Philanthropic Housing

Concept – United Kingdom

1800 – 1900

Industrialisation in C19 Britain led to a rapid growth of towns, resulting in a severe lack of housing and unsanitary conditions. Whilst government initiatives were slow to respond, acute inequality saw the rise of charitable endeavours. The Victorian model of philanthropy was tied to religious and social morality, designed to help those who were deemed worthy of salvation, but it usually did not cater for the very poorest in society. In contrast, the self-help model tried to empower the poor and saw the eventual development of the co-operative movement and friendly societies.

Almshouses are one of the earliest examples of philanthropic housing that started before the Victorian era and continue today. Providing subsidised rental for those who could not afford standard rates, the first almshouse was built in the C10 in York. Since then, a total of around 30 000 almshouses have been built in the UK, of which only a few hundred still serve their original purpose. Up to the C19, almshouses provided for a wide demographic but as the general standard of housing improved, they were reserved for the elderly. Today they are usually managed by local charities who decide on the eligibility of tenants.

Much of Victorian philanthropic housing was provided by industrialists who wanted better living conditions for their workers. One of the earliest and best known examples is New Lanark village in Scotland, built between 1800 and 1829 by Robert Owen. He took over the existing textile mill and transformed it into a working example of how he thought a healthy, co-operative community should be organised. New Lanark changed working practices through emphasising encouragement and supervision over punishment. Although much of the housing was already built when Owen arrived, he enlarged the properties, provided better sanitation and built communal facilities, such as a purpose-built school. Owen's social and welfare programmes were as important as the buildings: he restricted child and women's labour, was the pioneer of nursery provision in Britain and organised sheltered housing for the elderly. The New Lanark store was a precursor to the co-operative movement, establishing a fair trading system, and using profits to benefit the whole community; for example teachers' salaries were paid with this money.

Other examples of industrial model villages include Bournville near Birmingham, built in 1893 by Quakers, George and Richard Cadbury. They moved their factory to a greenfield site away from the town centre in order to provide better and healthier living conditions for their workforce. Pensions were pioneered here, a joint workers committee set up, and there was also a staff medical service. Similarly Port Sunlight in the Wirral was built between 1899 and 1914 by industrialist, William H. Lever. Organised as a garden suburb with an emphasis on recreation, modern housing was built as well as an open-air swimming pool, art gallery, schools, concert hall and allotments, all funded by the profits from the factory.

Some Victorian philanthropists addressed housing for the poor: for example Octavia Hill (1838-1912) worked towards providing good quality rental housing for the poor. Based in London, she was opposed to the prevalent view that slums should be demolished and rebuilt, as she believed that such developments excluded the very people they were trying to help. Instead, Hill preferred renovation and repair combined with a strict enforcement of rent and tenancy conditions. This she believed would encourage a responsible attitude amongst the poor and she trained her tenants in housing management. Hill persuaded wealthy benefactors to buy property for her to manage and rent out, including John Ruskin who bought her three houses to manage in 1863. During the same period in London, George Peabody set up the Peabody Donation Fund in 1862, using his private fortune to provide housing for those who could afford only the lowest rents. The modest three percent return was ploughed back into the housing, which took the form of flats in dense blocks that are still highly popular in London.

Whilst philanthropic housing had many problems, not least that it did not provide for the very poorest in society, the people and projects described above contributed towards establishing the social housing movement in the UK and pioneered a model that has been followed in many other countries.

Other Work

Octavia Hill, Homes of the London Poor (BiblioBazaar, 1875, 2009).

'Welcome to The Almshouses Association Website', [accessed 10 May 2010].

References About

C. Theodore Koebel, Shelter and Society (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998).

Cliff Moughtin, Paola Signoretta and Kate McMahon Moughtin, 'New Lanark', in Urban Design: Health and the Threapeutic Environment (London: Architectural Press, 2009), pp. 99-112.

Anne Power, Hovels to High Rise: State Housing in Europe since 1850 (London: Routledge, 1993).

David Edward Owen, English Philanthropy, 1660-1960 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964).

'Octavia Hill', in A Historical Dictionary of British Women, ed. by Cathy Hartley and Susan Leckey (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 219.


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