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George Orwell > The Road to Wigan Pier > Chapter 4

The Road to Wigan Pier

Chapter 4

AS you walk through the industrial towns you lose yourself in labyrinths of
little brick houses blackened by smoke, festering in planless chaos round
miry alleys and little cindered yards where there are stinking dust-bins
and lines of grimy washing and half-ruinous w.c.s. The interiors of these
houses are always very much the same, though the number of rooms varies
between two or five. All have an almost exactly similar living-room, ten or
fifteen feet square, with an open kitchen range; in the larger ones there
is a scullery as well, in the smaller ones the sink and copper are in the
living-room. At the back there is the yard, or part of a yard shared by a
number of houses, just big enough for the dustbin and the w.c.s. Not a
single one has hot water laid on. You might walk, I suppose, through
literally hundreds of miles of streets inhabited by miners, every one of
whom, when he is in work, gets black from head to foot every day, without
ever passing a house in which one could have a bath. It would have been
very simple to install a hot-water system working from the kitchen range,
but the builder saved perhaps ten pounds on each house by not doing so, and
at the time when these houses were built no one imagined that miners wanted

For it is to be noted that the majority of these houses are old, fifty
or sixty years old at least, and great numbers of them are by any ordinary
standard not fit for human habitation. They go on being tenanted simply
because there are no others to be had. And that is the central fact about
housing in the industrial areas: not that the houses are poky and ugly, and
insanitary and comfortless, or that they are distributed in incredibly
filthy slums round belching foundries and stinking canals and slag-heaps
that deluge them with sulphurous smoke--though all this is perfectly true
--but simply that there are not enough houses to go round.

'Housing shortage' is a phrase that has been bandied about pretty
freely since the war, but it means very little to anyone with an income of
more than L10 a week, or even L5 a week for that matter. Where rents are
high the difficulty is not to find houses but to find tenants. Walk down
any street in Mayfair and you will see 'To Let' boards in half the windows.
But in the industrial areas the mere difficulty of getting hold of a house
is one of the worst aggravations of poverty. It means that people will put
up with anything--any hole and corner slum, any misery of bugs and
rotting floors and cracking walls, any extortion of skinflint landlords and
blackmailing agents--simply to get a roof over their heads. I have been
into appalling houses, houses in which I would not live a week if you paid
me, and found that the tenants had been there twenty and thirty years and
only hoped they might have the luck to die there. In general these
conditions are taken as a matter of course, though not always. Some people
hardly seem to realize that such things as decent houses exist and look on
bugs and leaking roofs as acts of God; others rail bitterly against their
landlords; but all cling desperately to their houses lest worse should
befall. So long as the housing shortage continues the local authorities
cannot do much to make existing houses more livable. They can 'condemn' a
house, but they cannot order it to be pulled down till the tenant has
another house to go to; and so the condemned houses remain standing and are
all the worse for being condemned, because naturally the landlord will not
spend more than he can help on a house which is going to be demolished
sooner or later. In a town like Wigan, for instance, there are over two
thousand houses standing which have been condemned for years, and whole
sections of the town would be condemned en bloc if there were any hope of
other houses being built to replace them. Towns like Leeds and Sheffield
have scores of thousands of 'back to back' houses which are all of a
condemned type but will remain standing for decades.

I have inspected great numbers of houses in various mining towns and
villages and made notes on their essential points. I think I can best give
an idea of what conditions are like by transcribing a few extracts from my
notebook, taken more or less at random. They are only brief notes and they
will need certain explanations which I will give afterwards. Here are a few
from Wigan:

1. House in Wallgate quarter. Blind back type. One up, one down.
Living-room measures 12 ft by 10 ft, room upstairs the same. Alcove under
stairs measuring 5 ft by 5 ft and serving as larder, scullery, and coal-
hole. Windows will open. Distance to lavatory 50 yards. Rent 4s. 9d., rates
2s. 6d., total 7s. 3d.

2. Another near by. Measurements as above, but no alcove under
stairs, merely a recess two feet deep containing the sink--no room for
larder, etc. Rent 3s. 2d., rates 2s., total 5s. 2d.

3. House in Scholes quarter. Condemned house. One up, one down.
Rooms 15 ft by 15 ft. Sink and copper in living-room, coal-hole under
stairs. Floor subsiding. No windows will open. House decently dry. Landlord
good. Rent 3s. 8d. rates 2s. 6d., total 6s. 2d.

