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

(first published in Macmillan's Magazine, June, 1874.)

    As some of the readers of this paper will know, it is now many years since I first began to interest myself in the condition of the houses in which the London poor are lodged, and the best means of making them cleaner and more wholesome than at present.
   For a long time I hoped for success in this matter, chiefly from the gradual spread of individual interest and effort in the work, and the extension from street to street, and from court to court, of something like the system which I and my fellow-workers had inaugurated in the houses committed to our charge. But in the course of last year I for the first time began thoroughly to realise the enormous magnitude of the problem which must be dealt with, and the small progress which up to that time had been made in solving it. Moreover, it had become clear to me that there were obstacles to the successful prosecution of the work in certain courts and districts which neither societies nor individuals could, as things at present stand, hope to overcome. Perhaps a few examples of where the present machinery fails will illustrate my meaning better than general statements of principles.
   I have lately been asked to take charge of some people and houses in a court in the neighbourhood of Drury Lane. For some years this court has been in the possession of a company, which has done its utmost in the way of expenditure to make the houses healthy and comfortable; but the directors thought the tenants would gain something if I and my fellow-workers undertook the collection of rents, and thereby brought personal influence and care to bear upon the tenants. I went to the court to see what we could do further for the people and place. It is entered by a low archway under a house in a principal street, and has of course no roadway for carriages; nor is there any exit at the end of it, a house which faces you as you enter the court blocking up the way. The court itself is ten feet wide. It contains houses of four, six, and eight rooms. These have each a little back-yard, in which are placed the dustbin and water-closet, and the cistern to supply drinking water. Exclusive of the ground covered by these, the yard is only three feet in length by four in breadth.
   Immediately behind these small yards rise the back walls of houses which are in some cases much taller than the houses in the court, and make the back-yards like wells, into which the sun's light can rarely, if ever, penetrate. From these wells of yards the back rooms and staircases draw their only light, dim even at midday, when the sun shines brightly. I looked eagerly out for ways of increasing air and light, at least on staircases, which ought to be shafts of pure air to refresh the rooms so often kept shut up, so full of unclean stuffy furniture, bedding, and clothes, so full of people exhausting the air. But all that was possible had been done: there was a window on every landing, and though I at once saw that we could get the tenants to keep these clean instead of leaving black strings of dirt on every pane, and heaped accumulations of dirt on every ledge, yet most of the windows were wide open, so no cleanliness would increase the feeble gleam of light which was all that could descend between the high houses and surrounding walls; nor could any draught of fresh air ever find entrance there. The houses all round belonged to owners who had no interest in awarding a larger share of light and air to the dwellers in the court. Nor was there any means of compelling them to do so, since no Building Act lays down the amount of distance which must be allowed between the walls of buildings which have stood where they do now for many years. All that private effort unaided by statutory power could do to minimise the evil had been or might be done. The intelligent and liberal owners of the court have done all they could to improve it. I, for my part, was ready to enlist the sympathy and educational influence of ladies who would train the people to cleanliness and order; but who among us could ever move back that great wall which over­shadowed the little houses, and made twilight at midday?
   Who could give space to move the water further from the dustbins, and the drains further from the ground-floor win­dows? Who could remove the house at the entrance under which the archway passed, or that at the end, and let a free current of air sweep through the closed court? None of us. I was not surprised to hear that low fever was often there. I said to a woman, "You've a good deal of low fever down here." "Oh no," she replied, "not now; it was bad, but two died opposite last Tuesday, and two at the end on Saturday: we've not much now." "Not much!" I thought to myself as I walked sadly away.
   Again, there was a court in Marylebone full of wild, quarrel­some, dirty Irish, a sort of sink into which the lowest people drifted when misfortune or wrongdoing were worst, and from which they rarely rose again. It belonged to a man who would not sell, and did not care to improve the condition of his people. At last, one day I happened to go down the court and saw, to my inexpressible joy, a great bill on one house, "To be sold by Auction." There was but one clear day to learn value, see lawyers and surveyors; but it was all done, and the lease of the house was bought by a gentleman who put it under our control.
