usual for there to be a transient population, where one could observe without it being necessary to gain – laboriously, perhaps – the trust of individuals.  The whole Greenwoodian tradition was partially made possible by the existence of safe spaces in which to go hunting, so to speak; but these were spaces that took for granted a certain type of relationship between their denizens and housing.  This form of reportage, one of the most important for in fact communicating the lives of those whom we would now classify as ‘homeless’ to the reading public, was based at least in part upon their being ‘homeless’: as such, it was something almost too large, too obvious, to be seen.  It was not a basis for classification as it lay underneath classification, so to speak.  An excellent example of how ‘homelessness’ is approached as a descriptive label rather than an essential condition to characterize a whole class comes in Frank Gray’s The Tramp: His Meaning and Being (1931) (Gray was at one point an eccentric MP for Oxford).  He begins his book taking about the ‘homeless poor’, or ‘vagrants’, or ‘tramps’, but the chief meaning of ‘homeless’ here is ‘wandering’: what matters to Gray is movement rather than homelessness.  Indeed, when he offers a chapter-long classification of tramps and their lodgings, the question of homelessness in the recognizable modern understanding of that word is limited to this, in a description of ‘by far the largest class’, that of ‘the habitual drunkard’: these ‘sink lower in the social scale till they are no longer able to sustain themselves in homes or lodgings’.  That is all: even for Gray, perhaps the most classificatory of incognito social investigators, the whys and wherefores of homelessness are simply not a productive category.


By being homeless, or vulnerably housed, one became potentially a subject of Greenwoodian incognito social investigation: to draw attention, therefore, to classifications of homeless, housed, vulnerably housed and so on would on the one hand have been otiose (clearly all these people are in a similar state vis-à-vis housing); on the other, it would have risked drawing attention in turn to the artificiality and limitations of the form: Greenwoodian incognito social investigation may be close-quarters hidden observation, but it takes place in settings that rarely allow depth, intimacy or the acquisition of detailed knowledge.  Recognition of people’s housing status as a classificatory basis, or even recognition of its absence as such, would have risked highlighting the fact that great gulfs of experience such as the working poor, rough sleepers, criminals – in other words the majority of the ‘poor’ being reported on – were not covered by Greenwood’s method.


To see when ‘homelessness’ becomes an important and widely-recognized and -used category, it is instructive to look at the Google ngram for ‘homeless’ and ‘homelessness’ in British texts 1800-2000:

‘Homeless’ and ‘homelessness’ in British Texts, 1800-2000


This is something of a blunt instrument, but the general trend is clear: there is a slow increase; a bulge around the Second World War, which we may, I think, ascribe to an obvious increase in writings on refugees and the bombed-out; then, from some point in the mid to late ’60s a noticeably more rapid increase, albeit one neither uniform nor without reversals.  What prompted the irresistible rise in the use of ‘homeless’ as a word and, I would suggest, ‘homelessness’ as a classifying category were two events, almost exactly coterminous, although coincidentally so.  The 16th of November 1966 saw the BBC air as its Wednesday play Cathy Come Home, about homelessness; a little later, the housing charity Shelter was launched.  ‘Homelessness’ ever since has been a category to conjure with…

To conclude: ‘homeless’ – the category rather than the absence of housing – is historicizable; for most of the modern period it was not necessarily the centre of attention in discussion and representation of poverty – or indeed discussion and representation of lack of housing amongst the poor! – that it now is, and we are imposing modern standards only fifty years old if we presume it always to have had the cultural weight it has now.  Meaningful discussion of homelessness, I would suggest, is always going to lack something when it does not consider the historical specificity of the importance given to the concept itself.

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