4. Another near by. Two up, two down, and coal-hole. Walls falling
absolutely to pieces. Water comes into upstairs rooms in quantities. Floor
lopsided. Downstairs windows will not open. Landlord bad. Rent 6s., rates
3s. 6d., total 9s. 6d.

5. House in Greenough's Row. One up, two down. Living-room 13 ft by
8 ft. Walls coming apart and water comes in. Back windows will not open,
front ones will. Ten in family with eight children very near together in
age. Corporations are trying to evict them for overcrowding but cannot find
another house to send them to. Landlord bad. Rent 4s., rates 2s. 3d., total
6s. 3d.

So much for Wigan. I have pages more of the same type. Here is one
from Sheffield--a typical specimen of Sheffield's several score thousand
'back to back' houses:

House in Thomas Street. Back to back, two up, one down (i.e. a
three-storey house with one room on each storey). Cellar below. Living-room
14 ft by 10 ft, and rooms above corresponding. Sink in living-room. Top
floor has no door but gives on open stairs, Walls in living-room slightly
damp, walls in top rooms coming to pieces and oozing damp on all sides.
House is so dark that light has to be kept burning all day. Electricity
estimated at 6d. a day (probably an exaggeration). Six in family, parents
and foul children. Husband (on P.A.C.) is tuberculous. One child in
hospital, the others appear healthy. Tenants have been seven years in this
house. Would move, but no other house available. Rent 6s. 6d., rates

Here are one or two from Barnslcy:

1. House in Wortley Street. Two up, one down. Living-room 12 ft by
10 ft. Sink and copper in living-room, coal-hole under stairs. Sink worn
almost flat and constantly overflowing. Walls not too sound. Penny in slot
gas-light. House very dark and gas-light estimated 4d. a day. Upstairs
rooms are really one large room partitioned into two. Walls very bad--
wall of back room cracked right through. Window-frames coming to pieces and
have to be stuffed with wood. Rain comes through in several places. Sewer
runs under house and stinks in summer but Corporation 'says they can't do
nowt'. Six people in house, two adults and four children, the eldest aged
fifteen. Youngest but one attending hospital--tuberculosis suspected.
House infested by bugs. Rent 5s. 3d., including rates.

2. House in Peel Street. Back to back, two up, two down and large
cellar. Living-room loft square with copper and sink. The other downstairs
room the same size, probably intended as par-lour but used as bedroom.
Upstairs rooms the same size as those below. Living-room very dark.
Gas-light estimated at 4 1/2d. a day. Distance to lavatory 70 yards. Four
beds in house for eight people--two old parents, two adult girls (the
eldest aged twenty-seven), one young man, and three children. Parents have
one bed, eldest son another, and remaining five people share the other two.
Bugs very bad--'You can't keep 'em down when it's 'ot.' Indescribable
squalor in downstairs room and smell upstairs almost unbearable. Rent 5s.
7 1/2d., including rates.

3. House in Mapplewell (small mining village near Barnsley). Two
up, one down. Living-room 14 ft by 13 ft. Sink in living-room. Plaster
cracking and coming off walls. No shelves in oven. Gas leaking slightly.
The upstairs rooms each 10 ft by 8 ft. Four beds (for six persons, all
adult), but 'one bed does nowt', presumably for lack of bedclothes. Room
nearest stairs has no door and stairs have no banister, so that when you
step out of bed your foot hangs in vacancy and you may fall ten feet on to
stones. Dry rot so bad that one can see through the floor into the room
below. Bugs, but 'I keeps 'em down with sheep dip'. Earth road past these
cottages is like a muck-heap and said to be almost impassable in winter.
Stone lavatories at ends of gardens in semi-ruinous condition. Tenants have
been twenty-two years in this house. Are L11 in arrears with rent, and have
been paying an extra 1s. a week to pay this off. Landlord now refuses this
and has served orders to quit. Rent 5s., including rates.

