Municipalities start getting real: The Social History of Housing from the mid 1800s

Part 2 on John Burnett’s A Social History of Housing 1815-1985 (Part 1 is here), about that period in the middle to late 1800s when municipalities started getting  real. But not too real, you understand, these are poor people we’re talking about. It did take a while to consider that their lives might carry more weight than the property rights of a wealthier person. It’s still a battle today after all.

So we are still (almost always) in the realm of speculative building, in a world on the cusp of some planning and regulation. It came slowly and piecemeal.

Quality of Speculative Building

Burnett quotes Henry-Russell Hitchcock here:

Workers’ housing in cities flowed out of the builders’ offices–if the more modest builders ever had proper offices–without benefit of any sort of serious designing. It was therefore something of a vernacular product, like the country cottages of the Middle Ages, although the analogy is one that must not be pushed very far. (87)

Ad hoc, local materials, built as they could very much depending on the builder and with little to no thought to infrastructure. Burnett gives Wolverhampton as an example — housing was tightly packed, water was from the most part still drawn from wells, being   piped in to only 1 in 9 houses by 1850. The sewage system was only laid down between 1869-1872. Burnett writes:

Like many other industrial towns at this period, Wolverhampton suffered from a lack of civic pride, a deep-rooted objection to interference with private property rights and an unwillingness of ratepayers to invest in the social overheads required by civilized life. (92)

I wonder about this idea of civic pride here, doubt whether such a thing has ever been widespread when it came with a price tag for unseen infrastructure with no naming rights in comparison to a library or fancy hall, but perhaps. There were certainly those who worked tirelessly to change these conditions. In this (as in some other less savoury things) Liverpool was a leader.

The Liverpool Act passed in 1846 set down regulations for houses, courts, cellars, effective sewering and draining. More importantly, perhaps, it appointed the 1st medical officer of health in the country — Dr W.H. Duncan. ‘These were the real and effective beginnings of housing reform in England‘ writes Burnett, and quotes an article in the Times:

A town of manufacturers and speculators is apt to leave the poor to shift for themselves, to stew in cellars and garrets, nor are landlords and farmers apt to care much for cottages…Something of a central authority is necessary to wrestle with the selfishness of wealth.

Yet by 1850 there still existed no such central authority. Local authorities increasingly took on the role themselves, though none as yet with a thought of themselves building housing. This period also saw the beginnings of building societies, the pooling together of savings to create the capital needed to build or buy homes (94).

Meanwhile conditions in the countryside were worsening for workers, another factor in the steadily increasing population pouring into the cities and already overcrowded slums. Burnett writes:

To read through the pages of the Official Reports of the 1860s is to journey through almost unbroken misery and wretchedness, relieved only rarely by brights spots where philanthropic landowners had erected a few neat, model cottages. In general, the accounts are of crazy, dilapidated hovels, many containing only one bedroom into which large families, grandparents and even lodgers were crowded indiscriminately, of whole families ill of fever and lying in the same room with a corpse, of holes in roofs and ceilings, damp walls, saturated floors and rooms filled, not by furniture but only by smoke. (127)

From the 1870s-WWI, the loss of the laborer from the countryside became a huge topic of discussion and cause for concern. It was felt country people were fitter than the townsman, and that keeping people in the country was needed for the maintenance of the national physique (!). I hate all of this language of the time, but it was quite a shock for wealthy people I suppose, when 40% of volunteers for the Boer war were rejected on medical grounds. It was felt that country air could have prevented that, but there was little decent housing and less opportunity. I am quite fascinated by how the rural question, tied in as it was to the idea of national fitness and Empire, became part of the push to build social housing:

Already, before that war had made ‘homes fit for heroes’ a political issue, it was clear to most informed observers that the rural housing issue could not be solved without the direct involvement of the state and a major commitment to public expenditure. Almost unconsciously the problem of the rural labourer had prepared the way for a state housing policy of infinitely greater scope and implication. (139)

But building rural housing could not solve it all either.

In the England of 1850 the industrial town was still new, untypical, its future problematic: by 1914 there could be no doubt that, for better or worse, England was an urban society–indeed, ‘the’ urban society of the western world–and that solutions had to be found to the manifold problems arising from a process which was no permanent and irreversible. (140)

The growing issues in the cities were also crying out for attention.

