Sylvia Pankhurst 1918
Source: E. Sylvia Pankhurst, “Housing & the Workers’ Revolution – Housing in Capitalist Britain and Bolshevik Russia” W.S.F. Publication pamphlet;
Published: by The Workers’ Socialist Federation, 400, Old Ford Road, E.3., 18 pages, price sixpence, 1918;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
10 and 11 Lime Street,
London, 30th March, 1917.
As Solicitors for Louisa Amy Leatherdale, the freeholder of the forecourt or garden in front of the house No. – , Grove Road, Bow, E., we give you notice that you have no right of way, light, air, water, drainage, user, or other rights as owner or occupier over to, from, or through, such forecourt or garden, in respect of or in connection with the said house; and that if you use or attempt to use such forecourt or garden in any way, whether for the purposes aforesaid, or any of them, or otherwise, you are a trespasser in respect of all and every one of the matters aforesaid from the 25th March instant, and will be held responsible for such.
Ward and Asplin.
This letter marks the beginning of a very remarkable story, which has a striking moral for us all at the present time. A copy of it was served upon the owner and all the tenants of a row of twelve workers’ cottages in Grove Road, Stepney, by a certain Mr. Moore, whose daughter, Mrs. Leatherdale, now dead, is referred to as “the freeholder,” but whom the tenants think had little or nothing to do with the matter. It is possible that in cases of this kind some men may find it convenient to shelter behind the identity of a daughter. The houses in Victoria Terrace had been built for many years when Mr. Moore served his notice upon the tenants. The gardens in front of the houses are fifteen or twenty feet long, from their front doors to their iron gates, which open into the street, they had a paved walk down the centre, and a grass plot or a flower-bed on either side. The tenants had set great store by these, and had tended them carefully, so that they formed a welcome patch of colour in the grey East End. But that was of no moment to Mr. Moore, who had suddenly found himself in possession of a strip of land!
Having served his notices, Mr. Moore acted quickly; he insisted that all the front doors should be locked; and that the gas, water, and drainage system, which had reached the houses through the soil that was his must be taken up. Either these necessaries must be connected with the homes of the people through some-one else’s land or not at all. Then he erected a hoarding in front of the houses, building it close up against the windows, so that no ray of his light, and no breath of his air, could find their way into the dwellings.
What miserable rooms were now the front parlours and best bedrooms of the little houses, since Mr. Moore had deprived them of all light and ventilation! One of the inmates lay in bed with her new-born baby, and saw the light and air gradually shut away. At the rear of the houses is a narrow passage but five feet across, with a high wall on either side, and entered only from one end, an ignominious sort of entrance indeed to bring one’s friends to! Pride, however, is not a quality the workers are encouraged to cultivate!
Mr. Moore could now rest content that, though the strip of land in front or the cottages was of no use to him, it was being preserved as his private property. But local feeling was aroused, and in response to local pressure, the L.C.C. proceeded against Mr. Moore for having contravened the Building Act, by “erecting a hoarding in front of the building line.” Eventually Mr. Dickinson, the Magistrate at Thames Police Court, decided that the hoarding must be removed within fourteen days. At the same time he gave Mr. Moore to understand that, though the high hoarding must come down, a lesser infringement of building line would not be complained of. He said:-
“This is not a small offence, such as it would have been had it been a small boundary erected in delimitation of a boundary. A small fence would have been quite sufficient. The intention in this case is obvious. It is to deprive people from getting light and air. No doubt your client has a right to do so under certain circumstances, but it cannot be done in London, and this is the point.”
Whether the magistrate heaved a sigh of pity for the poor landlord, whose freedom to do as he pleases is limited by the L.C.C., we do not know. Evidently Mr. Ward, Mr. Moore’s legal representative, regarded him as sympathetic, for he replied: –
“That is unfortunately their point. I don’t know whether your Worship can suggest a screen?”
The Magistrate replied: –
“That is not for me to suggest. I don’t think there would be any difficulty.”
It was not for him to suggest, but the adroit and sympathetic magistrate had already insinuated the suggestion. Mr. Moore was not slow to profit by it. He removed the hoarding, and substituted for it a stout wooden paling, which reached nearly to the top of the ground-floor windows, and still largely excluded light and air, making the lower rooms very gloomy, beside preventing the use of the front doors. It seems to us that this paling was in reality as illegal as the hoarding, since it was erected in advance of the building line, but the leaders of local feeling were partially appeased, and the L.C.C. took no further steps.
Twelve years later, in September; 1916, a deputation from the Workers’ Socialist Federation was returning from an interview with a Cabinet Minister, when one of its members called attention to the row of forlorn little houses, with the desolate gardens, in which even the anemic weeds maintained but a shabby existence, and where the high railings blocked the light from the parlour windows. At first we sought in vain for entrance, but at last discovered it behind the corner public-house, and making our way down the narrow alley, discussed the position with the tenants. We found them in terror, lest in some air raid the passage should be blocked and the inmates of the houses caught like rats in a trap.
