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Overcrowded Housing

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Overcrowded Housing

Post by Karen on Sat 11 Dec 2010 - 13:45




For some time past, all Spitalfields has been agitated by the great rent question. Rents have been rising, and are still rising, in the most amazing fashion. In common lodging-houses, the recognised rate up to the end of last year was fourpence a night; and the lodger who stayed a week had Sunday night's lodgings thrown in free, so that his total was 2s. a week. But at Christmas last the rate was raised in most of the houses to fivepence a night, and Sunday is no longer free. This brings the week's rent for a bed to 2s. 11d., or an increase of close on 50 per cent.
In rooms the case is the same. As much as seven shillings a week is now asked and obtained for some of the rooms in Flower and Dean-street. Five shillings a week is is quite an ordinary rate for a single room, and then the tenant usually has to pay a premium to obtain admission. Rents are now so great in this one district that, generally speaking, it is impossible for the average family to have more than one room, and many families can only rent a room by letting out part of it to lodgers. I recently came across the case of an old tradesman in the district, whose family has lived in the district for several generations. A Jewish speculator had just bought his house, and gave him the choice between leaving with a week's notice, or having his rent raised by 20 pounds a year. Either way will mean ruin for the man. He cannot afford to pay an extra 20 pounds a year, and yet if he leaves he must abandon all his old connection.
Who is to blame for this state of affairs? This is not the place to enter into the purely political aspects of the great rent question. But taking matters as they are, under the present system, the almost intolerable condition of things today has been brought about mainly by three things. First, the incursion of a number of Jewish speculators; secondly, the cupidity of the tenants themselves; and lastly, the laxity of the sanitary officials.
When the great Jewish invasion of Spitalfields began street after street was absorbed by the immigrants from Central Europe. They resorted to all manner of devices to clear out the Christian tenants and to get the rooms in their stead. One of the most common of these tricks was the payment of what is now known as "key money." The Jew would go to the caretaker of a set of buildings. "You find me a room in your buildings, and I will give you ten shillings when you give me the key," he said. Thereupon the caretaker would fix on one of the old tenants, accuse him of being dirty or troublesome, and give him a week's notice to quit. The Jew would come in, the caretaker would pocket his money, and everyone was happy. Then in a little while, when the Jew wanted to move to a better district, he would offer to sell the key to a fellow-religionist for, say, fifteen shillings or a pound.
The landlords got to hear of this, and, naturally, they did not see why other people should be making extra money out of their rooms. They thought that if premiums were paid, rents could not be high enough, so they started raising the rents, and at the same time demanding key money for themselves.
One strange fact about this "key money" business does not seem to be generally understood outside the district. The tenant has a recognised right (at least, in most instances) to get his money back if he can. If he moves, he has a right to sell the key to the next tenant, and if the landlord turns him out, he expects the landlord to return the premium paid on entry. This is generally done, although, of course, there is no legal obligation on the landlord to do so, for no written agreement is made. If he pleases, the landlord can take the key money one week, turn the tenant out at the end of a fortnight, and then take a premium from someone else. The tenant would have no redress, though probably the magistrates would strain the letter of the law to reward the landlord in some ways.
The Central European Jew is a very keen man, trained and hardened by centuries of oppression and cruelty to defend himself. He submits to treatment that would turn the gall of a slave, but still he manages to gain even out of the wrong. When the landlords put up the rent of the rooms, the Jews saw that they must make more money in some ways. What more natural that they should crowd together a bit, and make less housing accommodation serve their turn? At the same time, the landlords, seeing that there were more people to pay the rent, raised the rent a bit more. So matters got worse and worse.
Overcrowding, beyond certain limits, is altogether illegal, and the local authorities have ample power to proceed against owners and occupiers of tenements where it is permitted. But the local authorities of Whitechapel started to argue instead of to act. "What are we to do?" said they in effect. "We know there is much overcrowding, but you cannot fully apply the sanitary laws of England to the Yiddish dwellers in the Ghetto. How are we to collect evidence? It would mean endless bother and work."
It is difficult to make outsiders realise the overcrowding and insanitation which have resulted. It is easy enough to talk of houses with nine people in a room, of filthy staircases, of reeking atmosphere, of crumbling walls, and the like, but they are but a part of the whole. Many rooms are so crowded at night that it would seem impossible to crowd another in unless layers of bunks were put up against the walls. Sometimes one lot of people sleep in the rooms during the day, another set during the night; but this is not, so far as I know, often the case, because the tenants usually use the rooms during the day as their work-shop. I have repeatedly seen the master of the room at work with his two or three assistants at one end of the room, while the good wife was busy in a corner doing her household work. The common rule is for the master of the room and any "greener" (new immigrant) who is with him to work in their corner during the day. At night the children come in, and a few lodgers, who are employed elsewhere, also come in, beds are made up on the floor, and men, women, and children get their rest all together somehow.
"It is all very well for you to grumble at this," said a representative landlord to me recently. "But you know that all the dirt and the disgraceful condition of the houses are due, not to us landlords, but to the tenants. I know a case that proves it. I had a warehouse for some time next door to a house owned by a friend of mine. I had plenty of opportunities of seeing that house, and I will admit that it was the worst I have known, There were sixteen people in a room, the drains were in an awful state, and everything was as bad as could be. Now the landlord didn't care to own such a property, and he tried to improve it. He had the drainage over-hauled, and everything made as clean and right as possible. Would you believe that within a week things were as bad as ever? The people simply did not know how to use the drains. They made everything filthy, they blocked up the passages, they tore the woodwork, they put all manner of rubbish in the drains. It is impossible to teach such people the rudiments of decency or cleanliness."
The speaker, be it noted, was an educated and experienced business man. But his process of argument struck me as being a bit peculiar. Can anyone expect people living, according to the landlord's own statement, sixteen in a room, to observe decency? Think what even the fact of there being eight people in one room, and with nowhere else but that room to go, means. Can it be wondered that the young women rush from their homes when they can, to some of the so-called "clubs"? Can it be wondered that the men seek their relaxation in the gambling hells of the district? Some of these "clubs" of Jewry, by the way, will soon demand special attention from the police. When the inspectors of the Whitechapel and Commercial-street Divisions find time hang heavy on their hands, they might do worse than inquire into the proceedings that go on there. If all the stories about one of them, in particular, are true, the Moulin Rouge may well hide its head abashed. An inquiry among, say, the heads of the Refuges which are mainly recruited from the district would probably yield startling results.
Is it to be wondered, either, that among people so housed, the rankest Anarchism, the coarsest Atheism, are prevalent. This unknown Jewish world, living at our very doors, is in many ways as far from us as though it were planted in Colorado. Our police can keep but little check on it, for of what use is a man who knows only English among people, most of whom can only talk Yiddish. They have their own laws, their own courts, and though there is no physical force to compel obedience, the traditions of their race secure respect.
I have myself seen that Anarchism of the coarsest type - an Anarchism quite unknown to our most extreme "reds" - is breeding and spreading in this district. As a case of what is going on, let me give one incident. Just before Christmas day I was stopped in a main road by a Jewish friend, a gentleman who holds a responsible place and exercises great authority among his co-religionists. "Look here," he cried, indignantly, pointing to a Yiddish placard on the walls. "Look at this disgraceful thing." He translated the bill to me. It was an announcement by a local Anarchist club that on Christmas Day, as an entertainment, they would give a grand parody of the birth of Christ. At the end of the performance there would be a special raffle, in which all present would participate.
In my next I will show a dark side of the Ghetto, a side which, I know, has caused the greatest trouble to the vast mass of respectable Jews. M.


