Industrial revolution: housing challenges in britain

The Industrial Revolution ultimately led to a better quality of life for most people. Hitherto, the change to this also caused enormous human suffering. In Britain, the Industrial Revolution proved to be a mixed blessing. Britain was among the first countries in the world to begin the industrial revolution. This was because of adequate human labour, cheap and available means of transport and abundant natural resources (Heon, 2007). Scientific development in farming reduced the need for people to work in their farms, and so, many people moved to the cities as jobseekers (Burnett 1986, p. 36). Many of the industrial cities were ill-prepared for such a large influx of people.

The population of England grew tremendously, with the urban population growth rate outpacing the total growth rate (Burnett 1986, p. 56). Unlike other regions of the world, British cities, significant to Industrial Revolution, such as Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester, encountered immense social problems and challenges. Right through much of the nineteenth century, the leading city of the world, in terms of its population, was London. It was the first to reach the thrilling figure of one million people, a population not attained by any other city of the world until the mid-nineteenth century (Jones, 1988, p. 97).

This essay explores the dynamics and challenges of housing a population that was ill- prepared for, in Britain’s industrial cities during the 19th century. It seeks the answers as to why such an influx of people in the cities, the housing problems they encountered, and how the problems were eventually solved. It also seeks ideas and insights into what we can learn from this history.

Confronting the Housing Dilemma: The Response

As the Industrial Revolution continued, these cities were in need of cheap houses for the urban-working class, minimal regulations and enforceable policies on housing existed, and those that did exist were often ignored. Therefore, builders had the freedom to build as they wished. Making profits was their only motivation. Building a house was cheap and quick. As a result, many houses were put up as quickly as possible.

Burnett (1986, p. 56-7) argued that architectural historians often ignored the subject of working-class houses for the mere truth that they were not “ architecture”, they instead focused on the philanthropic bodies that provided houses to the working class.

Increased migration to cities led to the construction of what was branded as “ back-to-back terrace housing”. These houses had no backyard and the only part of the structures not connected to another house would be the front, acting as the only entrance except for those fortunate enough to stay in the edge of the “ terrace”. The bottom room served the dual purpose of a living room and kitchen, whilst the two rooms upstairs were used as bedrooms.

Others lived in cellar dwellings. These were a one underground-room, damp and poorly ventilated. The poorest people slept on piles of straw because they couldn’t afford beds. Those urban dwellers who could only afford cellar dwelling lived in the most unfavorable environment ever. Moisture and leaked sewerage waste would simply leak in their floorboards. None of these houses contained a bathroom, toilet or even tapped water. Housing for the working class people was dreadful-so to say.

Space for new houses became a problem. Existing buildings were modified to accommodate as many people as possible. Worker also wanted to avoid long-walking hours to their work places. For instance in London, many houses were transformed into flats without even seeking the authority of the landlords. No body bothered about the living conditions (Heon, 2006). Streets were overcrowded with buildings as the desire for more houses rose.

Victorian slums characterized a large area of urban Britain. The slums, which arose as a result of rapid urbanization and population increase, housed the urban poor working class. Property owners and developers did not welcome interference from any regulatory body and this meant that the poor could only live in overcrowded and unhealthy slums.

Resultant Challenges and Problems

Reeder, et al. (2004) argued that much urbanization in London and other British cities was achieved without much spending on infrastructure. Urban laws were unsuited to changing circumstances; this was due to in-migration to British cities. Urban population increase between 1801 and 1830 was greater than the total population of Britain in 1801 (Reeder, et al., 2004, p. 3-5) this was without the benefit of planning codes, building regulations and sewerage and water supply systems

“ Slums and suburbs” was a reaction to rapid urbanization and massive population. London became a highland of villages. London’s immense appetite for inhabitants kept growing, people thought of well paying jobs there, a better reward for crimes and lots of charities. (Dyos and Reeder, 1973, P. 360-2)

Cities lacked enough houses and the necessary facilities to accommodate the abrupt increase of population. Housing shortage led to Slum Housing. Sanitation and hygiene barely existed and the fear of cholera and typhoid was eminent. Toilets were nothing more than cesspits, when filled, they were emptied and what was collected was dumped at a local river. This was mainly done at dark, as the stink produced by empting the cesspits couldn’t be tolerated during the day. Sewage waste often leaked into the floorboards of those living in cellars. (Heon, 2006).

Drainage was no better either. Drainage pipes were made out of bricks and the working class poor could not afford them. The rich were not willing to purchase them as the drainage never benefited them. Good drainage was a preserve of the rich merchants and businessmen in the cities.

Supply of Fresh water was difficult to get to the poor areas. The best people did was to use buckets and cans to collect rainwater-when it rained. For those lucky enough to access pumped water, chances were that it was contaminated with waste from ever leaking cesspits. River water was also contaminated as “ stuff” emptied from the cesspits was dumped their. These are just a few problems that the urban working class experienced. Sociologists posit that social disorder and crime ensued in the congested and poorly planned industrial cities.

Addressing The Problems: What Was Done?

The big question is; why did it look like there was no interest to improve the housing and living conditions of industrial towns in Britain? Industries and factories belonged to rich and wealthy individuals who were also significantly influential in cities. Lawmakers, tasked with law formulation and enforcement, seldom did it, if only the poor urban workers were affected. The wealthy, the rich and influential lived well away from the zones lived by the poor masses. Any capital spent on improving the living conditions of workers was viewed as a lost profit.

Luckily in the 1840s local authorities legislated and enforced by-laws that outlawed cellar dwellings, construction of any new “ back to back” houses was also banned. Over the subsequent years, the old buildings were slowly demolished and replaced with new ones. In the later part of the century, workers housing conditions improved, local councils in most towns passed laws and regulations which prescribed conditions for improved housing. By the end of the 19th century most working class people lived in better houses. Some lived in two or three bed-roomed houses, with a spacious garden. Some houses for skilled workers were modernized and fitted with indoor toilets.

The quest to reform the housing sector rose in the First World War. Those at the helm of power made bold promises, which could not be fulfilled due to economic hardships. The result was a sad feeling of frustration and despair. The British authorities formulated policies to solve the severe problems of adopted Victorian slums that occupied large areas of Britain’s industrial cities. (Shapely, 2007)

Housing reformers were much aware that central and local authorities were the only institutions capable of solving slum and other housing problems in urban Britain. The conservative government recognized and supported home ownership by the working class population. The government introduced impressive house-building completion rates. It supported home ownership, reduced stump duty, and provided financial incentives to building institutions while at the same times promoting municipal building. Rent control was introduced at World War I to ease the impact of a severe housing shortage. In 1965 the government well thought-out that there was need for up to two million houses to replace houses that were not slums but not worth improving, most houses were outmoded, even if they were not wholly worn out (Holmans, 1987, p. 125)


History is an introduction of events and thoughts that we may probably never meet in our restricted lives. We can learn from history, as we make today’s decisions. The 19th century -British experience is being witnessed in other developing parts of the world. Today’s modern Britain is a product of hard and bitter challenges and experiences that her “ nation” underwent in the 19th century . The desire to industrialize and create wealth has its own costs and benefits. These may be unique and different from what Britain experienced but not too far from the challenges of the industrial revolution in 19th Century Britain. It is upon others to reflect on what they can learn from the British experience.