We realised that even if the passage were not blocked by an exploding bomb, a panic might occur, and we at once laid the matter before the Mayor of Stepney and the London County Council. The L.C.C. gave a promise that our communication should “receive attention.” But months passed and we heard no more till April 30, 1917, when the Council’s solicitor informed us that our letter had been considered by the Building Acts Committee of the Council, and that the matter had been referred to him “With instructions to take such steps as may be possible to remove the danger complained of.” Some time afterwards we heard that a man had called at Victoria Terrace and had told the tenants that the railings were coming down. Believing the question settled, we dismissed the matter from our minds, but the work of removing the railings was delayed until July 9th, 1917, when, after we had notified the authorities that we should bring a band of volunteers to remove the nuisance, it was at last taken down.
But even when the railings were gone the old story was not ended. The landlord of the houses informed the tenants that he had but rented the strip of ground from Mr. Moore for five years, at a rental of £14 a year, and that the tenants of the twelve houses must pay 10d. a week each for the privilege of using their front doors. These payments by the tenants would aggregate £26 a year. All the front-door keys, most of the locks, and some of the knockers had been removed many years ago, and the tenants were now informed that if they desired such conveniences, they must replace them at their own expense. Moreover, Mr. Moore had removed paving stones from the garden paths, which consisted now of sodden mud, overgrown with weeds; the gates and railings were rusty and partially broken. The houses themselves were in a neglected condition. A firegrate in one of them had fallen out twice with the fire in it, and was only supported by a makeshift arrangement of bricks.
The tenants were poor working people. They were already facing a hard struggle to make ends meet. The high prices were forcing them to deprive their children of what they had hitherto considered necessaries. They could not afford to pay higher rents or to execute repairs at their own expense.
One was a soldier’s wife with a month-old baby; her separation allowance was all too small. Another the wife of a man earning wages so low that he was only able to give £1 weekly towards the housekeeping, and there were four little children at home. Her two sons, at the front, used to give her £2. 5s a week. Now she was only getting their allotments of 3s. 6d. each pending elaborate investigations into her claim for separation allowance by the War Office officials, who were inquiring for themselves where the lads worked, what they earned, and so on. Officialdom always makes poor people wait; though the poor have no banking accounts to draw upon.
We advised the tenants not to pay the increased rent demanded in return for the removal of the railings, and wrote to the L.C.C. to this effect. Mr: Moore had never had any rent for the strip of land, and we believed him to be better able to sustain the continued loss of it than the tenants were to pay it.
The story of Victoria Terrace does not merely tell that one man, has behaved like “the dog in the manger,” it illustrates the fact that it is a social sin to allow one man to own land and houses which he does not use and which should be the common property of all.
By way of reprisal for the air raids, rioters wrecked the homes of defenceless working people, because those unfortunate ones happened to be of foreign birth or extraction, though the foreigners had had to bear the same risk of falling bombs as the British, and some of the former also were killed. But the rioters respected the stupid, useless railings, which were a danger to the people in Victoria Terrace, and the tenants themselves meekly bore the insulting erection for thirteen years! Will they endure the re-erection of the railings in 1922?
The Report of the Industrial Unrest Commissioners for South Wales asserts that the fact of there being fewer women than men there “tends to increase the economic dependence of the women in the mining community.”
This curious statement springs from the same misconception of real values which causes people to say that the miners are dependent on the mine-owner, whereas, in truth, exactly the reverse is the case. The mineowner enjoys affluence because of the miners’ toil. Just so the men of the mining community are dependent upon the women who cook their meals, wash their clothes, and clean their homes. Not merely their comfort, but their earning capacity, is increased by the labour of these women. The fewer housewives there are, the greater is the relative dependence upon them of the people who do not do housework, and the more work there is for the housewife to do. The South Wales miners are probably the most highly organised body of workers in the world; their wives take a smaller part in the workers’ movement than the women of many other districts. This is largely because the wives are overworked. The miners have an eight-hour day. Very wisely they are now agitating for a six-hour working day and a five-day working week, but the housewife’s work is never done, and in the mining valleys it is rendered specially arduous.
From the high hill-tops in the sunshine one looks down into the smoky valleys, where are the mines and their machinery, the by-product plants, the great heaps of coal-dust and refuse from the mines, and the little houses of the workers huddled together on whatever space the business of mining may have left for them. The sheep cropping the short grass are roaming freely over the mountains, but if the workers and their children venture to stray from the narrow paths they are frightened off at the instance of the lords of the mine. Down in the valleys the density of population is tremendous, varying, in the small area actually built upon, from 20,000 to upwards of 26,000 people per square mile, as the following table shows:-
|Locality||Persons per sq. mile|
|Rhondda-Foch, Ynyshir, Tylorstown, Ferndale, and Mardy||26,240|
|Pentre Ton, Gelli, and Ystrad||25,600|
|Llwynypia, Clydach Vale, Tonypandy, and Trealaw||23,296|
|Porth, Cymmer, and Hafod||23,040|
|Treherbert, Treorchy; and Cwmparc||20,480|
|Rhondda Urban District (including small portions not in above)||23,680|
These figures are taken from the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Industrial Unrest, 1917.
