Wednesday, 23 October 2019

6 months on...

We can't believe it's been 6 months since our exhibition 'Missing Pieces' took over venues around Newcastle to expose the long history and ongoing crisis of homelessness. Relive the exhibition by taking a look at the collection of photographs below, all taken by members and staff at Crisis Skylight Newcastle.

Anyone who didn't get a chance to visit the venues or who wants to find out more about the issues we explored should keep an eye on this blog. Over the coming weeks we'll be turning it into an online exhibition featuring key archives, stories and items uncovered by the Homeless History of Newcastle project.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Launching 22 February: Missing Pieces Exhibition

We've been working hard over the last few months to pull together all of the research, stories and ideas from the past year working with members at Crisis Skylight Newcastle and are now almost ready to launch the exhibition which marks the culmination of our project.

Missing Pieces: A History of Homelessness in Newcastle will open to the public on Friday 22 February at five venues around the city of Newcastle. The exhibition will feature rarely seen documents and photographs from local archives as well as personal stories from the past and present to find out what history can tell us about the ongoing crisis of homelessness in Britain. Presented within unique structures built by Crisis members in collaboration with local artists, the exhibition will challenge you to think about homelessness in a completely new way.

We will reveal some of the key issues that have impacted homelessness since 1840 and uncover the experiences faced by people living without a home. It will also explore how our attitudes to homelessness have been shaped, discover what role community has played in responding to homelessness and, looking to the future, ask whether homelessness will ever be consigned to history.

Look out for our exhibition posters and brochures which will be popping up at cultural venues near you and be sure to call in to City Library, St. Nicholas' Cathedral, Bessie Surtees House, Discovery Museum and Laing Art Gallery from 22 February.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Details of our upcoming History for Change conference

We're excited to announce that tickets are now available for our upcoming conference, History for Change: Celebrating radical local heritage projects looking back to move forward.

Book your place and join us at at the Literary and Philosophical Society, Newcastle upon Tyne, on 26th October 2018 to hear about innovative and groundbreaking community heritage projects that are changing the way that we think about local history. Find out about projects that are investigating history to ask questions about the present, provoke discussion about politics and society, bring communities together and challenge preconceptions about our shared past.

Come along to hear and contribute ideas on what the exploration and understanding of local history can offer to communities to help them come together and overcome challenges.

Hear from a lineup of speakers representing charities, museums and arts organisations who will talk about projects uncovering new histories in areas ranging from mental health to law and order, education to community identity.

The full conference lineup will be announced shortly; please visit @HomelessHistNCL on Twitter or Facebook for updates.

Conference places are free but booking is essential. Free lunch and refreshments will be provided for all attendees.

This conference is being made possible through funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and forms part of Crisis Skylight Newcastle's Homeless History of Newcastle project.

For further details and to book your tickets visit:

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Homeless History of Newcastle walking tour

We're happy to announce that tickets are available for the first run of our Homeless History of Newcastle 19th century walking tour.

Join us on this unique tour of Newcastle’s Quayside to hear previously untold stories of homelessness in the 19th century. Piecing together archival evidence uncovered through the Homeless History of Newcastle project we will get a glimpse into a hidden part of Newcastle’s past and learn what these stories can tell us about homelessness then and now.

Created by project participants and led by City Guides tour guides, this walking tour will explore five stories that each offer a different perspective on homelessness in Victorian Newcastle.

Book tickets for the tour at 2.30pm on Saturday 11th August here:

Book tickets for the tour at 2.30m pm on Wednesday 15th August here:

Alternatively, email

The walking tour is free to attend, though the number of tickets is limited. We encourage anyone attending the tour and who would like to make a contribution to make a donation to Crisis:

Monday, 28 May 2018

Project update and dates for your diary

Throughout this project we will be working with a group of members from the homeless charity Crisis to help us research and interpret the history of homelessness in Newcastle. Alongside this research we will also be visiting cultural venues around the city to examine the techniques they use to explore local history, helping us to develop ideas for our own exhibition, due to open in January 2019.

