Ilford's Homeless - past and present!

In November 2018, the Ilford Recorder reported that there were 7100 homeless people in Ilford. An increase, they suggested, was up by 13.6% on the previous year. More disconcerting was the figure of 449 homeless people who had died the previous year and a figure that suggested 65 rough sleepers were present in the borough.

While this was all going on British Asian Christian Association (click here), a group I volunteer for was working towards beginning a 'Meals for the homeless project'.   


That's me feeding the homeless at the Prince of Wales Pub Car Park

Ilford is not the biggest or oldest town in London, but it must have been large enough to attract rough sleepers in the 1920's as Eric Arthur Blair, more commonly known by his pen name George Orwell, mentioned our small town in his first ever publication 'Down and out in Paris and London'. I learned about the book after a discussion with Pub Landlord, David Christof, at the Prince of Wales on Green Lane - piquing my interest in Ilford's historic help of the homeless.


Me with David Christof

In his book, Orwell suggests that many venues were dingy and quite unhygienic places where often homeless people had to a pay a small fee for overnight stay. However, they were all very well-used (there were few affordable alternatives) and visitors queued for hours. No doubt, these establishments provided an element of safety, respite from the cold and a chance to eat some hot food, even if it was only butter and toast. 



Orwell and his contemporaries in the 1920's never used the word homeless but used names like tramp, vagrant or beggars. A more savoury list of names is listed in the glossary of Orwell's book. He describes the various types of temporary residence available to them such as Casual wards/Spikes where homeless people would be required to work for their stay(click here)Homeless people would have to break rocks with a hammer and spike or tease ropes with a spike, and it is believed by some that this is where the nickname spike came from. Another more disconcerting belief is that a spike was the implement that held drunk people upright at the casual wards.
On entering a spike homeless people would have to remove their clothes (which would be fumigated). They would usually be crammed into rooms with bunk beds or mattresses and locked in their rooms overnight like prisoners. Food would be very basic, with bread and dripping (fat from roasted meat) and either a cup of tea, hot chocolate or skilly (hot water and oats - the least favourite).

One such spike referred to, in George Orwell's book is from a town, he has named Romton. By estimating the geographical route set on by George Orwell in his description, it is easy to surmise that the place named Romton is Romford and another location named Edbury is Edmonton. It is believed Orwell disguised the name for legal reasons and later publications do state that some names were changed at the insistence of publishers (click here).

I am standing before what I believe is the  former gatehouse of the Romford Spike. I found it by searching for the former Old Church hospital site as I new the spike had been incorporated into their buildings.  I later found this article by the Orwell Society confirming I was correct (click here)
Initially I believed this building to be part of the original Romford Spike but have been advised by the Havering Local History Librarian, that it is more likely the offices of the Board of Guardians (built 1908) who ran the Romford Spike and Workhouse.  The building is hidden away and may have been missed by the Orwell Society.

The Romford Spike (click here) had no beds and Orwell described the shock he felt when he realised their absence - so this could not have been a common feature. Descriptions of how 50 homeless people were forced to share water in two tubs to wash themselves, would horrify rough sleepers in currently in temporary housing induced by the COVID-19 lockdown. However, if a homeless person opted to have a full bath they would be given a bath full of clean water.

Spikes/Casual wards were linked to workhouses (housing and employment institutions for the poor click here) and financed by the local parish council to help local people. As 'tramps' were itinerant, they were only allowed to stay for a night or two nights at a few locations. Tramp Majors were responsible for managing the Spikes and they would be supervised by a Board of Guardians who were elected. They could refuse entry to 'tramps and vagrants' which could lead to their arrest and detainment on hard labour for two weeks.

Orwell describes in his book, how after his stay at the Romford spike he was given a food voucher from the Tramp Major, to use at a Coffee Shop in Ilford. For me this is very fascinating. Primarily it reveals how my town of birth was involved in helping rough sleepers as far back as the 1920's. Moreover, it describes a phenomenon I have not been able to find anywhere else. Vouchers to be used in coffee shops by the homeless back then, is not described anywhere else to my knowledge. 


I have undertaken some research of Coffee Shops in Ilford around the 1920's using editions of Kelly's Directories maintained by Redbridge Heritage Centre with my sister Naomi. We discovered one that was in a Red Lion Hotel on Cranbrook Road up until 1925 but then disappears from historical records. 


There were however an Aerated Bread Company (founded 1864) Tea shop at 96 High Road, and J Lyons (founded 1884) Tea shop at 165 High Road, from 1927. My best estimation is that one of these tea shops was frequented by Orwell between 1928 - 1929. In 

Naomi located the listing of the ABC -she is quite proud of this... :) Redbridge Museum Manager Gerard Green had mentioned the ABC to my father during our research.  However Naomi located the ABC Tea House without this information, however Gerards mention help cement our belief that this was the more possible location of Orwell's meal.

If I was to hazard a guess, I would suggest the ABC was the establishment mentioned. 


Ghost sign for Aerated Bread Company on Fleet Street.



They were more egalitarian and were already providing free meals to their workers and were the first establishment that permitted woman in their building unaccompanied - this was unusual for the time. Moreover, the ABC would have been the larger of the two businesses and was located extremely close to the Salvation Army in Ilford, which would have exposed them to homeless people. Furthermore the ABC was less expensive and attracted people on lower incomes than J Lyons, so having homeless visitors would cause less friction with existing clients.


Current 96 High Road which I believe is where the ABC Tea shop once operated.

I am standing before 165 High Road the suspected site of former J Lyons Tea shop

The Salvation Army, is a group still pivotal in 
the care of Redbridge's homeless people in modern times. Ilford's Salvation Army Celebrated its 150th Anniversary in 2015 (click here), suggesting the church began in 1865 - by the 1920's they would have been quite well established. 

That's me Before the 155 year-old Salvation Army building

To commemorate the presence of George Orwell in Ilford while researching for his first ever publication, British Asian Christian Association, will be redesigning the mural on the side-wall at Clementswood Community Centre in the coming weeks. Denise Humphries a former homeless person they have helped get off the streets will be painting the mural.

Homeless volunteers begin work on removing old artwork

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There were other options for homeless people and they were able to stay in a few places like the Embankment, where by tradition, the police would not move them on for sleeping rough.

Various Twopenny Hangovers existed, where homeless people slept sitting leaning on a cord that was abruptly cut in the morning. Even more morbid were places called Coffins where homeless people would pay four pence to sleep in a box covered by tarpaulin.

For the more skillful beggars, hawkers and thieves who could earn enough money for more comfortable accommodation. Places like Rowton Houses would provide a very comfortable nights sleep for seven pence, while less expensive rooms with beds would range from a shilling to a penny.

There was a change in numbering for buildings on Ilford High Road which may affect my research on former coffee shops. We will be researching this in Redbridge heritage Centre when it reopens after the current closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 




Me before the groundbreaking Project Malachi that has transformed temporary homeless provision locally. Well Done Salvation Army.


Naomi wanted these additional images of her added... :P

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