The Housing of the Poor in Suffolk Villages 1899
“No room to live”
Startling Statements as to Over Crowding
A Visit to Stowupland
October 7th 1899.
A special correspondent of the Daily News contributed an article to that journal on Thursday descriptive of a tour of investigation which he had recently made throughout the villages of Norfolk and Essex and Suffolk, during which he gathered facts as to the manner in which the poor live and are overcrowded in some of these villages.
In the course of this article he says—
“The most vital question connected with the agricultural villages to-day is that of housing, on this question the public conscience has gone very much to sleep. Yet there was never was a time when village life was going through so critical a crisis as now when all the younger men and as many of the younger women as can get away.
In order to see with my own eyes how far this condition obtains in the villages, I recently walked through some of the more purely agricultural districts of the Eastern Counties beginning with Essex and proceeding thence through Suffolk and Essex, covering the ground very thoroughly in all three counties and comparing notes with observant men on the spot. "
After speaking of the bountifulness of nature during the harvest as compared with the niggardliness of man as manifest in some villages which came under his observation, he continues:--
"Many of these cottages appeared to have hardly a foothold on the land. Gardens on the back were an exception. Some of the houses had patches at the ends and now and again at the front but they were all of the most scanty description. I find in my notes written at the time, the following:
'--A number of the cottages I have passed were built close to a stagnant stinking ditch into which the pigsties drained. One of these cottages was built or partly projected partly over a ditch which was nothing better than a cesspool. The people seemed generally in a low condition of health and it is rare for one to see so many rickety and ailing children and decrepit old men and women in one village. '
This was one of the worst examples—judged from external appearances that I met with: but there are many other places that vie with it in every most objectionable feature. The striking thing about this village was that it seemed to combine in itself so many of the worst features of village life, that is small houses, with insufficiency of rooms, horrible sanitary conditions, a general lack of gardens, and an insufficient water supply.
Another aspect of the same question is the lack of cottages, they can’t be had for love nor money and the great inconvenience is suffered in consequence. At one village I heard of a horseman who had to walk three or four miles every morning before five o’clock because he could not get a house nearer his work.
A blacksmith and a wheelwright in another village told me he had partially engaged a wheelwright but had finally to relinquish the appointment because no cottage could be obtained for him within a reasonable distance.
In the past seems to have been very much the custom to put up a cottage where it was convenient for the farmer and to leave such matters of sanitation, water, etc to take care of themselves. In a number of cottages within the last few weeks I have heard the complaint, “There is no water near, we have to go half a mile for it”.
One woman whom I asked for a drink of water after walking for several miles in the broiling sun, replied, almost savagely, “I can’t give you any, we have too far to fetch water.” One man living in a three roomed cottage in Suffolk said he had to go over a quarter of a mile across the fields to fetch water. A woman inhabiting a two roomed cottage said she would have go without water but for her son in law going half a mile every evening and fetching her a couple of pails of water. This is for drinking and cooking purposes.
For washing they had to depend on the rain tub and during droughty times it was necessary to leave the family wash for weeks. A typical village as regards the supply of water is one of the largest villages in Suffolk, having a population of over 800 and some miles of parish roads. Yet this great parish is without any adequate supply of water. There is a public well, which I am informed, was often almost dry in droughty weather and at the best of times totally insufficient for the wants of the people. When one sees women and children pale and sickly-looking, the latter often rickety, where with the wholesome country air about them they should be strong and healthy, it is impossible to avoid attributing the result very largely to cottages in which there is not sufficient air and what there is, it often contaminated maybe by the near-standing privy. Sometimes the latter will be built right up against the mud wall of a cottage which naturally becomes so saturated that the stench fills and vitiates the air of the living room.
In one village I came across a number of cottages in which these conveniences were built so close to the houses and to the public way that in hot weather you must hold your handkerchief to your nose as you passed, or be made sick. I was told of one place where there were thirty houses with only one convenience of the kind amongst them and that but a few paces removed from some of the doors.
