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Moyra Peralta in Spitalfields

July 15, 2013
by the gentle author

Men sleeping outside Itchy Park

“I felt Spitalfields was my home at one time, even though I was never resident there apart from staying at Providence Row for the occasional night.” admitted photographer Moyra Peralta when she showed me these pictures, taken while working in the shelter in Crispin St during the seventies and eighties.

Every time I look at these, I see myself there,” she confided, contemplating her affectionate portraits of those she once knew who lived rough upon the streets of Spitalfields, “yet it doesn’t feel like me anymore, now that I am no longer in touch and I have no idea how many have died.” Despite its obvious social documentary quality, Moyra’s photography is deeply personal work.

Recalling the days when she and her partner, Rodger, studied under Jorge Lewinsky in the sixties, Moyra revealed the basis of her vision. “It opened up the mental apparatus to see photography not as an amateur hobby but as something fundamental to life. And it was doing the Soup Run that triggered off the urge to record. At first, I couldn’t believe what I saw, because in the day you didn’t see it. At night, you see a lot of things you wouldn’t otherwise see – hundreds of men sleeping at the back of a hotel in Central London, when there was no sign of them by day because they went to the day shelter.”

Forsaking her chosen path as a teacher, Moyra spent more than a decade working in shelters and on the street, befriending those with no other place to go and taking their pictures. “I started out as a volunteer on the night Soup Run, but once I got to know the men individually, I thought – that’s it, I don’t want to be anywhere else. I realised they didn’t lose their soul, and that spirit was what turned me from a volunteer into a full-time worker at Providence Row,” she confessed.

“Our children were exposed to the scene and spent every Christmas with us at the night shelter where we volunteered. We used to have people home for the weekend as long as they didn’t drink, but I think they found it quite a struggle to stay sober for two days. I could quite understand why people would drink, when it’s so cold you can’t sleep and you’re scared of being attacked by ‘normal’ people.”

Gerry B. in his cubicle at Providence Row – “Gerry sent me a letter containing only a few lavender seeds and a one pound note – the significance of which I shall never know,  for Gerry died a few days later. He always had been so very kind and I never quite knew why. Like many before him, his remains were laid in a pauper’s grave.

I remember, above all, his intervention on my first evening at work, when men in the dormitory had planned a surprise to test the reaction of the greenhorn on the night shift. Forewarned is forearmed, and the equanimity with which I viewed a row of bare bottoms in beds along the dormitory wall stood me in good stead for future interaction.”

“The women’s entrance at the corner of Crispin St & Artillery Lane, where Sister Paul is seen handing out clean shirts to a small group of men.”

Dining Room at Providence Row.

“The two Marys, known as ‘Cotton Pickin’ and ‘Foxie,’ making sandwiches at Providence Row for the daily distribution in Crispin St.”

Providence Row Night Refuge, Crispin St.

Men waiting for sandwiches outside Providence Row Night Refuge, 1973. “Established in 1880, this refuge offered free shelter and food to those who needed it for over one hundred years.”

Market lorries in Crispin St.

White’s Row and Tenterground.

Charlie & Bob outside Christ Church. “Charlie was a well-known East End character and Bob was my co-worker at the night shelter.”

Charlie, Bob & J.W. “Charlie rendering ‘Danny Boy’ to his captive audience.”

Charlie & Bob.

Sleeping in a niche, Christ Church 1975. “The crypt was opened in 1965 as a rehabilitation hostel for meths and crude spirit drinkers.”

Mary M. in Spitalfields.

“In Brushfield St beside Spitalfields Market, Dougie is seen having his lunch at ‘Bonfire Corner.’ Traditionally there had been a fire on this corner since the fifties.”

Sylvia, Tenterground 1978. “This homeless woman slept rough but accepted meals from Providence Row in Crispin St.”

Brushfield St, 1976. “Discarded vegetables at the closing of each market day proved a godsend to people on low incomes.”

Painter, Providence Row.

The bonfire corner at Spitalfields Market, 1973. “There had been deaths here from market lorries reversing. Ted McV., however, died of malnutrition and exposure. “

Peggy

Old Mary, seventies.

John Jamieson, Commercial St 1979.

John Jamieson smiling.

J.W. with harmonica

J.W. & Pauline in Whitechapel, eighties

Pauline in Whitechapel, eighties.

Willie G. in pensive mood, rolling a fag in Whitechapel, 1976.

Gunthorpe St, 1974

Michael, Cable St 1973

Moyra & her partner Rodger in Spitalfields, late seventies.

Photographs copyright © Moyra Peralta

Signed copies of ‘NEARLY INVISIBLE,’ including these photographs and more by Moyra Peralta plus writing by John Berger & Alan Bennett, are available directly from Moyra for £5 plus £2 postage. Email moyra.peralta@zen.co.uk to get your copy.

You may also like to read about

The Doss Houses of Spitalfields

The Return of Vicky Moses

At Itchy Park

John Claridge at the Salvation Army

Down Among the Meths Men

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Tom permalink
    July 15, 2013

    The most amazing photographs! You see the depths of their souls and it evoked great empathy in my – thank you for your very poignant photos and for remembering those that suffered, but yet you gave them dignity.
    Many thanks indeed for your work.
    Cheers

  2. Jose Cadaveira permalink
    July 15, 2013

    Moving article & brilliant photos that remind me of the Don McCullin Spitalfields series. Congratulations!

  3. SBW permalink
    July 15, 2013

    Thank you, these are very moving images.

  4. July 15, 2013

    Very moving

  5. Hardy permalink
    July 15, 2013

    Ignore or forget these pictures? Impossible. A great achievement, thank you.

  6. Vicky permalink
    July 15, 2013

    This is very, very touching Moyra. What a story and what wonderful pictures.

  7. July 15, 2013

    Such a disturbing, yet fascinating blog. So much we can learn from one small section of the world. I’m glad I found you.

  8. Ros permalink
    July 15, 2013

    You remarked gentle author recently that everyone loves the London they first know and everyone loses it. Well, this is the Spitalfields I knew first, and though it would be wrong to wish it back, but I miss it and sometimes mourn it. These photographs take me right into those scenes and those people.

  9. July 16, 2013

    Those photos are breathtakingly real and heartbreakingly touching. I was a “yank” living in North London in the years they were taken so they affected me on a nostalgic level as well. God bless Moyra and Roger.

  10. Sonia Murray permalink
    July 16, 2013

    Perhaps the saddest thing I ever saw was a homeless man, close to midnight on an icy night, huddled on the steps of the Reject China Shop in Oxford Street. Surely there should be somewhere for these rejects of society – or those who have rejected society – to find a bed!

  11. Susan Goldman permalink
    July 16, 2013

    These pictures are so sad. You can’t help but look beyond the faces and wonder what their stories were. How did they come to live on the streets? What happened to their families? Why was it allowed to happen? Vagrants were a familiar site when I was a pupil at school in Spital Square, indeed I walked past bonfire corner many times. The vagrants, meth’s drinkers and homeless used to scare me. Now I just think it’s very sad.

  12. Virginia Beaumont permalink
    July 18, 2013

    These photos are very evocative. They capture the human spirit in times of adversity for the dispossesed and homeless. Also the people who opened their hearts in giving their time to make life a little bearable. I lived around Spitalfields/Whitechapel when I was a child and into my teens and saw many of these wonderful characters.

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