   A friend undertook the management of the house. Busi­ness takes her down there continually; she gets to know the people; she spends the money received for the rents, after all expenses and interest on capital have been paid, in improving the house. Water has been laid on; a new cistern placed instead of the defective and unhealthy water-butt. Those leading immoral lives are made either to reform or go. The elder girls are gathering round my friend, and beginning to feel her influence; she takes them flowers; she is training one or two for service. But she came to me one day with a grave face, and told me about the old woman who lives in the back parlour. She is very old, and has very bad rheumatism. No wonder, for the wall, against which her bed stands—the only wall against which it can stand—is so damp that the water oozes out in large drops, not only at the bottom, but for three or four feet above the floor. I went down at once to examine and inquire. "All the houses are alike all down the court," said an old man. "It can't be helped. In my parlour I've put up match-boarding; it's ground-damp, and nothing can't be done." It was but too true. All the houses were alike, and it was ground-damp. But unwilling to adopt the match-board plan, which hides but does not cure the damp, I asked an architect to go and see whether, by underpinning the wall and putting in some non-porous substance, the damp might be prevented from rising. This, he agreed, was the only radical cure, but the underpinning would cost very nearly as much as the lease had. Moreover, what was worse, the house was old, and probably would not stand it. The only means of meeting the difficulty was to rebuild; and whatever we ourselves may resolve to do in this particular instance, in most such cases nothing effectual would be done. The cost of rebuilding would have to be borne by individual lease holders, whose term is often short, and who are frequently poor men; and sanitary inspectors naturally shrink from enforcing the law except in the most extreme instances. A house may be con­demned and pulled down under Mr. Torrens's Act; but that Act gives no power of compensating the owner, nor does it empower any public body compulsorily to acquire the different interests in defective houses, though, in the absence of some such power, it is often practically impossible to satisfy all persons interested so as to get hold of the house and effect the desired reform.
   Again, there are many houses which it would be most desirable in the interests of the class which inhabits them to buy and renovate; but which, on account of defects in or even absence of title, no person or company intending to lay out money in improvements would ever venture to purchase. A man is found in possession who is willing to sell, but has no title-deeds. Such a person of course cares only to collect the rents and carefully abstains from spending anything on the property, for fear of losing the value of his improvements, should any one with a better title appear. I have met with many properties which I should have been glad to get under my care, but which difficulties of this nature have kept me from buying.
   I was led more particularly to consider how these and similar obstacles could be overcome, and also to realise more clearly how little had hitherto been done by existing agencies, when I was acting as member of a committee called together last year by the Council of the Charity Organisation Society to consider the best means of improving the dwellings of the poor in London. Two facts which specially impressed me came out before that committee. All the societies, and all private persons whom the committee could hear of as having done any considerable work in building or adapting houses for the London poor, were asked to send in returns of the number housed by them. Information was received from numerous sources, including the Peabody Trustees, Sir Sydney Water-low's Company, and the Baroness Burdett Coutts. It was startling to find that, since the Metropolitan Association (which was the first to begin the work) commenced its operations some thirty years ago, it and its successors had provided accommodation for only 26,000 people—not a great deal more than half the number which is yearly' added to the population of London!
   And further, it came out that the difficulty in obtaining satisfactory sites was such that Sir Sidney Waterlow's Company had a large amount of capital in hand, which they could not employ for want of suitable ground. And this while capitalists, who care nothing and know nothing of their property, are making money out of houses which are a curse to the neigh­bourhood!
   But while we saw how much there was to do, and how little comparatively had yet been done, and how hard it was to devise adequate remedies, we were cheered by hearing that one great city had already faced and overcome difficulties like our own. We heard of an Act passed in the year a866 for the improvement of the city of Glasgow, and the Lord Provost was kind enough to come and give us information as to the nature and the working of that Act.* (* What follows is condensed from, a report of the Lord Provost's speech, which appeared in the Charity Qrganisation Reporter of the 14th May, 1873.)
