William Morris

The Housing Of The Poor

Let us on this matter be sure of one thing that as long as there are poor people they will be poorly housed; those of our philanthropists who have really dealt with the subject practically have no doubt about that; and consequently all their endeavours are turned to one end, trying namely to get the "poor" a little less disgracefully housed than they are at present; what they hope to accomplish is very little indeed, and they are so well aware of the difficulties of their accomplishing even this little, that they are terrified at the expression of any hope of realising a higher standard of comfort in this matter of housing than their most miserable palliation of the evil; because they cannot help feeling that the hope of Revolution must consciously or unconsciously underlie the hope of a somewhat higher standard, and that when this becomes obvious, as it soon must, the dominant class will shudder back from the whole subject, and bring to an end even the niggardly attempts of the 5 per cent. philanthropists. In case it should be said that I exaggerate the humility of the hopes of these latter good people, I refer to a letter written by the most practical of them, Miss Octavia Hill, to the Pall Hall Gazette in the past spring, in which she actually allows herself to say that after all it is not so bad as one might think for a whole family to live in one room; by a room of course meaning the ordinary 12ft. sq. hutch of an east end house.

Now while we may well feel too stern of mood when we think of the life-long tortures of the "poor" to laugh even sardonically at such a limitation to the hopes of the philanthropist, I wish our friends to accept my assertion that Miss Hill is a well intentioned, disinterested and kindly person, for in that very fact lies the force of her words as an indictment of our present society; she, a good and eminently practical woman, with plenty of experience as to the extent to which it is possible to move the rich to help, and how far it is possible to use that help for the benefit of the "poor," is forced to reduce her standard down to this point, lest the spectre of confiscation should rise to bar the way against her.

That she is quite right to dread that spectre the behaviour of the present hole-and-corner Royal Commission has doubtless already told her; but we will leave her household paradise of one room for a while, nor will we much concern ourselves with the standard of decent housing held out by those huge masses of brick and mortar, which are rising up in various parts of the town to compete for the workman's scanty shillings against the closeness, squalor and huddled makeshift of the ordinary landlord; bare, sunless, and grim bastilles, are these and look like embodied night-mares of the hopeless thrift of the wage-slave, we will leave them also, and try to give our masters the philanthropists some idea of what, we consider decent housing for the working classes.

It might be advisable, granting the existence of huge towns for the present, that the houses for workers should be built is tall blocks, in what might be called vertical streets; but that need not prevent ample room in each lodging, so as to include such comforts of space, air; and privacy as every moderately living middle class family considers itself entitled to; also it must not prevent the lodgings having their due share of pure air and sunlight, necessaries of life which the builders of the above mentioned bastilles do not seem to have thought of at all. This gathering of many small houses into a big tall one would give opportunity for what is also necessary to decent life, that is garden space round each block. This space once obtained, it would be a small matter to make the gardens far more beautiful, as they would be certainly far more cheerful, than the square gardens of the aristocratic quarters of the town now are; it would be natural to have cloisters or covered walking or playing places in them, besides such cheap ornaments as fountains and conduits. Inside the houses, besides such obvious conveniences as common laundries and kitchens, a very little arrangement would give the dwellers in them ample and airy public rooms in addition to their private ones; the top story of each block might well be utilised for such purposes, the great hall for dining in, and for social gathering, being the chief feature of it.

Of course it is understood that such public rooms would not interfere with the ordinary private life of each family or individual; they would be there for use, if any one wished to use them, as they quite certainly would, for the avoidance of waste and the fostering of reasonable pleasure. I cannot be expected to forego the hint that these houses will be in no degree bare or prison like: many cottages of the 10s. per week agricultural labourer that I have seen avoid that fault at any rate, and I can't see how it is possible that the city craftsman, with his habit of work and almost instinctive general capacity, should err on that side, if he had any starting point of hope given him, and proper leisure from mere bread winning toil. I am quite sure that due co-operation among the men of diverse crafts who would inhabit these houses would make them not merely comfortable and pretty, but beautiful even.

The possession of space and pure air, with the determination not to live in the midst of ugliness, which relief from anxiety and overwork would give our mechanics, who are ingenious and ready witted still in spite of their slavery, would supply the stimulus for such town-houses being made proper dwellings for human beings, even in the transition period between the anarchy of to-day and the social order which is to come. A fair portion of the earth's surface, due leisure for the exercise of thought, ingenuity, and fancy; that is all we ask for making our dwellings healthful, pleasant, and beautiful. Yes, that is all! Ah, fellow-workers, it is no use asking our masters for these necessaries: they cannot give them to us; there they sit in the Royal Commission asking - the Lord knows who - whether we have got these good things now, and whether if we have not got them we want them!

Understand this clearly, as long as labour, that is the lives of strong and deft men, is a commodity which can only be bought when it yields a profit to the non-worker, we cannot be allowed to use the earth to live on like men; it is all wanted for us to work on like machines; and just as much of the produce of our work will be given to us as will keep the machines going.

Workmen of England, you are just now agitating or being agitated for the purpose of obtaining the suffrage for some of you who have not had it before; this you do, I am ready to believe, with the ultimate intention of getting the suffrage for all adult persons. This agitation may be worth the trouble if you make up your minds that when you get the suffrage you will vote that you shall be machines no longer, and see that your vote is carried out. For what is a machine? Is it not a force of labour which has no control over its own labour, but must be set a-going by a master?

Fellow-workers, what you have to do is to determine that you will be men, not machines, and will have full control as a body over your own labour, that you will organise it for the good of each of you and all of you. If you determine on this whatever it may cost, and it is worth any cost, you will obtain it, with the suffrage or without it: if you do not so determine, you may get the suffrage, but it will be given to machines; and then as to this matter of housing you can at the best only be housed as careful masters house their machines. Alas! I fear that many of you will be housed as careless masters house them.


Justice, 19th July 1884, pp. 4-5.