Homes of the Poor – Alisha Sana

Housing within Victorian slums was represented on many occasions in various mediums, including photographs, literature and newspapers. Different interpretations of the slum home were produced as a result of growing interest in the contribution of housing conditions to the life of slum-dwellers, with each image studying a different aspect of slum housing and engaging with different elements of home life.

This discussion focuses on sanitation within slum housing and how it affected not only slum-dwellers, but British society as a whole. Whilst looking at the slum housing problem, overpopulation and the government’s response to this lasting problem come to the surface. These elements of slum housing and living conditions will be discussed in relation to ‘Homes of the Poor – would Labour representation alter them?, an image that was printed in the Birmingham Graphic in 1883.

‘Homes of the Poor – would Labour representation alter them?’, 1883 [1]
The illustration depicts the issues of slum housing, particularly poor sanitation and overpopulation. It also raises questions as to who was to be held responsible for the state of the slums, and why was labour representation in the government being considered? These questions are central to understanding the slums in the context of ‘Dust and Dirt’, as well as studying the influence of the government and the changing social attitudes towards the slums.

Taking a closer look at the illustration above, there appears to be a focus on the amount of people living within a single room. Overpopulation within slums had been a central aspect of housing discussions and campaigns to improve living conditions for the working class. The artist depicts this by presenting a room with limited space occupied by a large amount of people. There is a possibility that there are multiple families living in the house as this was common due to shortage of money. The many figures in the illustration also add to the artist’s attempt to convey the need for housing aid. A child lays asleep on what appears to be one of two beds in a single room. Two other children with an unkempt appearance to emphasize their poverty appear to be occupying themselves. A man sits at a table with an expression and body language that make his misery apparent. There are also two central female figures, one minding a child and the other working as a tailor. This somewhat frantic scene emphasises the lack of space, one of the main worries of the government and reformers alike who believed that it was unsanitary.

slum home
Interior of a Slum House, Illustrated London News, 1886 [2] This illustration also shows a home that was utilised as a workplace. There is an emphasis on the lack of space and a single bed that occupies what is presumably the only room owned by the family.
It was particularly one-room houses with ventilation problems that were considered ‘inherently unhealthy.’ The Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration also stated this as a major concern:

‘’The evil is, of course, greatest in one-roomed tenements, the overcrowding there being among persons usually of the lowest type, stepped in every kind of degradation ad cynically indifferent to the vile surroundings engendered by their filthy habits, and to the pollution of the young brought up in such an atmosphere.’’

Report of the Inter-departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration,1904 [3]

The Inter-departmental Report also offered solutions for the overcrowded tenements. They wanted local authorities to play an active role in limiting how many individuals could live in a single tenement.[4] This would have been a financial loss for the tenement owners as some charged rent at an expensive rate and had previously allowed their properties to remain overcrowded. [5] However, it was necessary for the government to involve local authorities to enforce their policies that could have potentially reformed these houses.

report and commission
The Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, 1905 [6] (Left) and The Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Class, 1884-5

Before the publication of the Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee Deterioration, the report of the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes was published. Released only a year before the ‘Homes of the Poor’ illustration was printed, this report specifically focused on the housing problem. The Commission also called upon local authorities for their support. [7] Prior to the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes report, there was a lack of understanding from the middle classes as to what caused poverty and the reasons behind inadequate and indecent living quarters of the poor. The causes of these problems was overpopulation and unemployment as opposed to idleness or other vices. [8] So the question arises of why the middle class wanted to support the poor and improve conditions? What encouraged them and why were attitudes regarding the poor slowly changing?

There are many elements related to change in social attitudes and the change in social structure that assist in answering these questions. Laissez faire was a policy adopted by the government along with the middle and upper classes before this period. This created a social boundary between the working class and the remainder of Britain. It was only when the living conditions of slum-dwellers were publicised and gained the interest of writers that there was a ‘rediscovery of the poor’ and the middle class became involved in improving conditions, as stated by Steffel.[9] It was within these newspaper publications that writers pleaded with philanthropists to involve themselves in opposing the overcrowding within slum houses.[10] Similarly, illustrations such as ‘Home of the Poor’, along with paintings and photographs, were used as a form of propaganda urging the government to improve living conditions within slums. This did take decades to do but the government did eventually adhere to the pleas and introduced effective slum clearance policies.

Alisha Sana


[1] ‘Homes of the Poor – would Labour representation alter them?’ 1883, The Birmingham Graphic2.Available Online:, Date Accessed: 14th October, 2015.

[2] Unknown Artist, Interior of a slum house, Illustrated London News (1886) Can be accessed: Date accessed: 08/12/15

[3]   Roy, A.W. Fitz, Report of the Inter-departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration (London: Darling & Son, 1904), p. 17. Available Online:;view=1up;seq=3;size=50 Date Accessed: 9th December, 2015.

[4] Roy, Report of the Inter-departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, p. 17.

[5] Chinn, Carl, Poverty Amidst Prosperity: The Urban Poor in England, 1834-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), p. 84.

[6]   Fitz, Report of the Inter-departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration.

[7] Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes, Report, Parliamentary Papers 1884-5, XXX, Available Online: Date Accessed: 9th December, 2015

[8] Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes, Report, Parliamentary Papers 1884-5, XXX, Available Online: Date Accessed: 9th December, 2015.

[9] Steffel, R. Vladimir, ‘The Slum Question: The London County Council and Decent Dwellings for the Working Classes, 1880- 1914’, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, 5:4 (1973), p. 315.

[10] Steffel, ‘The Slum Question’, p. 314.

[11] Wohl, Anthony S., The Eternal Slum: Housing and Social Policy in Victorian London (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2002), p. 24.








Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s