Our first visit was to the Northern Spirit exhibition at Laing Art Gallery which presents artworks produced locally and inspired by the region, including celebrated artists such as Thomas Bewick, Ralph Hedley and John Martin. Many of the works on show engage with local industries such as coal mining, ship building and fishing.

John Charlton, The Women, c. 1910, courtesy of Laing Art Gallery.

As well as investigating the techniques involved when curating displays of fine art, the group discussed the power of art to engage with challenging subjects, using Ralph Hedley's Seeking Situations as a starting point.

This painting from the early 20th century brings the issue of unemployment into focus, showing us a range of characters looking at job adverts and asking us to draw our own conclusions about their future prospects. This then led into an exploration of depictions of homelessness in art and a questioning of how different audiences might respond to these works. The group came away from the exhibition feeling confident enough to question the motives of artists and the version of history that an artwork can present to us.

Our next visit took us to Discovery Museum to see their exhibition, Destination Tyneside. The exhibition explores the history of migration into the region from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s.
Project members exploring the Destination Tyneside exhibition at Discovery Museum.

The exhibition looks at a similar time period to our forthcoming homeless history exhibition, so the group were keen to find content and interpretative techniques which could be applied when developing ideas for this. There was lots of discussion around how much written information an exhibition should include, as well as the value of conveying information in other forms, such as using video and interactive content.

One aspect that all members of the group enjoyed was the use of personal stories to illustrate broad historic themes. The exhibition rigorously researched the lives of a series of migrants to Tyneside and skillfully brought their stories to life through text, images, objects and video. The experiences of these individuals did so much more to inform us what life was like for migrants than any statistics or historic legislation could.

As well as considering how we can incorporate personal stories in our own exhibition, the group moved on to debate the role of the museum in the political life of a city and wondered if it is possible to produce an exhibition on the history of homelessness without expressing any overt political views.

We'll be keeping you updated with all of our visits as the project progresses, as well as giving some sneak previews of how our own exhibition is developing.

We've also been working hard to get dates confirmed for the public facing side of our project, so get these in your diary now:

On Saturday 11 and Wednesday 15 August we will be running a homeless history walking tour on the Newcastle / Gateshead quayside. This will be our first chance to share with the public the stories we have uncovered of individuals who experienced homelessness in 19th century Tyneside and how their lives have resonated with people experiencing homelessness today. 

On Friday 26 October, we will be hosting a conference on Radical Local Histories in central Newcastle (details to be announced soon). We are inviting speakers from local history projects around Britain that are uncovering overlooked or alternative histories to talk about how they are challenging the way people think about the history of their area.

Keep following the blog for further information and details on how to book a place for both of these events.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

We're looking for a Project Designer

We're looking for a Project Designer to work with us on the Homeless History of Newcastle project. Interested? See below...

Brief for Project Designer for Homeless History of Newcastle project

About the Homeless History of Newcastle project
The Homeless History of Newcastle project is writing a new history of Newcastle upon Tyne from 1850 to the present exploring the lives and experiences of people affected by homelessness. Running throughout 2018, it will culminate in an innovative, high profile exhibition in central Newcastle in January 2019, with a series of public events scheduled throughout the year, including a walking tour in August 2018. The project is being run in collaboration with Crisis Skylight Newcastle and is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with support and input from local cultural organisations. The project is being led by a Project Team including museums professionals, volunteers and people with experience of homelessness.

Who we’re looking for
We’re looking for a designer to help us market and publicise this project and the resulting exhibition. We want someone who is keen to bring creativity and innovation to a unique and challenging brief and who has experience of producing print and digital design.

What the Designer will deliver
·         June 2018: a logo and branding for the HHoN project that can be adapted for use on flyers, publicity, website and social media.
·         July - September 2018: templates for flyers and posters to publicise public events and the final exhibition as well as exhibition branding that will feature on exhibition panels.

The work will require an initial meeting with the project co-ordinators and at least two further meetings with the wider Crisis Member-led Project Team throughout the project. All meetings will take place at Crisis Skylight or another venue in central Newcastle.

