Dwellings of working-people in London/Dwellings of Working People in London (Waterlow)

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Sir Sydney Waterlow, who seconded the motion, said:—I am glad to have an opportunity of saying a few words in support of the resolution proposed by the hon. member for Hastings. The subject is one in which I have taken the greatest interest for many years past. It has never been treated as a party question, and I trust never will be. On the contrary, from my own experience, I have found that right hon. and hon. members of this House, whether sitting on the right or the left of the Chair, have rather vied with each other in their expression of sympathy with the object of the resolution, and I trust that we may hope from this that it may be found acceptable to those who are present here to-night. I do not purpose to take up the time of the House by dwelling upon the evils of over-crowding or drawing a picture of the wretched habitations in the narrow courts and alleys of our Metropolis, in which so many of our labouring population are compelled to reside. I say compelled to reside, because it is as important to the mechanic, the costermonger, and the huckster to reside near to the place of his employment and to the markets for his trade, as it is to the merchant, and perhaps more so, since the poor man cannot afford the daily cost of transit. The proof of this is found in the high prices paid for rooms near the centres of labour. I once asked a poor woman who proposed to remove from the outskirts into London, how she could afford the extra 1s. or 1s. 6d. per week for their two rooms? She replied that she should save much more than 1s. 6d. per week when her husband could come home to his breakfast and dinner instead of taking it in a public house. There can be no doubt that it is absolutely essential to the well-being of the community that the labouring population of our great Metropolis should continue to reside near to their work. The cheap workmen's trains and the tramway cars are, no doubt, a great convenience, but only available where the head of the family is the sole breadwinner. If the earnings of the wife and the children form part of the weekly wages, the family must reside near their work. During the last quarter of a century efforts have been made by several philanthropic societies, public companies, and private individuals to lessen the evils of overcrowding and to improve the dwellings of the labouring class. Much good has, no doubt, been done by these means, and the rents of working-men's houses would but for these efforts have risen much higher even than they have done. But these efforts do not reach the real evil. In very few cases have the building companies been able to purchase and remove the houses unfit for human habitation. As a rule there are such a variety of interests in this kind of property that it is impossible to clear any large site without compulsory powers, which ought, I think, to be exercised only by a public authority. The philanthropic societies have, in fact, been working with their hands tied, and wretched houses unfit for human habitation remain as nests of fever and pestilence, foul blots on the face of our fair Metropolis, doubling the rate of sickness and death among the occupants and spreading contagion throughout the immediate neighbourhood. I feel sure that we shall all agree that this state of things ought to be remedied, that this great and crying evil ought to be abated; the only question that I apprehend can be asked is, in what way can Parliament alleviate this evil without throwing too great a burden on the ratepayers, or dealing unfairly with the rights of private property? In what way can Parliament assist in this work, which has hitherto been left so entirely to private philanthropy? What we ask is that this House, recognising the local authority which the Metropolitan Board of Works and the City of London exercise over the districts under their control, should impose upon these two public bodies the responsibility and the duty of submitting to Parliament, from time to time, schemes for public improvements involving the destruction of houses unfit for occupation, and the appropriation of the sites when cleared for the reconstruction of tenement-houses suitable for the labouring population, upon plans to be approved by the local authority, in the manner provided by the Metropolitan Improvement Act of 1872. Notices would be given, and the various interests in the property would of course be dealt with in the same way as if it were taken for a street improvement. I am quite prepared to admit that these improvements would throw some temporary burden on the ratepayers, a small annual charge which would, I think, be more than compensated by immediate and future advantages. The principle upon which such improvements would be carried out has been constantly recognised by Parliament. The Metropolitan Board of Works have frequently applied to the House, and have obtained compulsory powers to make new streets in order to facilitate the circulation of the pedestrian and vehicular traffic of the Metropolis, charging the cost on the ratepayers. If this charge is cheerfully borne, it can scarcely be doubted that an improvement calculated to ensure the better circulation of fresh air in the most crowded parts of our City, and the consequent reduction of the death and disease rate, could not be objected to. If we consider the figures for a few moments, we shall readily see that the annual charge would be very small. The present rateable value of property in the Metropolis is nearly 21,000,000l. A rate of one penny in the pound will produce nearly 90,000l., or sufficient to pay the interest on 2,000,000l. and redeem the principal in 40 years. If the money was raised by issuing Metropolitan Consols at 3½ per cent. 2,000,000l would go a long way in paying simply the difference between the purchase money of the land and the sum recovered on its resale, or the sale of the ground-rents. I venture to say, from many years' experience of the subject, that 2,000,000l., or a rate of one penny in the pound for 40 years, applied in the mode suggested, would remove to a very large extent the houses in the Metropolis at the present time unfit for human habitation. Having glanced at the probable cost, let us look at the return to be derived from the outlay. The leading physicians of the metropolis, in the memorial recently presented to the Prime Minister, expressed an unanimous opinion that the disease and death-rate among the labouring population were very largely increased by the unhealthy condition of their houses. This statement has been constantly confirmed by the reports of the sanitary officers of the large metropolitan parishes, and is fully proved by the Registrar-General's returns. These returns show that in 1872 the rate of mortality throughout the Metropolis was 21.5 in the thousand, while the mortality in the improved dwellings for the working classes was only 15.8 in the thousand. If we take the average over a longer period, we find that, in the eight years ending 1872, the death-rate in the Metropolis was 24 in the thousand, against 16 in the thousand in the improved dwellings. The disease-rate has been calculated to be about double the death-rate, that is to say, for every person dying there are two persons afflicted with acute disease, preventing them from following their ordinary work. Now those who know anything of the causes of the increase of late years in the local taxation are well aware that it arises to some extent from the constantly increasing cost of the construction and maintenance of the asylums for the care of the sick poor under the control of the Metropolitan Asylums Board and the Central London Asylums Board. A reduction of the disease rate to any thing like the extent shown by the figures I have just given would soon recoup the proposed addition of one penny in the pound. Should it, however, appear on a closer examination of the subject that rather more than one penny in the pound was required to carry out the proposed improvements, I venture to think that no better time could be selected than the present, when Local Taxation is proposed to be so largely relieved by the Budget of the present Session. Passing away from the mere pecuniary view of the question, I could appeal to the House to support this motion upon higher and more forcible grounds. The people of this country are never tired of subscribing money for the religious education of the poor. The whole country has recently been very properly taxed to provide secular education for every child. I venture to say, without fear of contradiction, that if the labours of the ministers of religion are to produce the hoped for result, if the work of the schoolmasters and the school boards is to bring forth good fruit, the homes in which the working population in over-crowded cities are compelled to live must be improved. We, I fear, as a nation are too prone to consider our own civilisation as far in advance of the civilisation of other countries, and when we read of the indifference with which the lives of human beings are sacrificed among barbarous nations, of the ruthless manner in which infants are placed in the baby towers of the East, we are too apt to cry 'Thank God! we are not as wicked as other nations'; but if the statements of our leading physicians, if the returns of the Registrar-General, are to be relied on, who can doubt that thousands of persons, and especially children under two years of age, die annually from preventible causes? If this be true, I would ask the House to support the resolution, with the hope that some suitable solution may be found for this great and important problem. If in dealing with this question I have spoken too warmly or too strongly, I trust the House will excuse me, and will attribute it to my great interest in the subject rather than to any want of respect for the House itself.