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Providence Row Refuge, Women’s entrance

July 13, 2013
by the gentle author

Providence Row Refuge, Women's entrance

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  1. tony brady permalink
    June 13, 2015

    TASKS UNFINISHED – DREAMS DENIED

    I began work in Providence (Row) Night Refuge, 50 Crispin Street, Spitalfields, Stepney, E1. in June 1974. My appointment as Administrator was wide ranging. The purpose built Refuge was opened in 1868 by a none sectarian Charity founded ten years earlier by a Monsignor Gilbert (1827-1895) who was the Vicar-General of the Arch-Diocese of Westminster and Administrator of Westminster Cathedral. It provided free shelter for hundreds of men and women who slept rough in the area at that time. The original management committee members had invited a group of Wexford based Sisters of Mercy to assist them and the working association proved continuous. User numbers had reduced but the original Aims survived.

    The Night Refuge – a Grade 1 Listed Public Building – was built over an extensive basement area and consisted of two separate entrances into reception areas at ground level which were linked to dormitories on the first floor. The Sister’s Convent home was intergral to the building together with a primary school, 9 homeless family furnished flats and two residential hostels accommodating 40 “business girls.” It occupied in its entirety an island site a stone’s throw from The City of London Corporation owned Spitalfields Fruit Market. “Petticoat Lane” was just round the corner and Brick Lane a couple of turnings. In sight was Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Trinity Church where in its Crypt the Church Army ran a residential service for Crude Spirit Drinkers. The connection with Westminster Cathedral was maintained and the Cardinal Archbishop was a supportive benefactor.

    Shortly before I arrived Cardinal Heenan had completed an extensive private visit in which he considered all aspects of the Charity’s work. He then called in the Management Committee and expressed a number of serious concerns. He said that it was bordering on scandalous that the Refuge was customarily closed for six months of the year. He told them that representatives of the many church based charities in the area had complained that it was virtually impossible to communicate and co-operate with the Refuge. While praising the thrift of the Members who had made it the richest charity of its kind he implored them to spend money – pointing particularly to the need for housing. The Cardinal said that his contacts with officials of the Supplementary Benefits Commission indicated a willingness to fund the costs of the Night Shelter provision if the practice of allowing only working men in was ended. Finally, the Members were virtually instructed to advertise and recruit a Company Secretary and Welfare Administrator with social security benefits experience.

    The most pressing immediate challenge I faced with Roger Shelmerdine, the newly appointed Secretary, was the the intention of The London Fire Department to imminently issue a Closure Order on the whole complex due to its repeated and frustrated efforts in obtaining satisfactory safety precautions. The Chief Fire Officer noted that on his last inspection the Convent fire extinguishers were hidden behind fire doors whose closure springs were removed and the Mother Superior had told him that there was no need to be concerned as “The Refuge and Convent were completely in the protection of The Virgin Mary.” He noted that yet again the roof level escapes which ran from the Refuges to the Sister’s accommodation locked and bolted on the convent side. The Men’s Refuge Warden had informed him that “the men have to be locked in at night as a precaution against them invading the Convent!” The comprehensive survey with minimal specified positions for wall fire alarm switches and fire alarm points was set out on a Schedule that failure to comply with would lead to closure and heavy fine.

    The urgency of this was resolved by commissioning Chubb Fire & Safety Co., Ltd to install the necessary protection and a benefit for me was the opportunity to acquaint myself fully with the building while the work was being completed by August. The Fire Certificate was issued and I toured the building with Reverend Mother Mary Fidelis who assiduously sprinkled Holy Water on all extinguishers and break glass boxes. Both Rodger and me realised that the building was no longer suitable to purpose and studied closely the file of “feelers” from City Companies that had expressed an interest in buying the free-hold. Another factor was the aging and declining Community of The Sisters of Mercy. An additional concern was that the Order was embarked on a process of renewal and having to decide where to concentrate its apostolate which embraced work in hospital nursing, education and social work. It was also experiencing losses of its younger Sisters.

    The Management Committee met only three times a year and expected an outline brief from me by September as how to proceed while mindful of the Cardinal’s concerns. My Plan of Action addressed these directly. The Refuge will be open all year round. An Open Door policy will operate with an earlier opening at 4.30pm instead of 6.30. The Refuge will be used as an address for users to claim National Insurances Benefits. A medium stay form of accommodation would be introduced to the Men’s Refuge. Priority of referral to a designated number of Refuge beds would be given to local homelessness charities. The staff will be increased by 100%. The dormitories will be upgraded to cubicle accommodation.

