Category Archives: Housing

Gilding the Ghetto: Poverty and Poverty Programmes in the 60s and 70s

I’m not the only one who thinks this is extraordinary, but it is still something that maybe not everyone reads and it really is worth spending some time with Gilding the Ghetto, published in 1977. It’s a strange moment to be reading it really, after so many years of austerity, facing many of the same issues with the same roots, but in vastly different contexts. Still, both periods were framed in terms of crisis.

Towards the end of 1976 among the endless reminders of Britain’s economic predicament another theme was brought to public attention: the urban crisis.

This is how it opens – but they are quick to note that this urban crisis was not new — crisis was never new. Forty years later that shit is still not new.

Anyway, In the late 60s and early 70s a number of projects were started — and I found them fascinating so explore them in potentially boring detail here. For the most part they were attempted, they were awesome, but then they were finished and buried, and this cycle is so familiar.

Yet today there is an official silence about these programmes of the late 1960s and early seventies. A striking silence.

This report goes back to the early stage. Written by a group of workers from the National Community Development Project it tries to make sense of the spate of government ‘poverty initiatives’ beginning in 1968 of which CDP was a part. It is written from inside but, we hope, for an outside world. It comes from our own experience as some of the state’s ‘poverty’ workers, and from the doubts that experience raised in our minds about what our employers were really intending.

This sounds so familiar:

The Home Office, with James Callaghan as Home Secretary, embarked on CDP in 1969. The idea was to collaborate with local authorities in setting up local projects, each with a five- year lifespan as ‘a neighbourhood-based experiment aimed at finding new ways of meeting the needs of people living in areas of high social deprivation’. There were to be twelve projects … Their brief rested on three important assumptions. Firstly, that it was the ‘deprived’ themselves who were the cause of ‘urban deprivation’. Secondly, the problem could best be solved by overcoming these people’s apathy and promoting self-help. Thirdly, locally-based research into the problems would serve to bring about changes in local and central government policy.

Makes me really angry of course. Also unsurprising:

A few months’ field-work in areas suffering long-term economic decline and high unemployment was enough to provoke the first teams of CDP workers to question the Home Office’s original assumptions. There might certainly be in these areas a higher proportion of the sick and the elderly for whom a better co-ordination of services would undoubtedly be helpful, but the vast majority were ordinary working-class men and women who, through forces outside their control, happened to be living in areas where bad housing conditions, redundancies, lay-offs, and low wages were commonplace.

So they started organizing the people they were working with, using their research to pressure local authorities and councillors and investigating the structural issues at play – and that’s when they were shut down and buried really. In 1973 a central CDP Information and Intelligence Unit was set up and published a series of (probably embarrassing to the government) reports: The Poverty of the Improvement Programme, Whatever Happened to Council Housing? Profits against Houses and the Costs of Industrial Change. In 1974 central government asked for a review of the programme, with a goal of controlling, curtailing and closing down. (5)

Only six weeks after publishing the highly critical report on the government’s public spending cuts, Cutting the Welfare State (Who Profits), the Home Secretary ordered the closure of the unit.

This pamphlet was written in 1977, when a few projects were still running out their time, but finding it hard to coordinate work or collectively make sense of the findings.

This report is part of that attempt. Though it is not an account of our experience – that is to be found in the various local and inter-project reports — it tries to locate and explain that experience in the context of the series of government moves of which CDP was one….Still we hope that our analysis will help to clarify for others as it has for us, the role of government in relation to both the demands of the economy and pressures from the working class, and the part that such programmes we describe here as the ‘Poverty Programme’ play in maintaining the status quo. (6)

Part 1: The Poverty Programme

The men behind all of this top down malarky, well the men still look the same. Glasses are different of course.

A handful of home secretaries: top left, James Callaghan; right,
Robert Carr; bottom left, Roy Jenkins; right, Merlyn Rees. The
Home Office led the field in urban deprivation but it was a series
of official reports that triggered off the activity.

The Welfare state was under pressure, government unsure what to do, this all sounds familiar too. It was an experiment— the word comes up again and again — conducted with very limited resources in many separate laboratories. The central state drew in the local authorities, disregarding their traditional departmental boundaries. ‘Citizen involvement’ and ‘participation’ were recurring themes. Most important, all the schemes took as their testing grounds, small, working-class districts of Britain’s big cities and older industrial towns. These were the ‘areas of special need’ which had first come to the centre of official concern; soon they were being called ‘pockets of deprivation’. (9) In describing the programming that emerged in response, James Callaghan, Home Secretary said it was:

to provide for the care of our citizens who live in the poorest or most overcrowded parts of our cities and towns. It is intended to arrest, in so far as it is possible by financial means, and reverse the downward spiral which afflicts so many of these areas. There is a deadly quagmire of need and apathy. Hansard, 2.12.68 (10)

Quagmire. Right. Still, I’m only just beginning to realise what a big deal it has been, the centralisation of funds and control over programmes, so this is important

Responsibility for Urban Aid was located in the Community Relations Department of the Home Office, the department also responsible for the Community Relations Commission. The money made available for Urban Aid was not an extra government grant, but money already existing in the Rate Support Grant which was taken out of the general allocation and put into the Special Grant category. This allowed the government to have for the first time some direct control over what was going on ‘at the grass roots’. Local authorities could apply for grants from this Special Grant for specific projects which could be financed for up to five years on a 75/25% basis (10)

It still seems to have been quite decentralised, and going into quality programmes:

As the local authorities grasped the new idea and sent back descriptions of the areas they regarded as being ‘of special social need’ the kinds of projects supported through the Urban Aid Programme widened in scope. From the nursery schools, day nurseries and children’s homes, family advice centres and language classes for immigrants of the earlier phases, it had extended its embrace to many more informal kinds of organisation by the later phases. The Home Office actively encouraged local authorities to support autonomous forms of organisation that were already active in their areas. Women’s Aid centres, holiday play schemes, housing and neighbourhood advice centres, family planning projects were all included in later phases of the Urban Aid Programme. (11)

But of course there was never enough funding

there have been around five times more applications made than those granted. In 1971 for instance the London Borough of Lambeth submitted applications for projects to cost £103,500 – only £13,650 of this was approved (11)

In 1969 the Home Office set up its version of ‘action research’:  This included an array of programmes: Urban Aid (a neighbourhood-based experiment aimed at finding new ways of meeting the needs of people living in areas of high social deprivation; by bringing together the work of all the social services under the leadership of a special project team and also by tapping resources of self help and mutual help which may exist among the people in the neighbourhoods. Home Office Press Release 16.7.69 (12)); the Educational Priority Area (EPA) action-research project; Neighbourhood Schemes intensively targeting money into small deprived areas to complement the other programming; and the National Community Development Project. In the words of civil servant Derek Morell who pushed this through:

The whole project is aimed against fragmentation … The starting point of the project is that ours is a fragmented, disintegrating society. But the project aims at evolutionary changes, not revolution. Depersonalisation is another problem. The technical juggernaut is taking over and we are no longer the masters. The most difficult step will be how to discover how to perform the crucial task of raising the people of Hillfields from a fatalistic dependence on ‘the council’ to self-sufficiency and independence –Minutes, 14.7.69

That all sounds familiar too. And as if it were a race, the Department of the Environment announced in quick succession its own ‘total approach’ scheme: the Six Towns Studies.

In our approach to the environment, we have endeavoured in the first two years under the new DoE to make a switch of resources to bad areas .. . I believe that the next most important step for any department is to bring about a total approach to the urban problem. In the past the attitude has been a series of fragmented decisions not properly co-ordinated and not bringing about the improvement of urban areas which is necessary. –Peter Walker, then Secretary of State for the Environment, in the Budget Debate 1972, quoted in Community Action No.8. (13)

The Department of Health and Social Security (Sir Keith Joseph Minister), then set up a working party to explore ‘whether the cycle of transmitted deprivation would be a fruitful area of research’…investigating how ‘deprivation’ is passed on through the family. (13) Ah, how I love to hate that old chestnut. 1973 brought Quality of Life Studies, courtesy of the Department of the Environment, looking at improving access to leisure activities. They were a bit worried about how to coordinate it all by then, so created the Urban Deprivation Unit (UDU), and the Comprehensive Community Programmes. These were all partnerships between local and national government, but the European Economic Community (EEC) was also involved, and sponsored its own ‘Poverty Programme’ focused on the ‘chronically poor’. The research proliferated.

2. The (non) eradication of poverty

The aims of the EEC programme sound familiar: ‘to develop clearer perceptions of a complex problem and pioneer new techniques for tackling it‘.

The results? Mixed. The effort – beggars belief really.

The inner city areas of Liverpool are the delight of every deprivation theorist. They have been treated with each of the government’s urban deprivation programmes in turn, sometimes with several at a time. An EPA in 1969, a CDP in 1970, a Neighbourhood Scheme in 1971, an Inner Area Study in 1973 which then sponsored an Area Management experiment have all been tried there, and up to 1974 £1,707,213 had been spent on a stunning total of 146 different Urban Aid projects.

And yet:

In 1968 when the poverty initiatives came to town, 25,000 people were registered as out of work on Merseyside. Four years later their numbers had more than doubled with 52,000 people unemployed. Today, 85,600 men and women, 11.3% of Merseyside’s population, are out of work. Even these telling city-wide figures cover up the real story of the inner-city areas. There the predicament of would-be workers is even worse with up to 20% unemployed and up to 30% among younger people. (19)

It’s all structural, innit. No one wants to tackle that though.

Both the CDP and the Inner Area Study agreed that immediate action was needed to tackle inner-Liverpool’s housing crisis. But though the message of their reports became more insistent, the actual housing output declined. (20)

It all boils down to this, always and everywhere seems like:

The poverty initiatives then have clearly not made any great inroads on inner-Liverpool’s real material problems. All they have done is to restate, usually in academic terms, what the people who live there have known for a long time.

Let’s just repeat that, because we are still doing it.

All they have done is to restate, usually in academic terms, what the people who live there have known for a long time.

