Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Working Class Home at the Great Exhibition

A particularly Victorian feature of the Great Exhibition was to be found in Prince Albert's model working-class houses, designed by architect Henry Roberts and exhibited by the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes (SICLC).

The Victorian dilemma

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw rapid industrialization and urbanization in England.  With it came a host of associated problems such as insufficient housing, sanitation, public health and education.  The dominant laissez-faire ideology suggested that unfettered market activity would ensure the welfare of all by providing the conditions for each individual to maximise their own individual well-being. The persistence, and even deterioration, of the living conditions of the urban working classes in a climate of rising wealth therefore baffled contemporaries. Was there something wrong with the working classes which prevented them seizing the opportunities presented to them, or was there was something wrong with their analysis and understanding of the operations and outcomes of a market economy? Whichever view they took, the Victorians increasingly came to recognise that some sort of collective response was required.

A Victorian slum in Kensington, London, now one of the most fashionable parts of the City.  It was demolished in the late 1860's.  Source: Bentley, Nicholas. The Victorian Scene: 1837-1901. London: Spring Books, 1971. 

A proliferation of voluntary and charitable organizations sprung up to address issues such as Ragged Schools which tackled education and SICLC which addressed housing.

Prince Albert's model working class houses

Prince Albert expressed a keen interest in the conditions of the working classes, and was SICLC's first president.  He commissioned the architect, Henry Roberts, to design and build a model working class house for the Great Exhibition.  It was located outside the Crystal Palace, near the South-East corner of the building.  This positioning reflected Prince Albert's belief that the construction of working class homes constituted the first step towards improving the life of the working class.  Providing them with cheerful and comfortable homes would result in improved health, sobriety and domestic peace, especially in conjunction with education and employment opportunities [1].  The "cottage" was therefore separate from the Exhibition and free and open to the public so as many people as possible would be able to look at them.

A model house erected in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition.  Source: "Home reform: or, Advice to the labouring classes on the improvement of the their dwellings, and the keeping them in good condition", Henry Roberts (London: the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes), ca. 1850

Inside the model house

The house was intended for four families "of the class of mechanical and manufacturing operatives who usually reside in towns or in their immediate vicinity" in separate flats, two families to each floor [2].  Each flat was provided with running water and internal sanitation, with a separate kitchen area and three bedrooms, providing, according to the Official Catalogue, "that separation which, with a family, is so essential to morality and decency"[3]. The construction of the house was simple, robust and economical.  The use of hollow bricks for example, afforded an "insensible means of effective ventilation" on a cost effective basis [4]. 

Just as important as the social value of these prototypes was their ability to make a profit.  A brochure produced by the SICLC calculated that the houses would offer investors a 7 per cent. return [5], whilst the Official Catalogue offered more detailed mathematical calculations:

"In Most parts of England, the cost of four houses, built on the plan of this model structure, with ordinary materials, and finished similar to the ground floor apartments, may be stated at 440l.  to 480l. or from 110l. to 120l. for each tenement, contingent on the facilities for obtaining of materials and the value of labour.  Such dwellings, let at 3s. 6d. to 4s. a-week, after deducting ground-rent and taxes, afford a return of 7 per cent. on the amount of outlay.  Where hollow bricks are obtainable at a fair price, their use ought to effect a reduction of  about 25 per cent. on the cost of the brickwork, or equal on these four houses to 40l." [6]

Floor plan for the model house erected in Hyde Park.  Source:  "Home reform: or, Advice to the labouring classes on the improvement of the their dwellings, and the keeping them in good condition", Henry Roberts (London: the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes), ca. 1850

Reaction to the model houses

The houses proved extremely popular, drawing more than 250,000 visitors. [7]  Within two weeks of the closure of the Exhibition, construction of two groups of houses based on Prince Albert and Henry Robert's model had begun.  The Illustrated London News called the model houses "a contribution not less important, and in many respects far more interesting than most of the works of art and utility within...His Royal Highness...could have devised no more appropriate contribution to the extraneous utility of the Exhibition than this unpretending block of buildings". [8]

The houses in many ways embodied the spirit of the Victorian era, combining a philanthropic urge with a drive for efficiency and order.  That Prince Albert took such a keen interest in the design and construction of these houses speaks volumes for the prevailing outlook of the Victorian establishment.

The original cottage built for the Great Exhibition was dismantled and transferred to Kennington Park, a working class area of South London, where it became home to four families.  It remains standing today.

Original building displayed as a prototype at the Great Exhibition, 1851. Source: Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood:


[1] Auerbach, Jeffrey, The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display (Yale University Press 1999). Pg 112
[2], [3], [4] Official Catalogue Vol 3 Pg 111
[5] Auerbach, The Great Exhibition Pg 112
[6] Official Catalogue Vol 3 Pg 112
[7] Ibid
[8] Illustrated London News, 14 June 1851

No comments:

Post a Comment