A blog post by Emma Smith, history student and Special Collections volunteer.
In light of our focus on Urban Environment as part of the 2018 Industrial Heritage theme months, we have delved into our records here at Brunel Special Collections in pursuit of details about urban housing. One common theme present throughout the majority of records is the sheer variation in accommodation: the juxtaposition of the slums and poor institutions of the penniless, and the mansions and townhouses of the affluent, accentuates the considerable difference in housing within urban localities.
James McKenzie’s account emphasises the stark contrast between deprived and luxurious dwellings within urban London (an extract of which is shown above). McKenzie details his childhood experiences of the slum housing of Battersea adjacent to a river ‘poisoned with waste’ from surrounding factories; undoubtedly symbolising his housing conditions. Due to orphan-hood, however, McKenzie soon finds himself residing in a ‘rather weird old mansion’ in Kensington, only a stone’s throw away over the old Battersea Bridge. With its ornamental gates, fashionable Victorian drawing room and antique paintings, such a mansion was a world apart from the destitute Battersea slums, despite its geographical closeness.
John Castle also illuminates another prevalent type of urban housing: the workhouse. Castle certainly harboured strong opinions toward Leighton Buzzard Union workhouse as an abode, as shown above. By producing a detailed structural plan of the workhouse, including the location of the Master’s House, Board Room and segregated living quarters of men, women and children, Castle’s memoir provides a personalised vision into the construction of one of the most recurrent, yet often ill-defined, urban living abodes throughout Britain. Emphasis on the presence of factory equipment within the institution arguably highlights the industrial nature of nineteenth-century housing and living areas.
Similarly, Edward Balne provides insight into another, relatively rare, category of urban housing. Residing in a Hanwell ‘Cuckoo School’ (a Poor Law School, officially!), Balne emphasises the juxtaposition between the urbanity of this institution and adjacent ‘lovely leafy lanes of Greenford;’ highlighting the presence of both rural and industrial influences in urban living quarters. Though inferring that the School was superior in comparison to other housing, citing its swimming bath, onsite hospital and ‘large and lovely garden;’ Balne contends that it was still ‘pretty grim.’ While pupils were cramped into dormitories (ten allocated to each side of a room and another ten to the centre), their designated dormitory nurses enjoyed private ‘comfortably furnished’ cubicles. Any luxury in urban living, again, seemed to remain in the hands of those more well-off.
You can see any of these autobiographies or our other collections by contacting Special Collections to arrange an appointment
1:473 J. H. McKenzie
1:134 J. Castle
1:37 E. Balne