The Housing Problem in Victorian London

Bachelor Thesis, 2014

40 Pages, Grade: 2,1



1. Introduction

2. Living Conditions in 19th Century London
2.1. Dwellings
2.2. Lodging Houses
2.3. Workhouses

3. Chroniclers of the Poor
3.1. Henry Mayhew
3.2. George Sims
3.3. George Booth

4. Attempts to Solve the Housing Problem
4.1. Social Policies
4.2. Philanthropist’s Approaches

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

The housing problem was probably the most urgent and dangerous social problem that Victorian society had to face. Through industrialisation and population explosion, population in cities, especially in London rose to a level that made it difficult to house all these people. Moreover, public transport was only developing and very expensive so that people were not mobile enough to live in suburban areas. So how did Victorian society try to tackle this problem? Did they try to tackle it at all?

Today’s idea of Victorian London seems to be a mixture of elegant urban villas for the upper classes and dirty slums for the working classes. It appeared to be a clear distinction between the classes and overcrowding was an inevitable evil in the slums. Too many people and too little space, as space in the city was limited and could not be expanded. However, as the slums were a nidus for diseases and criminality of all kinds, something had to be done about them.

In this paper, I want to explore how circumstances in Victorian London have been, how they were depicted for a middle and upper class audience and how they tried to do something about the situation. First, I am going to talk about how the working classes lived in London and depict the different kinds of accommodation they lived in. The Dwellings, which were probably still the best kind of housing a working class family could have lived in, then there were the lodging houses, which provided only a bed in a large dormitory, and the workhouses, which were the last resort for people who did not have anything to lose.

Secondly, I am going to depict how middle class authors and researchers tried to evoke attention for the situation in the London slums to a middle and upper class audience. Henry Mayhew and George Sims published reports about the poor. These reports are shocking to read and definitely aroused attention through their vivid and descriptive depictions of the grievances in the London slums. Moreover, I will deal with Charles Booth, who is one of the founders of social surveys and tried to evaluate poverty with the means of statistics and this way, provided data to prove the dimensions of poverty.

Thirdly, I am going to describe how Victorian society tried to tackle the problems. There were attempts to solve them by social policies and the establishment of housing regulations. Furthermore, Philanthropists tried to help people through giving them appropriate housing and education. I am going to investigate in how far these attempts were useful and successful.

2. Living Conditions in 19th Century London

The 19th century was the century of urbanisation, industrialisation and population explosion. During this century, the society changed from living in mostly rural communities to a society where most people lived in urban areas. In the time of Queen Victoria’s reign Britain’s population had doubled. In 1851, for the first time in history, more people lived in cities than in rural areas.[1]

This population growth caused many different problems that were most acute in the fast-growing cities, especially in London. In 1870, every eight minutes someone died in London and every 5 minutes a baby was born.[2] This had to lead to space problems eventually, especially as the building industry did not consider the needs of the growing working classes in the cities. We find evidence considering statistics that show the growth of the population density. At the beginning of the century, 20.9 people per acre lived in London and this number even doubled within the following hundred years.[3] The figures of the average inhabitants of each house grew from 7.72 to 7.85. This does not seem too dramatic, but we can assume that these figures do not represent the truth, since many more people lived in those houses than reported to the officials.[4]

One can easily think that the population growth mainly was strained by people coming to London from other parts of the country or the world. In fact, most of the population in Victorian London and especially the slum population had been second or later generation Londoners.[5] Nonetheless, many people came from the areas immediately surrounding London, as jobs were better paid in London or at least the rumour of better wages was persistent.[6]

Even though the population was ceaselessly increasing, the death rate was increasing as well, not least because of the crowded living conditions. The report from the London County Council’s Medical Officer of Health from the 1890’s, shows that the more people that live in narrow spaces, the higher the death rate. Not only the high amount of people living in maybe only one or two rooms but also the sanitary situation affected the health of the people living in the slums of London. It is also shown by the fact that there is a heavier mortality for city children than there is for children in rural areas.[7] The biggest problem was probably the water supply of the tenements as it was not a free commodity. Mostly, people could get water from water pipes shared by a whole community and a yearly rate had to be paid.[8] None of this facilitated the cleanliness of the slum dwellers. The 19th century stereotype often linked the two terms ‘poor’ and ‘filth’[9], which was not made easier by the fact that cleanliness was maybe harder to maintain than in a suburban area.

