The week before last, on the 4th of August, Britain stopped in solemn remembrance to pay its respects to the centennial of the First World War. This article focuses on Britain’s housing and living conditions surrounding World War One and how these changed throughout the period.
Despite uniting in a common aim when War broke out in 1914, there was a huge divide between those of rich and poorer backgrounds. For those born into a position of wealth, they were able to benefit from a relatively healthy lifestyle of sports, good food and opulent housing, which for the most part was run by indentured help in the form of lower class servants and butlers, many of which lived in squalid, overcrowded areas of substandard housing, perfectly juxtaposed to those in which they made their living.
These displays of social hierarchy also carried in to the more rural areas, whose main focus was agriculture. The wealthy aristocrats, or lords, acted as masters to the vast quantities of labourers and farm workers that cultivated their land, many of whom also lived in filthy and similarly overcrowded houses to those in urban areas. These hierarchical values were not new however, and had been around for centuries dictating a “rightful place” for every individual and propagating a divide between those who worked and those who did not.
It is this dynamic in not only social positions, but also in the conditions of housing, that the First World War affected the most in Britain. When young men of both rich and poor backgrounds went off to fight for their country overseas, this social class system began to disintegrate. All Britons were united through the sheer amount of collective loss and the unnumbered horrors that the First World War brought to our nation.
Although the War had a hugely negative impact on thousands of people’s lives, it did help to reinstate the true value of human life and greatly affected attitudes towards living conditions leading to the Housing and Town Planning Act in 1919. Known as the “Addison Act” after the Minister of Health Dr Christopher Addison, it signified the beginning of state-owned housing or council houses as they are known today.
This Act rather sombrely came about as a result of a previous Government report, commissioned to look into the current state of housing, with a view to rebuild after the War. They wanted to investigate if housing standards could in fact have contributed to the shocking lack of fitness and health displayed in many of the young recruits from poorer areas.
Through this “Addison Act” and through the bravery and sacrifices made in contribution to the war effort, the working classes had now been granted the right to demand decent housing, and although the class system still remained in theory, significant efforts were made by the Government to close the gap between rich and poor.
To learn more about the Addison Act go to this website here.