A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1966.
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SOME ASPECTS OF SOCIAL CONDITIONS
It is perhaps in social rather than economic character that there are more obvious differences to be found between the suburban areas developed before and after the First World War. Three new influences of great importance exerted themselves on social life. One was a change in tastes and standards in housing under the influence of the pioneers of the garden suburbs early in the century. Their ideas (at any rate before the Second World War) did more than anything else to determine the content of town-planning legislation and the methods of layout and design favoured by private estate developers as well as by town-planning authorities. Another was the increase of building by local authorities, which meant that the new tastes and standards were applied to the dwellings of some of the poorer as well as the better off members of the community. The third was the increase of motor-bus services, which became a substitute for the diffusion of shops and places of entertainment among residential streets.
Housing conditions, then, might be expected to show an appreciable improvement, and so they did eventually, but progress was very gradual at first. In the older suburbs, especially West Ham, the main problems had been congestion and the necessity for so many houses to be shared between two families. The decline of population and the re-housing of the worst situated people by local authorities through slum clearance schemes were likely to bring some relief, but it was not until the nineteen-thirties that these changes went very far. Even then the number of families was not falling so fast as the population, so that it was not easy to reduce the sharing of dwellings. In 1931 in West Ham the average number of families to a dwelling (1.48) (fn. 1) was even higher than in 1921 and was exceeded in only two of the counties and county boroughs of England and Wales. (fn. 2) If the number of persons living at a density of more than two to a room is taken as the criterion of overcrowding, then in this respect also the position in West Ham worsened between 1921 and 1931 and at the latter date compared very unfavourably with that in the rest of the country. Except for a few fairly small towns only certain Metropolitan Boroughs and the large towns of Tyneside and Durham had a bigger proportion of their people living in overcrowded conditions. (fn. 3) On the other hand, overcrowding decreased in these ten years in all the other Essex suburbs except Dagenham. The proportions living at densities of more than two persons to a room in 1931 were: West Ham 17.45 per cent., Dagenham 7.15 per cent., Barking Town 6.37 per cent., East Ham 6.23 per cent., Walthamstow 5.62 per cent., Leyton 5.61 per cent., Woodford 3.03 per cent., Ilford 1.69 per cent., Chingford 1.12 per cent., and Wanstead 0.83 per cent. (fn. 4)
The strangest feature revealed by these figures was that overcrowding, though not common there, was more prevalent in Dagenham than in neighbouring districts, although most of the houses in Dagenham were on the Becontree Estate, which was built and managed to be a major contribution to housing improvement, and a large proportion of these houses had only recently been occupied. One cause of congestion was the deliberate action of the overcrowded families in taking lodgers. On the Becontree Estate as a whole there were 223 lodgers in every 1,000 overcrowded families and only 99 in every 1,000 of the other families. (fn. 5) But most of the overcrowded families did not contain lodgers. The main reason for overcrowding was that families on the Becontree Estate were comparatively large — doubtless the still greater congestion which this caused in their old homes was one reason why many of them moved. The average number of persons to a family on the estate was 4.78, whereas in every local authority area in the Essex suburbs (apart from those containing the Becontree Estate) the average was less than four. (fn. 6) On the other hand an effort was made to accommodate on the available land as large a number of families as was consistent with contemporary standards of comfort and amenity, and to avoid extravagance; so the houses were fairly small. A third of the families occupied no more than three rooms each and nearly half of them occupied only four rooms each. (fn. 7) There was enough accommodation, including enough larger houses for the biggest families, provided that it was carefully allotted and some families changed their house as their numbers increased or decreased. But there was not a large margin to spare and some temporary maldistribution of the population was hardly surprising.
After 1931 there was an appreciable general improvement in housing conditions and the achievement of more nearly equal standards for people of different social class than ever before. Much of this improvement must have been accomplished before the Second World War, though there is no comprehensive survey that can be used to demonstrate it; and while the war itself brought fresh temporary difficulties it also contributed to a further efflux of population from the most crowded areas, and it was followed by considerable, closely-regulated activity in residential building. In spite of the war, therefore, the picture of housing conditions presented by the 1951 census was brighter than any earlier one.
