Katharine Buildings, Cartwright Street         see also Peabody Estate

Housing for the poorest workers
Built in 1884 and fully opened in June 1885 on a slum clearance site in Cartwright Street behind the Royal Mint, opposite Rothschild's Albert Buildings across the street, this was the first project of the East End Dwellings Company (EEDC). It offered accommodation, in single unconnected rooms with shared cooking facilities and sanitation, for casual labourers and the poorer sections of the working classes, including day workers at the docks, for whom, as explained here, the '5% philanthropists' were unwilling to provide. (For example, in 1888 there was a Goan Lascar tenant - who would not have qualified for social housing elsewhere; however, in the early years there were also, for example, three police families - who would.) This meant that costs were cut, and sanitary arrangements less good than in other developments (there were ongoing issues about the siting of lavatories - see below), though they were certainly better than in the housing they replaced. The contraints of the site [right on Goad's 1887 insurance map - marked as 'Artizans Dwellings' - with the Albert Buildings across the street] meant that the architects, Davis & Emmanuel (whom EEDC used elsewhere), had to provide a long block with an archway from the street leading through to stairs at the rear; there was little open space, though an enclosed play area was provided [right: rear view, abutting the back wall of the Royal Mint]. There were 628 rooms plus the top floor where the poorest families lived.

Samuel Barnett, the vicar of St Jude Whitechapel, and his wife Henrietta [left at the time of their wedding, right in later life; see here for their memorial in Westminster Abbey], were closely involved in the project, along with Octavia Hill, Osborne Jay, Charles Booth and other housing reformers who were also supporters of the nascent Charity Organisation Society (COS), which helped distribute its prospectus. It was to be run on 'Octavian' lines. The EEDC minutes show that they deplored the values and behaviour of the poor (Booth was one of the few who from the start took a different line), but felt a deep compassion for their needs, a desire to provide help and friendship, and a frustration with the Metropolitan Board of Works' slowness in slum clearance. Barnett had written despairingly in 1881 My hope of one day having a parish with houses fit for decent people has grown very faint.

Octavia Hill (1838-1912) [right in the 1880s, in John Singer Sargent's 1989 painting in the National Portrait Gallery and in her latter years] had been working since 1865, with John Ruskin's backing, as a rent collector. By 1874 she and her trained team of female volunteers were responsible for fifteen housing schemes, both old and new properties, around London. Her ideal was that a 'sympathetic lady collector' (rather than a landlord's clerk) could inspire and educate tenants to transform their lives: they would come to love her and be shamed into better ways. Drawing on Ruskin's rustic idyllism, she argued that they were to be queens ... each in her own domain, taking control as they would of her own house, garden or field. Whitewash and new window panes were seen as a reward; she regarded communal facilities (sinks, taps and lavatories) on each landing as sufficient for tenants who could not be trusted to use them properly. In other words, she was a benevolent despot who tended to infantilise the tenants - and was not prepared for the conflicts that ensued when the collector's authority was not recognised. Indeed it was rather the reverse: as Beatrice Webb said, some referred proprietorially to 'my woman collector', whereas a friendly neighbour was 'the lady next door.'  13 August 2012 was the centenary of Octvaia Hill's death, and various events were held to mark it.

Katharine Buildings (the last syllable usually pronounced 'ine' as in 'wine', rather than 'in' as in 'gin') was named, not for St Katharine's Docks, but for Kate Potter Courtney, wife of Leonard Courtney MP [Potter sisters left - see below for Beatrice]. The Master of the Royal Mint had decreed that the originally-proposed name of 'Royal Mint Buildings' was objectionable.

Henrietta Barnett had worked with Kate in Marylebone, and described her as very bright, happy and extremely capable. She was to lead the management committee, influencing the fitting-out of the rooms and the shared amenities (including such matters as stoves that did not produce excessive smoke) and had power to authorise repairs.

