Thursday, October 1, 2009

Whitecross Street, London

Peabody's buildings

In the last four decades of the 19th century, London faced a housing crisis. The working poor were tied to central London because that was where the jobs were. But even a room or small flat in a central area cost a large proportion of the weekly wage – perhaps more than one third of the income of a family trying to manage on a pound a week. And such a room provided often cramped, ill-maintained, and unsanitary accommodation. Landlords were more interested in the bottom line than in helping tenants, and there were sometimes middlemen, leaseholders who had to make a profit for themselves before passing on the remainder of the rent to the ground landlord. Slums abounded, disease was rife, discomfort the norm.

Before the Cheap Trains Act of 1883 brought down fares, moving to the suburbs, where rents were lower, was out of the question for most whose sole chance of employment was in central London. A few managed by renting a house slightly bigger than they needed and subletting one or two rooms to help pay the rent (some of my own ancestors got by in this way). But even this solution required an income somewhat higher than rock-bottom. So the poor mostly clung on in rookeries of rooms and flats, subdivided houses, and depressing back-to-backs.

A few visionaries looked for ways to improve things. Some started ethical property companies, promising investors a lower return than a slum landlord would expect, and providing decent, modern housing. Still more radical was the British-resident American banker and philanthropist George Peabody, who founded the Peabody Trust in the early 1860s to build and manage housing for the poor.

The Peabody Trust built apartments in multi-storey blocks, designed to offer clean, decent accommodation mostly in one- two- and three-roomed units. They had built just over 5,000 dwellings by 1887, including this block in the Whitecross Street area, one of a number of such buildings south of Old Street and north of the Barbican.

Peabody’s flats were much needed and much appreciated. With their multiple bedrooms, not to mention WCs and laundry rooms, they were much better than the usual rented dwellings of the time. There were plenty of takers, who probably found more space, better hygiene, and lighter rooms than they had had before. It wasn’t all good news, though. Not everyone could afford the rents and many of the poor who were displaced to build the blocks did not find accommodation there. But the flats fulfilled a need, offering decent housing at high density in the centre of town.

From today’s perspective, the flats, with their austere rows of windows and high walls relieved only with a little striped brickwork look somewhat forbidding. Inside, the one example I’ve been in seemed very cramped by modern standards. They compare well with many a 1960s or 1970s flat, though, and they are still fulfilling a need. Today Peabody manages around 20,000 homes in London, making it possible for some 50,000 people to live near the centre of the capital.


The Wartime Housewife said...

My sister and I lived in a similar housing project in London called The Guinness Trust. The flats were simple, well maintained and cheap. A happy time.

James said...

I always find it interesting to see those brick filled windows usually on 19th century buildings.
I'd like to have a look inside this one.

Peter Ashley said...

That's so informative, thankyou. One item of exterior decoration puzzles me, the inset roundel at the centre of your picture. I've seen these before, and was lead to believe that they were, surprisingly, for roosting birds whose arborial homes had been uprooted. I wouldn't have thought that Peabody's philanthropy would've run this far though.

Hels said...

An important source of information about housing comes, surprisingly, from old census data. I had a copy of my grandmother's information from the 1901 return, based on one block of flats in the East End of London. Each of the eight families in the block of flats gave the head of household's name, his wife, each child, each person's age and occupation, any boarders and the number of rooms available. My grandmother lived with her parents, her 9 siblings and an uncle in 3-4 rooms.

However she was delighted to be safely out of Eastern Europe and she loved school. Her dad and uncle both had skilled jobs (boot makers) so life was relatively good. And I suppose housing was a nightmare in most of the East End, so comparisons would not have been useful.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter - I think the roundels are just decorative. They wouldn't accommodate many birds.

Helen - These census records and the overcrowding they reveal are truly remarkable. But numbers like those weren't unusual, I think, even in a skilled worker's family. Jerry White's Rothschild Buildings: Life in an East End Tenement Block is a fascinating and often moving account of the kind of life many people had in the East End in this period.

Avis said...

I lived in this very block 2005 - 2006 in a 1 bedroomed flat. The living room and bedroom were a good size, high ceilings, light and airy. The scullery kitchen was tiny, no space for a washing machine, bathroom was OK. There are 4 flats on each landing, originally two flats shared a washouse and toilet, the original coal cupboard is still in hall. This was a good standard for the 1880's when the flats were built. I understand that the washouse/toilets were not removed until the 1970's. The sound proofing was poor and you could clearly hear the couple upstairs having fun day and night. No lift, everything was lugged up 4 flights of stairs. In the 1901 Census a couple with 5 children lived in my flat, it would have been rather snug. I moved out in 2006, the block was eerily quiet and the drug addict opposite made me a bit nervous, too many visits from the police. But it was interesting living there. Avis

Philip Wilkinson said...

Avis: Many thanks for your comment. Great to have this insight into what it was like living in one of these flats.