As a backdrop to the situation which had existed at the end of Queen Victoria’s long reign of great pomp and circumstance, it could be said the the Edwardian era was to inherit one of the worst periods ever of social poverty and general decay of living standards in this country – and across Europe – as the population grew to be more and more industrialised and mechanised. A great movement of people was to occur as whole families flocked into the urban areas following decades of an agricultural existence of manual labour on the farms. As much as 80 per cent of the working population had once been classified as agricultural labourers – ‘ag labs’ – but this status quo transformed dramatically as thousands gave up their ploughshares and pitchforks to migrate to work at benches in the new factories and to take up work on the booming railway networks. But as the proverb goes, ‘… its an ill wind that blows no one any good …”, the wind was to continue to blow exceedingly well for the landed gentry and other landlords who delighted in the status quo of filling their generally wretched, overcrowded and usually dilapidated houses with the saddest and poorest specimens of mankind, desperate to house their usually large families.
House building at this time was largely carried out by profit-seeking private builders and businessmen keen to rent. In the larger towns and cities and other urban locations these mostly consisted of extended narrow streets of basic terraced red brick houses and many of these new communities on the edges of towns were to a great extent, unplanned. A great majority of the population tended towards renting such homes due to the fact that borrowing cash and arranging mortgages had not yet become commonplace and only the richest people could thus afford to become homeowners. The parish purse was never able to provide houses for the bulk of the working people and such provision would later need to be instigated by Act of Parliament when the term, ‘Council House‘ would be heard for the first time. In the meantime, in the smaller conurbations such as market towns like Melton Mowbray, the lingering problems of poor housing increased steadily as the population numbers spiralled and in the environment of high density, unorganised neighbourhoods, overcrowding became openly obvious and commonplace. Many families could be found huddled in the dark and unsanitary courts of squalid and frequently derelict homes, often without facilities or natural daylight. Across the country, pressure was increasingly placed on the Government in London to look into the issue, but a marked reluctance was evident in most areas, especially by landlords and as already mentioned, mainly with the problem of a lack of funds in the case of provision by the Parish.
Geographically, the urban limits of the town of Melton Mowbray at the turn of the last century would have contained around 5000 persons and it is interesting today to peruse an Ordinance Survey map of the time. In the example shown, which depicts the land bordered by Leicester Street and High Street, alleyways, places and yards are shown lined with what were then the homes of a struggling communities, many ancient in origin and others necessarily crowded by one family renting one room – or even sharing of families. These ‘hutches’ proliferated, cheek by jowl, often abutting the stone walls of the splendorous, lavishly furnished hunting boxes and gentlemen’s clubs of the winter visitors and not to mention the provision of more than a sufficient number of public ale houses ever willing to entertain and assuage the thirsts of the working men; there was no television then! It is from this desperate environment of social and domestic misery that my particular ‘local hero’ emerged to dare to put his head above the parapet because you can guarantee that any public ‘whinings’ would later be held against him. In order to breach his ingrained subservience and from a public platform he, would endeavour to plead his case of perceived injustice to the ‘fathers’ of the local Board in a hopeful attempt to achieve justice and compassion for himself and his fellow wage earners.
A densely populated area in the centre of Melton Mowbray C 1910.
A Full House at the Town Hall.
For more than three hours on the evening of Wednesday, 2nd September, 1914, the Town Hall in Nottingham Street at Melton Mowbray was the venue for Mr Edward Leonard, an Inspector of the Local Government Board, to convene a meeting with the object of attempting to solve certain housing problems relating to the town. The Grantham Journal was in attendance at this important civic occasion to relay a report of the proceedings for their readers and to provide me with the information I required all these 100 years later. The tabled topic of the agenda was designated:
‘Whereas complaint has been made to the Local Government Board, under Section 10 of the Housing, Town Planning, and amp;c., Act, 1909, by inhabitant householders of the Urban District of Melton Mowbray, that the Council of the said Urban District have failed to exercise their powers under Part III. of the Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1890, in a case where those powers ought to have been exercised.’
Beyond the presence of representatives of the Urban District Council and the three or four signatories to the petition to the Local Government Board, there was not more than a dozen other townspeople present, which might have suggested that the housing question was not, just at that time at any rate, a burning one. It was also probable that in 1914, such public expostulations of anger by the working classes was perhaps considered a little unseemly. The principal complainant, a Mr Wright, together with two other brave co-petitioners, Messrs. Beckworth and Kirk were ready and waiting together with a couple of dozen members of the Urban (Town) Council.
… and the Complainant.
