Street see also Peabody Estate
the poorest workers
in 1884 and fully opened in June 1885 on a slum clearance site in
Cartwright Street behind the Royal
Mint, opposite Rothschild's building across the street, this was the
first project of the East End
It offered accommodation, in single unconnected rooms with
cooking facilities and sanitation, for casual labourers and the poorer
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 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. [Rear view pictured, abutting the back
wall of the Royal Mint.] There were 628 rooms plus the top
floor where the poorest families lived.
Barnett, the vicar of St Jude Whitechapel, and his wife
Henrietta [pictured left at the
time of their wedding and 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 took a different line), but felt a deep compassion for
their needs, a desire to provide help and friendship, and a frustration
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
Octavia Hill (1838-1912) [pictured 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 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 infantilised the tenants - and was not prepared for the
conflicts that ensued when the collectors' authority was not recognised. Indeed, it was rather the reverse: as Beatrice Webb [see below] 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.
(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 pictured - see below for Beatrice]. The Master
of the Royal Mint had decreed that the originally-proposed name of
'Royal Mint Buildings' was objectionable.
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
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.
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 Lecester 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 & 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.
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
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 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 story.
Beatrice Potter [pictured] 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!
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
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
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.
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
painful apprenticeship in the East End convinced her that individual
could not reform the working poor. In her diary for November 1886 she
wrote, of Katharine Buildings, The
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, 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
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.
the hard cases made some of the organisers question the COS line that
only the 'deserving poor' should be given handouts.
Some of the information above draws on a 2004 essay Caring
or Controlling?, which includes a case study of Katharine Buildings, by Rosemary O'Day (Professor at the Open
University, and director of the Charles Booth Centre). She concludes that it
simple to conclude that this project was an exercise of
paternalistic and patronising power by the
middle classes; it was a genuine, albeit class-coloured, offering
of care made by
those desperate to use their talents, and sprang from a vision of what
the parochial structures of the Church of England should be
It also draws on Ruth Livesley, 'Women and Rent Collectors in the
Re-writing of Space, Class and Gender in East London', chapter 5 of Women and the Making of Built Space in England, 1870-1950, edited by Elizabeth Darling and Lesley Whitworth (Ashgate 2007).
- See also Seth Koven Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (Princeton 2004).
Susannah Morris has studied
the Katharine Building ledgers; text and video clips here,
as part of a series of online seminars for the LSE.
The Twentieth Century
Between 1957 and 1962 the late Professor Peter Townsend gathered
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. Pictured
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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