The Laws That Brought Us Rent – Chapter 1

Blake Hayek
Written by Blake Hayek

Housing of the Working Classes Acts (1885, 1890 and 1895)

You are what you eat could be rephrased to be ‘you are what you rent’. In our day and age, renting is increasingly becoming synonymous with living itself. It’s everywhere: from the car you drive to the suit you hire. And at the beginning and end of it all is the room you lie down in to sleep, wake up, and rent everything all over and over again. How did that happen? Well, we’re here to tell you, in this tense political thriller, that is, The Laws that Brought Us Rent…

The Housing of the Working Classes Acts of 1885, 1890 and 1895 are symptomatic of the upheaval of social change undergone through the Victorian era, post-industrialisation. With many workers flocking to towns and cities for jobs, the demand for private rentals grew. Here began two of the most known ‘protagonists’ of the landlord clan: the Dickensian bogeymen, exploiting the working poor, and the philanthropist reformer, repped by the likes of George Peabody, founder of J. P. Morgan, who revolutionised the institution of the housing association. Trouble was, at this juncture, the former heavily outweighed the latter, with the vast majority of workers living in pretty abject conditions. At least, this was the discovery of the Royal Commision on the Housing of the Working Classes 1884 which in turn paved the way for legislation reforming the regulations affecting landlords and the rights of tenants.

The Housing of the Working Classes Acts were essentially a series of attempts to empower local government to intervene when circumstances seemed appropriate, backing them up with the necessary cash to give a bit of bite to their bark. Where once the property owner pretty much had free reign over the plot, now local authorities could step in if it seemed the cottage resembled more of a dungeon than a domicile. They also began the marriage between housing and public health as in this respect landlords became liable for their tenants’ well being – no more justifying black mold as some kind of exotic furnishing. 1885’s Act got the ball rolling in these respects, and the 1890 Act excited things further by introducing the notion of compulsory purchase if stuff had really gotten out of hand in the tenements. The Act of 1890 essentially just sealed the deal, giving metropolitan borough councils the power to expand their authority beyond their prior geographic jurisdiction. As you can imagine, the Dickensian camp were not chuffed.

Nor was everyone in Parliament, either. Lord Elcho, founder of the Liberty and Property Defence League and a staunch supporter of all things laissez-faire, worried the government were inching uncomfortably closer to the ‘anaconda coils of state socialism’, deriding the acts as unabashed ‘class legislation’. Lord Salisbury, who played a part in forming the original Commission and a dyed in the wool tory, stepped in to defend the legislation, however, on the grounds of ‘philanthropy and religion’. Strong words.

Hopefully nobody nowadays would disagree with the interventions which took place then if they could truly appreciate the depravity of the workers’ living conditions. The turnaround was fair sight more than the recent East London regen’, I assure you. But it definitely got the battle underway between the ‘meddling state’ and ‘rapacious individualists’ for years to come, however, enshrining the beginning of the century’s shift towards welfare housing and homeownership right up until the 1980s. Without these Acts, we’d still all probably be in the workhouse.

Image credit: John Hall

About the author

Blake Hayek

Blake Hayek

Blake Hayek lives and works in London where he is completing a part-time MA in English. His thesis looks at how experimental literature of the last century has responded to the abstraction of finance capital. When he's not reading about debt, you'll find him trying to write himself out of it.

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