And so on and so on and so on. I could multiply examples by the score
--they could be multiplied by the hundred thousand if anyone chose to make
a house-to-house inspection throughout the industrial districts. Meanwhile
some of the expressions I have used need explaining. 'One up, one down'
means one room on each storey--i.e. a two-roomed house. 'Back to back'
houses are two houses built in one, each side of the house being somebody's
front door, so that if you walk down a row of what is apparently twelve
houses you are in reality seeing not twelve houses but twenty-four. The
front houses give on the street and the back ones on the yard, and there is
only one way out of each house. The effect of this is obvious. The
lavatories are in the yard at the back, so that if you live on the side
facing the street, to get to the lavatory or the dust-bin you have to go
out of the front door and walk round the end of the block--a distance
that may be as much as two hundred yards; if you live at the back, on the
other hand, your outlook is on to a row of lavatories. There are also
houses of what is called the 'blind back' type, which are single houses,
but in which the builder has omitted to put in a back door--from pure
spite, apparently. The windows which refuse to open are a peculiarity of
old mining towns. Some of these towns are so undermined by ancient workings
that the ground is constantly subsiding and the houses above slip sideways.
In Wigan you pass whole rows of houses which have slid to startling angles,
their windows being ten or twenty degrees out of the horizontal. Sometimes
the front wall bellies outward till it looks as though the house were seven
months gone in pregnancy. It can be refaced, but the new facing soon begins
to bulge again. When a house sinks at all suddenly its windows are jammed
for ever and the door has to be refitted. This excites no surprise locally.
The story of the miner who comes home from work and finds that he can only
get indoors by smashing down the front door with an axe is considered
humorous. In some cases I have noted 'Landlord good' or 'Landlord bad',
because there is great variation in what the slum-dwellers say about their
landlords. I found--one might expect it, perhaps--that the small
landlords are usually the worst. It goes against the grain to say this, but
one can see why it should be so. Ideally, the worst type of slum landlord
is a fat wicked man, preferably a bishop, who is drawing an immense income
from extortionate rents. Actually, it is a poor old woman who has invested
her life's savings in three slum houses, inhabits one of them, and tries to
live on the rent of the other two--never, in consequence, having any
money for repairs.

But mere notes like these are only valuable as reminders to myself. To
me as I read them they bring back what I have seen, but they cannot in
themselves give much idea of what conditions are like in those fearful
northern slums. Words are such feeble things. What is the use of a brief
phrase like 'roof leaks' or 'four beds for eight people'? It is the kind of
thing your eye slides over, registering nothing. And yet what a wealth of
misery it can cover! Take the question of overcrowding, for instance. Quite
often you have eight or even ten people living in a three-roomed house. One
of these rooms is a living-room, and as it probably measures about a dozen
feet square and contains, besides the kitchen range and the sink, a table,
some chairs, and a dresser, there is no room in it for a bed. So there are
eight or ten people sleeping in two small rooms, probably in at most four
beds. If some of these people are adults and have to go to work, so much
the worse. In one house, I remember, three grown-up girls shared the same
bed and all went to work at different hours, each disturbing the others
when she got up or came in; in another house a young miner working on the
night shift slept by day in a narrow bed in which another member of the
family slept by night. There is an added difficulty when there are grown-up
children, in that you cannot let adolescent youths and girls sleep in the
same bed. In one family I visited there were a father and mother and a son
and daughter aged round about seventeen, and only two beds for the lot of
them. The father slept with the son and the mother with the daughter; it
was the only arrangement that ruled out the danger of incest. Then there is
the misery of leaking roofs and oozing walls, which in winter makes some
rooms almost uninhabitable. Then there are bugs. Once bugs get into a house
they are in it till the crack of doom; there is no sure way of
exterminating them. Then there are the windows that will not open. I need
not point out what this must mean, in summer, in a tiny stuffy living-room
where the fire, on which all the cooking is done, has to be kept burning
more or less constantly. And there are the special miseries attendant upon
back to back houses. A fifty yards' walk to the lavatory or the dust-bin is
not exactly an inducement to be clean. In the front houses--at any rate
in a side-street where the Corporation don't interfere--the women get
into the habit of throwing their refuse out of the front door, so that the
gutter is always littered with tea-leaves and bread crusts. And it is worth
considering what it is like for a child to grow up in one of the back
alleys where its gaze is bounded by a row of lavatories and a wall.