The changing age-composition of the population, and the associated fall in the size of families meant that, though more houses were needed, fairly small houses were adequate, and the growing scarcity of domestic servants discouraged people from seeking larger houses than they could run without outside assistance. So even in the districts in which people of high occupational grades were numerous, new houses were more modest in size than before and gave only a little more extensive accommodation than subsidized local authority housing. On new private estates in the suburbs the five-roomed house became much the commonest. Thus between 1931 and 1951 in Wanstead and Woodford the total number of dwellings increased by 7,696, while the number of five-roomed dwellings increased by 5,511; in Chingford the total rose by 8,029 and the number of five-roomed dwellings by 5,772. The proportion of dwellings with six or more rooms fell between 1931 and 1951 from 68.2 per cent. to 33.1 per cent. in Wanstead and Woodford, 59.2 per cent. to 14.2 per cent. in Chingford, and 45.3 per cent. to 23.7 per cent. in Ilford. (fn. 8) On the estates of the London County Council slightly smaller dwellings continued to be usual, the main differences from privately-built estates being that the three-bedroomed houses were usually of a nonparlour type and that there were more three-roomed maisonettes. On the Becontree Estate 34.9 per cent. of the dwellings were three-roomed, 27.2 per cent. were four-roomed without parlour, 19.6 per cent. were four-roomed with parlour, and 13.9 per cent. were five-roomed. On the Chingford Estate 34.5 per cent. were three-roomed, 36.0 per cent. were four-roomed without parlour, 3.1 per cent. were four-roomed with parlour, and 18.4 per cent. were five-roomed. (fn. 9)
Though small dwellings were the general rule, accommodation was better distributed and serious overcrowding of dwellings was no longer a major problem anywhere. The percentages of the population of each local authority area who were living more than two to a room in 1951 were: West Ham 3.9, Dagenham 3.0, Barking 2.3, East Ham 1.6, Leyton 1.3, Walthamstow 1.0, Chingford 0.9, Ilford 0.8, and Wanstead and Woodford 0.7. (fn. 10) In some important respects, however, many people in the older districts were much less comfortable than those in the newer. In West Ham particularly and to a less extent in Leyton and East Ham the old double house, not properly divided into two dwellings, was still common. In West Ham the ratio of private households to structurally separate dwellings was still as high as 1.32 and only 53.6 per cent. of the private households had a structurally separate dwelling to themselves. (fn. 11) This may be contrasted with conditions in Wanstead and Woodford where the ratio of households to dwellings was 1.10, and 83.3 per cent. of the households had a separate dwelling to themselves. (fn. 12) Within the homes there was also a much higher standard of equipment in the new districts, whether they were developed privately or municipally, and houses in the older districts were not in general brought up to the new standards. In 1951 a return was obtained of the provision of piped water supplies, cooking stoves, kitchen sinks, water closets and fixed baths. The percentage of private households which had exclusive possession of all five of these items of equipment was 83 in Dagenham, 78 in Chingford, 73 in Wanstead and Woodford, 71 in Ilford, 66 in Barking, 43 in East Ham, 41 in Walthamstow, 30 in Leyton, and 20 in West Ham. (fn. 13)
There were marked differences, too, in the spaciousness of the surroundings of people's houses. The standards prevailing in recent building may be illustrated by the London County Council's estates. On the Becontree Estate in 1954 there were 9.5 dwellings and 40.5 inhabitants to an acre; on the Chingford Estate there were 12.6 dwellings and 53.3 inhabitants to an acre. (fn. 14) But in 1944 it was estimated that to bring the net residential density down to 100 persons to an acre, with a modest provision of four acres of open space for every thousand inhabitants, would require the removal from the 1938 population of 93,821 persons in West Ham, 20,590 in East Ham, and 19,342 in Leyton. (fn. 15)
These differences might once have been expected to give rise to great differences in health and physical well-being, especially where they were accompanied by sharp contrasts in occupations and levels of income. But by the nineteen-forties they had become little more than differences in comfort and convenience. It was not much more healthy to live in one of the more spacious, better-equipped housing areas than in one of the denser old suburbs. Perhaps one of the most reliable indicators of the spread of more uniform health conditions over a region with varied economic and environmental characteristics is the movement of infant mortality rates towards a common low level, as shown in Table 12.
