The Victorian slums are back – and housing developers are to blame again

The Victorian slums are back – and housing developers are to blame again

The housebuilding of the 19th century paved the way for slum tenancies. As inequality rises, miserable living conditions have returned  

‘The houses of the Georgian Quarter were built in the middle of the 19th century for the merchant elite of a city that was then rapidly becoming one of the richest in the world.’

Same place, different time. It was in the early 1990s that I first walked down Falkner Street in Liverpool. Twenty-five years later and I’ve been back to make the BBC Two series A House Through Time, which tells the story of a single house and the generations of people for whom it was home.

Thinking back to the 1990s, when I was a student in Liverpool, I struggle to remember ever taking much notice of the city’s grand Victorian houses. Part of what made them unremarkable was that they were where many of us students lived and partied. It was only when friends studying in other cities came to visit, and were astonished by the grandeur of the houses local students called home, that we were reminded that these elegant terraces had been built for an altogether better class of occupant.

As a history student I had some insight into the forces that had made Liverpool rich, and then plunged it into a precipitous decline, but back then I didn’t spend much of my time thinking about houses. My lack of interest was, in hindsight, an incredible luxury.A lot has changed in the years since. The area around Liverpool University is neater, busier and richer. Like pretty much everything else, it has also been rebranded. It is now the Georgian Quarter, a title guaranteed to add a few thousand to any estate agent’s asking price. The houses of the Georgian Quarter were built in the middle of the 19th century for the merchant elite of a city that was then rapidly becoming one of the richest in the world. Neither the financiers who built them nor the well-to-do Victorian families who became their first residents would have imagined that one day a bunch of students would be sitting in their grand drawing rooms drinking and smoking.

I didn’t think about houses or how much they cost, because what I vaguely imagined was that if I worked hard at university, went on to get further qualifications and entered a profession, home ownership would be one of those things that would probably just happen somewhere along the way, like getting married, putting on weight or having children.

Illustration by Andrzej Krauze
 Illustration by Andrzej Krauze

What I did not realise was that I was a member of the last generation who could take such a passive view of home ownership. My cohort, the students who graduated in the mid- to late 90s, were the last to slip through a fast-closing door, a postwar portal to social mobility and home ownership that was about to be slammed shut in the faces of the generation just behind us.The students who now sit in the lecture halls I once frequented think about property and money in ways I never did. They are all too aware that unless they are in line to inherit wealth from parents they cannot presume they will ever own their homes. When they walk through Liverpool’s Georgian Quarter what they see is vast concentrations of wealth beyond the reach of all but the already privileged.

Something like this had been the general idea when the area was built in the 1840s. The four-storey townhouses on Falkner Street were aimed at the Victorian middle classes. Liverpool’s troubled history meant the buildings went on to have a turbulent life story. By the 1940s and 1950s much of what is now the Georgian Quarter was packed with slum housing. The area has come full circle. Homes in the Georgian Quarter are today worth two to three times the UK average.

The first resident of No 62 back in 1841 was Richard Glenton, a rather underwhelming customs clerk. Glenton was only able afford to live in such a big house because his wealthy father subsidised his lavish lifestyle. Again the story feels circular. According to a report by the Social Mobility Commission, a third of those who manage to scramble on to the bottom rungs of the property ladder today are only able to do so with help from parents.

It was while a student that I first heard the phrase “housing crisis”. It appeared in history textbooks, prefixed with the word “Victorian”, and I wrote a dissertation about it. Whereas today the big money is in building one- and two-bedroom flats in cities, in the 19th century developers got rich by building big houses for the wealthy.

In both cases the result was market failure, the oversupply of some types of houses, the undersupply of others. Wherever Victorian developers built more grand houses than there were rich buyers, or whenever the exclusive new districts they created fell out of fashion, their big houses became big problems. Grand middle-class houses were subdivided and rooms rented out to the poor. Homes that had been built for single families became tenements in which multiple families were packed together. Overcrowded and unfit for purpose, these once-elegant townhouses became miserable slums.

While I was busy studying the causes and effects of the Victorian housing crisis, the conditions for the current one were being slotted into place. Now, as then, a poorly regulated housing market is failing to meet the country’s housing needs. Supply does not match demand. The revival of beautiful Victorian homes such as those in Liverpool has been accompanied by what feels like a return to Victorian levels of inequality. They had soup kitchens, we have food banks. They had tenements, we have thousands of families living in B&Bs. Conditions I once read about in history books are now on the nightly news.

 David Olusoga is a historian and presenter of BBC Two’s A House Through Time

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