In such places as these a woman is only a poor drudge muddling among
an infinity of jobs. She may keep up her spirits, but she cannot keep up
her standards of cleanliness and tidiness. There is always something to be
done, and no conveniences and almost literally not room to turn round. No
sooner have you washed one child's face than another's is dirty; before you
have washed the crocks from one meal the next is due to be cooked. I found
great variation in the houses I visited. Some were as decent as one could
possibly expect in the circumstances, some were so appalling that I have no
hope of describing them adequately. To begin with, the smell, the dominant
and essential thing, is indescribable. But the squalor and the confusion! A
tub full of filthy water here, a basin full of unwashed crocks there, more
crocks piled in any odd corner, torn newspaper littered everywhere, and in
the middle always the same dreadful table covered with sticky oilcloth and
crowded with cooking pots and irons and half-darned stockings and pieces of
stale bread and bits of cheese wrapped round with greasy newspaper! And the
congestion in a tiny room where getting from one side to the other is a
complicated voyage between pieces of furniture, with a line of damp washing
getting you in the face every time you move and the children as thick
underfoot as toadstools! There are scenes that stand out vividly in my
memory. The almost bare living-room of a cottage in a little mining
village, where the whole family was out of work and everyone seemed to be
underfed; and the big family of grown-up sons and daughters sprawling
aimlessly about, all strangely alike with red hair, splendid bones, and
pinched faces ruined by malnutrition and idleness; and one tall son sitting
by the fire-place, too listless even to notice the entry of a stranger, and
slowly peeling a sticky sock from a bare foot. A dreadful room in Wigan
where all the furniture seemed to be made of packing cases and barrel
staves and was coming to pieces at that; and an old woman with a blackened
neck and her hair coining down denouncing her landlord in a Lancashire-
Irish accent; and her mother, aged well over ninety, sitting in the
background on the barrel that served her as a commode and regarding us
blankly with a yellow, cretinous face. I could fill up pages with memories
of similar interiors.

Of course the squalor of these people's houses is some-times their own
fault. Even if you live in a back to back house and have four children and
a total income of thirty-two and sixpence a week from the P.A.C., there is
no need to have unemptied chamber-pots standing about in your living-room.
But it is equally certain that their circumstances do not encourage self-
respect. The determining factor is probably the number of children. The
best-kept interiors I saw were always childless houses or houses where
there were only one or two children; with, say, six children in a three-
roomed house it is quite impossible to keep anything decent. One thing that
is very noticeable is that the worst squalors are never downstairs. You
might visit quite a number of houses, even among the poorest of the
unemployed, and bring away a wrong impression. These people, you might
reflect, cannot be so badly off if they still have a fair amount of
furniture and crockery. But it is in the rooms upstairs that the gauntness
of poverty really discloses itself. Whether this is because pride makes
people cling to their living-room furniture to the last, or because bedding
is more pawnable, I do not know, but certainly many of the bedrooms I saw
were fearful places. Among people who have been unemployed for several
years continuously I should say it is the exception to have anything like a
full set of bedclothes. Often there is nothing that can be properly called
bedclothes at all--just a heap of old overcoats and miscellaneous rags on
a rusty iron bedstead. In this way overcrowding is aggravated. One family
of four persons that I knew, a father and mother and two children,
possessed two beds but could only use one of them because they had not
enough bedding for the other.

Anyone who wants to see the effects of the housing shortage at their
very worse should visit the dreadful caravan-dwellings that exist in
numbers in many of the northern towns. Ever since the war, in the complete
impossibility of getting houses, parts of the population have overflowed
into supposedly temporary quarters in fixed caravans. Wigan, for instance,
with a population of about 85,000, has round about 200 caravan-dwellings
with a family in each--perhaps somewhere near 1000 people in all. How
many of these caravan-colonies exist throughout the industrial areas it
would be difficult to discover with any accuracy. The local authorities are
reticent about them and the census report of 1931 seems to have decided to
ignore them. But so far as I can discover by inquiry they are to be found
in most of the larger towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and perhaps
further north as well. The probability is that throughout the north of
England there are some thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of families
(not individuals) who have no home except a fixed caravan.

But the word 'caravan' is very misleading. It calls up a picture of a
cosy gypsy-encampment (in fine weather, of course) with wood fires
crackling and children picking blackberries and many-coloured washing
fluttering on the lines. The caravan-colonies in Wigan and Sheffield are
not like that. I had a look at several of them, I inspected those in Wigan
with considerable care, and I have never seen comparable squalor except in
the Far East. Indeed when I saw them I was immediately reminded of the
filthy kennels in which I have seen Indian coolies living in Burma. But, as
a matter of fact, nothing in the East could ever be quite as bad, for in
the East you haven't our clammy, penetrating cold to contend with, and the
sun is a disinfectant.