The removal of the worst housing and overcrowding must have made a significant contribution to the better general condition of health, but it would, of course, be wrong to attribute the change (which was in no way peculiar to the Essex suburbs) merely to this cause. It is connected with the whole range of social services.
In some respects the advantage of convenience lay with the older suburbs. Though most parts of them were predominantly residential, few of them had quite such extensive areas with no buildings other than houses as were to be found on some of the estates, both municipal and private, which were developed after 1920. In the new suburbs shops were on the whole fewer in number and more concentrated in location. Many thousands of people, even to do their ordinary daily shopping, had to make a journey by bus or become very tired. The contrast is clearly shown by the number of retail establishments (excluding those in service trades such as catering and hairdressing) to every thousand inhabitants. The figure in 1950 was 11.3 for Walthamstow, 10.1 for West Ham, 9.6 for East Ham, 9.2 for Leyton, 8.1 for Ilford, 6.9 for Wanstead and Woodford, 6.4 for Barking, 6.4 for Chingford, and 4.8 for Dagenham. (fn. 16) Public houses were kept at much the same low ratio to population as in most of the pre-1914 suburban area. At the end of 1937 the Becontree Licensing District (which covered Barking, Ilford, Leyton, Walthamstow, Wanstead and Woodford, and Dagenham) contained 169 premises with on-licences for a population then around 650,000, i.e. there were nearly 4,000 people to each on-licence. In West Ham and East Ham the number of licensed premises had declined somewhat since the First World War. In general in the suburbs off-licences were more numerous than on-licences, though this was not so in West Ham. (fn. 17)
If, in so important a matter as shops, the new suburbs, even after their most rapid growth was over, remained worse supplied than the old, it is highly probable that there was an earlier period of rapid population growth when the situation was worse, and it would not be surprising if the shortage extended to other socially advantageous buildings besides shops. The truth of these presumptions can be given empirical confirmation for at least the one great area of development where comprehensive social arrangements could have been most readily applied, the Becontree Estate. There the difficulty of divided control existed: the London County Council which built the houses (and what few shops there were) was not responsible for the provision of public services. But it did little to adjust the rate of building to the possibility of providing for an adequate social life, and when building was going on most rapidly this appears to have been an important cause of dissatisfaction, which showed itself in 1928–9 in an unusually large number of removals from the estate and in the large number of houses standing vacant. (fn. 18) In the early years of the estate, shops, public houses and churches simply did not exist near to the houses. Down to 1928 public houses were so few and small as to have a negligible part in social life, though the establishment of working men's clubs did something to make up for the deficiency. The north of the estate for considerable periods had no accommodation in elementary schools for infants, and nearly all the elementary schools were seriously overcrowded until 1929. The extent of provision for education in central and secondary schools was also lower than in London. (fn. 19) There was no secondary school in Dagenham until 1936, but there was an appreciable improvement then, for, besides a secondary grammar school with 500 places, a large technical college was opened to serve a wide surrounding area and by 1949 it had in its various categories 6,000 students. (fn. 20)
To some extent the relatively small and belated attention to secondary education may have reflected a small demand for it. The social contrasts between different parts of the suburban area were not all of them based on a division between old and new. In the character of its occupations and social classes West Ham had always differed from most of the rest of the pre-1914 suburban area; and so in this respect did Dagenham differ from most of the other new suburbs. Occupation and social class, more than anything else apparently, decided whether the next generation received any schooling beyond the compulsory minimum. Since the First World War there has been something approaching a revolution in the provision of education above the elementary level for children coming from elementary schools. The Essex County Council was responsible for most of the increased provision, though the voluntary secondary schools remained in existence and one or two new ones were founded. But although secondary schools were built in all parts of the suburban area it was only in the middle-class districts that large numbers of children stayed on in their upper forms. In 1951 the percentage of persons aged 15–19 who were in full-time attendance at educational establishments was 30 in Wanstead and Woodford and 22 in Ilford, but only 7 in Dagenham, 8 in Barking and 9 in West Ham. The percentage of boys aged 17–19 who were full-time students (7 for Essex as a whole) was 19 in Wanstead and Woodford and 13 in Ilford, but only 3 in Dagenham, 3 in Barking and 4 in West Ham. (fn. 21)
