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Alastair Hatchett

Cruel Habitations

(May 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.69, May 1974, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Cruel Habitations: A History of Working-class Housing 1780-1918
Enid Gauldie
Allen and Unwin, £5.75

‘REHOUSING MAY BE looked upon as an insurance ... paid by the rich against revolution.’ (Frank Harris)

Unfortunately the use of this quotation by Enid Gauldie is no indication of the central theme of this book. She has gathered together a wealth of interesting material on what she correctly describes as the ‘cruel habitations’ of the working class in the nineteenth century. Through her examination of the housing, health, sanitation and general living standards of workers in the new industrial cities, we are provided with a clearer picture of the condition of the British working class. As with Engel’s vivid account of 1844, this text does not only focus on the organised, literate minority in the trade union movement, but also on the poor, the unemployed, the unskilled and the generally downtrodden majority of workers.

She shows how, in the growth of the slums and the insanitary conditions, the living standards of the poorest grew worse rather than better. In Liverpool in 1840 62 per cent of the children of labourers died before reaching the age of five. Only an acute shortage of labour would induce employers to provide adequate housing for their workers.

The real weakness of the book lies in the analysis of why housing was so bad and why reforms consistently failed. Where is the analysis of the irrational social policies in the heyday of Victorian profit-lusting? Instead we are told that

‘it seems to me that the failure of all such [housing] legislation to achieve real solutions was caused by the inadequacies, limitations in the aims and attitudes of those who designed it.’

This is history in the tradition of those who talked of Columbus ‘discovering’ America. We learn of the ‘people’ of Britain ‘who were confronted with the appalling conditions in their towns’. For people, read middle and upper classes. Didn’t the working class recognise the appalling conditions under which they lived and worked? Enid Gauldie has little to say about working-class agitation on housing issues, nor does she recognise that all trade union struggles of the nineteenth century involved the ambitious, if not audacious, demand for a better standard of life.

She does however recognise, but only note, that fear played a large part in influencing middle class support for housing reform. Fear of the mob, of the continuing threat of riot and revolution, and fear of the attacks of King Cholera were dominant in the minds of reformers like Chadwick. This fear was recently discussed in a fascinating article by M. Steig entitled Dickens’ Excremental Vision in the journal, Victorian Studies, Vol.13, in which Steig examines the ‘imagery of anality’ in the works of Charles Dickens and suggests that some Victorians had a view of the poor as excrement, their enthusiasm for draining and cleaning the towns being merely a rationalisation of their wish to be rid of the poor.

By the end of the century the political and trade-union organisations of the working class were beginning to have greater effect on local government housing policy. The rise of the Labour Party in the first two decades of this century gave illusions to many workers that housing conditions would change. But changes have always had to be fought for. The lessons of the Clydeside rent strikes of 1916 are not discussed. While the Labour Party dithered, George Lansbury and the Poplar Councillors went to prison for refusing to implement a rates increase.

Housing and the building industry generally have always been among the most corrupt areas of the capitalist system. It should not have been beyond the scope of this book to investigate the world of corruption in which builders, councillors, and landowners profited from the exploitation of working-class families. Robert Tressell’s account of the goings on in Mugsborough reveals a situation which was much more the rule than the exception.

Those who read this book, and I hope Enid Gauldie sends a copy to Anthony Crosland, would do well to bear in mind the words of William Blake.

‘It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted,
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer,
To listen to the hungry raven’s cry in wintry season,
When the red blood is filled with wine and with the marrow of lambs.’

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