Right, to continue:

If you live on Merseyside you have a better than average chance of being made redundant, being on the dole for a long time, living in slum conditions, being evicted, and forced to wait over six months for hospital treatment. Your children are more likely to die in infancy, or when, after getting no nursery schooling, they finally get to school, of being in larger classes in worse buildings, only to emerge finally onto the dole. Over 10,000 people leave Liverpool each year as a way of avoiding these problems. Those who are left can debate them in the neighbourhood councils and area management experiments left behind by the ‘poverty projects’. But, as they well know, talk is not going to make any impact on the worsening situation that faces them. (20)

12.5%  households were still without hot water in 1966, though that had dropped to 6.5% by 1971 (21). Homelessness figures, though, were rising:

Homelessness has doubled since 1970. On an average day in that year there were 12,874 people applying for temporary accommodation throughout Britain: by 1975 this had increased to 25,120 people a day. Meanwhile there are one million households still on local authority housing waiting lists throughout England while in London alone the total number on the housing waiting list increased from 152,000 in 1965 to 233,000 in 1974. (21)

So what change was achieved?

The problems of ‘deprivation’ then would seem to be as acute as ever for those who live them, and the prospects are bleak. Neither the poverty initiatives, nor the government’s more general policies towards the poor could be said to have had much impact on the problems facing the people who live in the older urban areas. But the programmes have always been small compared to the size of these. Not so much geared to solving the problems, they set out to provide the basis on which policy at both central and local government levels could be improved. Did the EPAs, Inner Area Studies, CDPs and the rest at least succeed in this respect? When it came to it neither Tory nor Labour governments seem to have taken much notice of the major policy recommendations emerging from the programmes although several years have now passed since their first reports were available. (22)

For housing specifically:

In housing too the pattern is much the same. One of the major recommendations of all three Inner Area Studies was the need for more spending on house improvement, with changes in policy to allow poorer owner-occupiers to take up improvement grants and more powers to enable local authorities to ensure that rented property was improved. The local authorities got their greater powers in 1974, as part of the Housing Action Areas scheme, but powers alone are useless without money, and they have now been denied the resources to carry out these proposals at all as government spending on improvement grants has gradually been cut back from £195.2m in 19734 to £85.8m in 1975-6. (23)

1976 brought in a renewed period of cuts — more money going to the ‘urban problem’, but not as much as was being cut in other spending in face of national economic crisis.  So – it’s structural inequality. A great quote from the quote from the Liverpool Inner Area Study:

A number of issues emerge from this description of inner area characteristics and the work carried out by Inner Area Studies. The chief one is the poverty and neglect of the area and its people in every sense. To a great extent this poverty is a reflection of inequalities in society as a whole. Clearly the scale and character of the problem is too great for policies concerned solely and specifically with inner areas to be effective. Any fundamental change must come through policies concerned with the distribution of wealth and the allocation of resources. IAS/L1/6 Third Study Review, Nov. 1974. (24)

Next post — the larger political economy of the 1960s, and just why all this spending on certain kinds of solutions could never provide the right answers. I can’t believe we’re still having that conversation, but the CDP did it masterfully.

Young and Willmott on Leaving the Slums for the Estate

I know they are listed as Young and Willmott but that simply is impossible to roll off the tongue, I shall try and probably once again fail to write it this way in part two on Family and Kinship in East London (1957). From the densely woven networks of family described in part 1, held together in crowded rooms and turnings by living with parents or next door to them, by every day visits, shared meals, shared chores, shared lives, to spacious new council homes built on 44 acres near Epping Forest. This is how everything changed, and as Young and Willmott write, what better way to understand the importance of residence?

From Bethnal Green to Greenleigh (Debden)

Less than twenty miles away from Bethnal Green, the automatic doors of the tube train open on to the new land of Greenleigh. On one side of the railway are cows at pasture. On the other, the new housing estate. Instead of the shops of Bethnal Green there is the shopping centre at the Parade; instead of the street barrows piled high with fruit, fish, and dresses, instead of the cries of the costermongers from Spitalfields to Old Ford, there are orderly self-service stores in the marble halls of the great combines. In place of the gaunt buildings rising above narrow streets of narrow houses, there are up-to-date semi-detached residences. Bethnal Green encases the history of three hundred years. Cottages built for the descendants of Huguenot refugees, with their wide weavers’ windows and peeling plaster, stand next to Victorian red-brick on one side and massive blocks of Edwardian charity on the other. Greenleigh belongs firmly to the aesthetics of this mid-century. Built since the war to a single plan, it is all of one piece. Though the Council has mixed different types of houses, row upon row look practically identical, each beside a concrete road, each enclosed by a fence, each with its little patch of flower garden at front and larger patch of vegetable garden at back, each with expansive front windows covered over with net curtains; all built, owned, and guarded by a single responsible landlord.

Instead of the hundred fussy, fading little pubs of the borough, there are just the neon lights and armchairs of the Merchant Venturer and the Yeoman Arms. Instead of the barrel organ in Bethnal Green Road there is an electrically amplified musical box in a mechanical ice-cream van. In place of tiny workshops squeezed into a thousand back-yards rise the first few glass and concrete factories which will soon give work to Greenleigh’s children. Instead of the sociable squash of people and houses, workshops and lorries, there are the drawn-out roads and spacious open ground of the usual low-density estate. Instead of the flat land of East London, the gentle hills of Essex.

‘When I first came,’ said Mrs Sandeman, ‘I cried for weeks, it was so lonely. It was a shock to see such a deep hill going up to the shops.’ (121-122)

That gives such a beautiful sense of the differences, albeit a very particular view of them. But the scale is quite incredible.

Between 1931 and 1955 nearly 11,000 families containing over 40,000 people were rehoused from Bethnal Green on L.C.C. estates, many of them outside the county.’ (124)

People did, many of them, choose to come of course. Part of the study was to understand just why. The reasons were many, but not, for the most part, weaker attachments to their family.

lf the migrants did not have weaker kinship attachments than other people, why did they come? The main reason is {quite simple. The attraction is the house. Our couples left two or three damp rooms built in the last century for the ‘industrious classes ‘, and were suddenly transported to a spacious modern home. Instead of the tap in the backyard, there was a bathroom with hot and cold water. Instead of the gas stove on the landing, a real kitchen with a sink and a larder. Instead of the narrow living room with stained wallpaper and shaky floorboards, a newly painted lounge heated by a modern solid-fuel grate. And instead of the street for their children to play in, fields and trees and open country. The contrast is all the sharper because the new residents had, in the main, come from Bethnal Green’s worst houses. (126)

But the council in general had much more to do with it:

But, in general, the L.C.C.’s view of who needed it most decided who went. Our informants were mostly at the top of the L.C.C.’s housing list – they were living in the most overcrowded or the most unhealthy houses in the borough – and that is why they were selected. (127)

One of the tenants told them — ‘If we could take the house with us, we’d go back like a shot.’ (127)

For many, as with so many families, it was about the generations to come, not the generations they had left behind.

‘Everything seems quieter here, more calmer,’ said Mrs Vince. ‘The fresh air hits you when you come out of the station.’ Many people value the air and fields even more for their children than for themselves. Greenleigh is generally thought ‘better for the kiddies’.

So even where they left their kin with regret, the people were not deserting family so much as acting for it, on behalf of the younger rather than the older generation. (128)

But many did not stay.

Many migrants in fact decided that they had made the wrong decision, and left the estate, most of them to return to the East End. Altogether, from the opening of the Greenleigh estate until March, 1956, 26 percent of the tenants who had come there moved away again. (129)

The Family at Greenleigh

So what changed? Any friendly community feeling did not survive the scale of changing community. Everyone found the neighbors snobbish, stand-offish. Talked about the terrible loneliness. Some got part-time jobs just to survive it — one of those said ‘If I didn’t go to work I’d get melancholic.’ Her verdict on Greenleigh — ‘It’s like being in a box to die out here.’ (133)

The study found a great sense of loss, particularly women missing mothers. Most of the men continued to work in Bethnal Green as there were no jobs out near the estate, so suddenly they become the ones maintaining family ties. What made me most sad — it wasn’t distance or time that kept women from their wider families, but the cost of transport. In times of trouble they had no support, there was no one to lend money to tide people over, help when sick or pregnant, help with kids. Visiting was not a thing that was done.

Their study of Bethnal Green showed just how much happened in public spaces, not private ones, and these were precisely the spaces missing in the new estates.

One reason people have so little to do with neighbors is the absence of places to meet them. In Bethnal Green there is one pub for every 400 people, and one shop for every 44 (or one for every 14 households). At Greenleigh there is one pub for 5,000 people, and one shop for 300.

They had no cinemas, so could not congregate there either. This combination of distance and television changed things. Young & Willmott write:

The growth of television compensates for the absence of amenities outside the home, and serves to support the family in its isolation. (143)

Rents were also higher there on the council estate, often by 3 times. That in addition to fares meant people were trapped there.

Keeping Themselves to Themselves

Willmott and Young found people in Greenleigh eager to talk about their neighbours, how unfriendly they found them, and they always compared back to their community in Bethnal Green.

At Greenleigh they neither share long residence with their fellow tenants nor as a rule have kin to serve as bridges between the family and the wider community. These two vital interlocked conditions of friendship are missing, and their absence goes far to explain the attitude we have illustrated. (150)

They believed this to be partly due to the fact that everyone moving in at the same time, and there was no existing community for them to integrate into. While Willmott and Young describe their expectations that things would have improved over the few years between interviews, nothing really had changed. They blame a lack of density — a bit of catch phrase these days.

One reason it is taking so long is that the estate is so strung out — the number of people per acre at Greenleigh being only one-fifth what it is in Bethnal Green — and low density does not encourage sociability. (153)

The new big homes reinforced a feeling of what people lack, rather than all that they had. They were spending more on filling homes with objects, rather than entertainment and going out as they had before.

There is also a facsinating aside on time and space — in Bethnal Green people tended to be very informal, did ‘not need a highly-developed time sense…because it does not matter greatly whether her goes round to Mum’s at 10 o’clock or at 11. If Mum is not there someone will explain where she has gone‘ (157). This was not at all true of Greenleigh. Much of the difference lay in how close things were in Bethnal Green, with everything walking distance. In Greenleigh, life required a car and a telephone to ‘overcome geography and organize a more scattered life into a manageable whole (158)’.