It had also been noted long before that it was mainly in the middle-class areas that the Workers' Educational Association was able to get classes going, though West Ham had a few. (fn. 22) This condition persisted, though there were such large fluctuations in the membership of W.E.A. branches and attendance at classes that too precise a generalization would be invalid. In the years just after the Second World War it was in Ilford that the W.E.A. was best supported. In 1949–50 the membership of W.E.A. branches in the Essex suburbs was Chingford 60, Dagenham 25, East Ham 4, Ilford 115, Leyton 34, Walthamstow 16, Wanstead and Woodford 115. (fn. 23) A branch had existed in West Ham in 1947–8, but did not survive, though a few classes continued to be held there. There were also a few classes in Barking. (fn. 24)
It seems clear from contrasts such as appeared in education that the lessening of physical distinctions between places inhabited by people in very different walks of life was not matched by a comparable increasing resemblance of social life and interests. It is probably true that, as before the First World War, it was the incidents of family and home, shopping and school and workplace that did most to determine the quality of social life and the social contrasts between different districts. For many new arrivals in the suburbs the life of home and family must have loomed larger than ever before. Taken away from crowded areas lively with shops, markets, public houses and traffic, and set down in the midst of nothing but houses and their gardens, there was little other outlet for their interests. To that extent they were pressed into a mould of habit superficially resembling that of suburban dwellers of other classes. But, since wide differences of occupation and training persisted, the resemblance was in many important respects no more than superficial, especially where occupational differences meant great differences in income and security. And where sharp economic differences continued between different districts without much change in physical conditions, there was even greater likelihood of differences in social interests.
In 1929 an attempt was made to classify the population of the older suburbs according to economic grade, the basis of classification being estimated family income. The estimates were somewhat rough and ready but they were a useful general guide. The percentages in each grade are shown in Table 13.
Differences of income were sometimes caused by, sometimes reinforced by, differences in the security of employment. Casual labour on the riverside in East and West Ham could be expected to cause poverty, but there were other districts in which a substantial industrial population was vulnerable to trade depression. The 1931 census was taken in the depth of economic depression and it showed clearly that, though suburban Essex was not among the worst hit areas, there was considerable unemployment in all but the newer middle class areas. The percentages of the would-be occupied populations who were out of work are shown in Table 14.
The levels of consumption and the equipment of home life which were possible in these varying conditions of income and security did much to decide what kind of existence characterized the different districts. The subsequent revival of employment, especially after the Second World War, and the ending of the system of casual work at the docks must have done much to bring about more uniform standards of consumption. The sums spent at the local shops are not a very satisfactory guide to this, because the shortage of shops in some districts compelled the residents to do some of their shopping elsewhere. But, at any rate in the five suburbs with a reasonably adequate supply of shops, the level of purchases did not show wide variations. In the year 1949–50 the shops' total sales per head of population were £109 in Ilford, £107 in East Ham, £101 in West Ham, £95 in Leyton and £95 in Walthamstow. There was even greater uniformity, at a lower level, in those suburbs which were clearly under-supplied with shops. The corresponding figures were £79 for Chingford, £77 for Wanstead and Woodford, £73 for Barking and £79 for Dagenham. (fn. 25)
It seems reasonable, in summarizing the main changes since 1919 in the influences most immediately governing social conditions, to suggest that a better physical but less lively environment was provided for all in the new areas than for the majority in the pre-1914 suburbs; that physical conditions in the latter were improved, though to a much less extent; that, housing apart, the standard of comfort in mainly workingclass areas, new or old, was for a long time well below what it was in middle-class districts but that in the middle of the century this distinction practically disappeared; and that there remained contrasts of interest and activity between different districts, and that these were related to differences in the predominating occupations.
