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Last days of the spike

The Sunday Times, September 15 1985

By the time George Orwell was writing about homelessness in London, "the spike" had become the common name for a shelter of last resort. The original, and by far the biggest, was the great Victorian Institution in Camberwell, which this week closes after more than a century of service. Brian Deer looks back over its history.

WHEN in 1850 the first steam engines came chugging through south London on the new Chatham and Dover Railway, the noise, the grime and the curiosity were all too much for the nuns of Nazareth House. Confronted with the disturbance of the industrial revolution, they packed their bibles, sold their land, and on the site of their convent up sprang perhaps Britain's greatest single landmark of Christian charity.

The site was first refurbished as the Camberwell workhouse, taking whole families from the newly-emerging urban underclass of homeless, jobless poor. The demand was overwhelming and soon the Guardians of Camberwell erected two vast grey-brick buildings either side of the nuns' simple chapel. And so was born the place where a million men have slept, and which to its users has ever since been simply known as The Spike.

Nobody is certain about the origins of the nickname. One view is that the spike in question was the means by which those too drunk to stand were held in an upright posture. Another is that it was the implement with which residents broke rocks for their keep. But whatever the origin of the label, it became known throughout Britain and Ireland as the place where you could always get a bed for the night and not have too much bother.

On a winter night in its heyday, some 15 years ago, the Spike, now the Department of Health and Social Security's Camberwell Resettlement Unit, packed in 1,100 bedraggled men. Each had a narrow bunkspace, a thin mattress and a blanket. Most were chronically alcoholic, many had fleas or lice, and considerably more than a handful would wet their bed at night.

They slept in eight noisy, dirty and often dangerous dormitories, each over 30 yards long, in two hospital-like wings. One wing housed the long-stay guests, or "residents", who were allowed to remain all day on the premises if they performed some useful chore. The other was for "casuals", who each afternoon lined up outside the gates to register, shower and eat.

Even 10 years ago, Dr John Hewetson, Camberwell's medical officer, recorded an alarming level of sickness among the unit's users. Nearly half had a history of mental illness. 34% were handicapped, 14% suffered from epilepsy and 13% had tuberculosis. "Schizophrenics, demented old men, the brain-damaged, rigid abrasive characters are all accepted at Camberwell," Hewetson noted.

In the past decade, the numbers admitted to the unit have been run down, and this week the few who remain will be bussed away to psychiatric hospitals and the Spike will finally close. Smaller hostels are to take the strain of the homeless, and only the acrid smell of a century of filth recalls Camberwell's easily-forgettable past.

The closure is part of a national plan to shut 24 resettlement units in major cities and hand over their functions to local government and voluntary bodies. "This provision, which is largely a relic of the poor law workhouses, has come to seem increasingly anomalous," Tony Newton, the minister for social security, told parliament earlier this year.

From Newton's standpoint, the closures of the units will be happy events - lifting the dead hand of the DHSS bureaucrats from the department's only direct services for the homeless. There is no rationale for government-run centres that have no links with the local community.

But there has been a sadness at the Spike in recent weeks that may seem at first hard to comprehend. "This is the best place of them all. I don't want to leave here," explains Albert Mills, aged 70, who has stalked the unit's corridors since 1972. "Nobody worries you here. You can do more or less what you want to."

Like nearly all the Spike's residents, Mills has given smaller hostels a try, attempted life in lodgings and spent years living rough. Today, he sits aimlessly watching daytime television and remembering his youthful years. "I was never any good on my own," he concludes. "I'd just be pissed all the time."

The paradox of the Spike is that, for all its poor conditions, people like Mills much prefer the life in a big institution and will find it hard to struggle-on elsewhere. Before its run-down, 90% of those resettled by Camberwell were back within six months and, for them, pools of urine in the dormitories are of less importance than the right to be left alone.

"In the smaller hostels they are seen more and probably kept on their toes a bit more than they are at Camberwell; and some of them don't like that," says Frank Woodhead, who as the Spike's current manager is supervising its closure. "It's just their way of living, you see. If they've been wandering round the country for years, it doesn't go down very well."

The impeccable Victorian structure stands all but silent now, the gates finally closed on the destitute men who have walked from all over England to the shelter of Camberwell. This weekend, a few late stragglers will appear - to be sent on somewhere else. And even those who are found new homes find it hard to stay away. They come wandering back along the railway track for a last goodbye to the Spike.

Topic: Camberwell spike


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