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Moyra Peralta’s Spitalfields

May 20, 2017
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

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    May 20, 2017

    I read or heard somewhere that we’re all just two pieces of misfortune from ruin. In an age in which food banks are expanding robustly, the gentle, quiet efforts of people like Moyra should shame our grandstanding politicians, but they don’t. Wonderful photographs

  2. Vicky permalink
    May 20, 2017

    It’s a great shame the Providence Row Night Shelter closed as there is such a huge need for it now.

  3. May 20, 2017

    Poignant and evocative. There for the grace of God.

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    May 20, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, very moving photos – thanks. Reminds me that in 2014 I spent 10 nights at the Strand Palace near Trafalgar Square. The first night I went to the LSE to hear Thomas Piketty discuss his book CAPITAL IN THE 20TH CENTURY, a cast of thousands and I was glad to get a ticket. Returning to the hotel, I slipped into an alcove off the lobby with three computers for “business use.” I started chatting with a woman on the next computer. I began sputtering about Picketty and this woman knew quite a bit about him. CAPITAL was a sensation that year.

    Then I noticed that she was looking around furtively and chucked, “I am not supposed to be here.” I noticed her several other nights. Looking more closely, I noticed she did look rather “rough.” I believe there was a shelter nearby. This gal had obviously had a better life at one time but still retained her intellectual curiosity. My last night I looked for her to slip her a £20 note and say, “That’s for knowing who Piketty is,” but she was not there. I often think of this person…

  5. Malcolm permalink
    May 20, 2017

    These are great photographs. They have a human touch without the lacerating darkness and anger of Don McCullin’s legendary images of Spitalfields. These have a much closer relationship to the people they depict and are all the better for it.
    I knew the area well at the time these were taken and I remember the Dickensian squalor and hopelessness that these men and women lived in. The night shelter in Providence Row – and others like it around London, provided by the great philanthropists, like Rowton, Peabody and Jewish charities – are now all closed down, swept away, along with those unfortunate souls who needed them, by developers greedy for the land in what are now prime locations. It’s as if the poor don’t exist anymore.

  6. The Idle 'Prentice permalink
    May 20, 2017

    That is the very same corner that Don McCullin took some of his photos I believe. Those sad shambling figures can still be found haunting doorways and alleyways in Spitalfields today or begging change from the beautiful young things and tourists posing for selfies outside the Ten Bells or The Golden Hart.

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