Model dwellings company
Model Dwellings Companies (MDCs) were a group of private companies in Victorian Britain
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 that sought to improve the housing conditions of the working classes by building new homes for them, at the same time receiving a competitive rate of return on any investment. The principle of philanthropic
Philanthropy etymologically means "the love of humanity"—love in the sense of caring for, nourishing, developing, or enhancing; humanity in the sense of "what it is to be human," or "human potential." In modern practical terms, it is "private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of...

 intention with capitalist
Capitalism is an economic system that became dominant in the Western world following the demise of feudalism. There is no consensus on the precise definition nor on how the term should be used as a historical category...

 return was given the label "five per cent philanthropy".


The precursor to the aims of MDCs was the work of Edwin Chadwick
Edwin Chadwick
Sir Edwin Chadwick KCB was an English social reformer, noted for his work to reform the Poor Laws and improve sanitary conditions and public health...

 and others in exposing the sanitary conditions of slums in large metropolitan areas. Once Chadwick's reforms had been implemented poverty remained rife in the overcrowded inner cities, and reformers had to look elsewhere for the solution to the problems of the working class. The publication of Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844
The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844
The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 is one of the best-known works of Friedrich Engels.Originally written in German as Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England, it is a study of the working class in Victorian England. It was also Engels' first book, written during his stay in...

and The Communist Manifesto
The Communist Manifesto
The Communist Manifesto, originally titled Manifesto of the Communist Party is a short 1848 publication written by the German Marxist political theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It has since been recognized as one of the world's most influential political manuscripts. Commissioned by the...

, as well as fear of further uprisings such as that of the Chartists in 1848, increased concern for the welfare of the working class amongst the middle and upper classes.

Model Dwellings

Out of this environment, various societies and companies were formed to meet the housing needs of the working classes. Improved accommodation was seen as a way of ameliorating overcrowding, as well as the moral and sanitary problems resulting from that. The movement started in a small way in London, with the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes
Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes
The Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes was a Victorian-era, philanthropically-motivated Model Dwellings Company, a fore-runner of the modern housing association which sought to provide affordable housing for the working classes on a privately-run basis,...

 and Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes finding difficulty in raising sufficient capital to build commercially-viable projects. Support from public figures and demonstrations at the Great Exhibition all improved public awareness, if not raising investment.

The middle of the century saw the peak in MDC building, with around twenty-eight separate companies operating in London prior to the 1875 Cross Act. The movement picked up pace again after the Act, which granted local authorities the right to clear slum dwellings, however the entrepreneurial focus of the companies was restricted by an inability to make a competitive return and the intervention of large-scale municipal housing. The most successful builders post-1875 were those making a smaller return, such as the Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company
Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company
The Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company was a philanthropic model dwellings company, formed in London in 1885, during the Victorian era....

, and the East End Dwellings Company
East End Dwellings Company
The East End Dwellings Company was a Victorian philanthropic model dwellings company, operating in the East End of London in the latter part of the nineteenth century...

, often founded on religious principles as much as commercial.

The Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes

The first of these companies was formed out of the Labourer's Friend Society
Labourer's Friend Society
The Labourer's Friend Society was a society founded by Benjamin Wills in the United Kingdom in 1830 for the improvement of working class conditions...

, which in 1844 agreed to change its name and purpose towards building houses for labourers that might be adopted by others as a template. Their first urban building project was completed in 1846 at Bagnigge Wells, Pentonville
Pentonville is an area of north-central London in the London Borough of Islington, centred on the Pentonville Road. The area is named after Henry Penton, who developed a number of streets in the 1770s in what was open countryside adjacent to the New Road...

, designed by Henry Roberts
Henry Roberts (architect)
Henry Roberts was a British architect best known for Fishmongers' Hall in London and for his work on model dwellings for workers.-Biography:...


Although the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes (SICLC) had the Prince Consort
Prince consort
A prince consort is the husband of a queen regnant who is not himself a king in his own right.Current examples include the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh , and Prince Henrik of Denmark .In recognition of his status, a prince consort may be given a formal...

 as its first president and contributed to the Great Exhibition of 1851, their block dwellings, in particular, were subject to criticism. The design of SICLC dwellings paid particular attention to sanitation and ventilation but was otherwise functional and utilitarian, and the resulting estate was seen as grim and unpleasant.

The Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes

The Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes
Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes
The Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes was a Victorian-era, philanthropically-motivated Model Dwellings Company, a fore-runner of the modern housing association which sought to provide affordable housing for the working classes on a privately-run basis,...

 (MAIDIC) was formed in 1841, earlier than the SICLC, but spent several years acquiring capital to begin its building projects. These commenced after the company obtained a Royal Charter
Royal Charter
A royal charter is a formal document issued by a monarch as letters patent, granting a right or power to an individual or a body corporate. They were, and are still, used to establish significant organizations such as cities or universities. Charters should be distinguished from warrants and...

 which established the Company on more commercial grounds, guaranteeing a minimum return of five per cent on investment. This was outlined in the Company's resolution:
That an association be formed for the purpose of providing the labouring man with an increase of the comforts and conveniences of life, with full return to the capitalist.

