Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Classic Slum

The text below is from Robert Robert’s classic book The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century. It partners my Dec 2015 blog Paddy In The Smoke. I think of this book as being parallel to Engel’s Condition of the Working Class in England. Or indeed any contemporary news article about food banks, tent cities, health care being in crisis, migrants, warfare and terrorism. The photography is mostly by Shirley Baker.

One usually was not sure whether or not there would be enough money left for food from day to day. The employment situation was grim and while some could find work that might last for an extended period, they could expect to be terminated and unable to find employment elsewhere at some point. Since the cost of living, which included mostly food, was so high, families often did not have many luxuries and many homes were almost bare since there was not money for anything except sustenance.

In one of the more salient quotes from the book, Roberts writes; “the homes of the very poor contained little or no bought furniture. They made do with boxes and slept in their clothes and in what other garments they could beg or filch. Of such people there were millions.”

No view of the English working class in the first quarter of this century would be accurate if that class were shown merely as a great amalgam of artisan and labouring groups united by a common aim and culture. Life in reality was much more complex. Socially the unskilled workers and their families, who made up about 50 per cent of the population in our industrial cities, varied as much from the manual élite as did people in middle station from the aristocracy. Before 1914 skilled workers generally did not strive to join a higher rank; they were only too concerned to maintain position within their own stratum.

Inside the working class as a whole there existed, I believe, a stratified form of society whose implications and consequences have hardly yet been fully explored. Born behind a general shop in an area which, sixty years before, Frederick Engels had called the ‘classic slum’, I grew up in what was perhaps an ideal position for viewing the English proletarian caste system in all its late flower.

All Salford [wrote Engels in 1844] is built in courts or narrow lanes, so narrow that they remind me of the narrowest I have ever seen, in the little lanes of Genoa. The average construction of Salford is, in this respect, much worse than that of Manchester and so, too, in respect of cleanliness. If, in Manchester, the police, from time to time, every six or ten years, makes a raid upon the working-people's district, closes the worst dwellings, and causes the filthiest spots in these Augean stables to be cleansed, in Salford it seems to have done absolutely nothing.

For twenty years from 1850 Engels held interests in cotton mills on the western side of Manchester. This meant that on journeys between town and factory he had to pass through Salford; our ‘village’ lay the greatest slum en route. One of his early mills (Ermen and Engels) stood in Liverpool Street, which ran through the heart of it. This is how Engels described our area in 1844:

The working-men's dwellings between Oldfield Road and Cross Lane (Salford), where a mass of courts and alleys are to be found in the worst possible state, vie with the dwellings of the Old Town in filth and overcrowding. In this district I found a man, apparently sixty years old, living in a cow-stable. He had constructed a sort of chimney for his square pen, which had neither windows, floor nor ceiling, had obtained a bedstead and lived there, though the rain dripped through his rotten roof. This man was too old and weak for regular work, and supported himself by removing manure with a hand-cart; the dung heaps lay next door to his palace.

Through a familiarity so long and close, this district must have become for Engels the very epitome of all industrial ghettos, the ‘classic slum’ itself. He died in 1895 having seen that little world change, develop, ‘prosper' even, yet stay in essence the same awful paradigm of what a free capitalist society could produce. By 1900 the area showed some improvement; his ‘cow-stable’ had doubtless been demolished together with many another noisome den, but much that was vile remained.


  1. Pictures of my early childhood, it looks grim but hearts were warm and change was coming.