It is possible also that social activities outside the field of home and school and workplace and shopping area were in some respects becoming relatively more important than they had been. New forms of professional entertainment were developed and attracted a large regular public. In 1932 there were three cinemas in Barking, nine in East Ham, eight in Leyton and twenty-one in West Ham, as well as two theatres and a music hall in West Ham and a variety theatre in East Ham, (fn. 26) and some of these places of entertainment had a large capacity. One cinema at Stratford claimed at its opening in 1927 to be the largest in England at that time. (fn. 27) Some of the new districts were not so well supplied: Dagenham in 1928 had only one cinema for its 63,000 inhabitants, but perhaps the motor-bus made it possible to seek entertainment elsewhere, and before the Second World War there were four cinemas in the borough. (fn. 28) Another new form of mass entertainment was greyhound racing, and a stadium to accommodate 100,000 spectators at this type of contest was begun at West Ham in 1927. (fn. 29) Dagenham, so lacking at first in many recreational facilities, had a greyhound track by 1930 (fn. 30) and another was built at Walthamstow. (fn. 31) Speedway racing, introduced into England in 1928, was very soon taken up at West Ham. (fn. 32) Most of the earlier centres of professional sport also still remained, though in 1933 the county cricket club lost its headquarters at Leyton and began a nomadic existence. (fn. 33) Ilford was the place in the suburban area at which henceforward some county cricket matches were played.
Of any change in the importance of organizations in which all concerned were participants rather than mere spectators it is more difficult to be sure. Some of the bodies with national connexions certainly remained weak. Clubs for young people, for instance, played much less part in the life of the suburbs than in that of inner London. In 1932 the percentage of boys aged ten to nineteen inclusive who were members of organizations with a national affiliation was 8.8 in Barking and East Ham (taken together as one area), 7.2 in West Ham, 8.7 in Leyton and 7.5 in Walthamstow, and in every case the great majority of these belonged to the Scouts. The only other organizations with an appreciable membership were the Boys' Brigade in Leyton and Boys' Clubs in East Ham. (fn. 34) But there were also local bodies, some of which had a larger membership. The settlements in West Ham, for instance, worked very vigorously among young people as well as adults — Dockland Settlement No. 1 at this time had clubs covering more than 1,000 boys in Canning Town, and in East Ham, Barking and Walthamstow there were many active Old Scholars' Associations. (fn. 35) Among girls the national organizations were somewhat stronger. The percentage membership among those aged ten to nineteen was 12.2 in Barking and East Ham, 12.9 in West Ham, 13.7 in Leyton and 9.9 in Walthamstow. The Girl Guides and Rangers were the strongest movement, but clubs affiliated to the National Council of Girls' Clubs had an appreciable membership in West Ham, East Ham and Barking, and the Girls' Life Brigade was well supported in Leyton. (fn. 36)
In the older suburbs there had been a notable increase in social organizations at the end of the 19th century, and there is nothing to suggest any subsequent reversal of this development. In the newer areas the experience of a great lack of societies during the most rapid immigration appears to have been repeated. On the Becontree Estate, in particular, this condition persisted throughout the nineteen-twenties. Voluntary social institutions had a struggle to establish themselves there and at first most of them had to be financed from outside. (fn. 37) Elsewhere the position may have been less difficult. After a time the opportunities for organized social activity increased in the new areas. There was much more vacant land than in the older suburbs. Local authorities laid out more of it as parks and recreation grounds, which gave facilities to amateur sports teams, and it was not beyond the means of private clubs, especially lawn tennis clubs, to buy or rent land for their own purposes. In these circumstances corporate sporting activities occupied a larger place in social life.