The impact of this was quite profound, particularly on mental health, and particularly for women. This should not have been stuck in a footnote really:

Footnote 1, p 158: The chief psychiatrist at a local hospital told us that the loneliness of the women on this and other housing estates was the immediate, precipitating cause of so many of them coming to his department for treatment.

This lack of relationships, of knowing people, meant both a growing formality, as well as increased reliance on visual clues for judging strangers.

In a community of long-standing, status, in so far as it is determined by job and income and education, is more or less irrelevant to a person’s worth. He is judged instead, if he is judged at all, more in the round, as a person … How different is Greenleigh…Where nearly everyone is a stranger, there is no means of uncovering personality. (161-162)

They continue

Their relationships are window-to-window, not face-to-face. Their need for respect is just as strong as it ever was, but instead of  being able to find satisfaction in actual, living relationships, through the personal respect that accompanies almost any steady himan interaction, they have to turn to the other kind of respect which is awarded, by some strange sort of common understanding, for the quantity and quality of possessions which which the person surrounds himself (163-164)

They also note the lack of forward planning in the planning process for the estate itself…it has been developed as a community where people cannot age. When people’s children are grown where will they live? Nowhere for them to move close by, almost certain that enough existing units will not become vacant over the normal course of things, and it was council policy to prioritise outside people from the list rather than children. Willmott and Young note the protest that this raised among residents, a local association writing of the LCC in 1955 ‘We are in opposition to the view that people are simply units to be moved around the face of the earth in line with the impersonal schemes of some “Big Brother”...’

W&Y continue

The method by which the council has eased the housing shortage in the middle of the century is bound to create a further shortage in its last quarter. (168)

They weren’t wrong.

Movement between classes

They wanted to check and make sure that this growing sense of the importance of geography was not in fact more a function of social mobility, which leads to a rather interesting way to better understand class. Again, Willmott and Young trace sense of loss and disintegration of a sense of community it primarily back to the geography of the built environment — as people tend to seek out larger houses, they must look elsewhere. The authors write:

The East does not provide ‘middle-class’ people with ‘middle-class’ places to live, and such migration may therefore be more common than it would be in districts with more of a mixture of classes. (172)

In conclusion, though, of all of it.

…very few people wish to leave the East End. (186)

While the houses were better, Willmott and Young look at the networks of support, and find they are absent on the new estates. They have the best description of  the daughters’ new plight,  engaged in the ‘arduous…puzzling…monotonous‘ work of child rearing, while older people were cut off from remaining useful and part of the family. Willmott and Young are highly critical.

It seems that when the balance of a three-generation family is disturbed, the task of caring for dependents at both ends of life, always one of the great and indispensable functions of any society, becomes less manageable. (196)

So one key recommendation is to support these connections rather than tear them apart. Central to that there follows the need to maintain communities intact, and save as many of the existing houses as possible, updating the fabric, giving people new bathrooms, lavatories and kitchens.

I cannot help but agree with them, and wish this had been policy for the past few decades so as to build on the strengths of working class communities, rather than the opposite.

Young, Michael and Willmott, Peter ([1957] 1979) Family and Kinship in East London. Manchester: Penguin Books.

The Importance of Residence: Willmott and Young on Bethnal Green

Michael Young and Peter Willmott’s Family and Kinship in East London is an incredible book, and I am just sorry I didn’t get round to reading it while working in East London though it has been on my list to read for what feels like forever. There are a number of critiques of the book, based primarily on the ‘rosy’ views of working class life. Looking backwards it is hard to tell of course, but it seemed to me it captures much of what continues to be good about working class life…and there is enough here to show that such closeness of community is many-sided and not to everyone’s taste. I thought back to Morrison’s writings on East London, which accentuated the narrowness of life, the gossip in those Mean Streets. I don’t know that either is wrong or right, they can sit together in the richness of how people experience life. For myself, it is always the generousness of my class that has impressed me. Anyway.

This is quite a stupendous piece of research. Amazingly I found a pdf of some of the original survey instruments (original link here, another copy of the docs here)… very cool. But what I love most is they seemed to have actually listened to people, rather than categorising them, and in their work to have explored the intersections of family, home and neighbourhood in quite brilliant ways.

This book is about the effect of one of the newest upon one of the oldest of our social institutions. The new is the housing estate, hundreds of which have been built since the war. In the last century people moved into the cities; in this they have been moving steadily out again, towards the countryside from which their ancestors came. (11)

They write too, that ‘We were least prepared for what we found in the borough’. Because what did they expect? The familiar tale of the ‘good old days’ now gone.  They believed old patterns of wide extended families and support networks had disappeared over the course of industrialization and modernisation undergone in East London, but instead:

We were surprised to discover that the wider family, far from having disappeared, was still very much alive in the middle of London. This finding seemed to us of more interest than anything we had been led to expect, all the more so when it transpired that the absence of relatives seemed to be as significant on the estate as their presence in the borough.

and the last line, a rather fascinating methodological note

We decided, although we hit on it more or less accidentally, to make our main subject the wider family. (12)

This is perhaps why I didn’t prioritise this book, being less interested in constructions of family and more in community and home. But I was terribly wrong about that. In addition to tackling the myth f the destruction of familial networks, they take on others. Bethnal Green’ 54,000 residents in 1955 were almost all working class, but only 8% of population found to be Jewish, ‘contrary to popular opinion‘. So on to what they did find.

Kinship in Bethnal Green

The begin with a review of earlier studies — Charles Booth among others, who described barefoot children, undernourished babies, young moths sick and hungry. The majority of these blamed poverty, blamed the poor, and above all men for spending money on things they shouldn’t, particularly nights down the pub etc. This is the image of the brutal working class man, tales of drunkenness and forced sex, bruises, pregnancies.

Even though we may think the accounts overdrawn, and distrust the representativeness of the families they describe, we cannot ignore the historical evidence, all the more so since the notion still survives that the working-class man is a sort of absentee husband, sharing with his wife neither responsibility nor affection…(19)

But you look at the evidence drawn from their interviews, it is the falling death rate that seems the biggest factor in families remaining families — 29% of those born before 1890 came from homes broken up before they turned 15 by the death of a parent, as compared to 2% from divorce or separation. That is a crazy figure. It was still 19% for those born between 1921 and 1933, compared to 1% divorce and separation.

It had never occurred to me before to think seriously of how young people died, to understand what that meant for the living. To remember how soon this all began changing.

Still — things were improving — despite people living longer, more housing was being made available. In 1931 there were 3 households to every 2 dwellings. 1941, 4 households to every 5 dwellings. More space, less hard wear of space. More comfortable spaces you might want to spend time in as opposed to down the pub. It never occurred to me to think of that much either.

Nor labour patterns and rights, but of course those were also definitive.

The spread of the five-day week has created the ‘week-end’, a new term and a new experience for the working man. (24)

You can see, of course, why I should love this book, bringing all these structural factors together to understand just what life lived within their constraints might mean. It is also full of those details you only get with qualitative work. Like the descriptions of the rise of cinema and wireless — a lovely section on the impact it has had on naming children! No longer names that have always been in the family. Aspirations were changing in other ways — work for example. Primarily for sons, but I love the snark in this reply:

I’d like him to take up chemistry. It’s completely unproductive and therefore well paid. (29)

Young and Willmott continue:

A sizeable minority of men in Bethnal Green take a very different view from white-collar people about the status of manual work, placing jobs such as company director and chartered accountant towards the bottom of the scale and manual jobs, like agricultural laborer, coal miner, and bricklayer, towards the top. These men regard business managers with disfavour because ‘They’re not doing anything. They get their money for walking around’ … Agricultural laborers, on the other hand, they value highly because ‘you can’t do without grub’; coal-miners because ‘without coal, industry stops’; and bricklayers because ‘you’ve got to have houses’. But even some of the men that take this view are anxious that their children should get as good a technical education as possible. (29)

That is one of the best statements of how the world should work I have ever read.

Where People Live

Housing was always an issue given its scarcity, and there follows a long, and brilliantly detailed exploration of how and where people live. After marriage, if the new couple have no home of their own yet, they most often live with the wife’s parents — mother and daughter have a long term bond, can manage in the house together by custom. Willmott and Young write:

Their tenancy is the most valuable property-right many working-class people posses: where the property is privately owned, the rent is low and controlled by law. (33-34)

People inherited tenancies from their parents, sometime going back three generations. This was one of the positive aspects of remaining at home after marriage, but as Young and WiIlmott make clear, most people ‘don’t want to live with them, they want to live near them‘ (35). They include a brilliant quote from Sheldon’s, ‘The Medicine of Old Age’ about similar community in Wolverhampton:

The fact that no less than four per cent of the sample had children living actually next door is astonishing; and there is no doubt that this proportion would have been higher but for the general housing difficulties since 1939, for the opinion was frequently expressed by both generations that this is the best mode of life for the old people, since it enables them to preserve their independence and the married children to lead a separate life, while at the same time ensuring that help is at hand when needed. (36)

This study showed twice as many women as men living in same house with their parents, and twice as many in the same street or block. They talk about the matrilocality of the English working class, and spatially at least this is well born out. (37) They include brilliant little pieces of description of the neighbourhoods they are visiting, and the feel of life there, like their visit to:

a four-roomed house in Minton Street in the middle of the borough. The other houses (but not the two pubs, obviously newer) were all built in the 1870s, of brick which has become a uniform smoke-eaten grey. They are nearly all alike in plan; on the first floor two bedrooms, and on the ground floor a living room, a kitchen, and a small scullery opening on to a yard which has a lavatory at the end of it and patch of earth down one side. Many of the yards are packed with clothes hanging on the line, prams, sheds, boxes of geraniums and pansies, hutches for rabbits and guinea-pigs, lofts for pigeons, and pens for fowls. the only difference between the houses is the colour of the curtains and doorsteps which the wives redden or whiten when they wash down the pavement in front of their doors in the morning. Dilapidated but cosy, damp but friendly, in the eyes of most Bethnal Greeners these cottages are the place, much more so than the huge blocks of tenement buildings standing guard, like dark fortresses, over the little houses . On the warm summer evening of the interview, children were playing hop-scotch or ‘he’ in the roadway while their parents, when not watching the television, were at their open windows. Some of the older people were sitting in upright chairs on the pavement, just in front of the doors, or in the passages leading through to the sculleries, chatting with each other and watching the children at play. (38)

The mother is usually the one who helps get her daughter her own place after marriage — she is the one with connections through the rent collector and through friends. She knows who has died or who is moving out, if she is a good tenant the rent collector can assume her daughter will be too. This means empty apartments go to those from the local area due to this web of connections. Some charitable trusts who owned housing in the area had it as official policy that family gets first chance at flats opening up, in others while not official, that was generally the way things worked. Willmott & Young note too, some of the other arrangements that can be made to reduce animosity over flats where they are scarce, such as letting part to a family who also needs it etc.