A key strategy: the female visitors
As explained above, the day-to-day running was deliberately in the hands of the female visitors/rent-collectors who sought to befriend the tenants and to influence family life by encouraging thrift, good housekeeping ('cleanliness is next to godliness'), cooking skills and responsible parenthood (with the middle-class assumption that wives should stay at home to keep house and nurture their children). The rules which they firmly enforced were partly good sense, to promote health and avoid noise and overcrowding, but also reveal the values of the organisation. No business activities (workshops) were allowed, because the home was seen as the principal place of social transformation; so, for instance, tenants could use the eight coppers in each wash-house for their own laundry but not to take in washing for others. No animals were allowed - not because they disapproved of pets, or were concerned for animal welfare, but to avoid 'indoor smallholdings'. (The ledgers record onging problems with a tenant who brought bantams from Ireland and kept them in a cage, failing to transfer them as promised to the Tower of London where her husband worked.) No sub-lettings or lodgers were permitted.

The visitors rented the club room (paying a weekly rent of 2s.6d.) which they equipped with tables, chairs and curtains, and used for social meetings and entertainments. They kept detailed ledgers which show a high level of involvement in the affairs of the tenants - perhaps nowhere more so than with the Nagle family (husband, wife and a crippled son) who in their time lived in many different rooms around the block, lurching from one crisis to another - illness, rows, a failed romance for the son; for a time their rent was paid by charity. Eviction was seen as a last resort, though some tenants who could not abide by the rules, and the enforced values of the COS, chose to leave. Others, however, formed good relationships with the visitors.

Margaret Wynne Nevinson, daughter of a Leicester clergyman and an early visitor/rent collector, despaired of the lack of homemaking skills, which she believed was was not just the result of poverty (she made comparison with the French and German poor, who, she said, had better culinary and dietary knowledge). Tenants, she said, regarded cereal foods as 'work'us stuff'; their staples were stewed tea, bread and butter, fried steak, liver and lights. Most of the mothers had worked in pickle or jam factories, and knew nothing of housekeeping. Their ill-nourished husbands pardonably took to drink, and the unfortunate babies, brought up on strong tea, sips of beer and gin, stuffed with adulterated sweets, tempted with whelks and winkles, died quickly ... a few men, who had the foresight to marry domestic servants, had their food properly cooked and their homes kept clean.

See here for details of the involvement of Margaret and Henry Nevinson in the campaign for women's suffrage, a generation later.

The two principal 'visitors' were Ella Pycroft and Beatrice Potter, who shared two rooms in the Buildings.

Ella, a doctor's daughter from Dorset, was salaried as the housing manager. She could not accept the tenants' assertions of independence and their desire to take control; she believed they needed to be civilised. She took particular exception to the spreading of rumours of her romance with Maurice Paul, who for a time ran a boys' club on the premises. (Maurice Eden Paul, son of the publisher Kegan Paul, was a medical student living at Toynbee Hall; he and Ella were in fact engaged for a time, but broke it off in 1890. He became a well-known translator and member of the International Socialist Movement, and died in 1944.)  This was not helped when Margaret Harkness - a cousin of Beatrice Potter/Webb, from a Dorsetshire clerical family, who also lived and worked in Katharine Buildings - published a 'socialist' novel, under the male pseudonym of John Law, A City Girl (Vizetelly 1887) which contained a thinly-disguised version of this romance.

Beatrice Potter [right] was the younger sister of Kate Potter Courtney, who after her marriage to Sidney became Beatrice Webb, and was a founder of the London School of Economics, where the Katharine Buildings ledgers are now housed.  Her diaries record that she was initially rather depressed by the bigness of the work that she took up in 1885 - When I look at all those long balconies and think of all the queer characters - occupants and would-be occupants and realize that the characters of the community will depend on our personal power ... I feel rather dizzy.  She notoriously spoke of the aborigines of the East End - a view which she later modified!

