Home & Family
Families and households got smaller throughout the 20th century. Women in the late 19th century gave birth, on average, to 4.6 children during their lifetime. Having ten or more children was not uncommon. By the 1950s the average had fallen to 2.19 children per woman and by the end of the century London's 'fertility rate' was 1.76 children per woman. London's 'crude birth rate', a measure of population growth, also fell dramatically over the century. By the end of the century, London's birth rate was 14.8 live births for every 1,000 people, nearly half the 26.3 that it had been at the start.
Shrinking family sizes was partly a consequence of the changing status of women. The 20th century saw women enter the workforce and enjoy more choices about their lives, including the choice not to marry and have children. Divorce, unusual in 1900, was made legally easier and divorce rates increased a thousand fold over the century.
Contraception was another factor. The issue of birth control was brought out into the open early on in the 20th century by Marie Stopes, a scientist who believed that restricting child-birth for poor families was in the national interest. She opened her first birth-control clinic in Holloway, north London, in 1921. Marie Stopes' work dispelled some of the taboos surrounding birth-control, but the real revolution occurred in the 1960s with the arrival of the oral contraceptive pill.
Smaller families, higher divorce rates and more choices for women also meant smaller households, more people living alone, more single parents and more variation in what constitutes a 'family'. By the 1990s a third of all households in London were single person households, a higher proportion than elsewhere in Britain. The proportion of London babies born outside of marriage also rose over the century, from 4% in the 1920s to 13% in the 1960s and 35% in the 1990s.
As households and families shrank, so standards of living rose hugely throughout the century. In 1900 London had some of the worst housing conditions in Britain. For families living in London's overcrowded inner-city areas, dirt, vermin and disease were part of everyday life. Even for reasonably well-off working families electricity and indoor plumbing were novelties. In 1910, Cecil Rolph, whose father was a policeman, moved into a respectable Victorian terrace in Fulham which was rented for 16 shillings a week. It had no internal hot water system and no electricity: hot- water for washing had to be heated on the gas burner downstairs and carried upstairs in a bucket. According to Cecil, 'I can't remember that any of this was regarded as in any conceivable sense a hardship'. By the end of the century such conditions were rare, but not unknown.
Overall, 20th century Londoners were more likely to rent their homes than buy them. A market for home-buyers only really emerged between the wars as the practice of borrowing money on a building society mortgage began to spread. London remained a city with tenants in the majority until the 1980s when the number of owner-occupiers in London began to outstrip the numbers of tenants By the end of the century 56% of Londoners owned their own homes, significantly less than the national average of 67%.
Expectations of home life changed enormously over the century as the steady reduction in working hours meant more time spent at home. For many London children in 1900, homes were not places to play, as Maud Pember Reeves found when she visited working-class families in Lambeth in 1913 and saw most children outside in the street all day. 'Indoors there are no amuseuments. There are no books and no games, nor any place to play the games should they exist. Wet holidays mean quarrelling, mischief and a distracted mother'.
As more households were linked up to the electricity supply, and the price of consumer electrical goods began to fall, homes became places of entertainment and comfort. By the end of the 1920s most London homes had a wireless set and by the end of the 1950s 70% also had a television set. Homes had become places to spend leisure time, entertain friends or cultivate a lifestyle.
Washing machines, dishwashers, radiograms, telephones and record players all became part of home life during the 1950s, although even as late as 1964 under 40% of London households had a telephone. By the 1990s Londoners were, statistically, well equipped with all the latest home gadgets. Londoners ended the 20th century with more mobile phones, home computers and telephones than households elsewhere in Britain, but less microwave ovens, washing machines and tumble dryers.
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