This was very different from how the council operated, which is rather fascinating. Willmott &Young noted that at the time of writing the council owned a third of dwelling in the borough and that was increasing. The council worked off of lists not personal connection, and early version of today’s points and priority need. Preference was given to ‘slum’ dwellers and those with high need, and it is easy to see the argument for this, but also you can see what might be lost. In 1957, it was still true that

Bethnal Green suffers from a serious housing shortage. In time, we can hope, it will be much less acute… (42)

Mothers and Daughters

From the above, it is clear just important relationships are. Willmott and Young note the amount of time daughters spend with their mothers, and mothers with their daughters, how it makes no sense to talk about the household as such, particularly given how many meals people share. Again they quote Sheldon on Wolverhampton:

‘In at least 40 per cent of cases they must be regarded as part of a family group, the ramifications of which bear little or no relation to architectural limitations. (48)

I rather love how the family overflows and engulfs the limits of brick walls in that sentence.

There is a multitude of ways listed in which mothers and daughters help each other, but I found this sentence about work quite fascinating:

Part-time work is plentiful in Bethnal Green, both in the small local factories and in the tens of thousands of offices which have to be cleaned in the nearby City, and women are therefore less in need of help from relatives than they would be in many other places. (54)

This would change, I suppose, but it seems to me I have not read much at all that really looks at these employment patterns and the independence such work must have provided. While also being rather shit work.

Husbands and mothers

Another amazing description:

Once arrived in the Hanbury’s front room, most of the guests stood about rather stiffly, holding glasses of beer and sniffing the pickled onions. The Buxtons, that is the bridegroom’s family, were grouped by the window, looking disdainfully at the chipped china dogs on the mantelpiece, the worn linoleum on the floor and the pictures of country scenes which did not quite conceal the damp patches on the wall-paper. (62)

Things liven up though.

You’ll be happy to know that the study found sons to regularly check in on their mothers, it tended to be once a week, and it was often them dropping by on their own. Nice.

The Kinship Network

These are broad, reinforced by regular meetings, but often the mother/oldest sister at their centre, and they tend to dissipate after their death.

The Family in the Economy

More on the many jobs available — it is hard indeed not to think of them as better days:

You do not have to live in Bethnal Green, you only have to take a bus down the main street to notice that this is a place of many industries. You pass tailors’ workshops, furniture makers, Kearley & Tonge’s food warehouse, and near to Allen & Hanbury’s big factory. The borough has by itself a more diversified economy than some countries. But the borough has no frontiers: it belongs to the economy which stretches down both banks of the Thames. At its heart is the largest port in the world, which lines the rives for nearly twenty miles from London Bridge to Tilbury, and supports on every side a web of interconnected industries… (89)

More on immigration, some things don’t change.

Because the East End is a port, and near to the Continent, it is the place where for centuries foreigners have landed to escape from war and persecution in Europe. (89)

Immigration’s connection to employment, though becoming more tenuous

The Huguenots most famously, notes still hand-loom weavers in 1939 and the closure of the last Huguenot silk firm in 1955. Furniture, however, once a spin-off of this trade, still strong though showing signs of winding down…

Several chapters on they have another great story about the Huguenots, where a local resident showed them a document written about the time of the Revolution, some kind of petition to the Governors of the French hospital in Hackney (!) to employ, and treat, his granddaughter. Amazing. But I digress.

Despite this winding down of the furniture trade (though that was still existing in pieces when I worked there), they can still write:

East London is less vulnerable because it has many industries to lean on, and while it cannot avoid being harmed by a general contraction in trade. (91-92)

And they note that those in Bethnal Green able to take the job of their choice. It’s political leanings are no surprise:

Every constituency in East London returns a Labour member to Parliament and every council is controlled by the Labour Party, Bethnal Green regularly electing a complete slate of Labour Councillors almost as a matter of course, The people share their politics; they speak the same language with the same accents; they work with their hands; they have, in short, the same kind of life. These deep-lying bonds between members of a class are also bonds between members of the family. (94)

See? Good old days. Hard to imagine this as Labour now.

One change for the better? Things aren’t quite as openly racist as they used to be:

But for most people the Council is not the prize it was. Security does not now matter enough to offset the low pay. Mr Sanderson, a dustman, explained how far his job had sunk…

Things have got so bad that they recently started about a dozen black men. They’re got the rough and rebel from everywhere. One of the black men was sweeping roads with a cardboard box with eyeholes over his head. The foreman asked him what he was doing that for and he said “Well guv’nor, it’s cold.” If it’s a bad winter, they’ll pack up, go home, and make rum.” (96)

The docks a different story (though probably not in the matter of casual racism), ‘It is a matter of pride to belong to a docker’s family‘. (97) I love this story, though I can’t honestly tell if its racist or not:

There were many well-established families — in a nearby dock, one of these was…known as the ‘Flying Eighteen’, a group of brothers and uncles with legendary sensitivity to the ‘jungle drum beats which let them know a ship was coming up the Thames’. (98)

They always got there first. This closeness of community and family surely has its downside. The study looked at how unions and industries gave preference to members’ sons — Transport and General Workers’ Union, Billingsgate for fish, Covent Garden and Spitalfields for fruit and veg, and Smithfields for meat.  Printing, bookbinding and paper workers the same.

Kinship and Community

Willmott and Young meet some of these challenges head on, at least in terms of the wider white working class:

Since family life is so embracing in Bethnal Green, one might perhaps expect it would be all-embracing… Far from the family excluding ties to outsiders, it acts as an important means of promoting them… The kindred are, if we understand their functions aright, a bridge between the individual and the community… (104)

They give this amazing, cinematic description of Mrs ‘Landon’ doing her half-hour morning’s shopping and telling the name and background of everyone they pass. By her own record of who she saw in a week in the street that she considered herself to ‘know’, there were 63 in total, and 38 were the relatives of someone else she knew. It is in the street, the shop, the pub that people meet each other, NOT in the home, which remains private. But I think much more happened then in public that would now be considered things best kept private.

Again we have another  brilliant description of urban space:

The streets are known as ‘turnings’, and adjoining ones as ‘back-doubles’, Surrounded by their human associations, the words had a glow to them, ‘In our turning we‘, they would say, ‘do this, that, or the other.’ ‘I’ve lived in this turning for fifty years’, said one old man proudly, ‘and here I intend to stay’. The residents of the turning, who usually make up a sort of ‘village’ of 100 or 200 people, have their own places to meet, where few outsiders ever come — practically every turning has its one or two pubs, its two or three shops, and its ‘bookie’s runner’. They organize their own parties…some turnings have little war memorials… (109)

They mention a woman had lived in the same courtyard all of her 62 years, spoke of newcomers with only 18 years residence, shocked to hear the council thought of her court as a slum. Imagine.

Another quote from J.H. Robb Working Class Anti-Semite…I don’t quite know what that is about, will have to look it up, but the quote is a good one:

There is a further localism within the borough. People are apt to look for their friends and their club within a close range. The social settlements draw nearly all their members from within a third of  a mile, while tradition dictates which way borderline streets face for their social life. The main streets are very real social barriers… (110)

So in looking at what holds community together, they write:

The interaction between length of residence and kinship is therefore the crux of our interpretation. Neither is by itself a sufficient explanation. (115)

But above all it is place.

In ending this chapter…If we are to pick out one conclusion, it is the importance of residence.

Marriage, changes of life, all of it

A special cast is given to all these adjustments and readjustments by the fact that they are played out within a limited physical space.  (117)

What better way, they say, to study the importance of residence than to look at what happens to this thick web of connections when there is a change? So on to part two — the new council estate at ‘Greenleigh’, now the truth can come out of the name — the Debden Estate. Why did I think it was the Becontree Estate? Dear oh dear, but it matters not. That will be saved for part 2.

Young, Michael and Willmott, Peter ([1957] 1979) Family and Kinship in East London. Manchester: Penguin Books.

Ibsen and Negotiating the Use of Candles

‘I should not like my dear sister to know, but I am reading the Plays of Ibsen, and I was finishing Hedda Gabler.’

Mrs Bradley nodded comprehendingly.

‘And of course, Ibsen being What he is, and the light in my room being Quite Invisible from my sister’s room, and our having agreed From the First to consider candles a Separate Item so that neither of us need make the burning of them an Affair of Conscience as, of course, we should be obliged to do if they came out of the housekeeping, I read on until past ten o’clock.’ (210)

An incredible passage about the ‘naughtiness’ of both reading late and Ibsen and the constraints on both that the economics of housekeeping can produce, if not carefully negotiated. Also, the wonderful use of capital letters.

Not until now do I realise how much luck it is to be born at a time when we do not have to negotiate the cost of a candle to read as late as we would like…

Mitchell, Gladys ([1935] 2014)The Devil At Saxon Well. London: Vintage Books.

Burnett’s A Social History of Housing: Post WWI

Final post on Burnett’s A Social History of Housing, looking at everything that happened after WWI (read part 1, part 2, part 3). The  beginning of the great rise of council housing, the welfare state, the building spree, the great sell off and the period of building no more…we are still in that period of course, but now we call it crisis. The new tower blocks that are being built to sell direct to investors in the UK and oversees for either rent or landbanking hardly bear discussion as housing, but I am getting ahead of 1985, way ahead. Better to savour those days when the government saw housing as a human right and worked to provide it.

