02. The Condition of the Working Class in Islington

Submitted by Steven. on December 18, 2012

In 1911 the populations of the old boroughs of Islington and Finsbury - which were later amalgamated to create modern Islington - totalled 415,000, compared with the 1981 figure of 160,000. Housing conditions for the working class were appalling; at the turn of the century: the Medical Officer of Health for Islington reported that 4,057 single-room flats contained 15,130 occupants, while 7,670 2-room flats housed 40,180 inhabitants. This situation did not markedly improve during the period covered by this text. As late as 1933, 15,359 Islington families were living in one room, 1,460 basement dwellings had their ceilings at or below street level, and 15,000 families were living at a density of three or more to a room.

What this overcrowding could mean was spelt out in a report by Doctor Bulger to the Islington Board of Guardians in April 1909 in which he described conditions in 'furnished rooms' at Campbell Road, Holloway. Doctor Bulger commented:

In all classes the furniture consists of a broken chair, a broken table, a straw mattress and an old iron bedstead; in some rooms the mattress is dirty and verminous, and unfortunately it has been my misfortune to have attended some confinements under such conditions, when both the midwife and myself have come away covered with fleas. In some cases there is not room to stand between the bed and the wall; and in my opinion the wash houses should not be let out as furnished rooms. In none of the furnished rooms can I see the utensils necessary for a bedroom. Many a time I have had to return home from a parish case to get a wash. In many rooms there is serious overcrowding, and in some cases danger to life and limb going up and down the awful stairs. For instance No. - as seen today is a disgrace not only to the parish of Islington but a disgrace to civilisation. I should advise the Guardians to see it as it is today but beware of the stairs.

At the same meeting of the Guardians, Doctor Edwards, the Superintendent Relieving Officer, also reported on Campbell Road and gave the following figures about overcrowding in a house there:

(A) Front room, 8 persons and a dead child, oldest girl 18 years of age. (B) First floor back U uly 1908) 9 persons. (C) Top front 9 persons now left. (D) Top front 7 persons wife about to confined. (E) Top back 6 persons wife about to be confined.

Campbell Road - was an extreme - indeed notorious - case but there were many other areas of Islington with comparable conditions, and from such pig-styes thousands of men went off to fight for democracy and Christian civilisation.

Wages were equally bad. In November 1913 unskilled Islington Council workers received about 6d an hour for a working Week ranging from 56 to 63 hours. Many workers got much less, for example those working for the Water Board, and some male workers got as little as twelve shillings a week. Skilled men's rates ranged from 3d to 10d an hour. Women, of course, fared much worse. Those at the Idris Mineral water plant in Camden Town, the Stephens' Ink factory in Islington, and laundry women in the Drayton Park area averaged between 9 and 12 shillings for a full working week, while many other women got much less. This was the situation 24 years after the struggle for the 'Dockers' Tanner' in 1889. Between 1900 and 1911 wages had remained static while the cost offood and accommodation had increased by about 10%, although the boom years and strike waves just before the outbreak of war had slowly begun to push wages up.

With these wages and conditions, many thousands of families in Islington lived permanently on the razor edge of disaster. Their only protection in the event of illness, accident, dismissal or old age,' was the support of their families, neighbours, or the pawn shop. When these options failed or dried up there was only one alternative- 'going on the parish' and applying for relief, which in nearly 50% of cases meant the workhouse. This was the fate of thousands every year. The apt con- tern porary 'sociological' term applied to this section of the population was 'ins and outs'. An Islington worker who was a youngster before the War described what happened to families on relief:

. . . if a man was unemployed he had to go to a Relief Officer for food. He would be given two long loaves, lib of treacle, lib rice and if he had someone sick at home, 1/2 Ib mutton, and these supplies had to last the family all week. He was given no money. Generally, if the man applied for relief on the following week, he was given a ticket for all the family to be taken into St John's Workhouse. Their few sticks of furniture would be put either in the road or on the Borough dust-cart to be destroyed. If a man argued with the Relieving Officer, a !'vIr Scammell, he would be charged as a vagrant and given 14 days hard labour.

The workhouses were sometimes known as 'bastilles', and this was no joke. More commonly they were nicknamed 'the spike'. Gradgrind ruled; the regime they operated was brutal in the extreme. The accepted wisdom was to make conditions so unpleasant that any alternative would be preferable. No able-bodied person could get relief without completing task work like oakum picking, corngrinding by hand, or most commonly (for men) stonebreaking. Failure to complete this work meant that if you were on outdoor relief you were struck off, but if you were a workhouse inmate such non-completion was a criminal offence. I give two examples from many: in 1903 a 60-year-old man called Henry Cummings was charged with refusal to do task work of breaking up one ton of granite a day - he had only managed to do four hundredweight in two days. He was sentenced to 14 days' hard labour. In 1908,4 men who seemed to have been engaged in a strike at the workhouse were sentenced to a month's hard labour each for the same offence.

Food and living conditions in the 'bastilles' were abysmal. There were several outbreaks of food poisoning at Islington workhouse in the immediate pre-war years, with a number of inmates ending up in hospital. Corruption was rife in a system which also allowed wide scope for the sadistic proclivities of workhouse staff. Inmates were literally prisoners. They were only allowed off the premises on rare occasions and visits were severely restricted; families were broken up, and crude and ugly uniforms had to be worn.

In periods of heavy unemployment, especially in a winter like that of 1909-1910, the workhouses would fill up and paupers, many of them old and infirm, were given 'walking orders' to the overflow Belmont workhouse in Hertfordshire, 20 miles away. They were not given any food or other relief until they arrived. Since those who went to the Relieving Office were there as a last resort, and often in the last extremity of need, the systematic brutality of the system becomes clear. The regime inside the workhouse was so bad that many inmates preferred prison; considering conditions inside prisons during the period, this speaks volumes for the inhumanity of the Poor Law system. In July 1910, Gustave Blankmayer was charged with refusing task work at Islington Workhouse; he pleaded guilty, stating that he preferred prison. Blankmayer had 23 previous convictions for the same 'offence'. A sizeable proportion of the population of Islington and other parts of North London were born, lived and died in the shadow of the 'bastille' and this experience was burnt into their souls. A number of years ago the father of a friend of mine was dying, and in spite of having had a very rich and interesting life, all he could talk about in his last hours were his family's and his own experiences in the Homsey Road workhouse which his own children had until then known nothing about. In 1911 the first shaky beginnings of the welfare state had emerged with the passing of Lloyd George's National Insurance Act, a contributory scheme which 'gave' seven shillings a week unemployment pay for a maximum of 13 weeks and a low rate of sick pay to about two million workers, but these measures were too late to affect materially the pre-War situation. James Hinton makes the interesting point that the bureaucratic apparatus which the Act set up was used as the basis for the application of conscription.'

It would be a big mistake to think of the submerged sixth of the population simply as victims; they could and did fight back. Struggles of the unemployed in North London go back to the 1850s, and some of these conflicts were extremely bitter and violent. Things were rather quieter in the early twentieth century, but in February 1903, for example, a demonstration of unemployed demanding work invaded a meeting of Finsbury Borough Council and threatened that if the councillors didn't accede to their demands they would visit their homes 'and make things warm for them'.

During 1908-1912 there were two organisations agitating among the unemployed, the Working Class Defence League and the Right to Work Committee. These were not competitors but allies, with a heavily overlapping membership made up of representatives from local trade union branches and socialist groups. The League dealt mainly with general questions like housing, rates of pay, workhouse conditions and similar issues, while the Committee concentrated upon the specific problems of the unemployed. Interestingly, the leading figures of both these bodies were skilled workers unaffected by unemployment; for example, the chairman of the Right to Work Committee was W. B. Parker, a compositor, while the secretary of the Working Class Defence League was Tom Pearson, a painter.

In November 1908 a meeting of the unemployed organised by the WCDL at Highbury Corner was brutally attacked by the police, and it wasn't an isolated incident. 1908 also saw the emergence of the first women's unemployed organisation that I have been able to trace; it was associated with the WCDL and its prominent figures included Claire Bell and Gertrude Louise Barry, both of whom were members of the ILP. In its first year this group organised a large Islington women's contingent at an unemployed demonstration at the state opening of parliament.