    The Consultation Paper produced devastating results. The key staff resigned and Mother Fidelis indicated that there was no support for it in the religious community. It was then that I learned that neither she nor they had been party to the earlier discussions with the MC and his Emminence. I sent my Plan to the Chairman and was summoned to his office.

    Gerard White told me he worked in “futures” as an expert in investments and held a top position with a premier finance company in the City. He masterminded the growth of Providence Row’s investment portfolio and over 20 years and had made it the wealthiest and foremost of the registered Charity’s of its type. He played the Stock Exchange astutely and regularly placed tranches of the Charity’s bank interest on the Money Market with brilliant success. A veritable master of the universe of finance he admitted that he knew nothing about homeless people, much less about how to manage their welfare and care. I sat with him as he faced a line of television screens connected to various parts of the financial empire. Every now and then he would pick up the receiver of any from an array of telephones and say “Buy” alternating to “Sell” or “Hold”. He advised “Do what is necessary but don’t alarm the Sisters!” and turned his attention to his all consuming passion. Later that year I was to meet his wife who told me that her husband had retired some years back then, the following week, he had returned to his old office and rented a corner there so as to continue his money making.

    My meeting a couple of days later with the local Social Security Office Nelson Street Manager, Mr. Alan De Medici went extremely well. I took my (also departing) personal secretary Miss. Lawlor* with me and she took Minutes. We agreed that anyone coming to the office with an official letter (drafted and tabled) stating that they were in the Refuge would be sent a pocket money payment plus a voucher for Providence Row to recover the nightly costs of their food and shelter. All claimants other than pensioners would require either a Form B1 from The Labour Exchange or a Medical Certificate.

    Soon I attended a monthly meeting of the combined umbrella body of all the charities in the area known as No Fixed Abode. I told the twelve representatives of organizations such as The Salvation Army, The Church Army, The Methodist Bow, East London & Whitechapel Missions, Spitalfields Crypt, St. Botolph’s, Algate, The Simon Community and so on, that Providence Row intended to committ itself in partnership with their work. Mother Fidelis looked forward to welcoming them. Affiliation followed in due course.

    During this induction period I met with Cardinal Heenan and over dinner with him and Monsignor Bartlett – Cathedral Administrator – and brother of Anthony, a Providence Row MC Member, his emminence assured me of his support and told me about his renewed hopes that the Charity was going to play an effective part in the combined church social work in East London. In his post-prandial coloquy Cardinal Heenan informed me of the growing social justice outlook of relatively new organizations such as The Cyrenians, The Catholic Housing Aid Society, The Simon Community, St. Mungo’s, No Fixed Abode and (the mooted) Home Office, Tower Hamlets Council & GLC Spitalfields Renewal Project. He noted how they recruited their key staff through press advertisements and said that this signaled an end to the traditional practice of making appointments to Providence Row by patronage. In that observation, though I was not aware of it then, lay the seeds of my destruction..

    At the end of the evening the Cardinal said that he would bless me. I knelt before him and he laid his hands on my head then raising me to my feet I bowed and kissed his ring. “God Bless you! – you, a Crusade of Rescue child have come in your prime to the rescue of our greatest Charity”.

    The next four years were marked by inspiring success and the realisation of all the Charity’s plans. Providence Row built 12 houses for disadvantaged families, established a long stay and re-settlement project for Refuge users, agreed a housing quota with Tower Hamlets Housing Department. The former primary school was converted into a women’s hostel and the foundations laid for a purpose built long stay hostel for women admitted from the Refuge. The Homeless Families Unit was fully refurbished. The Refuges became a hub of co-operation of referral-in and move-on into rehabilitation on a London-wide scale. A doctor provided a surgery for Refuge users. The Nuffield Foundation awarded its largest ever grant to fund a Research study into Homelessness and Schizophrenia. The Charity’s Annual Reports and MC 1974/79 Minutes testify the effectiveness of the twin track approach of Secretary and Administrator working together and the combined support of The Sisters of Charity. The money flowed in.* My life-time career was assured. Then suddenly is was over.

    Roger retired prematurely. His post was passed unadvertised to a friend. The Chairman wrote when I was on holiday saying that the newcomer would take overall charge of operations. I learned that he had no previous experience in homelessness. I complained to the MC, was ignored and took my complaint to the top. I refused to accept the situation and never returned to my post. My former supporter was dead and so was Mother Fidelis. I was an embarrassment to the new Cardinal. Nevertheless, he advised a legal settlement for “Constructive Dismissal” which I accepted with compensation. The Committee, as individuals, supported my stance but was immovable in backing Gerald.

