From the May 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard
One of the most persistent fallacies with which the worker seeks to explain away bis present miseries is the belief that things were handled much better in the past. Nowhere is this more apparent than when we are confronted by the tragedy of bad housing. “It never used to be like this,” runs the argument, “there was once plenty of accommodation available, especially for young people who could start life with a decent home.” We have all heard this line of reasoning as well as the inevitable conclusion, “that our problems are a product of the modern world and could be cured by a return to ancient virtues.”
History, however, proves such an idea to be quite wrong and that, far from being modern, housing problems are as old as property society itself. Unfortunately poverty and suffering are not considered to be very interesting, so that while there is a mass of information on the great buildings of the world, very little is available on the dwellings of those who by their labour made such works possible.
In the lands where the winters are hard and cold, shelter is a desperate necessity, a matter of life and death, while to be homeless is a grim experience. The burning of houses and the destruction of cities has long been one of war’s cruellest weapons, and throughout history the exploitation of the need for somewhere to live has been one of the nastiest and most profitable of rackets. It is in the great and thriving cities of the world that this racket has had the greatest, scope.
Ancient Rome was the capital of a vast empire, and people flocked to it as today they flock to London and New York. This created a situation that was ideal for exploitation on a grand scale. Most people lived, not in the elegant villas that are usually portrayed as typical Roman houses, but in blocks of tenements. Built of brick and concrete, their construction was shoddy to an extent that would have shocked even a modern jerry-builder. Builders economized on bricks to such a degree that the buildings often collapsed, and a decree of Augustus forbade the building of tenements more than 70 feet high. Tenants could purchase a room or a floor, but usually rented space at an exorbitant price. Water on the premises was rare, and fires a common disaster. Many of the famous figures of Rome owed their wealth to this source. Such was the hardship, that Julius Caesar used it to buy political advantage by giving a year's rent to all below a certain income level.
Nearer to our time, the 16th century was the turning point for England in general and London in particular. Previously London bad been a town on the edge of the large network of European trade; now it became the centre of a much greater one, spreading over continents. Its population mounted steadily and suburbs sprawled beyond the city walls. People flocked in from the country, many driven by economic changes, and overcrowding became intense as ground rents soared. Meanwhile from France and the Netherlands came thousands of craftsmen to start up business. These were accused of taking the houses of the Londoners, and there were anti-alien riots. A popular demand was that provincials should be sent back home, where it was alleged there were “plenty of empty houses,” and to "stop pestering the houses of London.” Or in modern terms, “Stop the drift to the South.”
Another common misconception to be found mainly amongst “progressives," is that grim housing conditions began with the Victorians and the Industrial Revolution. Most books on town planning and urban development give this impression by swinging from the expensive buildings of the Georgian era and contrasting them with working class housing of the 19th century.
But the conditions described by Engels in 1848 in such terrible slums as the Rockeries could have applied equally to earlier periods. Already in the 17th century, the pattern of the 19th century slum, large houses originally built for the wealthy and broken into make-shift tenements, was well established. It is a pattern which persists to this day. In Commonwealth London a house in the Dowgate Ward was reported to hold 11 married couples and 15 single persons, while a ten room house in Silver Street was inhabited by 10 families, all of whom managed to fit in lodgers. Even the 20th century would be hard put to rival this for overcrowding.
But if the Victorians did not invent degrading housing conditions, they certainly spread them far and wide. Mean housing estates covered what had been a green and pleasant land, and this not only in the old industrial areas but in hitherto thinly populated parts of the country. So now the workers, in addition to living in crumbling old houses, could live in cramped badly built ones put up specially for them.
The 19th century saw the beginning of modern methods of compiling information, and reports and accounts from this period are numerous. But statistics make dull reading: far better to go into the streets of any town, large or small, and look at the rows of grim little houses known as bye-law houses. These were built as a result of Acts of Parliament that gave to local authorities powers to introduce bye-laws controlling housing conditions. The point about these houses, bare brick terraces of the meanest proportions, often back-to-back with no garden and with the living room opening on to the street, is that they were an improvement on what had existed before. This fact speaks more eloquently than any report of what conditions had been like before.
Meanwhile across the Atlantic in New York City similar legislation was being enacted. An act of 1867 made it unlawful to cover the entire lot when building a tenement. A backyard of 10 feet had to be provided. It became illegal to let rooms that were completely underground. The ceiling had to be 1 foot above kerb level. A later Act insisted on such luxuries as a window in every room. Again, these were improvements. And as with England even these meagre efforts came after many years of agitation.
The 20th century has continued this story. Numerous reports, years of work by well meaning people, constant propaganda and political promises, have produced a string of feeble Acts and bye laws. The success of which readers can judge for themselves.