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Her Penny Bed: A Case Study of the Salvation Army’s Women’s Shelters in London from 1884 to the Present Day 

Virginia Woolf writes in her work A Room of One’s Own: 'A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.' [1] However, during the late 19th century in London, a significant number of women from the lower classes found themselves unable to afford even a bed of their own once they were reduced to homelessness. The focus on the relationship between the domestic area and women not only restricted women within the confines of the 'house' but also constrained them within the institutional structure that the home represents. Women were not recognised by law for a long time because women’s existence was expected to be in a family and subordinate to their fathers or husbands. Therefore, women leaving the domestic sphere would face the risk of being marginalised and losing their coordinates in society in the late 19th century.


The social reformer Mary Higgs wrote in her undercover investigations of London’s homeless women’s living situations in 1905 that 'there did not exist a lodging-house for women only apart from the charitable institutions. Therefore, the only refuge for a destitute woman was the common lodging-house with men and women (ostensibly married).' [2] Nonetheless, this absence of dedicated facilities did not imply the absence of destitute women; quite the contrary, women constituted the majority of the Victorian poverty population due to economic and political disadvantages. [3]


In London, one of the first shelters for women was opened by the Salvation Army in 1884. The Salvation Army (TSA) is a well-known Protestant Christian church and an international charitable organisation renowned for its shelters all over the world. Established in 1865 in the East End of London, TSA holds the enduring mission of bringing salvation to disadvantaged communities. It firmly believes in a doctrine of practical Christianity—soup, soap, and salvation, [4] which aimed at initially addressing the material needs of the desperate, then leading to spiritual transformation. The shelters constitute an essential component of TSA’s homeless service and women’s social work as the first step to drive them away from the previous toxic living environment. 


Therefore, in the 19th century, TSA’s shelters remained open to the poor. Historian Victor Bailey addressed that TSA was less censorious to the urban residuum then other charity organisations regarding social relief work during the Victorian period. [5] Also, in journalist Ada Elizabeth Chesterton’s undercover investigation in London’s women’s shelters in 1925, she pointed out that TSA’s shelters were more appreciated because unmarried and pregnant mothers were welcomed. [6]


Over its 150-year history, the shelter's space has undergone profound changes throughout each of its relocations, influenced by shifting social policies and perceptions, thereby subjecting women to varying degrees of protection and oppression. By the end of the 20th century, TSA started cooperating with the government in social relief work, becoming 'a religious organisation with a social service wing that was often the more prominent part'. [7] With the cooperation of the government, the shelters became institutional and began to screen their residents. 


TSA has paid great importance to the shelter’s ability to modify women’s personalities. However, women’s shelters' efficiency in addressing social inequality remains contentious. Historian Helen P. Hartnett critically examines the function of shelters for women, asserting that the shelters were likely to strengthen the social control of women by restricting their choices and mobility. [8] She underscores that some shelters for women serve to get homeless women to fit prevailing social norms from which they have tried to escape. Historian A. R. Veness expresses concerns about the institutional shelters, which would further marginalise women by enhancing the traditional women’s bond with the home. [9] Therefore, the landscape of women’s homelessness is a more complex problem than general poverty relief, which evolves into an arena of social governance where gender, power and space work together.

The women’s shelters, therefore, is not only a spatial idea but also a political one. As historian Tomas A. Markus suggests, the meaning in buildings is about relations. In some types, they organise, classify and control people. [10] Shelter spaces, as explicitly designed to host certain classes or groups of society, are on the opposite side· of 'general society'. Individuals who leave the shelters are often referred to as 're-socialised'. However, the physical environment has merely served as the background for analysing its politics and institutional frameworks in recent studies on TSA. Considering it has consistently held the belief that physical space would influence human behaviour, this dissertation reclaims the political and spatial perspectives towards the examination of TSA’s women’s social work. In an effort to build the narratives of marginalised women’s everyday lives and to render the actual living conditions of homeless women sheltered by TSA since the Victorian era, I choose four shelters operated by TSA from different eras in Whitechapel and conduct case studies around them. By referring to analytical tools such as spatial politics and ideological analysis, it explores the evolution of the shelter spaces and their impact on addressing homeless issues as well as the construction of the residents’ gender roles and personalities. 


This dissertation consists of three chapters. In the first chapter, I provide a brief introduction to the history of The Salvation Army and its Women’s Social Work to set the background of the following discussion. In the second chapter, I locate each shelter into its respective contexts and discuss how the varied relationship between TSA and the government influenced the rescue strategies and the arrangement of space. The analyses in the last chapter focus on tracing the history of particular functional spaces that were the most relevant to women’s physical and mental health by taking the lens of material culture. Therefore, the spaces for sleeping, cleaning and recreation are examined based on the details of the archival materials.


Throughout this journey, I balance the strategy of both grand narrative and the focus on the scattered microscopic narrative of the living conditions in women’s shelters to reveal this hidden history of 'the dust of the highway.' [11]

Jieya_fig 1.jpeg

Fig. 1: The Founder’s House, 60 Old Montague St, Whitechapel (August 2023). The building used to be a women’s hostel run by the Salvation Army but was transformed into a men’s hostel in 2018, regardless of female residents’ protests. 

[1] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 3.

[2] Mary Higgs, 'London Investigations,' The Workhouse, n.d.

[3] Pat Thane, 'Women and the Poor Law in Victorian and Edwardian England,' History Workshop, no. 6 (1978): 33.


[4] 'Our History,' The Salvation Army. Accessed August 31, 2023,

[5] Victor Bailey, 'In Darkest England and the Way Out: The Salvation Army, Social Reform and the Labour Movement, 1885-1910,' International Review of Social History 29, no. 2 (1984): 145.

[6] Ada E. Chesterton, In Darkest London: Investigating Destitution in the 1920s, (London: The Macmillan company, 1926), 247.


[7] Sam Tomlin, 'The Politics of Salvation in the Salvation Army dissertation' (Master diss., St Mellitus College, 2017), 13.

[8] Helen P. Hartnett, Judy L. Postmus, 'The Function of Shelters for Women: Assistance or Social Control?' Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment 20, no. 2 (2010): 289.

[9] A. R. Veness, 'Designer shelters as models and makers of home: New responses to homelessness in urban America,' Urban Geography 15, no.2 (1994): 157.

[10] Thomas A. Markus, Buildings & Power : Freedom and Control in the Origin of Modern Building Types, (London: Routledge, 1993,) 39.

[11] M. Higgs and E. E. Hayward, Where Shall She Live? The Homelessness of the Woman Worker (London, 1910), 109.

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