Saturday, 19 July 2008

The working classes: housing

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century within large towns and cities market forces were allowed free and unregulated rein in the provision of working-class housing: there was none of the planning, regulation and intervention that ensured the elegance of other fast-growing urban developments, the salubrious spa, resort and residential town.[1] Speculative ‘jerry-building’ produced a working-class landscape of inward-looking, dead-end alleys, courts and streets, what has been called ‘a perfect wilderness of foulness’.

Renting houses

Victorian cities were in a state of constant social flux. Many residents in all large cities were migrants but they often did not stay long in one place: 45-55 per cent of urban populations either died or moved from a town within ten years. Most housing throughout the period 1830 to 1914 was rented and owner-occupancy rarely accounted for more than 10 per cent of the housing stock before 1918.

Rented accommodation came in a vast array of types. In central areas most of provided through the construction of purpose-built working-class housing or was in large multi-occupied dwellings filtered down from the middle-classes who had moved to suburban villas or more spacious town houses. Profits and social snobbery produced a pattern of residential segregation -- the slum and the suburb. Within each town, accommodation ranged in quality and cost. Top of the market in Stockport at a vote-bearing rental of £10 per year[2] were houses with cellars and workshops attached; two-up, two-down cottages were available with privies for £8 per year and without privies for £6-7; one-up, one-down back-to-backs cost £2-4 per year and a bed in a common lodging house cost 1d a night or about £1 10s per year. From 1850 terraced suburbs increasingly housed the skilled working-class. The typical artisan cottage in Sheffield was brick-built, slate-roofed with a cellar, living room, first-floor bedroom and second attic bedroom. By moving to ‘respectable’ areas, artisans confirmed their status within the working-class as superior workingmen. They wished to distance themselves from the rough residuum but often had not wish to cross the class divide and join the ranks of the lower middle-class.

For those on low incomes, rent levels were crucial to housing availability. Although cheap housing had been built in many cities in the early nineteenth century, by the 1850s it was increasingly difficult to build new housing to rent at much below 5s per week, well beyond the means of those on low or irregular incomes. Such families had little option but to rent lodgings or take slum housing in the city centre. Income determined where you lived and construction costs controlled the type of housing that was built in different locations. In such areas as Whitechapel or St Giles in London or dockside areas and commercial districts of Liverpool slum accommodation could be obtained quite easily. Accommodation was confined and relatively expensive; for example a single room 12 feet square could be rented for 1s 6d or more per week in a provincial town and for rather more in London. It could be dirty and facilities were shared with the other tenants.

By 1850 construction of new housing in the central areas of towns had almost ceased, but lower-density terraced housing was expanding rapidly in new residential suburbs of all English and Welsh towns. In Scotland tenement construction continued to be the norm. A new terraced house with four rooms, its own privy and in-house water supply would probably cost 5-7 shillings per week to rent. Relatively few such properties were multi-occupied, though the family might take in a lodger. Working-class home ownership was feasible only for those with relatively stable incomes in prosperous areas because of repayments of around 10 shillings per month. High levels were found in parts of north east Lancashire, County Durham, the West Riding and South Wales. Housing provided by employers or by philanthropic organisations, like the Peabody Trust in London, were often locally significant but never accommodated more than a few per cent of the population.

The process of residential decentralisation with the construction of suburban housing estates by private enterprise gathered momentum after 1890. It was aided by the ‘tram revolution’ in the provinces and by the introduction of workmen’s trains in London. Here again it was the aristocracy of labour who gained most from the improvements. Take Ilford. In 1850 Ilford was a quite village on the main railway line from London to Ipswich, seven miles from Liverpool Street station; in 1891 there were some 11,000 people in the parish, but by 1901 the new urban district had expanded to 41,240 people and its population almost doubled again by 1911. Two London builders, W.P. Griggs and A.C. Corbett, encouraged by the good railway communication, acquired large areas of land and began to develop massive private housing estates. In 1906 on the Griggs estate a four-room house started at £260; a four-bedroom, double-fronted house at £375 and a five-bedroom house at £450. Both the builders and Ilford Council provided further incentives to move to the suburbs. Corbett gave loans to purchasers to cover some of the cash deposit while Ilford Council used the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act 1899 to give cheap mortgages. Ilford is a classic example of the ways in which improved transport, availability of land, the willingness of entrepreneurs and public bodies to invest and the demand for suburban living combined to restructure the city in the early twentieth century.

In the Housing of the Working-class Act 1890 government intervened in the free market for the first time and, in so doing, fundamentally affected the expansion and planning of towns. Though the provision of council housing was slight before 1919, some councils had begun building houses before 1890 and the Act gave further impetus to such schemes. Some 24,000 council units were built in Britain before 1914 but most were concentrated in London (9,746 units), Liverpool (2,895 units) and Glasgow (2,199 units). These schemes were too few in number to make any real impact on housing needs and, in any case, rent levels and selection procedures tended to exclude the very poor.

There was little fundamental change in housing between 1830 and 1914. Paying rent to private owners remained the norm, accounting for 80 per cent of all houses. Council housing accounted for only 1 per cent in 1914 and housing associations 9 per cent. Though all towns spawned a succession of new residential suburbs, these were mainly for the affluent working and lower-middle-class families who would leave the older parts of the city centre, and new skilled in-migrants. The poor remained trapped in low-cost, sub-standard housing. The spatial segregation of social groups was cleared structured by the economic realities, reflected in income and occupation that controlled access to different types of housing.

