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The Warp

Cathy Come Home

‘Well, we was living with my Mum and we got married, and she gave us the room on condition that we was out if the boys came back from the Army, as they was out in Cyprus. And of course you just can’t go back on people when you’ve promised them a thing, so when they did come back home, we got out. We went down the Borough (council) and they just said, there’s nothing we can do if you’re evicted, and you’ll just have to put up with it, you know.’

‘During the war we used to dream of the good old times. We’d be happy when we got back to England. But I’m afraid this England is not the country we expected it to be. I’ve been to a few places and landlords for a flat, or a house, but as soon as you mention you’ve got four children they go stone deaf on you. Say, I’m sorry we can’t accommodate all them children. That’s all we keep getting wherever you go. You go to agents, they don’t want to know when you’ve got children.’

‘I’ve been all over the country looking for places and I find I can get places but when I mention I’ve got five children nobody seems to want to know.’

‘I was living in Hampstead for five years, as a matter of fact, I was paying four pound ten a week for a furnished garden flat, but as soon as this little fellow turned up, which I wanted very much, of course, that meant I got notice to move. Well we tried, I mean I wrote letters, I wrote after places, never got no answer. And when I did get an answer the answer I got was no children, no children accepted.’

Assistant Director of Housing to the London County Council; ‘One of my jobs is to deal with the lettings of council houses and flats. Unfortunately, the problem of homeless families is only one part, although a serious part, of the general housing problem. And I suppose it’s true to say that many people who are not technically homeless are living in worse conditions than those who’ve had to move into the council’s welfare accommodation.

‘In London, in the area of the London County Council, we have a waiting list of fifty-four thousand families, of whom at least thirty-seven thousand are in serious housing need. Each year we have about eight thousand dwellings to let. Now that sounds a lot and one might think that we could easily deal with all the homeless families in London, but let me tell you something of the demands of this eight thousand. We have a few sites in London and in order to find anywhere to build we have to clear sites. Part of this is slum clearance, which amounts to something like two thousand, seven hundred families a year and they have to be given houses. In addition we find sites by buying up large houses with large gardens where we can demolish and develop to a greater density, and there, from that source we have to house about another thousand families a year. These clearance operations, including the slum clearance, in total mean that we have to rehouse five thousand, five hundred families a year.

We now have two thousand, five hundred left to allocate, and we have numerous priority calls on even this two thousand, five hundred, and when all these priorities have been dealt with we are left with about one thousand houses per year for allocation to the waiting list. One thousand per year to meet the demand from fifty-four thousand families on the list.

When I entered the service, long before the war, a family which couldn’t, or didn’t, provide a home for itself, was often what we would call feckless or irresponsible. It was considered then that if a man couldn’t provide a home for his wife and children he wasn’t much good. But that is certainly not true today. The great majority of the homeless families we deal with are decent citizens and all they want is a home of their own.’

‘The average person who is, say, comfortably housed doesn’t realise the position of people who are just sort of living each week on their husband’s income, which is a nominal wage; well my husband earns just over ten pounds a week, and it just doesn’t seem possible to get anything, unless you go in for a furnished flat, and that is about four pound ten a week, at least, isn’t it now? Well, before the war there wasn’t such a thing known as furnished flats. I remember London when I was a girl of fifteen, and I first came down to London from Aberdeen, and I came to my sister down here, and it was possible to walk any street in London and see a To Let board out. I mean the housing situation was nothing like it is now. When I first got married, when I was eighteen, we managed to get a place at a very reasonable rent, including a bathroom and everything. We paid thirteen shillings a week, didn’t we Andy? Thirteen shillings a week, yes, and that was on Primrose Hill.’

‘What came as a shock to me was on the morning that we had to move. I had to pay the removal people fourteen pound, which I was prepared to pay ... I hadn’t got the money, I had to borrow the money from a friend. And then they told me I had to pay a pound a week, that was a pound a week for storage.’