Key dates
Early June 2018: meeting with Project Team to discuss project branding
Early July 2018: deadline for delivery of project logo, branding and walking tour flyer
Late July 2018: meeting with Project Team to discuss next phase
October 2018: deadline for delivery of poster / flyer templates and exhibition branding

Other information
The budget available for this work will be £1,500 inclusive of expenses and VAT
The designer will be fully acknowledged in the final exhibition and in project publicity.

How to apply
For further information or to apply for this role please email
Applicants should send a written expression of interest (no more than a single side A4) and examples of previous work by Friday 25th May. We may also want to meet with applicants before appointment; if so this will take place in the last week of May.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The Removal of Margaret Adams from Newcastle to Belfast (1857)

We've been a little quiet on our blog lately as we've been working hard to plan the coming year, assembling a team of enthusiastic research volunteers who will help us to uncover the history of homelessness in Newcastle (thanks to everyone who shared our callout), and beginning work with our project team at Crisis to explore public history in Newcastle. There'll be more on all of this soon!

In the meantime, however, we wanted to share the story of Margaret Adams who, along with her four children, was forcibly removed from Newcastle in 1857 when she found herself in poverty. We first came across Margaret Adams when searching through removal warrants at Tyne and Wear Archives. While the survival of these documents is generally patchy, Tyne and Wear Archives holds an entire years worth of removal warrants for the year 1857. These administrative and highly official looking documents record the details of everyone removed from the city in that year, under the archaic laws of Settlement and Removal.

The laws of settlement and removal were a major part of 19th century legislation designed to deal with the very poor and the homeless. The laws dated back to 1662* and gave local authorities the power to remove anyone without what was known as 'the right to settlement' and who seemed likely to become a financial burden. Anyone born outside of the area they were living in only became entitled to the right to settlement by meeting certain conditions and this generally didn’t take into account the length of time they had been living in the area or their connections with the area. As with much legislation designed to restrict movement and migration it was only concerned with the very poor. The historian Robert Humphreys suggests that the settlement and removal laws were used to '[contain] the poor within predictable geographical pockets'.

The removal laws were only applicable to the very poor and destitute and many of the people targeted through the laws would have been in a position of homelessness (which is why we're interested in these records). What's more, the act of forcibly removing individuals and often whole families hundreds of miles to places where they may have had little or no family or friends would have undoubtedly pushed many more people into homelessness. Women, particularly pregnant women and mothers with young children, tended to be most affected by the laws of removal in the 19th century (of the warrants of removal for 1857 at Tyne and Wear two thirds were issued to women). This is due in large part to the brutal reason that women with young children would be more in need of charity than single adults.

At first glance, there's little we can learn about Margaret Adams from the document. For a piece of paper that marked such a monumental upheaval in a person's life, the removal warrant left little space to record much about that person. We know that Margaret was a widow, that she had four children aged 3 to 12 (all named on the record) and that they were living in All Saints parish in Newcastle (this parish covers the area near Newcastle Quayside). The record tells us that Margaret left Belfast around 17 years previously. We can also assume that she was illiterate as, in the space left for her signature, she has written an X.

Most of the people who were removed from Newcastle in that same year tend to disappear again from historical records – the removal order serving as the only testament to the fact that they ever called Newcastle their home. We had assumed it would be much the same case with Margaret Adams, particularly given that her name isn't very distinctive and would quite easily be lost amongst the many other 'Margaret Adams' in the census. However, to our surprise, a quick search brought her up, top of the list, in 1851 living in a house on Butcher Bank, a busy working-class area in the heart of Newcastle, with three of her children (the youngest, Isabella, was yet to be born at this point) and her husband, William Adams, a boilermaker, also born in Belfast.

Between these two records we can start to build a picture of the life and experiences of Margaret Adams. We can learn from the removal order that William and Margaret emigrated from Belfast in around 1840. Even before the Irish famine of 1845 to 49, emigres from Ireland to England followed a well-worn path, drawn across the channel for any number of reasons, though mostly in search of well-paid employment in England's industries. Newcastle wasn't one of the major destinations for Irish emigres, but its shipbuilding industry offered the hope of employment to those willing to travel on east from the more traditional destinations like Liverpool and Manchester. By 1851 Margaret and William Adams were part of a 10,000 strong community of Irish emigres living in Newcastle.*

Furthermore, between the census record and the removal order we know that, at some point between 1851 and 1857, Margaret lost her husband and her life was turned upside down.

