Saturday, 25 April 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.

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