Slums were dangerous for the health of its inhabitants but also for their morals.[10] The city had always also been a place of social danger, especially the East End, which reached tragic fame, not least through the Ripper murder case in 1888. The East End was the part of town in which many criminals were living, as the docks were located there and it made it easy for them to find refuge. Observers were concerned that respected people living in the East End might get infected by the criminals and the East End would finally turn into a place of anarchy.[11]

Nowadays, London is known for its high rents and living costs but back then the situation was not much better. In general, at any place with limited space but still a high demand for accommodation, market forces take their toll and force people to pay high rents for unsatisfactory housing. A 19th century London labourer had to spend from a fifth up to a half of his income on rent.[12] Now, one can argue that living outside the city in the suburbs is much nicer and cheaper, but you have to take into consideration that public transport that back then public transport was just developing and there was not any affordable means of transport for the working classes. Moreover, many workers needed to be in immediate walking distance of their workplaces, as for example the dockworkers in the East End, who had to be able to quickly come to the docks whenever a new ship arrived.[13]

On the other hand, many people moved house frequently, when only in small circuit. Lord Shaftesbury estimated that around 70,000 people did not stay longer than 3 months in one place.[14] Many of them left, leaving their waste and went to another accommodation. Just as there were many people moving house frequently, there were many homeless. In 1887, the vestry of St. Martin-in-the-Fields had complained about the many homeless sleeping on Trafalgar Square.[15] We can see that although people lived in the worst and most crowded accommodations, there still was not enough to house all the people in London, particularly not enough affordable accommodation.

Generally, you can say that the population density is linked to the occupations of the inhabitants, as where most people are unemployed the population density is at its highest, whereas where most people had a job, most inhabitants could afford decent housing for themselves and their families.[16] Looking at the reports from this time, one sees the 19th century working classes in London were regarded as passive victims who could not move and better their situation as they relied on their place of work and on staying close to it. They could not establish an effective demand for good working class housing unlike the labourers in Manchester did.[17]

For a better understanding of the poor living conditions, we shall have a closer look at how people lived in different kinds of housing provided for the working class in Victorian London, particularly how people lived in tenements, followed by the living conditions in lodging houses and a final focus on workhouses.

2.1. Dwellings

Most members of the working classes lived in subdivided properties or tenement dwellings.[18] It was popular amongst house owners to subdivide their houses or dwellings to maximise the number of people living there and their income from rent. Furthermore, not only houses already built with the intention to house the working classes but also houses formerly occupied by middle or upper classes were now, as they had moved to different parts of the city or the suburbs, transformed to house several working class families.[19] Reports from that time impressively show how bad the situation actually was.

85 Hanbury Street in the East End, for example, was a house with nine rooms, all occupied by different families with an average of seven people. The house had only one toilet and people preferred to use their chamber pots, which is not surprising by an amount of about 63 people sharing one toilet. The problem here was that those pots often remained in the rooms for a long period of time before they were emptied, which is also a reason why the sanitary conditions were disastrous. It is remarkable that the tenants of this house were still described as respectable people. Just imagine how living conditions for people with an even lower social standing might have looked like.[20]

Another example is Sultan Street in the south of London. The buildings on this street, around 70 with six rooms each, were built between 1868 and 1871. By 1871, 661 people lived in these houses, which means that 9 to 10 people lived in each house, which cannot even be described as a situation of overcrowding. Ten years later however, 1038 people lived in this street, an average amount of almost 15 per house. In 14 percent of the houses even 19 or more people had to live. That clearly shows how fast a street that had just been built could turn into an overcrowded slum. Not only was this street overcrowded, also the surrounding did not look too good. Cowsheds and piggeries were squeezed where space was left between the houses and in the neighbourhood there was a glue factory, a linoleum factory and a brewery, so that all kinds of odours could be smelled in that area of London[21]

Another example for the rapid growth of the population in certain neighbourhoods is Church Lane in Westminster, where the population living in a row of 27 houses grew from 655 inhabitants to 1095 within six years.[22] This means that the average number of inhabitants rose from 24 to about 41 per house. An incredible amount of people came to this street in only six years. It is not surprising that housing could not keep up with such high demand in such a short time. These figures also give us the opportunity to imagine how such overcrowded conditions could have been established and how it must have felt. We can imagine how things would change if the inhabitants of our neighbourhood would suddenly double in only a matter of a few years and which social and sanitary problems that would even cause in our much more technologically developed society.

The worst rooms people lived in in those tenements were cellar dwellings. One Medical Officer described them as “small and damp, and often crowded with inhabitants to excess”[23]. These cellar rooms were often not originally designed for people to live in. As there was such limited space in the city people were crammed in every little bit of room to maximise the property owners profits and to prevent people from living in the streets. That people lived voluntarily in such terrible conditions shows that they hardly had any choice. They had to take whatever they could find, as to not live in the workhouse or on the streets. Any form of accommodation, no matter in what horrible condition, immediately found its tenant.[24] The worst cellar dwellings were those not intended for living at all, as they were intended for storage of coals and did not have a proper access or sufficient lighting or ventilation. It is hard to imagine how people lived in these conditions but they did and might have considered themselves lucky to have shelter at all.