    “I tempted all His servitors, but to find
    My own betrayal in their constancy,
    In faith to Him their fickleness to me,
    Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.”

    Francis Thompson – The Hound of Heaven*

    The exception was Charles Bellord the MC’s lawyer whose family had been connected with managing the Charity since its inception. I had reason to consult him when two Irish sisters – not nuns – were arrested for alleged placing of bombs in London. One of their legal representatives had approached Mother Fidelis with a proposal that they be bailed to the Refuge. Seemingly, the principle of sanctuary was advocated. The legal opinion from Charles Bellord clarified this as a misapprehension. About the same time a Commander Roy Habershom of The Special Branch telephoned me to warn that the Refuge was under surveillance due to its use by potential IRA bombers. Enquiries had established that most of the kitchens in (the likely to be bomb targets) West End Gentleman’s Clubs in Pall Mall and at the Ritz and Savoy Hotels casually employed Irishmen who resorted to hostels on a regular basis.

    Although the feared backlash against Irish people during that period never materialized it was this particular group that suffered due to the inevitably tightened security measures. The special but unofficial Department of Employment Offices in Denmark Street & Mortimer Street, W.I. where from 2.00 am men queued for a metal disc entitling them to be directed to an establishment for a day’s work from 5.30 am closed more or less overnight.

    Charles Bellord had the good grace to telephone me before the paperwork arrived that I was, in grateful recognition of my services, being awarded a year’s salary in advance and that Providence Row would contribute to a pension until I was 65. Not only did I lose my post but my home as well because I lived in the scheme with the eleven disadvantaged families as an unpaid family assistant and adviser. It was an encouraging compliment when many of the denominational charity’s in the area offered to create a post for me: John Profumo in particular which on principal I could not accept. Thanks to the Bow Methodist Mission I moved to an empty vicarage in Bow and aged 40 with a wife and three young children determined to build on the wreckage as I considered the tasks unfinished – the dreams denied.

    * Miss. Lawlor long term office assistant was very knowledgeable on the history of Providence Row and told me that the poet Francis Thompson (1859-1907) quoted above, who in 1893 wrote The Hound Of Heaven, spent time in the dormitory of the Men’s Refuge when he was destitute and addicted to laudanum: a tincture of alcohol and opium. She also told me that it was an historical fact that in 1888 two of Jack-the-Ripper’s 5 victims: Catherine Eddowes and Elizabeth Stride had sheltered in the Women’s Refuge in the weeks prior to their deaths. She advised me that, though I had big money plans, never to overlook the small kindnesses of donors and “Don’t forget to be nice to Doctor Morrell!”

    The following September “Winny” who had come as a homeless person from an orphanage to the Women’s Refuge fifty years ago and lived in a room above the dormitory brought me tea and asked if I was “In or Out” today? She always sat in a tobaco smoke haze in a tiny reception room by the door to Gun St. where she filtered out speculative callers: “Ee’s not in!” – “Ee’s out in the van!” “Ee’s round the Men’s entrance at 4.30!” and so on .. came in to my office and said an elderly gentleman calling himself a doctor was waiting to see me.

    The doctor gave his name and explained that he is making his annual pilgrimage to Whitechapel where, in the 1940s, he met his wife when he was a medical student and she a nurse at The London Hospital. He had come up to Liverpool Street Station from his home in Sussex with a gift of a jar of his home-made jam for the homeless which he then handed to me. Over a cup of tea Dr. Morrell told me that in all the years that he had visited he had never been inside the Refuges while his wife, now dead, had helped out with serving the Refuge Christmas Day Dinner for hundreds of people years ago. He was truly delighted when I gave him an extended tour of the whole place and escorted him to the convent to meet Mother Fidelis: after chatting with the good doctor she bade him goodbye and gave him a bottle of malt whiskey. He continued his yearly visits – always with a jar of jam. I made sure to make a fuss of him.

    Although I never returned to Providence Row I heard that another crisis involving The London Fire Service was brewing unless a comphrehensive upgrade with smoke detector and sprinkler system was installed. It was estimated to cost £60.000. Not long after that on reading the Wills, Legacies and other Bequests column in The Times, I learned that Doctor Morrell had left that amount to Providence Row Night Refuge & Home, Crispin Street, London, E1.

    Extract from the trilogy: Scenes From An Examined Life – Book 3 – “Nothing Matches – But It’s Home”. accessible on publisher Harper Collins open site authonomy.com

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