Along the banks of Wigan's miry canal are patches of waste ground on
which the caravans have been dumped like rubbish shot out of a bucket. Some
of them are actually gypsy caravans, but very old ones and in bad repair.
The majority are old single-decker buses (the rather smaller buses of ten
years ago) which have been taken off their wheels and propped up with
struts of wood. Some are simply wagons with semi-circular slats on top,
over which canvas is stretched, so that the people inside have nothing but
canvas between them and the outer air. Inside, these places are usually
about five feet wide by six high (I could not stand quite upright in any of
them) and anything from six to fifteen feet long. Some, I suppose, are
inhabited by only one person, but I did not see any that held less than two
persons, and some of them contained large families. One, for instance,
measuring fourteen feet long, had seven people in it--seven people in
about 450 cubic feet of space; which is to say that each person had for his
entire dwelling a space a good deal smaller than one compartment of a
public lavatory. The dirt and congestion of these places is such that you
cannot well imagine it unless you have tested it with your own eyes and
more particularly your nose. Each contains a tiny cottage kitchener and
such furniture as can be crammed in--sometimes two beds, more usually
one, into which the whole family have to huddle as best they can. It is
almost impossible to sleep on the floor, because the damp soaks up from
below. I was shown mat-tresses which were still wringing wet at eleven in
the morning. In winter it is so cold that the kitcheners have to be kept
burning day and night, and the windows, need-less to say, are never opened.
Water is got from a hydrant common to the whole colony, some of the
caravan-dwellers having to walk 150 or 200 yards for every bucket of water.
There are no sanitary arrangements at all. Most of the people construct a
little hut to serve as a lavatory on the tiny patch of ground surrounding
their caravan, and once a week dig a deep hole in which to bury the refuse.
All the people I saw in these places, especially the children, were
unspeakably dirty, and I do not doubt that they were lousy as well. They
could not possibly be otherwise. The thought that haunted me as I went from
caravan to caravan was, What can happen in those cramped interiors when
anybody dies? But that, of course, is the kind of question you hardly care
to ask.

Some of the people have been in their caravans for many years.
Theoretically the Corporation are doing away with the caravan-colonies and
getting the inhabitants out into houses; but as the houses don't get built,
the caravans remain standing. Most of the people I talked to had given up
the idea of ever getting a decent habitation again. They were all out of
work, and a job and a house seemed to them about equally remote and
impossible. Some hardly seemed to care; others realized quite clearly in
what misery they were living. One woman's face stays by me, a worn skull-
like face on which was a look of intolerable misery and degradation. I
gathered that in that dreadful pigsty, struggling to keep her large brood
of children clean, she felt as I should feel if I were coated all over with
dung. One must remember that these people are not gypsies; they are decent
English people who have all, except the children born there, had homes of
their own in their day; besides, their caravans are greatly inferior to
those of gypsies and they have not the great advantage of being on the
move. No doubt there are still middle-class people who think that the Lower
Orders don't mind that kind of thing and who, if they happened to pass a
caravan-colony in the train, would immediately assume that the people lived
there from choice. I never argue nowadays with that kind of person. But it
is worth noticing that the caravan-dwellers don't even save money by living
there, for they are paying about the same rents as they would for houses. I
could not hear of any rent lower than five shillings a week (five shillings
for 200 cubic feet of space!) and there are even cases where the rent is as
high as ten shillings. Somebody must be making a good thing out of those
caravans! But dearly their continued existence is due to the housing
shortage and not directly to poverty.

Talking once with a miner I asked him. when the housing shortage first
became acute in his district; he answered, 'When we were told about it',
meaning that till recently people's standards were so low that they took
almost any degree of overcrowding for granted. He added that when he was a
child his family had slept eleven in a room and thought nothing of it, and
that later, when he was grown-up, he and his wife had lived in one of the
old-style back to back houses in which you not only had to walk a couple of
hundred yards to the lavatory but often had to wait in a queue when you got
there, the lavatory being shared by thirty-six people. And when his wife
was sick with the illness that killed her, she still had to make that two
hundred yards' journey to the lavatory. This, he said, was the kind of
thing people would put up with 'till they were told about it'.

I do not know whether that is true. What is certain is that nobody now
thinks it bearable to sleep eleven in a room, and that even people with
comfortable incomes are vaguely troubled by the thought of 'the slums'.
Hence the clatter about 'rehousing' and 'slum clearance' which we have had
at intervals ever since the war. Bishops, politicians, philanthropists, and
what not enjoy talking piously about 'slum clearance', because they can
thus divert attention from more serious evils and pretend that if you
abolish the slums you abolish poverty. But all this talk has led to
surprisingly small results. So far as one can discover, the congestion is
no better, perhaps slightly worse, than it was a dozen years ago. There is
certainly great variation in the speed at which the different towns are
attacking their housing problem. In some towns building seems to be almost
at a standstill, in others it is proceeding rapidly and the private
landlord is being driven out of business. Liver-pool, for instance, has
been very largely rebuilt, mainly by the efforts of the Corporation.
Sheffield, too, is being torn down and rebuilt pretty fast, though perhaps,
considering the unparalleled beastliness of its slums, not quite fast
enough.[The number of Corporation houses in process of construction in
Sheffield at the beginning of 1936 was 1398. To replace the slum areas
entirely Sheffield is said to need 100,000 houses.]

