1900 – 1999

At the beginning of the 20th century, charitable trusts and faith-based organisations continued to play a key role in providing relief for the resident poor.

Gardner refers to the Brighton Distress Fund, which, during a particularly harsh winter in 1906, had over 1500 applications for assistance in one week. Blanket Loan Societies, which were run by well-to-do women, were also relied upon during the winter months.

Poor Law costs had soared. Investigations into causes of poverty led to two contrasting reports being published by the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress in 1909. The majority report suggested that homelessness and poverty was the result of personal inadequacy, and that relief was too easily accessible. In contrast, the minority report argued that poverty was the responsibility of society as well as the individual. Due to the conflicting stances, the Liberal Government was largely able to ignore the reports which had been commissioned by the outgoing Conservation government.

During the same year, the Labour Exchanges Act of 1909 saw the creation of employment agencies, which like today’s Job Centres, enabled employers to advertise positions and supported unemployed people to find work. By 1910, 83 labour exchanges were operating; however the initial success of these set-ups was disputed.

Image 12 w300In 1914 the Race Hill workhouse, along with the Royal Pavilion, was acquired by the War Office for use as a hospital for wounded Indian soldiers.

Gardner talks of the guardians being given just two months’ notice to relocate 1,053 inhabitants and 70 staff members to various accommodation across the local area. No provision was made for casual workers; it fell to charities to provide this support.

During World War I all housing building programmes ceased, as builders and labourers were enlisted to fight. However, this meant that in the aftermath of the war, many soldiers returned to a nationwide housing shortage and significant unemployment. Harry Cowley, a local working-class figure who himself had fought in the war, was sickened by the lack of support for men who had put their lives on the line.

A publication by QueenSpark Books, entitled Who was Harry Cowley?, collected memories and opinions of local people on Cowley’s life-long campaign to support working class people in the town. Cowley worked tirelessly to secure employment for 600 men on a road widening scheme, propelling the opening of an unemployment centre in Tilbury Place. With his family, he also arranged activities for disadvantaged children, distributed food and clothes, and even began commandeering empty properties for homeless and destitute families.

In the publication, we learn how Cowley found an ex-serviceman, Hodson, and his family sleeping on the racecourse; he identified an empty house at 14 Cheltenham Place, and under darkness they broke in the door and moved the family in. The owner was not happy, but a rent was agreed. A comrade of Cowley’s, Alf Richardson, commented that about sixty properties were acquired this way.

Cowley would also source furniture for families who were relocated as a result of the slum clearance programme, which had started in the late 1800’s and continued throughout the beginning of the 1900’s. Much of Brighton’s housing around Carlton Hill and Edward Street, which was built in the early 1880s, was sub-standard, with overcrowding, poor sanitation, rat infestations and damp. The Brighton Improvement Act of 1884 required domestic toilets to be connected to a running water supply to address preventable disease that was prevalent in these areas.

Image 13 w300In line with a national focus on building new general needs housing, the Borough Council began building housing in Moulsecoomb, a suburb of Brighton, in the 1920’s, which continued well into the 1930’s.

A large council estate was then developed in Whitehawk, another suburb, during the 1930’s, with further development during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Despite this housing being high-spec, with electricity, gas and running water, many former residents of the slum housing resented being relocated to the edges of the town.

In 1921 the hospital began reverting back to its original intended use as a workhouse. Gardner writes that it was during the 1920’s that ‘casuals started to be charged one shilling a night for their lodging’ which included a mid-day meal since the Pauper Order of 1914. During the late 1920’s, Oxford MP Frank Gray repeated James Greenwood’s research of 1866, by visiting local workhouses in disguise and recording his experiences.

His account gives us some idea of what casual wards were like at this time, some 60 years later; ‘it looks in the gloom like a row of coffins, and each tramp who is quick enough to get in claims one. Everyone else sleeps on the floor…had we [unemployment] cards we should produce them, for by doing so we gain our immediate release…Like the rest I have no card, so I perforce do three hours’ sawing.’

The workhouse system was abolished as a result of the Local Government Act of 1929. Governance of the Poor Law passed to local authorities, and the institution became known as Brighton Municipal Hospital. The conditions and environment within the institutions changed rapidly; Gardner writes ‘gone were the prison-like dormitories, replaced by wards with radios and record players.’

Approximately 2 million houses were destroyed during the Second World War, creating a second national housing shortage and leaving many homeless. Unemployment was high, food was being rationed and there was an energy shortage; Britain faced an economically difficult time. Squatting became common during the 1940’s with Harry Cowley again fronting a national Squatters’ Movement campaign for housing reform.

He canvassed support and re-enlisted ‘The Vigilantes’ to requisition empty houses for homeless families and appealed to the Government and local Council. The Movement’s tireless campaigning successfully prompted Parliament to pass a Bill in 1945, ‘enabling local Councils to requisition houses which had been empty for eighteen months.’

Britain was considered to be at crisis point. Winston Churchill commissioned Sir William Beveridge to investigate how Britain could be rebuilt to create a better society. In his report of 1942 he identified five ‘giant evils’ which needed to be tackled to generate a prosperous society; 1) want 2) disease 3) ignorance 4) squalor, and 5) idleness. To combat these barriers, Beveridge proposed a framework for a ‘welfare state’, offering security to both people who were working and those who were unemployed, and offering Britons provision from ‘cradle to grave’.

