The Providence (Row) Night Refuge in Crispin-street.

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Providence Row Night Refuge

Between 1860  and 1931 the Refuge provided nearly 2,600,000 free nights’ lodgings, and 5,200,000 free meals. The article below originally appeared in the Standard in 1905. It’s a jaw-dropping piece of journalism.

In the series of articles by Mr. L. Cope Cornford now appearing in The Standard, on “the Canker at the Heart,” the writer in Tuesday’s issue gave a description of a visit paid to the Providence (Row) Night Refuge in Crispin-street.

Upon the evening of November 1st, the Providence (Row) Night Refuge, in Crispin-street, which adjoins Bishopsgate-street Without, opened its doors. Men and women, with children, who had waited patiently for hours in the rain, fought to get in. Some hundred and forty men, a little over a hundred women, and fifteen children were admitted. Very many were perforce turned away.

Now, this particular refuge has certain characteristics that distinguish it from others. Every one is admitted free, irrespective of creed. Everyone must give an account of himself, or herself, which is taken  down in writing, and each case is subjected to inquiry. About three out of five are in practice, found to be true accounts. Should they be proved fallacious, the ticket which all receive, entitling them to five nights’ board and lodging, is not renewed. In genuine cases the tickets are renewed, entitling the recipient to a further fifteen nights’ lodging. Upon their entrance a bowl of cocoa and a small loaf are given to all. The people eat, sitting at the scrubbed deal tables in the clean lofty rooms, which are warmed and pleasantly lighted. Then they have their baths and go to bed. They sleep in great dormitories, in wooden bunks, raised about eighteen inches from the floor. The mattress and pillow are covered with American cloth ; the covering is a hide of leather. The whole place is kept absolutely clean. By means of the particulars obtained with regard to the circumstances of each person, differentiation is established, and the sisters of charity are often able to get work for the women, while the secretary and manager, Mr. J. W. Gilbert, does what it is possible to do, in the present unorganised condition of the labour market, for the men. There are a school for girls and infants and a training establishment and home for girls who desire to be domestic servants, or who are waiting for a place. These establishments are also conducted by the sisters.

WHAT THE REFUGE DOES.

From the economical point of view, it may, of course, be said that the Providence Night Refuge encourages the wastrel, in so far as it gives food and lodging to more persons than it can benefit permanently by setting them to earn a livelihood. On the other hand, it may be said that such an institution does as much as any private enterprise can hope to do, in the absence of any State provision for dealing with surplus labour or habitual idleness. It finds work where it can ; it gives the man and woman every opportunity and every encouragement to find work for themselves : and, above all, it distinguishes one case from another, and conducts a careful and most laborious inquiry into its circumstances. It also enforces conditions which serve to eliminate to a large extent the kind of person who gives a bad name to the common lodging-house and the casual ward. It does in fact, very much what the casual ward was intended to do, and which it has lamentably failed to accomplish—it gives a man down on his luck another chance, without too much encouraging the professional idler.

Public recognition of the Providence Night Refuge has so far manifested itself in an attempt made by the London County Council to register the place as a common lodging-house, in an action brought against it by the Council with the object of enforcing registration, and in the eventual failure of that action consequent loss of ill-spent public money. Now who and what are the people who take refuge here ? Glance down the rows of seated, quiet figures in the men’s room, and you shall see the familiar types, the familiar aspect of dull resignation. Here are two sturdy labourers, young men of 20, grey-haired men of the clerkly kind, their clothes the respectable clerkly black, elderly nondescripts, the youngster who has grown out of his boy’s job and boy’s pay, to be sent upon the streets by his employer ; ex-soldiers, of course ; and a few indubitable wastrels, who will be sifted out very shortly. On the whole, the remarkable thing about this assembly is its respectability.  Look down the half-dozen lines which make the written record of each case, and you shall see that the most of them are described as employed ” on and off.” They are, in fact, casual labourers, of whom there are so many in London to-day—the reserve of Labour of the economist—that under no conceivable circumstances could they all be employed at once in full work. Here and there is the record of a skilled artisan, “discharged in time of slackness,” Occasionally, “was in trouble.”

THE WOMEN AND CHILDREN.

But with the men we ,have already made-acquaintance, in the street, in the shelter, in the common lodging-house, and in the casual ward. Here is but a variation of the individual, not of the type. But what of the women and the children ? Cross the passage, and you shall see the bitterest sight in all broad England, the homeless woman and child.

Tables are set along the sides of the ball, and the women and children sit on either side of the tables. The black-robed sisters who take the records of each person, who call the roll, and who superintend the serving of the meal, sit at small tables in the clear centre space. These are kind and wise women, of an unfaltering courage and devotion. (The society has just lost a sister who for forty years gave herself to the care of the destitute.) Now glance down the ranks of patient women, who are so tired that they do not care to talk one with another. Worn, lined faces are they all, near defeatured of all expression save that of endurance. Many are old, white-haired. They have the dignity of age, which is still the sign of an honest, hard-fought life. They are beaten at last, poor souls, but they are courageous still

One chooses to relate these things in the baldest plain outline. For if their mere recital does not serve to proclaim the indelible shame and unforgivable wickedness of the wrong done to helpless children every day, every hour, in the dark places of the great towns, and the peril of the accumulating black debt which our sons and sons’ sons will surely have to pay to the last farthing, then it would avail nothing were the truth to be heralded by the trumpet of the Archangel, and written across the whole vault of heaven.

Whose is the fault, and whose the responsibility? Those are questions which each must answer for himself. The good people of the Providence Night Refuge have answered it. That is why I have taken you there.

The above text was found on p.15, 11th November 1905 in “The Tablet: The International Catholic News Weekly.” Reproduced with kind permission of the Publisher. The Tablet can be found at http://www.thetablet.co.uk .

There are some photographs of the closing of the building on the spitalfields life website http://spitalfieldslife.com/2013/10/03/farewell-to-the-crispin-st-night-shelter/

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