The Night Refuge in Crispin Street will be well known to those with an interest in the Jack the Ripper case, and also in the history of the East End. Mary Kelly is, according to legend, believed to have sought sanctuary at Providence Row at some time. A small collection of original papers that are housed in London Metropolitan Archives (1) provide a fascinating first-hand glimpse into the all too real poverty that existed at that time, and the measures to alleviate it.

Providence Row Night Refuge and Home for Deserving Men, Women and Children as it was formally known, was a Roman Catholic institution established as a charity in 1860 and relocated to Crispin Street eight years later. The building survives to the present day. It was not exactly a “typical” common lodging house, if there was such a thing. Readers will note the inclusion of “deserving” in the Refuge’s name. It had very good social connections. In 1888 its patrons included the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Denbigh and the Count De Torre Diaz. Among named donors and subscribers were such as the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge, the Marquis of Ripon, Lords Coleridge and Napier, the Lord Mayor of London, and Richard D’Oyly Carte, founder of the company that put on the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

Among the papers that have survived are a few annual reports written by someone who signed himself only as “C.O.S, “ and a small collection of original letters written by the Very Reverend Daniel Gilbert, manager of the Refuge. No doubt in a bid for donations, Daniel Gilbert wrote in graphic terms that would have done credit to Charles Dickens himself, about “the poverty which exists in the middle of us: some thirty or forty persons die of starvation in London most years while hundreds more sleep on the bridges, in Trafalgar Square or outside the park railings, in the drifting rain or the driving snow”. In the courts and alleys he said were families “hungry and cold, who could scarcely support a life of misery, sleeping on the floors with the winter winds seeping through the broken windows.”

The Refuge, which was generally full, provided shelter for 140 men and 112 women as well as being a training home for servants. The Refuge was open in winter from 5.00 pm onwards, from November through to the following May. The accommodation was described as “of the simplest kind, and in fact inferior to that provided by many casual wards”.

Bread and cocoa were given to inmates night and morning while those who entered on Saturday were permitted to stay over to Sunday when they were given soup and a meat dinner. Daniel Gilbert noted in 1887 that the Refuge had helped some eleven hundred persons, including “girls who had been saved from vice” as had “deserted women cheated in the promise of marriage and flung friendless on the world”.

The rules provided that “no vagrants, tramps or professional beggars should be admitted even for one night”, although the difficulty of off-hand identification of such was obvious. All persons seeking accommodation were supposed to give the names of referees to whom inquiries could be made, and if the replies were unsatisfactory the applicant was told to leave. Inmates who were accepted were allowed to stay for up to six weeks depending on their circumstances, although many more had to be turned away as the place was full. Inmates were largely left to their own efforts to find work although the Refuge gave some assistance in the form of tools for artisans, clothes to servants and stock money to hawkers, costermongers and fruit and flower sellers,

The Refuge did not just cater for down-and-outs. Daniel Gilbert noted in a letter dated 12 December 1887 that accommodation had been provided by the Refuge during that year for a wide range of social classes including the son of a Marquis, as well as surgeons, commercial travellers, mechanics, clerks, engineers, actors, musicians, compositors, governesses and dressmakers among others.

The year the refuge was founded, 1860. pre-dated the introduction of the Metropolitan Homeless Poor Act, which made provision for the shelter and relief in casual wards for homeless and destitute persons. (2). C.O.S.’s report of 6 May 1889 said this Act of Parliament reduced the need for the Refuge which, because it was open only in winter months, suggested that it was occupied mainly, as he put it, “by persons who fail, from incompetence or improvidence, to maintain themselves throughout the year”. It was to meet such deprivation that the Poor Law existed and, in the opinion of C.O.S, the Refuge was taking in the wrong kind of people and, although well- intentioned, had become obsolete.


1. Papers on the Refuge are in London Metropolitan Archives collection. reference A/FWA//C/D49. London Metropolitan Archives, 40 Northampton Road London EC2P 2EJ: telephone 020 7332 3820.

2. Social reform had been a live issue well before Jack the Ripper came along, although progress was slow, due partly to the scale of the problem, and also to the fact that the poor were widely despised. It was in fact the last Disraeli government from 1874 to 1880 that introduced a whole raft of social reforms including the Trade Union Act of 1876 which allowed unions to picket peacefully (Disraeli valued good relations with the unions). The Education Act of 1880 made schooling compulsory for infants: The Artisans Dwelling Act of 1875 allowed local authorities to destroy slums, although this was voluntary, and to provide housing for the poor:: the Climbing Boys Act of 1875 reinforced the prohibition on employing juvenile chimney sweeps; and the 1875 Public Health Act provided for sanitation such as running water and refuse disposal.

© John Carey