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David Hoffman At St Botolph’s

February 7, 2023
by the gentle author

David Hoffman undertook a significant body of photography documenting the East End in the seventies and eighties that I plan to publish this year as a book entitled, A PLACE TO LIVE, Endurance & Joy in Whitechapel, accompanied by a major photographic exhibition at House of Annetta in Spitalfields.

I believe David’s work is such an important social document, distinguished by its generous humanity and aesthetic flair, that I must publish a collected volume. I have a growing list of supporters for this project, so if you share my appreciation of David’s photography and might consider supporting this endeavour, please drop me a line at

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

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 7, 2023

    These are brilliant photos and well deserved to be published in book form.

    It would be fascinating to know the back stories of all the characters, and to know how they ended up living on the streets.

    I found the picture of the treasured family Christmas photo particularly moving as it spoke so eloquently of all that had been lost.

  2. February 7, 2023

    Such important and brilliant photographs taken by David.
    What lives did these people leave behind?
    Despite their circumstances, some were still smiling.
    Sadly, even today some ex-Serviceman find themselves on the streets…..not much has changed.

  3. February 7, 2023

    United in being marginalised, people do show their dignity. The puppy and the Christmas family photo are heartbreaking….

    Love & Peace

  4. Paul Loften permalink
    February 7, 2023

    One can jump to conclusions about people . I looked at the bottom picture and the thought immediately crossed my mind he was throwing a punch at somebody . I looked closer and saw his arm stretched in act of comforting another human in distress . The photo had caught that moment and the feeling should touch us all

  5. andy permalink
    February 7, 2023

    I would like to say thank you. Humbly. For gibing these people in the photps back their dignity.
    Thank you David and the Gentle Author.
    What for? Remembering them and for the Vicar.

    Please people never forget them. I loved them as a child. To me they were special and I wrote about them in my poems if anyone wants to read them please let me know.
    When older I brought them food, when young and unafraid I sat them on building sites and in derelict buildings. None ever harmed me. I lived in Milward st then Wager st. I liked them better than authority.

  6. Cherub permalink
    February 7, 2023

    My late father used to tell me about seeing a lot of homeless alcoholics when he was a teenager in 1930s Belfast, mainly men who were traumatised by WW1.
    He told me you must never look down on them and he always used to donate to the Salvation Army. I also donate to the Salvation Army in Britain and Heiles Armee as it’s known here in German speaking Switzerland. They have local hostels down by the Rhein and as well as helping homeless they look after young women who are sadly caught up in sex work.

    I was very upset to read about the lady whose cardboard shelter was run over by a lorry, so very sad that life should end like that.

  7. John Campbell permalink
    February 7, 2023

    The Christmas photo speaks volumes – so sad.
    I wonder if St Botolphs was one of the shelters where John Healy took sanctuary?

  8. Val Hewson permalink
    February 7, 2023

    I forwarded today’s blog to a friend whose family played a part in St Botolph’s. Her grandfather was George Appleton who first opened up the Crypt in the late 1950s/early 1960s when he was Rector at St Botolph’s from 1957 to 1962. Her parents were married in the church by George around this time. There’s more info about George, who went on to be Archbishop of Jerusalem, at: https://en

  9. Ros permalink
    February 7, 2023

    Such tender photographs of so many different kinds of love and sadness, but also the happiness of the fleeting moment. The loner tucked away on a bench inside an arch with his ciggy and mug of tea is also allowed to be alone and does not look unhappy with it.

  10. Christine Swan permalink
    February 8, 2023

    I didn’t have time to really study these photographs yesterday but have done so today. The family photo, with the person’s details and a field at the bottom of the card that I just can’t read, but with the words : “Some hope.” written. Some hope of reuniting with their family? Small words with big impact.
    My Dad came to know several of the regulars on his travels around the East End as a turncock with the Metropolitan Water Board. He told me that a number he spoke to had previously held professional positions but their drinking took over their lives and they fell into the pit of destitution. Maths and Tizer was the cocktail of self-destruction. Dad said the drinkers would sit on tombstones, like the ghosts of the dead, but living. Just.
    I agree that these photos are moving but also significant. They definitely should be published as a body of work. Thank you GA.

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