Why rehousing has on the whole moved so slowly, and why some towns can
borrow money for building purposes so much more easily than others, I do
not know. Those questions would have to be answered by someone who knows
more about the machinery of local government than I do. A Corporation house
costs normally somewhere between three and four hundred pounds; it costs
rather less when it is built by 'direct labour' than when built by
contract. The rent of these houses would average something over twenty
pounds a year not counting rates, so one would think that, even allowing
for overhead expenses and interest on loans, it would pay any Corporation
to build as many houses as could be tenanted. In many cases, of course, the
houses would have to be inhabited by people on the P.A.C., so that the
local bodies would merely be taking money out of one pocket and putting it
into another--i.e. paying out money in the form of relief and taking it
back in the form of rent. But they have got to pay the relief in any case,
and at present a proportion of what they pay is being swallowed up by
private landlords. The reasons given for the slow rate of building are lack
of money and the difficulty of getting hold of sites--for Corporation
houses are not erected piecemeal but in 'estates', sometimes of hundreds of
houses at a time. One thing that always strikes me as mysterious is that so
many of the northern towns see fit to build themselves immense and
luxurious public buildings at the same time as they are in crying need of
dwelling houses. The town of Barnsley, for instance, recently spent close
on L150,000 on a new town hall, although admittedly needing at least 2000
new working-class houses, not to mention public baths. (The public baths in
Barnsley contain nineteen men's slipper baths--this in a town of 70,000
inhabitants, largely miners, not one of whom has a bath in his house!) For
L150,000 it could have built 350 Corporation houses and still had L10,000
to spend on a town hall. However, as I say, I do not pretend to understand
the mysteries of local government. I merely record the fact that houses are
desperately needed and are being built, on the whole, with paralytic

Still, houses are being built, and the Corporation building estates,
with their row upon row of little red houses, all much liker than two. peas
(where did that expression come from? Peas have great individuality) are a
regular feature of the outskirts of the industrial towns. As to what they
are like and how they compare with the slum houses, I can best give an idea
by transcribing two more extracts from my diary. The tenants' opinions of
their houses vary greatly, so I will give one favourable extract and one
unfavourable. Both of these are from Wigan and both are the cheaper 'non-
parlour type' houses:

1. House in Beech Hill Estate.

Downstairs. Large living-room with kitchener fireplace, cup-boards,
and fixed dresser, composition floor. Small hallway, largish kitchen. Up to
date electric cooker hired from Corporation at much the same rate as a gas

Upstairs. Two largish bedrooms, one tiny one--suitable only for a
boxroom or temporary bedroom. Bathroom, w.c., with hot and cold water.

Smallish garden. These vary throughout the estate, but mostly
rather smaller than an allotment.

Four in family, parents and two children. Husband in good employ.
Houses appear well built and are quite agreeable to look at. Various
restrictions, e.g. it is forbidden to keep poultry or pigeons, take in
lodgers, sub-let, or start any kind of business with-out leave from the
Corporation. (This is easily granted in the case of taking in lodgers, but
not in any of the others.) Tenant' very well satisfied with house and proud
of it. Houses in this estate all well kept. Corporation are good about
repairs, but keep tenants up to the mark with regard to keeping the place
tidy, etc.

Rent 11s. 3d. including rates. Bus fare into town 2d.

2. House in Welly Estate.

Downstairs. Living-room 14 ft by 10 ft, kitchen a good deal
smaller, tiny larder under stairs, small but fairly good bathroom. Gas
cooker, electric lighting. Outdoor w.c.

Upstairs. One bedroom 12 ft by 10 ft with tiny fireplace, another
the same size without fireplace, another 7 ft by 6 ft. Best bedroom has
small wardrobe let into wall. 'Garden about 20 yards by 10.

Six in family, parents and four children, eldest son nineteen,
eldest daughter twenty-two. None in work except eldest son. Tenants very
discontented. Their complaints are: 'House is cold, draughty, and damp.
Fireplace in living-room gives out no heat and makes room very dusty--
attributed to its being set too low. Fireplace in best bedroom too small to
be of any use. Walls upstairs cracking. Owing to uselessness of tiny
bedroom, five are sleeping in one bedroom, one (the eldest son) in the

Gardens in this estate all neglected.

