'Homes of the London Poor' is both a personal recollection and a social study by Octavia Hill. When Hill began her work, the model dwelling movement had been in existence for twenty years, royal and select committees had sat to examine the problems of urban well-being, and the first of many tranches of legislation aimed at improving working class housing had been passed. From Hill's point of view these had all failed the poorest members of the working class, the unskilled labourers. She found that their landlords routinely ignored their obligations towards their tenants, and that the tenants were too ignorant and oppressed to better themselves. She tried to find new homes for her charges, but there was a severe shortage of available property, and Hill decided that her only solution was to become a landlord herself. In consequence of her diligent work and prudent management, by 1874 she had 15 housing schemes with around 3,000 tenants. Hill's system was based on closely managing not only the buildings but the tenants. She maintained close personal contact with all her tenants, and was strongly opposed to impersonal bureaucratic organizations and to governmental intervention in housing.
Octavia Hill (1838-1912) was an English social reformer, whose main concern was the welfare of the inhabitants of cities, especially London, in the second half of the 19th century. She was opposed to municipal provision of housing, believing it to be bureaucratic and impersonal. Another of Hill's concerns was the availability of open spaces for poor people. She campaigned against development on existing suburban woodlands, and helped to save London's Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields from being built on. She was one of the three founders of the National Trust, set up to preserve places of historic interest or natural beauty for the enjoyment of the British public. Hill was also a founder member of the Charity Organization Society (now the charity Family Action) which organized charitable grants and pioneered a home-visiting service that formed the basis for modern social work. She was a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws in 1905.
ORGANIZED WORK AMONG THE POOR. Table of Contents
SUGGESTIONS FOUNDED ON FOUR YEARS' MANAGEMENT OF A LONDON COURT.
Further organization in our mode of dealing with the poor is now generally agreed to be necessary, but there is another truth less dwelt upon, yet on the due recognition of which success equally depends. I feel most deeply that the disciplining of our immense poor population must be effected by individual influence; and that this power can change it from a mob of paupers and semi-paupers into a body of self-dependent workers. It is my opinion, further, that although such influence may be brought to bear upon them in very various ways, it may be exercised in a very remarkable manner by persons undertaking the oversight and management of such houses as the poor habitually lodge in. In support of this opinion I subjoin an account of what has been actually achieved in two very poor courts in London.
About four years ago I was put in possession of three houses in one of the worst courts of Marylebone. Six other houses were bought subsequently. All were crowded with inmates. The first thing to be done was to put them in decent tenantable order. The set last purchased was a row of cottages facing a bit of desolate ground, occupied with wretched, dilapidated cow-sheds, manure heaps, old timber, and rubbish of every description. The houses were in a most deplorable condition: the plaster was dropping from the walls: on one staircase a pail was placed to catch the rain that fell through the roof. All the staircases were perfectly dark; the banisters were gone, having been burnt as firewood by tenants. The grates, with large holes in them, were falling forward into the rooms. The washhouse, full of lumber belonging to the landlord, was locked up; thus the inhabitants had to wash clothes, as well as to cook, eat, and sleep, in their small rooms. The dust-bin, standing in the front of the houses, was accessible to the whole neighborhood, and boys often dragged from it quantities of unseemly objects, and spread them over the court. The state of the drainage was in keeping with everything else. The pavement of the back-yard was all broken up, and great puddles stood in it, so that the damp crept up the outer walls. One large but dirty water-butt received the water laid on for the houses: it leaked, and for such as did not fill their jugs when the water came in, or who had no jugs to fill, there was no water. The former landlord's reply to one of the tenants who asked him to have an iron hoop put round the butt to prevent leakage, was, that "if he didn't like it" (i.e. things as they were) "he might leave." The man to whom this was spoken-by far the best tenant in the place-is now with us, and often gives his spare time to making his room more comfortable, knowing that he will be retained if he behaves well.
This landlord was a tradesman in a small way of business-not a cruel man, except in so far as variableness of dealing is cruelty; but he was a man without capital to spend on improvements, and lost an immense percentage of his rent by bad debts. I went over the houses with him the last day he collected his rents there, that he might introduce me to the people as the owner of the property. He took a man with him, whom, as he confided to me, he wished to pass off upon the people as a broker. It was evident that, whether they saw through this deceit or not, they had no experience which led them to believe he intended to carry into effect the threats he uttered. The arrears of rent were enormous. I had been informed that the honest habitually pay for the dishonest, the owner relying upon their payments to compensate for all losses; but I was amazed to find to what an extent this was the case. Six, seven, or eight weeks' rent were due from most tenants, and in some cases very much more; whereas, since I took possession of the houses (of which I collect the rents each week myself) I have never allowed a second week's rent to become due.
