It’s clear that most holiday makers visiting the capital recently paid disproportionately high rents, in relation to their wages, to the quality of their accommodation and to the rest of the housing market. Most working-class districts were overcrowded, poorly maintained and unsanitary, in varying degrees depending on the inhabitants’ position in the general structure of the labour market. H. J. Dyos has convincingly related overcrowded living conditions directly to low money wages and insecurity of (1451 employment. Indeed, I would argue that the economic, social and political milieu of the slums was both an outcome and an important active ingredient in the broader process of working-class impoverishment which was in turn an important aspect of the development of 19th century British capitalism.
As workers descended the job ladder, so the oversupply of labour increased, generating fierce competition for the scarce jobs which led to increasing insecurity of employment and diminishing wages. On the other hand, the abundance of these workers competing for scarce accommodation facilitated and legitimized increased rents and/or overcrowding. The quality of housing tended to deteriorate in relation to diminishing wages and employment security. While the exploitation of workers in their residential environments was qualitatively different from that which occurred in the workplace, it served to complete the cycle of working-class impoverishment. The majority of workers were trapped within this cycle. The meagreness and irregularity of their wages precluded any sort of saving.
They were forced to live from hand to mouth, day by day–their bellies full when they had worked and had money to spend; starvation, sickness and debts when jobs and money was scarce. Landlords charged higher rents to provide for the high possibility of bad debts. When the work situation improved, potential savings were devoured in repaying debts with interest. Each debt which they were forced to incur added another stone to the wall which made escape from the slums, and the social status and lifestyle which they epitomized, increas ingly remote. Thus, working-class slums were functional, from the point of view of the dominant class, in two senses. In the direct economic sense of absorbing less capital than more adequate environments might have required, and thereby enabling more capital to be “ploughed heavily back into the commercial machine instead of being distributed in higher wages,” and allowing the more prosperous classes to use “the wealth that was created in this process…quite literally to put a distance between themselves and the [1471 workers.”
And the slums served the purpose of a ‘stick’ in the economic incentive system which workers, especially rural immigrants, had to be socialized to accept for the economy to operate smoothly. Workers had to be ‘taught’ to give their all to their bosses and to look after themselves with the wages they received in return. Evidently, the constant threat to their continued subsistence was necessary to motivate workers during this early period of capitalism, and it was also a powerful means of maintaining discipline in the workplace. On the ideological level, the proliferation of slums, which were much more potent symbols of exploitation than degrading working conditions,served to shift the focus of blame for working-class impoverishment from its primary and causative locus in the workplaces to its secondary manifestations–the slums. Consequently, slum landlords had to bear the brunt of much 19th century social criticism, which should more accurately have been heaped on the shoulders of the capitalist employers and merchants. It was hardly an accident that working-class slums were the targets of extensive public investigations forty years before the ‘sweated’ labour system came under the Parliamentary microscope. However, slums were seen to be dysfunctional by the employing class, in terms of posing a threat to the maintenance and control of London’s cheap, overstocked, yet industrious semi-skilled and unskilled labour force upon which their prosperity depended.
Their problem was succinctly stated by Jack London in his excellent sociological study of the East End [1491 slums at the turn of the century: “Class supremacy can rest on class degradation, and when the workers are segregated in the ghetto they cannot escape the consequent degradation. A short and stunted people is created–a breed strikingly differentiated from their master’s breed.” High disease and mortality rates in the slums tended to reduce the absolute number of workers in the labour market by absenteeism or death, as well as to reduce the efficiency of those who managed to continue working. This imposed costs on employers in terms of lost productivity in their labour intensive plants, and to a lesser extent on the community as a whole in terms of increased poor relief bills. The slums were unfortunately not ‘automatically productive’ of healthy, stable employees. The concern was quite widespread that slums fostered unrest and defiance of the laws, which threatened the existence of the social structure. William Ashworth has noted that: “The propertied classes were not likely to ignore a factor threatening social stability when they had seen and remembered rioting at home… and had noted with apprehension revolutionary outbreaks in half the capitals of Europe. The possibility of an uprising remained as a shadow on the British [capitalist] class mind and a persuasion towards some measure of reform until in 1948 Chartism petered out in the face of advancing prosperity.”
