Working in the East End

The East End was home for all levels of the working class. The better paid skilled workers probably lived in reasonable accommodations by the standards of the time, but the bulk of the workers, particularly the multitudes of casual workers, lived in densely packed, overcrowded, unsanitary rooms and lodging houses for which they paid high   rents. There must have been many who were literally homeless.


For many sweated workers, their homes had to double up as workplaces. To the north of the City, there was a sprinkling of light industry [ll] and sweated trades, but this area was predominantly the home of clerks, public employees, professional and petty capitalists. Some merchants and employers lived there and so did a good deal of workers. The Duke of Bedford’s Bloomsbury estate was well managed, strictly controlled and inhabited by wealthy families. Its squares were pleasant and inviting, in contrast to its unimaginative architecture. The physical condition of most of the northern area was adequate, but there were some slums, like those   in St. Giles, and in Clerkenwell on the Duke of Northampton’s estate. The Figs Mead estate on the northern extremities of London was inhabited by artisans and labourers living in ‘third and fourth rate’ houses. The manager of the estate was fighting a valiant battle to prevent its decay to the level of the adjacent slums of Camden Town and Somers Town.


[131 The north-west was altogether another kettle of fish. It was a highly fashionable residential area populated by successful merchants, employers, top civil servants and professionals. With such high class tenants, the Duke of Portman must have had few problems maintaining the high standards of his estate. There were, however, sprinklings of slums in awkward alleys and secluded courts. What little production there was in this area was concentrated around the Oxford street shopping precinct where the respectable bespoke tailors and dressmakers had their workshops. Most of the West End was prime property. It was the traditional home of royalty and the aristocracy. A small proportion of highly successful businessmen and bankers probably lived there. The Palace had recently been moved to its present position at the end of The Mall. The seats of Government and Courts of Justice were dotted about the area. St. James and Green Parks were decidedly pleasant and Hyde Park attracted the upper crust on Sundays when they strolled and rode along the banks of the Serpentine to see and be seen. Mayfair, Pall Mall and Belgravia were superb, spacious neighbourhoods. Bond and Regent streets were exclusive (15] shopping precincts. Again there were some slums in out-of-the-way places. In fact, Regent street was built in 1815 both to increase the desirability of Regents Park by improving accessibility to the West End   and as a barrier between the West End and the slums of Soho.


Finally, south London was much more like the East End. Various mixed industries, such as tanneries, iron-foundaries, gasworks, dye-works, 117] breweries and shoe and hat manufactureres were located there. A few employers and more clerks lived south of the river, mainly on the outskirts   of the built-up area in places like Camberwell, Dulwich, Brixton and   Clapham. But the area was filled with all strata of the working class most of whom worked in local factories, though some crossed London Bridge along with the clerks to work in the City and East End. The area was polluted and most of the housing was dilapidated and overcrowded. The distinction between town and countryside was sharp. Beyond the built-up area there were market gardens and brickfields waiting to be   consumed by the relentless march of houses. There was some ribbon development along main roads leading to London, and some large residences were dotted about the countryside, but the latter were not generally used as permanent residences by those who worked in the centre. Compared with what was to come in the decades ahead, the modes of transportation in 1830 were primitive.


Longer distances were traversed in stage coaches and private coaches, shorter distances in short-stage   coaches, hackney cabs and private carriages. The use of these vehicles was generally restricted to the wealthier members of society who could afford to own them or pay the fares. The working class and most of the middle stratum walked to work. Goods were transported by sea, river or canal and were conveyed by carts within the city.   The government of the metropolis was fragmented, chaotic and corrupt. The City of London was the only local area which had one effective authority responsible for the provision and maintenance of pu’olic services in the area. The City Corporation, as it was called, was an ancient body which represented the interests of the powerful City businessmen. It reigned supreme within the boundaries of the City, was constantly at loggerheads with Parliament in matters affecting the City’s interests or challenging   the Corporation’s authority and usually was the victor in those forays. The Council of Aldermen was the most powerful body within the Corporation. Its members were elected by a complex procedure which enabled them to remain in office for long periods of time. They often acted against the expressed wishes of the Court of Common Council, a much more representative body. The remainder of London was governed by a myriad of local bodies. Almostr 200 highly autonomous parish vestries were responsible for the paving, lighting and cleansing of streets and the relief of the poor.


According to Lynn Lees: “London parishes.. .possessed the right to self-government almost up to the point of urban anarchy; no effective government beyond that of the City of London was installed until 1889 when the London County Council came into being.” More than half of these public bodies were ‘open’ vestries where all male ratepayers were entitled to attend. But in the fashionable western areas ‘close’ or ‘select’ vestries were more common. Here membership and power were restricted to a small, nominated group of ‘principal inhabitants.’ Public commissions and private companies were responsible for turnpikes, sewers, water and gas services, which were primitive at this stage. Jurisdictional irrationalities surrounding the distribution of responsibility for most of these public goods proliferated and led to inequities, inefficiencies and constant arguments between authorities. The one consistent fact in this maze was that the residential areas of the wealthy were generally far better served at lower rates than working-class districts. In 1839, Dr. Southwood [231 Smith, the famous sanitary reformer, reported:   “While systematic efforts, on a larger scale, have been made to widen the streets…to extend and perfect the drainage and sewerage …in the places in which the wealthier classes reside, nothing whatever has been done to improve the condition of the districts inhabited by the poor.” Except for the Metropolitan Police which was formed in 1829, London lacked a city-wide governing body until the inception of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855. IThe Origins of the Leasehold System Finally, we must explore the systems of tenure which mediated relations between the owners and occupants of residential land and housing. Outright ownership by the occupant, of both the house in which he/she lived and the freehold of the land on which it was built, was rare.

More prevalent, though not widespread, were cases in which houses were owned by their occupants, by means of their own funds or money borrowed from solicitors or building societies, but the land was leased from an aristocratic or corporate freeholder. These systems of tenure, which are explored in the next chapter, were effectively subservient   until the 1880’s to the overwhelmingly predominant leasehold system.



May 12, 2018


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