Housing the Poor in England

In the documentary Housing Problems, directors Elton and Anstey attempt to document the living conditions of workers in the slums of England. As they document the current conditions and the current/proposed changes, there is an interesting trend to note: the involvement of the private sector in solving the poor’s issues. Rather than leave the government to design, build and construct new buildings designed to improve the living conditions of the poor, businesses such as cement firms and gas companies were promoting contests in which new living quarters were developed. While this is an interesting development, the real question is why are these business promoting these contests? How does it benefit them? Why are they doing such activities?

As we see these trends in inter-war Europe, we as students truly fail to contextualize the futurism that is promoted in the documentaries and where reality truly went. While all of the developments mentioned in the new “slum” buildings would have created a fantastic world, how many of these buildings were constructed in reality? We see the blip in the attempt to deal with poverty, but fail to grasp what these evolutions mean in the overall history of Europe.

Housing Problems

Housing Problems is a 1935 document about housing problems in Britain. The video is very similar to Orwell’s piece entitled ‘Road to Wigan Pier’. It depicts the poor conditions that the lower class in Britain had to live in. It is also interesting to notice that the people who are interviewed are wearing what appears to be decent clothes, with one man even wearing a three-piece suit, without the jacket. I don’t know if this was common attire, but in my opinion it looks like these people did their best to look good, despite the fact that this was a film documenting their poor living conditions. Logically, looking as bad as possible would be conducive to the documentary and thus to the possibility of attaining help, but the emotional response of the interviewees represents the idea of pride that was still prevalent in this ‘new poor’ section of society.

Fighting Poverty in Britain

The interwar period brought about a shift in Britain’s attitudes toward the poor.  Rather than continuing to believe that poverty was the fault of the poor, the British government began to implement programs aimed at helping them and increase awareness about their plight.  The documentaries Housing Problems and Enough to Eat are examples of these efforts at awareness.  Housing Problems interviews residents of a British slum about their living conditions while Enough to Eat describes Britain’s efforts at minimizing malnutrition.

In Housing Problems, the use of interviews with actual slum residents offers a more human look at the issue than simply a reading of statistics.  These people give their own emotional accounts of their struggles, which allows the viewer to feel more sympathy toward them.  This technique also helps to give the impression that the government views these people as individuals who they want to help, rather than just another aspect of creating a stronger nation.  The documentary gives faces and stories to the struggles of slum life in order to create emotion while at the same time separating the British government’s motives from those of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, whose main concerns were strengthening the state.

While Enough to Eat also creates the image of a more sympathetic government, it also implies the more far reaching effects of introducing nutrition to the impoverished.  At one point of the documentary, one of the men who is being interviewed states that the government’s methods are an “…important factor in restoring peace” because the promotion of nutrition will also help boost world trade again.  This implies that while promoting better nutritional habits amongst the poor is of concern, ensuring that Britain assumes a powerful role in trade is also of importance to the government, and they will do this in any way possible.  This documentary does a better job of displaying more of the underlying motives of helping the poor in Britain.

Could the British have had any greater motives in wanting to improve the housing conditions of the poor as well?

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?