Before the war it was officially estimated that there was a shortage of 40,000 to 50,000 houses, and as official estimates of what is necessary for the workers are inadequate, the real shortage was of course much greater.
The smoke from the tall mine chimneys fills the lungs; it also makes more work for the housewife. The great heaps of coal-dust and rubbish from the mines approach in height the very hills themselves; in windy weather clouds of dust, blown: from these heaps, add to the housewife’s load of toil. Sometimes the dust heaps cause more than house cleaning, for an avalanche from them engulfs some of the houses. Landslides and subsidences, caused by mining under the villages, also occur, and cracks and leakages in walls and roofs; from the same cause, are common.
As a general rule there are no fitted baths in the houses, and all the water for washing and cleaning must be boiled on the kitchen fire. When the miners come home from work, black from head to foot, it is for the wife to get the bath ready. When, as in some households, there are a husband and sons, or a husband and brothers, working on three different shifts, the housewife must therefore prepare baths and meals at three different times.
The children play in the gutter outside. There is no park or playground for them; their faces are almost as black as those of their collier fathers; their clothes are soon dirty, and often torn, by sliding down the steep sides of the rubbish heaps. There is not only much work, but much anxiety also for the mother, her husband’s livelihood is a perilous one, her children face many dangers. The edge of the quarry is left unfenced. Houses are built within a few feet of sheer precipices. The mining district is regarded as a place for money making; the fact that people live and rear their children there does not count.
At the best, the houses are small and ugly; at worst, they are unfit for cattle. In old districts like Merthyr and Dowlais, back-to-back houses and, worse still, top-and-bottom houses, are common. The top house, or upper half of the building, is entered from an upper street, and the bottom house from a street lower down. The back of the bottom house is built up against the earth; it is always damp, water oozes through it, even pours down it at every rainfall. In some parts the houses are built on the shady side of the hills, and the sun never shines upon them.
If the directors and shareholders of the mining companies had been forced to live with their families amongst the miners, or if the mining industry had been managed by the workers in it, the mining communities would not have been housed like this, and their surroundings, would have been different. Either the houses would have away been placed far from the mines, or the rubbish tips would not have been piled up as they are. Some method would have been discovered by which the refuse could be tipped into the disused workings, or some other means of dealing with it would have been found.
But there is no reason why the workers’ houses should be huddled around the mines. The minefield is only 18 miles across at its widest point, and one need not go outside that area to find wide stretches of verdant country. Free railways could swiftly take the workers on to the neighbouring hilltops, or away into greener fields.
It is never too late to mend. When is the mending process to begin in the South Wales mining valleys and in the dismal little streets of the great cities?
“What do you expect in a model house?” someone asks us. A moment’s thought conjures up many requirements which should be considered essential to every home, but which in almost every working-class home are lacking. Each adult member is surely entitled to at least one room of his or her own (and whoever works or studies all day at home should have two rooms). There should be a place, to sit in, a place to meet friends in, a place to read and be quiet in, a place out of doors where the children can play in fine warm weather, and a place indoors for wet, cold weather, furnished with toys and childish things. These are essential, but the problem of cleaning and tidying must be taken into account, for the housewife must not be an overworked slave.
Co-operation can overcome many difficulties. Imagine a street of thirty houses, most of which are tenanted by families consisting of a mother and father and five children. Suppose that each house contains a large kitchen, a small scullery, a large sitting room, and two smaller sitting-rooms, a covered verandah (not built, as verandahs usually are, in front of the only windows letting light into one or two of the rooms) also four bedrooms, if the children are still very young, with the possibility of building three more over the verandah and scullery as the family grows older.
Each house has its own garden, which opens on to a strip of common ground at the back. There is, perhaps, a general wash-house, with a clothes boiler, clothes washing-basin, and drainer, artificial drying cupboard, and mangle for each family. This is a temporary arrangement, of course, for presently it will be agreed that washing is a trade which should be carried on quite apart from the home. There is also a common playroom for the children. A common furnace provides steam heating for this playroom, hot water for the wash house and for the thirty houses. Every room in every house contains an inconspicuous steam radiator, like that used in modern hotels, which may be turned on or off as the occupant desires, and is supplied from the same common furnace without extra cost. Each room, of course, contains also an open fireplace for those who like coal fires. Not too far away, but convenient for perhaps a hundred houses (for, at least at first, many households may not use it) is a communal restaurant. Here families may choose what they like from the tariff, or may give separate orders for special food to be cooked for them, or buying the uncooked food for themselves, may bring it to be cooked. Such a system is already in force in the flats at Clement’s Inn, London, W.C., for the benefit of the well-to-do. The food at our imaginary communal kitchens may be eaten on the premises or taken home, and according to the temperament of the group of householders or the number to be catered for, there may be a special restaurant staff, or the housewives may take turns to do restaurant work.
