There are very few examples of social housing in Britain before the 1850s. Before then, any housing built for “the workers” would usually be tied cottages for farm workers or for mill/factory workers. Some of this housing would be cheaply constructed and simply a means to an end to house the workers locally so that the industrialists could make more profits. The coming of the Victorian age brought a new perspective to the mix and the welfare of the workers became important. Healthy workers were good workers, and that in turn meant sustained profits. Arguably, the most famous of the early philanthropists was Titus Salt who started building Saltaire near Bradford in 1853. Two other famous model towns; Bourneville (by Cadbury’s the chocolate makers) and Port Sunlight (by soap makers Lever Brothers), were not started until the 1890s, indicating how advanced Titus Salt’s actions were. In London, William Cubitt (brother of the more famous Thomas) funded the development of Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs in the 1840s and 50s but this was more a commercial venture than a philanthropic one. Philanthropists were few and far between and the workers were pouring into the towns and cities and needed a roof over their head. Who was to help them?

In London, the shortage of cheap affordable housing started to become acute in the 1870s as mass influx from the depressed farming industry caused a population explosion. Housing was available, but was usually overcrowded and expensive to rent. There is much evidence available regarding the problem, with stories of tenants sub-letting rooms and they, in turn, renting out space on their floor (this multiple sub-letting was called rack-renting). Sanitation and cooking facilities would be unchanged from when the house would have been occupied by one family. For many of the main tenants, this sub-letting of rooms was the only way to make ends meet, particularly if you were old or infirm and unable to work. This housing became available as the middle classes moved into the suburbs (Brixton, Hampstead, etc) leaving large houses to be split into tenements that were generally unsuited to being split up because of sanitation issues. Rookeries and slums started to appear in pockets all over London, with Holborn particularly badly affected from the mid 1800s. The more famous slum areas of London’s east-end developed later in the 1800s as immigrants headed for the cheap manufacturing areas just east of the City of London. With revolution across the channel in France the industrialists of London needed to ensure that their workers were not inclined to revolution and have a chance to rent good housing near the factories. The government chose not to get involved at this stage, apart from some misguided and unsuccessful attempts at legislation, but to the rescue came a few wealthy philanthropists, enlightened industrialists and sympathetic developers. Eventually, by 1890, the legislative Housing Acts were effective and the County of London had been created, run by a well-led London County Council (LCC).

To compound the housing shortage between the 1850s and 1890 there was the massive railway boom, with rail lines and stations being built all over the country. Competition was fierce, and stations and massive rail yards were built as close as possible to the industrial centres. London suffered particularly in this period. A peculiarity of London’s trains lines is that no main lines were built across London, apart from the relatively minor Snow Hill tunnel close to St Paul’s Cathedral. The main reason was simply one of finances; the cost of land in London meant that that the termini were built round the edge of the then-developed city. To reduce the cost further the lines, stations and goods yards were deliberately sited on cheap land, which often meant slum areas. London Bridge was the first terminus, and was built on cheap land, with the lines up from Greenwich built on a viaduct to further reduce land costs. When the lines were extended towards Charing Cross they were also on a viaduct following a route deliberately chosen to pass through slum housing and so reduce the compensation the the landowners and leaseholders (but no compensation to tenants). This lack of interest in the tenants – the “workers” – was not effectively dealt with by the legislation at the time. The various Acts of Parliament were well meant but poorly executed.

This was the political and physical environment which the housing needed to develop. The next sections deal with how the Social Housing movement started in Britain, what legislation was in place, and a description of London’s borough of Southwark as an example. Use the menus above to navigate through the story of early Social Housing.