Senior officer of the Welfare Department of the London County Council; ‘My duties are largely concerned with the accommodation for homeless families. Now what happens when a family find themselves actually homeless, no roof over their heads, is this. During ordinary office hours they would be directed by the police, Citizen’s Advice Bureau, or other agencies, to the nearest district office of the Welfare Department. There they would be seen by someone we call an Admitting Officer, who if he was satisfied that the family really were without a roof over their heads, would arrange for them, the wife and children, to be admitted to the Council’s reception unit for homeless families. At night time the police would direct the family direct to the receiving unit. Because of the lack of accommodation the husband is required to find his own lodgings for the time being.’

‘Although I’ve lived in Camberwell all my life I didn’t really know what Newington Lodge was like, and it comes as rather a blow to you when you go in there and you have to share living accommodation with other families, and your way of life gets upset, and the children do get unsettled by being in there, and I found that they went off their food and got rather hard to manage at times, whereas before they were quite good children, did reasonably what they were told. The food wasn’t too good in there, and the children half the time didn’t eat their food at all.’

‘It’s very dangerous for a family to be split up. I’ve had one marriage go on the rocks already through it, this is my second time being married and my first marriage when down through me working in London and my wife living away down at the coast, because we couldn’t get nowhere to live.’

‘I saw the Welfare man and he said to me that he could cater for the wife and the two children, but not for me. And as I said to him, I couldn’t care less, I mean, I was lost. I was lost. So he said, well don’t be like that, he said, we’ll do all in our power to help you. So I came out of the welfare place and I said goodbye to the missus, not knowing when I should see her again, although arrangements could be made. I mean it was such a journey for me to keep going there every time, that I just lost all interest, because I mean, some men don’t seem to bother whether they’re living with their wives and all that, but I mean I’ve always been one, we’ve been happy together, we’ve been married eighteen years, and when you get like that I mean it upsets you, breaks your heart.’

Assistant Director of Housing; ‘On average some two dozen families find their way each week to the receiving unit. Many of them from the provinces. For it’s a fact that London is still a great magnet for people from all over the country. Many of them come to London without having made any arrangements whatever for accommodation when they get here. We feel that most people regard London as a place where the streets are still paved with gold and where they can lead a fuller and more interesting life than they have done in the country. Sometimes the staff at the unit are able to suggest local addresses or agencies to apply to for accommodation. In one way or another about two-thirds of the twenty-four families are able to leave the unit after staying one or two nights there. This leaves us about eight families a week, and they usually include those with a large number of children, whose housing problem is not so easily solved. These stay at the unit for a time, while the staff continue to help them to help themselves to find other accommodation.’

‘While we were in Newington Lodge, because of the communal living if any of the children caught any diseases such as measles, all the other children eventually caught it, and my two youngest had measles from there, but fortunately I think we weren’t in there at the time when dysentry had been, they had had dysentry in there before we went there. But, if one caught it, it went round the whole lot of the children through being communal living. Evidently it’s checked all the time for dysentry, they have a system known as swabbing which isn’t very nice, and actually I think children, the younger ones, it upsets them dreadfully. You have to have a clearance, evidently they take three days swabbing off you, before they even sort of pass you on into the next thing, you know. And I think rather young babies suffer there too.’

‘We went into Newington Lodge on the Saturday afternoon, and the Sunday we stayed there and had just a couple of meals which weren’t very good. On the Monday we had to go for swabbing. You know, we queued up with everybody else. On the Tuesday morning the Matron of the place came and said the children have got dysentry, they’re going away. So I enquired, I said could I speak to my husband on the phone, or get in touch with him, you know, as, you know, we just didn’t expect that type of thing. And, oh we don’t care about him, you’ve just got to, you go in the ambulance with the children and when you come back you can have dinner here but you must be out of the premises, you know, you can’t spend another night here as you’ve got no children with you.’

‘The effect on my children was that they fretted while they were in there, and my young boy, I know I heard screaming for Mummy as I was walking along the road in the hospital, and when they came out I couldn’t go anywhere without them. If I shut them in while I just went into the kitchen to put the kettle on they’d scream after me or follow me, and I think it had a very bad effect on their mental attitude really. Thought they were being parted again.’

