There had been some improvement in the standard of living of the working class at the end of the nineteenth century, but after that there was little change until after the First World War. Then, for many, instead of things getting better, there was a long period of unemployment. However for those in employment things improved. Working class incomes increased, and prices fell, which meant that between 1918 and 1939 the purchasing power of a worker's wage increased between a third and a half. In the mid-1930s a skilled worker could earn between £3 5s and £3 15, and an unskilled worker between £2 10 and £2-15.
A British Medical Association report estimated that after the rent was paid a man and his wife in Leeds needed 19s a week to live on, with an additional 4s–5s-6d per child. This meant that at last there was a little left over from the weekly wage for extras. Some items, which had been beyond the means of working class people, were now affordable. For example cheap ready-made clothing from shops like Burton's meant that a working class man could afford a suit for the cost of a week's pay.
Unemployment or ill health still meant destitution for many people, and in 1900 the only solution was to obtain relief from the Poor Law Guardians, or go to the workhouse. In 1909 the Government introduced Old Age Pensions, which although not enough to live on, saved many elderly people from destitution. Under the Local Government Act of 1929 the Boards of Guardians were abolished and replaced with Public Assistance Committees. In an attempt to remove the stigma of being an inmate in the workhouse the name was changed. For example, Holbeck Union Workhouse and Infirmary was re-named South Lodge, Lane End Place, Holbeck, although it still catered to the needs of homeless men and infirm elderly. The workhouse infirmaries were re-named as hospitals; the Leeds Union Workhouse hospital became St. James' Hospital. By the 1930s the poor could obtain free treatment at both the General Infirmary, and St. James Hospital.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century most working class people still lived in back-to-back houses, which, although small and crowded together in narrow streets, did have some advantages. They provided a family with a separate dwelling, they were cheap to rent and easy and cheap to heat. In the working class areas of the city close-knit communities had developed; people gave comfort and support to each other, especially during hard times. Within these communities the status of individuals varied, according to their occupations wages, possessions, and the type of house they owned. For example, cleaners and barmaids did not have the status of shop assistants working in the town centre. A bath with piped water, or a through terrace house gave a family superiority over the neighbours.
Inside there was basic wooden furniture, and homemade rag rugs on the floor. A black-leaded range provided heating, hot water, and cooking facilities. There would be a tin bath, and perhaps a copper for boiling water on washday and a mangle. The toilet was outside, often shared with others living in the street. As late as 1931 a Housing Committee report stated that: 'In many houses of this city the birth of a child must take place in the living room downstairs, for there is no spare bedroom where the mother may lie for her confinement. When death enters the house the body must frequently be laid out in the same living room downstairs………. Lack of sufficient washing accommodation means that the whole family must wash at the sink in the living room…there is no supply of hot water in these houses. All must be boiled in the kettle on the fire. Opportunities for taking a bath are difficult to secure…Lavatory accommodation is in many cases woefully inadequate. Families have to share a closet with others usually placed in a passage nearby.'
There was clearly a need for demolition of the slums and the building of new houses, but despite the fact that between 1895 and 1914 2,300 slum dwellings were cleared, only 36 new houses had been built by the council. After the First World War councils were encouraged to build 'Homes fit for Heroes', and by 1930 7,000 new council houses had been built in Leeds. These were on estates like Wyther House, Hawksworth Wood, Cross Gates and Middleton. But only the lower middle classes and the better-off working class families could afford them; the rent was too high for those living in the slums. The rent for a back-to-back house in 1927 was less than 5s per week, whereas the rent for a council house was at least 16s.
Things began to change when Charles Jenkinson the Vicar of Holbeck, was elected as a labour member of the council in 1930. He became chairman of the Housing Committee in 1933, and by 1935, 14,000 slum dwellings had been demolished, and by 1937 over 15,000 council houses had been built, and there were 24 new council estates. But the rents of houses on the new estates were still more than the average working man could afford. Average weekly rent for a council house was 9shillings, whereas that for a slum property was 4s-8d. Jenkinson introduced a new differential system of paying rents. Tenants with sufficient income paid the full rate. Those who could not afford to pay were given rent relief; some paid nothing. Over 34000 people were re-housed between 1933 and 1940. 'Garden suburbs' were created on the outskirts of the town. These were low-density housing estates, where each house had a garden with hedges and one tree. The first one was built at Gipton in 1934, followed by Seacroft, Sandford, Halton Moor, and Belle Isle. Jenkinson was keen that houses should match the individual needs of the tenants. Each estate had a mixture of 2, 3 4 and 5 bedroom houses, flats for the elderly and 'sunshine houses' for those with special medical needs.
Despite the improvement in housing and living conditions, the residents of the new estates missed the close-knit communities of the slums. They missed being near the pubs, clubs, cinemas, and shops of the city centre, and resented having to pay for transport to their place of work
To bring working class housing back to the city centre the Housing Department built Quarry Hill Flats.
At the beginning of the century few working class children went on to secondary education. In 1891 the minimum school leaving age had been raised to 11, but it was not until the Education Act of 1918 that children under the age of 14 were prohibited from working in factories, mines and workshops.
The council built new elementary schools on the new council estates, and took over most of the secondary schools in the voluntary sector. New secondary schools, like West Leeds High School were built. But the secondary schools charged fees, so they were attended only by children from middle class families, and those working class children who won scholarships. Only about one tenth of the children in Leeds went to secondary school. Most left school at 14, and started work. For those of the working classes who wished to supplement their elementary education there were part-time evening classes, which provided technical and commercial qualifications. Only a very few working class children obtained a council scholarship, which enabled them to go to University.
Shorter working hours meant that the working classes had more time for leisure pursuits. Average working hours were 46 hours a week in 1934, compared with 54 hours a week in 1900. They still could not afford the Theatre and the Concerts attended by the middle classes, but there was a little more money to spend on a new form of entertainment, the cinema. With seats at 1s.to 2s.4d. each, most people could afford to go, and the cinema became more important than the pub. The Working men's clubs also replaced the pub as a place to meet.
As the council provided more public amenities like swimming baths and playing fields the range of leisure pursuits accessible to all increased. Leeds became famous for its public parks, open spaces that were, and still are free for all to enjoy.
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St James' Hospital
Back-to-back houses, 1950's
Back-to-back houses, 1950s
Old kitchen, 1950's
New kitchen, 1950's
Old fireplace, 1950's
New fireplace, 1950's
Elementary School, 1926
Plaza Cinema, 1937
Odeon Cinema, 1947