PortCities London

Social conditions in the 19th-century port

Poverty and slum housing

Casual work

Old dock hands.
View full size imageUnemployed dock labourers. © NMM

Many of the jobs created in the port during the 19th century were badly paid. Others were seasonal or casual, which meant that people were only paid when work was available. As a result, the dockers and their families lived in poverty.

The casual nature of much of their work meant that the dockers did not receive a regular income. There was no income at all during periods of unemployment unless they could find alternative work. Sometimes the poor were forced to turn to crime, others begged to make ends meet, while many more ended up in the workhouse.

Cheap housing

Sherston Place
View full size imageSherston Place in Bermondsey. © NMM
Families relying on an income from casual work could only afford basic accommodation. Builders knew that they would never be able to charge the poor high rents. They built their houses quickly and cheaply, often without facilities such as bathrooms and toilets.

Sometimes houses were divided in half to accommodate two families. This often meant that one family had to make do without a easily accessible supply of drinking water.

The 1890 Housing Act made it the responsibility of local councils to provide decent accommodation for local people. Things gradually improved, but conditions remained bad well into the 20th century.


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