The archaeology of modern poverty

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 In 1901 Seebohm Rowntree – a York chocolate manufacturer – published one of the classic texts of early sociology. His work inspired decades of social reform to eradicate poverty and construct a welfare state. Now, archaeologists in York are excavating the remains of the very urban slums that were the subject of Rowntree’s study.

The Hungate area today is one of the most overlooked parts of historic York. It lies on the eastern side of the city in a bend of the River Foss. The area is low-lying and was subject to severe flooding in the past. Medieval remains are sealed beneath three or four metres of make-up in places, where efforts have been made in more recent times to lift the land surface clear of the water’s reach. A marginal area, Hungate contained many gardens and allotments in the 18th century, became an industrial slum in the 19th century, and then, after 1930s clearance, became home to light service industries. The construction of a modern road, The Stonebow, in the 1950s cut the area off from the rest of the city and destroyed any lingering sense of community. In recent years, Hungate has been a half-forgotten site dominated by car-parks and waste-ground.

A £150-million redevelopment of the ten-acre brownfield site between The Stonebow and the River Foss is now set to create 720 new homes along with council offices, neighbourhood shops and bars, a focal building, public openspaces, a bridge across the river, and riverside walks. Developer Hungate (York) Regeneration Ltd aims to provide the accommodation and infrastructure for a new, early 21st century Hungate community. And as they build for the future, the York Archaeological Trust (YAT) is working to explore the past.


Digging a modern city

With seven years of planning, five years of digging, and two years of post-excavation and writing-up, the Hungate project, when it is finished, will amount to the biggest excavation in York for 25 years. Work on site has now been going for about a year, with detailed investigation of 19th and early 20th century levels. The project is headed up by Peter Connelly, a Scot from near Edinburgh who did his degree at Liverpool and has since spent almost 15 years working on urban sites in northern England. He has a real enthusiasm for the archaeology of the modern city.

The redevelopment area covers the equivalent of four football pitches, but the aim is to preserve 95% of the archaeology in situ, modifying construction plans wherever possible to achieve this. Work on Blocks A, B and C, for example, where a new sewer pipe has been laid, is already complete, having involved very little archaeological disturbance, mainly because of the depth of mid 20th century make-up there was far better preservation of the 18th and 19th century buildings than we had anticipated. to to make way for basements planned for the new buildings, but even here it was limited to ‘scratching the surface of early modern York’, as the medieval levels remain safe beneath a great depth of post-medieval garden soils. The ongoing investigation of the Focal Building and Block F area is restricted to levels threatened by service trenches, and that of Block G, currently pending, is not expected to penetrate beneath 19th century levels. The main focus of the Hungate project is Block H. Only here, over a period of five years, will there be total excavation down to the natural. And already, with the 19th and early 20th century levels explored, Block H is yielding vivid images of York’s past.
‘Once the area had been cleaned up,’ explained Toby Kendall, YAT field officer responsible for the excavation of Block H, ‘it was clear that there was far better preservation of the 18th and 19th century buildings than we had anticipated.

It was very easy to see the layout of different walls buildings, yards and surfaces that matched the historical maps from 1852 and 1907. It is even possible to match the remains with individual property numbers on the 1907 map, and we will be able to link this with the historical records of the people who lived and worked there.’

YAT project director Peter Connelly is equally enthusiastic: ‘We have Rowntree’s classifications YAT project director Peter Connelly is equally, enthusiastic: ‘We have Rowntree’s classifications for the different areas we’re excavating. Block
D was ‘working class’, and one or two houses may even have had a servant. Block H, on the other hand, was definitely ‘poor’. Block E was also a slum. So we’re getting a sense of what these classifications really meant, and we’re able to
compare the different qualities of housing. We’ve also got an oral history project. We’re talking to people who actually lived in some of theses houses in the 1930s. This can put a completely different perspective on things.
There were proud, tight-knit communities living here, where people scrubbed their front doorstep every day, and certainly didn’t think of themselves as living in a slum.’


Rowntree, York, and the sociology of poverty

Rowntree’s 1901 report had been detailed and seminal. Son of the Quaker chocolate manufacturer Joseph Rowntree, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954) worked in the family business but made his name as a leading sociological researcher and welfare reformer. During his 1899 York survey (the first of three), investigators visited every working class home in the city, making records on 11,560 families or 46,754 individuals. Rowntree established a measure of poverty in terms of a minimum weekly sum of money ‘necessary to enable families … to secure the minimum necessaries of a healthy life’. These included fuel, lighting, rent, food, clothing, and household and personal items, according to family size.

The critical thing for Rowntree was whether income was sufficient to ensure the minimum calorific intake and nutritional balance necessary to avoid illness or weight-loss. According to this measure, 27.84% of the total population of York lived below ‘the poverty line’ (a concept Rowntree invented). Of these, 9.91% lived in ‘primary poverty’, which meant they lacked the income to meet basic needs, and 17.73% in ‘secondary poverty’, which meant that income was sufficient but too much was being spent on other things. A subtlety of Rowntree’s analysis was his appreciation that people tended to move in and out of poverty during their lives, often being poor in early childhood or old age, but better-off when of working age – an observation which gave rise to his concept of ‘the poverty cycle’.

