London’s ‘Down and Outs’ then and now

Thursday 05 September 2013

In celebration of the 80th publication anniversary of Down and Out in Paris and London we have a guest post from John Bird on the changes in tramping. Bird will join Brian Sewell in conversation at on the evening of Wednesday 9 October at Foyles Charing Cross Road. Book tickets here. Down and outness has changed radically in my lifetime. As a boy runaway from police and family I slept in doss houses as they were called, with almost exclusively old men; or men who had been made old before their time, by drink and malnourishment. In the early 1960’s it was still illegal to sleep rough and you could be arrested for having no fixed abode. Begging was also outlawed so it meant that most ‘down and outs’ had to work. And they had to live in places like the Rowton Houses or Salvation Army hostels, for which you had to pay. In the Rowton house system you got you own miniscule room, and was vastly superior to the Church Army and Salvation Army dormitories as privacy was prized. I often slept though with a band of others in inaccessible places like under bridges, or in bombsites and gardens; and at times had to make a run for it because the police had arrived. The other place to spent the night in relative safety, London seeming to be full of predatory perverts looking for a boy, was the London station terminuses. Victoria was the best, open all night where you could doss down in the waiting room. I spent many a good night under the vast table that was in the middle of the room, while the adults slept leaning in their chairs against the table. This idyll though was often interrupted by the arrival of policemen who at times drove you out, not believing your plea that you were a bone fide traveler desperate to get back to Penge. There were no soup kitchens but there were all night coffee stalls. The best being opposite Westminster Abbey near Parliament square where you could have a tea and a steak and kidney pie for not much money. Back then ‘down and outs’ were a part of the working population. They were not looked upon as a separate part of society who deserved our alms. They may have got some relief through churches giving you tea and biscuits if your listened to their prayers and hymns. But largely you were simply a very poor worker who washed up in hotels and cafes, or may work in big factories as a casual labourer. Cadby Hall at Olympia in Hammersmith was a great source of work, with a Rowton House opposite. So you could get out at 6am at the Rowton House and go across and queue for a day’s work at Lyon’s Cadby Hall, with them taking virtually all of the residents. My experience of being a ‘down and out’ was based on my lawlessness and what use to be called being ‘beyond parental control’. There weren’t many 14 or 15 year old, if any, at the time I was roughing it. But I did notice even then that if you stayed in a hostel you were simply a poor worker. And that was significant. 30 years later when I started The Big Issue times had definitely changed. ‘Down and outs’ were rough sleepers, sleeping en masse in encampments like Lincolns Inn Field and the Bull-ring at Waterloo. Or in linear dormitories, so to speak, along the Strand and Aldwych. 1991 was full not just of rough sleepers but beggars, a number of them who begged aggressively. The law had not been changed. It was still illegal to beg and to sleep rough. But since the mid 60’s magistrates had been loathed to imprison wrongdoers brought before them. So as a kind of accommodation between police and magistrates the laws were ignored. London was awash with hundreds of homeless people sleeping around the streets and parks. And aside from an occasional arrest for aggressive or violent begging the police ignored this pile up of ‘down and outs’. This population of ‘down and outs’ was not the same as those form Orwell’s day, or my young days. Whereas back then they were workers the new ‘down and outs’ were largely beggars or scavengers, or at times robbers. That is why The Big Issue giving people a chance of making their own legal money was a godsend for the many. Whereas over 90% of people who lived in a hostel when I was young were workers, by the early 1990’s over 90% had no form of work. What they had which the old ‘down and outs’ had little of, was time on their hands. Whereas if you met a drunk ‘down and out’ in my youth he was drunk from money got from his own labour, in the 90’s it was largely through their begging or robbing skills. Orwell describes the old spikes where ‘tramps’ would tramp around the country, maybe getting a bit of work here and there, but also given some form of relief. By my young time that situation been replaced by poor hostels for working men. But the ‘Casual Wards’ did carry on to look after the unfit and the disabled poor, until the mid 60’s they were absorbed into the NHS and the nascent Social Services. I can only look back to that time by reading Orwell. But what I can remember that still existed post war was that broken form of humanity who seemed lost to the world, and were a world unto themselves. Also I remember the dirty kitchens of cafes, restaurants and hotels that I got casual work in. Orwell caught them perfectly, with a bullying that often goes with having a lowly job. As a boy before I went off the rails I would see a particular clean and well-kept man around the museums at South Kensington, near my secondary modern school. He was impeccably dressed. He was upright and careful in the way he strolled around. I always saw him in the big canteen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, in the late 50’s. He would buy himself a mug of tea and a rock cake and take loads of sugar into his tea. And then go and sit as far as he could away from everyone else in the vastly, cavernous canteen of the time, since lost to modernity. I would observe him because I was fascinated by him and by one thing that flummoxed me; when you went close to him you could see that his small reading glasses were bound with tape. That his shirt though clean was over darned. That his well polished shoes were worn and just hanging on. And that his suit was stitched and patched and held together by thread. Impeccably dressed but still distressed and the clothing showed it. Broken in body and mind. But keeping the vestiges of appearance, down to the little flower, sometimes even a dandelion in his button hole. He was one of the many people, I surmised, who had not survived the First World War intact; or the hungry 30’s. He was what you might call one of the hidden ‘down and outs’, who might have had a sister who kept him mended, but could not repair his mind damaged perhaps by war or a reversal of fortune. Our mental institutions had largely been emptied by the late 80’s through Thatcher’s policy of closure and ‘Care in the community’. As well as our prisons filling up with mentally distressed people our streets likewise filled. And added to hoards of young people who were refused benefits while living at home with their parents, one could see that ‘down and outs’ were often socially different from the old style ‘down and outs.’ So ‘down and outs’ have certainly changed in my lifetime. But that is not the end of the story. For since the early days of The Big Issue ‘down and outs’ have changed once again. Recently I observed a large group of drunks sitting in a park singing, dancing, begging and at times squabbling. Unlike the early days of the Big Issue many of the people we call ‘down and outs’ would not be rough sleepers. They would be living in social housing, hostels, night shelters or some form of sheltered accommodation. They would receive regular amounts of money from the government, and would receive food and relief from the many, many charities that have been thrown up over the last 20 years. But few, if any would be workers. They are from a new class that has grown steadily since the days of Margaret Thatcher, who drove a coach and horse through the social security legislation. Once offered sparingly, since her time more and more people have been caught on benefits, extending down even to ‘down and outs.’ A workless class has been created with acres of spare time to sit and drink, rather than work in order to sit and drink. It is one of the greatest pieces of social injustice that instead of investing in people away from ‘down and outism’ we have increased their dependency. We have enshrined them in being down and outs. That to me is why even though we don’t have the great battalions of ‘down and outs’ who worked in the poorest part of the poor economy, we still have some of our neediest people outside and beyond our society. And why if Orwell was around now he would be doing a lot of head scratching and writing about this new abusive situation that we live in. An illusion of helping the poorest by giving them state support, but doing nothing for their mental health that keeps them outside of us all. ‘Down and Outs’ have been modernised into dependent recipients. And now of course with the money having run out you can see the trap they have been led into. The Orwell Prize, Britain’s most prestigious prize for political writing, is supported by the Media Standards Trust, Political Quarterly, AM Heath and Richard Blair (Orwell’s son).