The pressure which has shaped London’s social and spatial character is the effort by members of the capitalist class and,to a lesser extent, members of the middle stratum to separate themselves from the working class into socially homogeneous residential neighbourhoods. The greater economic and political power of wealthy employers and merchants meant that they were more successful than clerks, professionals and petty capitalists in this endeavour.
The socio-economic rationale behind this drive has been outlined in Chapter 1: the institutionalization of markets in labour and essential commodities, upon which the capitalist economic system is based, drove a wedge between employers and workers. Old ties of social responsibility between the two groups had to be severed so that the new socio-economic institutions could operate effectively. It was logical for the sociological expression of this division in the workplace to extend into the residential sphere: for capitalists to want to live apart from the working class.
As John George Rhodes, a successful merchant, put it before the Select Committee on Town Holdings in 1987: “I believe it is the view of the estate that houses for the class of people that we have been speaking about (the lower orders), and houses for the class of people to which, if you will allow me to say so, I belong, should be kept very widely apart.” But in addition to this, there were similar economic reasons for this class separation in the living environment. Each parish was responsible for the relief of working-class poverty within its bounds. This was paid for out of the rates. In parishes where wealthy residents were a majority, and together paid close to the total rate bill, poor relief was tantamount to a negation of the divisive principles of the markets in labour and essential commodities, which were so important in the workplace. Thus, the notorious insistence by propertied Victorian society on keeping the [921 rates low was not based solely on the prospect of pecuniary savings. It was a necessary part of the establishment of the socio-economic institutions which defined 19th century British capitalist society.
Furthermore, the proximity of the ‘respectable’ neighbourhoods of the wealthy to working-class residential areas, especially slums, was seen to be undesirable for two further reasons. Property values in ‘respectable’ neighbourhoods were depressed below their assumed potential if the connnection could be effectively severed. And local slums were a potential health hazard as cholera epidemics usually originated in these unsanitary areas and sometimes [931 spread into adjacent areas. Besides, slums were simply an eyesore, and a constant reminder of the deprivation upon which dominant-class existence was based: those who had the power to remove this assault on their senses and consciences were unlikely to pass up any opportunity to do so.
This class division was achieved in three ways. The first, suburban migration, has already been discussed under forces one and two above. Employers and merchants, followed after the 1950’s by the middle stratum, simply moved away from the central area to the West End or the suburbs, their higher incomes affording them a wider range of choices in the land market. Most of the working class were confined within the central area, primarily because their low wages and the nature of their jobs and of public transportation made the central area virtually the only feasible residential location for them during the period under consideration.
According to Lynn Lees: “This centrifugal movement intensified the separation of social classes in residential areas which, in London, was already well advanced. The cost of transport into the city effectively insulated the outer ring of suburbs from most working-class residents until the 1970’s, and thereafter the availability of cheap trains directed them into certain areas.” The second means of achieving class separation in the residential sphere has also been covered to some extent, under the development and modification of modes of transportation.
Working-class districts were separated from more affluent neighbourhoods by the erection of barriers, which limited or completely curtailed access from one area to another and which spatially defined the limits of each neighbourhood for their respective occupants. On the estates of the wealthy, this was achieved by means of gates and bars which were guarded by gatekeepers whose job was to keep out undesirable people and through traffic. On the Bedford estate, for example, barriers were used on the northern and eastern boundaries to fend off incursions from the working-class districts to the north and east of the estate. Barriers were not erected, however, on the western boundary 1951 as contact with the respectable West End was deemed to be desirable. Railway lines were powerful social and physical barriers.
Railway viaducts, which were widely used in an effort to avoid costly street closures, were massive barriers. They carried trains noisily past workingclass houses at roof-top level, constricting neighbourhoods socially and intersecting them physically. Such isolation tended to accelerate the decline of many areas so that they rapidly became unwholesome slums. Cuts and tunnels, which were also products of the power relations of the land market, were equally powerful barriers. The criss-cross of supplementary lines and sidings produced many neighbourhoods which had very few physical connections with surrounding areas. The Parliamentary ‘limits of deviation’ allowed the railway companies to buy more land than they needed. This land was usually sold to non-residential users, thus increasing the barrier effects of the lines. Segregation ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’ often had disastrous effects on land values in ‘bad’ areas further accelerating their decline. Street improvement was another means of ‘fencing off’ working-class districts from well-to-do areas. Regent Street was a prime example, though other street improvements achieved a similar purpose, besides improving traffic circulation.
