Collections Crossover: Poverty and Homelessness
Collections Crossover: Poverty and Homelessness

The theme of our latest Collections Crossover isn't particularly cheery but is nevertheless important, and with the UK facing serious economic turbulence and many among us negotiating a cost of living crisis, it feels especially pertinent for these times.

Peter Higginbotham's remarkable collection brings sharply into focus the choices facing the poor and disadvantaged in an age before the welfare state. A renowned expert in his field, Peter's collection of images spans the eighteenth to twentieth centuries (as well as modern photographs of surviving buildings) and is a comprehensive survey of the dense network of workhouses, asylums, orphanages, infirmaries, soup kitchens, lodging houses and charitable organisations set up to provide food, homes, employment, training or rehabilitation to the most disadvantaged in society. The huge number of places around the UK is a sobering reminder of the staggering proportion of the population whose lives were blighted by hardship and poverty. We currently have 5300 images from the Peter Higginbotham Collection online, but there are yet more on his website If you see something on there that we don't yet have on our website, let us know and we can provide you with a hi-res and arrange a licence.

In addition to this, we also have a small set of photographs from the archives of The Children's Society (formerly known as the Waifs' & Strays' Society), founded by Reverend Edward Rudolf in 1881. The collection mainly consists of nostalgic photographs of children from the 1930s and '40s, and consciously project a positive experience of children's homes. There is further material on this organisation in the form of older photographs and advertisements in the Peter Higginbotham Collection.

During the 1970s, photographer Moyra Peralta spent time working at shelters in London, in particular the Providence Row night refuge in Crispin Street, close to Spitalfields Market, at that time undeveloped. It was an experience that prompted her to record the lives of the people she met and the challenges arising from being homeless. Moyra's pictures are both empathetic and unflinching, revealing not only the essential work done by employees and volunteers both at shelters and out on the streets, but also her determination to ensure the men and women she knew were not forgotten. Although small in number, it's also worth mentioning the photographs of John Gay for English Heritage, part of our representation of the Historic England archive. In his travels around the country, Gay encountered several tramps and homeless people and took their pictures.

Periodicals and publications of the 19th and early 20th centuries felt a journalistic obligation to draw attention to the plight of the destitute or displaced, and so magazines such as The Graphic, The Illustrated London News, The British Workwoman and George Sims's 'Living London' are an excellent source for illustrations, photographs and viewpoints about the social issues of the day. See this selection for an overview of images on this subject from Paul Renouard's depiction of homeless men sleeping in St. James's Park for The Graphic in 1887 to John Thomson's revealing documentary photographs from a decade earlier in 'Street Life in London', not forgetting the dark, shadowy scenes of the capital's underbelly by Gustav Dore in 'London'.

This is a subject in which we are probably uniquely placed to offer the very best pictures, and we would encourage you to search our site to explore further. In addition to this, we have a large quantity of material on displaced people, refugees and emigrants, but that, perhaps is a subject for another newsletter. We hope you find our weekly updates useful and interesting. Remember we are always on hand to carry out picture research, provide quotes or answer any other questions you might have about using the library. Get in touch by calling 020 8852 7482 or email us at And if you know of any colleagues who would benefit from receiving our updates, do let us know.

Mary Evans Picture Library Ltd.  59 Tranquil Vale  Blackheath  London  SE3 0BS. United Kingdom.
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