Saturday, 3 May 2008

The housing problem: overcrowding in London

By the 1870s it was clear that poor housing was one of the most serious elements in the public health problem and attention tended to concentrate on the larger cities, especially London[1]. The need for action had been recognised since the 1840s, though effective measures were few. In 1851 Shaftesbury introduced a pioneering Labouring Classes Lodging Act that attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to raise money for the erection or lease of houses for the use of the poor. The Acts of 1868 and 1875 promoted by the Liberal W.H. Torrens and the Conservative Richard Cross both accepted the principle that houses must be kept in good repair. The 1875 Act enabled demolition of grossly unsatisfactory property to be effected and solid dwellings built in their place. It was, however, permissive, and met with mixed success at best. Joseph Chamberlain[2] used it in Birmingham, but more to clear the city centre for prestige buildings than to re-house the poor. Others were deterred by the cost and by 1881 only ten of the 87 municipal authorities had made use of it. Many observers pointed out that those dispossessed when their property was pulled down could not afford the rent for better property and simply moved into other overcrowded properties one or two miles away.

Building activity reached its peak in 1876, after which construction declined and rents rose at the time of bad trade when working people had little money to spare. The issue was whether state intervention could resolve the problem without, as Shaftesbury among others believed, enfeebling those it was designed to support.

  1. The idea of individual endeavour to relieve distress was closely related to the basic social and religious assumptions of mid-Victorian society. The organisers of charity were committed individualists but they believed that it needed organisation. The focus for the organisers' efforts was London because the social problems were most extreme and the giving most generous.
  2. The most important of the philanthropic organisations was the Charity Organisation Society founded in 1869.
  3. Octavia Hill[3], who had close links with COS, worked in the intractable area of the housing of the poor. But even she insisted that housing should be made to pay. She would allow no arrears and no sub-letting and she turned out those who fell into debt.

Charity bodies and housing associations were alone unable to resolve the problem of London's housing. The 1880s saw an increasing public concern with housing as the problems of the cities grew. The publication of The Bitter Cry of Outcast London in 1883 entered a passionate plea for state direction of a housing policy. There was a parliamentary select committee on housing in 1881-2 and a Royal Commission was established in 1884-5 that was much more successful in setting out the problems than in suggesting practical remedies for them. Local authorities were exhorted to be more active, and cheap workmen's train fares were recommended to enable the poor to live away from the overcrowded centres of big cities. The Commission's recommendations, however, skirted the essential issues. A codifying Housing Act was passed in 1885 and the Housing of the Working Class Act was passed in 1890. This legislation, however, was hardly the landmark that some historians have suggested. In effect before 1914 the State exhorted but refused to insist. The permissive principle remained supreme.


[1] G. Steadman Jones Outcast London: A Study of the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society, OUP, 1971, Penguin, 1975 is a classic study of the impact of conditions on the working population in London.

[2] On Chamberlain in Birmingham see the biography by Peter Marsh, Yale University Press, 1994.

[3] Gillian Darley Octavia Hill: A Life, Constable, 1990 is a major study of one of the foremost housing reformers of the nineteenth century.

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