The Old Backyard (1B)
Mr McCarthy, the Health Inspector for Battersea Borough Council who had decondemned our house, became a friend, and he told me, ‘Much of old Battersea is very interesting. It is really old. But we can’t help ourselves in this. The conditions in so many of the houses are so bad that nothing short of demolition will prevent some of the vile conditions from continuing and continuing and continuing. Building of working-class property here started round about 1850/1860, so much of the stuff is over 100 years old, and throughout most of its life it’s been neglected.
‘Some wards of the borough that we’re redeveloping, I suppose I’d be right in saying that very much less than one percent of the houses have a bathroom. They wash in the back rooms, in sculleries, even on half and quarter landings, in sinks that are sometimes there for the use of one family, but frequently are there for the use of more than one family. If people can’t wash in these sinks which are on common landings, then they have to get a bowl of water and wash in their kitchens. The kitchens are the dining-rooms-cum-bedrooms-cum-sitting-rooms-cum-everything. People are born there, they become ill, they get better, they die. They wash, they bath, they clean, they comb their hair, they eat their food. Everything’s done in the place where they wash themselves and try to keep themselves clean.
‘This lack of privacy in washing and indeed of all forms of privacy must be particularly embarrassing for a young girl who is just growing up. Because they know at school there are girls living in new flats, where they have baths, and it’s known to me that lots of these girls on Friday nights go to their friends’ houses to have a bath. And they sort of feel that there’s something wrong with their parents.
‘Day after day I see all sorts of people, they stop me, they tell me that their husband’s bronchial trouble is caused by damp conditions; that their husband’s cardiac is a lot worse and it’ll never be any better until they’re taken away from the basement in which they’re living. Mrs Grant will come along and say to me that she’ll never be any better, living on the top floor, because she can’t do all these stairs.
‘Then we have the flooding. When the Thames is high we get sewage in the yards and in the front areas, sewage gets into the rooms, sometimes to a depth of an inch, sometimes to a depth of six inches. Here and there there’s a concrete floor and it can be baled out, but in most cases it seeps away.
‘The big trouble is not so much of overcrowding but lack of convenience. People living in conditions that are cramped, where they have to use kitchens for bedrooms, where it becomes necessary for girls that have become adolescent to sleep with boys that have become adolescent, and where as a result of that parents get worried about what’s likely to happen.
‘If a room contains a sink and a cooker and perhaps a spin-dryer and a refrigerator then that’s not a room that should be used in addition to that for sleeping purposes.
‘Before they move they tell me they don’t want to go into these new flats at all. They don’t fancy the idea of giving up their backyards, losing their rabbits, perhaps losing their cats and dogs. They’d rather be where they are, with one family, one house, one garden. But they move, and they move to top floors of thirteen-floored blocks, they move to bottom floors of thirteen-floored blocks, and they stop me and say that it’s been worth it. They’re paying twice as much rent as they paid before, but they’ve got a bath. “And, blimey, guvnor, it’s worth another pound a week to get a bath.”’
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