Dwellings of the Labouring Classes

This article was published in The Morning Chronicle ten years after the “Labour and the Poor” investigation and details some advancements made in the provision of housing for the labouring classes in London.

The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, June 23, 1860.


Ten years since the columns of this journal were occupied with the reports of several special correspondents on the subject of “Labour and the Poor,” which contained an immense amount of valuable information as to the state of the dwellings of the labouring classes in the metropolis, in the rural districts, and in the principal seats of our manufactures. The scenes of wretchedness, vice, and misery which were then laid open to the public excited an universal feeling of surprise that such a state of things could exist, and led to the formation of various benevolent and philanthropic associations for the purpose of removing some of those great and crying evils. It was wisely thought that the best and most effectual way of elevating the condition of the working man was to improve his dwelling; that reform, like charity, ought to begin at home; that the poor man should feel an interest in his dwelling and his own fireside. By giving him a comfortable home it was supposed that he might be weaned from the intemperate associations of the ale-house, learn to respect himself, and his domestic hearth, provided the dwelling were wind and water-tight, would be the nursery of social pleasures which would counteract those destructive influences to which he would otherwise be exposed. Physically, too, it was seen that better dwellings would ensure improved health, increased ability to work, and augmented means of obtaining the necessaries and comforts of life. The demoralising influences of youths and girls approaching to the state of young men and young women with their parents all occupying the same room, and the same sleeping apartments, were pointed out in the most forcible manner, and illustrated by facts and statistics which no one could gainsay, and which every rightly constituted mind deplored. One of the correspondents of this journal wrote, “A man who comes home to a poor comfortless hovel after his day’s labour, and sees all miserable around him, has his spirits more often depressed than excited by it. He feels that do his best he shall be miserable still, and is too apt to fly for a temporary refuge to the ale-house or beer-shop. But give him the means of making himself comfortable, and I am convinced that in many cases he will avail himself of it.”

It is upon this principle that “The Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes” has been formed. In order to give practical effect to this benevolent object there were many difficulties to be overcome. Charitable associations would be unable to provide sufficient funds for erecting suitable dwelling-houses. The high price of land in London and large towns would render hopeless any attempt to provide the necessary accommodation by eleemosynary exertions; and, even if it were possible, the self-respect of those for whom it was designed would be outraged by offering the dwellings rent-free. The question was then discussed—Can lodging-houses and cottages for the poor be constructed so as to yield an adequate return on the capital invested? The experience of the Duke of Bedford at Woburn, of Earl Spencer in Northamptonshire, and noblemen and gentlemen in other parts of the country, showed that so far as the rural population was concerned cottages could be built, when not of an ornamental character, to give a fair return on the outlay. In large towns the case was somewhat different, and it became the first duty of the association, to which reference had been made, to attempt to supply an answer to this most vital question. A sufficient amount of capital was subscribed, and the erection of blocks of buildings suitable for lodging-houses for single young men and women and families was commenced. The association has now nine lodging-houses in London for accommodating between 300 and 400 single men and women, and four establishments adapted for rather more than 100 families. On Thursday Lord Shaftesbury and the members of the committee inspected the whole of the model lodging-houses. Their locality and the nature of the accommodation provided are as follows:⁠—

George-street, Bloomsbury, for 104 single men.

Streatham-street, Bloomsbury, for 48 families.

The Thanksgiving Model-buildings, Portpool-lane, Gray’s-inn-lane, for 20 families and 128 single women, with a public washhouse.

No. 76, Hatton-garden, for 54 single men.

The Renovated Lodging-house, 2, Charles-street, Drury-lane, for 82 single men.

The Renovated Lodging-house, 27, King-street, Drury-lane, for 22 single men.

The Renovated Dwellings for Families, Wild-court, Drury-lane.

The Renovated Dwellings for Families, Clark’s-buildings, Broad-street, St. Giles’s.

The Renovated Dwellings for Families, and Lodging-house for 40 single men, Tyndall’s-buildings, Gray’s-inn-lane.

With some trifling exceptions, the whole of the lodging-houses are fitted up on the same principle. For the single young men and young women there are lavatories, a kitchen, dining and sitting-room, a library, and a separate dormitory. A small safe, or cupboard, for food, convenience for shoe blacking, fire, gas, and water, bed and bedding, all provided for 4d. per night, or 2s. 4d. per week in one lodging-house, the Sunday being paid for, and in another, 2s. per week, the Sunday not being charged.

The average daily number of unoccupied beds during the year has not exceeded three in the largest establishment, and in the smaller ones it has even been lower. The lodgers are not merely casual ones, there are many who have been occupants of their apartments for six, eight, and ten years; and pictures and other little articles of ornament show that they feel a pride and a pleasure in the home which has been provided for them. The library consists in some cases of several hundred volumes, and the news room is supplied, by the subscription of the lodgers themselves of 1d. per week, with The Morning Chronicle, weekly papers, the “Cornhill Magazine,” and some other cheap serials. The rooms for families are on flats, arranged in sets of two, three, and four rooms, each having its own scullery and kitchen, and being perfectly isolated from each other. The flats have a common stone staircase, and the building is entirely fire-proof. The rent varies from 4s. to 6s. per week, according to the number and size of the apartments.

The experience of the society has shown that with all this excellent accommodation can be provided, and produce a net profit of from 6 to 6½ per cent. per annum on the outlay, and this, too, in the case of the Streatham-street building, where the land upon which it is erected cost the society not less than £1,400. This return is obtained, not from the miserable and dilapidated houses such as abound in the rookeries in the neighbourhood of St. Giles’s, Drury-lane, and Hatton-garden, but from substantial brick and stone buildings which, to all appearance, will last a century. The investment is not only a safe and a profitable one, but the dividends are supplied by a healthy, happy, and contented people, and not wrung by remorseless agents from the poor, the wretched, the diseased, and the dying, who crowd in the pestilent air, or shiver in the damp and cold of their unwholesome dwellings. The appearance of a dozen or so of gentlemen in the filthy back streets and slums, where some of these model lodging-houses are erected, created no little excitement; and through the broken panes of windows, on filthy door steps, in reeking gutters, in dark and cheerless alleys, shoeless and half-clad children, with faces wasted by disease and want, or sharpened into unnatural precocity; women the most abandoned of their sex, telling by their shameless effrontery and their tattered garments how low the degradation into which they have fallen; the professional mendicant, the thief, and the besotted victim of drink, all gazed wonderingly at this advent of respectability in these purlieus of vice, and some of them, with recollections of the Sessions-house or the Old Bailey, said the visitors were “Gentlemen of the jury.” We would earnestly recommend any person desirous of learning something of that secret which one half of the world is said not to know, viz., how the other half lives, to visit the sites of these lodging-houses, and if they should be struck with the amount of wretchedness which will meet their eyes, they will certainly agree with us in the opinion that an extension of the model lodging-houses of the Society for Improving the Dwellings of the Labouring Classes would go far to provide a remedy for a state of things disgraceful to a Christian country, and destructive of the best and noblest qualities of our working population.

The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, June 23, 1860.