There's no evidence left to suggest how William Adams died. Boilermaking was a dangerous job and the risk of boilers exploding and killing and injuring those around them was substantial. An article from the 12th March 1853 edition of the Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury reported on an explosion in Manchester and its disastrous consequences:

'...the boiler burst with a terrific explosion, which was heard at a distance of several miles. The part over the firebox was torn into three separate pieces, each being hurled to a distance of six or seven yards, destroying five of the pillars supporting the structure, and upwards of 1500 square feet of the slated roof were blown off. In this shed from 60 to 80 workmen were at breakfast, dispersed in groups about all parts of it, and hence resulted a shocking loss of life, four men being killed on the instant, in addition to 10 or 12 who were severely injured.'

The 1851 census record also suggests that the Adams family were likely at the very centre of a flashpoint of one of the worst tragedies to hit Newcastle in the city's history. On 6th October 1854 the great fire of Newcastle and Gateshead tore through the city leaving numerous dead and injured and decimating communities. The Adams family's last recorded home in 1851 – Butcher Bank – was hit terribly by the tragedy that began from an explosion at a factory in Hillgate, Gateshead. An article from The Newcastle Journal (7 October 1854) described the scene around Butcher Bank:

'The explosion had scarcely taken place, and the ignited materials, bricks, stones, timbers, and the other explosive ingredients fallen on the various parts of the Quay, opposite the scene the catastrophe, amidst the wail of women, the cry of children, and the rush of men for safety from the falling missiles, and fire, and brimstone, than it was found that from various parts of the Quay, the block of warehouses behind, the Butcher Bank, and even so far off as the foot of Pilgrim Street, where the descending fire fell, flames speedily arose and sulphurous smoke filled the atmosphere, which might almost justify the fear of the panic stricken thousands whom the explosion had drawn from all parts of the town, that it was really doomed to destruction by the explosive conflagration, while the stupifying effects of the concussion, and the unexpected nature of the conflagration rendered all parties for a time unable to make those decisive efforts which are invaluable at the commencement of such an occurrence to quench the flames.'

Many of the reports of the fire list the dead and injured but no mention is made of Margaret, William, or their children.

By 1857, whether by workplace tragedy, illness or accident, William was dead, and Margaret Adams was left a widow left to take care of her four young children alone. In February of that year, in poverty, having suffered the death of her husband and quite possibly the destruction of her community just three years earlier, Margaret was brought before Newcastle’s Court of Petty Sessions where two men, Mr E. N. Grace, Esq. (Mayor of Newcastle) and Mr C. E. Ellison, heard the case for her removal from Newcastle to her birthplace of Belfast on account of her being poor and chargeable to the parish. Despite the fact that her children were all born in Newcastle it was deemed that they too should be removed to Belfast as the law dictated that children should inherit their father’s place of origin and William had been born in Belfast.

After the verdict was passed this removal order was filled in and Margaret was made to make her mark on the document. She was then passed to George Grey, Overseer of the Poor of the Parish of All Saints, whose responsibility it was to see that Margaret and her children were sent away from Newcastle to Belfast. Three days after the hearing the family were put aboard a train from Newcastle to the port town of Whitehaven in Cumbria. In Whitehaven they were put aboard a steam boat (called ‘The Whitehaven’) to Belfast. A stark ‘receipt’ written by the ship’s master, George Hugham, on the back of the removal order documents their arrival on board the boat.