Rural housing

In 1830 rural housing was a mixture of poor quality decaying older properties, poorly built new houses and a minority of decent stone or brick-built cottages for the more prosperous. The nature of work was, in some part, a determinant of the nature of rural housing. Living space was more important for the domestic weaver or knitter who spent much time indoors, than for the farm labourer who toiled for 12 hours a day in the field. In contrast the single migrant who left home to seek work might have been hired at a hiring fair and either given accommodation as a lodger in the master’s house (most common in the north and west of England) or housed and fed in sheds or outhouses along with other hired hands as in the arable counties of England in the early nineteenth century.

Population growth since the mid eighteenth century had resulted in a crisis in rural housing that had several consequences. Many families were permanently overcrowded. Individual privacy was difficult and much of life, especially the development of friendships and courtship, was lived outside the home in lanes, woods and fields. Marriage was often delayed due to the lack of opportunity to set up home. Epidemic diseases such as smallpox or typhus fever spread rapidly in overcrowded and insanitary conditions. Some landowners maintained ‘closed’ villages, where accommodation was limited to keep down the size of the population, made the housing situation worse.

In 1830 living conditions could be as unhealthy and harsh as in many towns: a combination of poor housing, lack of employment and poor social prospects frequently impelled townward migration rather than any specific urban attractions. The density of occupation of rural housing was often as high or higher than that in towns. High natural increase in rural areas mostly offset migration losses and rural population densities continued to increase up to the 1840s. In many rural areas the housing supply expanded more slowly than population; indeed some large landowners demolished cottages and took less responsibility for housing their labour force. Many rural parents brought up eight or more children in tiny two-room cottages.[3] The quality of rural housing varied greatly and for the very poor it was often worse than its urban counterpart. Increasingly, urban housing had proper foundations, solid walls and slate roofs. In contrast much rural housing was severely substandard when first built. Most landowners accepted little responsibility for the provision of decent homes and, even in more prosperous areas such as north-west England, cottages were often small, cold and wet. In southern England, where there was more abject poverty, cottages often had mud walls, earth floors and neglected thatch roofs.

Such conditions persisted until the 1850s but, during the remainder of the century, housing gradually improved as out-migration lessened pressure on the countryside and sanitary and housing reforms began to percolate into rural areas. Commissioned by John Simon in 1864, the sample survey for the first national inquiry into rural labourers’ dwellings revealed that the average air-space a person in cottages worked out at 156 cubic feet, whereas the law required a minimum of 250 cubic feet in common lodging houses providing only temporary accommodation and 500 in workhouses and other ‘less eligible’ Poor Law institutions. Public concern about the ‘cottage question’ led to some new building, though this was brought to an abrupt end by the onset of the agricultural depression in 1873. Nevertheless, not all rural housing was bad: surviving nineteenth century houses include not only good quality homes of landowners, farmers and artisans, but well-built estate cottages and good-quality late eighteenth century dwellings of rural factory workers.


Community replaced kin as the crucial welfare network for the urban working-classes between 1832 and 1914. Settled and stable, especially after the 1850s, most envisaged a future spent within the narrow confines of the town or city in which they had been brought up, secure in the protection of the customs and mores of a particular district. Communities were not necessarily defined in territorial terms but often by the experience of social interaction among those of similar attitudes, beliefs and interests. Welsh migrants in Liverpool, for example, were bonded together by strong cultural and linguistic ties despite their relative lack of residential concentration: families travelled long distances to worship together in Welsh-speaking Calvinistic chapels; Welsh newspapers circulated in the city and the National Eisteddfod was held there on several occasions. Other ethnic communities were less dispersed: Irish and Jewish communities tended to be concentrated in particular urban areas.

For the most part, community was a mixture of spatial and social factors such as pubs, churches, chapels, co-ops and various special interest groups were locality-based serving the needs of relatively independent urban villages, demarcated districts within which the working-classes moved and married. Housewives, indeed, rarely ventured beyond the boundary lines of their particular ‘village’ within which there were strong family networks linking mothers and married daughters, sometimes supplemented by the services of relatives. Men who travelled out of the neighbourhood to work hurried back to their ‘local’ for a drink, now patronised in preference to the trade pub close to the workplace. Community meant a convivial communality of interests.

[1] On working-class housing see J. Burnett A Social History of Housing 1815-1985, Methuen, 2nd ed., 1986 and E. Gauldie Cruel Habitations: a history of working class housing 1780-1918, Allen and Unwin, 1978. R. Rodger Housing in Urban Britain 1780-1914, Macmillan, 1989 is an excellent, and brief, survey of recent research.

[2] The 1832 Reform Act gave the vote to those who rented property worth £10 per annum.

[3] W. Hasbach A history of the English Agricultural Labourer, 1908 despite its age, contains much useful information but should now be read in conjunction with  W.A. Armstrong Agricultural Workers 1770-1970, Batsford,1988. Howard Newby Country Life, Weidenfeld, 1987 is a major and readable study. K. Snell Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England 1660-1900, CUP, 1984 is a mine of information and recent interpretation.

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