In the midst of a crippling housing crisis compounded by the collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank in 1878 that paralysed the building industry what would seem like a reasonable solution? Who should we blame?
Glasgow Corporation (two decades after Chadwick’s damning report on housing conditions) passed the City Improvement Act 1866 and began the task of clearing the slums. The flaw in their plan was their blind faith in laissez faire economics – the belief that once they cleared the slums then private investors would come. They didn’t. Instead they turned to place the blame on tenants themselves in the form of ‘ticketing’.
Houses were ‘ticketed’ meaning a small metal plate was attached to the door stating the size of the flat and the number of adults legally allowed to occupy, with children counting as half. During the 1880s there were reportedly 23,000 ticketed houses in the city meaning nearly 15 percent of the population lived in them. The corporation were aware of the deathly consequences of overcrowding with Chadwick considering tenants ‘worse off than wild animals’.
An inspector reported to the North British Daily mail:
In a small attic dwelling in the Back Wynd, ticketed to contain two-and-a-half-adults, we found no less than fourteen men, women, and children all packed together…There was no room for a bed, and the floor was literally covered with human beings.
Ticketing was enforced by raids in the middle of the night by sanitary inspectors.
Middle class invasion
We could criticise this as a huge invasion of privacy but we must remember that privacy was a privilege seldom found in Glasgow’s slums and the bigger invasion was that of the middle classes into the spaces of the working classes. William Gairdner, the first Medical Officer of Health, dismissed criticisms that this was an invasion of privacy but there was no doubt that this was an invasion. Reports from inspectors reveal a huge amount of resistance from tenants to these visits.
Working class resistance
It was reported in 1904 that:
…the night inspectors find the occupants of overcrowded houses, in their attempts to avoid detection, concealed in every conceivable corner – hidden in cupboards, in presses, under beds, and even on the house tops. In the worst case of overcrowding quoted, the officers took in seven persons off an adjoining roof
Tenants had clear strategies of resistance and even versed children on where to go and what to do when inspectors arrived as this reported printed in the North British Daily Mail in 1870 states:
…a young girl… in her night-dress…crept breathlessly out of this hole, where she had taken refuge on our entrance, in order to diminish the appearance of overcrowding.
The same 1904 housing report considered these tenants ‘the most degraded and reckless class’ with ‘the poverty, the filth, the misery that prevailed being directly due to the drinking habit of the tenants.’
This discourse of the ‘deserving’ poor is reflected in the strategy of ticketing houses as it punishes the ‘choice’ of living in an overcrowded single-end. The reformers opinion was often that if only they would stop drinking their money then they could afford a better place to live.
The painful precarity of Glasgow’s job market forced people into the cheapest possible housing for a modicum of security when the next bout of unemployment hit. Families moved up and down the housing scale and were acutely aware that they were only an accident, or a bout of illness away from destitution. Drinking was a symptom of the anxiety of poverty not the cause. The categorisation of the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor meant those who were able to leave ticketed houses did so but those who were left behind were considered to have personally failed.