‘Well, we went in front of the committee meeting at Newington Lodge and the gentleman said he’d do the best they could for us, to get us together, and a little while after we got notified that we could move into Eaton Place, and I could live there with my family, and we went to Eaton Place, the rent was a bit dear, it was fourty-four shillings a week for one room, but it was well worth it to save being split up.’

‘They put us in for three months and at the end of that period they had us down in front of the committee and asked us what we were doing to find a place, and go into all details, and tell us it was entirely up to us to try and help outselves, but unfortunately the welfare committee, it’s not their jurisdiction to do anything about it, we must try and help ourselves. They expect you to go out and find a place for yourself, surely anyone with any sense knows that you wouldn’t be in this position if you could possibly find anywhere to live.’

Senior Welfare Officer; ‘It is in no sense a satisfactory substitute for a real home. In the first place the furniture is supplied by the council, it’s not a home. Secondly, they’re being constantly urged not to settle down indefinitely, and a third point is this; I’ve heard it suggested that some antipathy is shown towards the families by local residents and tradesmen. I checked up in the specific cases but have been unable to find any grounds for the suggestion that antipathy is shown towards our people and I feel it’s probably induced by their state of mind, the insecurity they feel at being so long in short-stay accommodation.’

Housing Officer; ‘Actually I was appalled by the way the general public seemed to think these people are well something below the average standard. You’ll find that quite a number of people have been saying that they are refugees. I’ve had some of my tenants tell me that the shops refuse to serve them. The public baths said that they didn’t want refugees in the baths, and their first thoughts were that they were refugees.’

‘When we first went to live in Eaton Place, which is considered one of the most select parts of London, everybody round there considered that we were either unmarried mothers or girls from Borstal, or under corrective training. But that wasn’t so. We had to pay the London County Council two pound eleven a week to live in two top rooms.’

‘The health visitors they never came round to see us, you know, I mean, when we lived in a normal society the health visitor would come every once in a while, but when we moved into Somers Crescent, she came and she said, oh, the children have got weak chests after coming out of hospital, you know, well I mean that worried us, we went round to the doctor’s but there was nothing wrong with them at all. Well, that’s the last time we ever saw her, we never saw her again, I mean that was a year ago. People, they won’t give you credit if you’re from here and, well, people call you refugees which isn’t fun. I went round the welfare and they said, oh, you’re a refugee. Well, being a Londoner, you know, all your life, and all your family come from London, you felt embarrassed as well as angry. They think you don’t pay your way and you’re living on charity, and they don’t realise the housing situation is as bad as it is.’

Housing Officer; ‘We tell them they can only stay here for three months. That enables them time to look round to see; they scan the notice boards, the local papers, some people have their names down at house agents, but the answer is always the same, sorry, no children. If they can get accommodation it’s too much, they can’t afford it financially. Originally homelessness was regarded as a passing, postwar phase and financial assistance was received from the government towards the accommodation of homeless families in rest centres, halfway houses and short-stay accommodation. It was thought that as the drive to provide additional housing began to produce results the demands from homeless families for emergency help would diminish. But the problem now appears to be with us for the foreseeable future, and the presence of such large numbers of homeless people in welfare establishments has interfered with plans for the improvement of accommodation provided for the old people. In spite of every effort, the pressure on the accommodation has tended to increase in the last year.’

‘We’ve had quite a lot of homes because we’ve been on the borough (housing list) and they knew where we was living and on the 8th January we had a letter saying would we like to go down the Town Hall and talk it over, you know, they wanted to know what happened to us. And we went down there and the representative turned round and said, you should be rehoused within six to eight weeks. And he explained where the flats were and you know we didn’t unpack and that, you know. Then we went down there a little while later on and he said, oh they’re still not ready yet, you know, the weather had put things behind. And we never heard no more, just let them, you know, we couldn’t keep worrying people, so we let it slide, and we read in the paper a few weeks after Easter three hundred happy families had moved into the flats we’d hoped to move in with them.’