   He said that in Glasgow the population had long been living huddled together in masses—50,000 people being crowded into eighty acres. Many of the houses had been without sufficient air or light, and many had been mere dens of thieves and paupers. The promoters of the Act had come to the conclusion that it was necessary to root out the evil, and had applied to Parliament for power to borrow a million and a quarter; had marked the bad parts on a plan, and had ob­tained powers to pull down, rebuild, or sell, as might be thought best; in fact, entirely to change the place. They had got liberty to impose a rate of sixpence in the pound, but had only found this necessary the first year; it had then been reduced to fourpence for two years, then to threepence, and they were now, he hoped, about to reduce it to twopence. They had employed a surveyor quietly to buy up a large amount of property before they did anything, as the prices would have risen if they had begun to improve before completing their purchases. They had succeeded, with scarcely any disputes, in buying property to the amount of one million, and had resold, at a profit, upwards of £300,000 worth, selling the sites under restrictions for building. Fever houses had been removed, streets widened, and new thoroughfares run through the mass of buildings. Those to whom the working of the Act had been entrusted had not gone on the principle of build­ing themselves; it had been sufficient to let the public know that houses were wanted—builders had rushed in and had built whole streets. Under their general Acts there was power to demolish only when a house was unsafe, not when it was in a bad sanitary condition; consequently, nothing could have been done without the powers of compulsory purchase and compensation given them by the Act of 1866. The trustees were restricted by the Act from removing more than 500 of the population at once, without a certificate from the sheriff that' accommodation was obtainable; but, in fact, houses had been built to accommodate nearly double the number removed. The loss before commencing had been estimated at £200,000, but he did not now put it at more than £50,000, and even hoped to lose nothing by the work, though the expenses had been heavy—the cost of the Bill and Parliamentary notices to occupiers having been £17,000. The effect on the town generally was very beneficial. The houses of bad fame were reduced fifteen per cent., the haunts of thieves and of disease were broken up, the whisky shops had been reduced in number, and there was moral as well as physical improvement.
   The importance of the precedent thus furnished was obvious and immense. The committee at once felt that here was the desired solution. If powers of compulsory purchase such as had been given to Glasgow, such as are given every day to railway companies, such as are conferred on the Metro­politan Board of Works, when streets are to be widened, or new thoroughfares made, could be vested in a body represent­ing the ratepayers of all London, there would be some chance of effectually grappling with the evil in its entirety. Such a body might destroy houses, relet sites to builders or building companies, who would undertake to provide suitable dwellings; or should none such be forthcoming, might, in the last resort, itself undertake the task of rebuilding. It was suggested to the committee, that the absence of any municipal government for London, analogous to that of Glasgow and other large towns, would be a difficulty; but they were unwilling to post­pone action until the very difficult task of organising a municipal government for London should be achieved; and they thought that the necessary powers might be entrusted to the Corporation in the City, and to the Metropolitan Board of Works in the remainder of London, for the present. Should the whole of London ever come to be governed by one central authority, the work and powers of the separate bodies might be handed over to the new governing power.
   The committee drew up and published a Report embodying this view, and have since presented to the Home Secretary a memorial, expressive of their hope that the Government will take some action in the matter, and introduce a bill into Par­liament containing provisions calculated to remedy the existing evils. But while I feel sure that the matter is in the hands of men who will not willingly let it drop, I feel also that at the present time it is important that every means should be taken to interest the public on the subject, and generate that force of opinion which makes realities of great projects. Feeling this, I hoped that a visit to Glasgow, and a report of what I found there, might do something to bring home to that large body of people, who find Blue Books and Reports unreadable, some notion of what has been done in Scotland, and might be done in our London.
