Social Policy: From the Victorians to the Present Day
Susannah Morris

Session 2 Dwelling in the East End

Intro Session 1 Session 3 Session 4 Session 5

video Susannah Morris defines social policy.
(2:31 min)
In 1883 William Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, suggested to his readership that "there was one great problem which the religion, the humanity and the statesmanship of England are imperatively summoned to solve.'' He argued that this "great problem" was a "cancer eating into the very heart of the realm" and that it presented "a question demanding the most anxious consideration." The housing problem, or question as it was known, concerned the lifestyles and the living conditions of the poor in large urban areas, most notably in London
Flash Launch flash Living in the East End: from seventeenth century Huguenot homes to modern day council housing.

Economic growth and prosperity contributed to the housing problem in two ways: by encouraging in-migration and by increasing the competition for land. In the centre of the capital, many offices and warehouses were built to service the needs of the City as a centre of distribution and commerce. This distributional role was facilitated by the growth of the railways, which centred on London termini. Owing to the reluctance of many large landlords to part with prestige residential sites for commercial use, most of the clearance to make way for the railways involved the destruction of the homes of the working classes. This clearance was reinforced by street improvement schemes which were often deliberately routed through the poorest areas. These factors combined to reduce the supply of residential accommodation in the centre of the city, while demand grew from new migrant groups.

By the 1880s, however, the population in the centre of London was starting to decline, as house-building in the suburbs increased; but this in itself was not enough to solve the housing problem. Those that could afford to do so took advantage of speculative building and the provision of working men's trains to move to the suburbs. For casual workers, such as those who laboured in the docks near Spitalfields, employment was irregular and allocated on a first-come-first-served basis; for these households moving to the suburbs was not a viable option. Not only would they have to face higher transport costs, they would also lack the opportunities for female employment and lose access to any support networks, cheap markets and credit facilities that they may have built up in the central areas where they were known.

railway bridge
LSE/Illustrated London News

Economic prosperity and the expansion of the city meant that the distributional role of London became doubly important. Railways were constructed and they cut right through the East End of London, as this 1851 illustration of Stepney station and Commercial Road shows.

Those who had to reside in central areas had to take whatever accommodation they could find: in Spitalfields, this implied the subdivision and multiple-occupancy of the existing housing stock built for previous generations of migrants, such as the Huguenots who had started to move away as their economic fortunes improved. These larger houses were beyond the reach of poor households, who could only afford to rent rooms, parts of rooms or even beds in common lodging houses. So while the population in the centre of London started to decline, in Spitalfields the number of persons per house rose from 8.75 in 1841 to 11.28 in 1881.

As overcrowding increased, living conditions deteriorated and public concern grew. The response of the state was to try to regulate the private rental sector, by setting standards for sanitation, repairs and occupancy levels. Many landlords, however, chose not to repair their properties and risk prosecution because the rates of return on slum housing could be very high; as Maud Pember Reeves pointed out, the poor paid more per cubic foot of space in the East End than the rich paid for accommodation in South Kensington.

Maud Pember Reeves

Maud Pember Reeves was an upper-middle-class New Zealand socialist who investigated the conditions of poor families in London in the early 1900s. She recorded the weekly budgets of many households and found that when work was thin and income fell, it was the family's stomachs that suffered. Rent, fuel and burial insurance were the first calls on household income; once these had been paid, food could be bought. For families living on the bread line, even a small reduction in the weekly budget meant real hunger and want. As a result many Londoners were forced to drastically reduce costs, and this meant cheap accomodation. This shows the budget of an East End printer warehouseman in shillings and pence. The average salary for a servant in the nineteenth century was 30 shillings, (1.50 today).

The Victorians were not only concerned about living conditions in the slums for those that resided there: they were worried about the effect of these conditions on the moral, physical, social and even economic well-being of society. It was widely believed that lifestyles and living conditions were linked, and it was feared that the respectable poor would be contaminated by their close proximity to the residuum in the slums. The slums were believed to breed disease, crime, intemperance and immorality: external costs which were being borne by the wider society rather than just the landlords and tenants of these properties.

From philanthropic to public housing

A variety of individual philanthropists and voluntary organisations attempted to address this problem by providing more salubrious, affordable accommodation for the working classes, in a manner that was not associated with the externalities of the slums. Many of these organisations believed that decent working-class housing was not incompatible with market provision and they therefore sought to make a return on the investment they had made: they have become known as the "five percent philanthropists". Angela Burdett Coutts, the Peabody Trust, the Four Percent Industrial Dwellings Company and the East End Dwellings Company are all names associated with the provision of model dwellings and lodging houses in the Spitalfields area.

Although this housing was of a higher standard than the dwellings available to the poor in the slums, the rules of occupancy and the austere designs of some of the buildings were not to the liking of all. At the end of the century an increasingly politicised working class, among other groups, was calling for a higher standard of accommodation to be provided; they turned to the state, rather than the market or the voluntary sector, for a solution. The London County Council started to become a model builder, developing major schemes of public housing.

J.R. White, 1971
The Rothschild Buildings, built in 1887 on Flower and Dean street, were typical of the model tenement dwellings provided for the East End poor.
Despite the acceleration in the rate of public house-building following the First World War, many of the dwellings erected by Victorian dwellings companies remained until the second half of the twentieth-century. By this time, however, people's expectations of what constituted a decent housing standard had moved far beyond the levels of sanitation and comfort that the Victorians had been able to afford to build for the working classes. Thus many of these nineteenth-century developments were demolished and replaced by social housing provided by local authorities using public money.

While public authorities may have built to a higher standard, by the 1980s and 1990s there were increasing concerns about their ability to maintain and manage housing. Criticism about the quality of public provision was combined with more ideological worries about the efficacy of state intervention, and in this context voluntary organisations again became preferred providers. Thus the residents of Tower Hamlets have taken part in a number of national schemes to transfer public housing into the management of the voluntary sector or to organisations managed by the tenants themselves. While 82 percent of the dwellings in Tower Hamlets were publicly owned in 1981, 20 years later the council owned around 50 percent of the housing stock; this figure is still high by national standards.

Problems remain

Despite nearly two centuries of state and voluntary sector intervention in the housing market, there are still many problems concerning living conditions in Spitalfields. Levels of overcrowding in Tower Hamlets are higher than almost any other local authority in the whole of England and Wales. This is partly due to a mismatch between demand and supply: many Bangladeshi families require larger dwellings than the existing housing stock can supply. Yet again, therefore, we see that the dwellings built for one generation of migrants to the area are unsuited to the needs of those groups that follow.

Thinking Point
Assess the success or failure of the various housing initiatives in the East End.
This does not imply, however, that housing conditions in Spitalfields have not improved. In absolute terms, the population of the area dwells in far better conditions today. Problems of basic sanitation, such as connections to the drains, are largely gone and, while overcrowding remains an issue, today it is considered problematic if people live at densities of over one person per room, as compared with the standard of two persons per room set in nineteenth-century model dwellings. Thus the problem today is a comparative one: we generally expect a higher standard of living than in the nineteenth century; the problem in Spitalfields is that many families do not enjoy conditions which are comparable to those found elsewhere in the capital and the country at large. Levels of owner-occupancy are comparatively low and over decades under-investment by landlords has resulted in a backlog of repairs for both the publicly and privately owned rented housing stock. Although new investment is now being made, it needs to be carefully managed to ensure it is used to improve conditions throughout the housing stock, rather than just being targeted at the top end to attract new groups of affluent migrants from the City.