Periodical meetings of those who use these various facilities gradually develop further details. A reading-room containing daily and weekly papers is probably added, and there may be books on loan from a central circulating library.
The houses, not jerry-built and loaded with work-making knick-knackery, are well designed and strongly built. They are simply but comfortably furnished, and, if decorated at all, only with a few really beautiful objects. In Oberammergau, the home of the Passion Play, the inhabitants subscribe to an art club through which they buy or borrow reproductions of the world’s finest pictures. These they hang in their houses or copy in fresco on the outer walls.
In our model houses there will be plenty of roomy cupboards and all the best modern labour-saving devices. There is a first-rate vacuum cleaner for the use of the thirty houses, or this is sent round from a central depot.
Conveniently situated for a suitable number of houses is the mothers’ institute, where a doctor and nurse attend for infant consultations and baby weighing, where Montessori teaching is provided for children aged from 2 to 7 years. The Montessori method is in harmony with the co-operative spirit. It teaches the little students independence and helpfulness in the daily things of life, and lays a foundation which will free them from the need, either for a retinue of servants, or for one patient slave to tidy after them and coddle them at every turn.
If the mothers choose they may attend lectures at the institute, on child nurture and training, cookery and domestic science, political history and economics, as taught by the Central Labour College, or other subjects, handicraft classes, concerts, or anything else they desire. The advantage of having the lectures for the mothers, and the classes for the children, at the same time is obvious.
As the habit of co-operation becomes established, a growing number of families arrange to have all their bigger meals in the restaurant, the housewives take turns to do the washing, cooking, or cleaning for the little community; or those who are specialists in any particular branch of household economy undertake that for their neighbours, who in turn relieve them of other tasks. All are willing to lend a hand at whatever is going forward, and those who have already spent the usual number of working hours in household labour will be least called on for further service at the end of the day. In other cases the inmates are engaged in work outside the home, and the greater part of the housework is done by those who make a profession of cooking, washing, cleaning, and so on.
Individual fancy and experience will suggest further developments of such schemes; but whilst the well-to-do may put them into practice, for the workers of to-day they are mere castles in the air. In Soviet Russia those dream castles are becoming concrete. We shall never actually build them in Britain until we secure the Socialist Republic.
Poverty and decay, grim comrades, are rife in Poplar. Children grow warped and stunted there; adults die off before their time. More than the outer body, by which men and women are identified, the inner being suffers; that greatest injury none can assess.
The East India Dock Road is dismal. There is the long, blank wall of the dock over which, between and above the bulky warehouses, the masts of ships peep here and there. There are the great, prison-like dock gates, to which, beside the habitual dockers, unemployed men from all sections of industry at some time come, seeking, too often in vain, a casual job. By the great gates meetings are held, the speakers’ voices all but drowned by the noisy clatter of the electric trams. Here riots have taken place.
But this may be called the front door into Poplar. Away from this main road are meaner, dingier streets, where the wronged people live, herded together, in the hideous dilapidation of old, neglected buildings, darkened by soot, bug-ridden, structurally fit only to be inhabited by sewer rats. Yet high rents are charged for them. “He never forgets to come round for his rent,” the women say.
The side streets running from the High Street are as densely populated as a rabbit warren. The little, two-storied houses in Sophia Street, owned by worthy Councillor Bussy, vie with each other in their decay. Some of the passage doors are open, and one can look right into the little yards behind. Walk through and see the broken fences, the sunken paving in which deep pools collect, the row of closets, with the doors half broken away from long exposure, overmuch handling, and many years’ lack of paint. From these hovels the poor people are overflowing into the streets, in spite of the drizzling rain and the sticky black mud under foot; they must have air. Two women are sadly condoling together. She with the strange, stunned look murmurs: “My two sons were killed within a month.” The Labour Party election posters are still on the walls, appealing to her to “Vote for the men and women who gave” her “victory.” Where is her victory?
The blight of poverty is everywhere. Here and there cheap little cotton flags, the Union Jack and the colours of the Allies, are hung from a window or a clothes line across the street, to welcome some returning soldier. They trail grimy and limp, serving to emphasise the general dejection.
In the High Street shop after shop stands empty, literally falling to pieces for lack of small repairs; each hastened to its end by ragged children who, finding their way in – no bolts and locks deter them – tear away the woodwork from the floors, skirtings, and window frames, taking the wood home to mother when she has no money to buy fuel for the fire. They build their own fires in the street – their playground – fanning the smouldering sticks into flame with their caps; and in the dull, grey winter afternoons, with early dusk creeping upon them, they sit warming themselves, their faces glowing, happier than princes. Even the walls of the empty houses the children, in time, demolish, breaking away the bricks and using them as tools and missiles. A breach has been made in the high wall behind one of the corner shops, and a big hole gapes, too, in the rear wall of the house. Now the little boys are standing far back in the yard, which they have made so easy to enter from the street. They are shying pieces of brick into or at the house; taking a careful aim at this point or that; learning to throw, and striving, as almost every man-child does, to acquire skill in this most elemental art.
