Archive of Transactions

‘An example to others’: public housing in London 1840-1914

Alan Cox


For much of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, concern over the housing conditions of the working classes, and especially the poorer sections of those classes, was mixed with uncertainty as to how the problem was to be solved and whose responsibility it was to solve it. As a result, the progress of public housing in the metropolis in this period was slow and torturous. Nevertheless, by the outbreak of the First World War the basis of a London-wide housing programme had been laid, and nationally the main political parties had accepted the principle of state housing subsidies.

The paper starts by reviewing the work of the Peabody Trust and other philanthropic agencies in the 1860s and 1870s. Typical housing schemes are described and illustrated, and the arrangements for managing the properties are outlined. The next section summarises the few local authority housing schemes in the period before 1890 – all carried out by the City of London Corporation – and shows how legislation, which was intended to improve the conditions of the poor, in fact discouraged local authorities from taking the lead in housing projects. Finally, the paper considers the changes consequent upon the Local Government Act of 1888 and the establishment of the London County Council. The early LCC tenement blocks followed the fundamental design principles of the philanthropic schemes, even if they were enlivened by new aesthetic ideals; by the 1900s, however, a series of major cottage estates were being constructed on green field sites in the suburbs.

[Transactions 46 (1995), 145 – 65; abstract as published, but augmented]

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