Bermondsey in the 1880s
In the 1880s London was the capital city of the greatest empire in the world. Yet amongst all the wealth London was witness to some of the worst living conditions in the British Empire. We often associate the ‘abyss’ of Whitechapel with that squalor and in the lodging houses around Flower and Dean Street and Dorset Street poverty was indeed rife. But if you look at Charles Booth’s poverty maps (published in the early 1890s) it is evident that South East London was as bad, if not worse.
Despite there being no council housing the authorities did have a role to play in regulating the conditions people lived in and the quality of properties that were rented out. This task fell under the responsibilities of the London Police Courts and the magistrates that sat in judgement there.
Building regulation may not have been the most exciting work of the magistracy but it was important, and by reporting it the newspapers rogue landlords were put on notice that they might be prosecuted, and tenants were emboldened to report similar problems. For the historian these reports also serve a useful purpose in revealing living conditions in the capital.
Charles Randell owned several houses in Farncombe Street, Bermondsey, and in May 1885 he was summoned to Southwark Police Court for neglecting his properties. The Bermondsey Vestry charged him with ‘neglecting to put in proper habitable repair five houses, which were in a filthy state and unfit for habitation’.
The Sanitary Inspector for the district, a Mr Thomas, gave evidence in court in support of the prosecution. He told the magistrate that he had visited the properties in March, finding them in a ‘filthy state’.
‘The drains were stopped up with filth, the yards unpaved [and so simply muddied areas], and without water’.
He had been ordered to take action but nothing happened, at least not until now when the summons was executed on him. There was still no water supply, the court was told. Clearly Randall had ignored the original report and was now only doing the minimum possible under threat of prosecution.
The case revealed that he took 12s a week for each house, which each served as homes to two families. It is hard to be exact about family size without consulting the census but on average women had six children in the late 1800s. So with extended family members it is not unreasonable to suggest that these five small properties opening on to one court were home to around 20-30 people, all with a supply of water or property sanitation.
Randall blamed the problem on the man he employed to undertake repairs, who had, he said, ‘deceived him’. The magistrate was unmoved and fined him a total of £46 (or £2,200 in today’s money).
Another ‘house agent’ Drummond Palmer, who owned property in the same street was also brought to court for the same offence He too had ignored the Sanitary Inspector’s report and he too was fined £5 for each of his courses plus a shilling a day for the 81 days he had failed to make the repairs required. He left court with a bill of £18 and 6s.
Henry Illingworth was also in the sights of the Inspector. The boot maker was charged with failing to clean and repair two shops he owned on Grange Road, also in Bermondsey. Inspector Thomas said that they in a ‘very foul state’:
‘The stench from the houses was intolerable. There was no door or pan to the closet [the outside toilet], and it was without a water supply. They were devoid of dustbins, and the houses were unfit for anyone to live in in such a state’.
Palmer was fined £14 and 6s.
In Booth’s map Farncombe Street is a mix of commercial (red) property and (at the end nearest the Thames) black and dark blue (‘semi-criminal’ and ‘very poor’ in Booth’s categories. Whether the families that lived in Randall and the other landlords’ houses saw the benefit of the fines levied on them is very doubtful. The work would probably have been carried out but there was little to prevent rents from being raised to cover the costs. The 1880s was a period of economic deflation if not outright depression; times were hard and work hard to come by. Until the advent of proper social housing schemes in the next century the poorest in Victorian and Edwardian society continued to suffer from the greed of others.
[from London Evening Standard, Thursday 4th June 1885]