Tag Archives: housing

Tales of Mean Streets

Tales of Mean StreetsTales of Mean Streets  (1894) describes the contents exactly — the meanness not only of city and streets but also of characters and the poverty that confines them. These, I think, are stories written by a man who escaped such poverty and looks back on it only with relief that he managed to get out, and perhaps with a fear of falling back that erases generosity. There is none of the lurid and titillating violence and detail of Thomas Burke, nor yet any of the humour, pride and everyday mutual support seen in W. Pett Ridge. Just poverty, meanness, narrowness and desperation. In such depths of poverty these things exist, of course, in abundance. I hate when they are not balanced by the small things that still make lives bearable, humour above all, but I know that fear of poverty not just lying behind you but also lying in ahead and how it can shape your view of the world. These are tales of the working class by one of their own like those of Pett Ridge, and on the same subjects from Edwin Pugh, Somerset Maugham (whose work mostly infuriated me), and Richard Whiteing. All of whom together came to be seen as a new school of English fiction as stated by the introduction on Morrison’s life and work. I found another list of Victorian ‘slum fiction‘, which includes all of these titles and many more.

For a taste of daily life, a sense of the streets, Tales of Mean Streets is very good. The stories, too, are beautifully crafted. Always a hidden ugly little twist to make them stand out as far more than just descriptions of everyday life and struggle for survival. This is not surprising given the company Arthur Morrison kept — though that company was surprising. He worked for W.E. Henley, editor of the National Observer… who was on the crack team of writers forming his team? In addition to Morrison there was Rudyard Kipling, J.M. Barrie, Thomas Hardy, Charles Whibley, H.G. Wells, W.B. Yeats and H.D. Lowry.I can’t imagine them all just sitting in the pub after work, but I am enjoying the effort.

Morrison worked under Walter Besant on the newspaper at the People’s Palace in Mile End, which endears him to me immensely. He left to become a writer and journalist, wrote detective tales starring Martin Hewitt also published some tales of the supernatural in Cunning Murrrell (1900), and his more famous works, A Child of the Jago (1896), To London Town (1899), and Hole in the Wall (1902).

A street

This street is in the East End. There is no need to say in the East End of what. The East End is a vast city, as famous in its way as any the hand of man has made. But who knows the East End? It is down through Cornhill and out beyond Leadenhall Street and Aldgate Pump, one will say: a shocking place, where he once went with a curate; an evil plexus of slums that hide human creeping things; where filthy men and women live on penn’orths of gin, where collars and clean shirts are decencies unknown, where every citizen wears a black eye, and none ever combs his hair. The East End is a place, says another, which is given over to the Unemployed. And the Unemployed is a race who token is a clay pipe, and whose enemy is soap: now and again it migrates bodily to Hyde Park with banners, and furnishes adjacent police courts with disorderly drunks. Still another knows the East End only as the place whence begging letters come; there are coal and blanket funds there, all perennially insolvent, and everybody always wants a day in the country (19).

Of this street there are about one hundred and fifty yards–on the same pattern all. It is not pretty to look at. A dingy little brick house house twenty feet high, with three square holes to carry the windows, and an oblong hole to carry the door, is not a pleasing object; and each side of this street is formed by two or three score of such houses in a row, with one front wall in common. And the effect is as of stables (20).

There follows a categorisation of who lives on such a street, not noisy, loud troublemakers marching to Hyde Park or factory girls living a little further out of the city, instead on this street are the people too proud to ask for charity, the men work in the docks or the gasworks, maybe the shipbuilding yards. Two families live in each house, possibly a lodger.

In a time before clocks and alarms for the common man, there is this (reminds me of EP Thompson writing about clocks and time):

Every morning at half-past five there is a curious demonstration. The street resounds with thunderous knockings, repeated on door after door, and acknowledged ever by a muffled shout from within. These signals are the work of the night-watchman or the early policeman or both… (21)

And then a description of the mayhem, the waves of male workers, school children, children carrying their fathers lunches down to the docks or gasworks, their return, the return of the men. Every day except Sunday.

Nobody laughs here–life is too serious a thing; nobody sings. There was once a woman who sang–a young wife from the country. But she bore children and her voice cracked. Then her man died, and she sang no more. (24)

And this:

Yet there are aspirations. There has lately come into the street a young man lodger who belongs to a Mutual Improvement Society. Membership in this society is regarded as a sort of learned degree, and at its meetings debates are held and papers smugly read by lamentably self-satisfied young men lodgers, whose only preparation for debating and writing is a fathomless ignorance. For ignorance is the inevitable portion of dwellers here: seeing nothing, reading nothing, and considering nothing.

Where in the East End lies this street? Everywhere. The hundred and fifty yards is only a link in a long and a mightily tangled chain–is only a turn in a tortuous maze. This street of the square holes is hundreds of miles long. That it is planned in short lengths is true, but there is no other way in the world that can more properly be called a single street, because of its dismal lack of accent, its sordid uniformity, its utter remoteness from delight. (28)

From this street all of the stories grow, as much as anything can grow in the environment so described. Everything stunted, petty, brutal mean. For many there is some compassion from the author — distinctly in contrast with lack of compassion and the hatred of anyone getting above themselves from the rest of the neighbourhood, which often hastens their brutal end.

The exception is the fallen woman — there are these terrible descriptions from a story of a streetcar to Bow Bridge (otherwise a fascinating little glimpse into early public transportation):

In the midst of the riot the decent woman sat silent and indifferent, her children on and about her knees. Further along, two women ate fish with their fingers and discoursed personalities in voices which ran strident through the uproar, as the odor of their snack asserted itself in the general fetor. And opposite the decent woman there sat a bonnetless drab, who said nothing, but looked at the decent woman’s children as a shoeless brat looks at the dolls in a toyshop window.

A man by the door vomited his liquor: whereat was more hilarity, and his neighbors, with many yaups, shoved further up the middle. But one of the little ones, standing before her mother, was pushed almost to falling; and the harlot, seeing her chance, snatched the child upon her knee. The child looked up, something in wonder, and smiled; and the woman leered as honestly as she might, saying a hoarse word or two. (62)

This is also noteworthy for use of one of my favourite words ‘stramash’, meaning fight. I always thought it was scottish, but perhaps was once as common down South?

‘The Red Cow Group’ describes an eager young anarchist (I am fairly certain police provocateur along the lines of The Secret Agent) willing to teach men how to make bombs and tell them where to put them but loathe to do anything himself —  he is demolished in the most satisfying way by a group of working class boozers.

There are the Nappers, who come into a little wealth and of course it goes to their heads and inspires a discourse on fashion and the East End’s class geographies:

Mrs. Napper went that very evening to the Grove at Stratford to buy silk and satin, green, red, and yellow–cutting her neighbors dead, right and left. And by the next morning tradesmen had sent circulars and samples of goods. Mrs. Napper was for taking a proper position in society, and a house in a fashionable part–Barking Road, for instance, or even East India Road, Poplar; but Bill would none of such foolishness. He wasn’t proud, and Canning Town was quite good enough for him. This much, though, he conceded: that the family should take a whole house of five rooms in the next street, instead of the two rooms and a cellule upstairs now rented (131).

There are stories that show the desperation of the great Dock Strike of 1889, the promise of boxing as one way of escape, the mix of the criminal and the decent, the explosiveness of violence and the pervasiveness of poverty. I wonder what it was exactly that brought Morrison back to to write these stories.

