The Low Road

By Katharine Quarmby

The Convictions of Hannah Tyrrell

Monday, 9 May 2022

Being an Object at the Refuge for the Destitute in Hackney

Weavers Almshouses and the Refuge for the Destitute, painted by Thomas Shepherd, c1850

I searched high and low through different archives to try and find a picture of the Refuge for the Destitute in Hackney, where the two main protagonists of The Low Road met in real life in 1820. This, above, is the only picture, and is probably of the Male Refuge, near the Female Refuge, although they were of similar construction. You can see the bars on the windows, put on to prevent the young people from escaping, although some did indeed do that (as do the two girls in the novel). 

The Refuges were built by philanthropists, many of whom were Quakers, who wanted to reform boys and girls who had been involved in criminal activity. It wasn't - at least at first, when Hannah arrived, in 1817 - hugely focussed on punishment. The food was good, although from the Minute Books from the Refuge, which I trawled through in the Hackney Archives, a bit boring, with the diet pretty much the same every day each week.

There were lots of church services to get through - and a lot of dirty laundry. Girl Objects - as they were known - were set to endless washing, starching, mangling and hanging out of the clothes of the patrons as the Objects were trained up to be maids. Boy Objects were set to carpentry and other trades. 

The tedium of it! But the Objects resisted, stealing clothes, refusing to wash them, and even escaping from service when they were sent to unsuitable homes. This happened to Hannah herself, who was sent back to the Refuge only weeks after starting as a maid, for being "idle, impertinent and dishonest". But was another reason for girls like Hannah returning to the Refuge to do with missing her friends? After all, it's clear from the Refuge Minutes that girl Objects fell in love with each other, and the Minutes note the horror of the Superintendent and others when girls said that there had been unnatural behaviour - code for same sex relationships - in the hammocks in which they slept. 

Small wonder that Hannah and Annie - in real life Ann and Ann - absconded with a whole bundle of laundry on a winter's night, to the fury of the Superintendent, Mr Hoskin. Reading his evidence in the Old Bailey Proceedings, when he gave evidence against them for their crimes in January 1822, his emotions jump off the page. The patience of the Refuge had finally run out at last... 





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