Still, I confess I have a much deeper delight in earlier periods, I am not sure why. But everyone seems to cram these last decades into the end of their histories…

Council Housing 1918-1939

So, the King was totally on board with social housing in 1919 — not that I care much about what the King things, but it just shows how the consensus was building around the right to a decent, secure home:

While the housing of the working classes has always been a question of the greatest social importance, never has it been so important as now. It is not too much to say that an adequate solution of the housing question is the foundation of all social progress … The first point at which the attack must be delivered is the unhealthy, ugly, overcrowded house in the mean street, which all of us know too well. If a healthy race is to be reared, it can be reared only in healthy homes; if drink and crime are to be successfully combated, decent, sanitary houses must be provided; if ‘unrest’ is to be converted into contentment, the provision of good houses may prove one of the most potent agents in that conversion. (Extract from the King’s Speech to Representatives of the Local Authorities and Societies at Buckingham Palace; The Times, 12 April 1919, p. 220)

So what was going on? The war for one, but above all it had highlighted the depths of poverty existing in the country, and this:

The crucial change was the reluctant recognition that private enterprise would not be able to supply houses of the quantity and quality now demanded at rents which many of the working classes could afford. (220)

This was also an official finding in 1917 of Advisory housing panel chaired by Lord Salisbury. Joesph Rowntree was on the panel, and submitted a memorandum on the topic, ‘which crystallized the new thinking…‘ (220). And thus the Tudor Walters Committee in 1918, formed to help create the standards of post-war local authority housing. Burnett describes it as ‘revolutionary, constituting  a major innovation in social policy and in the future character of working-class life.’

The committee drew on the garden city movement, model towns, and pre-war proposals from the Local Government Board. They recommended a maximum of 12 homes to the acre in towns, eight in the country, a maximum of 70 feet between opposing housing (all of this working to prevent for-profit developers cramming as many flats into a small area as possible. The committee was particularly opposed to the ‘monotony of long, parallel terraces having rear access by back streets and alleys‘. It gave plans for houses of a variety of types suited to need and locality, which had wider frontages with front rooms orientated to sun as well as  gardens (223). They also provided two types, ‘A’ (non-parlour) and ‘B’ (parlour). Which I find ‘funny’, just like the whole parlour controversy — what do working class people want with parlours, they don’t even use them? question. On the one hand I hate the idea of an unused dusty parlour, but yet if people desire them for a sense of home and the ability to have people visit according to their measure of what is required, they should damn well have them.

Gaining acceptance of all this, despite the King, was not so easy of course, but as Swenarton argued, this was the time of Bolshevism and threatened revolution. More on Swenarton later though, I loved his Homes for Heroes.

So the Tudor Walters Committee set a high standard, which became a baseline for others building housing:

Burnett page 227
Burnett p 235

From 1919 local authorities were providing housing, and building cottage estates on the outskirts of town where land was cheaper. This meant moving people out of cities and neighbourhoods — Becontree is the main example in East London (well documented in Young and Wilmott’s brilliant work on Bethnal Green) and Wythenshawe here where I am  but have not as yet visted: Manchester Corporations’ ‘vast satellite garden town‘. (236)

The next big moment in housing? The Wheatley Act (1924):  Rents were to be fixed in relation to the prevailing controlled rents of pre-war houses, so the contribution of the local authorities was fixed at a maximum of £4 10s 0d a house for forty years.

Burnett continues:

Typically, then, the council tenant of the 1920s and early 1930s was a man in a ‘sheltered’ manual job which had not been seriously endangered by the depression, who earned slightly more than the average wage and had a family of two young children. (238)

Although the Wheatley subsidies had been specifically designed to reach the mass of poorer workers, it rather failed in this. They continued to live in old, rent-restricted property, because of course rents were lower. This was not really believed to be an issue, as there was an idea of ‘filtering up’: better off workers would move out, poorer tenants could then move into the housing they were vacating, so that ultimately the slums would ‘wither‘ away.  but by the late 20s there was a realization that these policies were not having much impact on the problem. Of course, some still blamed poor people, but this was another push for stronger state intervention. (243)

This came with the Greenwood Act, the foundation of slum clearance, passed by the Labour Government in 1930. It didn’t properly start until 1933. This period also saw an increasing use of flats given lack of money to pay rents. Despite this, only 5% of subsidized buildings between wars were blocks of flats across the country, though with concentrations (not unexpected really) of 40% in London and 20% in Liverpool. As Burnett writes: ‘ the thirties multi-storey living began to acquire a less grudging acceptance as a normal means of accommodation…‘ (247)

Burnett describes the ‘lavish’ inter-war flat development was to be found in Quarry Hill, Leeds — I’m not entirely sure that ‘lavish’ is the word I would use myself, but it is an extraordinary building.

Speculative Housing 1918-1939

Patterns of building were changing,  and homeownership growing.

The creation of a mass market for home-ownership depended on the expansion of building societies which, although well-known since the Act of 1836, had generally been small-scale, local, and little developed.

  • 1910: 1,723 societies advanced £9,292,000 on mortgages,
  • 1938: £137,000,000 advanced,
  • 1966: £1,244,750,000 (253)

Most of this housing was still being built by small firms. In 1930 84% of firms employed 10 or less workers, and only 1.5 percent a hundred or more. At the height of the building boom in 1935, 76,112 contractors were registered. (259)

This was also the period that brought in early experiments with the Modern Movement. ‘New Ways’ was built in 1925, the 1st cubist, rectilinear house built in Wellingborough Road, Northampton. I quite like it.

New Ways, Northampton (1926) by Peter Behrens. Designed by German architect Peter Behrens for toy manufacturer Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke

New ways northampshire. Basset-Lowke House interior

There wasn’t a big market for this, though. Most builders were looking backwards to the vernacular for inspiration (and surety they were what people liked), So there was little innovation while housing types for upper range always sought to be unique through an irregularity of outline, mystery in disposition of the rooms.

Public and Private Housing 1945-1985

So here is where we enter the final stretch, the familiar and maybe that’s why it feels a bit grey, especially when Thatcher comes along. Burnett notes the many very large changes in policy, but also large changes in the population. Small households of 1-2, increased from 21.5% in 1911 to 45.9% in 1966 to 55% in 1983. This came of younger people setting up household earlier, and of curse people living longer. He notes that between 1945 and 1975, English people as a whole were more prosperous than at any comparable period in the past — as Malpass notes, this is what underpinned social housing and the welfare state more broadly. Yet by the late 70s and of course the 80s ushered in mass unemployment once more. Burnett writes of where we are now (or were, though arguably this holds true) :

Housing has been a particular victim of inflation–a favourable circumstance for owners or those who have been in the process of buying…but unfortunate for those seeking housing for the first time. (282)

Immediately post-war also saw the building of the new towns, all beginning with the 1944 Abercrombie Plan, which suggested development of such satellite towns roughly building on ideas of the garden city. The New Towns Act 1946 was passed amidst great enthusiasm — 12 new towns designated in England and Wales in their first period between 1946 and 1960, between 1961-1970 ten more.

Mark 1s: Stevenage (1946), Crawley, Harlow, Hemel Hempstead, Newton Aycliffe (1947), Hatfield, Welwyn, Peterlee (1948), Bracknell, Basildon, Cwmbran (1949), Corby (1950)

Mark 2s: Skelmersdale (1961), telford (1963), Redditch, Runcorn, Washington (1964), Milton Keynes, Peterborough (1967), Northampton, Warrington (1964), Central Lancashire (1970).

Alongside new building, this also ushered in new urban renewal policies, which Burnett divides into 5 main phases after the war:

  1. slum clearance, which reached its height in the 1960s;
  2. a change to housing and environmental improvement early 1970s;
  3. gradual renewal combined with selective clearance in the mid-1970s;
  4. priority area experienents concerned with urban deprivation;
  5. 1980s, and attempts to formulate a more comprehensive approach incorporating economic renewal. (295)

The building programme was, of course, much greater post WWII than it had been post WWI, though Burnett describes it as economic policy driving the ‘deceleration and acceleration‘ (296). As in previous periods, the design was guided by key government documents. The Dudley Report was published in 1944, its recommendations embodied in the Housing Manual upgrading the Tudor-Walters report. For the first few years building often exceeded the recommendations.

This was updated by the Parker Morris Report, Homes for Today and Tomorrow, published in 1961. The Essex Design Guide for Residential Areas followed in 1973. Burnett writes it ‘perhaps represented the last ‘optimistic’ approach of local authorities towards public provision.’ (314)

Then the cuts begin.

As always:

It remained important in the fifties and sixties, as it had in the inter-war period, that the private house should be readily distinguishable from the council house, both externally and internally. It should reflect membership of a distinct group, the possession of distinct tastes and values and the ownership of a distinctive level of material possessions. As the size and design of private and public housing converged ever more closely, it became increasingly important to accentuate remaining differences. (320)

from 1975-1984

In brief:

The industry is still characterized, as it was in the last century, by many small firms, relatively low investment in plant and machinery and, hence, relatively low productivity: over the decade of the seventies the number of firms fluctuated between 75,000 and 100,000, standing at 91,520 in 1978 of which 31 per cent consisted solely of proprietors, employing no workers. (326-27)

Retrospect and Prospect

Viewed over the whole period this study, the housing experience of many people showed little major change until, in the years after World War II a period of rapid house-building, both public and private, coincided with full employment and a rising standard of living to produce and effective demand. (331)

It’s curious reading this from today’s vantage point, when the private rented sector is now larger than the socially rented, when people are desperate for ‘council’ housing that no longer exists. When racism continues to be a key factor in access to housing, but the patterns of it are shifting.

The contraction of privately-rented accommodation to only 9.1 per cent of all tenures has had especially unfortunate consequences for those on low incomes and those who cannot fulfill the residence qualifications for local authority housing: recent studies have shown clearly that ethnic minorities, and particularly coloured families, are over-represented in poor quality rented accommodation. (333)

Over all, what has been the country’s success?

If we turn…to the quality of houses themselves, it is clear that the most striking improvement achieved since the early nineteenth century was in the accommodation of the working classes. The pace of that improvement was quicker in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth, it varied importantly between town and country, and again between town and town. The development of a sanitary house, with adequate standards of construction, water supply and sewage, was the product of the Public Health Acts and, more especially, of the building by-laws from 1875 onwards, which brought about a major, and largely unrecognized, advance in working-class housing standards. (335)

Not a victory fully won however.