Rent 10s. 3d., inclusive. Distance to town a little over a mile--
there is no bus here.

I could multiply examples, but these two are enough, as the types of
Corporation houses being built do not vary greatly from place to place. Two
things are immediately obvious. The first is that at their very worst the
Corporation houses are better than the slums they replace. The mere
possession of a bathroom and a bit of garden would out-weigh almost any
disadvantage. The other is that they are much more expensive to live in. It
is common enough for a man to be turned out of a condemned house where he
is paying six or seven shillings a week and given a Corporation house where
he has to pay ten. This only affects those who are in work or have recently
been in work, because when a man is on the P.A.C. his rent is assessed at a
quarter of his dole, and if it is more than this he gets an extra
allowance; in any case, there are certain classes of Corporation houses to
which people on the dole are not admitted. But there are other ways in
which life in a Corporation estate is expensive, whether you are in work or
out of it. To begin with, owing to the higher rents, the shops in the
estate are much more expensive and there are not so many of them. Then
again, in a comparatively large, detached house, away from the frowsy
huddle of the slum, it is much colder and more fuel has to be burnt. And
again there is the expense, especially for a man in work, of getting to and
from town. This last is one of the more obvious problems of rehousing. Slum
clearance means diffusion of the population. When you rebuild on a large
scale, what you do in effect is to scoop out the centre of the town and
redistribute it on the outskirts. This is all very well in a way; you have
got the people out of fetid alleys into places where they have room to
breathe; but from the point of view of the people themselves, what you have
done is to pick them up and dump them down five miles from their work. The
simplest solution is flats. If people are going to live in large towns at
all they must learn to live on top of one another. But the northern working
people do not take kindly to flats; even where fiats exist they are
contemptuously named 'tenements'. Almost everyone will tell you that he
'wants a house of his own', and apparently a house in the middle of an
unbroken block of houses a hundred yards long seems to them more 'their
own' than a flat situated in mid-air.

To revert to the second of the two Corporation houses I have just
mentioned. The tenant complained that the house was cold, damp, and so
forth. Perhaps the house was jerry-built, but equally probably he was
exaggerating. He had come there from a filthy hovel in the middle of Wigan
which I happened to have inspected previously; while there he had made
every effort to get hold of a Corporation house, and he was no sooner in
the Corporation house than he wanted to be back in the slum. This looks
like mere captiousness but it covers a perfectly genuine grievance. In very
many cases, perhaps in half the cases, I found that the people in
Corporation houses don't really like them. They are glad to get out of the
stink of the slum, they know that it is better for their children to have
space to play about in, but they don't feel really at home. The exceptions
are usually people in good employ who can afford to spend a little extra on
fuel and furniture and journeys, and who in any case are of 'superior'
type. The others, the typical slum-dwellers, miss the frowsy warmth of the
slum. They complain that 'out in the country', i.e. on the edge of the
town, they are 'starving' (freezing). Certainly most Corporation estates
are pretty bleak in winter. Some I have been through, perched on treeless
clayey hillsides and swept by icy winds, would be horrible places to live
in. It is not that slum-dwellers want dirt and congestion for their own
sakes, as the fat-bellied bourgeoisie love to believe. (See for instance
the conversation about slum-clearance in Galsworthy's Swan Song, where the
rentier's cherished belief that the slum-dweller makes the slum, and not
vice versa, is put into the mouth of a philanthropic Jew.) Give people a
decent house and they will soon learn to keep it decent. Moreover, with a
smart-looking house to live up to they improve in self-respect and
cleanliness, and their children start life with better chances.
Nevertheless, in a Corporation estate there is an uncomfortable, almost
prison-like atmosphere, and the people who live there are perfectly well
aware of it.

