Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Housing of the Working Classes - II


For the first time, in the United Kingdom, a Civic Exhibition will be held this summer in Dublin. This is due to the widespread interest now taken in the housing question, which has been greatly stimulated by the Report of the Commission that lately sat on the housing conditions of the working classes within the city. A large and representative committee of all classes has been formed, under the presidency of Her Excellency, the Countess of Aberdeen, who is promoting the movement with her usual energy and great organising capacity. The old Linen Hall, built in 1726, and now a long abandoned barracks, is being transformed; and here in the heart of a slum area the Exhibition will be held, which may prove to be the starting-point of a movement that will not only transform the city and make it fit for poor and rich alike to dwell in, but may also have far-reaching effects on many other communities elsewhere.

In the previous article on the housing question we pointed out the difficulties all old cities have to face, in trying to solve it under modern social conditions. While Dublin does not differ in this respect from other cities, its difficulties are intensified, owing to the extreme poverty of a large number of its inhabitants, and the somewhat peculiar heritage left to it by the great building schemes of the eighteenth century.

The line of communication at an early age between Leinster and Ulster crossed the Liffey by a ford of hurdles near the present Whitworth Bridge. On the height overlooking it, now crowned by Christchurch, stood a number of wattle huts, the nucleus of the future city. Here the Vikings raised the capital of what was in effect a Danish kingdom; the pool in which their ships lay was Dubh Linn (Dublin). The Anglo-Normans made it in time a stronghold, and the centre of administration. Walled, towered and gated, it suffered the usual vicissitudes of stormy centuries, and retained its mediaeval character until the Viceroyalty of the Duke of Ormonde, under whose government modern Dublin may be said to have made a beginning. No residential part of the present city is older than Queen Anne’s reign, and little of that now remains. The eighteenth century saw a complete rebuilding, and a vast extension, until by its close the city was left in its main lines pretty much as it now stands. Vast sums were spent in the laying out of squares and streets, in public buildings which are the pride of the city, and in the erection of long lines of fine dwelling houses, the homes of the aristocracy who thronged to the capital, and at boundless expense made it the second city in the Kingdom, and one of the gayest in Europe. Troops of servants within, and crowds without ministered to the wants of the gay, extravagant, and most generous nobility and gentry, who, so far, created the capital, and made it their home during a period of the most intense political and social activity. But economic the whole life was not, for the age nowhere was economical. During the whole period the wants of the working classes in the matter of housing was unthought of, as far as any general scheme went. They were relegated into courts, laneways, alleys and old rookeries anywhere. Sanitation there was none, as now understood; cesspools, periodically emptied, lay covered in the thoroughfares; the streets were ill-paved, ill-kept and excessively filthy, as many accounts testify, while the crowds of beggars who infested them were commented on by every writer who visited the city and gave his experience of it. Of the poverty of the lower classes we have ample evidence, were it only to note the charitable institutions, founded in that generous time which still exist. While there was much to be sentimental over in eighteenth century Dublin, there is enough in the darker side of it to strip the glamour off that gilded age. In the last eighty years Dublin has suffered as great a change in another direction; the fine houses once occupied by the gentry, especially on the north side of the city, have lapsed into tenements, many of the worst description. The older quarters on the south side have suffered an equal decay; the result is that there are derelict sites everywhere, dilapidated houses in every street, while day by day houses are being condemned. The provision of necessary accommodation has not kept pace with the process of decay, so that the poor are driven into existing tenements no better than what they came from, and to consequent overcrowding and congestion. To what an extent this exists will be best understood from the following figures. Of the total population of the city (304,802) the number of the working classes and their dependents amount to 194,250, about 63 per cent. Various companies and societies have provided accommodation for some 32,000 of these. Dwelling in 5,322 tenement houses is a population of about 118,000, and small houses furnish provision for about 10,000. This accounts for 160,000, the remainder living in small better class houses. The 5,322 tenement houses contain 35,227 rooms; in these 20,108 families occupy single rooms, so that Dublin has been styled among the towns of the United Kingdom a city of one-room tenements. Omitting rooms occupied by one and by two persons, there are 12,042 families numbering 73,973 persons living in single rooms. The total number living in each tenement house is very varied, depending on the size and number of rooms. A rough average is a house of 8 to 10 rooms with from 40 to 50 people. We have found a house with 90 persons living in it, but this is exceptional.


