Housing has been a historical problem in London’s East End. This was once always a heavily populated area, with workers living there to be close to their jobs on the docks and on industrial sites. There was often a lack of decent housing, which together with the relative poverty of the area, resulted in many people living in sub-standard and squalid conditions.
The East End Dwellings Company History
During the Victorian age, some philanthropists started to try and create better standards of living for East End locals. The East End Dwellings Company, for example, built a variety of “model” dwellings in Tower Hamlets to help ease the strain in the late 1800s. These dwellings could house hundreds of tenants at a time.
The aims of the East End Dwellings Company
The East End Dwellings Company was set up in 1884 by various local philanthropists, led by a local vicar, the Rev Samuel Barnett. Its aim was to help people living in extreme poverty to find a decent place to live, but the company also needed to make a profit so that it continue to operate. This kind of principle was known as “five percent philanthropy”.
Companies such as this wanted to prove to private property owners that they could house tenants in decent conditions, no matter how poor they might be, and still see a return on their investment.
The company hit on the idea of building and creating model dwellings for the poorest class in the area. At the time, this was labourers, especially those who worked on a casual basis. These people found it extremely hard to be accepted as tenants anywhere else, even with other philanthropic companies.
Each dwelling that the company built would be divided into rooms – these could be rented individually by those with very little money or no permanent source of income. Occupants shared cooking, laundry and sanitation facilities. From the 1880s to 1906, the company built or adapted around 15 model dwellings in the East End area.
The East End Dwellings Company’s female visitors
Although the hearts of the philanthropists who founded the company were in the right place, they had little respect for those living in poverty and felt that they ought to be taken in hand and taught how to live a good life. To do this, the company employed women who worked as “visitors” and rent collectors.
The idea behind female rent collectors was to leave behind the often threatening tactics used by the men who traditionally did this kind of work. Their job was not solely to collect rents, but they were also supposed to have a good influence on the tenants living in a dwelling.
The women who took control of each dwelling were tasked with helping their tenants learn how to be thrifty and clean housekeepers. They helped with basic cooking skills and encouraged parents to treat their children responsibly. They set out to become friends with their tenants, but it is likely that they simply managed to irritate a lot of them! As far as some of these ladies were concerned, their job was to civilise the working class by telling them how they ought to live their lives.
The visitors would rent a room in a dwelling which they would kit out as a social area, often known as the community room – this was used as their base when they came to visit. They also helped organise entertainments for the residents.
One of the original female visitors employed by the East End Dwellings Company was Beatrice Potter. She became better known in later life under her married name, Beatrice Webb. She was one of the original founders of the London School of Economics and Science.
The rules for tenants living in an East End Dwellings building
Tenants were expected to stick to some fairly rigorous rules and regulations if they wanted to live in one of these model dwellings. Tenants were not permitted to run any kind of business in their rooms as the company wanted to show the distinction between work and life at home. The company was worried that tenants would keep animals in their rooms as a source of food. So, no animals were allowed at all, including pets. Tenants were also never allowed to take in lodgers or sub-let their rooms.
The East End Dwellings Company today
The company only built a few dwellings compared to other similar organisations, however it did help a lot of locals to find a decent place to live. Over the years, the company was taken over by various property companies and is now part of Isthithmar P&O Estates.
Some of the original dwellings no longer exist, but some are still standing. Dunstan Houses in Stepney Green was even used by the BBC series “Call the Midwife” as a shooting location.