There are no parks or playgrounds near. The crowded, tiny homes do not provide the necessities of healthy childhood. Those who, looking back towards infancy, recall a past in which comfortable clothes and shoes, a garden, and yearly country or seaside holidays, were things simply taken for granted, and in which father, or mother, or someone else, was always providing books and tools and games, can, with difficulty, comprehend the lives of these children, saved from dull apathy by mere destruction.
The shops are empty because the rents are too high for any trade that can be done here, or for working-class families to occupy as houses. Some times, to save his property from utter destruction, the owner, when the place is in an advanced stage of decay, is, willing to allow a family to occupy a part of it at a reduced rent on condition of taking care of the premises. “He offered to let my sister take care of that miserable old place and pay him 7s. a week,” a man tells us, pointing to a terribly dilapidated shop. The landlords have not thought it worth while to repair their property; they have not wanted to spend on it any of the money they have drawn from their tenants, and so the property itself is disappearing. But here and there some dignified old house, with an imposing door, speaks to us from a past in which profiteering was less rampant, life less hurried; the knocker of one of them is the beautiful head of a woman with finely-wrought vine leaves in her hair. The craftsman who created her loved his labour. She remains an assurance that life here was not, and will not always be, thus sordid.
In a small, closed-in court you may discover Hanbury Buildings. One mounts to the dwellings by a narrow stone staircase, and at the top of the first steep flight one is confronted by the open doors of three W.C.s, all of which are out of order. To the left of these is a small wash-house, with a water-tap and copper for boiling clothes; to the right is a narrow, dark passage where, by feeling with one’s hands, one discovers the doors of the two-roomed apartments in which the tenants are living. The rent of these apartments varies from 4s. 6d. to 6s. 6d. a week. Seven families share the copper and the W.C.s, and the women of the seven families take turns to clean them. The two small rooms occupied by each family open from each other without a door between. There is no water in the apartments; it has to be carried from the washhouse. The light in most of the rooms is dim, owing to the surrounding buildings. The rain beating on the stairway, the many people who pass up and down to the various floors – there are seven families on each storey – the dripping from the tap in the washhouse used by so many people, make the stone floor of the dark passage wet and muddy. Smoke pours from the washhouse. The socket holding the basin in which the clothes are boiled is broken away, and through the holes the fierce flames rise up. One must take care not to burn oneself in using this boiler!
“How did it get into this condition?”
“Nothing’s been done to it for a long time, and the gambling boys come here at night to play; they helped to break it.”
“Who are they? Do they live here?”
“Some of them live here; others not. They’re just lads with nowhere else to go.”
“Look at these closets; the plug won’t pull in any of them! We have to keep them clean. Anyone can come up and use them – the gambling boys or any one. I scrubbed them out yesterday; look at them now!” a woman complains.
“Come here and see how these places need doing up! Look at the wet coming in there and there.” “Aren’t the rooms small?” “Aren’t they dark?” “I wouldn’t stay there, if I could find another house anywhere” – so the tenants greet us.
One woman rises from her knees, putting aside her pail and scrubbing brush. She has two children, and is expecting a third. She works all day at Morton’s biscuit and preserving factory, because her husband’s wage is too small to maintain the household, and coming home at night, she cooks, and cleans, and washes, and mends. Her elder child goes to school; she pays 8s. a week to a woman who takes care of the younger. “That is a great deal for you to pay?” “Yes, but I must have her properly looked after – I couldn’t go out to work if I wasn’t sure she was all right!” The speaker has not yet returned to the factory after the Christmas holiday, but she goes back tomorrow. Her tiny bed-sitting-room is wonderfully clean and wonderfully arranged. The mantelpiece is draped with red plush, the mirror above is framed, for the Christmas season, with red and white crinkled paper. Her neighbours draw our attention to her decorations, and express their admiration. She is pleased, but she regards her room ruefully, nevertheless. She has been trying to leave the place for two years, but newcomers are everywhere waiting to occupy the rooms of outgoing tenants, and house agents look with disfavour on people coming from Hanbury Buildings. “The Buildings have got a bad name”; “I don’t know why; we are all clean here!” the other women chime in. Moreover, the agent who collects the rents does not furnish the tenants with a rent-book, and working people cannot get houses unless they can produce a rent-book showing that no arrears are owing: “I’ve asked him, and asked him for a rent-book, and he promises I shall have one, but that’s all.” “I wouldn’t stay here but for the children, but wherever you go it is: ‘Sorry, we don’t take children.’ “ Every woman tells a similar tale.
