Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Homes of the London Poor, by Octavia Hill, 1883


    IN reprinting at this time articles describing any scheme for improving the dwellings of the poor, the first thought which suggests itself is, how the question is likely to be affected by the Artisans’ Dwellings Bill, which is before the Houses of Parlia­ment, more especially as one of the articles in this book was written in the earnest hope and expectation that some such measure would shortly be brought before the Legislature.
    Two principal objections have been made to the Bill. First, the costliness of its procedure. Everyone must desire to see this reduced to the minimum; but where compulsory powers are taken under any Act, many safeguards are, I believe, required, and these imply expensive processes. One can only hope that in this case they will be reduced as far as possible. But there has been a good deal said about the impropriety of supplying a large class of the people with a necessary of life, such as lodging, at a price which is not remunerative.
    I enter more deeply, perhaps, than most of the objectors themselves into the full weight of this objection, and most heartily hope that whatever is done in building for the people may be done on a thoroughly sound commercial principle. I do not think it would help them the least in the long run to adopt any other principle; in fact, I believe it would be highly injurious to them.
    But let it be distinctly understood that under this Bill two separate processes are contemplated. They come, indeed, under one scheme, and are entrusted in a measure to the same agents; but they are distinctly two. There is the clearing away of old accumulated nuisances which ought never to have been allowed to grow up at all—courts built narrower than Building Acts would now allow; houses with no thorough venti­lation, or built on damp soil or without good foundation. Clearing away old abuses cannot pay, except in the sense in which all reform pays. Abolition of slavery didn’t pay; the nation had to pay for it. Happy if by mere payment in money it could efface so great a wrong So it must be with these courts and alleys. It cannot be remunerative in £. s. d. to remove them, neither can you fairly throw the cost on the individual owner; the community—the dulled conscience of which, the ignorance of which, allowed them to grow up—must pay for removing them. But, once cleared, the, buildings erected ought to be remunerative; and I earnestly hope no short-sighted benevolence will ever deceive our legislators into losing sight of this.
    The second main objection raised to the Bill has been that it is not compulsory enough. As far as that section of the country which calls itself Liberal is concerned, that seems to me a very strange complaint. I have always thought that Conservatives and Liberals worthy of the name, equally bent on achieving the good thing, and having got rid of any hankering to conserve what was evil or care for freedom to do wrong, were divided one from another as to the means, the one believing that government from above marshalled the people on right ways, which they grew to love by following; the other having longer patience, and caring to wait till, by gradual teaching, the people chose voluntarily the right way, and believing that the advances willingly and intelligently made were never lost, and were themselves better training.
    At any rate, here we have an “enabling” Bill, as someone well called it. It will put it in our power collectively to clear the foul places away if we wish. Let it be distinctly under­stood we had not got this power before Mr. Cross’s Bill. There are courts beyond courts of the worst kind, in the East-end especially, where there isn’t a vestige of a title which would warrant any society or individual in erecting a substantial building. This Bill will render such sites available by giving a secure title to the purchasers under the Act. There are courts and courts in all parts of London from which the owners are reaping large profits, and which they simply wouldn’t sell; there are whole plots which would be available for building for the poor, if one owner did not refuse to sell. The Bill enables you (collectively, mind) to take such.
    Now, what is our duty, as this power is not vested in a central enlightened individual? Surely it is for us, when we have the Act, to move all to desire to carry it out heartily; not to grudge the taxes it will cost—they will return to us fourfold, I think, and certainly no portion of our income will be better spent—to elect to the vestries, and through them to the Metro­politan Board of Works, or to the Town Councils of our various neighbourhoods, men who will try heartily to make the Bill work; to see that men who care for sanitary reform are elected as medical officers, especially to the Metropolitan Board of Works; to master the provisions of the Bill, and see them enforced; to know the spots where it should come into force; to see that public opinion brings it to bear on them; and to devise suitable schemes of reform for bad neighbourhoods, bearing in mind the special needs of the locality; to lay aside every selfish, nay, every personal, consideration, and with single hearts to desire, and with united will to resolve, that the Act shall improve off the face of the earth the foul buildings un­worthy to be tenanted by men.
    Now, having long thought all this about the Bill, of course I can’t have failed to ask myself what my small efforts are hence­forth to be if these my best hopes should be realised for the Bill. Might I then retire and watch over some small group of tenants, as I did in 1866, and leave the larger work to states­men and town councillors and vestrymen? Why reprint, now of all times, these sketches of tiny schemes and small personal endeavour? The answer comes clearly enough. “There will be no retreat for you yet, even if all outside buildings were put to rights to-morrow. It would simplify your work; it would not do away with the need of it.”
    The people’s homes are bad, partly because they are badly built and arranged; they are tenfold worse because the tenants’ habits and lives are what they are. Transplant them to-morrow to healthy and commodious homes, and they would pollute and destroy them. There needs, and will need for some time, a reformatory work which will demand that loving zeal of individuals which cannot be had for money, and cannot be legislated for by Parliament. The heart of the English nation will supply it—individual, reverent, firm, and wise. It may and should be organised, but cannot be created.
    The following papers show a little what is needed in these courts, to help the inhabitants to be fit for far better ones; and, whether in new buildings or in old, some such teaching will be needed among the lowest classes, till they have learnt to be other than they are. The need of voluntary work, the abso­lute necessity of its being organised, is dealt with in one of the following papers; the way in which official bodies, such as the Board of Guardians, can make use of it when once organised, is definitely described in the Report to the Local Government Board of 1874.
    In the management of the houses, and in that of the districts described in the following papers, it will be noticed that a visitor is set over a small court or block of buildings, and that she is asked to do the work there, whether it be collecting rents, reporting to Guardians, visiting for the School Board, collection of savings, or any other requisite duty, yet that the personal influence which she exercises is not promi­nently brought before herself or the poor. Thus it has seemed to me that if in a given district any of this definite work becomes gradually unnecessary—as, for instance, out-relief from Guardians ought to do—the supervision would die down, and give place insensibly to the simple intercourse with one another that seems natural to neighbours. But this is looking forward into future years.
    One glance back, and I have done. The conduct of this work and its extension have been for some years in my hands, and those of newer friends. I would not for a moment under-value their help ; and it matters little to the public who does a thing, so that it is the right thing to do ; but it matters some­what to anyone who gets an undue share of notice from the success of a work, which, small as it is, has grown far beyond her faintest dreams, to remind the public of one to whom it owes its realisation. This undertaking may be estimated very variously; but anyone who thinks it worth notice should remember distinctly that it might have remained always a mere vision of what I should like to have done, powerless for good, had it not been for the perception of Mr. Ruskin, who alone believed the scheme could be worked, and for his generosity in giving freely and fully all the money spent in the first two courts. It is true it has paid him since—quite true; but he risked upwards of £3,000 in the experiment, when not many men would have trusted that the undertaking would succeed. And, moreover, while he assured me that his money was entirely, fully, and freely given for the good of the cause, and if it was sunk, would never be regretted by him, yet he foretold that the work would spread if I could make it pay, and urged me therefore to try—a foresight and practical wisdom far beyond mine at the time. I remember well smiling supreme amazement, and saying, “Who will ever hear or know? The important thing is to make it a good thing, realising, as far as may be, your ideal and mine.” But, happily for the scheme, I had gratitude and obedience enough to try heartily to fulfil his ideal on this point; succeeded, and in succeeding learnt how much better a footing the self­-supporting one was for the tenants, as well as how right he had been as to the extension of the work itself. 