Housing Officer; ‘People ask us why we are not building more houses in London and the question simply answered is because there are no more sites. We have used up all the sites we can, or almost all the sites we can, and before we can find any more we have to clear the existing property. Although we cannot build as many dwellings as we would like to in London we are doing everything possible to find other accommodation for Londoners both in the new towns and in expanding towns and here, of course, housing is linked with employment.’

C.A.B. Worker; ‘I’m so glad that this point has been made about the difficulty of families going to new towns, but there are other difficulties which haven’t been mentioned which I’ve come across in my work which is in the Citizens Advice Bureau, when homeless families come to me for help. Their difficulties are, I think, much greater than the public realises. I think people tend to think that they can buy their own accommodation but unless they have sixteen pounds a week that’s really out of the question. Then there’s a big difficulty which has come about since the Rent Act was passed in 1957, that is if people do manage to find a couple of rooms their tenancy there is automatically decontrolled. This is a really terrible thing because it means that not only they’ll be asked a very high rent, but that rent can be raised whenever the landlord pleases. These people could be evicted at only four weeks notice. They’ve got no security. Quite apart from the strain that puts on them, especially the families with children, it means that it’s going to add to the homeless family problem, make more people homeless. This can only get bigger as things stand, and not smaller.’

‘I went to see the L.C.C. and I told them that I had been very ill since I’ve come in here, and I asked them what they were going to do for me, and they said there’s nothing they can do, the Battersea Borough Council would have to rehouse us. And I went to the Battersea Borough Council and they’re not going to do anything for us. They say the L.C.C. have got to get us housed. And I also have a card which is to be renewed in August for my housing list on the Battersea Borough Council, and they said there’s no need to renew that card, there’s nothing they can do for us, so we had to get off the list, which I think is very unfair.’

C.A.B. Worker; ‘These appalling difficulties are absolutely typical of all the homeless families I’ve met. These people are casualties of the welfare state, perhaps the worst casualties of all. They’re pushed around like so much human litter and nobody will help them. This isn’t the fault of local authorities, I don’t think, they can’t produce enough low-rented family accommodation without proper government financial backing. They’re simply not getting this. In fact, subsidies have been cut, and they’ve been burdened with very high interest rates, they have to pay enormous prices for land, and as a result the accommodation they’ve been able to produce has fallen since 1954, as much as fifty percent. So I would say it’s quite clearly the government’s fault. One could say that to some extent it’s our own fault for electing this government, but then I think we don’t know how bad the shortage is. We’re not told and it’s very difficult to get at the figures, and we get the feeling that this is a government who simply doesn’t care about this problem, about poor people who can’t get accommodation and what we need to press for is a sense of urgency of this government, to make them feel some urgency about this problem. It can be solved if they are prepared to solve it.’

‘I don’t think you can blame the welfare people. I think the welfare people are doing a very good job, they do try to help us very much, and I would like to say that if it was in their power I’m quite sure we should get much more done. I think the blame rests at the top of the tree, that those people don’t take sufficient interest in their people. They just don’t bother, they’re not interested that’s all there is to it, they could do much, much more for us than they are doing if they were sufficiently interested, or perhaps they’re not advised enough. Perhaps they’re not being sufficiently advised about the situation. I would gladly welcome the Prime Minister of this country to come round with me and I could show him quite a lot and he wouldn’t need to bother to go to anywhere else in this country.’

‘I come over to Battersea to see this gentleman and he said he could help me and he started making the forms out, like, to get me a place, and this gentleman he was surprised to think I’d got nowhere to live with five children, and he said he’d help me. Anyhow, he started making the form out and he asked me where I lived now and I said over Clapham, and he said he’s sorry he can’t do anything for me because I’m not in this borough, and I mean, what’s the borough to do with it, I live in England, not a borough. I was in the army fourteen years, I can’t be in the borough and in the army. Well, I mean, I was a prisoner of war for five years and I still think I am a prisoner of war. I still have to be told what I’ve got to do, and what I’ve not got to do. I mean, I’ve never had a place of my own to be able to do what I like in.’


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