Both the Working Class Defence League and the Right to Work Committee were infected with the malaise of the official labour move- ment of the period. They were for the unemployed rather than of them, and they seemed to be more interested in raising money to relieve the distress of the unemployed than in organising them in struggle. They collected very considerable sums for this purpose - over f 1 ,000 in 1909 - much of it collected on 'church parades' which were virtually begging expeditions. The process of degeneration continued until 1910 when both organisations were signatories of a manifesto calling on the work- ing class of Islington to vote Liberal in the absence of a Labour candidate.

These groups seem to have gone into hibernation in the boom years just before the War.

Side by side with the formal unemployed organisations there was a strong and longstanding tradition of informal resistance, of community support ranging from not grassing to the authorities to spontaneous strikes in the test-work yards. Other aspects of this resistance were the social acceptance of the midnight flit as a useful method of keeping the cost of accommodation down and a huge range of fiddles and dodges which helped people keep body and soul together. A notable tradition in some of the poorer areas was the raising of a hue and cry when the bailiff's men came to evict families or distrain their belongings, and there were huge numbers of distraints in Islington, over 16,000 in 1908 for rates arrears alone! The inhabitants of a street, tenement or court, men, women and children, would rush and mob the bailiffs and pelt them with anything which came to hand. The police often had to be called to protect the bailiffs, who, even if they managed to distrain goods often had them smashed up before they could leave the scene. Not all of the population of Islington were poor. Substantial enclaves were inhabited by the well-off, the middle class and skilled workers, and these differences show up clearly in all of the public health statistics; thus in 1912 infant mortality in the poor area of Barnsbury was 297 per 1,000 while in better off Tufnell the figure was 136. This tendency was also apparent in the general mortality and life expectancy rates. George Leslie Tiley expressed the experience of the poor in relation to illness and death:

There were no free doctors and if the poor were ill they had to apply to the Poor Law Guardians at Barnsbury Street and when the doctor arrived he usually sent the ill person to St Mary's Hospital where most of them died. The hospital was dreaded by the poor. . . . If the sick person died at home, he was given a pauper's funeral. This consisted of a horse-drawn coach with room for two passengers inside, the coffin being placed crosswise under the seat of the driver and protruding over the width of the carriage.

Islington's social complexity was mirrored in the huge range of occupa- tions and industries represented in the area. The largest single category of employment was transport. Before the War it was estimated that about 15,000 railway workers lived in the borough, and when the closely related market and coal porters (there were something like 4,000 of the latter employed in the St Pan eras Arches area alone) as well as carmen, carters, vanguards and bus, tram and tube workers, are all taken into account, it is clear that this sector must have constituted a substantial proportion of the workforce. JO But even this coherence is more apparent than real, for a respectable booking clerk or a lordly engine driver would have little in common with a casually employed coal heaver.

Islington, like most other parts of London was a dormitory area, and while there was a considerable amount of industry, mainly consisting of small or medium firms, there was little connection between place of work and abode. This fact is one of the most important building blocks of London's political and industrial life and helps to explain the differences between the radical movement in London and elsewhere in Britain. It must be remembered that the social composition of the population could vary widely from place to place; for example the ratio of skilled workers and others with more secure occupations was much higher in the outer portions of North London and this difference had a significant effect on political life.

The most prominent feature of London's economic situation in the pre-War period was the vast amorphous army of casual workers, who might be employed from street corners for a few hours, work by the week, or on a seasonal basis. These worked in a wide range of industries and jobs, were very difficult to categorise, and were often forgotten altogether. This submerged mass contributed more than its fair share to the War's casualties for a number of reasons. Their abysmal living conditions made it more likely that they would respond to the recruiting campaign in the early part of the War, a process which was reinforced by the fact that such workers were particularly vulnerable to being 'combed out' by employers. After the introduction of conscription, their lack of skills made it most unlikely that they would be in reserved occupations, and this same lack made it very probable that they would be in the infantry rather than the more specialised, and safer, arms. It could be said that the butchery on the Western Front was the logical conclusion of the poor law system. It is interesting that after the War there was a substantial diminution of the casual work milieu. There is some evidence that many of the survivors who experienced the holocaust and had seen the enormous wealth poured into the mud of Flanders, compared it with the parsimony and mean-spiritedness they had experienced at home and were profoundly changed. A notable feature of the post-War radical movement was the much greater prominence within it of these previously suppressed groups. Certainly the War and the first years afterwards saw a huge growth in trade union membership among this section of the working population.