Housing and Urban Politics During WWI and After


Staff Quarters at Southern Bawarda, Nov 2015  Credit: ACM


Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
[ From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” ]


In the predominantly working class Britain the increasingly prominent public role of labor and the sacrifices it was asked to make were bound to have larger political repercussions. At the turn of the century three quarters of the working population were engaged in manual labor, and there were some 1.5 million people in domestic service, acting as servants to the numerically small middle and upper classes[92]. Although labor’s wartime average income and job security had improved, and patriotic propaganda was according a new respect and social status to working people which they had never before enjoyed, nevertheless their general living conditions were, by all accounts, appalling. This was especially the case in workers’ housing, which rapidly became the focus of major social discontent[93]. Mines and large industries such as steel, shipyards, munitions works, etc. that were at the heart of warrelated economy were located in selected and designated regions and urban areas, many of which had been moderate sized cities before the War and therefore were ill equipped to accommodate the significant influx of newcomers. The crisis of working class housing predated the war, and even large industrial cities like Birmingham, Glasgow, and London had already been under demographic pressure as a result of the first industrial revolution[94]. The economic depression of the 1880s, coming in the wake of the Paris Commune, was causing unrest among the urban poor and anxiety among the middle classes and the wealthy. Overcrowded housing at the heart of large cities like London became a great concern, especially as the recurrence of pandemics and anxiety over public health had been associated in scientific discourse with inadequate urban infrastructure and lack of access to decent drinking water and basic sanitary conditions by the poor. In addition to biological contagion, the fear of ideological and moral contamination of the working classes living in overcrowded urban dwellings side by side with the ‘residuum’, or the criminal classes and the radical political agitators, had become a major topic of public debate among social reformers, conservatives, and radicals alike[95]. The debate was shaped around the historically recurring theme of the ‘culture of poverty’ as the existential danger it posed to social stability and the economy. Of particular concern was the London labor market, dominated as it was by casual laborers who were seen as a barrier to the formation of a permanent, dependable, and ‘civilized’ labor force (human capital).
Across the ideological spectrum a range of schemes were proposed to address the crisis: Labor unions began to be perceived by employers not as class enemies, but as an alternative to insufficient charities and as a solution for stabilizing the labor force and channeling the articulation of its demands within the framework of a mutually accepted labor market. Various municipal reforms and urban planning schemes were suggested by social reformers in the hope of curtailing the power of predatory slumlords. These reformist schemes ranged from the idea of Garden Cities (in 1901), the construction of affordable working class suburbs accessible by cheaper commuter train services, and subsidized rental schemes, some with the eventual option for ownership[96]. The conservatives, on the other hand, proposed the implementation of even more draconian and punitive schemes from those already in place, such as the expansion of workhouses, the establishment of labor colonies within England to forcefully segregate and coercively re-educate the criminal elements, or the wholesale expulsion of the subversive elements to the colonies[97]. The onset of WWI exacerbated the housing crisis for the poor and the working classes. Even larger cities had difficulty coping with the housing demands of the new labor force that was flooding in to occupy the new industrial jobs, exacerbating the urban crisis that was cutting across class divisions. It generated a range of responses from employers and the state to deal with municipal residential issues that had lasting effects and profoundly changed the social and economic habitus. It is highly likely that this new business habitus equally influenced APOC, which was Britain’s largest corporation, headquartered in London, in its approach to somewhat similar challenges in Abadan. In addition, APOC was already planning its postwar expansion of fuel and petrochemical supplies throughout the consumer markets of Britain and Europe[98]. As a result, the effective management of labor relations, the avoidance of potentially damaging social strife, the state of consumer markets, and having in place a strategy of smooth product supply to ward off powerful American, Dutch, and other competitors were fast becoming an urgent dimension of its long term corporate strategizing (see chapters 2 and 5). The housing problem affected many social classes, but was especially acute for workers as they faced competition for cheaper houses from the financially pressed middle classes who had lost their servants to the army or the new industrial wage labor market, and were now forced to downsize. With private financing and construction at a near standstill during the war workers became dependent on privately owned and poor quality rental housing in urban slum areas[99]. Trade unions had helped workers gain better pay, but the housing supply crisis was not something they could address directly or hope to solve. The housing crisis did not affect only unskilled workers, since lower middle classes and skilled workers, clerks, schoolteachers, and even shopkeepers also experienced exorbitant rent hikes. The shared anger against the housing situation generated a novel type of cross class urban politics of solidarity as these different groups participated together in numerous rent strikes against slum lords, demanding government intervention for rent control and housing aid[100]. More relevant to our story, the housing crisis led to a serious rift between different segments of capital, as large industrial employers