‘Good to look at, but bad to live in’— rural slums in 1934

Derelict cottages in England

          Copyright alamy.com (many thanks).

Today, most rural slums have either fallen into ruin or been gentrified by second home owners. In the thirties, however, some of the terrible privations characteristic of the urban slums described by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier , were equally true of many rural slums. In an article entitled ‘Clean Up Our Country Slums’ in the April 6th 1934 issue of the news weekly Everyman, Orwell’s contemporary, the journalist Hamilton Fyfe (1869 – 1951), who was also a man of the Left, went behind the façade of a pretty country cottage inhabited   by some agricultural tenants and was shocked to find damp walls, cracked plaster, peeling wallpaper and a shared sink.

‘All their water they have to fetch in pails from a farm a couple of hundred yards away. They have no drainage, no light, no indoor sanitation ( as the house agents delicately put it); they enjoy none of the amenities that so may of us consider absolute necessities of life. And these cottage are not exceptional, They are typical of the homes in which our country folk mostly live…I could take you to a house where in two small rooms father, mother, grown-up son and four children ( thirteen to nine) sleep. I could show you rows of houses on the outskirts of little towns, where except for the fresher air, conditions are every bit as bad as in the black spots of London, Liverpool or Glasgow’

According to Fyfe, two Acts of Parliament:

‘make it possible for owners of cottages to borrow money on easy terms so that they may “ reconstruct and improve” their property, put in water supply, baths, light and more wholesome sanitary arrangements. Owners have been very slow, however, in asking for loans. The truth is that the farmer was badly stung over the purchase of his farm from the local viscount and is really not able to spend money on repairs. And he owes his bank so much that he shrinks from the idea of borrowing and more. The right solution, the only solution I can see, is that the community should take over the cottages and make them fir to live in. But most councils are as unwilling as most individuals to take advantage of the Acts of Parliament. 

They can buy owners out. They can force them to sell on reasonable terms. The Ministry of Health sent out a circular last year urging that local councils should do this. That had little effect. The councils consist mostly of the men who own rural slum property or of sympathisers with them. They do not want the “tied cottage” system to go.

What is a tied cottage? It is a cottage rented to a farm worker, who can be turned out if he gives up or is sacked from his job on the farm. This puts farm workers into the power of their employers. They know in many districts that, if they were to be evicted from their cottages, they could not find anywhere to live.

Farmers say that cottages for the men they employ are essential parts of their farms. “As much so as stables and cowsheds” it was argued before a Parliamentary Committee. Farm cottages in the past have not been rented at their economic value. The tenants paid as a rule eighteen pence a week. It has not, therefore, been worth anyone’s while to build as a speculation, and few farmers can afford to build anything new, whether for cows, horses or human beings. The supply of houses for farm workers has become smaller every year for a long time past. 

They fall into ruin, and nothing is done to save them. Someone I know had several left to her by a relative. They were too far gone to do anything with. They had to be let to the tender mercies of wind, sun and rain. Numbers of good cottages have been taken by week-enders from the cities. If we do get agriculture restarted in Britain, where are the new land workers to find homes?

Even if there were enough to go round (which there certainly could not be) these new workers would not go into the sort of cottage that the old workers have had to put up with. Here is a letter from one saying that he would like “a clean room and a place to wash in “—not an extravagant demand.

They rooms they have are often impossible to keep clean. Imagine, for example, a concrete floor broken here and there so that in wet weather pools are formed by drippings from a leaky roof. “What a place to go back to after a day out in the rain!” was the tenant’s bitter comment. And here is a question which another farm worker asked, looking at his kitchen filled with smoke ( because the grate was worn out and part of the chimney had been blown down! ) : “ How can we do our work properly if we can’t get our food decently or comfort in our homes?”. He had asked over and over again for the chimney to be mended. Every time he was told, “Next week.”

 He might have asked also how children could be brought up well in such surroundings, and kept healthy, and taught to prefer cleanliness and order to muddle and dirt. If only for the sake of the children we want a rural housing policy that will set unemployed builders and plumbers and electricians to work, and ensure to all our country folk the possibility of a home they can be proud of. But it is no used expecting the “ the Guv’ment” to do this for us . The machinery is in position. To make it work votes are necessary. Councils must be elected which will do the work. There lies the only hope.’

 Today, it is hard to believe that such primitive living conditions existed among the farming community in the Age of the Car, the Radio and the Refrigerator. But it was also a age in which, as Fyfe points out, comfortably off ‘weekenders’ took advantage of plummeting property prices. The poet and journalist Geoffrey Grigson was one of these. In the year following the publication of this article, he bought a semi-derelict cottage in Wiltshire for just £50.A decade or so later he was to expose the plight of the rural poor in this same county. Plus ca change… [R.M.Healey]

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