This book is too big, broad, sprawling to do justice so i’m just giving sweeps to remind myself of big pictures and zero in on what I liked most. Something that must be read for those interested in UK housing…

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

Burnett’s A Social History of Housing: Housing the Middle Classes

Burnett’s A Social History of Housing looks at the breadth of housing across class — and the insights in how housing connects to ideologies of how life should be lived and how success should be measured are important rewards I think. The poor, the working classes don’t really have much to say about what their housing looks like, how it is structured, how it sits within a neighbourhood (as explored in post 1 and post 2 on this book — it’s a big book to be fair). It is arguable just how much the bourgeoisie have a say between the power of the building and advertising industries and the constraints of culture, but undeniable that they do have more power to live where and how they wish.

The 1800s saw the greater rise of the middle classes and their codes — not unified but tiered, yet they still held in common male superiority and absolute rule over family, women who did not work, sex for procreation, and the home as a sacred institution, pivot of both comfort and moral rectitude.

The rigid statement and enforcement of such a code was of particular importance to a class which, despite its evident energy and enterprise, was still new, insecure and largely unrecognized in political and social status. Many of its members were first-generation recruits, who needed clear guidance on rules of conduct and behaviour. A code would define status: it would serve as a unifying force to combat the enemies without and protect the members within, affording a private retreat behind which the strains and stresses of business life could be washed away, or at least concealed. The home, then, had to fulfil these many functions–to comfort and purify, to give relief and privacy from the cares of the world, to rear its members in an appropriate set of Christian values, and above, all, perhaps, to proclaim by its ordered arrangements, polite behaviour, cleanliness, tidiness and distinctive taste, that its members belonged to a class of substance, culture and respectability. The house itself was to be the visible expression of these values. (99)

This was explicitly developed through a series of early how-to books, which I may very soon become just a little obsessed with as they sound amazing.

Books set out exact budgets, the minimum at which one could live. Men began marrying later even as household budgeting became  of ‘prime importance’, with much spending as much about social position as comfort. For most middle class families, the guidebooks advised one tenth of the income to be spent on rent, not to exceed one eighth. (100)

I’d heard of Mrs Beetons, for example, one of the earliest. (I’m going to get my hands on that.) This focus on social position also drove the felt need not just for a home, but for a series of homes — the rather disgusting upward rise from more simple house exchanged for bigger and bigger ones, more servants, a carriage as husband’s salary rises with age. All of these things allowed people to place you precisely within the social hierarchy. What a waste of life.

Not least because all this was happening at a time of grievous morbidity — average life expectancy with poor and rich averaged together: 41 in England and Wales. Liverpool only 26 and Manchester 24. Cities were increasingly seen as unhealthy, poverty-stricken, and so they were, and this was part of the push to the suburbs. But this didn’t explain all of it.

Yet the movement of the wealthier classes outwards form the town centres was not only an escape from their evils; it was a conscious and positive migration towards a different physical environment and a different set of social values…a dream or an image of a different style of life. (104)

And that’s what’s interesting really — the content of that life, those values. Apart from having an ever bigger house and more servants. Burnett writes:

Some of the really great manufacturing families, like the Drinkwaters and the Phillips of Manchester, had, it is true, moved further out to country houses in park-like estates, where from Prestwick the head of the Philips family each day endured the inconvenience of a three-mile ride on horseback to Kersal Toll Bar where a four-wheel cab met him to convey him to his warehouse. In Liverpool, where life was more gracious and spacious than in the industrial cities, some of the merchant princes had ‘marine villas’ as well as town mansions. These were at Waterloo, just clear of the Mersey estuary… This was extreme social segregation (109)

I rather love that image of Phillips, and his ride on horseback to a four-wheel cab, also really hate extreme social segregation.

Architecturally this was also a time of changing styles. The old? The picturesque of the 1790s–associated with Humphrey Repton and John Nash, the villa and cottage, ‘a revulsion against an urban aesthetic, against order, uniformity and control.’ (115) This shifted to Greek Revival around 1800s, Robert Smirke and William Wilkins, best seen in large public buildings and consolidated by John Claudius Loudon’s architectural copy-books. He’s fascinating, his wife, Jane Webb, even more so (I extemporize here). He read her novel about a mummy (creatively titled The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century) and asked a mutual friend to bring her to lunch and the rest, so they say… but in truth she probably had something to do with those copy books as well.

Anyway. Back to Housing the Suburbans:

The total separation which the great country house afforded, encapsulated in its own geographical territory and strictly-controlled environment, was not economically possible for the middle classes, but the suburb gave a high degree of single-class exclusiveness behind frontiers which were clearly distinguishable on the ground even when not openly labelled as ‘private’. So strong was this desire for protection, based perhaps on fear that this tender flower of civilization would be contaminated, even destroyed, by contact with ‘the multitude’, that many suburbs fought hard, and often successfully, to prevent the building of tramways and the extension of cheap workmen’s fares on the existing railway routes to their territories. (192)

Burnett describes even more books to hunt down and find. There is Robert Kerr’s The Gentleman’s House (1864), which seems quite brilliant and gives key considerations to a house and plans as well, and which will be explored later, when I get round to reading the original. But the 12 key considerations for a home that he lists are: ‘privacy, comfort, convenience, spaciousness, compactness, light and air, salubrity, aspect and prospect, cheerfulness, elegance, importance, ornamentation‘. (194)

A telling list. It has lots of amazing budgets and plans, fine distinctions on neighbourhood. If you wanted to live withing ‘the dinner-party radius‘ it had to be Bayswater, Kensington and Bloombury. (201) That made me laugh out loud I confess. Some pictures:

I’ve always wanted a house with a parterre (but no, not really)


There is another book by a Mrs Panton — From kitchen to garret: hints for young householders — from 1888. I am going to read them all.

Burnett gives as an example of this growing suburban movement the ‘most famous Edwardian suburban estate’ — Hampstead Garden Suburb — by architects Parker & Unwin, but conceived by Henrietta Barnett in 1905. I want to know more about her too. But here is a plan of the ideal as it has developed here:

And some of the early drawings:

We have been wandering through here I believe, ourselves stopping at The Spaniards Tavern which was itself awesome but full of terrible people, just like Hampstead Park.

It’s amazing to think that is only around this time that the bungalow came to England — so much I didn’t know about this housing form with a long colonial history. The term comes partly from the bangla of Bengal, and first developed as an Anglo-Indian house-type, becoming the predominant colonial building form in the nineteenth century. In England it tended to be built at the seaside, the 1st one Birchington, near Westgate-on-Sea, Kent. Burnett writes:

These early bungalows were described as combining ‘real comfort’ with ‘pleasing rusticity’; they were ‘cosy’, ‘rural-looking’, ‘quaint’ and ‘perfect as to sanitary qualities’. At this time their use seems to have been confined to the upper classes and wealthy professional people. By the late eighties the bungalow began to move inland. (212)

I have this vision of houses slowly creeping away from the ocean. But in reality it was a developer, R.A. Briggs, who brought them inland (in 1887), earning himself the sobriquet of Bungalow Briggs.

As interesting final note. In most of these early books and discussions of design there is little discussion of the kitchen, and nothing about its comforts. This is because they were assumed to be the province of servants. I desired kitchens, but to find more of them I have to turn to:

America, where ‘the servant problem’ was experienced earlier, and more middle-class women actually worked in their kitchens, serious consideration was given to the organization of the work process as early as 1869 by Catherine E. Beecher. (216)

Not sure I like the term ‘servant problem’ given I come from a long line of servants, but I’m glad we were more quickly liberated in America.

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

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.]

Burnett’s A Social History of Housing: the early 1800s

I quite loved A Social History of Housing by John Burnett. I’m still trying to get my head around quite what a difference the industrial revolution made to how cities and towns worked and looked like and were lived in, which requires a slightly dfferent periodization I think, but here we start in 1815.

A time of flux, the 1800s. Professionals (see, I’m not entirely sure who they are in 1815) are moving out of the centres. The houses they leave behind are being subdivided and becoming overcrowded, the poorest quarters. Outside city centres, housing was being built up in terraces, back-to-backs and courts in very unplanned way, ‘by considerations of immediate profit‘ (11).

There were, of course, a few exceptions where one landowner regulated what happened to development — many examples are up here in the North, I have been to them (and didn’t notice I confess!). There is Ashton-under-Lyne, where the Earl of Stamford included conditions about ‘good, firm and substantial build’ in the leases. Huddersfield, where Sir John Ramsden ‘enforced wide streets and “good, straight houses”‘ and Glossop, laid out by Duke of Norfolk in regular form and regulated ‘streets, avenues, passages, drains, sewers and other conveniences‘. (11) Most other such exceptions are to be found in London.

Architects were not involved in the activities of speculative builders or any kind of planning. Possibly the first example of when this changed was the work of Norman Shaw, who in 1876 designed the middle-class suburb of Bedford Park. I found a lovely lithograph of it:

Trautschold, Adolf Manfred (1882) The Tower House, Bedford Park, London

It’s in the V&A collection, and their description is quite nice too, tying it back to William Morris:

In 1874 William Morris imagined an ideal town where ‘people lived in little communities among gardens and fields, so that they could be in the country in five minutes.’ The realisation of this idea was Bedford Park, a suburban development funded by a socially minded entrepreneur and designed by several prominent architects. This print shows the Tower House and its surrounding garden. Bedford Park had an important influence on the Garden City Movement of the following decades. [2005]

Architects mostly simply added embellishments onto houses, and put all of their energies into designing larger more public buildings or country mansions. Thus is was speculative builders who have had the most influence really, using the cheapest materials to hand and designing with one finger in the wind of popular opinion on a desirable house, but with the main eye to profit.

Part of what I love about the book is how it looks at design and materials as much as anything else. Burnett notes that while brick came to dominate the trade there were also many restrictions.

