Compared to the stately homes of the West End or even the suburban terraces, working-class slums were the concrete expression of the exploitation and degradation on which this process of impoverishment was based. Slums were not a novelty in the 19th century. What was new, however, was the intensification of overcrowding in the central area which was the product of the structural characteristics and tenure relations of the working-class housing sub-market.
This structure was gradually defined, during the period under consideration, by the nature and necessities of the workers’ position in the production process and by the changing mode of urban organization based on the realization of the first four pressures. However, the resultant environments found spatial expression via what may be called the ‘sweated’ leasehold system which mediated relations between landlords and working-class tenants in the latter’s quest for housing. Given this framework, the operation of this segment of the housing market almost inevitably led to the proliferation of overcrowded, dilapidated and unsanitary slum neighbourhoods. A brief look at the nature of the working-class housing market will show why. The nature and necessities of the workers’ position in the productive process shaped the working-class housing market in two important ways: it determined their lack of economic, social and political power as ‘actors’ in the land and housing markets, and it confined feasible residential locations for the working class to a limited spatial area adjacent to their workplaces. Their powerlessness in society, being a major factor in the formation of working-class slum environments, permeates the whole of my argument and its central importance will become apparent as the explanation unfolds.
The necessities of their jobs meant that most workers, including skilled artisans, had very little effective choice of residential locality. Casual labourers were crucially dependent on hearsay and personal contacts for information on possible employment. In the days before the widespread diffusion of telephones and newspapers, this meant being in the right place at the right time. The irregularity of their employment meant that jobhunting was as vital and continual an aspect of their employment as was the work itself. As a result, commuting usually involved journeys for, rather than to, work.
All in all, they were effectively forced to live within short walking distances, often less than a mile, of potential employment sources, the bulk of which were located in central London and particularly in the East End. Though housing reformers may have preached otherwise, most workers were depressingly aware of their spatial fixity, as evidenced by the following statement of a ‘respectable’ shoemaker, a teetotaller what is more, justifying why he lived in a slum in 1969: “In London…generally speaking, poor people cannot select their lodgings, being obliged in a great manner to accomodate themselves to the circumstances in which they are placed through their employment and other contingencies.”
At a Parliamentary inquiry in 1946, another worker stated that it was the docks “which have brought the labour there. The labourer will not go away from where the manufactory is, however bad the occupancy of the dwelling may be; he still will be near his work.” Similar centripetal locational imperatives characterized the ‘sweated’ trades. Here the necessity for constant personal contact during work hours between ‘sweated’ out-workers and the wholesale houses which were the origin and end of the productive process, was paramount. Equipment might have to be borrowed a few times a day; raw materials had to be fetched and finished orders returned. As we have already seen, the assembly line in the ‘sweated’ trades ran through the streets. Thus, increasing the proximity between workers and wholesale houses was akin to increasing the efficiency of the productive process. So much so that many employers demanded guarantees from workers not to live more than a certain distance from their employment in the central area. For example, Lord Shaftsbury told the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes, 1984-5, that: “in some cases men are under an engagement to their employers not to live more than a certain distance from the warehouses.”
Other factors also confined the working class, especially the poor to the centre, and conversely played an important role in perpetuating the functioning of this stratum of the labour market and in sustaining the overall process of impoverishment. Food was considerably cheaper and could be bought in much smaller quantities there than in the suburbs due to the existence of street markets. Credit was easier to obtain from local shops and pawnbrokers and so was second-hand clothing; and the opportunities for wives to work part-time was an added attraction. Furthermore, the feeling of community in the slums, of living with equals, sustained familiar elements of working-class culture–pubs, cheap theatres, ratbaiting, boxing–and must have been another significant factor that prevented any rapid dispersion from the central area slums. In fact, prior to the 1980’s, most of the working class vigorously and logically resisted any encouragement to move from their homes in the centre, as this would involve the loss of tangible benefits and would threaten their precarious livelihoods as well. As one worker told the Select Committe on Artisans’ Dwellings in 1982: “I might as well go to America as go to the suburbs.” And the 1984-5 Royal Commissioners reported: “If regular work was tobe had by all who want it without any uncertainty, the poor might pick and choose the locality for their dwellings, but as it is, it has been noticed that when they [the working class] have made an attempt to leave an overcrowded neighbourhood for some better locality at a little distance away, after a short sojourn many of them have often been compelled to come back to be near their work.”
The changes in London’s social and spatial structure, arising out of the realization of the first four pressures, affected the central area working-class housing market in two major ways. They led to drastic reductions in both the absolute space available for working-class housing and in the availability of financial resources needed to sustain an adequate network of urban social and physical infrastructure in working-class districts. The imperatives of the process of capital accumulation and the residential needs of the working class came into direct conflict in the centre-city land market. As we have seen, the increasing profitability of commerical and productive facilities was strongly dependent on central locations, on the construction of docks and railways and on the improvement of major thoroughfares.
These productive and service land uses consumed large proportions of central area land, which was, on the other hand, virtually the only feasible location for the working-class housing. This conflict was the concrete expression of an aspect of the more general power struggle between the capitalist class, whose interests were served by the process of capital accumulation, and the working class; an aspect which directly affected the form of the city. In the majority of interactions, the outcomes were repetitious of those in the overall struggle between these classes: capital accumulation came before working-class needs: As Karl Marx argued in 1967, this outcome was far more blatant than its coun terpart in the workplace: “The intimate connexion between the pangs of hunger of the most industrious layers of the working-class, and the extravagant consumption, coarse or refined, of the rich, for which capitalist accumulation is the basis, reveals itself only when the economic laws are known. It is otherwise with the ‘housing of the poor.’ Every unprejudiced observer sees that the greater the centralisation of the means of production, the greater is the corresponding heaping together of the labourers, within a given space: that therefore the swifter capitalistic accwumulation, the more miserable are the dwellings of the working-people.