The most widespread organizations were the churches and when any new district was first settled they were often the only corporate organizations in the neighbourhood. On the Becontree Estate the Roman Catholics provided priests almost as soon as the first residents arrived and the Anglicans got to work about a year later. The Methodists waited until there were enough people to support a central hall, and other denominations put up buildings from 1928. Until 1929, except at the working men's clubs, there was no accommodation for spare time activities other than that provided by the churches, and even a dozen years after the beginning of building on the estate, most of such accommodation was still maintained in connexion with the churches. (fn. 38)
In such circumstances the social influence of the churches was seen at its greatest. But in the Essex suburbs generally it seems probable that, whatever may have been the state of religious belief, fewer people looked to the churches as the main centre of their social lives. Among the nonconformists, who before the First World War formed the majority of churchgoers there, church membership generally declined, though at different rates in different denominations and districts. The few exceptions to this trend were, as would be expected, in districts where the population grew a good deal — the Baptists in Woodford, for instance, had about twice as many church members in the early nineteen-fifties as thirty years earlier, and there were denominations in Chingford and Dagenham which, unrepresented there until some years after the First World War, were numerically stronger in the nineteen-fifties than the nineteenthirties. In some districts a reduction in the population could account for some of the decline, but never for all of it, and though the mere counting of heads is not a measure of the extent of religious influence, the fall in church membership was so large that it must have indicated a less widespread interest in being closely connected with the activities of any particular congregation. There were many cases in which the membership of a denomination in one district was more than halved in thirty years. (fn. 39) No particular set of figures represents in any accurate absolute sense the numerical strength of the Church of England; but, whatever criterion is used, it would suggest that here, too, there was some decline, despite the vigour with which the Church sought to serve new districts as they were built up. For instance, the number of confirmations in the Diocese of Chelmsford (the majority of the population of which lived in metropolitan Essex) averaged 7,566 a year from 1918 to 1927 but the average for 1949–52 was only 4,619, (fn. 40) although there was not a comparable fall in the adolescent population. The only religious body which was growing in numbers was the Roman Catholic. Of the thirty-one Roman Catholic churches in Becontree and Waltham Hundreds in 1953, sixteen had been established since 1918 and several of the others had been enlarged or rebuilt since then. (fn. 41) The Roman Catholics tried to compile rough estimates of the total numbers who accepted their faith, (fn. 42) and between 1930 and 1953 the number in the Brentwood Diocese (with most of its population in metropolitan Essex) nearly doubled. (fn. 43) But even at the latter date, with a total of 91,900 in the diocese, the Roman Catholics were still a small minority of the population.
On the whole, then, it appears that the people of the Essex suburbs were even more secular in their interests than before. They were also, perhaps, disposed to spend rather more of their energies outside the narrow round of home, family and work. What is most striking about their social organization, however, is that it seems to have been just as slow and difficult in creation in the new districts as in those developed in the late 19th century. New standards of living, applicable to all classes, were recognized and applied in practice, but they remained almost exclusively physical standards, applied without attention to their relationship to social activity. In the new residential districts of the period between the wars, social life in the earlier years of their development must have been even less lively and interesting (especially for the women who had to stay at home all day) than in the rapidly-growing areas of the eighteen-eighties and nineties, where at least there were more neighbours and very often a shop round the corner. When local authorities became less preoccupied with the physical problems of sheer growth and when there had been time for part of a new generation to grow up on the spot and for families to be more thoroughly settled, then a more varied social life developed, but the delay was considerable. However different the new suburbs may have looked from the old, it took a long time to make them better places to inhabit, in terms of anything but physical comfort.