There’s no record of Margaret’s experience in Belfast in the months or years after her journey back in 1857. Removal has been the end of the evidence trail for most of the other people we’ve looked into, so we did not expect to uncover anything more on Margaret or her children. We certainly didn’t expect her to turn up on the 1861 census back in Newcastle. Nonetheless, a search of the census told us she had managed to make the journey back from Ireland along with her children and was now living with her sister, Ellen Davison, at a lodging house on High Bridge in the centre of Newcastle. We know that at this time lodging houses were the lowliest and most deprived forms of accommodation available to anyone who was either unwilling or unable to enter the workhouse (see previous post on Thomas Ferens for more) so this tells us that Margaret and her family, despite having made it back to Newcastle, were still living in relative poverty in tenuous circumstances. However, the census also tells us that Margaret now had an income of some sorts as a needlewoman and that her eldest son, James (now 16), had found work as a coal miner.

Equally as surprising, the family turn up again on the 1871 census. No longer in the lodging houses, the family were, by this time, living in a home of their own on Bottle Bank (near the family’s earlier home of Butcher Bank). Margaret is recorded along with three of her children – her second eldest son Alexander, her youngest son Richard, and her daughter Isabella. By now, all of them have jobs – Margaret was still earning an income as a seamstress, Alexander had become a sailor, Richard a Blacksmith and Isabella a Domestic Servant. It’s fair to assume that between the four of them they had an income that, if not offering a hugely comfortable existence, was enough to keep at bay the threat of homelessness and forced removal from the city.

In fact, such was the family’s change in fortunes, we found evidence that Margaret’s second eldest son, Alexander, was later able to find the means to set up his own business as a general dealer and clay pipe manufacturer and the money he made from this provided for him, his wife and children for the rest of his life until his death around 1911.

Margaret Adams’ experience tells us a great deal about the legal systems designed to deal with the poor and homeless in 19th century Newcastle and we’ll explore this in more detail throughout the project. However, her story also presents a few more universal insights, in particular the importance of family support and how the breakup of a family (in Margaret’s case through the death of her husband) can quickly lead to homelessness – particularly in an age when the vast majority of employment was closed to women.

In 1851 Margaret Adams appears to have been living a relatively stable and ordinary working-class existence. Her and William’s move from Ireland a decade earlier appeared to have paid off, William had found work and they were able to keep their own home and begin raising a young family. However, her husband’s death threw Margaret into a crisis that – due to punitive and bureaucratic laws – led to her being uprooted and forced to move over 200 miles away. Even when she made it back to Newcastle after her forced removal, it took Margaret some time to work her way out of poverty and rebuild a life resembling anything like the one she had had with her husband.

It was family who helped Margaret escape extreme poverty and rebuild her life in Newcastle. It seems likely that Margaret’s sister helped her and her children upon their return to Newcastle.
Perhaps more importantly, though, Margaret and her children were clearly a close family unit and they stuck together as they moved from place to place. This meant that, when her children reached working age, they were able to provide an income and help pull the family out of poverty. There's no doubt that without her family, Margaret Adams' story would have been very different.

* For an interesting insight into pre-1662 ideas of settlement see chapter 2 of Robert Humphreys' No Fixed Abode (1999)

Thursday, 1 March 2018

We’re looking for Volunteer Researchers to help us write a new history of Newcastle upon Tyne.

We’re looking for students, local historians, and anyone else with an interest in the past, to help us with our world-first project, exploring the history of a city from the homeless perspective. Throughout 2018 we’ll be investigating local archives, visiting museums, hearing from specialists and academics, and speaking to people with experience of homelessness. The stories we uncover will be featured in a major exhibition in central Newcastle in winter 2018.

If you want to be part of our project, hone your research skills, and learn about a hidden side of Newcastle’s past then drop us an email at or tweet us @HomelessHistNCL

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The life of Thomas Ferens: What can one man’s story tell us about attitudes to homelessness in Victorian Newcastle?

Before our research group gets to work next month, we’ve been doing some groundwork investigation into the 19th century history of homelessness in Newcastle.* While the project aims to uncover lots of different people’s stories and experiences, this initial research has repeatedly brought us into contact with one man in particular: Thomas Ferens.