The removal, by whatever means, of overcrowding and slum living was already being seen as the necessary cure for disease, crime, prostitution and immorality, but the medical officers of health…knew only too well that demolition without re-housing only removed the problems elsewhere…. As early as 1874 the Royal College of Physicians, in which the medical officers were active, presented a remarkable petition to the prime Minister which condemned philanthropy, laissez-faire and ‘enabling powers’ as useless. Within a few more years, they were beginning to view overcrowding and the housing problem generally in a wider context — as part of the greater problem of poverty. (146)

Cities were also home primarily to renters — it makes you realise just how much has changed, and how much discourse and policy have naturalised home ownership. In fact home-ownership was not particularly attractive in Victorian England, even to well paid workers or the middle classes. At the end of the century, there were only 14000 owner-occupiers  ‘in the whole of the metropolis‘ which I assume means London. (147)

For the vast majority of people before 1914 the payment of weekly house-rent was normal, inevitable, and the largest single fixed charge in their budget. (147)

That said, he notes that middle classes were only paying 8-10 % of their budgets on housing, despite needing a great many rooms for large families and servants. The working classes paid more, US Commissioner of Labour estimated 11.8 % (found UK to be higher than France, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland but lower than the US), Joseph Rowntree 14.9%. But still, just imagine that.

Rent took second place to food, which most estimated ‘absorbed between half and two-thirds of all earnings’ (148). Leone Levi estimated it at 71% for workers, as compared to 44% among middle classes. Many housing reformers blamed people for not devoting more of their incomes to housing, and that would allow market forces to solve the problem of scarcity. Such bastards, but it also shows the power of this idea of the market.

Burnett provides the kind of curious detail on accommodation in London that I love — half the dock laborers occupied only one room with their families, 99 % of policemen had at least two. In St George’s-in-the-East half of all families in one room, in Battersea two-thirds of all families rented 3 or more, and earned more than 25s a week (150). Many of the poor remained in the centre despite high rents to be within walking distance of work, and the corners where casual workers used to pick up work.

There also a look at how the different tenure systems prevalent in cities affected who the landlords were — coming from America where the distinction between freehold and leasehold don’t exist, I find this quite fascinating. In towns where the leasehold system prevailed, landowners tended to be small businessmen, shopkeepers, pub owners. Of course, the owners of the land itself were of a different ilk all together. Where the freehold system prevailed, landlords seem to have been a (slight) step down, and there was not the sort of last minute trading that tended to happen in the last years before the lease on a property expired. So landlords were not greatly removed from the social backgrounds of their tenants. In Liverpool, landlords of working class housing owned between 6 and 8 houses each, a pattern widely repeated.

And slowly, slowly, things began to change. Following Liverpool’s 1846 legislation, Manchester prohibited cellar dwellings by local Act in 1853, and then in 1867 regulated room sizes, window areas and every new house with small private yard. Across the country, a growing number of such regulations focused on wider streets and yards, ventilation, better lighting.

The Sanitary Law Amendment Act of 1874 allowed Local Authorities to regulate paving and drainage, and the ventilation of rooms. The Public Health Act of 1875 allowed LAs to make by-laws regulating the layout, width, and construction of new streets and buildings and sanitary provisions. Two years later model by-laws were provided, and in 1858 considerably extended. While this allowed LAs to do more if they chose to, uptake very variable, and LAs could decline invoking them altogether. Still, they were implemented enough that much of the housing built between from 1880 to 1914 became known as ‘by-law housing’, criticised for its monotony and the way in which builders were building to the lowest standard.

Burnett gives one example of a proper two up two down, from Willis Street (no longer extant) in Salford. I love these charts of old plans.

Willis Street SalfordThere are more from Little Albert Street (also no longer extant) in Easton, Bristol. There is also an early photograph…

Albert Square Albert Square


At the same time, transportation was changing. Industrial villages became possible at further distances from manufacturing and outside of the central cities. Burnett looks at development of provincial cities — Nottingham, York (Looking forward to digging into Rowntree’s research on York), but slums continued. There is an amazing quote from Robert Blatchford on Manchester:

Where are the slums of Manchester? They are everywhere. Manchester is a city of slums. (175)

What ‘affordable’ housing there was, was being built by charitable societies, arguably only affordable to the very top tier of the working classes, and critiqued in design:

Considerable evidence was presented to the Royal Commission on the unpopularity of block tenements, due partly to the regulations and absence of sheds and workshops, but mainly, reported Lord Compton, because they were regarded as ‘a sort of prison: they look upon themselves as being watched.’ (178)

This is also the period of new models of employer housing: W.H. Lever’s Port Sunlight (Liverpool), George Cadbury’s Bournville (just south of Birmingham), Rowntree’s New Earswick (North Yorkshire). I’m hoping to get to each of these at some point.

And again it is Liverpool who is the first provincial city to embark on council housing, building St Martin’s Cottages built in 1869.

Slowly other cities began following their example. In London, the LCC actually created its own Architects’ Department: W.E. Riley director, Philip Webb, W.R. Lethaby. They represent perhaps the height of this phase of council building before WWI

not only beginning to evolve another physical ‘solution’ to the problem of urban housing, but one which had a concern for non-physical factors such as the visual effect of the development and the quality of life of the inhabitants. (186)

Still, it was never enough.

[Burnett, John (1986) A Social History of Housing: 1815-1985, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.]

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