Just after the first world war, Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmiline Pankhurst one of the suffragettes who famously chained herself to the railings outside 10 Downing Street in an attempt to gain the vote for women, was campaigning for better housing for the working class families. She was editor of the Workers' Dreadnought, which in 1919 contained an article highlighting the poor housing in Poplar, East London. A transcript of that part of the article relevant to Hanbury Buildings and containing first-hand contemporary accounts of the living conditions of the inhabitants is reproduced below.
Saturday 14 January 1919
REVOLUTION AND THE HOUSING QUESTION
In a small, closed-in court you may discover Hanbury Buildings. One mounts to the dwellings by a narrow stone staircase, and at the top of the first steep flight one is confronted by the open doors of three W.C.s, all of which are out of order. To the left of these is a small wash-house, with a water-tap and and copper for boiling clothes; to the left is a narrow, dark passage where, by feeling with one's hands, one discovers the doors of the two-roomed apartments in which the tenants are living. The rent of these apartments varies from 4s 6d to 6s 6d a week. Seven families share the copper and the W.C.s and the women of the seven families take turns to clean them. The two small rooms occupied by each family open from each other without a door between. There is no water in the apartments; it has to be carried from the washhouse. the light in most of the rooms is dim, owing to the surrounding buildings. The rain beating on the stairway, the many people who pass who pass up and down to the various floors — there are seven families on each storey — the dripping from the tap in the wash-house used by so many people, make the stone floor of the dark passage wet and muddy. Smoke pours from the wash-house. The socket holding the basin in which the clothes are boiled is broken away and through the holes the fierce flames rise up. One must take care not to burn oneself in using the boiler!
'How did it get into this condition?' 'Nothing's been done to it for a long time and the gambling boys come here at night to play: they helped to break it.'
'Who are they? Do they live here?'
'Some of them live here; others not. They're just lads with nowhere else to go.'
'Come here and see how these places need doing up! Look at the wet coming in there and there.' 'Aren't the rooms small?' 'Aren't they dark?' 'I wouldn't stay there, if I could find another house anywhere' — so the tenants greet us.
One woman rises from her knees, putting aside her pail and scrubbing brush. She has two children and is expecting a third. She works all day at Moreton's biscuit and preserving factory, because her husband's wage is too small to maintain her household, and coming home at night, she cooks, and cleans, and washes, and mends. Her elder child goes to school; she pays 8s a week to a woman who takes care of the younger. 'That is a great deal for you to pay?' 'Yes, but I must have her properly looked after — I couldn't go out to work if I wasn't sure she was all right!' She has not yet returned to the factory after the Christmas holiday but she goes back tomorrow. Her tiny bed-sitting room is wonderfully clean and wonderfully arranged. The mantelpiece is draped with red plush, the mirror above is framed, for the Christmas season, with and white crinkled paper. Her neighbours draw our attention to her decorations and express their admiration. She is pleased, but she regards ruefully her room nevertheless. She has been trying to leave the place for two years, but newcomers are everywhere waiting to occupy the rooms of outgoing tenants and house agents look with disfavour on people coming from ————. 'The Buildings have got a bad name'; 'I don't know why; we are all clean here!' the other women chime in. Moreover, the agent who collects the rent does not furnish the tenants with a rent-book, and working people cannot get houses unless they can produce a rent-book, and he promises I shall have one, but that's all'. 'I wouldn't stay here but for the children, but wherever you go it is: "Sorry, we don't take children."' Every woman tells a similar tale.
One woman shows us that her husband has stripped the torn, dirty paper from the lower part of the walls, painted them a dark, bright green, and finished off the edge of the wallpaper with a border pattern. Widows and women whose husbands are away (even soldiers' wives) are not much favoured as tenants. A family is preferred in which there is a handy man who will keep the property in repair without cost to the landlord, fitting new locks, mending broken woodwork, even patching up broken sinks, hearthstones, and doorsteps with cement. A business-like middle-aged woman twelve years ago had the good fortune to secure two rooms at the front of the building were there was more light and air. She looks the healthier for it, though she has to go down a flight of steps to the lower floor to fetch water. 'Look at my ceiling,' she says, 'look at my walls! It is three years since he half-papered the walls and he's done nothing since! Look at it! Doesn't it take the heart out of you?' The bed, pushed close against the window, half blocks the entrance doorway, but the bed could be squeezed into no other place. Withdrawing her eyes from the dirty ceiling she fixes them with a sigh of relief on the clean honey-comb quilt and white valences. She says that she is expecting two sons home from the front and we wonder where she will find room for them. 'They won't bring their young women to a place like this!' she says bitterly. 'I've been wanting to move from here ever since I came, but rooms are so scarce and I'm afraid to take a whole house and let part of it, because I couldn't afford to pay the rent if the other people keep me waiting.'
Marvellous that women who have lived for years in these wretched tenements should still retain a genuine enthusiasm for home-making, still grasp at any chance to beautify their rooms, still toil even when excessively tired by outside labour, to keep them clean!