The historic periodicals in the RIBA’s collections, held in the British Architectural Library, record how architecture has responded to changes in society’s attitudes and needs over nearly two centuries. One particular article in one of the earlier editions of the Builder, a periodical title which was first published in December 1842, provides an insight into some of Britain’s low housing standards and the limits of the legislation to raise it during the early Victorian period. Over 150 years ago the serious problems of housing and health were written about in a lengthy article entitled 'On Overcrowding in London; And Some Remedial Measures'. All the article’s illustrations appeared on a page under the title 'Overcrowding, And Other Sanitary Derangements, in 1862' .
conditions as bad in a sanitary point of view, as existed in the worse days of the Rookery
Case studies of overcrowding
Islington: an outhouse nearly filled with vegetable refuse, an
overflowing cistern and a chocked drain bringing back soil into
Source: Builder, 14th June 1862, p.425
© RIBA Library Books and Periodicals Collection
The Builder linked overcrowding with bad air (once wrongly believed to cause disease), poor sanitation and poverty. In the proceeding years there had been slum clearances, welcomed for creating new streets and removing poor housing, but which had the unfortunate effect of displacing population and causing the density of people to increase elsewhere. Seven Dials, today an important retail area and a tourist attraction in Covent Garden, was a place where people were considered “ evil ” and “living in conditions as bad in a sanitary point of view, as existed in the worse days of the Rookery”.
Close to Drury Lane, it was reported that one house with eight rooms held a total of 45 people. In the eastern parts of London, there may have been up to 14 people to a room. In Bemerton Street near Caledonian Road, spread across the four levels of one house were 34 people of all ages representing different families. New houses meant for one family, seemingly respectable from the street could hide behind their tidy modern façades scenes of squalor and multi-family occupancy. The authorities deemed such arrangements as acceptable – as long as it was claimed everyone living in a room were from the same family. A case was being made through these examples to reduce overcrowding.
Science in 150 years has advanced and today the theory of bad air causing disease is obsolete. But the belief that poor sanitation is a source of illness and the severe social impact of overcrowding still holds.
The article recognised that different families and their main occupations had diverse requirements and so a variety of lodging and facilities needed to be provided. The writer called for regular inspections of houses by qualified persons to ensure they had good sanitation. Large numbers of children were viewed as a source of poverty; before they were old enough to be put to work (in an era when child labour was acceptable), each new child would potentially diminish the resources of a family and delay the mother from earning money. Their poverty would lead them to take up cheaper, more congested and thus less healthy accommodation. To remedy this the article stated “the importance of lessening the cost of wholesome and comfortable lodgings by all practical means.” One answer was the suggestion to reduce building costs by using standard patterns and building upwards.
Overcrowding in the workplace
The articles also touches on the overcrowding and miserable conditions in the workplace, stating that it would be “an act of justice on the part of employers to provide wholesome work-places for their people.” In a room above Oxford Street there were dozens of artificial-flower makers crammed into a space less than 10 ft sq. Elsewhere in London other trades such as shoe and and hat makers worked under similar circumstances. These appalling conditions were illustrated two weeks later in the Builder on the 28 June 1862.
Although the living and housing standards have improved since 1862, there is still plenty of opportunity today to do more.
References (available from the British Architectural Library, RIBA)
- Builder, 14 June 1862, pp.422 – 425
- Builder, 28 June 1862, p. 457
Article by Wilson Yau, British Architectural Library, RIBA