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Women as Tramps: Boarding Houses as Brothels (Pt 3 of 3)

I can hardly understand how they could be so clean, for when the women were undressed (and, of course, like all their class they slept in their day-garments, partially undressing), their under-garments were dirty and ragged in almost all cases, even when their outside appearance was respectable. Hardly one had a whole or clean garment, and among this class a nightgown is unknown, or unused. One woman kept on a black knitted jersey, though it was summer-time!

Thus the realities of poverty sink into the understanding of the middle class Mary Higgs in Glimpses Into the Abyss — and the corresponding desperate attempts to keep up outward appearances. She need only have remembered her own experience of how differently men treated her depending on her dress (as seen in the last post).

Boarding house
Dinner at a cheap lodging house, G. Sala, Twice round the clock, 1859, 12352.f22

One of the nights spent in boarding houses led to following insights into the lives of sex workers at the turn of the century, and almost in spite of herself, Mary Higgs describes the scene with a great deal of empathy though it comes with moralising. It seems to me she learns something here about the ways in which her Christian morals are not always required alongside her Christian virtues of kindness, generosity and charity — what I love about her ‘findings’ throughout the book is how often she is struck by the generosity of those who have almost nothing:

As a contrast to her there was a rather loud-spoken girl, whom the officer evidently knew. To judge by her face she knew sin and shame. She was, however, very good-natured. She nursed the baby with evident pleasure, and she shared her breakfast with others.

…not being hungry yet we decided to go to the common sitting-room. This we found in possession of several women, mostly young. It was now nearing 10 P.M., and they were all busy tidying themselves, rouging their faces, blacking their eyelids, and preparing to go on the streets. All this was done perfectly openly, and their hair was curled by the fireside. It was wonderful how speedily they emerged from slatterns into good-looking young women. Each then sallied forth…

On the economies of the boarding house itself and its owner — I wonder how much of a cut they took.

By this time we thoroughly understood the character of the house. It may be there were exceptions, but they would be but few. The inmates, probably about sixty, young and old, were living a life of sin, and we were told that the proprietor of this lodging-house owned fifteen others. We learnt that a house could be taken for £2 11s. a week, and 8s. for a servant. We learnt that most of the girls came home very late–many as late as two o’clock–and in such a state that they kept the others awake, singing and talking, drunk or maudlin. The house was open till two at any rate every night.

Breakfast over, we sat and watched the scene, being three times moved to make room at the tables. Round the fire was a group of girls far gone in dissipation; good-looking girls most of them, but shameless; smoking cigarettes, boasting of drinks, or drinking, using foul language, singing music-hall songs, or talking vileness. The room grew full, and breakfasts were about, onions, bacon, beefsteak, tea, etc., filling the air with mingled odours. A girl called “Dot” and another danced “the cake-walk” in the middle of the floor.

Fun, humour, camaraderie, despite a drear and poverty-stricken life.

On this scene entered the girl who had to go to the doctor. She was condemned to the Lock Hospital, and cried bitterly. An animated conversation took place about the whereabouts and merits of various lock wards or hospitals, and everyone tried to cheer her up. “Never mind, Ivy, you’ll soon be through with it!”

I imagine this is venereal disease, which Higgs would have been too polite to mention but probably take as understood.

One or two elderly women were apparently not prostitutes, but earned money by cleaning. It was, however, rather difficult to settle how they lived. One woman was very coarse and fat, with an ugly scar on her shoulder, which she exhibited in the morning when she indulged in the luxury of “a good wash,” but was not clean. She put on a ragged bodice, the silk of which was hanging in shreds, and which had a big hole under the arm showing a great patch of bare flesh; yet over all she put a most respectable cloak, and a bonnet that would have done credit to a Quaker. I was astonished to see her emerge as almost a lady! Evidently the “clothes philosophy” is well understood in Slumdom, for whatever purposes it is used. Indeed, it has given me somewhat of a shock to realise that many of these, even if dwellers in actual filth and disease, would not be distinguishable in any way from ordinary individuals.

I find this last sentence so extraordinary, as is the way Higgs has to struggle to maintain that boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ — the way that class and morality need markers to survive, the dangers that arise when such markers are deceiving. You see Higgs struggling with this. I like that all of her better instincts seem to be working to dissolve these distinctions, even if against her rationalisations.

There are also some hints on the aspects of petty crime embarked upon with humour by women to ensure their survival.

We did not feel able to eat breakfast under such conditions. I waited for my friend in the living-room, and an amusing incident occurred. One of my room-mates came down in a skirt–forgetting her top skirt. But she had not forgotten another adornment, namely, a huge pocket suspended round her waist behind, which proclaimed her as a “moucher”! She exclaimed:–

“Look what I’ve been and done! I’ve been over to the shop like this! Good job a ‘bobby’ didn’t see me!”

There was room enough in this capacious pocket to “pinch” any number of articles, but we will write her down “beggar” not “thief”!

By Higgs’ own admission, there are few choices available for women who are not supported by husbands or family — and increasingly they live in a world that has made it impossible for husbands and family to support women. She never does fully grapple with what industrialisation has meant in the lives of poor women, but there are remarkable scattered insights none the less. This is the primary one perhaps:

 The correlative of the male wanderer is the female prostitute. A woman must “get her living,” and she does it “on the streets.”

So what is causing the wandering? She sees that too:

The landscape has changed again, and there, the landmark of the Industrial Revolution, stands the giant mill; and now comes a rush of human life, clank, clank, clank, the stream of mill-hands in clattering wooden clogs is hastening to work. It is the daily migration of labour, the tide morning and night ebbs and flows. Yet no two days will the stream be alike. Accident, sickness, misfortune, or fault, will each day leave some units stranded, and others take their place, and if you look you see another feature in the landscape, a long line of railway stretches as a link for swift travel between town and town. Here is something altogether new. These human units, divorced from native communities, cannot be expected to be readily anchored, and accordingly you see around each ancient community and interspersed with it, crowds of workmen’s cottages, each a tent rather than a home, taken to-day, and left in a month or two. If you could uncover life and watch it as you do an anthill, you would find that it had attained a new and fresh activity. On every side Humanity is becoming organic. Huge conglomerations which we call cities blacken whole stretches of country, and the feature of the life of most men is daily migration. By train, tram, or road, tides of humanity move to toil; every holiday sees crowds covering green fields in pleasure parties, or transported by train. The whole of life has grown migratory. Is it not evident that we have here not the ancient problem of the Tramp, but the modern problem of the Fluidity of labour!

I wish she had jettisoned all that race and evolution rubbish and focused on this:

Examine any family you like and it will be the exception to find it whole. Individuals are scattered far and wide when up-grown, perhaps in England, perhaps over the world. Only the stagnating slum population is stationary. And this is not their virtue. If they had a little more initiative they would not stagnate; they form a pool of underfed and ill-paid labour, and constitute by far the largest part of the modern problem of the unemployed. The alert and well-trained workman is migratory–at the news of a “better shop” he will be off to another town, with or without wife and family.

‘Only the stagnating slum population is stationary.’ She is able to see that capitalism and industrialisation has uprooted everyone, forced them into motion for survival and any hope of improving their lives. She sees also that this is capital’s need and desire:

The Fluidity of Labour is a fact that has come to stay. Modern subdivided employment depends on the ready supply at particular places of necessary workmen. If a man is destitute through remaining too long where work is not to be had, he must travel, and we need to facilitate, not to hinder, his rapid transit to the right place, and to furnish him with all information as to whither he should go.

She shows so much understanding of what this means for women in particular, especially those who wish to make their own way. The hardships they face, and the tragedy. Though still she judges.