The death-rate among the inhabitants of tenement houses is a heavy one, which, if lowered, to the average for the whole city would be a saving of 1,000 a year of human life. This heavy death-rate among the poorer class must, however, be put down to other causes as well as the housing; these are a low standard of living, insufficient food and clothing, cold and exposure, and in general a poor physique, all of which render the slum dweller peculiarly susceptible to disease, and its so frequent fatal results. Excessive poverty prevails over the whole slum area of Dublin; and some idea of the extremity, to which the poor are put to tide over daily difficulties, may be had from a report made by Sir Charles Cameron some years ago, in which he states that from inquiries made, over 2,800,000 pawn tickets were issued in a year, the loans amounting to over ^540,000. About one-third of the population and their dependents belong to the unskilled working classes—day labourers, yardmen, hawkers, odd jobbers, and such like, of whom an undue number are casual workers and unemployed. The average wages of a great majority vary from 15s. to 20s.; the casual Labourer less, which intensifies the difficulty of the housing problem. With such wages as prevail, how a worker can feed and clothe himself and his family, and provide housing accommodation sufficient to preserve any of the graces of life it is difficult to imagine. The margin of evil — moral and physical, between tenancies at 3s. 6d. per week and 2s. at best is small, and too often the occupier is driven in spite of himself to take the cheapest he can get, and, therefore, the worst, with the consequent real risk to himself and his family. When one comes in contact with such conditions, as we have literally in thousands of cases, the wonder is that any escape from the relentless force of the fate that lies behind them. Of the life of the slum-dweller under them no adequate description is possible here. From a thorough investigation of all the lower quarters of the city, we consider there is nothing to choose between the various slum areas in the matter of housing; the prevailing conditions are everywhere, the same. Open doors and common stairways — dirty and ill-kept, with temptation to vice day and night, exist throughout. Neglect in general is shown in the dilapidated roofs, walls, and the timber of the buildings; and there are few houses in which broken windows will not be seen within and without. One or two outside water closets suffice for the entire sanitary accommodation of the occupants of a house, and the passer-by in the streets, while a tap in the yard gives the water supply to all. From a pole or line in the windows hang the clothes to dry, and often a string across the room suffices. The washing, such as it is, sinks to a minimum when water has to be carried to the third or fourth landing of the tenement house. Few are the rooms containing a can or bucket for any such purpose. In from the gutter the children go to rest with all the dirt of the day, or many days, upon them. The fire-place is of the worst description, being both wasteful and utterly useless for any real cooking purpose. The furniture in the majority of cases hardly deserves the name. A bed at the most, with the poorest of covering over a miserable worn-out mattress, a chair or two and table, and a few cooking utensils and food vessels fill the list. But the tenement room is often lacking of any such accommodation — a heap of straw, sacking, or a bundle of rags form the bed for many a family. We have found rooms totally empty with not a thing to sit on, so far does the slum dweller sink into destitution before he is driven on the rates. It is folly to expect citizenship in any real sense of the word to arise out of such a depth of squalid poverty. Citizenship in a room, naked to the walls, with fireless grate from a family of 5 to 11, stripped to the last shred of clothing that could reach the pawnshop! Condemned to such a life what can a woman do for herself and children? To speak to her of cultivating any of the little accomplishments she ever had is little short of idle mockery. What she wants is a living wage coming in, and a couple of self-contained rooms for a home, free from the inferno of the vile streets, laneways, courts and alleys into which she is plunged by fate. Thousands of children given all the freedom of the streets never get a chance, and there is no worse training for life than the licence and liberty of the thoroughfares. They learn little or nothing at school, there is no education or provision for the worst cases; but they early acquire how to live by their wits in the practice of lying, deceit and pretence. They are expert in every trick that can win a copper from the kindly-disposed passer-by. Under-fed, undersized, undisciplined, they arrive at maturity; they find a mate, marry and repeat the old cycle of the tenement room story that has come down to us for generations, in this city of casual labour, unemployed and unemployable, street loungers and loafers round monument steps. We have bred the unfit for centuries, and we still persist in doing it. Side by side with any extensive housing scheme must go the schooling, feeding and training of the children of the poorest classes, and eliminate once for all the waste of human life and human force that have so long prevailed amongst them.

The cost of solving the housing problem in Dublin has been estimated at a sum of four millions, which puts it beyond the possibility of solution by the Corporation, within any appreciable measure of time. Some relief will come under the financial scheme of the present Budget; but the extension of the principles of the Labourers Act of 1908 to urban areas is essential for a full solution of the problem that presses so sorely upon the inhabitants of Dublin. The very magnitude of the housing problem shows that whatever faults lie at the door of the Corporation, and the Report of the Commission is not slow to pass judgement upon that Body, it is beyond their powers, since it is beyond their means to solve it. It is to be hoped that no further building scheme, however small, will be undertaken until a proper survey of the city is made, and a well-devised town-planning scheme is decided upon. The generous prize of £500 offered by His Excellency, Lord Aberdeen, for such a scheme, in connection with the Civic Exhibition will, no doubt, produce one worthy of the city; and should the Exhibition bear no other fruit than this, it will have justified its existence, and be a sufficient reward for the cost and labour expended on its promotion.

John Cooke, M.A.


From the Church of Ireland Gazette, 5th June 1914.

Images taken from the Dublin Housing Enquiry 1914.
Top – Ward's Cottages, off Church Street (Dublin 1914)
Middle – General view of Blackpitts, showing old and ruinous houses (Dublin 1914)



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