Most people, it’s probably fair to say, have little surface interest in working-class housing. Only on the surface though. House and home are key things that define a particularly English mentality – if an Englishman’s home is not necessarily a literal castle, it still doesn’t mean that the king of England is allowed in (William Pitt, 1763: “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!”). This belies the fact, however, that until early in the twentieth century only about a quarter of the population owned the house in which they lived, and the remainder had to let. Sometimes, even wealthy folk rented their own home; but most commonly, rentals were on short-ish terms, decreasing down to weekly lets for the poorest working class families, or if you were unlucky enough to be part of that utterly destitute residuum, maybe even nightly lodgings.
The outcome of this was a hierarchy of types of housing, so that there is no one “working-class housing”. Cheerfully for one who is a geographer by background, there is terrific spatial variation within this country alone of housing form, based on physical geography, land tenure, population and a multitude of other factors. I’m hoping to elaborate on some of these in the next few posts in the hope that it’ll help me get my head around the differing types and styles.
The debate around where the poor ought to, or could, live and how they ought to, or could, live, seems to be influenced by two major factors: supply and demand. The late 18th and 19th centuries, when the working class first came to notice, were the era of laissez-faire economics, i.e. we the government will leave you alone to conduct your business; but we don’t want to hear if there’s any grief. This means that supply and demand of goods, labour or houses were affected very critically by the basic laws of economics, as formalised by the likes of Smith and Ricardo and critiqued by Marx. If you have a massive increase in demand for housing, such as that triggered by the massive population growth from the mid 18th century, then the laws of economics dictate that the price (i.e. rent, because the majority of population were very much in the renting, rather than home-buying, class) will rise, and that sooner or later supply will increase to match the new level of demand.
Which is fine, if wages are going to increase alongside the increase in cost of living. It’s rarely that straightforward unfortunately – wages are a lot more liable to fluctuate than rents (particularly true during the long nineteenth century). By the same economic logic, if you have an increase in supply of labour, the price paid for that labour (i.e. wages) will tend to fall, meaning that those new individuals in need of a home actually have less money to spend on a place to live, the price of which has also risen – doubly screwed.
The search for the elusive economic equilibrium proved a somewhat inadequate way of meeting the needs of the industrial workforce. Far too often, their living spaces were cramped, overcrowded, poorly constructed and unsanitary, because given the vagaries of the national/global economy it proved more cost-effective for landlords to provide such for a workforce with weak effective demand, than to build high-quality, long-lasting structures. This is of course a mass generalisation with plenty of exceptions, but the story stands that the poorer you were, the worse you lived, and the less you could do about it.
Most commentators see in this an inevitability about the intervention of state in housing provision, and I find this more persuasive than envisaging a laissez-faire economy fixing the problem itself. However, my own research will be looking at just that – to what extent the free market succeeded (or failed) to provide a dignified and decent home for its labourers in the Black Country (and of course having a look at whether the Victorian idea of dignified and decent matches our own). SPOILER ALERT: at least as far as my case study goes, it failed.