   I went, therefore, to Glasgow, and at once put myself into communication with the leaders of the movement there; and the first thing they showed me was the plan of the city as it was when the Act was passed, and photographs of some of the buildings which they had pulled down under its provisions. The unhealthiness and overcrowding must, I think, have been even worse there than in London. The "wynds," as they call them there, were at least as narrow as the London courts. Like them, they were often blocked up at one end, so as com­pletely to stop the free passage of air. But I saw there—what I have seldom or never seen in London—a perfect honeycomb or maze of buildings, where, to reach the "wynd" furthest from the street, one had to pass under archway after archway built under the houses, and leading from one squalid court into another. Some of these narrow, tunnel-like passages appeared from the plans to have been many yards in length. The houses, too, were higher than is usual in London alleys, and the darkness and obscurity consequently greater. There was another feature completely new to me, and which certainly does not exist in London. Here and there, running up between house and house, were narrow crevices, from six to twelve inches wide, and from these the back rooms in some houses drew their only light. The existence of these crevices was explained to me in different ways. Some people said they ‘represented spaces once occupied by garden walls, on which neither of the adjacent owners had a right to build; others, that the space was left that the eaves of each owner's house might drip on his own ground, and not on his neighbour's; and this latter explanation seems to be borne out by the common name of "dreepings" or "wastings" applied to these crannies. At any rate, there they are on the official plans, and I saw the remains of them on the spot—narrow spaces making houses better no doubt at first than if they had been built back to back, with no through draught. But when the habits of the people were dirty, and they threw things out of the windows, these dreepings, being far too narrow to be cleansed in any way, became receptacles where every kind of fever-breeding substance must gradually have decayed, carrying disease in every breath of air. As I looked over the official photographs of these "wynds," dark and dirty, and in every way degraded, and the chairman and secretary of the Trust which has had the working of the Act kept saying, "This is still standing—but that is gone," and "That is taken away, and that and that comes down next month," I could not help feeling how proud and glad these men must be to have achieved such reforms; and the longing rose strong in me that some one some day in London might be able thus to point to the sites of the old fever-dens, and say, "They are gone."
   The next morning I went to see what remains of the old "wynds" and closes. I found that here and there a house, here and there whole sides of a close or alley, had been taken down to let in the brightening influence of sun and air. The haggard, wretched population, which usually huddles into dark out-of-the-way places, was swarming over the vacant ground for years unvisited by sun and wind. Children were playing in open spaces who had never, I should think, had space to play in before. I felt as if some bright and purifying angel had laid a mighty finger on the squalid and neglected spots. Those open spaces, those gleams of sunlight, those playing children, seemed earnests of better things to come—of better days in store. Of how bad things had been, of how bad they still were, I had curious proof. In some of the courts immense iron gates were standing, chained open when I saw them, but evidently capable, when closed, of entirely barring the thorough­fare. As they seemed to have been recently put up, I naturally asked why they were there. I was told that when houses were removed which had previously blocked up one end of a "wynd," the thieves who haunt these places took advantage of the passage thus opened to elude pursuit. To remedy this the gates were put up: they are closed and locked at dusk, but the police have a master-key, so that they can pass through to pursue, while the fugitives are hampered in their efforts to escape. Merely to break in upon these nests of thieves can­not but be a great good. Some kinds of wrong are not decreased by scattering them, but dishonesty thrives most when fostered in such dens. The near presence of honest, respect­able neighbours makes habitual thieving impossible; just as dirty people are shamed into cleanliness when scattered among orderly, decent folk, and brought into the presence of the light.
   I found that the new dwellings for the poor, which the demolition of their old quarters had rendered necessary, had for the most part been built, not on the old sites but in the suburbs, upon land bought for that purpose by the trustees of the Act, and by them leased to builders, who were bound to erect workmen's tenements. These new dwellings were of a type superior to those previously inhabited by artisans in the city, and they have accordingly largely resorted there, leaving their old abodes to be occupied by those displaced from the demolished "wynds" and courts. - It is of course far better that the new houses should be thus erected by people who take up the work as a commercial enterprise than by any municipal body or benevolent society; and the framers of the Act had hoped that this would be done. But to secure the Act from failing of its object, powers were conferred on the trustees, which enabled them to undertake the work of recon­struction should they find it necessary. But it was not neces­sary: speculators readily came forward, and building of new dwellings by private enterprise more than kept pace with the removal of the old houses. This prompt supply of substituted houses must have tended to prevent the rise in prices which might otherwise have occurred had the displaced population been left—as they have too often been left in London when large blocks of houses have been removed—to compete for lodgings in neighbourhoods already overcrowded.