And it is here that one comes on the central difficulty of the housing
problem. When you walk through the smoke-dim slums of Manchester you think
that nothing is needed except to tear down these abominations and build
decent houses in their place. But the trouble is that in destroying the
slum you destroy other things as well. Houses are I' desperately needed and
are not being built fast enough; but in so far as rehousing is being done,
it is being done--perhaps it is unavoidable--in a monstrously inhuman
'manner. I don't mean merely that the houses are new and ugly. All houses
have got to be new at some time, and as a matter of fact the type of
Corporation house now being built is not at all offensive to look at. On
the outskirts of Liverpool there are what amount to whole towns consisting
entirely of Corporation houses, and they are quite pleasing to the eye; the
blocks of workers' flats in the centre of the town modelled, I believe, on
the workers' flats in Vienna, are definitely fine buildings. But there is
something ruthless and soulless about the whole business. Take, for
instance, the restrictions with which you are burdened in a Corporation
house. You are not allowed to keep your house and garden as you want them
--in some estates there is even a regulation that every garden must have
the same kind of hedge. You are not allowed to keep poultry or pigeons. The
Yorkshire miners are fond of keeping homer pigeons; they keep them in the
back yard and take them out and race them on Sundays. But pigeons are messy
birds and the Corporation suppresses them as a matter of course. The
restrictions about shops are more serious. The number of shops in a
Corporation estate is rigidly limited, and it is said that preference is
given to the Co-op and the chain stores; this may not be strictly true, but
certainly those are the shops that one usually sees there. This is bad
enough for the general public, but from the point of view of the
independent shopkeeper it is a disaster. Many a small shopkeeper is utterly
ruined by some rehousing scheme which takes no notice of his existence. A
whole section of the town is condemned en bloc; presently the houses are
pulled down and the people are transferred to some housing estate miles
away. In this way all the small shopkeepers of the quarter have their whole
clientele taken away from them at a single swoop and receive not a penny of
compensation. They cannot transfer their business to the estate, because
even if they can afford the move and the much higher rents, they would
probably be refused a licence. As for pubs, they are banished from the
housing estates almost completely, and the few that remain are dismal sham-
Tudor places fitted out by the big brewery companies and very expensive.
For a middle-class population this would be a nuisance--it might mean
walking a mile to get a glass of beer; for a working-class population,
which uses the pub as a kind of club, it is a serious blow at communal
life. It is a great achievement to get slum-dwellers into decent houses,
but it is unfortunate that, owing to the peculiar temper of our time, it is
also considered necessary to rob them of the last vestiges of their
liberty. The people themselves feel this, and it is this feeling that they
are rationalizing when they complain that their new houses--so much better,
as houses, than those they have come out of--are cold and uncomfortable and

I sometimes think that the price of liberty is not so much eternal
vigilance as eternal dirt. There are some Corporation estates in which new
tenants are systematically de-loused before being allowed into their
houses. All their possessions except what they stand up in are taken away
from them, fumigated, and sent on to the new house. This procedure has its
points, for it is a pity that people should take bugs into brand new houses
(a bug will follow you about in your luggage if he gets half a chance), but
it is the kind of thing that makes you wish that the word 'hygiene' could
be dropped out of the dictionary. Bugs are bad, but a state of affairs in
which men will allow themselves to be dipped like sheep is worse. 'Perhaps,
however, when it is a case of slum clearance, one must take for granted a
certain amount of restrictions and inhumanity. When all is said and done,
the most important thing is that people shall live in decent houses and not
in pigsties. I have seen too much of slums to go into Chestertonian
raptures about them. A place where the children can breathe clean air, and
women have a few conveniences to save them from drudgery, and a man has a
bit of garden to dig in, must be better than the stinking back-streets of
Leeds and Sheffield. On balance, the Corporation Estates are better than
the slums; but only by a small margin.

When I was looking into the housing question I visited and inspected
numbers of houses, perhaps a hundred or two hundred houses altogether, in
various mining towns and villages. I cannot end this chapter without
remarking on the extraordinary courtesy and good nature with which I was
received everywhere. I did not go alone--I always had some local friend
among the unemployed to show me round--but even so, it is an impertinence
to go poking into strangers' houses and asking to see the cracks in the
bedroom wall. Yet everyone was astonishingly patient and seemed to
understand almost without explanation why I was questioning them and what I
wanted to see. If any unauthorized person walked into my house and began
asking me whether the roof leaked and whether I was much troubled by bugs
and what I thought of my landlord, I should probably tell him to go to
hell. This only happened to me once, and in that case the woman was
slightly deaf and took me for a Means Test nark; but even she relented
after a while and gave me the information I wanted.

I am told that it is bad form for a writer to quote his own reviews,
but I want here to contradict a reviewer in the Manchester Guardian who
says apropos of one of my books:

Set down in Wigan or Whitechapel Mr Orwell would still exercise an
unerring power of closing his vision to all that is good in order to
proceed with his wholehearted vilification of humanity.

Wrong. Mr Orwell was 'set down' in Wigan for quite a while and it did
not inspire him with any wish to vilify humanity. He liked Wigan very much
--the people, not the scenery. Indeed, he has only one fault to find with
it, and that is in respect of the celebrated Wigan Pier, which he had set
his heart on seeing. Alas! Wigan Pier had been demolished, and even the
spot where it used to stand is no longer certain.

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