For the other career of womanhood is hard, and as yet a path not for the many, and therefore all the harder. A woman may attain economic independence; but she is sadly handicapped. Her wage is low, often lowered by dress expense; and her woman nature, especially under modern pressure of sentimental literature, demands satisfaction in husband and child. What wonder if she gives up the hard struggle and strays from this path. Society owes much to the women who toil on, cutting by degrees the stairs of progress. If they succeed in self-support, how often age overtakes them as toilers; women’s physical disabilities (created or complicated by a false civilisation) leave them stranded.

The middle-aged unemployed female is a most serious national problem at present. It calls loudly for universal sisterhood. Drink too often claims the unloved and unlovable spinster. She can no longer spin; she must work under conditions in which she ages fast. Independence is hardly to be won. Our workhouses are full of derelict womanhood. Nor is the married woman always more fortunate. Industries often kill husbands when still young. Widows abound. It is extremely difficult to make a woman self-supporting with more than one, or at most with two children, in such a way as to secure sufficient food and clothes for these children. Into married destitution, if the husband lives, I need not enter; it is part of the unemployed problem, and a serious one.

This is still couched in moralising terms and discussed in terms of ‘national problems’ to raise awareness that something must be done, but I think there is a very real sense of compassion and concern here to improve the lives of women whatever their choices. In spite of the framework by which she makes sense of the world this compassion shines through, making this a valuable document for glimpses not into the abyss, but into the courage, humour and fighting spirit of the women facing a poverty and set of limited opportunities that we can barely imagine today. My own happy, full, intellectual and most unorthodox life made possible because women like Higgs fought to change the world and succeeded.

Part 1 | Part 2

More on similar stories…

Mary Higgs: Glimpses Into the Abyss

Higgs1This is the first of three posts on Mary Higgs (1854-1937), a social reformer who beyond running a shelter in Oldham actually went on the tramp in the North of England (and tested the waters in London) to better understand the conditions suffered by the poor — and particularly women — moving from town to town. Her experiences were published in a series of articles, pamphlets and a book Glimpses Into the Abyss (1906).

This was an extraordinary thing for her to do.

She is a curious mix, Mary Higgs, a woman who actually did seem able to see the conditions of the poor with a great deal of empathy, and even to listen to them. She suffered to do so — to voluntarily submit oneself to the workhouse seems mad to me even now. She cannot quite escape her middle class judgments of how people manage their poverty or Christian judgments of how they manage their morality, but her actual descriptions are for the most part fairly kind. The amount of detail provides a brilliant window into the lives of women who have otherwise been lost to us.

They stand, then, in even greater contrast to the theoretical bombast she surrounds her narrative in. I know it was the common currency of reform of the time and I have seen it raise its ugly head before, but never quite so clearly laid out as this.

First though, from the introduction, more on her background (and poverty as social disease):

Securing a lodging where a destitute woman could be accommodated, and providing cleansing and dress, she has steadily taken in through a period of six years every case of complete destitution that came to her, willing to undergo remedial treatment. The work grew; accommodation for four was provided, with two paid helpers. The small cottage used acts as a social microscope, every case being personally investigated as to past life, history, and present need, and dealt with accordingly. The writer, as Secretary to the Ladies’ Committee of Oldham Workhouse, next became personally acquainted with the working of the Poor-law and studied it by means of books also. By degrees the Rescue work came to cover Police-court and Lodging-house work, and, as there was no other Shelter in Oldham, cases of all sorts came under her notice. She thus studied personally the microbes of social disorder.

Oldham Work House
Oldham Workhouse

By degrees she came to understand the existence of certain “classes” (classifying them much as observation led her to classify objects observed in physical studies). Also, she clearly perceived that causes were at work leading to rapid degeneration, and was led to pre-suppose currents working for social destruction.

This is particularly revealing perhaps:

She reflected that exploration was the method of science, and became herself an explorer of “Darkest England.”

I am fascinated by this constant reference to the middle and upper classes ‘exploring’ and ‘discovering’ working class life and neighbourhoods through Victorian slumming, just as they ‘explored and discovered’ the colonies they exploited, just as now the ‘pioneers’ discover and expand the frontiers of gentrification. And so often it seems, it is ‘Darkest’ Africa, England, Harlem… this has been much written about I know.

So on to Higgs herself, and how she tried to initially frame the results of her experiences and her policy recommendations. It’s fairly vile and everywhere the theoretical language insults, and I am thin-skinned and easily infuriated by such vileness, but in this case I feel called to defend her to the extent that she was open enough to the reality she encountered on her tramp that it almost reads as though written by someone else, and her recommendations at the end have moved much further to understanding the structural causes of labour’s movement and respect for those needing shelter.

Still. It is good to remember what many rich people once thought of us poor people, what we white people once thought of other races, what ‘pure’ women once thought of those who enjoyed a night down the pub. Sadly we haven’t come as far in destroying this as we might hope.

A very simple theory, which will be found to accord with Plato’s diagnosis of the degeneration of a State or an individual, with Meyer’s “Disintegrations of Personality,” and with James’ “Phenomena of Religious Experience,” therefore underlies this essay; but it is apart from its objects to do more than state it. It is enunciated more fully in an article in the Contemporary Review, now out, entitled “Mankind in the Making.” It is this:

(a) The psychology of the individual retraces the path of the psychology of the race.

(b)In any given individual the  whole path climbed by the foremost classes or races may not be retraced. Therefore numbers of individuals are permanently stranded on lower levels of evolution. Society can quicken evolution by right social arrangements, scientific in principle.

(c) Granted that any individual attains a certain psychical evolution in normal development, either evolution or devolution lies before him. Wrong social conditions lead to widespread devolution. The retrograde unit retraces downwards the upward path of the race, and can only be reclaimed along this path by wise social legislation, bringing steady pressure to bear along the lines of evolution, (barring extraordinary religious phenomena, which often reclaim individuals or communities).

(d) Society has now arrived at a point of development when these facts must be recognised, and the whole question of the organisation of humanity put on a scientific basis. It will then be possible to reduce the sciences of sociology and psychology to scientific order, and our national treatment of such questions as vagrancy will be no longer purely empirical.

Words fail me here, but I am glad we have almost overcome this insane vision of evolution and racial hierarchy.

There was an odd resonance with a quote in Horne’s A Savage War of Peace in relation to the French policy of erasing Algerian resistance by destroying family structures, and a commentary that all that was left was dust. Higgs says the same thing of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and from an agricultural society to an industrial one dependent on free (and willing) labour:

As early as Henry VIII., 1531, we find a second class, that of the “incapable,” those who could not work, who were “licensed to beg.”

The formation of this class was accelerated by the failure of the Church to provide for the assistance of the poor, by suppression of abbeys, etc., at the same time that the abolition of villeinage, which was still recent, threw off from organised society dependents very unfit to live a self-supporting life. (See Note 2.) Thus again the drying up of means of subsistence created as it were another layer of easily drifting dust.

***

Since, therefore, a transition period leaves behind such a layer of social débris, it is only to be expected that we should find the third great change that has passed over society, which is still recent, namely, the change to the industrial epoch, to be productive of another layer of social débris or dust.

John A. Hobson points out (in “Problems of Poverty,” p. 24) that “the period from 1790 to 1840 was the most miserable epoch in the history of the English working classes.” It is doubtful indeed whether we have really recovered from the “sickness” of that period.

There are some familiar definitions of vagrancy, where like the poor there are the willing and the unwilling:

Vagrancy proper was the crime of individuals who dropped out of a settled, mainly agricultural, society into the wandering life. Vagrancy as induced by modern conditions may be no crime. It is not a crime for a man who cannot obtain work to migrate to find it, or for a man to return home on foot from a distance.

