The image many people have of the East End of London in Victorian times is one of being street after street of slum dwellings inhabited by Jack the Rippers, prostitutes, beggars and thieves, all in an environment of filth, smoke and destitution.
Whilst there were many pockets of slums where people tried to desperately survive and feed their family there were many areas where, although far from pleasant, honest people managed to make a living and bring up families. The East End developed into a close-knit community (or, more accurately, communities) where hardships were shared and people fought together against poverty, landlords, bosses and sometimes themselves.
The Booth poverty map of 1900 for the East End clearly shows that the slums were in pockets, with many having relatively well-to-do housing only a street away. The black and dark blue areas are the bad slums.
Even though the Booth map above may indicate the East End was not as deprived as many films and television programs make out, it was still a very dirty, smelly and crowded place with old and sub-standard housing where most people struggled day-to-day to earn a decent living. In such a crowded and competitive environment it is not surprising to find the beginnings of racism creeping in. Immigrants were perceived to be taking housing and jobs, and the Jews were the main target. By 1900 the Jewish immigrants had replaced the Huguenot weavers of the previous two centuries and become the target of some ill-placed press articles. But the Jewish immigrants had not created the slums, although they had displaced gentiles from areas around Whitechapel, as can be seen in the map below when compared with Booth’s map above.
The Jewish community were very much self-organising, with new immigrants from east Europe being looked after by the close-knit Jewish community. Their main trades of tailoring, shoe making, furniture and baking were tightly managed by a few established Jewish families.
All the workers of the East End, whether long-established in the area or a recent immigrants from the surrounding countryside or abroad, needed housing but that housing needed improving and the slums needed removing. From the 1860s the only people building new housing specifically for the working classes were a few philanthropic organisations. Some organisations did not last the course, whilst others were very successful. All the successful ones had a requirement to make a small annual profit on rents to enable further schemes to be built and existing buildings managed. The typical profit was 5% and this became known as “5% philanthropy”. The main organisations were: The East End Dwelling Company; Improved Industrial Dwelling Company; Peabody; and (from 1889) the London County Council. The inclusion of the latter may surprise many readers but the early years of the LCC is marked by programmes of improvement and beneficiary for everyone in London. No history of Victorian social housing is complete without mentioning Octavia Hill.
The philanthropist builders
Octavia was a philanthropist, but not a builder. She developed the standard method of managing working-class housing through a combination of astuteness and force of character. She was from a middle-class family and obtained funds from wealthy benefactors and then used the money to purchase existing housing that was usually in bad condition. She installed female managers who interacted with the “lady of the house” to build up a relationship with tenants such that they improved their behaviour and were rewarded with repairs and improvements to the building. Good tenants would be further rewarded with better housing and bad tenants would be evicted. She also arranged to have some new housing built (usually cottages). Octavia Hill’s influence of East End housing is fairly minimal but her legacy of tenant-management is one that needs to be re-learnt by modern authorities. For more information on this redoubtable lady go to: http://www.octaviahill.org/
The East End Dwelling Company (EEDC)
As the name suggests, this organisation operated mainly in the East End of London. They built housing from 1885 until 1906. Below is the Booth map overlaid by the location of the EEDC buildings. The tenants were typically the experienced or mature family men. Many of the buildings still stand – a testament to their quality and the on-going management of them.
Peabody is probably the most well-known of all the philanthropic housing developers. The trust built estates of blocks all over London. The map below is the location of those in the East End. The housing was aimed at the slightly better off family man who had regular income.
Improved Industrial Dwelling Company (IIDC)
This rather poorly-named organisation was founded by London printer and one-time Mayor, Sidney Waterlow. His blocks were similar to Peabody’s but generally slightly up-market from them. As a result they were a little dearer to rent than Peabody and attracted the artisan class.
The London County Council
The county of London was formed in 1889 and the Council dates from then. They took over much of the responsibilities (and staff) of the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW). The leaders were elected and the Progressives (Liberal-aligned) ran the Council until 1907 when the Municipal Reform Party (aligned to the Conservative Party) took over. The LCC built a large amount of housing before WW1, much of it still standing.
The pre-WW1 estates in the map above are described in detail under the “London County Council” section of this website. The largest LCC estate in London was Boundary Street in Bethnal Green.
Overcrowding and racism
One of the most famous areas of the East End is around Flower & Dean Street in Whitechapel. It is highlighted in yellow in the LCC map above.
It’s fame comes from being central to the Jack the Ripper murder stories and myths, and for being the main immigrant Jewish area. It could be considered a ghetto, but that is a negative term and would be doing a considerable injustice to the residents. The Jack the Ripper story is of no concern to this article and is very well covered in many books. What is of interest to this article is the effect the Jewish immigration had on the area, and the claims of overcrowding by press and local politicians.
The Flower & Dean Street area consisted of the following buildings:
– 4% Industrial Dwellings Company: Charlotte de Rothschild Buildings, 1887 – 1974
– 4% Industrial Dwellings Company: Nathaniel Buildings, 1892 – 1974
– East End Dwellings Co.: Lolesworth Buildings, 1885-1979
– East End Dwellings Co.: Strafford Buildings, 1889-1979
– Abraham Davis: Helena, Ruth, Irene, Godfrey, Josephine & Winifred Houses, 1897 – ??
– Dolley & Abraham: Keate, Spencer & Henderson Houses, 1908 -??
The 4% Dwelling Company was Jewish owed, and Abraham Davis and Dolley & Abraham were Jewish. The East End Dwellings Company had little Jewish management or control, and nor did the LCC. This would, on the face of it, have the potential to cause problems. But this was not the case. All the housing was managed along similar lines and there was overcrowding in all the buildings and no obvious racial or social tensions between them.