Picture postcard of Thomas Ferens, c. 1890s (image courtesy of

There were at least 15 newspaper and magazine pieces written about Thomas Ferens during his life. His death in 1907 was reported in newspapers from London to the Scottish Highlands. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries he appeared in poems and paintings, on postcards, and even gave his name to a racing greyhound. Today, Ferens is still mentioned in local history books, articles and websites. Generally portrayed as an almost mythical character, his name has been woven into the rich, folkloric history of the city of Newcastle and Gateshead. Yet, despite all of this, we know little about the life and tragic death of this man.

The life and death of Thomas Ferens offers an interesting starting point from which to begin our exploration of the homeless history of Newcastle. The elevation of Ferens (or ‘Tommy on the Bridge’ as he was known in the popular media) to ‘celebrity’ status means he is one of the most visible and recognisable of all the people in the history of this city whose lives were impacted or shaped by homelessness.** The fact that so much has been written about him also offers the chance to learn about attitudes towards homelessness in Victorian Newcastle. And, by a stroke of luck, Ferens’ lifetime conveniently stretches across the first period of our research from the mid-1800s to the years before the First World War.

Ferens was born blind (and, by some accounts, partially paralysed) in Newcastle around 1843. Newspaper reports on Ferens at the time of his death suggest that he lost both of his parents at the age of 5. Census records offer an even vaguer picture. In 1851, at the age of 8, he is recorded with Robert Bewick, a coal miner, and his wife Margaret (who is most likely Ferens’ mother, though Robert Bewick was not his biological father) at a lodging house in Harraton, a colliery town in County Durham. Records place the family around the Durham colliery towns of Harraton and Tanfield until Margaret’s death in 1860, shortly after the birth of the Bewicks’ youngest son, William.

Hillgate in the 1930s (image courtesy of

Immediately after Margaret’s death, Robert Bewick took Thomas Ferens (now 18 years old) and his four younger children to Gateshead, where the 1861 census finds them at a house in the poverty stricken Hillgate, on the south side of the River Tyne. Running alongside the banks of the Tyne, Hillgate was a filthy and dangerous place. William Fordyce’s History of Durham, written in 1857, three years before Bewick moved to Hillgate, describes the area as a ‘notoriously dirty [place], where people are living huddled together amongst filth without the necessaries of life.’ A decade earlier, Hillgate had been massively affected by an epidemic of typhus caused by the wholly unsanitary living conditions. The street was also home to many factories – it was an explosion at one of the Hillgate factories that caused the great fire of Newcastle and Gateshead in 1854.

Fast forward to 1871 and, at the age of 29, Ferens is still recorded as living on Hillgate as a single boarder in a lodging house just a few doors along from the house he shared with his stepfather. It’s worth noting that common lodging houses in Victorian Britain were the lowliest and most basic form of accommodation available and were often only preferable to the workhouse because they didn’t require a stint of hard labour – although they did require a very modest income to pay for a bed. It’s a safe bet to assume that any lodging house in the poverty stricken Hillgate area of Gateshead would be among the most deprived and unsanitary accommodation in the whole of the North East. Again, William Fordyce describes the lodging houses on Hillgate as ‘little better than hovels’ and ‘a disgrace to civilisation’.

While we can safely assume that, in the years between 1861 and 1871, either Robert Bewick died or Thomas Ferens was forced to leave the Bewick household and go it alone, this is where the historical evidence runs dry (although we’re still hoping to come across more evidence of Ferens’ life as our research continues). What we’re left with from then on is a tawdry account of the life that Ferens’ poverty, circumstances and disability pushed him into.

We know, from the many newspaper articles, that Ferens depended on begging as his only means of financial support. We also know that, for whatever reason, Ferens chose the middle of Newcastle’s Swing Bridge as his pitch. By all accounts Ferens had a severe distrust of the police (even though most reports suggest that the police were surprisingly lenient with him given the criminalisation of vagrancy) and his strategy to avoid arrest was to stand on the boundary between Newcastle and Gateshead so that the police of neither jurisdiction could lawfully arrest him. We do know, however, that on more than one occasion Ferens’ strategy failed and he was arrested for using foul language.