And here are some of the actual numbers:

So much is the tramp ward disliked, and so useless is it as a remedy for destitution, since at best it affords only a night’s shelter with poor food and hard labour, that numbers prefer to “sleep out.” The London County Council’s census of the homeless poor, Friday, 29th January, 1904, revealed 1,463 men, 116 women, 46 boys, and 4 girls walking the streets, and 100 males and 68 females sleeping in doorways, etc., a total of 1,797 homeless poor in a small area in London (from Hyde Park in the west, to the east end of Whitechapel Road, from High Holborn, Old Street and Bethnal Green, in the north, to the Thames, in the south). In the winter 1903-4, no fewer than 300 people were known to be sleeping out every night in Manchester.

And we come to the results — the terminology is cringeworthy and in itself worthy of further reflection on the way that both the processes and the discourses of industrialisation dehumanised workers. In the following posts you will be able to see just how human some (not all) of these ‘inefficients’ became to Mrs Higgs, so where then does this discourse come from? It points to the deeply problematic underpinnings of social reform, underscores where my own traditionally deep distrust of theory comes from.

VIII. SUMMARY OF RESULTS OF INVESTIGATION.

We may summarise results as follows:

1. There exists at the bottom of society the hereditary vagabond or “tramp” proper. He is the remains of a vagrant class squeezed out of society and preying upon it…

2. There exists also a class of “incapables,” i.e. those infirm, old, blind, lame, epileptic, etc. These are supposed to be provided for by our Poor-law system, and should be inside workhouses. But numbers of them are allowed to wander in penury and beggary.

3. There exists a large class of “inefficients,” the special product of the Industrial revolution. It is not probable that they will disappear as a factor in social evolution, save by means of wise social
arrangements, because:

(1) They are continually renewed from the lower levels of the population, who breed quickly.

(2) The standard of industrial requirements rises, and leaves many behind stranded.

(3) Employment after middle age is difficult to obtain.

(4) The shifting of industries and changes in employment leave units unprovided for.

It is evident therefore that the whole legislation of our country must be remodelled, for it is on the social organism as a whole that social provision now devolves.

Up next — a glimpse of women’s actual lives on the tramp in shelters and workhouses, and then boarding house as brothel. Poor Mary Higgs had her horizons opened up in a hurry…

Part 2 | Part 3

Buildings of Earth, Chalk and Clay: J. St Loe Strachey & Clough William-Ellis

St Patrick’s day. My dad’s birthday. I am missing him so much. Him eating his big chocolate cake and my family all around and all of us in the adobe house my parents built in the desert. In my sadness I remembered this short book I found on Project Gutenberg I’ve been meaning to read forever. Cottage Building in Cob, Pise, Chalk and Clay (1919) by Clough William-Ellis. I knew it was right when I read this from the introduction by J. St Loe Strachey:

My deep desire was to find something in the earth out of which walls could be made. My ideal was a man or group of men with spades and pickaxes coming upon the land and creating the walls of a house out of what they found there. I wanted my house, my cottage in “Cloud-Cuckoo Land,” to rise like the lark from the furrows.

Or like our dream in the desert:

May 1982

I never knew how deep this kind of building tradition ran here in England, or that some architects looked towards it for a brief time in the 1920s to help overcome the lack of materials and the desperate need for housing after WWI (I greatly enjoyed Strachey’s overblown rhetoric):

In this dread predicament what are we to do as a nation? What we must not do is at any rate quite clear. We must not lie down in the high road of civilisation and cry out that we are ruined or betrayed, or that the world is too hard for us, and that we must give up the task of living in houses. Whether we like it or not we have got to do something about the housing question, and we have got to do it at once, and there is an end. Translated into terms of action, this means that as we have not got enough of the old forms of material we must turn to others and learn how to house ourselves with materials such as we have not used before. Once again necessity must be the mother of invention, or rather, of invention and revival, for in anything so old and universal as the housing problem it is too late to be ambitious.

It is the object of the present book to attack part of the problem of how to build without bricks, and indeed without mortar, and equally important, as far as possible without the vast cost of transporting the heavy material of the house from one quarter of England to another.

The Beginning of a Pisé Fruit-house.
The Beginning of a Pisé Fruit-house.

In the spirit of the time, he began work on the fruit house above, building it of rammed earth (pisé de terre) following a manual for Australian settlers. It worked and they built a dinning hall. Built it collectively, which also reminded me of my house, and how homes can and should be built:

Everyone worked at that wall; the nursing staff, the coachman, an occasional visitor, a schoolboy, a couple of boy scouts, members of the National Reserve who were guarding a “vulnerable point” close by, and even some of the patients.

There is, of course, a fairly large distance between the two of us. He was a member of Brook’s Club, known to me only through my long-ago reading of my grandmother’s Georgette Heyer regency romance novels, he writes:

Happening to be sleeping in a bedroom at Brooks’s Club in 1916, I noticed a charming Regency bookcase full of old books. Among them was a copy of a Cyclopædia of 1819. I thought it would be amusing to see whether there was any mention of Pisé de terre. What was my astonishment to find that what I thought was my own special and peculiar hobby and discovery was treated therein at very great length and with very great ability, but treated not in the least as anything new or wonderful, but instead as “this well-known and greatly appreciated system of building, etc., etc.”

And even better:

At the end of my researches and experiments I found that Pliny has got it all in his Natural History in six lines! There is no need for more words.

Have we not in Africa and in Spain walls of earth, known as ‘formocean’ walls? From the fact that they are moulded, rather than built, by enclosing earth within a frame of boards, constructed on either side. These walls will last for centuries, are proof against rain, wind, and fire, and are superior in solidity to any cement. Even at this day Spain still holds watch-towers that were erected by Hannibal.”—Pliny’s “Natural History,” Bk. XXXV, chapter xlviii.

A part of Portmeirion, the real-life filming location for exterior shots of the Village
A part of Portmeirion, the real-life filming location for exterior shots of the Village

It all started in Africa, of course.

Architect Clough William-Ellis (he built The Village from The Prisoner) doesn’t have quite the same gift of words or the happy enthusiasm, and as he starts in on the housing question he set my back up right away:

In a recent speech the Registrar-General said: “War does not only fill the graves, it also empties the cradles.” This is no less true of bad and inadequate housing.

Only the most reckless and thick-skinned of the poorer population will adventure on marriage and the bringing up of a family whilst the odds against decent and reasonable housing persist as at present.

It was that embarrassing period for the upper classes when open discussions of eugenics were floating around, and they blamed the poor for their own poverty with a little more directness than they do today. Much of this little book is made up of letters from around England and the colonies giving precise details of other projects — very useful indeed actually, for those experimenting, but also serving to show the casual racism of Imperial Britain:

My experience of all black labour is, that they won’t put any ‘guts’ into it. They therefore want fairly heavy rammers, which they can lift and drop, say a foot, and which will do the rest for them.
–Major Baylay, Peter Maritzburg, Natal, South Africa

This signals the larger problems of Empire and the resulting oppression, exploitation and consumption that have played such a large role in getting us into the current ecological crisis that bears such similarity to the period immediately after WWI when this was written, but I shall note them and then set them to one side.

This passage shows the effect the war had on building, and probably exactly the kind of development rules we should have today:

Formerly, he who wilfully carried bricks into Merioneth or the Cotswolds, or slates into Kent or ragstone-rubble into Middlesex, was guilty of no more than foolishness and an æsthetic solecism.

