Leaving the workhouse, only to return: Some reflections on Britain’s housing crisis

In 1996, I bought a small house in the village of Bridge, not far from Canterbury. It was what real estate agents call a “character property,” a former chapel built in the 1830s as part of a workhouse complex to house the rural poor. The complex now consists of 26 dwellings whose residents share responsibly for its management and upkeep. Things were very different 190 years ago.

My home in England

The 1830s was a time of rising prices, increased unemployment, and violent protests by rural labourers against farm mechanization. The extensive protests, known as the Swing Riots, kicked off on the night of August 28, 1830, just down the road from Bridge in Lower Hardres, so the local gentry were all too aware of the need to prevent further outbreaks of social unrest by keeping the rural poor in check and ideally under one roof.

The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act created the first national framework for poor relief, and gave the good people of Bridge the chance to act. They quickly founded their own Poor Law Union at a meeting in the White Horse Inn, and a sturdy brick workhouse was erected with great efficiency at the end of 1835 on the west side of Union Road, leading up the hill from the High Street towards the windmill on the corner of Mill Lane.

The workhouse was one of twelve in Kent constructed according to the design template established by the Assistant Poor Law Commissioner for East Kent, Sir Frances Bond Head, a local worthy with no architectural knowledge or experience but firm ideas about the kind of accommodation the lower classes should be corralled in.

The buildings, Sir Frances insisted, should resemble only the most basic rural labourer’s cottage, so as to discourage any malingerers from seeking a residential upgrade. Two storey terraces would be erected on three sides of a central courtyard with the fourth side of the quadrangle composed of more substantial buildings for administrative purposes. The workhouse governor lived in the administrative building above a grand archway, a vantage point that gave them a commanding view of the entire complex.

The original design did not include a chapel but that was soon remedied after representations from concerned parishioners that the poor were in just as much need of spiritual as physical salvation. The chapel also allowed husbands and wives, divided most of the time by a high wall running across the courtyard, to at least see each other once a week during Sunday church service.

The workhouse was designed to hold up to 500 inmates, with eight people crammed into each of the windowless 15 feet by 10 feet dormitories. There was one lavatory on each floor and a washroom in the administrative block.

Life in the workhouse was highly regimented but perhaps not quite as strict as readers of Oliver Twist were led to believe. On entering the workhouse, inmates had their old clothes taken away, they were given a bath, issued with a standard uniform and set to work. The workday was 7.00.am to 6.00.pm in the summer, 8.00.am to 6.00.am in the winter. Sunday was a rest day. Able-bodied men were assigned heavy labour, such as breaking rocks, while women were employed in primarily domestic tasks. The inmates were given three basic meals a day consisting of bread, cheese and gruel, although meat and vegetables were provided two or three times a week.

Although workhouses resembled prisons, inmates were technically free to leave. But of course, once they left, they were on their own and if they could not survive in the world outside, they had no option but to return to the workhouse, either as a full-time or overnight resident.

The system of poor relief established by the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act remained in place for nearly one hundred years, after which local councils increasingly took over responsibly for housing and social welfare under the auspices of the national government.  The great slum clearance campaign of the 1930s, which I examined in my MA thesis (written at the workhouse chapel), was the first national attempt to fully eradicate poverty in Britain. It failed but was later developed more comprehensively into the post-war welfare state.

Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I benefited tremendously from the welfare state. It allowed me to pursue my further education at the University of London, and provided a much-needed housing allowance while I was attempting to get my freelance journalistic career off the ground.

Since then the welfare state has been under sustained attack by consecutive Conservative governments, with little real effort from “New Labour” to reverse the trend. The welfare state has been whittled away to the point now where anyone seeking state benefits has to undergo arduous and belittling means testing just to receive a minimal handout.  The current government’s response to the cost of living crisis has been to offer limited charitable handouts while firmly resisting public and private sector union demands for a decent wage.

In many ways, the decline began in 1980 with Margaret Thatcher’s landmark Housing Act in 1980, which allowed council tenants to buy their rented properties at a huge discount. This might have been acceptable if local authorities had been given sufficient resources to replenish the social housing stock taken out of circulation, but they were not.

In 1979, there were 6.5 million council homes in the country, that figure has now fallen to about 2.2 million. But that has not meant Thatcher’s dream of a property-owning democracy has materialised. Quite the contrary, most people who bought their council houses later sold them at a substantial profit, and usually to private landlords who were banking on recouping their outlay by charging exorbitant rents. There are now 4.4 million households (11 million individuals) in the private rental market, twice as many as in the early 2000s. The private rental sector accounts for 19 percent of all households, 65 percent are owner occupied and just 17 percent are in social housing.

The state of the private rental sector is now so bad that even the current government has been forced to act, introducing a bill on 17 May this year designed to protect tenants from sudden “no fault” evictions, and restrict landlords’ right to refuse tenants with pets or receiving benefits. However, there seems to be no restriction on the right of landlords to increase rent by excessive levels, thereby forcing tenants out without actually issuing an eviction notice. Higher interest rates will almost certainly lead to higher rents in the near future as buy-to-let landlords try to maintain profit margins.

Once again, poverty and homelessness is endemic in Britain and, once again, those on the lowest rung of society have to rely on charity for assistance. In many ways it seems, the poor in Britain never really left the workhouse.

I am one of the lucky ones who managed to leave – literally and figuratively. I have put my old workhouse chapel home up for sale and will be moving on, just down the road to a more modern property in the village. I have fond memories of the workhouse and the quirky community living in the complex but it will also always serve as a reminder for me of Britain’s lingering social inequality.

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