So who was my plebeian hero that night, confronted by more than a quorum of starched collared and bowler hatted public servants, who had brought himself into the lion’s den to argue on behalf of the poor and down-trodden of this small market town? Step forward Isaac William Wright, born in 1872 in the village of Whissendine, just over the Rutland and Leicestershire border. Isaac was the 7th and last born child of ‘ag-lab’ Richard and his wife Eliza (Hibbit) Wright, his older siblings consisting of two brothers and four sisters. Marrying in 1857 his parents seemed to have moved regularly from village to village in the Rutland area until Richard was to die, apparently unexpectedly, at the age of just 49 years when Isaac was only just 8 years old. How Eliza Wright, who was a native of the nearby village of Exton, coped with her sudden loss and deprivation of a wage earner is not recorded but in 1881 she is to be found living at Hollis Place, Whissendine and employed as a ‘charwoman’; her children Henry, Harriet, Eliza, and Isaac were still close to her.
By 1891, Isaac was 19 years of age and living at ‘The Mill‘ in Loddington, Rutland with his older brother George and new sister-in-law, Mary Ann. His mother Eliza was by now ‘living on the Parish’ with her daughter Harriet and her first grandchild William H. Wright who was born in 1888. Then by 1893, Isaac seems to have arrived in the Melton Mowbray area having gained employment with the Midland Railway Company locally and that year he was to meet and marry SarahRichardson, a resident of nearby Frisby-on-the-Wreake. in 1901 the young family were living in rented property at No. 3 Hearn’s Yard, off Leicester Street in Melton along with their first three children, John 6, Ethel 2 and Thomas 1; also resident with the family in the small property was Isaac’s ageing mother Eliza, now 68 and alone.
Ten more years on, the Wright family were still apparently well ensconsed at their Leicester Street home and by now five further children had been born. Of these, two baby girls had died more or less at birth and Isaac – by now working as an asphalter – was responsible for the wellbeing and general health of his ageing widowed mother Eliza, his wife Sarah and their six surviving young children. On top of this, it seems that his rented living accommodation was minimal to say the least and increasingly fired by a general and frequent discourse amongst his contemporaries of what was then considered to be a ‘hot potato’ issue, he had learned what he could of ‘Section 10′ of the Housing, Town Planning, Act, 1909 and to his position as an ‘inhabitant householder‘. Armed with his limited knowledge and burning to set matters right, he had had taken up cudgels on behalf of many others in the town in an attempt to ameliorate matters, he had written to Parliament to discuss the involvement of local officialdom in his now vexed question of the provision of suitable and sufficient social housing. (100 years on and this is is as contentious an issue today as it was then!)
The House and Town Planning Act, 1909.
Basically, to do away for once and for all the concept of back to back housing which was considered a great health hazard, the basic object of the ‘ Housing and Town Planning Act, 1909’ had been conceived to provide suitable housing for the working classes by employing planning schemes in conjunction with Medical Officers of Health to provide for the establishment of public committees to debate relevant local issues. Government money would be provided and acquisition of land would be arranged in suitable and needy cases. But like many boroughs across the country, Melton Mowbray was to drag its feet on the matter and this reluctance to comply was the kernel of the much talked about, imposition of Section 10. which provided:
‘… so far as it concerns metropolitan boroughs, confers upon the Board power, where a complaint is made to them by four inhabitant householders of the borough that the local authority have failed to exercise their powers under part II, or Part III of the principal Act in cases where those powers ought to have exercised, to cause a public local inquiry to be held. If after holding such an inquiry the Board are satisfied that there has been such a failure on the part of the local authority, they are empowered to declare the authority to be in default, and to make an Order directing that authority, within a time limited by the Order, to carry out such works and do such other things as may be mentioned in the Order for the purpose of remedying the default.’
So Parliament had provided the bullets, but would local government, many of whom were landlords in their own right, load the pistols? Isaac Wright and his co-protesters – Alfred Beckworth and John Kirk et al – were hoping that they would.
“PLEASE STATE YOUR CASE”
Referring to Mr Wright as the ‘complainant’ the Inspector opened the meeting, asking, “Can you please state your case?’ to which Mr. Wright was to reply;
“I have the names of those people who have signed the petition but I have not had enough time yet to get amongst them. I was to see you this afternoon and these people were at their work in different places about the town. The Board has had the statements of these people and for myself, I am confident that it is now quite time enough for the Council to have taken proper steps under the Housing and Town Planning Act, 1890. I have therefore made a formal complaint over the matter.”
The Inspector: “ Are you telling us here today that the District Council should build housing for rent under part III of the Housing of the Working Classes Act? I take it that this is your point at issue. Are you bringing to this hearing any evidence to substantiate the grounds on which you wish to take issue as to why the authorities should build?
Isaac Wright replied. “Well the fact is quite evident in anybody’s mind ..” to which the Inspector retorted,
“I am not concerned right now with what other people might think about this matter, I require to know what evidence you have of it, personally.”
Wright continued: “… they should have done this building work years ago …’’
“Why so?” interjected the Inspector.
“… because the houses that are in the town are inadequate for the needs of the many workpeople who live in them, many with families to be responsible for.”
“What makes you think there is a lack of dwellings in the town then?”