Under present conditions such action should render him liable to prosecution and conviction on some such count as “Wasting the shrunken resources of his country in a time of great scarcity, . . . in that he did wantonly transport material for building the walls of a house by rail and road from A to B when suitable and sufficient material of another sort and at no higher cost existed, and was readily accessible hard by the site at B.”

That indeed is our one chance of salvation, the existence and use of “the materials of another sort hard by the site.”

If only we had really taken that on board in the 1920s, our towns and cities would look completely different (though he makes the point, and it’s a good one, that this kind of architecture is better suited to the raw materials found in the countryside rather than an urban setting, this requires more thought).

He starts with cob — only recently I saw an article about a man who had built his home of this, but had no idea quite how far back it went or what beautiful homes you could build:

cob house
COB HOUSE BUILT BY MR. ERNEST GIMSON, NEAR BUDLEIGH SALTERTON, DEVON

It is a mixture of shale and clay and straw, well-mixed through treading and then built in courses upon a stone foundation, lifted on and then trodden well down. It is allowed to project over the foundation, and then pared down and left to dry.

It creates places of beauty built of the very earth they sit on:

pic36b
A Cob-built Village.

Clough-Ellis’s design has a bit of the fairytale about it — ruined a bit by the assumption that its tenants will have servants. This search for alternative building materials has not quite yet joined with a deep desire to live better on the earth:

Model of a Pisé de Terre House to be built in Three Successive Stages. The right wing is planned to be built first as a complete small cottage, eventually becoming service and servants’ quarters. Clough Williams-Ellis, Architect.
Model of a Pisé de Terre House to be built in Three Successive Stages. The right wing is planned to be built first as a complete small cottage, eventually becoming service and servants’ quarters. Clough Williams-Ellis, Architect.

You can imagine what it would be like inside…and no corridors or hallways. Interesting.

Plan of Cottage designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Mr. Alban Scott.
Plan of Cottage designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Mr. Alban Scott.

The versatility of it as a building material is clear, though this is rather too grand for just one person — it could be one of the future hostels like in News From Nowhere:

A fine Specimen of a Devonshire Cob House.
A fine Specimen of a Devonshire Cob House.

If well built it keeps the house warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and stays lovely and dry…living in a block house of the 1840s, I can’t tell you how much I like the sound of that.

I particularly loved this sentence:

Cob, like every other material, should have a certain say in the design of any building in which its use is intended.

And quoting an unnamed but old authority:

In Devonshire the builders of cob-wall houses like to begin their work when the birds begin to build their nests, in order that there may be time to cover in the shell of the building before winter.

There are some interesting historical touches in here as the authors collected every reference they could find:

There is this on the astonishing lateness of the use of wheeled carts,  the methods of payment, and the skills passed down from generations:

Mr. Fulford, of Great Fulford, near Exeter, whose own village and estate can show as many good examples of old cob work as any place in Devon, writes as follows:

….Wheeled carts which began to creep in about the beginning of 1800, were not in general use until twenty or thirty years later. As a boy I knew a farmer who remembered the first wheeled cart coming to Dunsford. In 1838 the Rector of Bridford (the ‘Christowell’ of Blackmore’s novel) recorded the fact that in 1818 there was only one cart in the parish and it was scarcely used twice a year…In the northern part of the county the common price of stonework, including the value of three quarts of cider or beer daily, was from 22d. to 24d... Cob-making was, like many other local trades, carried on in some families from generation to generation and developed by them into an art, but apart from these specialists, practically every village mason and his labourers built as much with cob as they did with stone.

A second, the quality of the buildings:

Mr. S. Baring-Gould, in his Book of the West, writing on the subject says: “No house can be considered more warm and cosy than that built of cob, especially when thatched. It is warm in winter and cool in summer, and I have known labourers bitterly bewail their fate in being transferred from an old fifteenth or sixteenth century cob cottage into a newly-built stone edifice of the most approved style, as they said it was like going out of warm life into a cold grave.”

Another example of the comparison between old and new — and my retrospective fury with utopian planners (as unfair as that may be, yet they surely should have paid attention to these things — besides, it burns me up to thing of dockers being ‘imported’):

I can endorse from experience the comfort of these old buildings, and the affection of Devon people for them. The thick walls give all that a house should—protection from heat in summer and cold in winter. For the contrast, visit the new Garden City at Rosyth. Many of the houses are attractive, but their thin brick walls, tile and slate hanging are not suitable to the north and east coasts. Ask the opinion of the occupants of these new houses. Many of them are Devon born and bred, and imported from the dockyards of the three towns. They nearly all complain of the cold, and their views form an interesting comment on modern construction.
–Extract From a Letter to the Editor of Country Life, July 27th, 1918

A third is that Sir Walter Raleigh was born and raised in a cob house — this cob house:

Hayes Barton
Hayes Barton

Writing of Raleigh and his home, Mr. Charles Bernard says:

Sir Walter Raleigh’s House.—“He had great affection for his boyhood’s home—the old manor-house at Hayes Barton where he was born, and did his best to secure it from its then owner. ‘I will,’ he wrote, ‘most willingly give you whatsoever in your conscience you shall deme it worth . . . for ye naturall disposition I have to that place, being borne in that house, I had rather see myself there than anywhere else.’ But alas! it was not to be, and the snug and friendly Tudor homestead passed into other hands. The house at Hayes Barton was probably not newly built when Raleigh’s parents lived there, and it says much for the character of cob that the house is as good to-day as ever it was; though for all that it has, to use Mr. Eden Phillpotts’ words, ‘been patched and tinkered through the centuries,’ it ‘still endures, complete and sturdy, in harmony of old design, with unspoiled dignity from a far past.’

You can see the outside but not within, and it troubles me that Raleigh too was exiled from the home of his childhood.

Cob has one curious downside though, that honestly I wasn’t expecting:

Rats.—Where the surface rendering of cob-walls has been omitted or has been allowed to fall away, an enterprising rat will sometimes do considerable damage by his tunnelling.

A little powdered glass mixed with the lower strata of a wall will discourage any such burrowing…

This made me think immediately of an episode of Nigel Kneale’s Beasts, or Terekhov’s The Rat Killer, but neither has been enough to put me off these wonderful homes.

Now, to move on to Clough William-Ellis’s second method: ‘“Pisé de terre” is merely the French for rammed earth, and rammed earth is an exceedingly good material for the building of walls.’ You built a stout form of wood and ram earth down into it and it is as strong and impervious to weather as anything.

Sketch of a Pisé House in Course of Erection. With acknowledgements to The Sphere.
Sketch of a Pisé House in Course of Erection. With acknowledgements to The Sphere.

The kind of earth is key of course — unless you’re actually building, much of this section is a bit boring — but then there is this:

The material used for the walls at Empandeni is one-third sand, one-third ant-heap, and one-third soil, all pulverised and put through a sieve.

Ant-heaps seem to provide a perfect leaven, and there is more discussion of how to keep ants out. I can attest to the importance of this.

There was a demonstration building put up at Newlands Corner, near Guildford…I am curious if it is still there unsung, I can find no mention of what happened to it. But there is a lovely article in the Spectator from 1919.

The Spectator 25 OCTOBER 1919, Page 15
The Spectator 25 OCTOBER 1919, Page 15

The coolest thing, though, is that you can do this with chalk, as well as build of chalk blocks.

Those who may wish to see buildings in chalk conglomerate, both old and new, would do well to visit some such typical chalk district as that lying about Andover in Wiltshire.

