London is No Stranger to Housing Shortages, and The Great Fire Caused One of the Worst

By Joseph Hayes on at

In 1735 a dramatic escape from Newgate Prison took place in which the secretive and dastardly highwayman – known by the names Phillips, Clark and Matthews, despite actually being only one person – managed to break out of his cell. The scoundrel took advantage of the labyrinthian array of houses that characterised London to hide from authorities and aid in his eventual disappearance.

But it wasn’t just the crooks who took advantage of the housing situation in 17th and 18th century London. Pretty much everyone did.

Everyone has heard of the Great Fire of London but it is the lesser known housing crisis that came afterwards that reflects London’s ability to recover. Huge numbers of people were left without homes, forcing them to sleep rough. This itself was highly dangerous and also potentially fatal, leading to a lot of bodies lying unclaimed in the streets.

People required houses and were going to have to get them one way or another. Architects at the time, like Sir Christopher Wren, might have preached the benefits of taking a structured approach, but this took time and money that people didn’t have. So Londoners did what they have always done: make do and mend. While the new houses were supposed to be built from fireproof material, something decreed  by royal order, reality was very different.

Houses made of quick and transportable materials began popping up all over the city, and not necessarily via legal means. By the late 17th century, one area – Shadwell – had shot up to 7,500 residents, and the area around Covent Garden saw a rush to get housing up as quickly as possible. One of the more entertaining examples of this was an 18th century wheeler-dealer whose entire questionable business premises could be taken down and popped back up with relative ease – essentially, he was the Del Boy of his time, leaving the law in the lurch.

Plan of Covent Garden in 1690 - Charles John Crowle (Wikimedia Commons

Just as it is now, space was everything in London, and the planning permission in those times came from the highest authority - that of royalty.  The “Act for the Rebuilding of the City of London” meant that the royal control over housing was almost total as new properties required the assent of the king. One piece of prime real estate owned by the fishmonger Thomas Catchmead provoked such jealousy that it was destroyed in a riot. However, the repaired house was later protected by the monarch in an act similar to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Getting the go ahead for housing approval could be quite difficult, and one had to show they would not be disturbing the people living around them. This led to many situations involving neighbourhood tensions, especially considering the rapid burst of development meant that less affluent people were living in much closer proximity to the rich. This meant that shacks and ramshackle housing could become very invasive – though in some instances they were quite well made and enjoyed the luxury of multiple floors.

The aristocrats were not simply giving permission for property development, however; they were slap-bang in the middle of the situation themselves. Some of the more tenacious home owners began to build their portable living conditions next to members of the royal family. Both the Duchess of Marlborough and the Duke of Somerset found an invasion of new properties doting their land, and quite amusingly almost coming into their houses.  The big advantage of these shed-like homes, over other forms of housing, was that one could put them up very quickly. If you got away with it, then you could get to work on making them more comfortable and longer lasting.

Don’t feel too sorry for the royals though, as they were up to “shed shenanigans” themselves - having specially constructed ones that let them watch fireworks safely away from the hoi polloi. The monarchy also weren’t above nepotism to get shacks approved for their entertainers. In fact, the constructed royal shacks were as much of a menace to their neighbours as the royals themselves were menaced.

'A Scene in St. Giles' from The Rookeries of London by Thomas Beames, 1850 (Public domain)

What the new ramshackle properties offered most of all, though, was a chance to get sloshed. Advertised in cockney slang to keep spoil-sport authorities away, the shack world of 17th and 18th century London offered an opportunity for cheap and easy booze with complex legal and illegal drinking taverns offering respite - with some of the royals even sponsoring these with their seal of approval.

Some of the criminals operating in these networks of huts were rather ridiculous and eccentric though. One of these was George Walker who used the network of shacks to run a sophisticated unlicensed tea operation, while the aptly named James Cringe tried to steal hundreds of eggs from a shack in London. Cringe promptly was arrested, but the wider shack housing enabled all sorts of successful criminal enterprises. It also gave employees a chance to embezzle from their employers, with one person trying to rip off the equivalent of £35,000 today and hiding it in a shack.

In fact, clambering onto the sheds for often ill ends seemed to become something of a national pastime. As well as the previously mentioned multiple moniker highwayman, the thieves John Barnes and John Maxworth used sheds as networks to steal. Even the great satirist Jonathan Swift was burgled by crooks using sheds as a tower to break into his his room. Legendary rascal Jack Sheppard who escaped from prison more times than you can shake a stick at, went toe to toe with guards while running through shacks to get away from the gaol.

Yet in the midst of this ridiculous situation, there was a more serious point.  It wasn’t always criminals who used shacks and bric a brac housing as escape routes. One woman fleeing an abusive husband who had kidnapped her did so using a shack to secure a safe landing. Many of those in early modern London found themselves in a housing situation quite similar to that of today. This dilemma revolved around there simply not being enough housing to go around, while getting approval for new housing was like finding gold dust.

So not only were early-modern Londoners stuck between a rock and a hard place, they were then judged for the difficult situation they found themselves in. So they did what anyone would do who needed a bit of cheer, they held big parties like a constant Notting Hill Carnival.  One of these was the “St Bartholomew’s Fair” which seemed to come from everywhere and meant authorities struggled to clamp down on things.

Bartholomew Fair as illustrated in 1808, Wikimedia Commons

The event be constructed and transported at will, and had every sort of attraction under the sun on offer - including “monsters” and even a Ferris Wheel. But the event truly excelled was in providing alcohol on an industrial scale.  The event timescale eventually grew longer and longer and a chronicle notes that this “great excesses” could last  2 whole weeks. This actually resulted in the death of one of the London Lord Mayors who, while getting drunk, mishandled a “cool tankard of wine, nutmeg and sugar” which bolted his horse and  the Lord Mayor in question fell to his death.

But beyond all the examples of drunkenness and debauchery there were also many cases of those in desperate need being provided for. This was seen particularly in William Bale who provided sheds for those without shelter, and instances of this sort of kindness shows that 17th and 18th century London wasn’t just full of criminals and drunks. Furthermore, selling alcohol from the shacks had some benefits,  allowing people in desperate need the opportunity to get by at a time when there were few avenues to do so. Booze wasn’t alone in fixing the crisis, but it did its bit.

This particular  housing problem was ultimately resolved by time, though as we can see today London still has issues with housing the sheer number of people who live there. Nonetheless at the time it appears people got used to the shacks, and they eventually became either more permanent or the residents simply moved onto another destination.

The shacks  were the result of hard times with people making the best of what they could, and sometimes they developed into quite charming homes. It’s a situation we are currently in again in London where lack of supply has created a volatile situation. Sheds and shacks might be regarded as eccentricities by many but there was a time when they were essential. Here’s just hoping things don’t get quite that bad this time round.

Featured image: From London: A Pilgramage by William Blanchard Jerrold/Gustave Doré, 1872 (Public domain)