Saturday, June 8, 2019

Redcross Way, London

Five per cent philanthropy

The second half of the 19th century saw those in power taking belated but welcome interest in the health and wellbeing of the English working classes, and a major issue was providing poor people with adequate housing. This was a particularly pressing issue in big cities, where slums abounded, rents were often high, and tenancies were precarious. The need was publicised not only by works of the likes of Friedrich Engels, but also by the efforts of various high-ranking advocates and philanthropists, not least Prince Albert himself, who was president of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes. An example of a ‘model cottage’ (actually four flats on two floors) was built in Hyde Park for the 1851 Great Exhibition – it was rebuilt in Kennington Park the following year.

Soon, other campaigners took up the challenge of building better homes for the poor, and a number of organisations were set up. The usual idea was to attract investment in companies that would provide decent homes for poor people. The investors would get a reasonable, but not excessive, return on their investment, foregoing big profits for the satisfaction of helping those in need – hence such schemes were sometimes referred to as ‘five per cent philanthropy’. A number of housing organisations started in this way. Perhaps the most famous was the Peabody Trust, founded with a large donation from the banker George Peabody. The flats in my picture were built by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, started by Sir Sydney Waterlow, printer, banker, and Liberal politician. Waterlow set the company up in 1863 with capital of £50,000 and by 1900 it was said to be housing some 30,000 people in London.
Cromwell Buildings, in Southwark, a stone’s throw from the one of the railway lines that snake their way above this part of South London, was one block of flats built by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company. This five-storey block now has ten flats. Originally the block housed 24 units: 10 flats with four rooms, 12 with 3 rooms, and 2 shops. The flats were said to be modelled along the lines of the prince’s model cottage, and each had its own proper cooking facilities and WC. The balconies are a common feature of this type of workers’ housing, intended to provide fresh air. Good ventilation and adequate space were priorities in communities in which people had been forced to live in cramped accommodation with few windows. So was adequate sanitation – apparently the rooms containing the lavatories jut out at the back, promoting good air flow.

Housing like this benefitted the working classes hugely in late-Victorian and Edwardian London. However, even the flats were out of reach of the very poor. Most of the tenants of the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company seem to have been skilled artisans, together with people who worked in services such as the police, plus a handful of labourers. Even so, their impact was huge. It has been estimated that in Southwark alone, about ten per cent of the population lived in blocks built and run by companies and trusts like the IIDC and Peabody. Most of the dwellings are still dong good service today.

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For earlier pieces on model dwellings, see my post on the ornate examples in Pimlico here and the plainer but admirable Peabody flats here.


Joe Treasure said...

I became familiar with Peabody Trust buildings when I lived near the Elephant and Castle, but didn't know any of this history. When I look up "5% per cent philanthropy" online, listed with Peabody and other organisations I find the Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company. In Trollope's Palliser novels there are a number of references to putting your money "in the four per cents" as a prudent alternative to riskier speculation. I wonder if it was this kind of philanthropic investment Trollope was referring to.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Very likely this kind of investment, Joe. There were clearly some companies that offered just a four per cent return - more kudos for a more modest income, perhaps.