It should, however, be constantly borne in mind that most of the old cottages were somewhat unscientifically erected by their original jack-of-all-trades occupiers, that damp-courses and Portland cement were unknown, and that the advantages of proper ventilation and the causes of dry-rot were discoveries yet to be made.

Secondly, a large number of these cottages have been sadly neglected either recently or in the past, and they bear the disfiguring marks of their ill-treatment upon them now.

But a chalk cottage that is well found in the beginning, and that is reasonably well cared for subsequently, has nothing to fear from comparison with cottages built in the most approved manner of the more fashionable materials.

Chalk Construction at Amesbury, Wilts. (From a sketch by W. R. Jaggard, F.R.I.B.A., the copyright of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.)
Chalk Construction at Amesbury, Wilts.

(From a sketch by W. R. Jaggard, F.R.I.B.A., the copyright of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.)

I particularly love chalk because

In its purest form chalk consists of over 95 per cent. of carbonate of lime in the form of fine granular particles held together by a calcareous cement, its organic origin being clearly traced in the remains of the minute sea creatures with which it abounds.

I am looking forward to hunting some of these old buildings down, it never occurred to me you could build with it.

At Medmenham there are cottages both old and new of hewn rock chalk, and both the Berks and Bucks banks of the Thames have many buildings to show of this beautiful material.

Marsh Court, Hampshire.
Marsh Court, Hampshire.

Gertrude Jekyll did the gardens there. And then there is:

 Brick-and-chalk Vaulting at the Deanery Garden, Sonning
Brick-and-chalk Vaulting at the Deanery Garden, Sonning

The Deanery Garden, Sonning — another place you can no longer go, because it is owned by Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zepplin. Yet another odd resonance with my youth, and I felicitate him on his choice but damn, I’ll never get in there now.

And finally — there are buildings of adobe! They may be known unflatteringly as ‘lumps’ at this point but still, amazing find unburned clay bricks here.

Mr. Skipper of Norwich writes of the material as follows:

“Who, travelling from Norfolk to London, whether by the Ipswich or Cambridge line, has not noticed the numerous colour-washed or black (tarred) cottage, farmhouse and agricultural buildings scattered practically all along the countryside? Some of these are of studwork and plaster, some of wattle and daub, but many are built of clay made up into lumps, sun-dried, and built into the walls with a soft clay-mixture as mortar.

 A Row of Clay-lump Cottages. The front has been plastered and panelled out. In the upper part of the stable building, seen in the foreground, the clay-lumps are shown exposed.

A Row of Clay-lump Cottages.
The front has been plastered and panelled out. In the upper part of the stable building, seen in the foreground, the clay-lumps are shown exposed.

These made me happy, I will go find them also. Wish my dad could’ve seen them, because there is something about living in a building made of the earth itself, and this was my parent’s gift to me.

Coach building a house

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Poplar: From East India Dock Road to St Paul’s Way

Another walk through Poplar, away from the more historic High Street, beginning with East India Docks Rd and heading to St Paul’s Way. I love this village, suburb, piece of London though it is new to me. Turning right on Kerbey Street I passed the Salvation Army Hall (and the Salvation Army has been a fixture of East End life since it’s beginnings 150 years ago) and this pretty awesome ‘selfie post’:

Poplar

The view to the south:

Poplar

It saddens me, that everywhere Canary Wharf looms over you.

Makes me happy that there is still so much council housing, though how much is ‘genuinely affordable’ social housing I do not know. I still feel we know more now, can design better housing and community now, but I will defend this to the last until that commitment is made, is built.

Poplar

Still, it is a relief to come to the open piece of green that is Bartlett Park after so much concrete — even though it is railed in — to find boys playing cricket and football fields and one last building left from earlier days covered over with vines (and seriously un-photogenic due to the street works taking place, so in possible violation of the dérive principle, it does not feature here).

Poplar

But I wondered at the multi-storey towers, they appeared to be that cheap brand of luxury housing mushrooming along the rivers and canals so I couldn’t understand what they were doing there in all of their massive garishness and glass:

Poplar

I shortly arrived here, and all of my wonderings were answered — I hadn’t realised I was approaching the Limehouse Cut. I get a little fucking angry, though, that these buildings should cut through and haughtily rise above our neighbourhoods, transforming the feel of the canals I love without providing the housing we so desperately need.

Poplar

It is the shoddy arrogance of today’s wealth staring down in comfort, a sneer at inequality written across the horizon.

Despite this, the canal still has some of its old magic, in the form of old warehouses in brick and personal expression spray-painted across its walls:

Poplar

Remnants of the past still linger on, making you positively nostalgic and I don’t want to be nostalgic. I want to look forward to our future and a better world, rather than back.

Poplar

In spite of everything, a vibrant diversity still clings on to life here.

Poplar

I got nostalgic again leaving this old brick for this shiny new school:

Poplar

Researching its shininess further I found this from their website:

A major new programme to help children learn enterprise and employability skills will be launched at St Paul’s Way Trust School in January 2015.

A very generous grant from J P Morgan to the school, in association with St Paul’s Way Community Interest Company, will support students to develop their own business ideas, and turn their plans into real community enterprises. The grant will also support the school to develop a more comprehensive work experience programme, meaning that every student will have opportunities to learn about work which is tailored to their hopes for the future.

It chills me that they are offering a life geared towards work to our children, rather than inspiration and creativity to encourage a curiosity about our world and the knowledge of how to explore it in ways unlimited by the need to profit.

reading-rainbow-kickstarter-levar-burton

Obviously Canary Wharf looms over people’s lives in more ways than one.

Poplar

Their estates that are being decanted.

Poplar

Their churches and community centres:

Poplar

I had begun this walk with the intention of finding Paper & Cup‘s St Paul’s Way Centre cafe, but realised I didn’t have time to stop, so I completed the loop back down to the Westferry DLR. It was nice to see Mile End Park, but it lies on the other side of the massive Burdett Road full of traffic and fumes, scary to cross.

I walked back down it, but didn’t have much heart for pictures. Only this little park full of crocuses and snowdrops and a lost section of row housing that reminds you that you are human:

Poplar

Soon there will be daffodils.

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Block the Budget: Protest at City Hall

Block-the-Budget-1Why block the budget? Why protest?

Boris Johnson’s budget is severely lacking. Social and genuinely affordable housing are missing, both from the budget and from his housing policy. In his vision statement for London he says:

The strategy also aims to make sure that the homes we build better reward those who work hard to make this city a success – by massively increasing opportunities for home ownership, by improving the private rented sector and by ensuring working Londoners have priority for low cost affordable homes to rent.

Back to discourse of the ‘deserving’, and the delusions that more than a fraction of ‘hard working’ Londoners will ever be able to afford a home here. Back to delusions that the private market has ever provided quality housing for the mass of working people. Look at the Royal Mail building fiasco at Mount Pleasant, with ‘affordable’ flats at £2800 a month.

This budget is just taking us back, and we sure as hell don’t want to go there. Let’s go back to Maud Pember Reeves and the glory days of private renting, describing Lambeth tenants in 1913:

They put up with broken and defective grates which burn twice the coal for half the heat; they accept plagues of rats or of vermin as acts of God; they deplore a stopped-up drain without making an effective complaint, because they are afraid of being told to find new quarters if they make too much fuss. If they could or would take concerted action, they could right a great many of the smaller grievances. But, when all is said and done, these reforms could do very little as long as most of the present buildings exist at all, or as long as a family of eight persons can only afford two, or at most three, small rooms (38).

But nothing is more horrifying than how she cross-references housing conditions, particularly the cheapest basement flats, with the babies who have died. So many babies died. More than lived, for families in basement flats. They wanted to only study healthy families, but had to accept asthma and other pulmonary complaints as almost universal.

