Poverty in Interwar Britain

Following the First World War, the general British attitude toward the poor and their situations changed. It was then thought that it was people’s own fault for being poor. They were too lazy to work hard enough to afford better living quarters. In his writings “Road to Wigan Pier” and “Down and Out in Paris and London”, George Orwell, argues against this idea. Those who are poor, for the most part, are not well educated, and perform unskilled labor. They lack skill sets and the means to obtain a skill set that would allow them to acquire higher paying jobs.

In his short film, Housing Problems, John Grierson interviews people living in British slums. They’re not happy to be living there, but they don’t have a choice. They can’t afford to live anywhere else, and they feel some shame about their living situations. The film argues that if people are provided with well-built homes, that they can afford, they will take care of these homes. Living in the slums, people are not motivated to keep their homes clean because they’re falling apart and full of rodents.

Even in the slums, people attempted to keep up appearances, with a well-kept living room, like that of the first interviewee. This seems to conflict with the film’s assertion that only a well built home will be well kept by its inhabitants. Why did people maintain living rooms in a smilingly bourgeois style?  Was it to preserve their dignity in their filthy homes? Was it to uphold personal or family identity in a row of identical homes?



6 thoughts on “Poverty in Interwar Britain

  1. I remember hearing a journalist talking about visiting South African townships and remarking on how the mothers in the community never stopped worrying about their children’s cleanliness. You might suppose that in such hopeless conditions, you could begin to allow yourself to submit to depression and filth. Somehow, something forces people to live as if their future still matters.

  2. People realized that they had no other options besides living in those houses. They were not able to leave them. They knew the condition of the houses, and the problems in them, but still gave their best to improve them. In my opinion, the inhabitants of those houses tried to maintain their living rooms in good condition because this probably helped them feel better when thinking about the condition of their house, and also as you said it helped them preserve in a way.

  3. The residents of these homes and neighborhoods certainly felt ashamed and disgusted with their living conditions. Though they still tried to work with their homes, some of the residents came to the conclusion that there was little they could do to better their conditions. For example, one woman stood in front of her stairs, and noted that the staircase could cave in any day, and nobody knew when. While some people were committed to ameliorating their situation, many more had come to the realization that their home in the slums was not improving any time soon.

  4. I believe that the people who lived in these hovels kept there living rooms maintained in a “bourgeois” style as a way to give themselves and there neighbors the impression that they were living a more comfortable life then was actually the case. By keeping the living room, the room seen by all guests neat and clean they could try and hid the imperfections of the rest of the house with that one well maintained room.

  5. As the comments have stated, many families presented very neat and “bourgeois” ‘living rooms’ because it was a way to preserve their dignity. Your question about personal identity is very interesting. This is something that many people consider today in the new housing developments that are growing in popularity. It is a similar concept. With these new houses, the smallest details become a way to express individuality. In the Interwar Era, these ‘living rooms’ may have been used in a similar way. From our reading of the piece by Auslander, it seems more likely that these spaces were a way for these working families to fit into the larger image of society and not be distinct or separate.

  6. I believe that people kept up the appearance of the inside of their homes because although the edifice was crumbling, the people inside were resilient and prideful. They wished to show British society that they were worthy of better housing accommodations, and that an investment made in them would not go to waste.

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