Mr. W.T. Stead is well-known to be greatly interested in the question of supplying decent housing accommodation for single women in London. A representative of "The Echo" had a talk with him on the points raised under this head in our "Underground London" series.
"Whatever I can do in any way to assist the beginning of a model lodging-house for women, I will gladly do," Mr. Stead declared. "There can be no question of the overwhelming need of such a house. Some little time back I sent a lady round the existing lodging-houses for women. She dressed as a casual, and spent a night or two in each of them. It was a courageous thing for her to do, for she was a gentle, refined woman. The condition of things she found was simply damnable, no other word will express it. She found that most of the existing houses are nothing but the headquarters of women of the worst class, and that large numbers of innocent girls from the country drift into them when they come to London, because there is nowhere else for them to go, and are quickly ruined. She also found that in some cases so-called "Servants' Registries" are run in connection with common lodging-houses for women, that the registries draw country girls up to London under the promise of finding them situations, and then send them to the lodging-houses, where, by the force of their associations, they quickly drift on the streets."
"Why is this allowed to continue?"
"I was so impressed with the evils my Lady Commissioner revealed," Mr. Stead declared, "that I tried to start a model house, single-handed. But difficulties cropped up which prevented this. A house would have had to be taken on a long lease, entailing heavy financial responsibility, and just at that time my health partly broke down. Then the lady who had studied the matter for me, and whom I intended to put in charge of the model house, died; and so the matter fell through. But I am none the less convinced of the great need of some decent accommodation for the women."
"What was your ideal about the size of such a house?"
"To pay its way, the model lodging-house must not be too small. A large house costs very little more to manage than a small house. I should think a hundred beds the smallest number possible if a house was to pay its way. The great expert on practical details of management is Mr. Wilke, of the Victoria Homes. I suppose he knows more about lodging-house management than any other man in London."
"How would you get over the supposed difficulty of keeping the house decent? How would you exclude the immoral women?"
"You would not exclude a woman because she might have been bad. You would certainly not demand a certificate of character from any woman who wanted to come in. All that could be asked was that she behaved decently and orderly while she was with you. I believe this is a difficulty which has been greatly over-rated, yet I know it has prevented some from entering on the enterprise," and Mr. Stead gave from his own experience accounts of one or two people who had been frightened off by this one cause.
"A model lodging-house for women can be, and ought to be," Mr. Stead continued. "The existence of such a house would, I believe, be the means of saving very many young country women who now come to London to their ruin. I can only say that I am heart and soul with you in the matter, and whatever I can do to advance it, you may rely on me to do."