So fights are on across London to save council housing and to build more — folks from the Radical Housing Network and Lambeth Housing Activists among others, and prominent banners proclaimed the fight in the Aylesbury Estates and Guinness Trust’s Loughborough Park Estate.  It’s not just housing, we all know libraries are on the cutting block this year, and the Save Earl’s Court folks were here too protesting the budget that is destroying the social fabric of the city.

Block the Budget Protest, City Hall

Block the Budget Protest, City Hall

Block the Budget Protest, City Hall

Block the Budget Protest, City Hall

Block the Budget Protest, City Hall

Block the Budget Protest, City Hall

Block the Budget Protest, City Hall

Block the Budget Protest, City Hall

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Down at the Occupation of Guinness Trust’s Loughborough Park Estate

The occupation down at the Loughborough Park Estate has already been covered by the Buzz over the last few days, both management’s attempts to smash up the occupied flat to make it unliveable, and the ongoing protests every morning at 9am.

Loughborough Park Estate occupation

While much has been won, and the occupation is at an end, the struggle continues to win secure tenancies in Brixton for the tenants.

There were a handful of people in the evening as I joined them, half of them residents, the room dominated by the chatter of kids colouring and playing. A table full of food was in the other corner, and there are now lights and warmth and a working toilet.

This was a space of protest and a place for residents to meet together and get support from the wider community. Since they moved in — up to ten to eleven years ago now — the Guinness Trust has denied all use of the Loughborough Park Estate community hall to shorthold tenants.

Loughborough Park Estate occupation

I talked to Helen, an assured shorthold tenant (an AST) and one of around forty long-term tenants with shorthold status being displaced by Guinness Trust’s redevelopment plans. A musician with Yaaba Funk and other groups and a capoeira teacher (don’t know about capoeira? You need to find out more about this awesome Brazilian dance/martial arts mix invented by slaves), a filmmaker and artist, it isn’t hard to see she is one of the people that have made Brixton what it is.

We sat in the smaller room and talked briefly about what is happening at the occupation and the goals of the campaign from her point of view:

Q: So if you could just tell me a little about yourself and how you are connected to the occupation

H: I’ve been here– I didn’t take this place over but I am a supporter—and they’re supporting me. I live just over the road and I’ve lived here for eleven years, so I might be one of the longest ones. I’ve been to the meetings, the radical housing activist meetings, so I knew it was a thought, I knew it was going to happen and it’s good, it’s a good little office.

They’ve done this because there are so many people out on a limb, like ourselves who are literally going to be homeless, you know, we are literally going to be living on the streets, we’ve got no where to go. It’s a very difficult time. A very difficult time.

Q: So can you give me just a little back ground on what is happening here, and with Guinness Trust?

Helen: It’s been a long struggle, it’s been going on for a while, and we’ve been fighting for a while with people like the filmmaker Rashid Nix who used to live here.

We’ve kind of known since 2011 or 2012, they started demolishing back about 3 years now– but bit by bit they’ve knocked down bits of the estate and then built it up and people have been, what’s the word? Decanted.

With some people, you know, you’ve got your golden ticket, you’re a tenant and you get into one of the new flats. I’ve been into one of them and they’re really nice. But they’re selling some of them off as well, we know that now.

Some tenants are still chatty and nice, they’ve got a completely different aura. They’re getting somewhere better to live. Our places are a bit knackered really, they need doing up. My boyfriend was asthmatic and it’s nasty with all the green on your walls unless you’re really handy and you’ve got to do it yourself, because they never came in once in 11 years.

Lots of things have gone by the wayside because you know, let’s demolish it, let’s redo it. And there’s all sorts of classes here, it’s a complete class system. You know, you’ve got your tenants, who will be able to stay here, you’ve got your ASTs who are going to get a little pay off, you’ve got your Camelot who are groups of young people who get cheaper rent than what we’ve got and they’ll get a month or two weeks notice and then they’ll get put into another place to oversee and look after.

Q: They’re the company that puts tenants in empty buildings aren’t they.

H: They’re to keep people from squatting, to keep things like this from going on.

Q: So you’re a shorthold tenant?

H: Myself and Betiel, that’s what we are. Didn’t really have any way to change the tenancy, to get a full tenancy, to see a way to do it.

Q: So basically Guinness Trust has been taking your rent for eleven years, without giving you the same status as other tenants?

H: Yes. You know, a funny thing happened the day before yesterday, we were picketing and protesting and I saw this woman that I’ve known, she’s a tenant, and she came over and I suddenly realised she has been here less time than I have, and I thought oh my god! How did that happen then? So there’s not, there’s something wrong going on. She’s got a tenancy, she’s got a flat.

Q: And what about the other tenants?

H: Some of them are supportive, some embarrassed, some just don’t want to know.

Q: What would it look like if you won?

H: One of the flats [laughs]. But I don’t know, so many of my friends are gone now, they were ASTs and they’ve gone.

Q: But were they able to stay in the area?

H: Not all of them, some have gone to Hackney, some to Earl’s Court– It’s really expensive in Brixton, it’s very expensive here, there’s a complete – let’s call it gentrification, regeneration.

As a person who has lived here eleven years I’ve watched it really change. I’ve watched the shops that were vegetable shops change to champagne bars and, you know, the whole sort of different feel of the place.

Places where people lived for thirty years and have now been gutted, they’ve been thrown out, done up, and now you’ve got people who look like Prince Harry’s girlfriend who live there, to be honest [laughs]. Its not even Shoreditch, it’s like Chelsea, it’s very high end, I don’t know what’s happened, I mean, I’m living in it. I’m looking around trying to move and the rents are really high, I’m not sure what to do, I’m a part time worker, I’m an artist and a musician who works with kids. I don’t always earn that much money, so it’s hard.

Q: So what can people do to support you?

H: We’re just hoping to get people together in support, and it would be fantastic if we can actually change things. I just think it’s really wrong the way they’ve treated people.

Loughborough Park Estate occupation

 First posted on the Brixton Buzz, 20 February, 2015

 

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Shipping Containers: Industrial Present, Sustainable Future?

Is it nice to live in them, work in them, learn in them, play in them? Are they part of the answer to both the housing and environmental crisis?

Long and narrow rectangles of steel, containers are a part of my childhood, forming the long trains that snaked across our landscape. 417989_10151168966670974_951735433_n

When I moved to L.A., they became part of my landscape in a new way, though I confess I rarely made the trip to the port:

Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.
Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.

This is the MSC Fabiola, the largest container ship — it’s scale is almost lost in this picture, at 1,200 feet long it can carry 12,500 containers, and only a handful of ports have the capacity to handle its size and depth:

Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.
Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.

The second series of The Wire exemplifies the size, the feel, the tragedy of automation on the docks. Containers are symbolic of trade, the industrial side of consumption. Now, increasingly they are being used as building blocks for places that form part of our daily lives.

I was surprised to find multiple projects in London, beginning with the Container City Project:

Devised by Urban Space Management Ltd, the Container City™ system re uses shipping containers linked together to provide high strength, prefabricated steel modules that can be combined to create a wide variety of building shapes and can be adapted to suit most planning or end user needs.

This modular technology enables construction time to be reduced by up to half those of traditional building techniques while minimalising on site disruption and remaining significantly more environmentally friendly.