actively supported government imposed rent controls. They sided with workers and the middle class renters against landlords and financiers who profited from rents[101]. As far as large industries were concerned high rents and poor living conditions of the workers had adverse effects on the quality and political demands of their own labor force at a time of acute labor shortage during the war years[102]. One of the more significant urban protests around housing and rent issues occurred in Glasgow, Britain’s second largest city and a major industrial center, and set the tone for the urban struggles to come. More than 15,000 people went on a rent strike in October 1915, soon another 5000 more joined them, making this “one of the most important rent strikes in urban history… For the first time in history, housing was considered a right for the people, and the state was held responsible for it. Public housing was born… It was only when a social challenge appeared at the grassroots level that the power relationships were altered and the state was forced to intervene in the provision of housing”[103].
However, these urban protests did not lead to lasting solutions, such as mass production of affordable rental housing, or the institutionalization of systematic urban planning programs aimed at housing the workers and the poor. This was due to a lack of unity over policies to adapt between rival segments of the political and economic elite, as well as the non-negligible class differences among protesters, and the local nature of their struggles, which hindered wider mobilization to tip the balance of power in their favor and lead to structural changes. Nevertheless, the problem was acute enough to generate several significant government acts aimed at lowering the rents and controlling them, to provide subsidized mortgages, encourage private investment in affordable housing, and to take some measures to improve the existing stock. More significant, and of direct relevance to APOC’s changing approach to urban housing issues in post war Abadan, many large employers began to actively invest in building company housing for workers as a way of lowering their living expenses (and hence their wage demands) and to increase pressure on landlords.
By 1916 it had become clear that the private sector could not solve the housing crisis by itself. In 1917 an appointed committee of inquiry into industrial unrest acknowledged poor housing to be a major source of public grievance and recommended vigorous government action. In the same year another government committee (under) estimated that at least 300 thousand new houses would be needed immediately after the war and urged local government boards to begin stockpiling building materials and resources to move ahead with construction. Lloyd George, the prime minister, made “homes fit for returning heroes” a cornerstone of his 1918 election campaign[104].
Effectively, the housing dilemma had become connected to the very legitimacy of the political system. Even if urban unrest over the housing crisis did not explode into a revolutionary upheaval, nevertheless the issue remained of great concern to political leaders who kept receiving alarming intelligence reports that regularly raised the specter of Bolshevism[105]. If precarious housing was the cause of urban discontent and political instability, the provision of adequate and affordable housing, especially in the post war years, was an economic concern to employers. Keeping labor costs low in the lean post war years required the negative pressure on the permanent workers exerted by the industrial reserve army of the unemployed. Housing these casual and precariously employed workers was not economical and it would defeat the purpose of exerting downward pressure on wage demands. Balancing these political and economic concerns was a challenging task for the employers and politicians. It also placed the social provision of worker’s housing squarely at the center of public debates, and became the subject of seesaw policy experimentations and heated debates over the next decades. The unprecedented 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act made local governments responsible for assessing housing needs, drawing plans and overseeing their implementations[106]. By 1922 nearly 200 thousand houses were built by the private sector using state subsidies under this act and its follow up. However, this number proved hardly adequate and the programs primarily benefited developers, the middle classes, and the better paid workers who could afford the relatively high prices of these subsidized housing stock[107]. Once the war had ended the climate began to change, and the prevailing liberal ideology was back in swing, seeking to curtail and reverse the trend toward state intervention in the workings of the free market. After 1920 more rent strikes prompted the state to pass several further housing acts in 1923 and 1924. But these acts also fell into the pattern of avoiding state competition with
private landlords and financiers, and allocated subsidized mortgages for private housing instead of affordable rental units[108]. I have provided a more detailed analysis of the urban housing crisis in wartime Britain since the story has both global dimensions, while it also clearly overlaps with the rising crisis of labor housing in Abadan during the interwar period (see chapters 5 & 6). In the post war era, beset by revolutionary fervor and rising labor discontent, affordable housing for the masses had become a key component of maintaining the stability of a capitalist system beset by class conflict and facing a crisis of legitimacy. The League of Nations had established the International Labour Office (ILO) as one of its first acts in 1919, to regulate and manage labor issues. In 1924 the ILO produced a comprehensive comparative study of labor housing in Europe since 1913. The study began by asserting that housing provision before WWI had been shaped by Victorian era liberal and laissez-faire economic theories, which had already caused a major housing crisis prior to the war. WWI “had [only] precipitated the [housing] crisis, increased its intensity, and gave it the specific form which make it one of the most serious social and economic problems of the present day”[109].


