The problem of generalization does not present itself at the bottom of the power scale. The predominant pattern in working-class residential districts was one of railway promoters deliberately choosing to smash their way through these densely packed areas, irrespective of the grave social consequences which this policy clearly incurred. The reason for these actions had little to do with the railway companies’ irresponsibility or malice, as was the popular view. Instead, it was based on the power relations which existed under the leasehold system* in working-class neighbourhoods. Large estate owners, both lay and clerical, were generally resigned to the fate of their landholdings and had pragmatically given up hope of resurrecting elegant neighbourhoods in the place of their working-class slums.
They had lost control of their properties and were only too willing to sell out, as they saw the coming of the railways as a way of retreating from a socially and economically problematic predicament and making windfall profits to boot. These “less fortunately located [estate owners] came to agree with Disraeli’s Lord Marney that ‘rail[ways] are very good things with high compensation.’” Their propeties were riddled with middlemen with sub-leases and house-jobbers with the fag-ends of leases who were collecting exorbitant rack rents from their tenants. These intermediaries had little power to prevent estate owners from selling out to the railways as they were in flagrant violation of most leasehold covenants. The tenants who were usually renting accommodation by the week, often by the day, had no legal standing to object to the sale or to claim compensation. Working-class people did not have the means, the connections or the knowhow to oppose Railway Bills.
Most were usually thankful if the railway companies paid their rent arrears or gave them between a sovereign or two 1531 pounds in cash. Finally, local authorities could not resist this ‘shovelling out the poor’ because the change of land use increased rate able values and shed some of the burden of poor relief. Thus it was not accidental nor conspiratorial that the railway companies located most of their lines and termini through the working-class districts of London instead of the homes of the wealthy or their places of business. Indeed, The Times recognized the advantageousness to the capitalist class of railway development according to these conditions, stating 1551 bluntly,in 1961 that: “The special lure to capitalists offered by railway projectors is that the line will pass only through inferior property, that is, through a densely populated district and will destroy only the abodes of the powerless and poor, whilst it will avoid the properties of those whose opposition is to be dreaded–the great employers of labour.” From the point of view of the engineers, surveyors and attorneys of the railway companies, it was commonsense to follow the line of least resistence, and the working-class neighbourhoods were the weak areas in the land and housing markets. Even more attractive to the railway companies were situations in which large areas of working-class housing were owned by a few substantial proprietors, as the small number of landowners simplified legal proceedings.
Nevertheless, it required a great deal of ingenuity to find these fissures in the land market along which approach routes to the fringe of the central area could be made. This often caused planning problems and increased costs because many working-class areas abutted the commercial centre where land values were highest. As one parliamentary witness suggested in 1936, “the parties [railway companies] care very little whether the line they have adopted is exactly the cheapest and best.” A number of historians argue that the main reason why railways were located in working-class districts was because this was seen by the propertied class as a means of slum clearance which would ultimately benefit the working class, as low-quality housing was demolished and higher quality housing for those displaced would automatically be provided by the market. However, there is plenty of evidence in the proceedings and reports of Royal Commissions related to railways from the 1940’s onwards which indicates that these classes were well aware that the contrary was the case:. that demolitions imposed even greater hardships on the working class by forcing them to compete for reduced amounts of accommodation at [581 higher cost in adjacent areas.
As John Kellett has correctly observed: “The fact that such conscientious investigations were carried out and given a hearing should correct the widely-held impression that the Victorians were entirely careless of the effects of the great works of urban reconstruction they were executing.” Doubtless the mythical qualities of railway demolitions as slum improvers played an important part in decisions to locate railways in working-class districts, but this view was not a cause of these decisions. Rather, as we will see in Chapter 5, it served the crucial function of providing ideological legitimation for the drastic and blatantly cruel destruction of working-class homes which was primarily necessitated by the power relations of the land and housing markets and secondarily by economic market forces. This policy of locating railways in working-class neighbourhoods largely explains the location of lines and termini in north, south and [591 east London.
To the north, Marylebone station permanently displaced thousands of working-class people from the slums of Lisson Grove while the approach line had to tunnel under the well-to-do Portman Estate and St. John’s Wood neighbourhood, to avoid disturbing their ‘respectable’ residents. Euston, St. Pancras and King’s Cross stations, together with their approach lines virtually demolished all of the slums of Agar, Camden and Somers Towns, where the railway companies were allowed unrestricted access by the aristocratic estate owners of these districts. The Holborn Viaduct, the only surface railway to be built across London, marched through the slums of Clerkenwell and Farringdon Street. In south London, especially Southwark, railway companies were fortunate in having to face only a few large ecclesiastical estate owners who were usually only too pleased to have the railway companies remove the poor for them as this was not something the Church could legitimately do. Indeed, the powerlessness of tenants in these districts was acknowledged by Parliament when it exempted south railway schemes from the general restriction placed on inner London in 1946.
