Much of Hackney's housing is Victorian middle class housing. This fact is reflected in the design. There is a lot of variety in the external decoration of Victorian suburban homes. This was a way for the middle classes to set themselves apart as a class and to show their wealth and status. All sorts of styles were used, from Gothic to Queen Anne, to classical and Arts and Crafts, often mixed together.
The home was also a place where the family could communicate their social status by the order of their domestic arrangements and their distance from the working class, including their servants. This had a high impact on the design of the middle class Victorian house, as there had to be separate entrances for staff and even different stairwells as servants were placed away from the family. Even the outside of the house was used to communicate the status of the family, for example the use of bay windows in Victorian middle class terraced housing distinguishes it from the flat fronts of working class terraces. This fashion was possible because of the abolition of the window tax in 1851 and the invention of sheet glass.
For the middle class, morality and religion were very important and the home was seen as a place for moral refuge and the teaching of Christian values. Within the home this is reflected in the strict segregation of the sexes, boys from girls. The general move to a segregated society where women did not work also made the home very important to women; it was their world.
Privacy was another middleclass concern. If a house could not be separated from its neighbours and the road then blinds, shutters or lace curtains were used to distance the outside world. A frequent compromise, when a detached house was not possible, was a pair of semi-detached houses built to look like one house like the villas on Queensbridge Road. Towards the end of the Victorian period rooms were less closed off and became lighter and more cheerful as the Victorians became aware of the benefits of fresh air and sunshine.
There are few examples of working class housing left in Hackney as most was replaced by council housing and the ones that do exist represent the upper end of the range. Beck Road is a very attractive working class Victorian terrace. In the latter part of the Victorian era, with the emergence of trams and the workingman’s train the move to the suburbs also became possible for the regularly employed better off working class. Working class suburban homes were designed with room for a lodger as the extra income was vital for a working class family. The interiors would of course have had no servants quarters and much less of the clutter of a middle class home as the families would have much fewer possessions.
Poorer families would have lived in large, old houses occupied by a number of families, or back to back houses. Frequently housing for the poorest in society was shoddily built on bad foundations. Six thousand people in Hackney Wick in 1879 were reported to be housed in slums on top of a rubbish pit.
The issue of slums became of great importance to the Victorians. This was the era of the social reformers who felt they had a duty to help the poor. For many of the religious middle classes the overcrowded conditions of the poor, where people of all ages and sexes shared together, were immoral also. There were other more cynical reasons for reform too. People were fearful of a working class revolution and were worried about the threat to people’s health caused by poor sanitation and water supplies. Ill health amongst the working classes had an effect on national productivity and pushed up poor law costs as family breadwinners died. Plus there was the threat to the health of everyone caused by epidemics such as cholera and typhus.
The emergence of charities and trusts who sought to provide housing for the poor, such as the Peabody Trust in 1862 and the Guinness Trust in 1890, failed to meet the needs of the most desperate in society. The homes they built were sometimes quite radical in design, for example with toilets and a constant water supply and often in blocks of flats. The quality of their house building put it out of the reach financially of all but the upper working classes.
Various acts of parliament outlined government recommendations regarding building and density but without a house building programme they were meaningless. The medical officer for Hackney, responding to the 1866 Sanitary Act, claimed that if he were to carry out the overcrowding clauses he would force 10,000 people out on the street.
The situation was worse in Hackney as building costs rose very fast in the last twenty years of the century whereas they fell nationally. Lack of building led to higher rents and over crowding. Rents in Hackney between 1894-1901 rose by a third, four times the rate for housing in London overall. Ironically, London suburban rents were around half of those in central London but the poorest sections of society who did not have regular incomes were forced to live where the work was. Shoreditch was a particularly overcrowded area, its population quadrupled in the first half of the century. It had traditionally been an industrious area, situated as it is just outside the city, but the building of the Regents canal allowed the transport of goods and materials so made the area even more attractive to businesses and their workers.
For a detailed look at the social make up of Hackney in Victorian times have a look at Charles Booth's poverty maps by clicking here. This will take you to the London School of Economics Charles Booth Online Archive.