89. Hobsbawm estimates that Britain lost 25% of its global investment, which it had to sell to finance the war. The financial costs of the war amounted to more than £500 million, mainly in US railroad securities. By 1929 Britain’s debts to the US amounted to more than 150% of its national output. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, 97–98. Before the war, despite its relative decline compared to its main rivals, Germany and the US, Britain had done relatively well as a financial power, while its captive colonial markets provided an important outlet and supplied it with revenues, with India, in particular, financing more than 40% of Britain’s deficit. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire, 148–149. See also Landes, The Unbound Prometheus, 363; Taylor, The Oxford History of England. 1914-1945, 40–42, 124.

90. Briggs, A Social History of England, 257; Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society, 191–192. The social history of taxation during the war clearly has great relevance to the critique of the rentier state theory that I have presented in chapters 2 and the epilogue. As the history of wartime Britain demonstrates taxation was imposed as an exigency of the total war, with great reluctance by the political elite, under complex historical conditions that we have discussed here. The political bargains in the form of franchise and social welfare policies that emerged between the state and various social classes were not the automatic consequence of taxation, but the result of a protracted and ultimately unpredictable social conflict and class struggle.

91. Taylor, The Oxford History of England. 1914-1945, 39; Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society, 193–203.

92. Rondo Cameron, “A New View of European Industrialization,” The Economic History Review The Economic History Review 38, no. 1 (1985): 1–23; Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire, 155–163.

93. For housing conditions of laborers and the multitude up to the WWI see Burnett, A Social History of Housing 1815-1985, 121–187. Mass urban housing (as well as rural and suburban) for the working classes and the poor was of critical concern across Europe. See Michael Harloe, The People’s Home:
Social Rented Housing in Europe and America (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995), See in general Chapter 1, which compares housing in Western Europe and the US. For Britain see Pp.35–40.

94. For London see Stedman Jones, Outcast London, especially 215–230. According to Stedman Jones London was not, strictly speaking, an industrial city, but an entrepot and home to vast numbers of casual workers, artisans, and small crafts. But workers at docks and transport networks were incremental to the industrial economy of Britain. For Paris and the notion of insecurity as a result of framing the laboring classes as dangerous classes see Chevalier, Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes; Harvey, Paris, Capital of Modernity.

95. Stedman Jones offers a comprehensive survey of debates about London. Proponents of social reform in housing included Alfred Marshall, the utilitarian economist. The housing conditions of the working classes and the poor in London played a critical role in shaping reformers like Beatrice Webb. See Stedman Jones, Outcast London; Beatrice Webb, My Apprenticeship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 216–345.

96. Hall, Cities of Tomorrow; Burnett, A Social History of Housing 1815-1985.

97. Damaris Rose, “Accumulation versus Reproduction in the Inner City: The ‘Recurrent Crisis of London’ Revisited,” in Urbanization and Urban Planning in Capitalist Societies, ed. Michael Dear and Allen J Scott (London: Methuen, 1981), 339–82; Gordon Cherry, Town Planning in Britain Since 1900: The Rise and Fall of the Planning Ideal (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996); Stedman Jones, Outcast London.

98. Ferrier, History of the British Petroleum Company, 1:235–261.

99. Harloe demonstrates that WWI elevated working class housing to the level of a European wide crisis. As the war engulfed the national economies, sucking in all available human and financial resources, investment in housing and other social domains effectively ceased. As inflation destroyed the value of mortgage payments and equities for financiers housing finance collapsed, leading to inflated rents and mass evictions of those who could not afford predatory rents or were unwilling to pay them. While in continental Europe the flood of war refugees to cities created a housing supply crisis, in Britain it was the movement of workers and their families to urban industrial centers that were the centers of production for the war industry that generated similar pressures. The problem was even worse in rural areas and smaller towns where new war-related industries and activities were located. These areas by and large, did not have the wherewithal or an existing stock of working class housing to cope with the new demand. See Harloe, The People’s Home, 81.

100. Taylor, The Oxford History of England. 1914-1945, 147; Cherry, Town Planning in Britain since 1900, 52, 61–62. Chery s es this juncture as a watershed in the greater institutionalization of government induced town planning in Britain.

101. Thane, The Foundations of the Welfare State, 131–133.

102. Labor housing and the crisis of urban slums created some of the similar crises in the US. This crisis led to the emergence of the Chicago School of Sociology, and the academic-policy intervention of professional sociological experts and middle class urban activists, like Jane Addams, in setting antipoverty urban social policy. Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods and Cities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982).

103. Manuel Castells, The City and the Grassroots (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 27– 37.

104. See Burnett, A Social History of Housing 1815-1985; Harloe, The People’s Home; Cherry, Town Planning in Britain since 1900; Hall, Cities of Tomorrow.

105. Harloe, The People’s Home, Chapter 2; Thane, The Foundations of the Welfare State, 144–145; Burnett, A Social History of Housing 1815-1985.

106. There had been numerous urban housing and municipal related parliamentary acts in Britain since the middle of 19th Century. What differentiated the 1919 Act from its predecessors (the last of which was the 1915 Act to control rents) was the direct government involvement, both at the national and local levels, in directly financing and regulating the production and supply of housing stock.

107. Thane, The Foundations of the Welfare State, 206–208; Harloe, The People’s Home; Burnett, A Social History of Housing 1815-1985.

108. The 1924 act by the short-lived Labor government allocated subsidized funds to local governments for rent controlled rental units, but it remained limited in scope. 109 See International Labour Office, European Housing Problems Since the War 1914-1923. (Geneva: I.L.O., 1924), 3; Harloe, The People’s Home, 81–82.

109. See International Labour Office, European Housing Problems Since the War 1914-1923. (Geneva: I.L.O., 1924), 3; Harloe, The People’s Home, 81–82.


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