Early housing legislation

There are two ways for authorities to make people do what they want; make it attractive for them to do so, or force them to do so. The best schemes are where there is an effective combination of the two.

One problem faced by city authorities in the 1800s was to ensure that the workers had sufficient housing, of suitable quality, near their place of work. Before trams and worker’s-trains became widespread no worker commuted, and so their place of employment had to be a short walk away. The working days included Saturdays, hours were long, and low wages did not allow for anything to be spent on travel. Half a worker’s earnings would typically be spent on food and this left less than half for rent. The average semi-skilled worker of the time would be earning 18 shillings a week (90p) and spend up to 9 shillings on food. Ideally you would like to have 1/6d per week for beer (much safer to drink than local water supplies) and other things, which left no more than 7/6d per week for rent. This may get you two small rooms in an old house in London. If you had a large family then things were difficult because food and clothing costs go up. Many children sharing one bed was the norm. If you were not skilled, or did not have regular income, you would inevitably earn less than the ideal minimum and this meant looking for cheaper accommodation, and so the spiral downwards towards living in slums began. It was not just the level of earnings that were a problem, it was also the regularity of them. There was no social security in the 1800s. Dockers, in particular, were poorly and irregularly paid and this partly explains their propensity to strike, even in war time. Without effective unions, the workers were sometimes at the mercy of unscrupulous employers, although London and other larger cities had wider employment opportunities for those with the skills that gave them more opportunities to change employer. Outside the cities employment was much more restricted and a change of employer often meant a change of home town, or an exchange of one factory for a similar one nearby.

What the governments of the day wanted was stability and growth. This meant the populace in regular employment, working hard, behaving well, and helping to take the country ever onwards. The enlightened Victorians wanted the workers to have the opportunity to rent decent housing and be able to better themselves and bring up their children in healthy environments. Not all employers agreed, but the later Victorian ideals included education for all children, a church nearby, and regular employment for the head of the household. Many a working man did improve themselves over time by becoming a skilled worker, foreman, or artisan. Many, however, did not have the skills or ability to do this and were in danger of populating the already-crowded industrial areas and slums. Some authorities tackled the problem of slums by simply demolishing them (or getting the railway developers to do it for them). The tenants were not protected by any laws. Although this brutal approach would inevitably encourage many to try and better themselves whenever they could, the majority ended up moving into nearby slums.

The solution was to tackle the problem from two directions: Eradicate the slums and build new housing that the dispossessed could afford. The various Housing Acts of the 1800s tried to enforce that, but not always successfully. One basic principle of slum clearance through all the legislation is that new “working class” housing had to be built to house the same number of people displaced by any slum clearance, and rents charged were to be compatible with those in that area for the same size and type of accommodation. This applied even when railway companies demolished slums. In addition to slum clearances, philanthropic organisations pro-actively built housing for workers on commercially available land and not just on land where slums had been cleared. This approach assumed that: (i) the displaced wanted to live in tenements in the new blocks; (ii) they would be happy with the strict tenancy rules; and (iii) they could pay their rents regularly. The reality for many was somewhat different because they did not have regular income or many families had to supplement their income by the wives and children doing low-paid work at home such as talking in washing or making boxes, or sub-letting space in their already-crowded dwelling to other tenants. The best philanthropic housing from organisations such as the London County Council and the Peabody Trust came with strict rules such as forbidding sub-letting and the taking in of other people’s washing, and insisting that rents were paid regularly.

To Victorian eyes being poor was your own fault, but if you wanted to work hard, live honestly and abide by the rules, there were people and organisations to help. This also meant that there was always a “under class” of people who could never benefit from these ideals and the housing legislation.

For more details on the legislation of the time and its impact click the link below.

Read > Housing legislation in the 1800s