This short essay by Graham Park and Sue Ward describes a period of responses – some good, some bad and some frankly terrible – during the closure for refurbishment of Bruce House, a hostel in central London. They start with a brief history of this famous building, explains what it looked like then, and summarises events from 1983 to 1986. Photography is by Evan Jones who also worked at Bruce House.
A brief history, and its appearance in 1983
Bruce House was opened by the London County Council in 1906 as part of a district redevelopment. Its design represents a movement to provide “model lodging houses” for working people who might otherwise live in slums. Care were taken with the external Arts and Crafts architecture and with its internal facilities: a reading room, a smoking room, a large hotplate for cooking, three fireplaces, and hygienic but attractive internal decoration. Sleeping cubicles offered reasonable privacy and ventilation for the time, and had iron bedsteads with sprung mattresses.
In the 1960s it was refurbished with additional toilet wings. Many new WCs were of the European/Eastern “squat type”. We were told these were probably put in on the misunderstanding that there were “many foreigners” there, but it seems more likely they were simply easy to clean and there was a mistaken belief that most residents were vagrants with poor personal hygiene. By the 1980s this was certainly eccentric and awkward.
The property was transferred from the LCC to Westminster Council in 1964. Following a fire in 1971, timber cubicles were replaced with asbestos, and beds were replaced with cheaper ones. With asbestos soon seen as dangerous, removing or even altering it became expensive.
Well before 1983 it was hopelessly dated. The boiler was broken, heating was negligible, and the rooms were poor by modern standards, with small cubicles in long corridors, and thin beds on plywood bases. Cubicles could not be locked, so residents used chairs to stop entry and theft (see the corridor picture). Entry to the building was awkward (see “the good and the bad”, below). Its one advantage was that it was cheap, and bookable by night or by week.
1983 to 1986: the Resettlement Team
By the 1980s it was clear it needed fixing, reflecting similar changes in hostels elsewhere. As was usual at that time, the lead was taken by Social Services, a result of the considerable anxiety (and as we will see, widespread misunderstanding) about people in this setting. Two social workers were appointed to plan and start rehousing, and the team quickly expanded to include assistants and another social worker.
The population then was about 400, reduced from an original 700 by the previous closure of one wing.
Residents were given the choice of moving to a flat, staying at a “new” Bruce House on the same site (this never happened: it now houses mostly younger people), or moving to a shared and supported hostel elsewhere.
- Most wanted a flat, but:
- Quite a few still wanted a hostel- a reasonable decision, given that some either had long been in hostels and not experienced life elsewhere, or were ill and realistically thought living alone was unwise. A few changed their minds after seeing friends’ homes.
Moving people out of the hostel was easy compared with the time of writing (2017):
- Access to public housing was easy. In the 1980s there was a small surplus of council housing. Many residents qualified by being homeless and in priority need.
- Community Care Grants from Social Security – a routine £500 – were in place in 1983.
- Additional budget. The team asked for, and got, a fund to cover van hire and for urgent client needs.
- Furniture supply. Good voluntary sector furniture supply services were in place, and there were cheap commercial equivalents available too.
The team found in the course of rehousing that:
- Most people housed had some experience of independent living and few needed guidance about household management. Where they did, the team provided it.
- Almost all had a good sense of the housing they needed. Persuading someone that a flat was a bad choice was very rare.
The team reported on progress towards the end of its stay. Residents were being rehoused at a rate of one or two a week. Of the original 400 residents, about 150 had left of their own accord, either as natural turnover (some said they went to other hostels “because they couldn’t be worse”), or as a result of deeply suspect management decisions – see the Good and the Bad, below. Of the rest:
- About 140 had been rehoused. People abandoning their flats or getting into other serious difficulty were fewer than five.
- About 40 wanted a low care supported bedsit (on offer in north and south Westminster). Most were older people who had lived in hostels or lodgings all their adult lives.
- About 40 wanted to be placed in a refurbished hostel on the existing Bruce House site.
- About 20 were manifestly ill or frail and would need high care accommodation of various kinds.
In the event:
- The supported bedsits “for life” and the “Bruce House replacement” the team was asked to offer if wanted, only occurred for a short period.
The finish. By 1987 the team had ended its work and moved on to other Council services.
Who had residents been?
Before starting, a 1980 Westminster report felt the need to point out that, despite an impression of widespread alcoholism, a tiny minority had this problem. The Resettlement Team similarly found that:
- Some residents were mentally ill or had alcohol problems, but most were ordinary working men who had encountered some misfortune or had simply not had relationships attaching them to ordinary housing.
- Many (but far from all) were originally from other parts of the UK and Ireland.
- Of 108 people counted, 51 were or had been in catering, 31 in construction and 26 in an “other” category. Among these, 18 specified they were labourers, 17 kitchen porters, and 9 unspecified caterers. There were 5 or 6 each of cooks, barmen, painters, pipelayers and market porters, and ones and twos of waiters, postmen, cleaners, drivers and clerks. Many past labourers were, while comparatively young, now too old for it and worked in kitchens.
- Some used to have bedsits in areas such as Islington where new home owners were now less inclined to take working class lodgers.
- Most residents in no way matched the offensive description of ‘hostel dweller’, but were well dressed and could be seen going to cafés, pubs and betting shops to keep warm and enjoy the atmosphere in contrast to the cold and unwelcoming Bruce House.
The good and the bad…
Good planning. The supply of housing was well worked out by senior managers. Setting up the team, and arranging training and, particularly, observation of existing services, was also well done.
Responses to complaints. A recently rehoused resident wrote complaining of such cold that people stole blankets from each other and that replacements, if supplied, were damp. A Councillor replied sympathetically, and a newspaper quoted in some detail her concerns about Bruce House. She was often contacted by residents, helping her understand their needs.
But: social work managers with a poor grasp of needs. The entrance lobby had a prison-like barred gate, and the outer area was used as a shelter by drinkers who did not live there, annoying residents and frightening visitors. Managers brought in to implement change did nothing. Eventually the Resettlement Team itself made changes to improve the appearance and control access.
Incompetence and deceit. A senior manager told the Council that most residents were “self neglecting alcoholics”, and set up financially restrictive policies to control alleged drinking. All but one councillor supported this. The Resettlement Team coordinated work by Central London Law Centre and complaining residents to challenge this, and it was overturned. The manager had to leave.
A place for “incontinents”. Group homes were offered to some older people. Rigid waterproof furniture was bought, assuming all residents were incontinent and alcoholic. None were.
Incompetent to the last: hurried closure with no planning and no training.
Close to closure, the Resettlement Team moved elsewhere but learned from worried hostel workers that managers had asked them to rehouse the 35 remaining residents – work in which they had no experience or training. The Resettlement Team manager wrote an angry memo to the head of department and spoke to Social Work Today about it.
The issue attracted the interest of politicians and journalists, but for the team, the only outcomes were: the team leader was disciplined for “bringing the Council into disrepute”; and nobody asked team members for advice on homelessness ever again.