As regards the question of bedroom accommodation, the writer gives a conversation he had with a labourer who said, “The young fellows are so uncomfortable at home and crowded into bedrooms with their younger brothers and sisters, that they set up for themselves as soon as they can and their mothers and fathers encourage them because of the inconvenience of having grown up lads and girls the house together so they will marry on their first harvest money---six or seven pounds maybe, and they will have big families afore they are thirty.
After speaking about of the vast amount of disgraceful overcrowding of families in some cottages, the writer goes on to say---
The lady, my informant (a member of the Board of Guardians) who has given a great deal of attention to the condition of the poor in the villages of her district of Suffolk, has been deeply impressed by the amount of weak-mindedness to be met with in the Suffolk villages. After coming across case after case, she mentioned the matter to others who were in a position to observe and had from them confirmation of the fact. She and others with whom I have spoken on the subject attribute this to the prevalence of imbecility to the awful conditions in which the poor so often live,--to the unwholesome cottages, to bad and sufficient food, to overcrowding, e3arly marriage. That “etcetra” almost demands a chapter by itself. And if one were to go into it thoroughly, a terrible chapter it would be. But there is no need for so doing here.
One gentleman, a Justice of the Peace, gave me particulars of a terrible case and he expressed the opinion, based on years of experience in positions of public trust, that there many cases of the kind, the real facts of which for obvious reasons were kept quiet. Suffice to say that there is a strong suspicion of the wide-spread prevalence of incest consequent upon the scandalous conditions of many of the cottages of the labouring poor.
I had a conversation with a farmer of Stowupland—one who had formerly been a labourer—on this question of housing. He had been referring to the difficulty of procuring labour and remarked that something would have to be done to retain the men in the villages or the matter would become very serious. Asked what he thought ought to be done, he said –They want to be treated more as men. Their treatment in the past has been disgraceful, the effort of farmer and squire alike has been to keep them down—to keep them dependant.
Well at length they have turned—the younger men have revolted and revolted in the best way. He went onto say “There is one way to hold them that have not gone and to bring back the others. It is to give them better wages and better houses—houses in which they and their families can live in decency. Now to often they cannot—I have gone through it and I know. I have known places in which sixteen people lived in two rooms, there were three beds in a room and you could hardly move between them. I have had to live like that myself. I could tell you of a case near here where there is a house with only one bedroom, there is man and his wife and a grown up daughter and two sons and they all sleep in one room. Tain’t right, half a mile from here lives a woman—a decent respectable body who said to me only the other day: “Oh Mr B---I can’t tell you the anxiety I have because of my sons and daughters having to sleep in the same room. It’s a constant dread to me day and night. I’d give anything if we could get a cottage with three bedrooms”
She and her husband slept in one room and their three grown up sons and two daughters in the other.
In further conversation this farmer—one of the most intelligent me I have met in my journeying said—that most of the cottages about here possessed but two bedrooms, “The boys and the girls sleep together” he said “When the children are young there is no harm done, but when they get into their teens—Well it is shameful that there is no provision for decent living, I sometimes wonder we are good as we are, considering the conditions we live in.
A similar statement was made to me by a man who was formerly one of Joseph Arch’s lieutenants, he said he had vivid recollection of what life in the cottages was when he was a boy, he was brought up in a house where there was only one bedroom, in it his father and mother and his six sisters and he and his two brothers slept.
There were four beds, no room for curtains and very little space to get about between the beds. “Such pigging together was common then and it is yet”, he remarked. “It leads to a lot of immorality, fortunately, thank God we came out of it alright, but there are many as don’t”. Then he added “Ah if only Christian people knew”.
"Ah," said a Free Church Minister, to whom I repeated this conversation, “If the Christian men and women of this country only fully realised what the burden and temptation is under which thousands of their fellow Christians live, they would not let things go on as they are but would raise a hand on their behalf”.
No-one knows, says the minister in conclusion, “No one what these people have to suffer on this account. They are literally ground heart and soul between the upper and nether millstone”.