One woman shows us that her husband has stripped the torn, dirty paper from the lower part of the walls, painted them a dark, bright green, and finished off the edge of the wallpaper with a border pattern. Widows and women whose husbands are away (even soldiers’ wives) are not much favoured as tenants. A family is preferred in which there is a handy man who will keep the property in repair without cost to the landlord, fitting new locks, mending broken woodwork, even patching up broken sinks, hearthstones, and doorsteps with cement.
A business-like, middle-aged woman twelve years ago had the good fortune to secure two rooms at the front of the building, where there is more light and air. She looks the healthier for it, though she has to go down a flight of steps to the lower floor to fetch water. “Look at my ceiling,” she says, “look at the walls! It is three years since he half-papered the walls, and he’s done nothing since! Look at it! Doesn’t it take the heart out of you?” The bed, pushed close against the window, half blocks the entrance doorway, but the bed could be squeezed into no other place. Withdrawing her eyes from the dirty ceiling, she fixes them, with a sigh of relief, on the clean honey-comb quilt and white vallances. She says that she is expecting her two sons home from the front, and we wonder where she will find space for them. “They won’t bring their young women to a place like this!” she says, bitterly. “I’ve been wanting to move from here ever since I came, but rooms are so scarce, and I’m afraid to take a whole house and let off part of it, because I couldn’t afford to pay the rent if the other people should keep me waiting.”
Marvellous that women who have lived for years in these wretched tenements should still retain a genuine enthusiasm for home-making; still grasp at any chance to beautify their rooms; and even when excessively tired by outside labour, still toil to keep them clean!
Close by, across the High Street, is a narrow doorway leading to a little alley in which is a row of cottages. “I thought these houses were condemned,” someone says to an old woman standing on the first doorstep. “Oh, no,” she answers eagerly, “they’re all right. Oh, mine is beautiful!” She is afraid that if her cottage were condemned she would never get another. She knows that again and again where slum property has been demolished, no provision has been made for the evicted tenants.
In busy Chrisp Street, where anxious women hurry to and fro from shop to shop, comes a woman looking a shade more worn and anxious than the rest. Beside her is a child with skin like old ivory, delicately rose-tinted, dark Eastern eyes, bright as a bird’s, but curiously flat in shape to Western sight, and contrasting with these, soft brown English curls. “A little China girl with an English mother,” someone says.
At the end of Poplar High Street one passes into Penny Fields in the Chinese quarter. The men – one rarely sees a Chinese woman in the street – look pinched and cold but coming into China Town, one has passed from the direst of decay to something brighter. The Chinese have cleaned up the old, tumble-down property they occupy. Their shops are arranged with quiet tidiness, little furniture, and a perhaps unconscious, facility for the picturesque. In the fish shop hangs a wonderful dried flying-fish that seems to have flown straight out of a fairy tale. A grocer has put two lovely yaks in his window. In the “Chinese-English” restaurant, though thick, clumsy white cups, such as one might find in any fifth-rate eating-house, are provided for British customers, handleless bowls of fine china, charmingly painted, are supplied to the Chinese.
It is said that East End landlords exact higher rents from Chinese than from British tenants, and flagrantly violate the Rent Act where the former are concerned. But ask the Chinese who are standing at the doors if this is so. However patiently you try to explain, they will tell you nothing, and you will presently realise they are afraid of you, and of their British neighbours in general. There have been anti-Chinese riots in Poplar! The sordid aspects of competitive Capitalism poison the relationship of the Chinese immigrants and the native East Enders. The Chinese can be induced to work on ship more cheaply than the British – that is a fruitful source of trouble. Some of the Chinese are trafficking in opium – a traffic in which they are joined by British men and women, as eager as they to make money out of it Such trading on weakness and folly will disappear with the Capitalist system.
By dreary ways one passes from Penny Fields to the Isle of Dogs – “The Island,” as we call it in the East End. Here we find still more empty houses side by side with overcrowding. In one great block of small dwellings two-thirds of the houses are empty; the children, busy as bees, are there eagerly destroying, regarding every brick they dislodge as a potential treasure. A woman tells us she has heard all these houses are to be pulled down in order that an extension to the neighbouring factory may be built on the site.
During heavy rains the houses are flooded. Sometimes the tenants see the wave of the oncoming flood as it comes rushing down the street, and are able to drag their most precious furniture upstairs before the water reaches them; sometimes it catches them unawares. When last it came the flood rose to the height of the fourth stair of this woman’s house. The boards of the entrance passage floor rose with the water and floated about. The oilcloth and many other things were spoiled – no compensation was paid. She would like to leave the house, but she does not know where to find another, or what to do if it is pulled down. She cannot think what all her neighbours will do. Her daughter was married during the war, and learnt after the armistice was signed that her husband had been killed; the widow stands by, nursing her first baby, whom the father will never see. There is a dull, hopeless look in her pale face.
