Common Lodging Houses

"As often as not the beds are verminous, and the kitchens invariably swarm with cockroaches or black beetles."

Common lodging houses, of which there are several hundred in London, are night-shelters specially licensed by the LCC. They are intended for people who cannot afford regular lodgings, and in effect they are extremely cheap hotels. It is hard to estimate the lodging house population, which varies continually, but it always runs into tens of thousands, and in the winter months probably approaches fifty thousand. Considering that they house so many people and that most of them are in an extraordinarily bad state common lodging houses do not get the attention they deserve.

To judge the value of the LCC legislation on this subject, one must realise what life in a common lodging house is like. The average lodging house (“doss-house,” it used to be called) consists of a number of dormitories, and a kitchen, always subterranean, which also serves as a sitting-room. The conditions in these places, especially in southern quarters such as Southwark or Bermondsey, are disgusting. The dormitories are horrible fetid dens, packing with anything up to a hundred men, and furnished with beds a good deal inferior to those in a London casual ward. Normally these beds are about 5ft 6in long by 2ft 6in wide, with a hard convex mattress and a cylindrical pillow like a block of wood; sometimes, in the cheaper houses, not even a pillow. The bed-clothes consist of two raw umber-coloured sheets, supposed to be changed once a week, but actually, in many cases, left on for a month, and a cotton counterpane; in winter there may be blankets, but never enough. As often as not the beds are verminous, and the kitchens invariably swarm with cockroaches or black beetles. There are no baths, of course, and no room where any privacy is attainable. These are the normal and accepted conditions in all ordinary lodging houses. The charges paid for this kind of accommodation vary between 7d and 1s 1d a night. It should be added that, low as these charges sound, the average common lodging houses brings in something like £40 net profit a week to its owner.

Besides the ordinary dirty lodging houses, there are a few score, such as the Rowton Houses and the Salvation Army hostels, that are clean and decent. Unfortunately, all of these places set off their advantages by a discipline so rigid and tiresome that to stay in them is rather like being in jail. In London (curiously enough it is better in some other towns) the common lodging house where one gets both liberty and a decent bed does not exist.

The curious thing about the squalor and discomfort of the ordinary lodging house is that these exist in places subject to constant inspection by the LCC. When one first sees the murky, troglodytic cave of a common lodging house kitchen, one takes it for a corner of the early nineteenth century which has somehow been missed by the reformers; it is a surprise to find that common lodging houses are governed by a set of minute and (in intention) exceedingly tyrannical rules. According to the LCC regulations, practically everything is against the law in a common lodging house. Gambling, drunkenness, or even the introduction of liquor, swearing, spitting on the floor, keeping tame animals, fighting – in short, the whole social life of these places – are all forbidden. Of course, the law is habitually broken, but some of the rules are enforceable, and they illustrate the dismal uselessness of this kind of legislation. To take an instance: some time ago the LCC became concerned about the closeness together of beds in common lodging houses, and enacted that these must be at least 3ft apart. This is the kind of law that is enforceable, and the beds were duly moved. Now, to a lodger in an already overcrowded dormitory it hardly matters whether the beds are 3ft apart or 1ft; but it does matter to the proprietor, whose income depends upon his floor space. The sole real result of this law, therefore, was a general rise in the price of beds. Please notice that though the space between the beds is strictly regulated, nothing is about the beds themselves – nothing, for instance, about their being fit to sleep in. The lodging house keepers can, and do, charge 1s for a bed less restful than a heap of straw, and there is no law to prevent them.

Another example of LCC regulations. From nearly all common lodging houses women are strictly excluded; there are a few houses specially for women, and a very small number – too small to affect the general question – to which both men and women are admitted. It follows that any homeless man who lives regularly in a lodging house is entirely cut off from female society – indeed, cases even happen of man and wife being separated owing to the impossibility of getting accommodation in the same house. Again, some of the cheaper lodging houses are habitually raided by slumming parties, who march into the kitchen uninvited and hold lengthy religious services. The lodgers dislike these slimming parties intensely, but they have no power to eject them. Can anyone imagine such things being tolerated in a hotel? And yet a common lodging house is only a hotel at which one pays 8d a night instead of 10s 6d. This kind of petty tyranny can, in fact, only be defended on the theory that a man poor enough to live in a common lodging house thereby forfeits some of his rights as a citizen.

One cannot help feeling that this theory lies behind the LCC rules for common lodging houses. All these rules are in the nature of interference-legislation – that is, they interfere, but not for the benefit of the lodgers. Their emphasis is on hygiene and morals, and the question of comfort is left to the lodging house proprietor, who, of course, either shirks it or solves it in the spirit of organised charity. It is worth pointing out the improvements that could actually be made in common lodging houses by legislation. As to cleanliness, no law will ever enforce that, and in any case it is a minor point. But the sleeping accommodation, which is the important thing, could easily be brought up to a decent standard. Common lodging houses are places in which one pays to sleep, and most of them fail in their essential purpose, for no one can sleep well in a packet dormitory on a bed as hard as bricks. The LCC would be doing an immense service if they compelled lodging house keepers to divide their dormitories into cubicles and, above all, to provide comfortable beds; for instance, beds as good as those in the London casual wards. And there seems no sense in the principle of licensing all houses for “men only” or “women only,” as though men and women were sodium and water and must be kept apart for fear of an explosion; the houses should be licensed for both sexes alike, as they are in some provincial towns. And the lodgers should be protected by law against various swindles which the proprietors and managers are now able to practice on them. Given these conditions, common lodging houses would serve their purpose, which is an important one, far better than they do now. After all, tens of thousands of unemployed and partially employed men have literally no other place in which they can live. It is absurd that they should be compelled to choose, as they are at present, between an easy-going pigsty and a hygienic prison.

3 September 1932

A child in Whitechapel. Photo: Getty Images.

Eric Blair, more commonly known by his pseudonym George Orwell, was a contributor of the New Statesman in the Thirties and Forties.

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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.