The Slum Clearance Movement in the Nineteen Thirties.

Overcrowding in 1933.

During the 1930s there was a world wide slump. Millions of people were out of work and yet nothing seemed to be happening to improve matters. Everything was at a standstill. Millions were out of work and millions were living in appalling housing conditions. Architects and housing reformers began a vociferous campaign to encourage large-scale building by Local Authorities. The Architectural Journal carried out a huge survey of living conditions and published a damning report. The following is a tiny extract.

Architectural Journal 26th. October 1933. page 11


'At one-and-a-half to a room Kitchens counting as rooms - there are six people in this house, divided for sleeping purposes thus : main bedroom, husband, wife and child; second bedroom, two girls ; parlour, son.

Accommodation which necessitates five people sleeping in two small bedrooms, and one person in the parlour, is by every civilized standard odious.

Nevertheless, today in England it is a standard of perfection. Of the eleven and-a-half million people dealt with in our survey, one in four live in conditions of overcrowding, besides which this is luxury.

If one adds the presence of vermin, the bug, the beetle, the rat - the all pervasive slum smell, and the absence - in thousands of cases of bathrooms and W.C.s and even of water taps, one arrives at some idea of the living conditions of a quarter of the population as dealt with here.'


The Report galvanized action and the government called on all local authorities to to designate Slum Clearance Areas, apply for grants, demolish, and build. Not only was the country ashamed but many saw it as a way to build themselves out of the Slump. In America Roosevelt was to have the New Deal. This was a similar process in Britain.

Housing was then under the Ministry of Health and local Health Department submitted reports and planned to build.

These reports are important as vital descriptions of actual living conditions. Local Historians could spend time on them, find in the Local History Archives the Borough Housing reports and follow through, year by year, the repeated demands for better living conditions. Local Medical Officers of Health had been submitting more and more urgent reports for years. Now something was to be done.

Each year the Medical Officer of Health for Stoke Newington had to report to the Council on the state of housing in the Borough and to fill in statistics for the Ministry of Health. Both made depressing reading.

Reading them one will see that the modern complaints about housing conditions go back a long time. Each generation has to refight the battles. Shelter, and the 1985 Church Report on the declining housing stock can be seen in perspective. In the 21 st Century the problems continue and housing costs take an ever increasing proportion of family income. There were the Booth series Housing maps of the end of the Nineteenth Century, 1920s Slum maps, the 1930s Slum Clearance Maps, the bombed and damaged houses of the late 1940s, the Shelter Reports, The Church Reports on the declining house stocks and many more. There are reports and maps for all towns and reading a succession of them on a local area, backed by maps, can be a moving experience.

Living conditions are described in novels too. Not only Dickens but modern novelists have expanded on the theme. "The Years" by Virginia Woolf describes housing conditions in Lisson Grove in 1894. The Brensham Trilogy by describes a slum cleared after the Second World War to make an small open space. A modest contribution These new small lungs have been created in many places. Any new park has a history, often sad, sometimes sordid, forgotten under the new trees. They make good stories when found.

1930s Slum Clearance Areas

It is difficult today to imagine the living conditions in some 1930s slums. Only films like 'Housing Problems, by Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton, 1935, or 'Somers Town', by Sue Crockford and Richard Broad, 1984, or some of the Picture Post article photographs of the time, can remind us of the start reality.

In 1930 a Slum Clearance Act was passed giving more power to Local Authorities to compulsorily purchase and build to let. During the 1930s, large areas of old housing were designated as 'Slum Clearance Areas'.

The London County Council had been building flats from 1900 but at in 1933 Stoke Newington Borough Council started to build. Some of the old properties were overcrowded and unsanitary. In 1933 Stoke Newington Borough declared the following areas as (Slum) Clearance Areas under its powers under the 1930 Housing Act.

  • Masons Court and Place
  • Rochester Place
  • White Hart Court
  • Selsea Place off Crossway
  • Hewling Street.(once part of Grove House Estate)
  • Leonard Place in Albert Town
  • In 1934, Barn Street was added.

The Nesbet Street area, in Homerton, was typical. It had some houses in 'comparatively satisfactory condition' but they must have been pretty squalid because the whole block was cleared and fine new flats erected.

The map of Nesbet Street
Clearance Area

Near Homerton Hospital

Slum Clearance money was available from central government, so maps like this are available for all parts of the country because the local authority had a statutory duty to report on bad housing, but they had to make out a case before money was granted.


The following is a typical report.

The Medical Officer of Health's Report on Nesbet Street,
an area in Homerton, near Homerton Hospital

Nesbet Street Area, 72 buildings

  'With the exception of two small cottages (Bones Cottages) this Area consisted of typical terrace type dwellings of four rooms and back-addition wash-houses. The dwellings were small and very cramped, lacked internal ventilation and natural light, had very cramped and low rooms and were badly planned internally. The street doors opened directly into short passages communicating directly with the back living rooms. Staircases led out of the ground floor rooms and washhouses directly communicated and ventilated into each other. All the dwellings were originally of poor construction and had deteriorated through lack of proper maintenance, the structures were very weak and in a state of disrepair. Considerable dampness and other sanitary defects were found.'


  • The report was represented on December 2nd, 1932.
  • Clearance Order made on July 19th, 1933.
  • Public Inquiry held on December 5th, 1933.
  • Buildings demolished during 1935/6 after confirmation by the Ministry of Health on March 1st, 1934.

This area has since been acquired 'for re-housing residents from other confirmed Clearance areas'.


The Nesbet Street site as it had been in 1870

The 1870 map before Nesbet Street had been squeezed
into the gardens between Crozier Terrace and Barnabas Road.

In 1870 Homerton was a prosperous suburb full of with houses with large gardens. Later, Nesbet Street was built as a mean, gimcrack row of houses down a long stretch of gardens. This was for no other purpose but to make money and give little in return.

The houses before demolition

Nesbet Street in all its ugliness. No gardens, no trees, and mean spirited in every way.

© Hackney Archive

© Hackney Archive

The Rear View of the
Nesbet Street houses

© Hackney Archive

Another Rear View

© Hackney Archive

One of the tiny, insanitary rooms in which
people had to bring up their families

This was Nesbet Street in all its squalor. The houses were poorly built. The rooms were small, with low ceilings. Houses were subdivided, with two or more families in each, and all severely overcrowded. There were no bathrooms and probably an outside lavatory shared by several families. No refrigerators of course and no proper place to store food. At most there might have been a meat safe with perforated zinc sides to protect food from the flies. With luck it might have been nailed to an outside wall and reached through a window. If not it was inside the room. A family living in one or two rooms would have had to buy food every day, as nothing could be kept. To add to this, there were mice, bugs and fleas. Conditions like this were to be found up and down the country.

Nisbet House

The new block which replaced the slums

Nesbet House Hackney 1939, Front Elevation

© Hackney Archive

Nesbet House Living Room

© Hackney Archive

These flats were built on the site of the the old Nesbet hovels and must have come as a revelation to those fortunate enough to move in.


Slum Clearance in Stoke Newington 1930s

Building in Stoke Newington

The London County Council had been building flats to let at economic rents from 1900 and in the 1930s Stoke Newington Borough Council joined in. The L. C. C. and Stoke Newington were both considering sites in the Borough. The former was first off the mark and built in Meadow Street, while Stoke Newington announced a competition to build new flats on the Glebe Place site at the top of Clissold Road.

In 1933 Stoke Newington Borough Council declared the following areas as Slum Clearnce Areas under its powers under the 1930 Housing Act.

  • Masons Court and Place
  • Rochester Place
  • White Hart Court
  • Selsea Place off Crossway
  • Hewling Street (once part of Grove House Estate)
  • Leonard Place in Albert Town

In 1934, Barn Street was added.


The map shows the houses of Barn Street
which was added to the Clearance Areas


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Revised: April 6, 2021 12:54 PM