The elder woman discusses matters with a shrewd, clear intelligence. She realises vividly, and with a sharp sense of protest, the injustices which other women accept because they have always known them. She has had a large family of children, her life has been all toil and hardship, and prospects do not brighten. She complains that poor people are blamed for their poverty and insulted by the well-to-do, who pretend to help them. For years her daughter was a regular attender of the Sunday school and the evening classes at the religious settlement near by. The ladies of the settlement had milk and other necessaries to dispense to the needy. Once when the father of the family was out of work, the mother applied for a grant of milk for one of her young children who was lying seriously ill with pneumonia. The “ladies” at the settlement asked: “Is any member of the household working?” The mother replied that one daughter was at work. “You know,” she says, “the few shillings girls earned before the war.” The ladies informed, her that, as her daughter was in employment, she, ought to be “able to manage”; the milk was refused.
She tells us also that she gave birth to her youngest child at a maternity hospital, and when she left, the nurse advised her to take half a pint of stout each day in two portions. She followed this advice, and also took her baby each week to the Infant Welfare Centre, where milk for the child was supplied to her. But the Settlement ladies are also powerful at the Centre, and one day, one of these “ladies” saw her coming home with her stout; as a, result the baby’s milk was stopped. The “ladies” told her they were sorry to see that she had “come down so,” as she had been “well brought up.” She explained that the nurse had advised her to take stout, but her excuses were brushed aside. “If I had been a loose woman, always in and out of public-houses, they would have done all sorts of things for me to reclaim me.” She smiled a little grimly. Her daughter added: “Yes, that is true; I have seen it happen.”
We told them that in Russia “ladies” can no more scold and patronise poor women, for there, class distinctions are done away with and both riches and poverty are being abolished. We told them that the Russian Workers’ Councils are taking over the empty houses and putting into them whoever needs a house, without charging the tenants any rent at all if they are too poor to pay. Their poverty itself can only be temporary, since there is an equal wage for all and people who are ill, or out of work, are paid at the same rate. Until as many houses as the people of free Russia desire can be built, an equal plan of rationing has been established, by which every family is entitled to one room for each adult member of the household and one room for two children. We told these women, too, that the land and the industries of Russia are now owned by the whole people and are managed by those who work them; that all education is free; that after the year 1920 no one under the age of 20 will be working for a living, and that everyone’s child will go to the University or take up some other course of training.
“Really? And will it all come here, too?” they asked, with radiant faces.
“Yes, here, too, in England, even in Poplar. Socialism is swiftly coming. It alone brings with it the hope, the certainty; of transforming the East End.”
One of the election cries of the Lloyd George Coalition was Housing Reform, but with what insurmountable obstacles are those tinkering reformers faced who are unprepared to abolish the Capitalist system.
The London County Council has built some hideous, barrack dwellings, many, many stories high, without lifts, and with long, steep flights of steps, up which tired mothers must climb, carrying both babies and parcels. No gardens are attached to these dwellings; only paved yards, enclosed by high, ugly buildings. Uncomfortable as they are, the rents of the L.C.C. dwellings are so high that the manual labourer with a large family cannot afford to live in them.
In giving evidence before the National Birth-rate Commission in 1916, Mr. Berry, Assistant Housing Manager to the L.C.C., explained that the L.C.C. only allows two adults per room to occupy its tenements; children under five years not being counted, and children under ten years counted as half an adult. That standard permits what ought to be considered gross overcrowding; it means that two adults and three or four children may often be found living in a single room. Nevertheless, rents are such, and wages are such, that Mr. Berry had to report that families were constantly having to leave the L.C.C. dwellings, because they could not afford to hire enough rooms, even to comply with this low standard of accommodation. In 1916 the L.C.C. rents were: –
|s. d.||s. d.|
|1 room||2 3||to 6 0|
|2 rooms||4 6||to 8 6|
|3 rooms||6 0||to 11 6|
|4 rooms||7 0||to 13 0|
|5 rooms||10 6||to 14 0|
|6 rooms||12 6||to 13 0|
Why are dwellings built by the L.C.C. and the municipal authorities so highly rented; and why must they be great barracks, the most lately built of which is always the loftiest? As everyone knows, it is because those who have somehow acquired the land will only sell it or let it at an enormous price. Mr. Winch, the Secretary of the Guinness Trust, informed the same Birth-rate Commission that the Ecclesiastical Commissioners had charged the Trust £11,000 per acre for land to be used for workers’ dwellings, stating they had let it go cheaply on that account. Moreover, when the Local Authorities build dwellings for the workers they borrow money for the purpose and pay interest on the loan, and establish a fund for paying back the loan. They usually employ a contractor to build the houses, who makes a profit on the undertaking; or even if they avoid employing a contractor, they buy materials for the building from people who are making profits. The landlords and profiteers insist on making gain for themselves out of the workers’ houses, and as the workers receiving the lowest wages cannot afford to pay the rents of the new dwellings, they are obliged to live in old houses, built at a time when landlords and profiteers were content with smaller gains.
