“Don’t Pay!” The 1913 Wolverhampton Rent Strike
by Simon Briercliffe, BCLM Researcher
Some of most emotional stories at Black Country Living Museum can be found in the cramped, crowded environments of the back-to-backs and working-class cottages. They show how many Black Country families had to put up with poor housing, cramped conditions and low wages. In our summer theme, “Ta Very Much!” we say thank you to Black Country heroes who helped improve the lot of families like this – if you visit during the summer holidays, you can meet representatives of the Wolverhampton Tenant’s Defence League, who campaigned for better housing and wages in the Black Country in 1913.
The Black Country in 1913
Conditions in 1913 were as tough as they had ever been in the Black Country. Despite a boost from Wolverhampton’s new motor industry, wages were very low, and hadn’t risen for 18 years. A skilled worker might earn around 30 shillings per week – enough for a reasonably comfortable lifestyle – but unskilled workers, who made up around a third of the region’s workforce, only earned about 18 shillings. This put them below the “poverty line” (most recently described by Maud Pember Reeves, whose book Round About A Pound A Week described the lives of the working poor, and was published in 1913). Thousands of families struggled to make ends meet: wives and children had to work, only the cheapest, oldest, dirtiest housing was affordable, and the workhouse loomed large for those that could pay rent.
This meant that the Black Country was full of what people at the time called “slums.” These areas of decrepit old housing were badly built, draughty and damp, with outdated sanitary facilities and no running water. Wolverhampton was a case in point. Half of its 20,000 homes dated from before 1850 when there were no building regulations, and many were much older still. The most common arrangements were back-to-backs, or ‘courts’ – rows of small, poorly-constructed houses thrown up quickly in an old garden or yard by a builder looking for a quick profit. Death rates in Wolverhampton were well above the national average, especially in the poorest areas like Monmore Green, Horseley Fields and Salop Street. A 1901 study showed that across the Borough the death rate was 16.69; in the courts it was 27.84. There were 26.7 people per acre in the Borough; but 888 per acre in the courts! Even the mayor recognised that 500 houses ought to be knocked down immediately. The cheapest rent you could find in Wolverhampton was about 5 shillings per week – historians have estimated that the bare minimum a working-class household would have to spend to get by was 11s for food, 1s for fuel, plus sundries like clothing, cleaning supplies, medicine, stamps, sickness insurance or other household items – let alone tobacco, alcohol or entertainment. Life in the Black Country was very tough indeed.
The years before World War One were characterised by massive social and industrial unrest across Britain and the Black Country. In 1910, for example, the Cradley Heath strike won a new minimum wage for women chainmakers’; in 1911 a national railway strike brought the Black Country to a standstill; in 1912, over a million miners went on strike. The government had tried to curtail some of the worst poverty by introducing measures like free school meals and means-tested old-age pensions; but they responded harshly to these national strikes – troops with machine guns were even stationed in Wolverhampton during 1911. In early 1913, workers at Tangye’s in Smethwick went on strike, seeking a raise from 18 to 23 shillings per week to take them out of poverty. This was granted, and other workplaces followed suit. At its height in the summer, some 50,000 workers across the Black Country were on strike.
The Wolverhampton Rent Strike
In the midst of all this, landlords in Wolverhampton gathered to discuss raising rents in their properties. The Wolverhampton Property Owners’ Association was a lobby group which campaigned against higher property rates and council expenditure, and fixed rents in Wolverhampton. By 1913 people were pouring into Wolverhampton looking for work, and the landlords believed this would be a profitable time to raise rents on their properties. On 18 March, they agreed to raise basic rents on a 5 shilling house by 3d, and on a 5/3d house by 6d – this affected about 9,000 homes, nearly half the houses in Wolverhampton. This was profiteering, pure and simple – council rates were lower than they had been for years, they were simply exploiting the fact that there were so few vacant homes in the town for new arrivals.
Exploitative landlords were a national problem: social reformers like George Lansbury (editor of the Daily Herald and later leader of the Labour Party) called for rent strikes against unfair rent rises, writing that “the formation of Tenant Societies to resist the exactions of landlords by all means possible might wring great benefits from that selfish class… has not the time come for organising a strike against paying rents?” In Wolverhampton, angry tenants flooded the Express & Star with letters and “besieged” the offices of the Wolverhampton & District Trades Council. They swiftly formed a Tenants’ Defence League and held a public meeting at the Empire Palace of Varieties.