Being anxious to convince the public of the dangerous condition of the Dorset-street, Spitalfields, district, we wrote to the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, on the 18th inst., asking if he could afford us facilities for obtaining a list of the criminal offences committed in, or by the inhabitants of that part during the past few months. We have received the following reply: -

New Scotland Yard, S.W.
23rd March, 1899.

Sir, - With reference to your letter of the 18th instant I am directed by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to express his regret that he is unable to assist you, as it would be contrary to practice to supply such information.

I am, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
C.L. BATHURST, Chief Clerk

The Editor of "The Echo."

We are obliged to the Commissioner of Police for his reply. But, while acknowledging his courtesy, we would like to publicly ask him two or three questions, which it may or may not be "contrary to practice" for him to consider.
Is it or is it not "contrary to practice" for our police to permit a thoroughfare to remain in such a condition that it is not safe for a stranger to walk down it at night, and that deeds of violence can be committed openly in it with none interfering? Yet Dorset-street, Spitalfields, is notoriously unsafe, and is the constant scene of deeds of violence.
Is it, or is it not "contrary to practice" for the police to allow thieves and bullies and women of the streets to live together in large numbers in one small district, from where their indecency, their depredations, their crimes, terrorise a whole district? Whether "contrary to practice" or not, it is done in Spitalfields.
Is it, or is it not, the duty of the police to prevent crime? If so, why do they permit the existence of a criminal quarter in London today?
May we humbly suggest to the Chief Commissioner of Police that his staff would be better employed in breaking up criminal gangs rather than in studying precedents which might afford an excuse for witholding information such as we asked. We can well understand the unwillingness of the police to give the facts we want, for they shed no credit on their work.

Source: The Echo, Monday March 27, 1899

Karen Trenouth
Author of: "Epiphany of the Whitechapel Murders"
Author of: "Jack the Ripper: The Satanic Team"

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