Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Lesson in Social History

Wednesday was a day without a set itinerary, although it had a planned beginning (the Geffrye Museum), middle (E Pellicci's Cafe) and an end (the Flickr meetup at the Mitre Pub). I was slowly making my way from Hoxton Square to the Geffrye where I was to meet two of my mates, snapping pix along the way, when I ran into Maggie who was doing the same thing. We continued on and met Malcolm in front of the museum, in plenty of time for the noon tour of the almshouse.

Here's what I've learned in a nutshell: I had long been conflating almshouses and workhouses, not realizing that these were very different facilities for the poor in England. Almshouses were established by benefactors -- a wealthy patron, a parish, or a guild -- to care for the "deserving" poor, particularly those from their own community. The almshouse we saw was established in 1714 by the Ironmongers' Company with a bequest from Sir Robert Geffrye, who had been the master of the company and Lord Mayor of London. The purpose was to provide safe, clean, modest housing for elderly members of the company, their widows, or other similarly deserving individuals who were vetted by the review board. You had to be at least 56 years old to live there, and of good character. There were various rules about going to chapel, being in by curfew, and keeping yourself and your room clean. Pensioners received an annual sum to live on, which some supplemented with personal assets, and coal for their grate. Each resident lived in a single room, which was ample size for a bed, table and chairs and a chair or two in front of the grate. Rooms also had a small pantry for storing dishes and food, which the residents purchased from vendors in the area and cooked for themselves. Each entry door led to four such rooms, and the copper boiler for water in the cellar was shared by the four units. Originally there were two privies in the back garden, and toilets were installed in the cellar (one per entry) in the late 19th century. This almshouse provided housing until the early 20th century, by which time the Shoreditch area had become less salubrious and the almshouse was relocated to somewhere in the countryside.

The less deserving poor were relegated to workhouses -- large institutions in which they received extremely minimal shelter and food in return for their labor in the workhouse laundry or whatever else it was that they did. After touring the almshouse, we walked a little bit up Kingsland Road and walked through the ground floor of a workhouse, which is now a large outpatient facility run by the NHS. While the idea of the almshouse was that the elderly residents would live out their days in modest comfort, the purpose of the workhouse was to get the poor off the streets and reform them through labor. Once someone entered a workhouse, I'm not sure what they had to do to get out. Nor do I know what happened to people who became unable to do the labor assigned to them. I'll try to find out more about this.

Our lunch destination was E Pellicci's, a Grade II listed cafe established in 1900 and still managed by the same Italian family. It's a tiny place on Bethnal Green Road with art deco marquetry paneling and Formica-topped tables. We all ordered the food of our own people. Maggie and Malcolm opted for traditional English fare (steak and kidney pie), and I got a mozzarella and tomato panino on ciabatta and a limonata.

The afternoon saw us continuing our ramble through the East End. We must have looked like we were doing a strangely-choreographed dance -- sometimes turning in three different directions to point cameras at different things, and other times turning in unison to zoom in on the same thing. Our photos will show graffiti, galleries, churches, bells and street name signs. No birds today.

An easy bus ride took us to Holborn for the Guess Where London meetup. As always it was great to see people from the group, to greet old friends and put new names with faces.

Distance: 24,848 steps (10.19 miles)
60p for another raisin and hazelnut roll
£2 admission to the almshouse
£6 for sandwich, beverage and tip
£1.20 (all the change I had) donation at the Whitechapel Gallery


  1. One thing I never understood: how did people burn coal in their rooms without producing deadly carbon monoxide fumes?

  2. Anonymous10:57 AM

    A distinct architectural feature of early almshouses is their very tall chimneys. This assisted the natural process of hot gas exhaust by the creation of a considered flue effect.

  3. Good beer at the Mitre?