Wednesday, 04 March 2015

Charles Dickens and housing

From: Inside out

So it’s happy Birthday to Charles Dickens who was born 200 years ago today in Portsmouth. Throughout his life he defended and championed the poor, the disabled and the down-trodden. But apart from being England’s greatest novelist he was also passionate about housing and sanitary reform. “In all my writings, I hope I have taken every available opportunity to showing the want of sanitary improvements in the neglected dwellings of the poor”, he wrote in 1849.

Many of his books contain passionate indictments of housing conditions, like this passage from “Sketches by Boz” (1836), his first published work.

“Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper: every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three - fruit and ‘sweet-stuff’ manufacturers in the cellars, barbers and red-herring vendors in the front parlours, cobblers in the back; a bird-fancier in the first floor, three families on the second, starvation in the attics, Irishmen in the passage, a ‘musician’ in the front kitchen, and a charwoman and five hungry children in the back one - filth everywhere - a gutter before the houses and a drain behind - clothes drying and slops emptying, from the windows; girls of fourteen or fifteen, with matted hair, walking about barefoot, and in white great-coats, almost their only covering; boys of all ages, in coats of all sizes and no coats at all; men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.”

Household Words, the magazine that Dickens edited between 1850 and 1859 contained regular features on housing and sanitation and he lambasted the authorities about the conditions that working people had to endure. He condemned slum landlords and he advised England’s wealthiest woman, Angela Burdett-Coutts (of Coutts Bank) on the model flats she was building in Columbia Square in the East End.

Less well known is the fact that Dickens set up and ran a home for “fallen women” (i.e. prostitutes) in Shepherd’s Bush. With Coutts’s support, he supervised every aspect of finding, setting up and running “Urania Cottage” in Lime Grove. It provided a home for more than a hundred women over a twelve year period and they were fed, educated and then shipped off to the colonies to start a new life. (Whether this was related to Dickens’ guilt at using prostitutes himself is a matter for speculation.)

Claire Tomalin’s recent biography really captures his restless genius – he would go on daily 12-mile walks and often spend the whole night walking around London or Paris. He was above all a London writer, documenting the shifting life of the capital – a city that increased in population from 1.4 million to 3.2 million between 1815 and 1860. In his lifetime Dickens was read by millions of people around the world. Thousands would queue for the monthly serialisations of his novels to learn with shock and disbelief about the death of Little Nell or Paul Dombey. He opened the eyes of the middle and upper classes to the wretched lives of the poor and he had a major influence upon the housing and sanitary reforms that improved the lives of millions of people in Victorian Britain. For that alone we should celebrate his bicentenary today.

Readers' comments (9)

  • F451

    Sadly though, it also reminds us how much we need another Dickens, capable of reaching the stone hearts of today's middle classes, and recover what has been lost of the reforms that flowed from the Dickensian Age.

    The great voices of our sector, Hill and Webb to name but two, have seen their successes given away by the very generation that benefited the most from them - and those most selfish of a generation are now bemoaning the loss as the fault of today's poor.

    Fuel poor, food poor, housing poor, education poor, health poor - the scurge that is poverty was thought on its way to being defeated, yet now Government depend on it as a means of control and a desirable outcome. We may not have returned to starving people dying in our streets in mass numbers yet, but at very least the situation must be considered as borderline.

    Where is the promised land fit for heros?

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  • Joe Halewood

    To continue with the literary appreciation was it Pope that said "In reading lies knowledge, in knowlege lies learning?"

    Shame this Coalition and especially the Housing Minister appear to be illiterate.

    Now where the Dickens does that come from?

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  • Jon Southall

    Re your first paragraph F451 - you are right. Though what has turned hearts to stone?

    It is not a lack of care - look at the reaction to some more recent natural disasters for example, as evidence that people do not have stone hearts, and will reach deep to help people.

    There is an issue of resentment that must be tackled. A resentment of income being 'redistributed' by force, and not used wisely. Support for those in need by accident has increasingly gone to those in need by design (moochers). This is not lost on the public or some politicians.

    The Government is waking up to the fact it has been viewed as a money pump for a long time. To shut off this pump will upset some - and who of them will protest the loudest?

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  • F451

    I can concur with the sentiment Jono, but is it real?

    I'm reminded of collecting for Children in Need. From my left came the workers from the poor end of town. From my right those in 'Crown Wood', which was aptly named for those living there. From my right, if anything was given it was the occassional low denomination coin. The folding stuff and gold coin came from my left.

    Those with least to give give more, in my experience, whilst those with most conserve it. So those hearts of stone remain, even against the horrors of disaster relief, whilst the poor give all that they can.

    The hearts of stone determine policy, and without surprise policy confirms their wealth. The 'moocher' effect has certainly not been lost on politicians, who have adapted it to their demonisation agenda very well, without changing direction one jot - how else can you explain the higher taxation, the higher spending, and the higher debt that has resulted.

    The money pump is far from turned off - it is spraying even more strongly at the stone hearted, who are happily conserving all that it takes from the poor and gives to them.

    If you really believe the likes of Google, who pay virtually 0% tax, are angry at money taken by force and ill used, or that if their 'load is lightened' (from zero!?) they may give crumbs to good causes, you are more delusional than a Socialist Worker Party Member at their Annual Fund Raiser!

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  • I'm sure that if you take the collected works of Dickens, add in some of My Life, and include a portion of Animal Farm, you will get the next Conservative Manifesto; or at very least the true Shapps Housing Strategy.

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  • We shouldn't be listening to those who protest the loudest, rather we should be listening out for those who cannot be heard!

    Surely the point of the welfare system in its entirety is to protect the most vulnerable in society? The changes this government are bringing in do nothing to preserve that, instead seeking to erode and undermine everything Beveridge et al strove for. Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness are all prevalent today - perhaps more so than at the turn of the 20th Century!

    This is not progress, it is regress.

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  • Lee Page

    I was at a talk Claire Tomalin gave last night at Southwark Cathedral on the life of Dickens and was struck by the parallels between the 1840s and the present day. Then, as now, there was a deep recession. Then, as now, there was a demonisation of the poor by the affluent. Then, as now, the politicians cared little. Then, as now, the wealthy refused to use their wealth to alleviate poverty.

    It was through his writing and the popularity of his works that Dickens was able to shame society into addressing these ills. Who now will do the same?

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  • In which period would you rather be one of the poor? Dickens' time or now?

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  • Jon Southall


    Though I heard a quote once "I'd prefer to live now than in the times of the savage" said the man, to which I think it was Wittgenstein who replied "yes - but would the savage?"

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