2.2. Lodging Houses

Common Lodging Houses provided beds in large dormitories that could be paid per night. They were originally designed for temporary accommodation for young men searching for work. In the course of the 19th century, they turned more and more into the only housing poor people and their families could afford since it was cheaper than living in one of the tenements and it also saved the expenses for furniture. It was an easy way for people who did not have a regular income to find a bed to sleep, though without having the luxury of privacy.[25]

Lodging houses have probably been the most criticized and condemned type of housing in London. They were criticized either because of their poor sanitary conditions or because of the low morals of its inhabitants. The lodging houses were well known for their overcrowded conditions and the “promiscuous mixing of the sexes”[26]. Many reports of overcrowding in lodging houses can be found. For example, one of fifteen people sleeping in one room, three or four people had to share beds and all kinds of different people had to share this room no matter what sex or age.[27] Another one reports that 27 adults, 31 children and up to three dogs lived in one room measuring 18 by 10 feet, which is less than 17 square metres.[28]

The sanitary conditions were as bad as the overcrowding. If people had to go to the toilet, they often could only use an uncovered tub in the corner of the room. Imagining the 58 people we learned about in the last example used this tub in their rather small room gives us an impression of how living conditions must have been. Another report informs us about a woman who was confined in one room with five other men giving birth to her baby and no one came to assist her. The next day when our eyewitness came to visit her, she was nursing a baby. When she was asked if this was her baby she pointed at the corner to show that her baby was dead, so she was nursing another woman’s baby.[29] This shows which tragedies took place in these lodging houses and how people had to suffer and how living in a lodging house could be dangerous for the health of the inhabitants. Not least, there were reports about all kinds of vermin people living in a lodging house had to live with. This is not a surprise considering the overcrowding and the bad sanitary situation. It is even reported about one man who deliberately committed a crime to be sent to prison to be cleansed.[30]

All kinds of different people lived in lodging houses, men and women looking for work, families who could not afford any other kind of housing but refused to go into the workhouse, people who had lost their jobs and their standing in society and you had thieves and prostitutes. Especially the moral indecency and the danger for respectable people to get in touch with criminals and get “infected” was debated among the contemporaries. The report of the Lodging Houses of London from 1846 quotes two men who had become criminal by staying in a lodging house. “If a lad ever goes into a lodging-house, it’s all up with him”[31], one of the men said. Many people who came to the lodging houses did not have a regular income and had problems to provide for their families or themselves. They were easy prey for the criminals who also lived in those lodging houses, as people saw how easy it could be to earn a living when being immoral.


[1] Lampard, Eric E. The Urbanizing World. (The Victorian City. Ed. H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 197) 10.

[2] Ackroyd, Peter. London – The Biography. (London: Vintage, 2001) 576.

[3] Banks, J. A. The Contagion of Numbers.( The Victorian City. Ed. H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973) 106.

[4] Gray, Drew D. London’s Shadows. (London: Continuum, 2010) 123.

[5] Dyos, H. J., and Reeder, D. A. Slums and Suburbs. (The Victorian City. Ed. H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973) 373.

[6] Ibid. 362.

[7] Lampard 23.

[8] Gauldie, Enid: Cruel Habitations. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974) 75.

[9] Hwang, Haewon. London’s Underground Spaces: Representing the Victorian City, 1840-1915. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2013) 20.

[10] Wohl, Anthony S. Unfit for Human Habitation. (The Victorian City. Ed. H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973) 612.

[11] Gray 124.

[12] Ibid. 122.

[13] Ibid. 122.

[14] Gauldie 79.

[15] Gray 117.

[16] Dyos/Reeder 368.

[17] Gray 62.

[18] Harris, Bernard. The Origins of the British Welfare State. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.) 129.

[19] Olsen, Donald J. The Growth of Victorian London. (London: Batsford, 1976) 266.

[20] Gray 124.

[21] Dyos/Reeder 374f.

[22] Harris 129.

[23] Ibid. 129.

[24] Gauldie 86.

[25] Gray 130.

[26] Samuel, Raphael. Comers and Goers. (The Victorian City. Ed. H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973) 127.

[27] The Lodging-Houses of London. (London: Seeley, Burnside, and Seeley, 1846) 4.

[28] Ibid. 6.

[29] Ibid. 6.

[30] Ibid. 7.

[31] Ibid. 4.

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The Housing Problem in Victorian London
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