Overcrowding In East London

Robert Claudius Billing (1834 – 1898) was the Rural Dean of Spitalfields from 1878 to 7th July, 1888.

This was a period that saw huge changes in Spitalfields, as vast acreages of some the worst streets in London were cleared of their slums, and new models dwellings were erected to house the industrious poor.

However, little was done to rehouse the destitute poor who were made homeless by the demolitions. They were forced to seek accommodation wherever they could find it. If they were lucky, they made be able to afford a nightly bed in a common lodging houses; but, otherwise, they would have to become dependent on the private landlords who rented out rooms in the slum houses of the district, and who crammed as many tenants as they could into these properties, with the result that entire families might have just one room that they could call home.

A portrait of the Bishop of Bedford.
Robert Claudius Billing, Bishop of Bedford. From The Illustrated London News, 14th July, 1888.


As the vicar of Christchurch, Spitalfields. the Reverend Billing gained first-hand experience of the effects that this overcrowding had on the morals of the people of the neighbourhood, and, on Friday, 2nd November, 1883, he wrote the following letter The Daily Telegraph And Courier, in which he highlighted the horror of the social conditions in parts of his parish, and – almost prophesying the coming of Jack the Ripper – warning of terrible consequences should the conditions not be grappled with and the living conditions of the poor be vastly improved:-


“Sir, I am rejoiced to find the present discussion about overcrowding is provoking a great deal of thought and much questioning as to the evil itself and the means by which it may be removed.

But already some are saying, “Does the evil indeed exist, or has it not, at all events, been exaggerated?”

Now I have lived for five years in the East-end, and, not only as a clergyman, but also as a guardian of the poor and a member of the local board of works, I have been continuously occupied among the poor, and have learned something of their circumstances and surroundings.

That they suffer from overcrowding I know and can prove.


Let it be remembered that this overcrowding does not and cannot obtain in the common lodging-houses. These are under careful supervision, and overcrowding is not permitted.

The evil exists in some houses which are improperly used as lodging-houses and where twopence or a penny may be paid for the privilege of lying down on the bare floor.

These cases are diligently sought out by the local authorities, and every effort is made to suppress this mischievous practice.

It would require, however, a much larger staff of officials to cause it to cease altogether.


But I am principally concerned for the really industrious and well-conducted among the poor, who are anything but content with the home accommodation they are compelled to put up with.

And who would wish them to be?

Unhealthy and pestiferous rookeries have been demolished, and I have rejoiced at their destruction.


Yet what has been done to provide for those who have been unhoused?

There is a vast acreage in our union – the union of Whitechapel – now lying waste and unoccupied.

The last census showed that the population of the union had diminished by about 6,000: but it also showed an increase in the population of Spitalfields, a parish in the union.

New buildings had been erected there, but these did not provide for one-half of the people who had been displaced, and still, there was an increase of the population!


What does this indicate?

Certainly a closer packing of the people together, and this is continuously going on. When a tenant leaves his two rooms, for example, they are let at once to two families, greatly to the advantage of the landlord, and the man who farms the property in some cases under him.

In a house in which a year ago there were five families, there are now nine.

In another, in which there were eight families, there are now twelve.

A very decent man had, a few weeks ago, to give up his flat and seek a habitation on the ground floor because of an accident that had befallen his wife. The best accommodation he could obtain within reach of his work is a small room, in which father and mother and four big children are compelled to exist, and wherein all domestic offices have to be performed.

What home comforts can these have? Aye, what hope have these parents of seeing their children virtuously brought up?


It may be said, “Are there no Peabody buildings and model lodging houses.” There are. But I have known a man wait for years to obtain admission; and these are largely preoccupied by a class above those who have been turned adrift by the destruction of their dwellings.

Sometimes, the new block of buildings is tenanted, at the outset, almost entirely by those who come from another part. They desire to live nearer their work, and are more suitable tenants than the class that has been dispossessed.

And so the close packing goes on apace, to the utter ruin of thousands, especially among the young.

A view of the Peabody Building.
The Peabody Building, Commercial Street, Spitalfields.


The unfortunates on our streets are not always the children of dissolute and drunken parents. They come, I speak from experience, from these overcrowded habitations where decency cannot be observed, and where virtue is early destroyed.

The discomfort drives the man to the public house, the tidy woman gives up in despair and ceases to take any pride in her home, and the poor children are the innocent sufferers, whose fate moves to pity and causes one’s blood to boil with indignation.


For why should these things be?


They exist became of the cupidity of the homeowners.

Let the law not only forbid, but render all such overcrowding impossible. Let all buildings that are let in apartments be placed under as stringent regulations as the common lodging-houses.


The efforts of the local authorities to stay the evil are vain and fruitless, and they must remain so until there is some such amendment of the law.

How are dwellings suited to the wants of the labouring man and his family, and the widow struggling on with her children around her, to be provided?

Surely, this not an impossibility.

As we exist at present, flagrant immorality is the natural outcome of our circumstances.

Surely some remedy can be provided?


Our work here is “rescue work.”

And why?

Because so many are lost before they have had a fair opportunity of cultivating morality and virtue. Schools, mission halls and churches are vainly multiplied where this overcrowding prevails.

The physical evil is great, but the moral plague, the leprosy, that cleeves to the very walls of the house, is greater still.


There is a natural disinclination on the part of an Englishman to have his domestic arrangements interfered with. And legislation in the direction I have indicated may, by some, be characterised as “grandmotherly legislation.”

But I know this, that, in their utter, despair, the poor are crying out for relief, and would welcome it. They are sufficiently educated to be ready to surrender some of their liberty if it might give them release from a condition that has become intolerable.


I have, when publicly reasoning with the people “of temperance and judgments to come,” been openly twitted with the miserable condition of their home life, under which they groan and from which they are unable to deliver themselves. They point to the vacant wildernesses around us, and ask why I do not preach to Christian people to come and build them places where they might hope to live as Christians too?


If private enterprise will not undertake the work, then the State must.

Personally, I imbue to the former in every way the best solution of this pressing problem. How are the labouring poor to be decently housed?” I believe there would be a good return on capital wisely expended.


And, why should not the greet employers of labour be held equally bound with the landowners in the agricultural districts to provide dwellings for those who enrich them by their toil?

These might do a great deal to remedy the present evil and remove the wrong that is being done to so mail.


I appeal to them.

They should be the first to move, and should be the leaders in this crusade – and a holy crusade it is. It is a holy cause if ever there was one, and, until it triumphs, I see nothing before us but more pauperism, more vice, more crime, and at last a terrible retribution.

l am, Sir. your obedient servant,


The Rectory, Spitalfields.”