   Moreover, in Glasgow special care has been taken to enforce laws against overcrowding; and, as already mentioned, the special Act most wisely provides that not more than 500 people shall be removed in six months, unless the sheriff issue a certificate that he has been satisfied that enough houses are standing empty to lodge the displaced population. This provision, I was assured, had been rigidly complied with.
   Glasgow, then, has not only got an Improvement Act, but has carried it into effect in such a way as to bring about the entire sanitary reform of the city. Now, are there any difficul­ties which should hinder London from achieving a like success? There is but one point of difference likely, as it appears to me, vitally to affect the question, and that is the great distance of our suburbs from some of our most crowded districts. In Glasgow, as I have said, cheap land could be had in the out­skirts, and within a mile of the "wynds" which had to be destroyed. The workmen who went to live there are not too far from their work, and are easily and cheaply transported to and fro by the numerous tramway cars which run into the very heart of the city. But our suburbs are too far away for us to hope that the majority of our poor, or even of our skilled work­men, can live there. Many might go—perhaps we hardly realise how many. For these, of course, workmen's trains and tramways should be encouraged; and will, no doubt, be pro­vided as the suburban population increases. Extension of the number of compulsory workmen's trains, and enforcement of an earlier hour for their arrival at the terminus, might be advisable. We may also hope something from the decentral­isation of industry, and the likelihood of factories following workmen to the suburbs if it become easier to get hands there. But when all this is granted to the full, there would remain, at least for many years, a certain number—I believe a very large number—who must live near their work, and whose work must be in London. How are the wants of these to be met? The difficulty is the greater because they are likely to be the poorest. Those who earn high wages can afford to pay for trams and trains; they have shorter and more fixed hours for work, and do not need to engulf all their families in the vortex of labour, but can leave their wives and children in suburban houses. But the widowed charwoman, obliged to run home and get the children's dinner, the dock-labourer, the costermonger, how shall their needs be met? For these and many others cheap dwellings would have to be provided in the neighbourhood of their present homes.
   The problem is. how to do this without either raising the rents to a prohibitory height, or committing the fatal mistake of attempting to house a large population by charity. Now numerous experiences have convinced me that houses may be bought, pulled down, and rebuilt, and the rooms in the new buildings let at less than the rent which was paid in the original houses, and yet a return of £5 per cent. net profit be made to the landlord on all moneys laid out, whether in. purchase, demolition, or building operations.* (*            I give my latest experience of this kind here Some houses lately purchased in a crowded court, the rooms of which were let at an average rental of 3s. 0 ½d., have just been rebuilt, and are let at an average rent of 2s. 7 ½ d. a room, though many conveniences have been provided which were lacking in the old habitations, and there are no longer any rooms underground. The rents in many of the improved buildings seem higher in proportion than they are, because people compare a set of new rooms with a single old room.) This result has been repeatedly achieved under conditions in many respects less favourable than those which would often be present when people were working on a large scale, and with greater areas to deal with. For instance, where the houses were of two storeys only, the height could be raised, and the accommodation, and consequently the rental increased, whilst in covering large spaces with buildings constructed on a regular and systematic plan, much space would be gained which is at present wasted, owing to the fact that streets have been built and houses run up in a haphazard way, and at different times. How strikingly this sometimes is the case will appear from a statement of the Metropolitan Dwellings Association, that "while the popula­tion of Westminster (the most densely populated part of the metropolis) is only 235 persons to an acre, they can house 1,000 persons to the acre, including in the area the large courtyards and gardens attached to their blocks."**  (**Quoted, with confirmatory evidence, in the Report of the Dwelling; Committee of the Charity Organisation Society, p. 11. Longmans.)
