London is still, overwhelmingly, a Victorian city. Most of the railway lines, many of the public parks and green spaces, and a fair number of the roads, date from the C19th. To take Penge as an example: look at a map of the place in 1890, and then at a map of the place today, and you have to squint to spot the differences. A great many of London’s houses are Victorian too: long terraces adorned with cheap floral mouldings chosen by their long-dead builders; neat little Tudorish cottages; romantic Gothic villas. For me, they are a constant joy.
But the brutal truth is that the Victorian houses which survive are a skewed and flattering sample, because this was also a time of jerry-built tenements, of dank courts and rookeries, long since demolished. In the 1890s Charles Booth and his team of social geographers found that about 30% of London’s population, 1.3 million people, lived in poverty, many close-packed in over-crowded slums.
From the 1840s onwards, there was a series of interventions intended to tackle the scandal of working-class housing in London; a series of projects, often referred to as ‘model houses’ or ‘model dwellings’, many of which survive. To visit these buildings today is always fascinating, and sometimes quite moving. But to appreciate them fully we need to understand by whom, and why, they were built.
For those who like to attach neat labels to historical periods, the 1830s and 1840s were the age of the Reform Act, or of Young Victoria, or of the first railways – or, perhaps, the age of the Chartists.
The Chartists were Britain’s first mass working-class movement, sparked by a sense of betrayal by the limited changes to the Parliamentary franchise in 1832. The central demands of the ‘People’s Charter’ were universal male suffrage, secret ballots, and annual Parliaments. But the Chartists also supported strikes, generated a vast radical literature, and launched their own ‘Land Plan’ to settle urban working-class families on self-managed rural estates. The movement combined diligent constitutionalism and polite petitioning with industrial action and proto-revolutionary outrage.
Ruling class responses to Chartists and other radicals took many forms, from straightforward repression, through attacks in the press, to ‘softer’ initiatives intended to persuade workers of the good intentions of their social betters. Among these was the ‘Labourers’ Friend Society’ formed by Lord Ashley, an evangelical Tory aristocrat who later became Lord Shaftesbury and won fame as a champion of social reform. Ashley sought harmony. He accepted the established social order, but he also believed that the wealthy had a Christian duty to help the poor. So for instance, the Labourers’ Friend Society’s encouraged philanthropic landowners to offer plots of land for working-class allotments.
In this, it faced direct opposition from Chartists who did their best to persuade people to refuse such offers. Chartism had inherited a strong streak of agrarian utopianism from its radical forebears stretching back to the seventeenth century. The Chartist Land Plan reflected this, with its vision of factory proletarians transformed into self-sufficient yeomen. So Chartists were very keen on working-class allotments, but they wanted allotments as a right, not as a matter of upper-class charity. Hence their hostility to the Labourers’ Friend Society.
‘Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes’
In 1844, the Labourers’ Friend Society transformed itself into the ‘Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes’, and set about recruiting prestigious sponsors and supporters. Lord Ashley was still a central figure, and by 1850 more than sixty Lords, Earls, Viscounts, Archbishops, MPs and others were publicly associated with the Society, whose Patron was Queen Victoria, and whose President was Prince Albert.
The new Society set itself the task of building ‘model dwellings’ for the ‘labouring classes’, and engaged the architect Henry Roberts to come up with a portfolio of designs. Roberts defined the Society’s “important object” as:
“the erection and completion of one model of each description of building … and … the demonstration that such buildings may … be made to yield a fair return on the outlay”.
In other words the Society was a charitable pump-primer for commercial investment, seeking to prove that building houses for working-class tenants could be a profitable venture. Its model projects in London included family blocks at Lower Road in Pentonville and Streatham Street in Bloomsbury; lodging houses at Drury Lane, George Street and Hatton Gardens; and an asylum for destitute sailors at Dock Street.
In 1848, the year of revolution across Europe, the Chartists embarked on their last great campaign. They collected an enormous petition demanding franchise reform, and called a mass rally on Kennington Common, a regular meeting place, as the prelude to a march intended to deliver the petition to Parliament.
The Government anticipated mass violence or an armed insurrection, but none occurred. The petition was ignored, and the whole episode is often cited as Chartism’s final defeat, though this was far from clear at the time, and the movement continued its agitation through the 1850s.
For instance, Chartist hostility to the old Labourer’s Friend Society was carried over to its successor, the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes. G.W.M. Reynolds, author of popular melodramas, editor of Reynolds’s Weekly News, and a voluble Chartist, descended on the Society’s annual meeting in 1850 with a few comrades, tried to speak, protested vigorously when he was prevented, and was assaulted by one of the peers on the platform. The incident was portrayed as an appalling example of radical vulgarity in the mainstream press, and as an appalling example of aristocratic bullying in the Chartist press. With heavy sarcasm, Reynolds used his own paper to summarise the Society’s real message:
“Working men, this Society is doing all it can for you, and you must go down on your knees and thank the disinterested noblemen and kind-hearted gentlemen who are taking so much trouble on your behalf … Whatever we do for you is for motives of pure philanthropy … Be obedient, docile, submissive and follow our advice in all things without venturing to have an opinion of your own … ”
The following year, 1851, was the year of the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park. Prince Albert played a leading role in its organisation, and given that he was also President of the Society, it had no difficulty in securing space at the Exhibition to showcase a ‘model lodge’ designed by Roberts, an ideal home capable of housing four working-class families. The style was mildly Tudor, which was also the favoured contemporary style for alms-houses. When the Exhibition was over the great glass pavilion of the ‘Crystal Palace’ was dismantled and brought to South London to be re-erected at Penge Place, and many exhibits came with it.
But not the model lodge. The model lodge was dismantled and re-erected, but not at Penge. Instead, and uniquely, it was placed in Kennington. More specifically, it was placed on the site of the former Kennington Common, because from 1852 this edgy radical gathering-place, firmly associated in the public mind with mass meetings of Chartists, was transformed into Kennington Park.
Whether by design or accident, this was a powerful act of symbolic appropriation; the erasure of a longstanding informal gathering place with radical associations, and its replacement by a formal space structured to enable not public political passion, but polite private leisure. And the appropriation was completed by the presence of the Society’s model lodge bearing Prince Albert’s name, planted on the very ground which Chartists had once made their own.