The Swing Bridge, 1889 (image courtesy of Newcastle City Libraries)

The newly built Swing Bridge was a hugely busy thoroughfare and Ferens became a highly visible presence to traders and other passers-by travelling between Newcastle and Gateshead. We know that, over the years, Ferens became a recognisable figure who was regarded as a local ‘celebrity’ by the community and the press. The treatment of the poor and destitute as figures of public spectacle was not new to Newcastle. From the late 18th century a number of people in positions of extreme poverty had been assigned the status of ‘worthy’ or ‘eccentric’ – in other terms a local figure whose visibility, appearance and manner brought attention and derision, usually from the more well-off elements of society.

The earliest written account of Ferens that we can find appears in the December 1889 Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend –  a local publication of anecdotes and oddities. The article describes Ferens as an ‘eccentric character’ who attracts notice by ‘…incessantly swaying his arms and body …dependant for support upon a not too charitable public.’ Local photographers and postcard manufacturers also took advantage of Ferens’ celebrity status, selling picture postcards with his image. We even found one such card for sale on the website of a Californian antique postcard dealer – it was sent from Gateshead to San Francisco in 1906.

Illustration of Thomas Ferens from the December 1889 Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend

From the late 1880s onwards, Ferens’ name appears in various newspapers and magazines around the North East and beyond. A ‘literary’ piece about him even appeared in the London publication Academy and Literature in 1902. All of the articles written about Ferens, whether local humour pieces or longer articles, took a light hearted tone, commenting on his ‘ruddy appearance’, his disability, his foul language, the restricted movement of his arms, and his clothes. Ferens is described in various terms as a vagrant, a mendicant and an eccentric. He is portrayed as a stoic and sturdy figure whose presence is as fixed and unchanging as that of the bridge he stands upon. Interestingly, however, none of the articles attempt to show sympathy to his situation or question his living conditions.

It does seem that Ferens sometimes played along with his celebrity status. For example, it is reported in an article in the Morpeth Herald and Reporter in August 1896 that Ferens and another homeless man known as ‘The Bishop’ were invited to officially open an area of land called ‘Deckham Park’ south of Gateshead. However, we’ll never know just how Ferens felt about the attention he received or whether he was even aware of the reach of his celebrity.

Photograph of Thomas Ferens, c. 1890s (image courtesy of Newcastle City Libraries)

Despite being so well known to the local community, Ferens died a lonely and tragic death on New Year’s day, 1907. While out begging on the Swing Bridge in the depths of winter, aged 65, he collapsed in the cold. He was found on New Year ’s Eve and taken to Newcastle Workhouse the day after, where he died just a few minutes after admission. His death was reported widely, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph described how Newcastle was ‘mourning the death of a common beggar’ and that the grief was ‘as widespread and sincere as any that could be indulged in by a large community’. All reports of Ferens' death again recounted his manner, his appearance and the nature of his disability. No mention was made, however, of his background or his hardship.

These reports on Thomas Ferens should tell us a lot about the relationship that people in 19th century Newcastle had with homelessness and extreme poverty. They seem to suggest a very casual attitude yet also show just how visible and ever-present extreme poverty was. We’ll no doubt return to Ferens’ story throughout the project as an example of different public attitudes towards homelessness in history.

* By including Thomas Ferens in our research we’ve had to be a bit flexible with our city boundaries! Thomas Ferens was born in Newcastle, lived briefly in county Durham and lived some of his life on the Gateshead side of the Tyne. His begging spot was on the Swing Bridge in the middle of Newcastle and Gatesehad.

** Was Thomas Ferens actually homeless? Our initial investigation into Ferens’ life has already posed a crucial question: how do we define homelessness historically? As Ferens’ story shows, attitudes towards homelessness have shifted a lot and the current consensus about ‘acceptable’ living conditions might vary greatly from that of earlier years. We also don’t really know enough about Ferens’ life to give a complete picture of where he lived and how long he lived in different places. However, we know that, at least once, he lived in a common lodging house. We also know that he was dependent upon begging for his whole life and this probably means his income varied a lot. We can therefore make an assumption that he lived a very vulnerable and transient life between temporary lodging houses and institutions which by current legal definition would make him homeless.