I think no one who has not experienced it can fully realize the almost awed sense of joy with which one enters upon such a possession as that above described, conscious of having the power to set it, even partially, in order. Hopes, indeed, there are which one dare scarcely hope; but at once one has power to say, "Break out a window there in that dark corner; let God's light and air in;" or, "Trap that foul drain, and shut the poisonous miasma out;" and one has moral power to say, by deeds which speak louder than words, "Where God gives me authority, this, which you in your own hearts know to be wrong, shall not go on. I would not set my conviction, however strong it might be, against your judgment of right; but when you are doing what I know your own conscience condemns, I, now that I have the power, will enforce right; but first I will try whether I cannot lead you, yourselves, to arise and cast out the sin-helping your wavering and sorely tried will by mine, which is untempted."
As soon as I entered into possession, each family had an opportunity offered of doing better: those who would not pay, or who led clearly immoral lives, were ejected. The rooms they vacated were cleansed; the tenants who showed signs of improvement moved into them, and thus, in turn, an opportunity was obtained for having each room distempered and painted. The drains were put in order, a large slate cistern was fixed, the wash-house was cleared of its lumber, and thrown open on stated days to each tenant in turn. The roof, the plaster, the woodwork were repaired; the staircase-walls were distempered; new grates were fixed; the layers of paper and rag (black with age) were torn from the windows, and glass was put in; out of 192 panes, only 8 were found unbroken. The yard and footpath were paved.
The rooms, as a rule, were re-let at the same prices at which they had been let before; but tenants with large families were counseled to take two rooms, and for these much less was charged than if let singly: this plan I continue to pursue. In-coming tenants are not allowed to take a decidedly insufficient quantity of room, and no sub-letting is permitted. The elder girls are employed three times a week in scrubbing the passages in the houses, for the cleaning of which the landlady is responsible. For this work they are paid, and by it they learn habits of cleanliness. It is, of course, within the authority of the landlady also to insist on cleanliness of wash-houses, yards, staircases, and staircase-windows; and even to remonstrate concerning the rooms themselves if they are habitually dirty.
The pecuniary result has been very satisfactory. Five per cent. interest has been paid on all the capital invested. A fund for the repayment of capital is accumulating. A liberal allowance has been made for repairs; and here I may speak of the means adopted for making the tenants careful about breakage and waste. The sum allowed yearly for repairs is fixed for each house, and if it has not all been spent in restoring and replacing, the surplus is used for providing such additional appliances as the tenants themselves desire. It is therefore to their interest to keep the expenditure for repairs as low as possible; and instead of committing the wanton damage common among tenants of their class, they are careful to avoid injury, and very helpful in finding economical methods of restoring what is broken or worn out, often doing little repairs of their own accord.
From the proceeds of the rent, also, interest has been paid on the capital spent in building a large room where the tenants can assemble. Classes are held there-for boys, twice weekly; for girls, once; a singing class has just been established. A large work-class for married women and elder girls meets once a week. A glad sight it is-the large room filled with the eager, merry faces of the girls, from which those of the older, careworn women catch a reflected light. It is a good time for quiet talk with them as we work, and many a neighborly feeling is called out among the women as they sit together on the same bench, lend one another cotton or needles, are served by the same hand, and look to the same person for direction. The babies are a great bond of union; I have known the very women who not long before had been literally fighting, sit at the work-class busily and earnestly comparing notes of their babies' respective history. That a consciousness of corporate life is developed in them is shown by the not infrequent use of the expression "One of us."
Among the arrangements conducive to comfort and health I may mention, that instead of the clothes being hung as formerly out of front windows down against the wall, where they could not be properly purified, the piece of ground in front of the houses is used as a drying-ground during school hours. The same place is appropriated as a playground, not only for my younger tenants, but for the children from the neighboring courts. It is a space walled round, where they can play in safety. Hitherto, games at trap, bat and ball, swinging, skipping, and singing a few Kinder-Garten songs with movements in unison, have been the main diversions. But I have just established drill for the boys, and a drum and fife band. Unhappily, the mere business connected with the working of the houses has occupied so much time, that the playground has been somewhat neglected; yet it is a most important part of the work. The evils of the streets and courts are too evident to need explanation. In the playground are gathered together children habitually dirty, quarrelsome, and violent. They come wholly ignorant of games, and have hardly self-control enough to play at any which have an object or require effort. Mere senseless, endless...