The list of speakers at this first meeting was a roll call of Wolverhampton’s most prominent progressive voices. The Labour Party had a slow start in Wolverhampton – formed only a few years earlier, it had just two or three councillors until after the war. This meeting included both of Labour’s councillors at the time, Jimmy Whittaker and James Walsh, plus the secretary to the South Staffs Trades Federation, George Lawley. Alongside them were Emma Sproson (suffragist, socialist, women’s rights campaigner and later “Red Emma” – Wolverhampton’s first female councillor), and Rev JA Shaw of All Soul’s Unitarian Church, introduced as “The People’s Parson.” The speakers urged tenants to refuse to pay the increase, and many did exactly that. Housing campaigners organised more meetings across Wolverhampton, and followed them up with door-to-door visits in poor areas. They took with them a new free newspaper, the Wolverhampton Worker, which provided updates on the housing campaign, the industrial strikes and other social issues – reports in the Worker show that they had to convince not only the council and landlords to take action, but the tenants themselves. Many were suspicious of socialism, having been warned against it by politicians, press and priests (who were generally either Liberal or Conservative), and these campaigners had to work hard to change peoples’ minds.
During April and May 1913 tensions ran high. Tenants were urged not to pay the new rent, only the old rate. Rent collectors reported being threatened, campaigners wrote that “the landlords are already in fear and trembling,” and mass meetings continued across Wolverhampton. A deputation from the Tenants’ Defence League met with the Council’s Health Committee to persuade them to appoint a special Housing Committee – which they did. They asked them to consider implementing the 1903 Housing of the Working Classes Act, which would allow the town to compulsorily-purchase poor areas, knock them down, and build good quality council housing.
After the strike
However, the landlords held their nerve and as industrial strikes exploded across the region, the rent strike was somewhat forgotten. At least a fifth of tenants refused to pay the increase at first, but their landlords bluffed, threatened and cajoled, and many gave way. The courts supported the landlords in fining tenants who didn’t pay the new rent, and by June, Wulfrunians were starting to despair of the Tenants’ Defence League’s lack of power to effect real change. Recognising their weakness compared to the landlords, the strike fizzled out. The region’s industrial strikes were far more successful. Aided by campaigners like the indomitable Julia Varley of the Worker’s Union, who had campaigned in Cradley Heath in 1910, wages for unskilled workers across the Black Country were raised to 23 shillings per week, lifting tens of thousands of families out of poverty
The Wolverhampton rent strike did not achieve its immediate aims of preventing rent increases. But it did re-ignite a campaign for better housing – the new Housing Committee recognised the town’s lack of housing, and motions were put forward criticising councillors for owning slum property. A new set of council houses was approved and the Worker published a series of exposés of Wolverhampton’s slums. But the outbreak of war shut all this activity down.
Wolverhampton’s experience publicised the vulnerable position of tenants and the “ever-encroaching power of Landlordism.” At the end of May, residents in Birmingham formed the similar Erdington Tenants’ Defence League, followed by similar in Leeds and Bradford, then mass rent strikes in cities like Glasgow during World War One. By the end of the war, the housing situation remained appalling – in Wolverhampton over 20% of homes in Wolverhampton were unfit, and there was a shortage of over 5,000 houses. Politicians recognised the problems poor housing had caused to the fitness of their soldiers. Wolverhampton’s place in the history books was cemented when Lloyd George used a speech at the Grand Theatre in 1918 to recognise “how much it owes to the citizens who dwell in the humblest of homes… What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in… the housing of the people must be a national concern, and must be undertaken as such.” Wolverhampton ended up one of the largest builders of council houses in the inter-war years. The 1913 rent strike was a small start to a big story, which grew into a campaign of national importance. So although its immediate aims were not met, the Tenants’ Defence League of 1913 eventually made a substantial difference to the lives of thousands in the Black Country.
- Fig 1: “Slum” house in Hallett’s Row, Wolverhampton. Wolverhampton Worker, May 1914
- Fig 2: Interior of a house in Hallett’s Row, Wolverhampton. Wolverhampton Worker, May 1914
- Fig 3: Workers on strike outside West Bromwich Town Hall, 1913. Their banner reads “Black Country strike in wealthy England for 23/-” (BCLM)
- Fig 4: Wolverhampton Tenants’ Defence League, June 1913. L-R Jimmy Whittaker, Labour Councillor; James Walsh, Labour Councillor; George Lawley, secretary to the League. The inset photos are Mr Speed (A) and Ernest Feibusch (B) of the Property Owners’ Association. Daily Sketch, June 1913