By 1932, Orwell was teaching at a boys’ school in West London but was also writing articles for submission to magazines and journals. With this article, Common Lodging Houses, published in the New Statesman on 3rd September 1932, and signed Eric Blair, Orwell recalls his regular experiences over the previous couple of years when he chose to live as a tramp, to find out what it was like to endure the hardships of life with no money, job, or home, as a form of journalistic research. Common Lodging Houses is a factual account of what it’s like to rely on such places, “night-shelters specially licensed by the LCC” – that was the old London County Council.
In 1931 his essay The Spike had been published, which told his experience of staying in a casual ward of a workhouse, the slang term for which was a spike. That essay is a grim depiction of filth and squalor, and the indignities suffered by those who slept there. However, in Common Lodging Houses, Orwell finds they’re not much better than spikes, and in some respects, considerably worse, noting “considering that they house so many people and that most of them are in an extraordinarily bad state common lodging houses do not get the attention they deserve.”
To be specific: “the dormitories are horrible fetid dens, packing with anything up to a hundred men, and furnished with beds a good deal inferior to those in a London casual ward.” He points out that the beds are small and hard, with thin, dirty bedclothes, and with access to neither baths nor privacy; but Orwell goes on to emphasise the horror of the filth. “As often as not the beds are verminous, and the kitchens invariably swarm with cockroaches or black beetles.” Casual wards, or spikes were free; in fact, it was a condition of entry that you were forbidden to bring any money in with you. But Orwell reveals that the charges for a night in a common lodging house vary between 7d and 1s 1d per night; and because so many people use them, “the average common lodging house brings in something like £40 net profit a week to its owner.” That’s the equivalent of around £2000 per week today.
This is Orwell’s main source of despair in this essay. By licensing these lodgings, proprietors could profiteer from the men who stay there, whilst offering a service that is in many ways worse than the (unlicensed) spikes. In addition, Orwell describes the rules and regulations for staying in a house as “exceedingly tyrannical”; “gambling, drunkenness, or even the introduction of liquor, swearing, spitting on the floor, keeping tame animals, fighting – in short, the shole social life of these places – are all forbidden.”
He gives an example of how the legislation effectively works against the lodgers, rather than in their favour. When lodging house owners were required to comply with an LCC regulation that the beds in a dormitory had to be at least 3ft apart, thereby reducing the numbers of beds, and therefore the number of paying customers, they simply increased the prices, without providing any further upgrade to the living conditions. With lodging there was no scope for men and women to be in the same house; nor was there any remedy for the lodgers to prevent the constant appearance of slumming parties – 1930s style slum tourism, people “who march into the kitchen uninvited and hold lengthy religious services”. Orwell criticises the reasoning behind what he calls the “interference-legislation” that governs the common lodging houses: “their emphasis is on hygiene and morals, and the question of comfort is left to the lodging house proprietor”.
The essay is not written simply to alert the reader to what life in a lodging house is like, nor is it simply to bemoan the fate of the unfortunate people who have no choice but to live there. He also offers constructive suggestions to improve the houses. “The LCC would be doing an immense service if they compelled lodging house keepers to divide their dormitories into cubicles and, above all, to provide comfortable beds”; even the casual wards had their cells. “The houses should be licensed for both sexes alike […] and the lodgers should be protected by law against various swindles which the proprietors and managers are now able to practice on them.” Orwell also displays a resentment towards this kind of exploitation in his essay on Hop Picking. He asks the question: “Can anyone imagine such things being tolerated in a hotel? And yet a common lodging house is only a hotel at which one pays 8d a night instead of 10s 6d. This kind of petty tyranny can, in fact, only be defended on the theory that a man poor enough to live in a common lodging house thereby forfeits some of his rights as a citizen.” Highlighting this social injustice is the core of this essay.
There is an alternative to the lodging house, which Orwell briefly touches on; the hostels provided by the Salvation Army and the Rowton Houses – a chain of hostels built by the philanthropist Lord Rowton, who had been Disraeli’s private secretary. According to Orwell, these are “clean and decent. Unfortunately, all of these places set off their advantages by a discipline so rigid and tiresome that to stay in them is rather like being in jail.” Orwell calls not only for decent conditions for poor people, but also respect for them to live their own lives, and not to have to comply with lifestyles imposed on them by their “betters”. His final summing up in the article reveals that harsh alternative on offer. “Tens of thousands of unemployed and partially employed men have literally no other place in which they can live. It is absurd that they should be compelled to choose, as they are at present, between an easy-going pigsty and a hygienic prison.”
Like his essay on hop picking, this is a fact-filled piece of journalistic reporting, also serving as an opinion piece on how low cost lodging could be improved. Orwell’s deep understanding and despising of the horrors that these men must endure is clear in every sentence. He rarely needs to spell it out for the reader to know his precise feelings. Describing the dormitories as “horrible fetid dens” and the kitchens as “murky, troglodytic caves” is enough for us to get an insight into the conditions for ourselves; and his inevitable hatred of those who seek to make money out of the misery of others is obvious throughout. If the reader has any sense of socialism in their soul, this is bound to bring it out! I’m expecting much more of these insights and observations in his next published work, the full-length non-fiction Down and Out in Paris and London, which would appear a few months later, and which I’m looking forward to reading for the first time since I was a teenager.