Matters came to a head at an entertainment with vulgar songs and jokes of which Ella disapproved; they in turn were critical of her conduct. It did not help that the singer was Joseph Aarons, who had taken strong exception to an article by Beatrice in the Pall Mall Gazette, which Ella had (perhaps unwisely) circulated to tenants, describing the Buildings as designed and adapted for the lowest class of workman.  'Low' implied 'disreputable', he said, and the article confirmed his view that they were built on the cheap.
Ella talked Beatrice out of setting up a tenants' committee to promote self-dependence: they must never have a loose rein again, it has all been my fault for trusting them too much. Thereafter the concerts were poorly attended, and tickets had to be given away. Margaret Nevinson said the audience was bored to tears with being compulsorily uplifted. However, the committee did listen to, and act on, tenants' grievances, for instance by re-siting male and female lavatories on different floors, and learned lessons for their future projects.

Beatrice, while she still tramped the streets taking up references, became less involved in the daily running, increasingly concentrating on observation and social research, using Octavia Hill's system, and focusing on the structural basis of poverty. Henrietta Barnett described her as plunging fearlessly [into the Whitechapel slums] in her search for facts, working in sweating shops [masquerading as a poor Jewish seamstress] and living as a lone girl in block buildings. However, the social statistician Herbert Spencer was critical of his protégée for 'slumming' in this way: Bear in mind that the experiences which you thus gain are misleading experiences; for what you think and feel under such conditions are unlike what is felt and thought by those whose experiences you would describe - in other words, she was blurring the line between participant and observer, fact and fantasy, and this did not help the emerging discipline of sociology. Beatrice herself later dismissed her activities as a lark. Her painful apprenticeship in the East End convinced her that individual casework could not reform the working poor. In her diary for November 1886 she wrote, of Katharine Buildings, The respectable tenants keep rigidly to themselves. The meeting places - there is something grotesquely coarse in this - are the water-closets. Boys and girls crowded in these landings - they are the only lighted place in the buildings - to gamble and flirt. The lady collectors are an altogether superficial thing. Undoubtedly their gentleness and kindness bring light into many homes - but what are they in face of this collected brutality?

Referring to themselves, in a revealing 'pastiche' entry in the ledgers (compare this with Charles Marson's mock application to COS in the name of Jesus Christ, also in 1886), Beatrice and Ella wrote:

No.97 taken with No. 98  Nov. 1885 - May 1886
Ella Pycroft Rent Collector of K. Buildings Beatrice Potter ditto shares the two rooms. Ella Pycroft b. Devonshire, daughter of physician (single woman). Came to London 1883 in search of work.
B. Potter, daugther of timber merchant, born in Gloucestershire, parents North Country. Came to London for family reasons and with hope fo work (single woman) ...
In religious opinions they are doubtful and differing. Energetic and punctual in professional duties - not absolutely accurate in accounts.
B.P. especially deficient. E.P. takes the lead in management. B.P. in observation. Both of them are professionally ambitious.

A clash of values
The concern and compassion of the promoters, and their desire to inspire responsible patterns of life that avoided vice, were clearly genuine. They were not just acting to avoid the social unrest that would result if poverty went unchecked. But the middle classes were very confident in the superiority of their own values, and today seem superior and self-righteous. The visitors who educated, informed and befriended the tenants were to be a vision of delight every week, like primroses in spring to us, wrote Oscar Tottie (quoted by Canon Barnett). In reality they were more like patrons than friends, and treated the tenants as children. On the other hand, they did give the poor a choice - albeit a limited one - and for those who chose to accept the contract and co-operate it provided the lift they needed. Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley (one of the founders of the National Trust) wrote in a sonnet on Octavia Hill that she strove to enable
    the poor to feel that better far than dole
    was self-respect, self-help, and self control.

But the hard cases made some of the organisers question the COS line that only the 'deserving poor' should be given handouts.  

Further reading:

The Twentieth Century
Between 1957 and 1962 the late Professor Peter Townsend gathered information from current residents, some of them descendents of the original tenants; his unpublished research is archived at Essex University. In 1970 Tower Hamlets registered title to flats 1-263 with the Land Registry, but the block was demolished later in that decade, and replaced with more up-to-date social housing. Right is an example of commercial housing in Cartwright Street - St Mary Grace's Court, named after the Cistertian abbey that once stood nearby.

There were two pubs in the street: the Blackmoor's Head at number 3, and the King of Prussia at 23 (later 39).

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