They must have done something at the recent Copenhagen Conference to prevent global warming for since then it hasn’t stopped snowing and with London temperatures dropping to levels not seen for over 20 years you have to feel sorry for those sleeping rough on the streets of London.
It was when I started the Knowledge of London that first I noticed, with shock and dismay, the number of people sleeping rough, it was, I suppose when trying to be more observant to increase my knowledge that I then noticed just how many people were to be found in shop doorways at night.
[L]ondon has always had a homelessness problem, William the Conqueror forbade anyone to leave the land where they worked, if by so doing they effectively made themselves homeless, and as far back as the 7th Century, laws were passed laws to punish vagrants. In the 13th Century Edward I (He of Braveheart fame) ordered weekly searches to round up vagrants.
The Unilever building at the north end of Blackfriars Bridge stands on the site of Bridewell Palace (shown right in an early 19th Century imaginary reconstruction of Bridewell Palace in 1660 showing the entrance to the Fleet River). First built by Henry VIII and later leased to the French Ambassador at which time the interior was used by Holbein for his painting The Ambassadors. By the time Edward VI took possession the palace was in a state of disrepair and he gave it to the City for the reception of vagrants and homeless children. Later becoming a prison, the name Bridewell became synonymous with an institution providing unsanitary conditions and cruelty for the poor and homeless, but it was here in the 16th Century that the State first tried to house vagrants rather than punish them. It began introducing Bridewells, places meant to take vagrants in and train them for a profession, and in 1788 prisoners were given straw for their beds (other prisons had neither beds nor straw) but in reality Bridewells were dirty and brutal places.
By the 18th Century workhouses had replaced the Bridewells, but these were intended to discourage over-reliance on state help. At best they were spartan places with meagre food and sparse furnishings – at worst they were unsanitary and uncaring. By 1863 the building which started Bridewell prison was demolished, after transferring prisoners to Holloway, and now only the gateway built in 1802 remains (pictured left), it can be seen at No. 14 New Bridge Street.
The numbers of vagrants has risen and fallen, and precise figures are hard to estimate, but by the 1930s eighty were found sleeping rough during a street count in London, but after the Second World War in 1949 a low of only six people were found sleeping rough in London.
Street counts provide a useful snapshot of the number of people sleeping rough on a single night but are best regarded as indicators of trends, rather than exact numbers of men and women who sleep rough. The annual estimate of the numbers sleeping out in England on any single night is published in September each year. The 2007 annual estimate found there were 248 people sleeping rough in London on a single night, which equates to around 3,000 people sleeping rough in London each year, while the 2008 figure was no better at 4,077.
This year homelessness has jumped by 15 per cent with Eastern Europeans, who have lost jobs and have fewer means of social support, now constitute nearly one in seven of those living without permanent shelter. The annual returns, compiled by the charity Broadway on behalf of the Government, show that 4,672 rough sleepers were counted in the capital and only around 60 per cent were UK nationals.
The Government’s target of ending rough sleeping in the capital by 2012 is unlikely to be achieved unless more is done to break the link between mental health problems and homelessness.
I now return, like any good Englishman, to talk about the weather. Why is it that every year at Christmas we open, to great publicity on television, makeshift shelters for the homeless only to close them after the holiday at a time when London’s temperature starts to fall? Even in 1788 vagrants were given straw to sleep upon?