What does significantly more environmentally friendly mean? In looking deeper I found this way to measure the impact of building that takes into account not just the sustainability of heating and cooling it over time, but also the materials involved in its construction, the idea of embodied energy:

There are two forms of embodied energy in buildings:

· Initial embodied energy; and
· Recurring embodied energy

The initial embodied energy in buildings represents the non-renewable energy consumed in the acquisition of raw materials, their processing, manufacturing, transportation to site, and construction. This initial embodied energy has two components:

Direct energy the energy used to transport building products to the site, and then to construct the building; and

Indirect energy the energy used to acquire, process, and manufacture the building materials, including any transportation related to these activities.

The recurring embodied energy in buildings represents the non-renewable energy consumed to maintain, repair, restore, refurbish or replace materials, components or systems during the life of the building.

This reflects all the costs of mining, processing and transporting of building materials, while also the cost of construction and then the ongoing cost of inhabiting and maintaining the building.

Recycling containers in this way is not only far more energy efficient than melting them down and attempting to reclaim the metal, but also far more efficient in terms of construction materials and process. This makes them ideal for building genuinely affordable housing. This is a project from Arkatainer (more pictures here) for a YMCA scheme to provide housing for homeless teens:

© Matthew Parsons, Arkitainer.com
© Matthew Parsons, Arkitainer.com

This is stripped down and simple, but there is a huge list of container architecture projects from around the world here at inhabitat,  here at altdotenergy, and here at designcrave. Some of my favourites (though surely the more ornate they become, the more glass they involve, the more energy they use):

Tony's Farm is the biggest organic farm in Shanghai, Tony's Organic Farm Has a New Shipping Container Visitor Center in Shanghai
Tony’s Organic Farm Has a New Shipping Container Visitor Center in Shanghai

 

Dachi Papuashvili's Cross-Shaped Micro Home
Dachi Papuashvili’s Cross-Shaped Micro Home

 

 

Four Room House, Belgian architects Pieter Peelings and Silvia Mertens of Sculp(IT)
Four Room House, Belgian architects Pieter Peelings and Silvia Mertens of Sculp(IT)

1185232_659747480732660_1776861262_n

 

And finally London’s own Container City:

Container-City

Fascinatingly, Container City was also the title of a 2009 video game (see a walk through here), where the container city was instead a shanty town, a makeshift ghetto built of port detritus, filled with criminals that need to be hunted down and destroyed.

container-city-brinkbrink-videos---giant-bomb-c3a1lfps

It is the same kind of look but on a massive scale, rusted out, grafittied. It provides a vision of a possible future far removed from the brightly painted and hip constructions now decorating London, and being built around the world. Given a widening inequality, I’m not sure which is a more realistic depiction of our future.

I’ll definitely be exploring London’s container building and this concept further…

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March for Homes, 31 January 2015

A miserable, cold, rainy sort of day, that started with snow and sleet. In spite of that there were a lot of us gathering for the South London feeder march to City Hall.

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

Cressingham Gardens in the house (one of them, you can just barely see, had the best pair of boots I have seen in forever, in campaign colours as well!):

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

Bring Back the Bow Back — nice to see the National Bargee Travellers Association here:

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

Making up and little for the rain and cold, it was good to see tenants emerging from their balconies and doorways, cheering us on, picking up the chants:

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

Fortitude seemed a good title.

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

We met up with the East London contingent at Tower Bridge…scenic, but no place to get a feeling for how many people came together at all.

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

And finally arriving at the Town Hall.

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

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Mining & Housing

I never really made the connection between new housing development, mining and the environmental impacts that both have on the earth.

Then the other other day I stumbled across this: ‘Zinc in London Climbs for Second Day Before U.S. Housing Data‘, and it contains this startling information:

Housing starts in the U.S., the second-largest metals consumer, probably climbed 1.2 percent in December from the previous month, according to a Bloomberg survey

New housing, the second largest metals consumer? (What is the first?)

But of course — look at the kind of new luxury housing that is being built (in the face of the enormous unfilled need for social housing, Lambeth’s waiting list of 21,000 people)

A visualisation of the future skyline of the Nine Elms area of the South Bank in west London has been unveiled by the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership.
A visualisation of the future skyline of the Nine Elms area of the South Bank in west London has been unveiled by the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership.

I didn’t know much about zinc, most commonly found with nickel and lead (another staple of the construction industry), I found more than I ever wanted to know from the Australian government — where zinc mining is big business.

A large part of the world’s zinc is used as protective galvanised coatings for iron and steel. In Australia, this use accounts for well over half of the domestic sales of zinc. The widespread use of zinc as a protective coating is mainly because of its resistance to normal weathering, and the protection given to steel by the preferential corrosion of zinc when the underlying iron or steel is exposed.

The biggest mines are found in Rahasthan India, Alaska and in Australia. I don’t pretend to fully understand the processes, but it is extremely toxic:

The flotation process is then used to separate the zinc and other valuable sulphide minerals from the waste rock particles or tailings to form a concentrate….Electrolysis and smelting are the two processes used to produce zinc metal in Australia. The electrolytic process is … where zinc concentrate from various Australian mines is roasted to eliminate most of the sulphur as sulphur dioxide and make impure zinc oxide. The roasted concentrate is then leached with sulphuric acid to form zinc sulphate solution…The smelting process …. Zinc and lead concentrates from various mines are blended and sintered or partly melted to combine the fine particles into lumps and remove some sulphur as sulphur dioxide. The sintered product is mixed with coke and smelted in a blast furnace to produce zinc vapour (gas), which is condensed by cooling with a spray of molten lead to form impure molten zinc metal (98.3% zinc). To remove the small amount of lead and cadmium impurities the liquid zinc is twice boiled to zinc vapour and recondensed to produce high purity zinc metal (up to 99.95%).

Zinc is mostly mined underground, unlike copper which is also mentioned in the article and widely used in building for wiring and plumbing. It is pulled from great pits like Morenci in my own Arizona, swallower of whole towns, of graveyards:

Morenci Pit

Or Bisbee:

lavender pit

My 1004844_10151917281020974_710944858_nfamily’s fortunes were tied to mining (my dad made the most wonderful maps, and we helped him) — a terrible thing, being mostly a life of poverty and uncertainty. This is what my dad got from his coworkers when finally laid off by Kennecott after refusing to move to Reno. The golden screw.

Mining provides a livelihood for many, a job that is dangerous but also one of pride, and a love of working underground. In my own part of the world, their history has been based on land stolen by force from Native Americans, the low level violence of prospectors and high level violence of powerful owners running towns, decimating organising work (and often killing or exiling union organisers), discriminating against non-whites. It has meant a boom and bust cycle that has built towns, then destroyed them. Similar violence, greed and exploitation has been repeated in mines worldwide. Pit mining unquestionably destroys the environment, creating the vast, desolate, toxic and terribly beautiful landscapes shown in the pictures above.

All this to build homes on the other side of the country, the other side of the world that will mostly sit empty. Towering boxes of steel and glass that are the least sustainable kind of architecture in terms of energy use, maintenance. Towering boxes of steel that are used as investments toxic to communities being displaced, and toxic to the people who still live there amidst a largely uninhabited wasteland.  This is the feeling on Paddington Basin, along much of the Thames both North and South.

In the struggle over mining and environment my dad always said (quoting a bumper sticker prevalent at the time), if it’s not grown it’s mined. We need metals, they are in everything we use. But by god we should mine them as safely as possible, pay the workers well, use minerals and metals responsibly, be working to reduce our use of them more and more, to reuse and recycle, to replace lost jobs through the creation of new jobs in improving our world to make it greener and more sustainable. This is necessary for our survival.

Instead we strip the earth to build monuments to greed, as unsustainable as the mining practices that make them possible.

 

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