The proposals of a national minimum level of income, a comprehensive health service, and employment were largely disregarded by Churchill as he was opposed to domestic spending, but The Labour party, which was voted into government in the 1945 election, accepted the challenge of establishing the welfare reforms. The National Insurance Act of 1946 introduced unemployment benefit, sickness benefit, maternity benefit and retirement benefit, to name a few, which were funded by contributions from people of working age.

The National Health Service Act of the same year consolidated healthcare provision, establishing a free service for everyone, regardless of their personal or financial circumstances. To tackle unemployment, the government nationalised the road haulage, railways and coal industries in 1947 and steel in 1951, which also part-funded the welfare reforms.

Critics still dispute whether the introduction of the welfare state was a success or a failure. Supporters argue that poverty was reduced, and for the first time people had financial security, while opponents view the reforms as having encouraged dependency and entitlement at a wildly underestimated cost.

The NHS came into force in 1948, at which point the Brighton Municipal Hospital became known as Brighton General Hospital, which it remains today. At this point, Race Hill’s Casual Ward was developed into a Reception Centre to provide emergency accommodation under the National Assistance Act 1948, which obliged local authorities to provide ‘temporary accommodation for persons who are in urgent need thereof, being need arising in circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen’.

The centres were initially designed to cater for the old-style ‘men of the road’ who travelled between hostels, lodging houses and casual wards, often taking on work as they went. People seeking assistance from welfare departments or social security offices were to be directed to these centres by the authorities, offered board and lodging and then required to undergo counselling and casework.

Image 14 w300The intention was that those with an unsettled way of life would be given suitable treatment leading to their resettlement.

After the Social Security Act 1966, reception centres passed from the control of the National Assistance Board to the Supplementary Benefits Commission. Later still, they were renamed ‘resettlement units’, and management passed to the Department of Health and Social Security. Elm Grove Resettlement Unit remained open until April 1991; photographs from the 1970’s were viewed by the Heritage Research Group at The Keep.

Post-war Brighton responded to the ongoing slum clearance programme with further development to the east of the city. The Heritage Research Group viewed the 1956 Register of New Dwellings Provided for Slum & Camp Clearance Etc, at The Keep in January 2016, which documents the particulars of the newly-built dwellings, date of building completion, date of occupation and annual exchequer subsidy of houses in the Bristol Estate.

Charities persuaded the National Assistance Board to undertake the first national study of single homeless people covering the whole of Britain in 1964 and 1965. The survey report published in November 1966 – Homeless Single Persons – found 567 establishments providing 31,932 beds for men and 2,664 beds for women. 86 per cent of the men’s beds and 74 per cent of the women’s beds were occupied on the night of the count. In addition, the survey found around 1,000 men sleeping rough, and about 1,200 men sleeping in reception centres. The evidence from the survey was that most accommodation for the people defined by legislation as without a settled way of life was provided by commercial and voluntary organisations, not by the welfare state.

Public attitudes began to shift towards the end of the 1960’s, largely due to the significant and defining impact of Ken Loach’s 1966 television play Cathy Come Home, which highlighted issues which hadn’t before been broached in the British media. The film, which touched on poverty, debt and homelessness, awoke the nation’s conscience and sparked public outrage.

Two big homelessness charities were welcomed by the public; Shelter emerged within the same year, and Crisis was founded shortly after (1967). Two other prominent charities, Centrepoint and St Mungos, started in London in 1969. In Brighton, Brighton YMCA started accommodating families and single people who were homeless at Steine House and Brighton Hostel, forerunner of BHT, set up a single house in Islingword Road, providing accommodation for single homeless people.

1977 brought about revolutionary legislation concerning people who were homeless; the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act clarified the definition of homelessness and placed a legal obligation on local authorities to accommodate anyone who was homeless and in priority need. Priority need was defined by the act as pertaining to anyone who had dependent children living with them, was homeless due to an emergency or natural disaster, anyone who was vulnerable as a result of age, illness or disability, or anyone who was pregnant or expected to reside with a pregnant woman. While this protected many families, it largely excluded single homeless men, and was still seen to distinguish between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’.

Charities and trusts continued to emerge throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s in Brighton. In 1984 BHT opened First Base Day Centre, in 1987 St Patrick’s church created a dedicated night shelter, in 1988 the YMCA established William Collier House Hostel, in 1990 New Steine Mews Hostel opened and in 1994 Project Antifreeze was established to provide food and clothing. In 1998 a GP surgery drop-in session specifically for people who were homeless was formed, and St John’s Ambulance set up its Brighton Homeless Service, providing healthcare provision at the city’s soup runs.

Nationally, the new Labour Government launched the Social Exclusion Unit in 1997 to analyse the wider social issues relating to poverty. The Unit committed to reducing rough sleeping by two-thirds by 2002 by funding specialist caseworkers, emergency response teams, almost 5,000 further hostel beds nationwide.


A History of the Brighton Workhouses, James Gardner, Brighton James Gardner, 2012

Who was Harry Cowley? QueenSpark Books, 1984

The Tramp: His Meaning and Being, Frank Gray, JM Dent, 1931

Poverty in Britain, 1900 – 1965, Ian Gazely, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003

Social Policy and Welfare, Mark Walsh, Paul Stephens & Stephen Moore, Nelson Thornes, 2000

Rights and Wrongs: The Homelessness Safety Net 30 years on, Elizabeth O’Hara, Shelter, 2007