The approach lines to Victoria Station, and London Bridge, Cannon Street, Charing Cross and Waterloo stations and their approaches, were largely located in working-class areas owned by the Church. In the working-class neighbourhoods of the East End, ownership was much more fragmented, the largest estate owners being the City Corporation and Companies. Consequently, it was easier for railway companies to ignore unco-ordinated opposition in building Bishopsgate, Fenchurch Street and later Liverpool and Broad street stations, though legal costs and compensation awards to landowners were much higher.
These costs did not, however, prevent the wholesale destruction of working-class homes by the maze of companies which sought to gain access to the City and the Docks. In the process nearly 800 acres of central land, enough for a fairsized town, was taken for railway uses. H. J. Dyos has conservatively estimated that the numbers of people displaced by a total of 69 separate schemes came to at least 76,000 between 1953 and 1901, with 51 schemes displacing 56,000 people before 1985. Spread over the area involved, an average of 95 persons per acre were displaced. John Kellett quotes the estimates of Dr. Lethaby in 1961 that between 150 and 300 persons per acre was nearer the true number of displacements. The lower figure would give a total of 120,000. evictions which represented 5 1/2% of the then central area population. The laissez faire ideology was used until 1974 to rationalize the failure of Parliament to force railway companies to rehouse displaced tenants, which it deemed an unjustifiable invasion of landlords’ rights. The subsequent requirement for them to provide alternative accommodation was successfully evaded until 1985 when the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes recommended sterner enforcement of these requirements.
Even then, alternative accommodation was usually not available at the time of demolition and was therefore occupied by families other than those who were displaced, and the rents were usually too high for poorer tenants. During the period under consideration, rail fares were beyond the means of the majority of working-class people. There were two main reasons for this. The first and most important was an outcome of the railway companies’ struggle for compulsory purchase powers. They were prohibited from buying up large tracts of land, in excess of their essential require ments, and becoming speculators themselves. This approach which was common in America was frequently suggested but never attained legislative approval. If the American experience can be generalized, then allowing railway companies to profit from land speculation would probably have caused fares to be much lower. One consequence of this prohibition was that railway companies played an essentially passive role in London’s suburban development. More importantly, it meant that they had to reap the bulk of their profits from the fares which they charged for the conveyance of people and goods This leads to the second reason for high fares which was based on the peculiar economic characteristics of public goods like railways. Unlike factories which produced relatively cheap, individualizable commodities, railways could not benefit from economies of scale as they increased their output. Beyond a certain point larger, unevenly distributed traffic increased operating and administrative expenses and spelt diminishing returns.
The burden of a very high initial expenditure in fixed, indivisible capital made it unrealistic to respond to lower demand by proportionately reducing fares and ‘output’ until an equilibrium was reached. This classic market response was inappropriate to railway companies who had to make the bulk of their capital investments at the start of their operations and could not vary these according to subsequent fluctuations of supply and demand. The railway companies soon learned that price competition over fares held little benefit for them. As a result, they agreed to maintain fares at levels which were high enough to generate adequate profits and instead began to compete over the relative attractiveness of their termini and other urban facilities.
In answer to the following question of Counsel for the House of Commons in 1972: “Is it not the fact that in places where two great companies compete there is almost always an agreement as to what shall be the charges made to the public?” the General Manager of the Midland Railway replied: “That is true, but still you will always find that the competition is very keen. I do not mean competition by charge but competition by accommodation, and you will find that the public are generally very much better accommodated.” This policy suited the railway contractors, surveyors, architects and attorneys whose interests were best served by new construction as opposed to fare policy changes. It led to a duplication of termini and lines and violent disputes in cases where facilities were shared. The overall result was that passenger fares were relatively high and generally beyond the reach of the majority of the working class. Cheaper ‘workmen’s fares’ were provided by a few railway companies as a quid pro quo for the hardship which their demolitions caused.
From the 1960’s onwards, clauses requiring workmen’s fares were included in Railway Bills, but their frequency and use only became significant and practicable after the 1980’s. Thus, while railway development facilitated or actively encouraged the exodus of members of the capitalist class and the middle stratum to the airy suburbs, it was one of the powerful forces which compressed the bulk of the working class into squalid and degrading innerLondon environments. In summary, we have seen that while railway development played an important part in London’s growth from the 1930’s to the 1980’s, it was essentially subordinate to the power relations of the leasehold land and housing markets, which comprised the pre-eminent though not only force that shaped London’s social and spatial development.