   But supposing that to pull down and rebuild houses on an improved, plan is not so expensive and wasteful as might at first sight be supposed, would it not be unwise to put half London into the hands of public authorities, and make them responsible for the building, management, supervision, and leasing of hundreds of thousands of houses? The answer is easy! Though it might be prudent to put into the Improve­ment Act clauses which would empower the municipal authorities to rebuild should no other agency come forward, yet the experience of Glasgow, as well as the probabilities of the matter, suggest that other agencies would come forward, and that private enterprise would be sure to do all that was wanted. As soon as the ground was cleared—perhaps even before it was cleared—companies and private builders would see their way to a profitable undertaking, and, as at Glasgow (where, by-the-way, there are no philanthropic building societies), would soon come in and replace the condemned dwellings by buildings of the kind required.
   And now I have little more to say, except to make one or two suggestions which may perhaps throw some light on the problem of reconstruction, and the way in which it must be worked out.
   One great element of cost in building a London house is the expense of the site. In some parts of the town each square inch has its price. To use the space acquired to the best advantage, and with the strictest economy compatible with due regard to sanitary requirements, must be the first object of the builder; and in considering how to secure this end, we must remember that frontage to a thoroughfare is a great element in determining price. The sites, therefore, which abut upon the busier streets must not be used for the dwellings of the poor, if their rents are to be kept sufficiently low; and yet the poor often require to be lodged in the immediate neighbourhood of these streets. We have also to remember that in most cases the houses in the main thorough­fares would not have to be disturbed, and that consequently the lines of London, as it stands at present, would be to a great extent left unchanged.
   But we perpetually find in crowded parts of London blocks of houses built after this fashion: we have, first of all, a square of larger houses facing four streets. These once had gardens, yards, or spaces at the back; but as land became more valuable these have been built over, usually with much lower houses, to which access is gained by a narrow passage from one or more of the thoroughfares, sometimes open to the sky, sometimes a mere tunnel under the house. It is these inner and lower houses which usually form the alleys and courts, and would be the proper subjects of demolition; but the space gained by their destruction could not be effectively used unless power were given to break through the inclosing line of overshadowing houses, and make a way for the free passage of air. For this purpose power would have to be taken, not only over the houses whose state and position rendered their removal imperative or advisable, but also over so many of the more substantial houses as would need to be pulled down for the benefit of their humbler neighbours. Then, supposing our square space cleared and its approaches unroofed and widened, we shall use it to the best advantage by substituting for several courts of low houses (without well-planned relations to one another or to the houses in main thoroughfares) a single line or block of central dwellings. These must be much higher than the buildings they replace, so as to accommodate the same number of people, while leaving ample space between the inner block and the encircling shops and dwellings which face the streets.
   But it is still probable, when all is done, that the poor may have to pay a little more for the substituted houses than they pay for their present dwellings, if sanitary reformers and philan­thropic enthusiasts insist on elaborate appliances, costly to erect, and costly also to keep in order. To these latter I say, Do not aim too high. Be thankful to make any reasonable progress. It is far better to prove that you can provide a tolerable tenement which will pay, than a perfect one which will not. The one plan will be adopted, and will lead to great results; the other will remain an isolated and unfruitful ex­periment, a warning to all who cannot or will not lose money. If you mean to provide for the family that has lived hitherto in one foul dark room, with rotten boards saturated with dirt, with vermin in the walls, damp plaster, smoky chimney, ap­proached by a dark and dangerous staircase, in a house with no through ventilation or back-yard, with old brick drains, and broken-down water-butt without a lid; be thankful if you can secure for the same rent even one room in a new, clean, pure house. Do not insist on a supply of water on every floor, or a separate wash-house for each family, with its greatly-increased expense of water-pipes and drainage. Build a large laundry which shall be common to the whole house, and in other ways moderate your desires somewhat to suit the income of your tenant. Give him by all means as much as you can for his money, but do not house him by charity, or you will house few but him, and discourage instead of stimulating others to build for the poor.