Early in 1939, the occupants of Hanbury Buildings, Limehouse, prompted by a social worker instigated one of the 'rent strikes' which drew attention to discontent at housing conditions in the East End of London. The tenants demanded a reduction in the 9s per week rent, and also for repairs to be carried out. In November 1939, 26 tenants of Hanbury Buildings appeared as defendants at Bow County Court, where the landlord, Alexander Maclow, was seeking to have the tenants evicted for failure to pay rent. Below is a transcript of the newspaper report of the start the proceedings at Bow County Court. Subsequent proceedings are reported here: East End News, Tuesday 12 December 1939 and here: East End News, Friday 22 December 1939.
The East End News and London Shipping Chronicle
Tuesday 21 November 1939
POPLAR RENT STRIKE SEQUEL
26 Tenants Appear at Bow County Court
ARCHITECT SAYS, 'I HAVE NOT SEEN
WORSE CONDITIONS ANYWHERE'
The hearing of cases in connection with a rent strike at Hanbury Buildings, Poplar, began at Bow County Court last week.
The Court was crowded with the interested parties and their friends, their being 26 cases for hearing.
The summonses have been taken out by Alexander Maclow, of 8 Queens Street, E,C. He asked for possession and the rent owing at 26 premises in Hanbury Buildings.
All of the summonses where defended on the ground that the rent charged was excessive, and that the repairs had not been carried out. The Rev. H. E. Farrington was in Court, deputising for Father Shaw, of the Poplar Tenants' Defense League.
Mr. Kenneth Duthie appeared for the plaintiff in all the cases, and Mr. Sedley for the defense.
Repairs Carried Out
It was decided to take the cases separately as each had different features, and the case of William Chesterfield Blackburn of 2 Hanbury Buildings was taken first.
A witness named Knight, for the plaintiff, gave evidence to the effect that all repairs ordered by the authorities had been carried out. He said it was not usual to have a number of complaints as to the property. In the case of the flat under review, they had a notice from the freeholders as to repairs that were wanted, and these were carried out. If the place was in a bad state now it was the fault of the tenant.
In cross-examination he said that the property belonged to the plaintiff who carried on business as an auctioneer and estate-agent. It was not a firm but a one-man business.
Blind Tenant's Evidence
The defendant, Mr. Blackburn, a blind man, said he had lived at No. 2 for 22 years. When he first went there he paid 4s. but now it was 6s. 11d. The place was in a bad state of repair.
Mr. Fred Lasserre, employee of a firm of West-End architects, said he first saw the premises when the case was to have come before the Court in September last. He again saw the premises two days ago. The place was in a bad state of repair, more on account of workmanship than anything else. The doors were draughty, there was on (sic) overflow of the drain, causing a bad odour. The w.c.'s were very primitive. There was a common wash basin for seven families on the landing, and he would not expect to find such conditions in working class dwellings. He had not seen worse conditions in any flats he had been in, either in this country of in Canada, where he gained a good deal of experience.
'Things Worn Out'
Cross-examined by Mr. Duthie, he said that so far as he could see the tenants wanted to stop there because they could not get anywhere else to live.
Mr. Duthie: Mr. Maclow wants to rebuild them but cannot while the tenants are there, do you know that?—Witness: I know nothing about that.
In answer to further questions he said there were stoppages in the drains but it was possible for them to have occurred after the tenants left off paying their rent.
Mr. Duthie: Did you go there to see what complaints you could make, to make it as bad as possible?
Witness: I went there to make a survey of the place. I found the lavatories dirty, not so much for want of scrubbing, but really because things have got so worn that all the cleaning in the world would do no good.
He would not agree that tenants had damaged the flats, because of their ignorance of the uses of certain things.
Mr. Duthie: I suggest that if the sinks were larger, the children would sit on them and play.
Witness admitted that there was nothing wrong with the repairs, as repairs, but said the places themselves were unfit for human habitation.
Robert Chas. Vincent, a clerk in the employ of Poplar Borough Council was asked to compute the rent recoverable if the standard rent was 4s. He said 6s. 2¼d., while at 3s. 6d. it would be 5s. 5¾d. and at 4s. 6d. it would be 6s. 11d. as charged.
After very lengthy legal arguments, Judge Powell decided that the standard rent for No. 2 Hanbury Buildings was 4s. and that the recoverable rent would, therefore, be 6s. 2¼d. as against 6s. 11d. that had been charged. In all the amount that the defendant was entitled to for overcharged rent was £2 14s. As the plaintiff had not sued for so much back rent owing, he was not entitled to issue a summons for possession on grounds of unpaid rent. The summons must fail, and there would be judgment for the defendant, with costs on Scale 'A'.
The second case taken was that of Mr. Izatt, of 4, Hanbury Buildings.
Evidence was given by witnesses as to repairs carried out on the premises. It being late in the afternoon, the Court then adjourned.
On resuming the following day, Mr. Duthie said that Mr. Maclow, the Plaintiff, was present in Court, and would like to give an idea of the money spent on the property since he had acquired it.
Mr. Maclow then went into the box, and said he had acquired the property some seven years ago, and had been carrying out building work, repairs, glazing work and other improvements ever since. He had rubber-coated the roofs so to make them weather-proof and had done everything he could to make the tenants comfortable. The flat roof of the building was perhaps one of the most misused parts of the premises, as the children cycled on it, with the result that the roofing was constantly badly worn.
Judge Powell: It is perfectly clear to me that some considerable sums of money have been spent on this property over a period of years.
Receipts for Repairs
Mr. Sedley (for defendants): £200 in seven years?
Mr. Maclow: No, that is not right. The receipts I have produced are for the last few years. I have not got the oldest ones, as I could not turn them up, but I remember that I spent £200 at least in the first year.
Mr. Sedley: I put it to you that you have brought all the receipts you could?
Mr. Maclow: Indeed no. All that I could find or lay my hands on at the moment.
In answer to further questions he said that the costs in repairs and rebuilding work that had been carried out had been very heavy since 1937, owing to the fact that the Borough Council asked him to make alterations.
After going into the facts fully, Judge Powell gave judgment to the defendant, with costs on Scale 'A'.
In the next case, the name being Izatt, Judge Powell gave judgment for the defendant, with costs, as in the case of Oakley, at No. 10, and Gilham at No. 11. In each case the defendant was awarded costs on Scale 'A'.
In the case of Keating at No. 12, Judge Powell gave judgment for the plaintiff, with costs on Scale 'A', but ordered that the defendant should not make his first rent payment for 14 days.
For want of time, nine other cases where adjourned, whilst 11 other cases where adjourned for a date to be fixed.