By Kris McKie, Project Research Lead

(full references for the sources quoted and referred to in this post are available, email:

Sunday, 18 February 2018

What the Homeless History of Newcastle project is going to do

The Homeless History of Newcastle project aims to achieve a lot in the coming year! Here are the six key things that we are setting out to do:

1. We will research and write a new history of Newcastle from the perspective of people whose stories have long been neglected and marginalised. With few exceptions (some of which we’ll highlight throughout our project) the history of homelessness has largely been overlooked by historians. We will try to help redress this by building a picture of the experiences of homeless people in the history of one city from the 19th century to the present.

2. We will demonstrate what it is possible to learn about the lives and experiences of homeless people historically. We will use the archives of institutions like Newcastle’s Poor Law Union, Newcastle Council, law courts, and charities – as well as genealogy resources and newspaper archives – to uncover the stories of people affected by homelessness.* We will bring this up to date through oral histories with people who have experienced homelessness and by learning from the insights of our project team which includes people with lived experience of homelessness.

3. We will find out what this history can offer to our understanding of the ongoing crisis of homelessness. A crisis as deeply rooted as homelessness cannot be viewed in isolation from its history. We will use the stories we uncover to learn how wider society’s response to homelessness has differed over the last 150 years and what this can tell us about attitudes today. We will offer a pause for thought, away from debate and reactionary politics, to think about homelessness, its causes and its effects on people.

4. We will explore the workings of Newcastle’s heritage and cultural sector. The Homeless History of Newcastle project team includes a professional archivist and professional curator and the project will have the input of a range of other museum professionals. All participants in the project will be given an inside view of how the cultural and heritage sector works and will have a space to raise questions and share opinions.

5. We will create innovative ways to share and interpret the history of homelessness in Newcastle. Diverse public events throughout the year will highlight some of the stories and issues we uncover. Our ambitious final exhibition in winter 2018 will use originality and innovation to interpret this history for everyone and encourage visitors to ask questions.

6. We will help to encourage the ongoing exploration of homeless history in Britain. We will share our research and details of the resources that we uncover with fellow researchers and historians who are keen to continue the investigation into the history of homelessness.

By Kris McKie, Project Research Lead

If you have an interest linked to what we’re doing, a specialism in a related area or simply a lot of enthusiasm, then get involved and help the HHoN project achieve these aims. Email us:

* If you want to know more about the archives and resources we plan to use then email us at or tweet us @HomelessHistNCL

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

From the workhouse to the street, we're writing a NEW history of Newcastle

We're delighted to announce the launch of an ambitious new project exploring the history of homelessness in Newcastle upon Tyne. Working with the charity Crisis and with the support of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the project will run throughout 2018, uncovering stories of homeless people living in the city from the 1860s to the present.

This will be the first project to explore the history of a city from the perspective of homeless people. It will give voice to these people and uncover their experiences over 150 years, from the workhouse to the welfare state. The project will be led by a team of Crisis members with experience of homelessness who will work with researchers, museums professionals and volunteers from the local community to research archives and shine a spotlight on a forgotten part of Newcastle’s past. 

Together the project team and volunteers will curate, design and build an exhibition opening in winter 2018. This exhibition will highlight historical stories of homelessness in Newcastle, backed up by material uncovered during our research, to give an alternative perspective on Newcastle’s rich history. Throughout the project, public events will offer a creative and insightful interpretation of the stories we uncover and open up a dialogue on what this history can tell us about the situation today.

We're looking for enthusiastic volunteers from all backgrounds to get involved and help us with the research. If this sounds like it could be you, then email to book a place at our project launch event at Discovery Museum, Newcastle, Wednesday 21 February, 2.30pm where you can learn more about the project and how you can get involved while also enjoying a behind the scenes tour of Discovery museum.

We’ll be updating this blog as the project progresses, so don’t forget to subscribe for the latest developments as they happen.

To find out how else you can get involved or for more information about the project email:

By David Wright, Project Curator