May, 1875.


    AT this time all words about the homes of the London Poor seem valueless, unless they have a practical bearing. The whole nation is asking what can be done to improve them. It appears to be generally known that the Artisans’ Dwellings Act has been costly, and it is of no practical importance to the main subject now whether or not a large part of this cost might have been saved. The expenditure would have been less reluctantly made had the poor been provided for. It is true that large numbers of unsanitary houses have been cleared away. It is true that hundreds of healthy dwellings for working people have been erected. But it is pretty well recognised that few families below that of the artisan class have been accommodated on the sites which have been cleared. The immediate question is (and it is one which imperatively needs to be answered before the last of these sites are sold), how is a lower class to be reached?
    The difficulty of dealing with this class is twofold. First, that of management. Second, that of finance. 
    I say very deliberately that the management is the greater of the two difficulties. How it can be met by the watchful and wise helpfulness of volunteers the following pages show.
    Since they were written the work has developed much. Many courts have been purchased and put under volunteer supervision. There is now a larger group of these workers, more are coming forward to be trained, and I cannot help hoping that the day may not be far distant when those who wish to have buildings thus managed may be able to turn to us for help, and that we may be able to accede to their request to a greater degree than we have hitherto done.
    The financial difficulty is however the principal one before the public mind just now. I suppose care and economy are more easily practised by individuals than by public bodies. My balance sheets show results which differ considerably from those ordinarily quoted. They relate to houses new and old which have been under my care for many years, and also to recent buildings. I, therefore, do not consider the financial problem nearly so hopeless as it is believed to be. But the strictest economy is needed in building and in management, if dwellings for the poor are to pay.
    But even if we accept the higher estimates ordinarily given, they show us that there are two kinds of families of the poorest class, which can be at once accommodated at rents which will yield a fair percentage, if the plans of the blocks built are modified so as to suit their requirements. These families form a very large number indeed of those about whom so earnest a cry of dissatisfaction with present dwellings has arisen.
    They are:
    1st. The small families of unskilled labourers who require good-sized single rooms.
    2nd. The larger families of unskilled labourers who have one or two children old enough to work, and who can afford to take a second or even a third room, but whose wages do not allow of their paying for the more elaborate appliances provided in tenements intended for artisans.
    To meet the needs of these two classes good-sized single rooms should be built. So far as I know, the single rooms in model dwellings are usually built for one person only, and are quite unsuitable for the thousands of small poor families who want one large room, who indeed prefer it to two small ones. It is not only less costly, but they can see their friends more comfortably, and they themselves feel less cramped. I speak from experience when I say that I know numbers of the prettiest, happiest little homes, which consist of a single room.
    Near to these single rooms, but separable from them, smaller ones should be built which could be let with them, whenever wages, or the standard of comfort, rose. There are many tenants who can be induced by a little gentle pressure and encouragement to spend a rather larger proportion than they now do in rent, but who still require the simplest appliances and cheapest rooms compatible with health.
    By accommodating these two classes the crowding in existing houses would be diminished.
    It would be impossible here to explain details of plan or price, but there are buildings which I could show to anyone interested in the subject which would exemplify how I should propose to build. They are simpler in construction, cheaper in cost than most of those ordinarily built, yet they provide all that is essential to health and even to comfort.
    My experience in building and in management is now considerable, and I have no hesitation in saying, that if a site were handed over to me at the price which has hitherto been paid to the Metropolitan Board for those cleared under the Artisans’ Dwellings Act, I would engage to house upon it under thoroughly healthy conditions, at rents which they could pay, and which would yield fair interest on capital, a very large pro­portion of the very poor. It should be added, that though the houses under my care are managed by volunteers, the ordinary percentage for collection of rents is always charged to the owners, in order that the undertaking may be on a thoroughly sound financial footing, an arrangement which I feel is due to the dignified independence which I hope all my tenants feel in the sense that they are really paying for their own home. This arrangement also gives me the certainty that the plan has the power of growth.

November, 1883.