As well as measuring and cataloguing poverty, Rowntree attempted to explain it, rejecting the traditional Victorian idea that the poor were to blame for their condition, arguing instead that it resulted from low wages. In this, like David Lloyd George and (at the time) Winston Churchill, he was a ‘New Liberal’. Rowntree himself had been influenced by Charles Booth’s landmark study Life and Labour of the People of London, published between 1889 and 1903. Rowntree’s contribution was first to demonstrate that the problem of poverty was not confined to London, and second to have a direct influence on the reforming Liberal statesmen of the Edwardian era. In 1906 the Liberal Party swept to power in a landslide victory (they took 399 seats against the Tories’ 156), and in the next eight years of ‘Liberal Reforms’ the foundations of the welfare state were laid, with free school meals, old-age pensions, labour ex
changes, and national insurance, much of it paid for by taxes on the rich imposed in Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909.

‘I have been reading a book which has fairly made my hair stand on end, written by a Mr Rowntree, who deals with poverty in the town of York,’ declared one of the 1902 reformers-to-be in. ‘It is found that the poverty of the people of that city extends to nearly one-fifth of the population; nearly one-fifth had something between one and a half and three-fourths as much food to eat as the paupers in the York Union [workhouse]. That I call a terrible and shocking thing, people who have only the workhouse or prison as avenues to change from their present situation.’ The speaker was Winston Churchill.

Edwardian reformism percolated down to council level. In 1907-1908 York City Council did their own sanitation survey, with the aim of bringing all housing up to a certain minimum standard. The city map produced at the time is a key resource for the archaeologists working at Hungate today.

Growing industrial urbanism

Something of the history of the slum emerged in the excavation of Block E in January to March 2007. Layers of alluvial clay were deposited here in the 15th and 16th centuries, presumably the result of periodic flooding, and above these were layers of garden soil and probable bedding trenches of the 17th and 18th centuries, confirming the evidence from contemporary maps that this part of York was largely open at the time. During the 19th century, however, occupation became more intensive, perhaps as nearby houses were turned over to multiple tenancies, and what had perhaps once been elegant gardens became functional backyards. ‘The yards were generally surfaced with cindery material, with small areas of brick hard-standing,’ explains YAT field officer Kurt Hunter- Mann. ‘Rubbish pits and the occasional animal burial (probably of pets) also point to ever more intensive occupation, although these yards at least had not been infilled with more housing.’ The finds also reflected declining fortunes, from the fine ceramics of the 17th and 18th century levels, to mass-produced alcoholic containers in those of the 19th and early 20th.

The infilling of urban space as industrialisation proceeded in 19th century York was clear in Blocks D and H. Contemporary maps reveal an explosion of building in these areas between the 1820s and 1850s. Jerry-built houses were put up fast to accommodate (and profit from) the growing working class population, with brick-floors on bare earth, thin partition walls, poor ventilation, rising damp, and a risk of flooding in winter. Even so, there were important differences, both between and within blocks of housing. ‘Rowntree himself comments on the fact that his categories aren’t absolute,’ says Connelly, ‘and it’s that that we’re teasing out. The truth is that, despite the written sources, we probably known more about medieval York than 19th century York. We’re learning huge amounts.’


Workers' houses

The York working class of a century ago was not an undifferentiated homogeneous mass. Housing quality was finely graded. A sizeable late 19th century house – the former 25 Palmer Lane in Block D – had fine quarry-tiled floors. By contrast, five houses fronting onto Lower Dundas Street in Block E were at some point subdivided into ten back-to-backs, each house then comprising a tiny one-up/one-down residence. The former backyard area now contained five front doors and therefore became Dundas Court. The backyard had formerly contained a five-cubicle toilet over a cess-pit, and this was now rebuilt as a communal toilet block with a tipper-flush mechanism (see box feature). Around 50 people must have shared use of this facility, half of them having to walk round the block to reach it. It remained in use until the 1930s.

Block H is yielding the most vivid picture. Excavation here is proceeding slowly, with no need to rush through the 19th and early 20th levels to get clear for the developers. It means there is time to include the public, with volunteers and young offenders working on the site, regular access for visitors, and time to develop an oral history project which can connect material remains and living memories. The excavation of Haver Lane has become an icon of the Hungate project, because the cobbles, kerbstones, and drains of the street survive so well, and the buildings either side of it can be seen on a wonderful atmospheric photo taken in the 1930s shortly before slum clearance.

So small were the two-ups/two-downs in this street that if you stood with your arms outstretched you could almost have reached from one side of the house to the other. Either side, separating you from your neighbours, was a partition wall formed of a single course of bricks.

Beneath your feet was a single layer of damp and dirty bricks sitting directly on bare earth. A major home improvement at some point was a film of concrete over the top. To stand in these spaces today as the foundations are excavated is to experience a world which feels as alien as the Middle Ages. Yet there are people still alive who lived in them.

One of them, a pre-war resident of Haver Lane, recalls that it was ‘A very narrow little street – all the children played outside.’ No wonder: they could hardly have played inside.


Source Peter Connelly, Toby Kendall, Kurt Hunter-Mann, and Ailsa Mainman York Archaeological Trust

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