It was explicitly though not exclusively designed as a barrier between the slums of Soho and the estates of the nobility and gentry in the West End. John Nash, the street’s designer, stated that the [971 line chosen sought to strengthen “the line of separation between the habitations of the first class of society and those of inferior classes….It will also be seen, by the plan…that the whole communication from Charing Cross to Oxford Street will be a boundary and complete separation between the streets and squares occupied by the nobility and gentry, and the narrow streets and meaner houses occupied by mechanics and the trading part of the community.”
The cumulative effect of these barriers at the metropolitan scale was to divide London into a predominantly working-class eastern sector and dominant-class western sector. To the north, railway lines and marshalling yards and gasworks created a twilight zone which permanently divided Regent’s Park and Marylebone from Pentonville and Islington. The depopulated City formed a buffer zone separating the overcrowded East End from the respectable West End. Though weaker than in the north, some degree of social polarization between east and west, with railway lines as major barriers, is discernible in south London. I do not mean to imply that widening the social and spatial gulf between affluent residential areas and poor districts was the only or the most important factor behind the locational decisions of railway developers and street improvements. In fact, I have argued that the power relations of the land and housing market were primary. Nevertheless, social and spatial segregation was a significant consideration in the decision-making process and in obtaining Parliamentary approval, and upon completion, these transportation channels did become powerful barriers.
A third way in which class separation was accomplished in the residential sphere was by the homogenization of predominantly affluent or respectable neighbourhoods. Not all of the working class were confined to the East End. Sizeable working-class populations were still to be found in the fashionable neighbourhoods of the West End and in the middle stratum suburbs. The majority were domestic servants who slept in the attics and lived in the basements of their wealthy employers homes. In these instances, class separation was rarely problematic. The employment of servants conferred respectability and enhanced the families’ social status. Servants, on the other hand, obtained food, shelter and,most importantly, security at the price of the loss of a large measure of personal freedom. They knew their place, and the threat of poverty and starvation on their own in the world ‘outside’ was a constant reminder that subservience and humility was ‘good’ for them. Consequently, the majority observed the spoken and unspoken rules which their employers laid down, and segregation at the archi[991 tectural scale within each house was sufficient. The real problem from the point of view of propertied and middlestratum society was the local concentrations of dens of extreme poverty in back alleys and isolated courts close to their stately, or at least adequate, homes.
As Engels noted in 1944: “Right behind the most elegant streets the dirtiest workers’ quarters are to be found.” These slums were usually inhabited by workers and casual labourers employed in local service occupations, but they also housed beggars and possibly a few criminals. Whether employed or unemployed, these people constituted the riff-raff whose removal was the focus of homogenization drives. It was not the existence of poverty that was seen to be problematic, but the proximity of the working-class poor to the homes of the wealthy and, to a lesser extent, the middle stratum. A leading article in The Times of 1943 is worth quoting at some length to support this argument: “Poor there must be everywhere. Indigence will find its way and set up its hideous state in the heart of a great and luxurious city. Amid the thousand narrow lanes and by-streets of a populous metropolis there must always, we fear, be much suffering–much that offends the eye–much that lurks unseen. But that within the precincts of wealth, gaiety and fashion, nigh the regal grandeur of St. James’s close on the palatial splendour of Bayswater, on the confines of the old and new aristocratic quarters in a district where the cautious refinement of modern design has refrained from creating one single tenement for poverty; which seems as it were dedicated to the exclusive enjoyments of wealth–that there want and famine and disease and vice should stalk in all their kindred horrors, consuming body by body, soul by soul!
It is, indeed, a monstrous state of things! Enjoyment the most absolute, that bodily ease, intellectual excitement, or the more innocent pleasures of sense can supply to man’s craving, brought in close contact with the most unmitigated misery!” The ability to jegregate the various classes of society was one of the virtues attributed to the large, leasehold estate by its defenders. Social and architectural uniformity was one of the major goals in the con(102] ttruction andmanagement of estates. In fashionable areas like the West End, where the power and preferences of landowners and tenants coincided, the task was easier and the goal was often accomplished.