When the London County Council finds that, on the one hand, it has several applicants who can only afford to pay for a two-roomed flat, and, on the other hand, it has a three-roomed fiat for which no applicant can afford to pay, it takes the: anti-social course of sealing up one of the rooms, in order that it cannot be used, and then it lets the flat for the price of two rooms. It may be that the husband and wife who rent that flat with its sealed-up room, have four children, one of whom is nearly five years old. In a short time the child has a birthday, and the Parents, who are unable to pay for the extra room, are obliged to leave, as they have now passed the L.C.C. overcrowding limit. In Petrograd those two people, whether they were able to pay rent or not, would be entitled with their children to four rooms, and if they had not, and could not buy, furniture, fuel; and light, these would be freely provided for them. In Petrograd those people would be treated as members of the human family; in London they are mere units out of whom money is to be made. This is why British working men are sent to fight against the Russian workers – lest they should learn by example to demand what the Russian workers have won for themselves.
“But,” a voice protests, “if you put SOME people into a decent house they would not take care of it! Probably not, if you put them into it with their present income, which does not suffice adequately to feed and clothe the family and to keep it clean, to say nothing of providing it with education and recreation. But if you were to set up an equal wage for all, miners and railwaymen, teachers and scavengers, bank managers and Prime Ministers; if you were to add an equal wage and equal hours of labour for all, and the certainty of being supplied with a good house and a good education, then you would find that the “some people” who would not know how to live decently in a decent house would certainly be very few; we do not really believe they would exist. But in a generation, at most, they would become extinct.
The Land belongs to the whole people. It is managed by those who work on it. The community provides the necessary tools, seeds, and stock for the farms, and workers may have individual holdings or join in co-operative enterprises. No one may hire another to work on the land. If a land worker is ill, his land work is done for him for two years, after which, if he does not recover; he is pensioned. If too many people desire to work on the land in any locality, the community helps some of the workers to emigrate to districts where there is land to spare.
Houses are shared as equally as possible. The municipalities may commandeer all vacant houses, and settle in them those who are homeless, overcrowded, or living in insanitary dwellings. Where houses are scarce house accommodation is rationed on the basis of one room for every adult and one room for two children. If a family for any reason is not able to obtain furniture, light, or fuel, the community provides these without charge. House property is taxed over 90 per cent.; it is rapidly passing out of private hands and becoming Soviet property. In Russian cities the houses have always been built in large blocks. House committees for the block have sprung up spontaneously. They buy many commodities for the block and manage collective affairs.
The Industries have become the property of Russia. They are managed by the workers. The control of industry is built up on the basis of workshop management, and on the Central Industrial Council are representatives of the workshops, the trade and technical unions, the workers’ co-operatives, and the All Russia National Council of Soviets.
A Standard Wage. In Russia there is now a standard wage, which ranges from 500 to 700 roubles a month. No one may be paid for two jobs. If anyone wishes to work at a second job, he or she must do so as a volunteer. The manual workers get 700 roubles; the sedentary workers 500 roubles a month, i.e., the editor of the “Pravda,” the daily newspaper of the Bolshevik Party, gets 500 roubles a month, the compositors get 700 roubles a month. Lenin, the head of the Government, the Chairman of the People’s Commissaries, gets 500 roubles a month and lodgings.
Unemployment. The wage earned whilst at work is paid during unemployment.
Education is free from the elementary school to the University, and new schools and colleges are everywhere springing up.
Child Labour. After the year 1920 no one under 20 years of age will be allowed to work for wages. Until 20 years of age all young people will continue their education, either at the University or elsewhere, and all parents will be able to afford that their children shall enjoy this privilege.
Russia is governed by the Soviets, or Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. The local Soviets consist of delegates of the workers in every kind of industry, on the land, and in the Army and Navy and merchant service. Every 1,000 workers elect a delegate from their trade to the local Soviet, which usually represents 35,000 workers in all. These delegates can be recalled at any time When not in the Soviet committee they continue to work at their ordinary occupation, and when doing Soviet work are paid their ordinary wage. The local Soviets each elect one delegate to the District Soviets, and to the All-Russia Congress of Soviets. These delegates are paid in the same way as the local delegates, and can be recalled at any time. The All-Russia Congress of Soviets elects an Executive of about 200 persons and the People’s Commissaries, who are the Ministers of State, also elect an Executive Committee to work with each People’s Commissary. The Executive Committees and People’s Commissaries can be recalled at any time. The People’s Commissaries elect a chairman. Lenin is at present that chairman.
Any chaos, violence, famine, poverty, and unemployment, existing in Russia is due to the war which is being made on the Workers’ Socialist Republic by Capitalism. The dispossessed Russian capitalists refuse to settle down on equal terms with the workers: they are fighting to overthrow Socialism. The Russian capitalists would be powerless against the Soviets, which are supported by 90 per cent. of the Russian people, but for the help of the capitalist Governments of Britain, France, America, and Japan, which are sending white, yellow, and black troops to fight against Russian Socialism, because the capitalists of those countries want a share of the wealth of Russia, the richest country in the world, and because they also fear that the example of what the workers have done in Russia will cause the workers to set up a Socialist Republic in other countries also.