Defining Slum

The Slum and Slums
“Slum – definition: 1812 (of cant origin) 1. 1824 – A room. 2. A street, alley, court etc., situated in a crowded district of a town or city and inhabited by people of a low class or by the very poor ; a number of these streets or courts forming a thickly populated neighbourhood or district of a squalid or wretched character”. (OED)

Overuse and Misuse
Slum is an overused word. In the 1960s, whole areas of the towns I knew were swept away. Today in 2015 people refer to these areas as “slums”. Even on sites like “Salford’s Yesteryears” on facebook, people refer to all terraced houses as slums. This is incorrect use.

Slums – Not Easy to See
These areas were not all slums. The whole of Salford was not a slum. The whole of Manchester was not a slum. Areas of Salford, like Pendleton, Hanky Park, Ordsall, Blackfriars were not slums. Areas of Manchester like Harpurhey, Ancoats, Greenheys, Hulme, All Saints for example were not slums. North of England towns were not slums.

Terraced Houses Are Just That
There is a glib and prevailing use of the word “slum” as a preferential description for any terraced housing that was demolished in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and still today. This is wrong.

Say It Often Enough and…
And while I accept that language and use of language is somewhat fluid, I do not accept that to call something by the wrong name is acceptable use.

What Really Happened
What is nowadays often referred to as “slum clearance” was actually at the time called “CPO”. This stood for “Compulsory Purchase Order”. This was the legitimised destruction of neighbourhoods and areas of towns which was brought about largely on the pretext that the housing stock was “sub-standard”. The use of “sub-standard” meant that often, the houses had no inside lavatory and that many of them were heated by burning coal in an open grate in one room. Some had no hot water tank (but that did not mean that people had no facilities to wash or to make hot water). But the rooms were generally of good proportions – and many better so than those built today.

Lazy Landlords
Certainly, some of the properties were badly maintained by indolent landlords and owners of mulitple properties.

The Solution Was Final
The modern architectural replacements for terraced housing (why was terraced housing a problem?) were never proven to be successful. These replacements were the products of office people who lived in gardened detachment in leafy suburbs electric train journies away from the source of their money. The architects and planners had no intentions of living in what they dreamed up. Even the council representatives of the people did not live amongst them.

The reality for the town inhabitants was unequivocal and massive: your house was taken from you, then you moved away – sometimes miles from your neighbours and family – your whole life was then under attack and upheaval – change Doctor, Dentist, Optician; find a new church (you couldn’t get back to your old one on a Sunday on a bus – they didn’t run at the right time); extra fares to find for travel to work/visit family and friends and so on. The real consequences were overwhelming – loneliness, depression, illness, sadness. Most of those who were moved away should have had the help of a psychiatrist (if they had ever heard the term). The whole exercise was a grand and grossly unfair social experiment in which working people were treated as pawns as their environment was dismantled brick by brick around them in the pursuit of progress and assumed improvement.

Where and What Were The Slums?
A slum was not terraced housing. Wretched in their filth, slums were often front doors that opened a paving stone’s width from the opposite front door; where little or no sunlight came; where there was one outdoor tap for the use of many families; where there was one outdoor toilet for the whole street. A place where sickness spread very quickly. A place of poor sanitation and little ventilation; a place where there was little fresh air and what there was soon became fetid. They were recognised as such from the 1900s and city corporations started to clear them from early times.

A slum was also characterised by the attitudes actions and behaviour of those who might inhabit it or be forced to inhabit it. Thus people who were without any means at all, who had fallen into wicked hardship in the days before social care and welfare aid. Slums might also be peopled by alcoholics, low prostitutes, tramps, vagrants, stray dogs and feral cats, rats and mice. Slums were also places of multiple occupancy – houses where four or five families might live and be forced to share the meagre remaining facilities. A slum is where many families share the same front door. A slum is where cellars are made into extra accommodation. A slum is where those who share the property have no outside space but the street. Of course, nowadays we have done away with all that, haven’t we?

What to Read to Learn?
The best accounts that help us see what a slum might be are by Robert Roberts (1905-1974), his autobiographical works recounting his own and his mother’s attempts to escape. “The Classic Slum” and “A Ragged Schooling” should be compulsory reading for anybody who bandies the word “slum” about thinking that they understand the term.

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