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Housing overview

In the early part of the 18th century Hereford was visited by Daniel Defoe, who was researching his book A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain. The Hereford that greeted Defoe was "large and populous" but also "truly an old, mean built, and very dirty city". The reason for the apparent run-down state of the city was the economic depression that Hereford found itself in after the Civil War, following on from the decline in trade caused by Henry VIII when Herefordians rebelled against his Dissolution of the monasteries.

Up until the beginning of the 19th century the predominant building materials used in Herefordshire were local sandstone and timber. Oak was found in abundant supply in the county at this time, which is why Herefordshire is now a county famed for its timber-framed buildings. Heavy use of oak in industry and house building meant that it became less and less plentiful, and soon local sandstone became the cheaper and more accessible building material.

Bricks had been used in the county since the 15th century for features such as chimneys. There was clay readily available in the area for the making of bricks but there was no suitable fuel for firing, so until coal could be brought in by barge from outside the county in the second half of the 17th century, bricks were only produced in small numbers. These early bricks were shallow in depth and can still be seen in buildings in Hereford today.

In 1774 Hereford's Lamp Act was passed. This meant that much alteration was made to the face of the city. The gates and parts of the wall encircling the city were demolished and run-down houses were cleared and trimmed back. However, only the visible "ruins" were dealt with. Very little was done to improve the living conditions in the crowded working-class housing that had grown up behind Hereford's façade.

At the start of the 19th century the agricultural industry was in a depression and people began to move out of the countryside and into the city, crowding into the already teeming back-street slums. As a result of this influx of people many of the more well-to-do families began to move away from the city and into the surrounding suburbs of Aylestone Hill and beyond.

The numbers of people seeking help due to impoverished circumstances was steadily rising in England, and Herefordshire in particular had a problem with vagrants, beggars and poorly-paid agricultural labourers. In 1834 the Government's answer to this problem was to create Union Workhouses in various areas of the county. These workhouses were institutions where local people who were unable to provide for themselves could live and be supplied with meals (albeit basic and unappetising) and clothing. Life in the workhouse was very hard and inmates were expected to help pay for their keep by performing hard labour, such as stone breaking. The workhouse was not designed to be an easy solution to poverty but rather as a deterrent to living the life of a pauper. It was hoped that the harsh conditions would encourage people to work harder and save for their future.

By the mid-19th century the population within the city had increased greatly. This was accompanied by a steady boom in market trade, which also brought about improved water supplies and sanitary living arrangements. Soon the demand for better and more ornate housing caused the foundation of a series of brick and tile works in and around the city.

Life in the slum areas of Hereford, such as Bewell Street (behind All Saints Church), did not improve so dramatically. In 1875 Parliament, under Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, passed the Public Health Act which was to govern future building practices with a view to improving living conditions and sanitation.

In 1885, a Housing of the Working Classes Act was passed to provide more housing that was of a suitable standard. This Act recognised that good-quality housing was not within the reach of most working-class people, so the burden was put on to the local authority to deal with the existing substandard housing and to purchase land for the construction of new houses. The first purpose-built Council-owned estates were erected in Hereford at the beginning of the 20th century.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]