“Well sir, you have been out and about with me today, and you have seen for yourself …”
“That is not the point; I am asking you, why you necessarily think so. The point is that it this matter has been put before the Local Government Board, but why is it that you think there is a lack of such new building?”
“There is a great lack …”
“But what makes you think so – is there any overcrowding to your personal knowledge?”
To this latest interruption Isaac Wright was to reply, “ … yes, I am one of the people in the town who has been complained of by the Council for the overcrowding at my house. I have received official notice from them but I cannot get another house due to the ongoing problem, this on account of my many children. At a Council meeting recently, Mr Bowley had stated that he personally would not let a house of his to such a family and for this reason I have not applied to him for a house. The Local Government Board is well aware that I have offered as much as 6s. a week for a house to rent and this has still been denied me because of my children. There is me, my wife, six children all under eleven and also the children’s grandmother. We pay 3s. for two rooms upstairs and two down and I work as a plate-layer at the local railway station earning from 18s 8d to 24s 8d per week, from which I would be happy to pay as much as 4s per week for rent.
The Inspector asked Mr Wright exactly what type of house he would like to live in, to which he replied.
“Let us say for a start, a living-room and scullery with at least three bedrooms for which I would happily pay 4s a week.
When asked in general terms as to how many houses he thought needed to be provided in the locality, Mr Wright stated:
“I think accordingly that as the matter has been investigated today, at least 50 would be a reasonable and normal number and I think that a fair rental at today’s prices would be of 4s. per week.”
Committee member, Richard Barker was then to ask: “At a rental of 4s. a week, what do you think the cost of a building such a house would be?”
Mr Wright replied: “Well if they built one odd house, it would cost more proportionally than if fifty were built. I can’t guess at the price as I stand here today but I agree with your suggestion that it might be anything from £175 to £200 per house and probably up to £220 with the additional purchase of the land on which it stands.”
He then detailed to the hearing some of the efforts he had made in order to acquire a suitable dwelling for his large family.
Two more witnesses who had attended for the meeting and appearing as inhabitant householders in support of Mr Wright’s ideals, were a Mr Beckworth and a Mr Kirk, both also railway employees. They supported Mr. Wright’s evidence to the hearing and had signed the petition due to the fact that they too had suffered from a scarcity of suitable and available local housing for some considerable time. In reply to a question from Mr Barker, both admitted that they did not quite understand the bit in the petition that they had signed and delivered to the Local Government Board, which apparently stated that; ‘…half the houses in Melton were unfit for habitation.” They conceded that if there were in fact over 1,600 houses in the town, they would not like to say that 800 of them were considered to be unfit.
Mr Barker, speaking on behalf of the Council, informed the hearing that he and the Inspector, just that same day, had made a thorough physical and personal examination of the district spoken of and that he would be able to form his own opinion as to the current state of it. He further submitted that in the first place, the petitioners appearing today needed to prove their case and that in his contention they had failed so to do. He said that he was in possession of an official list of empty houses and that taking an average amount of time he was confident that the supply of houses for habitation was easily manageable and sufficient for the demands of the class of property in question.
“Do you mean working-class dwellings?” the Inspector interjected.
Mr Barker confirmed that he did and continued to speak of the probability of providing such accommodation, if it was indeed proved to be lacking, to be supplied by private enterprise and thus by-passing any assistance from or demands of the public authority and that further, the Urban Council was of the opinion that any previous demand had always been met by private enterprise and further, that they had no reason to believe that things would be any different in the near future. He went on to suggest that several builders in the town were constantly found to be building the class of house now being debated and that the local Council currently had plans on deposit for something like 36 cottages of the type which number should prove ample for any demand the future might bring.
A further point which he wished to emphasise was the fact that in the present state of things – i.e the ongoing war in Europe – the town was looking forward to a large reduction in the number of occupied houses. He also drew attention to the fact that many of the inhabitants of the borough had signed to do their duty to King and Country and that there was every expectation in the case of many young married couples, their home would in fact be given up with the wife and children returning to live at their parents home.
And so, with the convenient threat of a pending war, the whole matter was side-footed into the long grass, more than likely to the great satisfaction of the Parish paymasters and the sleeping landlords. The war stayed around for far longer than anyone at that meeting could have ever imagined and the matter was postponed until hostilities did eventually cease. But I like to think that the agitation instigated by the likes of Isaac Wright and his contemporaries, was to later produce a watershed moment with the passing in 1919 of the Addison Act, as wikipedia explains:
The Housing, Town Planning, etc. Act 1919 (c 35) was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It was also known as the Addison Act after Minister of Health, Dr Christopher Addison, the then Minister for Housing. The Act was passed to allow the building of new houses after the First World War and marked the start of a long 20th century tradition of state-owned housing, which would much later evolve into council estates.
I presently live in a house in Melton Mowbray which was built in 1921 on land which was released under this important social Act, a subject about which I hope to write in the future. In the meantime I will raise a glass or two to the memory of plebeian Isaac Wright and his long-suffering wife and family, together with his brave friends of 1914.