Working class housing during the period 1834-1948

In 1834 the government did not consider the conditions under which the working class were housed to be a matter in which it should be involved. Yet by 1948 the state of housing was one of the major issues on the political agenda. The period between these dates saw a progressive involvement of both national and local government in the living conditions of the working class. This essay will explore the reasons why this gradual governmental intrusion evolved.

A primary reason why both central and local government became more concerned about the state of working class housing was a consequence of political developments. In 1834 Britain was ruled by an oligarchy. The enfranchised felt no obligation to concern themselves with the living conditions of their workers, who themselves had no direct political power. Indeed, improving the living conditions of the working class would have imposed an increased tax burden upon the voting population.

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Nevertheless, in the period that followed 1834 government became increasingly aware of the appalling conditions being endured by workers in large towns and cities and some significant legislation that impacted upon living conditions, such as the Common Lodging Houses Act 1851 and the Nuisances Removal Act 1855 was introduced. A crucial shift in political power emerged as a result of the 1867 Reform Bill. This gave voting rights to a sufficient number of working class men to ensure that the needs of that section of society could no longer be ignored.

Government involvement regarding working class conditions therefore soon became more direct. The 1872 Public Health Act first ensured that all local governments were for the first time compelled to concern themselves with living conditions in their areas and then the 1875 Artisans Dwelling Act gave them powers to clear whole districts of unsatisfactory housing. The year 1900 saw the formation of the Labour Representation Committee and the beginnings of the Labour Party. Workers were now not only being increasingly franchised but also had their own political party.

Furthermore in 1918 working women over thirty received the vote and by this time the Labour Party was polling 22% of the national vote. Government was now not only involved in clearing slums but in providing affordable housing for the country’s workforce. The consequence of war is another factor which had an impact upon government intervention concerning housing. In the two decades between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and 1834 soldiers who had fought for their country in France and returned only to find unemployment had begun to voice an idea that the state might have some responsibility for the wellbeing of all of its citizens.

By the Boar War in 1901 the worrying prospect of national deterioration finally stimulated government to accept this responsibility. At the end of the First World War the government found it politically expedient to promise returning soldiers ‘homes fit for heroes’. This political promise committed the state to a major involvement with housing over the whole inter-war period and over 4 million houses were built of which 1. 5 million were constructed by local authorities, to relatively high specifications, specifically for rent by working classes families.

The Second World War and the Blitz saw the destruction or damage of almost a third of this stock of homes. This meant that in 1948 government involvement in the state of housing was once again a pressing issue. Another issue that forced the government to become involved with working class housing was the rate at which urbanisation occurred. In 1834 this process was already underway but particularly in the fifty years between 1850 and 1900 many cities grew enormously. Populations of towns such as Blackpool or Middlesbrough increased more than ten fold and London increased from 2.8 million to 6. 5 million.

Accommodation in the cities could simply not cope with this influx and this led to acute overcrowding and the rapid construction of poor quality new homes. The problems this period generated ultimately demanded government legislation, and therefore involvement. It was not until the late 1930s that a theoretical sufficiency of housing had finally been achieved, and the determination to finally provide the nation with adequate housing became so strong that even through the worst of the depression government house-building schemes continued.

The demands of the Second World War meant that government involvement in housing had to shift towards the repair of blitzed buildings so that in 1945 Britain was once again short of 500,000 new homes, with a further one house in three, largely in the urban major areas, being damaged or destroyed by bombing. The following five years therefore saw unprecedented government involvement with aircraft factories being retooled to prefabricate dwellings and whole colonies of ‘prefabs’ being built.

Britain produced more new houses in the following five years than any other country. With the consequences of urbanisation came the increased likelihood of disease and the risk of epidemics was another reason why governments became involved in working class housing conditions. Between 1831 and 1866 four cholera epidemics combined to kill an estimated 130,000 people. By 1854 John Snow had established that cholera was a water-borne disease and the need for drastic action with regard to sewage and water supplies was recognised.

Though prior to 1868 the government introduced no significant legislation specifically concerned with housing, the risk of disease forced it to become ever more concerned with the health of working people of which the state of their accommodation was integral part. As a greater understanding of the real causes of disease developed the health risks posed by poor housing were fully appreciated, and government began to undertake direct actions, so that in 1875 the Artisans Dwelling Act gave local authorities the power to demolish whole areas of substandard dwellings.

Finally an increasing concern by central and local government to improve working class housing emerged as a response to the contributions of a few significant individuals. In 1834 Edwin Chadwick was already an established political figure and in 1842 he produced an important report on the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain. In this he established beyond reasonable doubt the crucial connection between overcrowding, epidemics and death.

From this moment onwards housing became a public health issue which needed to be addressed by the government. In 1866 John Simon was the key mover behind the sanitary act which increased government involvement by making it compulsory for all local authorities to deal with the physical conditions under which the working class lived. With regard to housing, within two years the government had introduced the Torrens Act which gave local authorities the right to demolish unsatisfactory houses.

Around the turn of the century social investigators such as Seebohm Rowntree and Charles Booth provided such alarming evidence about the living conditions in London and York that greater government involvement regarding public health issues including housing appeared to be required. Finally in his 1942 report William Beveridge identified squalor as one of the five giants on the road of reconstruction and social progress. The determination to tackle this ‘giant’ was one of the driving forces behind the massive government involvement in housing the working classes directly after the Second World War.

Urbanisation created such a crisis during the 19th century that, all other influences aside, governments would probably not have been able to avoid eventually being caught up with issues which concerned working class housing. The increasing extent to which the state and local government did become involved, however, was the result of a combination of several factors. The most significant of these were probably the practical need to eliminate major urban epidemics and the consequences of the progressive enfranchisement of the working classes.

This latter development meant that working class concerns, of which housing was one, had to be seriously addressed. The impacts of war must also be taken into account because the promise of a better world for returning soldiers after 1918 was a commitment that firmly locked governments into the issue of housing throughout the 1930s and the need to overcome the destruction of the blitz in 1945 finally forced housing to become one of governments most pressing concerns.