And with the onset of a long depression in the early 1970’s, social unrest began to rise once again, bringing employers’ apprehension in its wake. Something had to be done, not to improve the lot of the working class per se, but to ensure that the numbers of the labour force were not drastically depleted and to step up social control. In my view, the early sanitary and housing legislation already referred to was mainly oriented towards fulfilling this dual goal. The expressed intent of much of this legisislation to ‘improve the condition of the labouring classes,’ was a fiction. Rather it invariably exacerbated overcrowding in neighbouring dwellings. In 1967, Marx wrote that it was: “…self-understood that every sanitary measure, which, as has been the case hitheto in London, hunts the labourers from one quarter, by demolishing uninhabitable houses, serves only to crowd them together yet more closely in another.”
However, it did enable Medical Officers of Health to mitigate the worst consequences of unsanitary slums. For instance, cholera, a disease which put tens of thousands of workers out of action, was gradually brought under control, though the slum remained. The legislation also enabled the Metropolitan Board of Works and the local vestries to step up their direct control of the working class, an important facility in view of the fact that maintaining control over much of the working class in their workplaces was very difficult due to their highly irregular employment. What is more, Richard L. Schoenwald has offered a provocative socio-psychological hypothesis about the connection between the sanitary movement and working-class discipline and control. He argues that the sanitary movement was in effect a gigantic societal toilet training exercise. Interpreted in Freudian terms he sees the state symbolizing the parental disciplinarian administering ‘training’ aimed at teaching society to use the water closet (potty), thereby gaining their submission to and energy in the cause of production for a distribution system which they could neither control nor see, symbolized by the sewer system. He makes a convincing case that the sanitary movement played a powerful role in socializing the working class (many of whom were still ‘cursed’ with pre-capitalist behaviour) to accept the behavioural norms and controls which were so central to the efficient functioning of a capitalist economy.
In sum, then, the working-class slums of 19th century London vere essentially the product of the ‘sweated’ leasehold system, which defined the social and economic relations of the working-class housing process, operating within the structural framework of the working-class housing market, the main features of which were determined by the production relations and by the changing mode of urban organization based on the drive to accumulate capital and the aspirations of more powerful classes. The formation and perpetuation of these degrading and unhealthy environments was absolutely beyond the control of their inhabitants. In fact, the extreme powerlessness of the bulk of the working class in 19th century British capitalist society was arguably the most important contributory factor to the existence of 1154] working-class slums. In the words of H. J. Dyos: “… the making of the slums of Victorian London, like the grooming of jallopies for the American Deep South, was a process that began far beyond the reach of the slummers who packed into them. It is important to recognise that these unfortunates were more than anything else merely the residuary legatees of a kind of house-processing operation which was started by another social class….the condition of the houses of the poor, far from being a quaint expression of their own debased tastes–a view widely held among the ruling classes of Victorian England–was a reflex of the allocation of political power and economic resources in society at large.”
They were both an outcome of the process of working-class impoverishment which was rooted in the workplace and played a significant active role in the process as well. The slums were the physical and social infrastructure and the concretization of London’s labour market. Most of the working class could not have survived elsewhere in the city, away from the intricate web of social and economic relations which sustained them in the slums. Yet, day by day the struggle of living in slums made life itself less and less worthwhile. Furthermore, the slums formed an essential part of the foundation of ruling-class prosperity and middle-class decency. But the continued reproduction of this outcome depended on slum conditions being kept under control, to a limited degree, to prevent any drastic depletion of the overstocked labour force and to maintain social stability. This control function gradually came to be exercised by the state and the early public health and housing legislation formed an important part of the state’s amunition in this endeavour.
The overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of the slums, which this legislation was ostensibly aimed at mitigating, instead played an important role in justifying and legitimizing this increased state intervention in an era when the Zaissez fdire ideology was still extremely powerful and challenges to the laws of private property were stongly resisted. A Brief Conclusion In this rather lengthy chapter we have seen how the broad, and some detailed, features of London’s social and spatial geography were fundamentally the product of the realization of five pressures–the flight of both the capitalist class and the middle stratum from the centre; the improvement of London’s efficiency as a locus of capital accummulation; the social-class homogenization of residential districts; and the impoverishment of the bulk of the working class–mediated by various forms of tenure relations, mainly variants of the leasehold system. These forces originated in the workplace –they were logical outcomes of London’s class structure and the struggles between and within classes during this half century.