When people think of slum clearance, they usually visualise the rehousing of families, particularly families with young children. And when they talk about the homeless, they think of the families in the Rest Centres, of mothers with two, three or four children who can’t find a place just because they have children. The planning man thinks of people composed in orderly units of Father, Mother and 2.2 children or, if he is concerned with overcrowding, of families with four, five or six children. But they forget, or do not notice, the very large number of single people, who live alone in the older tenement blocks or in furnished lodgings. They form a large part of the population in the older areas of the City, and not only is their number much larger than the housing plans allowed for, it is also, as people live longer, increasing. And I think it is the need for single person accommodation which, because it has been completely underestimated, is now one of the most pitiful problems in London.

In the areas that are now being cleared, there are many, many small units, households of ones and twos and threes, besides the large family. Very often, when the slum clearance takes place, the married people, the people with children, are re-housed, but the single people are left to fend for themselves. If they are living in furnished accommodation, as many of them are, then, however meagre the ‘furnishings’, they have no rights at all, and are told to find a room somewhere else. For instance I know of one man, an epileptic, who had a room at 4s. 10d. a week. He had lived there for nearly 20 years, but because there was a little furniture in the room, and a few odd cups and plates, he was counted as living in furnished accommodation, and was expected to find his own place when the buildings were knocked down.

Many people are in the 50–50 situation; they may have the odd chair or so of their own, and the rest belongs to the landlord, or is made up of things left by previous tenants. They, too, can expect no place on the re-housing lists. And they then come into a peculiar No Man’s Land. They’re not eligible for new housing (even if they were they might find it difficult to pay the higher rents) and they’re not likely to be able to find accommodation they can easily afford elsewhere. Often they have been living in places with unusually low rents, and then, quite suddenly they find themselves pushed out into the open housing market. If they are on low and irregular wages, like this epileptic man, and depend, a good deal of the time, on the NAB, it may be very hard for them to find anywhere else to go. Many go into similar or worse accommodation in another run-down neighbourhood, and for them ‘slum clearance’ is an additional burden in an already difficult life. And there are some who are pushed out of the bottom of housing altogether. The epileptic man, for example, was given the alternative of going into an epileptic colony, which he’d fought against doing all his life. Now he’s simply disappeared. I don’t know whether he’s found another room, or joined a group of tramps, or been taken, rather unwillingly, into the colony.

The room he had been living in was very small indeed. It was about 7 ft. long, and 6 ft. wide and only just had space for one little iron bedstead, one chair, and a sort of half table, propped up under the window ledge. It had a tiny fireplace, which was his only way of boiling a kettle or anything like that. He used to gather end-pieces from the timber yards so that fuel didn’t cost him anything, but when he couldn’t go out and gather wood he was cold. There were no facilities for washing in the room, and when he wanted water he had to carry down an enamel basin and fetch it from the communal tap three flights of steps below. The roof leaked, and there was no plaster on the walls, and the place wasn’t being repaired because it was due to come down, but at least it was cheap, and all he could easily afford.

There is a great deal of this kind of cheap, private accommodation in the old streets of East London. It is found especially in the oldest tenement blocks, but there is a lot too in ordinary two or three storeyed houses, where one or more people live in each room, and they all share one tap or kitchen. If you take a street like Banbury Street, on the Stepney-Bethnal Green border it’s nearly all single people who drift there, people who have never been married, or people who have been widowed or separated. There is a mixture of people; some are a bit sick, some are people who have been unemployed for many years, others do casual work from time to time, some are elderly or middle-aged prostitutes, or people who have been mixed up with gambling places in the area and have since been dropped by their gangs. They make their living in any one of a dozen ways, but rarely by any regular work. They are on the fringe, getting a few bob here, and a few bob there. All of these people, plus mental patients who have nowhere else to go, are in a great conglomeration along that street, which is due to be demolished in the next year. There is very bad overcrowding, and the conditions in some of the houses are indescribable. If the sanitary inspectors knew how many people really lived in them, there would be many more people without any kind of refuge. The landlords must be making a very considerable amount of money, but at least they will never turn anyone away, and they do not put people out on the streets.