1932 - Common lodging houses

Common lodging houses, of which there are several hundred in London, are night-shelters licensed by the LCC. They are intended for people who cannot afford regular lodgings and in effect they are extremely cheap hotels. The lodging house population 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.

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 are disgusting. The dormitories are horrible fetid dens, packed 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 6ins long by 2ft 6ins 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 bedclothes 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 vary between 7d and 1s 1d a night. It should be added that, low as these charges sound, the average common lodging house brings in something like £40 net profit a week to its owner.

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

When one first sees the murky trog-lodytic cave of a common lodging house kitchen, one takes it for a corner of the nineteenth century which has somehow been missed by reformers. It is a surprise to find that these 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, 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 these 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 and enacted that these must be at least 3ft apart. 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.

Another example of LCC regulations: from nearly all common lodging houses women are strictly excluded. 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 slumming 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 kind of 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.

It is worth pointing out the improvements that could be made 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 rackety 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 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 practise 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.

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

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery