Renting in the city

The issue of housing in London is not a new one. The popular literature of the housing problem during the early 1980’s and were more systematically aired before the Royal Commission on the Housing of the   Working Classes in 1984-5. Far from being a dwindling enclave, as the Marshallian view would have it, the ‘residuum’ in fact comprised a substantial proportion of the working class. Packed into overcrowded slums, their demoralized character almost became understandable. Under these conditions, religion, thrift, temperance, if not civilization, were impossible. Reverend Andrew Mearns’ revelation in The Bitter Cry of Outcast London that, as a result of overcrowding, incest was common brought an even greater  sense of urgency to the housing reform movement.

The discovery that, contrary to the widely-held beliefs of the 1960’s and 1970’s, industrious, ‘respectable,’ regularly-employed workers and their families “were being forced by the housing shortage and high rents into the tainted physical and moral atmosphere of the one-roomed system,” was the last straw. The ‘residuum’ if not checked might retard progress; overcrowding might provoke poverty to make common cause against wealth.


In the context of the increasing unrest and economic depression of the decade, bad housing came to be viewed as a possible cause of revolution. On the other hand, this view of the social crisis which besieged London during the 1980’s holds the key to the understanding of the solution which became increasingly common currency in contemporary intellectual and business circles. A clearer distinction had to be drawn between the ‘respectable’ working class and the casual ‘residuum.’ The threat of social upheaval could be allayed by winning the adherence of the basically good ‘respectable’ workers and by imposing coercive controls on the dangerous ‘residuum.’ “In a period when the ‘residuum’ was becoming increasingly threatening, it was urgent that the ‘respectable’ working class should be enabled to participate more actively within the political system, and that their ‘legitimate’ grievances should be met.”


The belief in the viability of this policy of broad working-class segmentation was enormously enhanced by the researches of Charles Booth in the late 1980’s and by the 1989 Dock Strike. Booth’s work once and for all destroyed the myth that the working class was morally debased. Most were decent people whose poverty was the cause of their degrading existence.   Financial assistance, far from demoralizing them, would uplift them and make them more productive and devoted workers. The real problem was the nature and condition of the casual ‘residuum’ who were incapable of improvement and hard work, and whose competition prevented the ‘respectable’ working class from breaking the shackles of poverty. Separation of these two strata, and substantial concessions to the ‘respectable’ working class was the answer   to the social crisis which besieged London. In the words of Charles Booth: “To the rich the very poor are a sentimental interest: To the poor they are a crushing load. The poverty of the poor is mainly the result of the competition of the very poor. The entire removal of this very poor class out of the daily struggle for existence I believe to be the only solution to the problem.”


Furthermore, the discipline and self-restraint (that is, the non-revolutionary character) of the strikers, both skilled and unskilled, in the great dock strike of 1989 confirmed this thesis; it “came as cathartic release from the [651 social tension of the mid-1980’s.” Trade unions no longer needed to be feared as opposition to the status quo. According to Sidney Buxton, the   dock strike “proved that the average docker himself was by no means the ‘failure,’ the ne’er-do-well, the hopeless wreck of humanity, of popular fancy. And it proved, too, I think, that the hordes of East End ruffians who have been supposed (did they but know their power) to hold the West in the hollows of their hands were a fantastic myth: for this Great Strike would have been their opportunity.” Trade Unions were thus viewed positively as agents of the moral and material improvement of most of the working class. They had accomplished what the dominant class had failed to achieve through charity.


As such, trade unions came to be seen as an effective means of incorporating the ‘respectable’   working class within the social system, and of widening the gap between them and the hopeless ‘residuum.’ Dominant-class London breathed a sigh of relief.   In the words of Gareth Stedman Jones: “Once disentangled from the respectable working-class, the residuum could not on its own overturn London. Once detailed social investigation and the activity of the strikers themselves had established a clear distinction between the ‘legitimate’ claims of labour and the ugly symptom of ‘social disease,’ fears of revolution could be turned aside. The casual residuum was not longer a political threat—only a social problem.” When these developments are borne in mind, the shift in focus of the emerging housing-problem paradigm becomes comprehensible. The problems were no longer seen to be the fault of demoralized victims, but were blamed on the degenerative pressures of urban existence, beyond the control of the victims.


Overcrowding, not poor sanitation, was the culprit of the forced integration of ‘respectable’ workers and ‘residuumn’; overcrowding was the cause of the demoralized behaviour of all but a small segment of the working population; therefore, overcrowding was the housing problem. The report of the Royal Commission in 1985 stated that overcrowding was “a central evil [681 around which most of the others group themselves.”


And an editorial in [691 the Pall MaZZll Gazette declared emphatically: “What the evil is everyone knows. It is the excessive overcrowding of enormous multitudes of the very poor in pestilential rookeries where it is a matter of physical impossibility to live a human life.” The focus had switched from the exterior environment of the slums to the interiors of the working-class houses. The previous era’s incorporation of housing problems into the broader problems of public health and sanitary   improvement was no longer viable. It was a negative approach which   emphasized demolition of ‘houses unfit for human habitation.’ This only made matters worse because it increased overcrowding.


Housing conditions could deteriorate while the sanitary condition of the slums improved and the death and disease rates diminished. The housing problem, as distinct from problems of public health and sanitation, emerged in its own right in terms not too dissimilar to those of today; there was a shortage of housing which engendered overcrowding and forced large masses of ‘respectable’ workers to suffer the degenerating pressures of the urban environment.

April 22, 2018


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