[S]uitable brick-earth deposits were not widely diffused, fuel for firing bricks was scarce in many areas, and transport of the finished product over any great distance was difficult and costly. The result was that no one building material dominated…English house before the 19th century had been built of a wide variety of locally available materials. These included stone (either ‘dressed’ or ‘rough’ and supplemented with turves, furze or any mixture of available materials), timber (for building a frame, filled in with clay, wattle and daub, lath and plaster, or weather-boarding), and in areas where neither of these was easily available, like East Anglia, clunch and flint. (27)

He’s not much of a fan of these other forms, picturesque as he admits them he describes the living conditions as generally quite terrible.It’s interesting to compare his descriptions to those of Clough-Ellis of cob and chalk — admittedly fancier houses, but proof they could be kept clean and comfortable and warm, though it seems too often they were not.

This is also a book of both city and country — I love that too. The next chapter is on the country cottage. It has to start, however, with the enclosures, with people forced out of their cottages through all sorts of means — creating intense overcrowding in those that were left. Interesting how this was driven by desire for the land (greed you know), but also later by changes in poor rates after 1795  requiring parishes to support the ‘indigent’. This gave extra inducement to tear cottages down so families could not settle (greed you know). There grew a distinction between closed parishes, controlled by one (or two) landowners, who had torn all worker accommodation down, and open parishes inhabited by multiple small proprietors where all those evicted settled as an occasional labour force for the parishes where they could not live. This was noted as a problem in the amendment act of 1834 and became one of the political questions of the 1830s and 1840s.

Burnett catalogues the ‘general hierarchy of accomodation that was available to the working classes‘ (58). They are pretty grim.


Almost always, cellar-dwellings are described as dark, damp and airless, the abodes of the most feckless, improvident and intemperate sections of the population, and the sources of much of the dirt and disease which sullied the industrial towns. Very often they are equated with the period of Irish immigration from the 1820s to the 1840s, with the implication that cellars have not been used for habitation by the english worker until his standard of living was forced down by alien influence. (58)

Good examples are in Engels descriptions of Manchester and Flora Tristan’s of Oxford Street.


Intended primarily as very temporary shelter of a minimal kind, all too often they became permanent homes for the near-destitute and near-criminal classes and almist indistinguishable from a normal tenemented house except by their gross overcrowding and promiscuity. (62)

It’s a bit later, but Mary Higgs’ firsthand experience of these was fascinating.

Tenement House

Burnett writes that the line between tenement and boarding house thin and shaky, describes the rise of the rookeries, and he gives a list:

St Giles, Saffron Hill, Ratcliffe Highway, Jacob’s Island, Berwick Street (St James’s), Pye Street, Westminster in London. Oxford Rd, Little Ireland, Parliament St, ‘Gibraltar’ in Manchetser, Boot-and-Shoe Yard in Leeds, the ‘shambles’ behind Long Row in Nottingham, and areas in Durham, Newcastle, Gateshead and Barnard Castle. (64-65)

Some were old house, some new built, but

…in general, tenements were to be found in existing, and often old, houses which had once accomodated families of substance, if not affluence, but which had now sunk to rooming-houses of an infinite variety of respectability and disreputableness. They were part of the process of town decay. (65)


Burnett writes that all of the other forms of housing were ‘not specifically designed as such: they were strictly residual, left over and adapted from their original us as family dwelling for better-off classes, and because never intended for multi-occupation, necessarily lacking in the requisite amenities’ (70). But not back to backs, those were a new thing. He quotes Chadwick (who is actually quoting a Mr Mott) on just what these were:

An immense number of the small houses occupied by the poorer classes in the suburbs of Manchester are of the most superficial character; they are built by the members of building clubs, and other individuals, and new cottages are erected with a rapidity that astonishes persons who are unacquainted with their flimsy structure. They have certainly avoided the objectionable mode of forming under-ground dwellings, but have run into the opposite extreme, having neither cellar nor foundation. The walls are only half brick thick, or what the bricklayers call “brick noggin,” and the whole of the materials are slight and unfit for the purpose. I have been told of a man who had built a row of these houses; and on visiting them one morning after a storm, found the whole of them levelled with the ground; and in another part of Manchester, a place with houses even of a better order has obtained the appellation of “Pick-pocket-row,” from the known insecure and unsubstantial nature of the buildings. I recollect a bricklayer near London complaining loudly of having to risk his credit by building a house with nine-inch walls, and declared it would be like “Jack Straw’s House,” neither “wind nor water tight:” his astonishment would have been great had he been told that thousands of houses occupied by the labouring classes are erected with walls of 4t inch thickness. The chief rents differ materially according to the situation, but are in all cases high; and thus arises the inducement to pack the houses so close. They are built back to back, without ventilation or drainage; and, like a honeycomb, every particle of space is occupied. Double rows of these houses form courts, with, perhaps, a pump at one end and a privy at the other, common to the occupants of about twenty houses.

The later work of councils would be to tear all of them down.

‘Through’ Terraced Houses

For many town workers in the first half of the century the quality hierarchy ended here. For a minority…of skilled artisans, it extended to a higher level… the ‘through’ terraced house, with two ground-floor rooms and with light and and access at both front and back: it followed that there would also be some small area of private space–garden or yard–at teh rear of teh house with entrance from a continuous alley running behind the terrace. (77)

These were the direct descendant of the Georgian town terrace, and earlier groups of rural cottages

…the residents of divided houses and interior courts set back and screened form the main roads inhabited little, private worlds in which they shared space and amenities like water and privies in a communal way: their lives were more interdependent and more public, though separated from the mainstream of ‘progress’ by warrens of narrow passages, alleys and stairways. Such places were anathema to Victorian reformers who assumed, not always correctly, that they ineviatbly bred vice and criminality as well as dirst and disease. In the terraced house, on the other hand, the front faced the public street and was exposed to teh general gaze and attention: family life was turned inwards, towards the back room and the back yard or garden, usually separated from its neighbours by high brick walls. Private territory replaced public space, and as the terraced house spread in many towns in the sceond half of the century into the typical working-class dwelling, a new type of privatized family life developed, which was to be an important part of the social transformation of the Victorian age. (79)

Workshop Houses

These were just what they sound like. So on to who was building what and how, because the design of houses themselves only gives a taste of what it was like to live in them. As important is how they sat within the city.

Cities were in fact changing quickly, and government was being forced to respond. More on this exciting phase in part 2.

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

Malpass on Housing and the Welfare State

Housing and the Welfare State. So this took me some time to read — housing policy is such important stuff but not exactly gripping. Took me longer to blog, as work is life crushing at the moment.

I always wonder really why I am drawn back to housing over and over again.

Still. This made me see Britain in rather a different way, not having much delved into histories of the welfare state. I am glad I read it before a number of others that all refer to it, but don’t engage in the same kind of structural analysis that I value so much.  It is widely refered to, though rarely with full agreement.

So in thinking about how to define the Welfare State, Malpass finds two broad tendencies — one broad and one narrow. Narrow is encompassed by a defined set of public services, ie education, NHS, housing, personal social services and social security. The broad definition:

a specific type of society in which the state intervenes within the processes of economic reproduction and distribution to reallocate life chances between individuals and/or classes.(5)

For Malpass this state intervention does not exist in solitude, rather he quotes Esping-Anderson who writes:

we cannot grasp the welfare state without locating its activities in relation to the private sector…it is a myth to think that either markets or the state are more naturally equipped to develop welfare. Instead, markets are often politically created and form an integral part of the overall welfare-state regime. (6)

I would say that markets, at least in our times, are always politically created, what else underpins contracts, ownership, property? But I digress. Malpass describes himself as broadly in agreement with the academic literature in how it periodizes the welfare state:  two main periods (pre and post 1988), but also recognising  the difference between the postwar consensus and shared principles around welfare state, the mid 1970s watershed and its redefining and renegotiating of the welfare state, and then the 1980s and the work to re-engineer (and destroy) the welfare state as a whole.

Malpass also describes agreement around three distinct welfare state ‘settlements’:

political-economic: compromise between capitalism (private ownership & free markets) and socialism (state ownership & centrally planned economies). Commitment to a managed capitalist economy with central goal full employment, together with a series of universal services, free at the point of consumption, funded from taxes and insurance contributions. (9) (this has of course been renegotiated to a smaller role for the state in both managing the economy and delivering services. The cost of the 1980s renegotiations? Accepting labour insecurity and markets. The emphasis now is on ‘preparing/disciplining the work force‘  and a ‘redistribution of risk and responsibility from the state to the individual.’ (10)

social: which is centered around the push for full employment — though of course this would be full white male employment and he describes the ‘gendered, patriarchal and racialized nature of the postwar British welfare state.‘ (9-10) where the ‘Universalism of the welfare state was, in fact, deeply circumscribed’. (10) So even in the good old days, it wasn’t good for over half of us. Now? Changing patterns in households, much more diverse, more two-earner households, and no-earner. More pensioners. Old assumptions of white male breadwinners no longer work, but nothing has replaced it really. And of course the welfare state required full (male) employment, without it, things become very expensive. I’m not sure where that leaves us.

organizational: an early consensus on the way that these services should be delivered — large, public sector organizations in which professional and bureaucratic modes of coordination predominated. (10) Arguably, things could improve a lot. Now? Local authorities as ‘strategic enablers rather than service providers, relying on a range of private, voluntary and community organizations for service delivery. These are typically required to compete in provider markets or quasi-markets for the right to provide services.‘ (11)

And so we come to Malpass’s main argument about housing, noting how it has been seen as the wobbly pillar of the Welfare State. He writes, following Harloe (1995), that housing was always the

least decommodified and the most market-determined of the conventionally accepted constituents of such states.