The map below summarises the demographics of the buildings in the Flower & Dean Street area. The post-WW1 LCC Holland Estate has been added for interest. Things to note are the actual capacity (from the census returns) and the theoretical maximum capacity. The latter was calculated at the time by multiplying the number of rooms (bedrooms and living rooms) by 2, giving the adult capacity. The term “adult” was not fixed at the time so I have taken the liberty of basing the term “adult” as any child 8 and above, and therefore taking significant space in a bed.
The trend clearly shows that the Jewish-owned buildings were very predominantly occupied by Jewish people. The surprise is with the non-Jewish owned Strafford and Lolesworth Buildings. Lolesworth has a mix of Jews to gentiles as would be expected, but Strafford is tenanted mainly by Jewish people. The reason lies in what is on the ground floor of the building – shops. The Jewish people occupied all the shops and “lived upstairs”. Note that the 4% Industrial Dwellings Company employed ex-military NCOs as building managers. Rothschilds and Nathaniel were managed by ex-Marine NCOs who were definitely not Jewish. All the buildings, apart from Strafford House, are officially overcrowded and this would have come to the attention of the Borough of Stepney, the LCC and the press.
The racial tension created by the Jewish immigration and blatant overcrowding is best illustrated by press articles and LCC investigations into the tenants of its Boundary Street Estate in Bethnal Green, just a little way to the north of Flower & Dean Street. For more details, go to the paper on that estate elsewhere on this website: <LCC’s Boundary Street Estate>.
This part of London continues to be a centre for immigrants. There is still a strong Jewish presence in the area but subsequent influxes have includes Bengali’s and Somalis. Brick Lane is a very multi-cultural street, and is none the worse for it.
Robin Hood Gardens – still failing to meet the needs of the honest workers?
In the fast eastern edge of London’s East End is Poplar. This area has always been associated with docks and ship building and has been home to many low-paid workers for the last 2 centuries. One small area near the docks known as Wells Street, but now known as Robin Hood Gardens, has always had a reputation for slum housing. The area is now adjacent to the northern portal of the Blackwall Tunnel and also has busy roads on two other sides. The feeling of being isolated is very strong to any visitors today.
The reputation of the area in Victorian times can be seen from this report in the 1880s:
“……. Generally the houses were very old and dilapidated, without back yards, and no back ventilation. The ground floor of many of the houses was sunken below the level of the pavement, and the rooms were exceedingly small. No water was laid on to the existing closets, which were inadequate in number and situate at some distance from the houses to which they belonged. …..” An estimated 1,029 persons were displaced and new dwellings were required to house a minimum of 1,030 people. The freeholder of the land was Sir Edward Colebrooke whose manor was at Ottershaw in Surrey. The clearance of the slums was carried out by the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1884 under the “Wells Street Scheme” and cost London rate-payers £59,119. The site was sold to James Hartnoll for just £5000, but had to be used for the construction of new working-class housing..
James Hartnoll built Grosvenor Buildings in 1886. He was an experienced semi-philanthropic builder of working class blocks in London, but this building was his only unsuccessful one. It consisted of 542 dwellings and a total of 1102 rooms (= theoretical maximum of 2204 persons). 160 at 1-roomed; 204 at 2-roomed; 172 at 3-roomed; and 4 at 4-roomed. Tenements were hard to let initially despite the area being very crowded. In 1911 it was occupied by approximately 1400 adults and 400 children under 8. It had a reputation for being overcrowded, but census returns show it to be no worse than others in London. It seems to have never been managed well as there were rent strikes in 1915, 1939 and early 1960s. In 1911 the building was managed by just one live-in 28 year old clerk to handle 542 families. This clerk/manager had no military background (as was typical in similar buildings). The majority of tenants were of the labouring classes, working in the docks, on ships and in local industry. That, allied to many single-roomed tenements, gave a poor mix that the young clerk was probably unable to handle. The building was purchased by the Greater London Council (LCC’s successor) in 1965 and, despite being structurally sound, demolished and replaced by Robin Hood Gardens. The map below shows the area in 1892 and the picture shows that some of the blocks of Grosvenor Buildings were 6 storeys.
Grosvenor House was replaced by Robin Hood Gardens (1967 – 2017?) and designed by Peter and Alison Smithson as a “city in the sky”. It is one of the more famous London buildings from the Brutalist Movement and was designed 5 years after the similar Park Hill in Sheffield, but without learning from the mistakes, and even adding more. The design also ignored the successful “scissor section” layout advocated and successfully applied at the time to blocks of flats by LCC architect David Gregory Jones. The two blocks consisted of 214 dwellings with all but the ground floor being maisonettes on 2 floors with the rooms split inconveniently between them. The site was surrounded on three sides by busy roads. The walkways only went to the stairs and lifts at each end, not to other levels or the ground, and were too narrow to be “streets” and also too open to the elements. Balconies overlooking the inner grassed space were too narrow to sit on and acted as emergency walk-through fire escapes, so needed to be kept clear. Concrete construction made maintenance and modifications difficult. The slab-sided blocks made the green space in the middle a tranquil place but it was deliberately landscaped (using spoil from the foundations) to prevent it being used as a play park.
The building was never liked by the tenants and this is illustrated by the lifts being vandalised a mere year after the building was opened. Some architects (who have never lived there) wanted the building to be listed by English Heritage, but common sense prevailed and it is due for demolition and replacement by a larger private-social housing development for the wider area of Poplar. Will the residents of Poplar finally get the social housing they want?