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David Hoffman At St Botolph’s

December 10, 2013
by the gentle author

Bobbie Beecroft cuts Mr Sheridan’s hair, 1976

When photographer David Hoffman was squatting in Fieldgate Mansions in Whitechapel in the seventies, he was asked to do fund-raising shots for the shelter in the crypt of St Botolph’s in Aldgate which offered refuge to all homeless people without distinction. Yet this commission turned into a photographic project that extended over many years and resulted in a distinguished body of work documenting the lives of the dispossessed in hundreds of intimate and unsentimental images.

Initially, David found the volatile conditions of the crypt challenging but, over months and years, he became accepted by those at the shelter who adopted him as their own photographer. Rev Malcolm Johnson was the enlightened priest responsible for opening the crypt but, once he moved on, his brave endeavour was closed down. More than thirty years later, most of the people in David’s pictures are dead and forgotten, and his soulful photographs are now the only record of their existence and of the strange camaraderie they discovered in the crypt at St Botolph’s.

“St Botolph’s in Aldgate had a ‘wet shelter,’ an evening shelter for damaged or lost souls where alcohol and drugs were permitted. It was run by Rev Malcolm Johnson and Terry Drummond, who were very generous and accepting, and the purpose was a Christian one, based on the notion that you are accepted whoever you are. I’m not keen on organised religion, but here they were doing something that needed to be done.

I was asked if I could do some photographs to raise funds for the work and I remember arriving at the top of the steps outside the crypt and standing there for five minutes because I didn’t dare to go down. The noise was deafening and it really stank of piss and unwashed bodies. I was frightened I’d get attacked and my camera smashed but, equally, I thought it needed documenting, it was a part of life I’d never seen before. It was very noisy, very smelly, chaotic, and there was a lot of violence.

It was a place to get something to eat, get washed and get clean clothing. Not everybody was on drink or drugs but ninety per cent were. A lot were ex-servicemen who had travelled the world and would reminisce about bars in Cairo or Baghdad. It was amazing what they would talk about.

When I returned, I gave them eighth-size A4 prints so they could put them in their pockets. They gave me permission to take their pictures and, on each visit, I’d bring them prints from the previous evening. So I became their photographer.

Over six or seven years, I’d go every night for two or three months at a stretch. It was important to be regular while you were doing it. You needed to come frequently, so people relaxed and accepted you as part of the scene. I’d go every night for a couple of months. It was a place where nobody else goes, it was a humble part of life.”

Washing a shirt at St Botolph’s, 1978

A volunteer serves tea and sandwiches

Azella, a regular at St Botolph’s, makes herself up before heading to the pub with a pal in 1977. Later that year, Azella was killed when a lorry drove over the cardboard box where she slept in Spitalfields Market.

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1976

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

Leo, eighty-two years old and a non-drinker at St Botolph’s, 1976

At St Botolph’s, 1978

Percy & Jane, non-drinkers, at St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s,  1977

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

Photographs copyright © David Hoffman

You may also like to take a look at

David Hoffman at Fieldgate Mansions

16 Responses leave one →
  1. December 10, 2013

    What an awful life those poor people led, and thank God for those people who tried to help them, gave them comfort and shelter, and accepted them as they were. The photos are very dramatic, show an uncomfortable and dreadful reality. Valerie

  2. December 10, 2013

    A thought-provoking report – very good photographs!
    ACHIM

  3. Paul-o from Port Adelaide permalink
    December 10, 2013

    I found this story very moving. The Reverend Johnson was a visionary – his approach towards harm minimisation is still way ahead of its time in many parts of the world.

    And while organised religion has indeed been responsible for many horrific crimes over the centuries, particularly with regard to the abuse of children, this story shows that there are also people who have taken up a priestly vocation in order to treat people in a Christ-like way.

    What a difference the Reverend Johnson must have made to the lives of these people over those year. I wish there had been a photo of him…

  4. Sal Shuel permalink
    December 10, 2013

    I have always had a lot of time for David. He has spent his life recording the realities of life and he’s suffered for what he’s done. What I like best about his work is that whilst he’s recording horrors, he somehow manages to make good pictures at the same time and, quite honestly, I don’t think anyone else does it better.

  5. December 10, 2013

    This has made my day. I have never met David Hoffman, but it is such a privilege to see these photographs which evoke so many memories for me. The crypts and shelters are normally a world unseen except by those who work with the men and women who use them.
    I am continually astonished by the glimpses of other lives and worlds that Gentle Author so caringly brings to us. Truly an emotional viewing this morning…

  6. December 10, 2013

    These photos brought me to tears. I’m not sure what overwhelmed me.The photos showed such a deep sense of community in a difficult situation…the human-ness of life in the wet crypt. I don’t know. But I loved the photographs. Beautiful.

  7. Suzanne permalink
    December 10, 2013

    Azella..do you have more info on her?

  8. Graham Bould permalink
    December 10, 2013

    Words don’t begin to convey a fraction of what David Hoffman achieves in these amazing, thought-provoking photographs. A genuinely eye-opening posting. Thank you, GA.

  9. Vicky permalink
    December 10, 2013

    Extremely moving, you cannot fail to be touched by these images.

  10. Tommy F permalink
    December 10, 2013

    fantastic photographs., thanks again G.A.

  11. Shaun Peters permalink
    December 10, 2013

    I commented the last time David Hoffman’s work was shown here. To have achieved this kind of effect, it is obvious that he has spent time and been accepted by those subjects who have allowed him into their midst and their lives at a very difficult time.

    Wonderful work. Thank you again for showing.

  12. Gary permalink
    December 10, 2013

    I have known David Hoffman for years but you have opened a window in his life that I knew nothing off, fantastic.
    David since those early days has developed into a very skilled and successful photographer with a very interesting and eventful life.
    Gary Arber

  13. Barbara permalink
    December 10, 2013

    I remember the man in the first photograph who is having his hair cut. I lived in Whitechapel 1957 – 1965 and I remember seeing him selling boxes of matches along the Whitechapel Road. Quite sad to think that so many years later he was still homeless in Spitalfields. I have also seen photos of the same man taken by Phil Maxwell in the eighties . So many years of wandering.

  14. Deborah Fyrth permalink
    December 11, 2013

    Such moving images, especially the guy with the wee puppy. David Hoffman gives value and recognition to people who’ve been marginalised by society.

  15. December 13, 2013

    More magnificent images from David!

  16. December 22, 2013

    Some great images.

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