Continuing the argument he quotes Cole and Furley (1994) on housing as ‘a stillborn social service lodged within a capitalist dynamic of property relations’. Housing is a commodity, and was seen even through the post war consensus as a commodity. Thus for Malpass, the turning point in the history of housing is not the end or transformation of any postwar settlement, but rather the ‘economic convulsions‘ of the post war boom and collapse of Keynesian policies in 1975. This book challenges

…accepted ways of looking at housing…arguing that housing policy in the postwar period is not best understood in terms of the welfare state. In relation to the more recent past and the present period, instead of seeing housing as being ‘amputated’ from the welfare state, it will be argued that it provides a model for the new, more limited, conditional and market-reliant form of the welfare state, increasingly delivered by non-municipal organizations. In this sense the modern housing system is more clearly delineated in terms of a large, private market serving the majority, and a slimmed down social rented sector, more focused on the least well off than at any previous point in time. … in relation to housing the postwar welfare state was a kind of rhetorical or ideological overlay on market driven processes that were already under way…(24)

Thus, while housing was something we did fight for and that we did win, when provided it was always for the better-off working classes until the 1970s. Only then did it become ‘residualised’. Where it had once started out being for the better off, it is now for the worse off, and brings with it all the stigma and social exclusion that such an obvious connection between tenure and the many dimensions of poverty can bring.

What I didn’t know (but have since read over and over again) — class was always explicit in housing policy’s foundations. Malpass acknowledges the difficulties in defining the term class, but notes that it is:

unavoidable in this context, if only because it was formally built into housing policy until the Housing Act, 1949. Until that time local authorities were technically restricted to providing housing for members of the working class… (27)

Yet even then, it was for workers, and the better paid ones. I think the key point is that the housing market alone has never provided decent affordable housing for a large segment of the population, so that the state successfully argued it had been forced to step in, yet this never

led to a decommodified state-run service comparable with those associated with other main planks of the welfare state. On the contrary, it is the persistence of the market as the main mechanism for delivering housing to the majority that is striking and demanding of explanation. (30)

While there have been step changes to manage the housing market, there had been no challenge to hegemony. He argues that it is significant that large scale provision of housing came only after the crisis in the housing market affected a large proportion of the working class. In this, housing policy has always worked to support the market, not challenge or replace it. For much of the twentieth century, this meant slum clearance, and building subsidized housing. For the latter end of the century, it moved to helping better off working class into their own homes, the least well-off into social housing.

Thus from 1915-1975 (when he argues the true change in housing policy came) he follows Ginsburg (1999: 226-35) in arguing that British housing policy followed a ‘liberal collectivist’ framework:

  • rent control/regulation for PR housing w/out significant fiscal incentives or cash support for landlords or tenants
  • nationally regulated and subsidized provision of local authority rented housing for the ‘respectable’ working class
  • programmes of Victorian slum clearance with replacement council housing for poor people
  • fiscal and general government support for owner occupiers (19)

From 1979 to 1989 under the Conservative government, consistent emphasis on

  • the promotion of owner occupation
  • the deregulation of private renting
  • acceleration of the trend away from general housing subsidy towards means-tested assistance with housing costs
  • the cultivation of the idea that local authority housing was a failed solution and that it had become part of the problem to be solved. (21)

By the 1990s, BEFORE Blair comes along in 1997, a new paradigm for housing established

  1. As opposed to subsidy, housing now characterized by taxation
  2. Always before it was the private sector subject to restructuring, now it is the public, social rented sector
  3. issue of demand on public agenda once more, yet unlike earlier period, resources for public housing continue to be cut despite projected massive increases in demand and assumption, relying on private market to produce housing and fund social housing through use of planning policies. Second problem is that now viewed that demand overall is needed to build in large numbers, but some areas demand is a real problem. (21)

Blair just followed along this trajectory.

In summary, from the conclusion to the introduction:

The housing market has never provided decent affordable housing for a large segment of the population, yet this has never ‘led to a decommodified state-run service comparable with those associated with other main planks of the welfare state. On the contrary, it is the persistance of the market as the main mechanism fir delivering housing to the majority that is striking and demanding of explanation. (30)

Step changes might have been made to manage the market, but no challenge to hegemony.

The rest of the book brings greater depth this argument through the many years of post-war housing policy, the shifting negotiations and increasing privatisation. I have so little time to blog, not sure I will have time to catch up with it. Hopefully I will have time to come back to it after reading a little more widely. I confess though, it’s the historical stuff that I love the most…

Malpass, Peter (2005) Housing and the Welfare State: The Development of Housing Policy in Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Karen Tei Yamashita: I Hotel

I just finished I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. The last book started on a holiday that already seems months ago. It is splendid, one of the best things I have ever read I think for its power of storytelling, its innovations, its illustrations, the way it brings together these interconnecting lives circled around a single building and a struggle to change the world.

Two full years of my own life were spent in just such a struggle to save a residential hotel, our Morrison Hotel a mix of white, Latinx, African American, ours not knitted deep into an activist community through shop fronts or anything like the community of old Manilatown. Ours sat where it once fitted the scale and character of the street, but the long-ago razing of neighbourhood had left it more isolated, almost anomalous so close to the convention centre. Our generation did not believe the revolution was upon us, did not quote Mao to frame our defiance of capitalism, did not raise fists over small points of praxis. yet so much resonated, it made me ache. I miss my LA family.

I loved all of it, could have quoted anywhere, but you know the bit I am quoting ridiculously extensively below is about cities–like Tropic of Orange, this is all about the city but so different from that novel… This is long, also brilliant in how it says so much about the place of hotels in our world of work and poverty, about home, about nation, and opening with the solidarities that were, that could be, that should be built:

Thus we emerged from every living crevice in our hilly city, every tenement, blighted Victorian, public housing project, cheap hotel, single or collective rental, many of us the forgotten and abandoned people whose voices were muffled in the underbelly of working poverty, stuffed into the various ethnic ghettos, we the immigrants from the Old and New Worlds, from the black and white South and tribal America, we the dockworkers from the long shore, we the disabled and disavowed vets, we the gay and leathered, we the garment workers, restaurant workers, postal and clerical workers, we who praised the Lord in his house at Glide and his People’s Temple, we of the unions, tired and poor, we the people.

But why save an old hotel?

Because if we remembered the history of our city we would remember how frontier towns began: with a trading post and a saloon with a second floor of lodging rooms. … When we took everything away and thought only about the second floor of lodging rooms, we remembered that people have always come from distances and had to be accommodated, given shelter and a bed, and what we used to call board…

This basic town got complicated and multiplied into a thing we call a city, with every kind of reinvented trading post and saloon and lodging that over time we could imagine. And we supposed that the history of any city could be told through the comings and goings of any trading post or saloon, but thinking as we do, as people coming to the city to find work to pay for shelter and board, whether just for ourselves or for our families accompanying or  left behind, it was the lodging that most concerned us. And we could see how city life and hotel life were inextricably connected, and what the city had to offer had a home in the hotel. Over time, we’d forgotten that hotels in our city have long served as temporary but also permanent homes, that living in hotels had been a normal consequence of living in our city. From the inception of our city, our city life could perhaps be translated as hotel life, the way that we as young, single, and independent people could arrive to find work in the industry of the city, find the small cafes and bars, theaters and social clubs, laundries, shops, and bookstores, all within walking distance or perhaps a cable stop away. Even if we did not actually live in hotels, we may have participated in, if not considered, the simple luxuries of life: the bustling social life of our streets, the hotels’ communal restaurants and social galas, the convenience of maid service and bedsheets changed, the possibility of being completely freed from any housework, the possible leisure to think or to create, and finally the anonymity and privacy of a room of our own. Hotel life defined the freedom of the city, but such freedom has been for some reason suspect, and there are always those who want to police freedom.

Finally, like the society that evolved in our city, there have been, of course, hotels for those with money and hotels for those of us with not so much money. And even though the city required our labor and allowed us housing in cheap hotels, in time we came to know that laboring people are necessary but considered transitory. Eventually, it was thought, we’d just go away or become invisible. So even if hotels depended on our constant occupancy, we were not considered permanent or stable members of society. We did not own homes. We may have had families, but hotels were suspect places to raise children, and so we were suspect families. Our communal lives in hotels with shared bathrooms and shared dining, shared genders, shared ethnicities, and heaven forbid, shared thinking that might lead to shared politics, were also suspect. Hotel life might even be subversive. A famous scholar who studied our hotel life warned us that when there are no homes, there will be no nation. But what did he mean by home? And, for that matter, what did he mean by nation?

By the time we got the red alert to place our bodies in a human barricade around an old hotel that held seventy years of our city’s hotel history, we were already the displaced people in the city’s plan to impose a particular meaning of home and a particular meaning of nation. Since our hotel life was considered suspect morally and socially, our hotels should naturally be replaced by proper single-family houses built in locations distant from the city, and our hotels and all our businesses that services us should be replaced with what the city was properly useful for: trading posts, jails, courthouses, and saloons. And no one should be allowed to live over a saloon unless he was just passing through. A commercial room was simply not a dwelling. These edicts were substantiated  by zoning and blight laws…Almost as quickly as an earthquake, our neighborhoods located in the Fillmore and South of Market were already razed and being replaced by forty-eight-story multinational corporate trading posts. Even if we were expected to build, maintain, clean, and service these posts, we weren’t expected to live anywhere nearby. Be at work promptly at eight a.m., but please, please disappear by five p.m. But this was an impossible request because we could not leave, and we had nowhere to go. (588-591)

We could not leave, and had nowhere to go.

I love how this situates the residential hotel in a long history of city building, in the development of our urban form. How little things have really changed — though this makes me see US cities with new eyes. Seeing the saloon, the trading post, the lodging house. The change is in the way that capital is working, the way that workers are no longer welcome in the city centre, the disciplining of the poor into certain kinds of homes or punitively forcing them into homelessness. This captures both so beautifully, captures just what it was we were fighting over — not just the profit that owners wished to make on a building they had violently extracted every penny from at the cost of its tenants, but their ability to flick aside human beings and their security and their dreams as if they were nothing. The structural workings of race and class and labour and value that made such cruelty possible. The I Hotel was lost in 1977, and still we were fighting in 2007. Others still fight today, is there any organisation I love and respect more than LA CAN?

As two thousand of us were eventually bullied away from the hotel entrance, we saw our sheriff enter at the head of his deputies, leading them into the hotel and the final phase of the eviction, breaking into the doors of each of the hotel tenants and ordering them to leave their homes. And yes, we knew that each room was a tiny home, a place of final refuge for a lifetime of work, and the the room, though housed in a hotel, was sill a home. (591-592)

The last paragraph excavates something inside of me. Why we do, why we write.

And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (605)

[Karen Tei Yamashita (2010) I Hotel. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.]