Extensive slum clearance in the UK was ushered in by the Conservatives’ 1954 Housing, Repairs and Rents Act. It was much-need. The urban landscape of the early 1950s would appear alien to a person magically transported from the present. Much by-law housing from the 19th century survived, particularly in the north, in rows of monotonous terraces. Britain’s towns, cities and ports had been pummelled by bombing – it is estimated that the country came out of the war with 200,000 houses destroyed and more than three million damaged. Waiting lists for council housing often ran into the thousands and the acuteness of the housing shortage was a topic that preoccupied the press and politicians.
Ex public health inspector, Ron Charnick, gives us a vivid description of Southwark in south London, where 100,000 people occupied 1,100 acres: “Littered with bomb sites, overcrowded, badly damaged, poorly repaired and much unfit housing. Four licensed common lodging houses for 300 men and women each night. Overrun with rats both within and outside public sewers, needing 12 rodent operatives to control. No DDT so infestations of bed bugs, fleas, lice and cockroaches prevalent requiring treatments in a large bathing station for personal hygiene and article disinfection. Air pollution heavy. However, work was available in markets and shops and most railway arches had businesses. Large-scale industrial and commercial work was also available. Much imported food from ships at Bankside.”
Things weren’t much better north of the river in Hackney. Norman Jackson writes: “Reports about elderly people came in from concerned neighbours that some were living in insanitary conditions, typically occupying a basement flat, were poorly nourished, cold and surrounded by a build up of old clothing, newspapers and other memories of past times. The build up was usually of some four feet or so… The smell and air of Dickensian neglect was strong. The only water supply was a shallow sink and a cold, miserable toilet could be reached from the outside. Something needed to be done.”
Ewan Holt recalls of Salford that its inner-city housing could only be classed as slums. “The district inspectors,” he recalls, “would spend at least three-quarters of his time walking around his patch dealing with a continuous flow of complaints from tenants. It was very much an uphill never-ending task, usually involving statutory action and court attendances. Many landlords abandoned their property, requiring default action by the local authority.
“There were still back-to-back houses, row upon row of terraced houses and, in the oldest parts, ill-drained common yards serving eight or nine houses, all using one dilapidated WC, houses with outside taps and slopstones for sinks – conditions unimaginable today… To make matters worse for the poor souls who had to live in such conditions, they had to breathe smoke-polluted air as well. With thousands of domestic chimneys and factories pouring out smoke into the atmosphere, it was no wonder there was a great deal of respiratory illness; chronic bronchitis being commonplace.
Ron Coebe corroborates this vivid picture of a smoky, damp and overcrowded North-West. He writes: “The majority of houses comprised two ground-floor living rooms, one of which contained a shallow, earthenware sink with a cold water tap and two first-floor rooms. Gas lighting was provided to the ground floor rooms only and cooking was generally by a small cast-iron combination grate, coal-fired of course.
“Rising and penetrating dampness were widespread and sanitary accommodation was a water closet in a small rear yard… as a profession, we struggled to keep such premises at least watertight and in reasonable repair until they could be demolished and their occupants re-housed. This improvement of the national housing stock is one of the finest achievements of the CIEH and I am proud to have a played a small part in it.”
The Housing, Repairs and Rents Act of 1954 led to the demolition of tens of thousands of back-to-back terraced houses with shared external WCs. As well slum-clearance and energetic council-house building, Conservative governments of the 1950s are remembered for relaxing rent controls, theorising that this would stimulate the supply of private rented housing.
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