The extreme discrepancy between the wealth of many Kensington inhabitants and those of Grenfell Tower is not a unique product of our times. Nor are the differences in the expectations of their lives or even in the physical presence of the Tower and those buildings that surround it. Like today, the middle of the nineteenth century was a time distinguished by a gulf between rich and poor, one experienced both materially and in terms of how the poor were understood to live their lives. Throughout London the middle and upper classes shared geography, but little else, with the poor. Nowhere was this more true than in Kensington, renowned not just as the birthplace of Queen Victoria, but as an area increasingly inhabited by many of the most wealthy and cultured in the land.
Jennings’ Buildings was known locally as the ‘Irish Rookery’ (a contemporary name for a criminal area). It stood until 1873 on Kensington High Street opposite Kensington Palace. Like Grenfell Tower, this slum existed in sharp contrast to its affluent surroundings. The Buildings consisted of 81 two-story wooden tenements grouped around 5 narrow courts. They were immensely overcrowded with over 1000 people living in accommodation meant for only 200. They were filthy indoors and out; they lacked proper drainage and had only 49 toilets for all its inhabitants. As a consequence, ‘human excreta lie all over the courts, in every corner of the place.’ Not surprisingly, the death rate of Jennings’ Buildings was twice that of surrounding Kensington. Indeed, the average life span of the building’s inhabitants was 17 years as opposed to 48 years for the middle and upper classes. One observer noted ‘the naked feet of the children, and the ragged and dissolute looks of men and women’, which presented ‘a painful contrast to the general decency’.
As with Grenfell Tower, many of the inhabitants of Jennings’ Buildings were in effect refugees. While they were not fleeing from war, they were fleeing from the deadly effects of famine and the widespread appropriation of their land. In 1861, of the approximately 1000 inhabitants of the Buildings, 800 were either Irish migrants or their children. They made up part of the 100,000 Irish migrants in London and the 805,000 Irish migrants in mainland Britain. While there had always been a steady stream of migrants coming from Ireland, by the late 1840s the number had massively increased. A vast majority of new migrants were driven by hunger. In 1845, the Irish potato crop, the staple food for most of its 8 million inhabitants, was destroyed by blight and mass starvation ensued. The British government expected Ireland, already a poor country, to support its own starving population: an impossible task. Between 1846-1851, it is estimated that one million died of starvation. Furthermore, Irish landowners took the opportunity to evict small tenant famers from their land in order to grow more efficient crops. Small wonder that between 1846-51 there was mass migration to the British mainland. It was amongst this number that some made a home in Jennings Buildings.
The employment found by those living in the Buildings, much like many Grenfell Tower residents, was often seasonal, poorly paid and impermanent. These employments included building and fruit picking for men while many of the women worked as laundresses, cleaning the clothes of their wealthy neighbours. Because such work was unreliable, some had to depend upon local government poor relief to get by. Often this was in the Kensington Workhouse, whose punitive conditions were designed to deter the ‘undeserving poor’ from seeking help. A few turned to petty crime.
Despite their hard work and their contribution to the Kensington economy, including paying high rents for their slum dwellings, inhabitants of the Buildings were largely seen as outsiders. This was not only because, like many in Grenfell Tower, their religious beliefs differed from those of the surrounding majority (they were Catholics in a Protestant country), but also because the Irish working class was generally believed not to share ‘respectable’ British values. If they drank and found recreation on the streets of Kensington this was considered a moral failing of Irish migrants rather than a result of a lack of room in their homes to seek relaxation. This perception of immorality made them more vulnerable to arrest for public order offences, which in turn reinforced the idea that the Irish shared a criminal culture. And after the Republican Fenians bombed Clerkenwell Prison in 1867 causing the deaths of twelve people and injuring many more, Irish migrants came to been seen as a violent political threat for some. As the Kensington Gazette, wrote in 1855: ‘in the heart of town there has been an acre long desecrated as the haunt of poverty and disease, dirt and crime. To point out a spot of equal social deformity is difficult—to discover one worse is impossible.’
In 1873, the local Medical Officer reported that the slum’s lack of lavatories was actually ‘an advantage, regard being had to the character of residents.’ Indeed, he believed that the ‘difficulty was in getting the inhabitants to use them as ordinary persons would.’ He concluded, ‘Altogether the “Buildings” were well looked after, and if they were objectionable, it was by reason both of the bad class of houses, for which the present generation is not responsible, and the habits of the people who inhabited them… .’ By finding the Buildings’ inhabitants largely responsible for their own misfortune, the Medical Examiner was simply echoing widely held views that the Irish poor in general were undeserving of help. In other words, like the view that 21st century welfare recipients belong to a disreputable underclass, their misery was believed to be brought on by their own moral failings rather than any material misfortune.
Many believed that the Irish migrants in the Jennings’ Buildings brought the threat of disease, disorder and criminal activity to respectable Kensington. The threat is summarised by this quote from the local West London Observer newspaper:
‘the inhabitants consist chiefly of the lower order of Irish… . They are continually creating disturbances, assaulting the police, and by their violent and disgraceful habits the inhabitants of Kensington are continually kept in fear of some outrage. They are, in fact, the terror of the neighbourhood.’
In 1873, a wealthy individual, Albert Grant, also an Irish migrant but a banker and a friend of royalty, bought the Buildings from its highly respectable, local owners. Its inhabitants were offered £2.00 and all the firewood they could take to leave. Taking up this offer, they effectively demolished their own homes within the space of a week. They moved to other London slums which, we might suppose, were far away from the support networks they had created for themselves in the Buildings. The local press was jubilant. The West London Observer crowed, ‘that which could not be accomplished by the Kensington Vestry has been done by private interference and at the will and pleasure of one inhabitant.’ On the site, Grant built Kensington House, which was then the most expensive house in London and in whose grounds was a lake, stabling for 20 horses and a bowling alley. Ten years later Grant went bankrupt and died in relative poverty. Kensington House, too expensive to be bought whole, was demolished and sold in pieces, its fate matching that of the slum it replaced.
There are many parallels between Grenfell Tower and the Jennings’ Buildings apart from the fact that they both housed populations many of whom were fleeing physical danger. Perhaps the most obvious is that, in their final years, both were the homes of people who were seen not to belong in their wider, wealthier surroundings. And who, indeed, by their presence intruded upon the physical space which the wealthy had demarcated for themselves. Many of the inhabitants of the Tower and the Buildings differed in race (for at the time the Irish were conceived of as a race) and religion from those living around them and as such were subject to racism and religious prejudice. There was even a fear then and now that some by virtue of their religion and politics might pose a violent threat to the state itself.
More generally, both populations were often dependent on state assistance and what was given was often punitive. Such an approach was justified by a widely held view that they did not share respectable values but instead belonged to, in the words of the mid-nineteenth century, the ‘undeserving poor’, or, in twenty-first century terms, a welfare underclass. Both communities survived as they did because the state and local government were unable or unwilling either to properly ameliorate the conditions they offered or to find suitable accommodation elsewhere, leaving the inhabitants at the mercy of the private sector to survive or, in the case of both Jennings Buildings and Grenfell Tower, to perish.