The first MAIDIC blocks were completed in 1848, constituting twenty-one two room apartments and ninety three room apartments in Old St Pancras Road, again on an 'associated' model - that is, with shared amenities such as lavatories and kitchen. This type of large, block residence with shared facilities became the norm for model dwellings companies.

The MAIDIC was one of the largest MDCs and by 1900 housed over 6,000 people.

The Peabody Trust

The Peabody Trust was founded after an unprecedented donation in 1862 of £150,000, by the American banker George Peabody
George Peabody
George Peabody was an American-British entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded the Peabody Trust in Britain and the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and was responsible for many other charitable initiatives.-Biography:...

 for the good of the poor in London. A committee was set up to choose the most appropriate way to spend the money, and it was decided to build a number of block dwellings for the very poorest of the city. These apartments were of similar design to other companies, but rents were offered at lower levels, leading to complaints from other MDCs.
Tenancy in a Peabody Dwelling came with strict rules: rents had to be paid weekly and punctually, and many trades were not permitted to be carried on at the dwellings. There was also a night-time curfew and a set of moral standards to be adhered to.

The Improved Industrial Dwellings Company

The largest MDC working in central London was the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company (IIDC), founded by Sir Sydney Waterlow
Sydney Waterlow
Sir Sydney Hedley Waterlow, 1st Baronet, KCVO was an English philanthropist and politician, principally remembered for donating Waterlow Park to the public as "a garden for the gardenless"....

 in 1863, which housed around 30,000 individuals by 1900. Its rigorous selection procedure, rules and financial regulations meant that the IIDC was one of the more financially successful of these firms.

The Artizans', Labourers' and General Dwellings Company

The Artizans' Company became one of the largest of the MDCs, concentrating on suburban, low-rise estates rather than the central, high-rise model of other companies. It was founded by a former labourer, William Austin, in 1867 and immediately set about building and selling model dwellings first in Battersea
Battersea is an area of the London Borough of Wandsworth, England. It is an inner-city district of South London, situated on the south side of the River Thames, 2.9 miles south-west of Charing Cross. Battersea spans from Fairfield in the west to Queenstown in the east...

, then Salford, Gosport
Gosport is a town, district and borough situated on the south coast of England, within the county of Hampshire. It has approximately 80,000 permanent residents with a further 5,000-10,000 during the summer months...

 and elsewhere. Their first major contribution to the MDC movement came at Shaftesbury Park in Battersea, a large, suburban estate opened by Lord Shaftesbury
Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury
Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury KG , styled Lord Ashley from 1811 to 1851, was an English politician and philanthropist, one of the best-known of the Victorian era and one of the main proponents of Christian Zionism.-Youth:He was born in London and known informally as Lord Ashley...

 in 1872 as a "workmen's city" for "clerks, artisans and labourers". Building continued at a larger estate in Kilburn
Kilburn is an area of north west London, England, which is divided between three London Boroughs, Brent, Camden, and a small part in Westminster. The main thoroughfare running northwest-southeast is Kilburn High Road, part of the modern A5 road which forms the boundary between the boroughs of Brent...

, Queen's Park
Queen's Park
There are a number of places in the world called Queen's Park or Queens Park.- Australia :* Queens Park, New South Wales, suburb* Queens Park, Victoria ** Queens Park, Newtown, Victoria Queen's Park Golf Course...

, then a still larger estate at Hornsey
Hornsey is a district in London Borough of Haringey in north London in England. Whilst Hornsey was formerly the name of a parish and later a municipal borough of Middlesex, today, the name refers only to the London district. It is an inner-suburban area located north of Charing Cross.-Locale:The ...

, Noel Park
Noel Park
Noel Park in London, England, is a late-19th early 20th-century planned community consisting of 2,200 model dwellings, designed by Rowland Plumbe. It was developed in open countryside to the north of London in the valley of the River Moselle, about half-way between the historic villages of Highgate...

, and finally Leigham Court in Streatham
Streatham is a district in Surrey, England, located in the London Borough of Lambeth. It is situated south of Charing Cross. The area is identified in the London Plan as one of 35 major centres in Greater London.-History:...

. The company also diversified into block dwellings and other, more commercially-minded estates such as Pinnerwood Park near Harrow
London Borough of Harrow
The London Borough of Harrow is a London borough of north-west London. It borders Hertfordshire to the north and other London boroughs: Hillingdon to the west, Ealing to the south, Brent to the south-east and Barnet to the east.-History:...


By 1900, the Artizans' Company provided dwellings for 42,000 people in over 6,400 residences

East End Dwellings Company

The EEDC was founded in 1882 by a committee from the parish of St Jude, Whitechapel
Whitechapel is a built-up inner city district in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, London, England. It is located east of Charing Cross and roughly bounded by the Bishopsgate thoroughfare on the west, Fashion Street on the north, Brady Street and Cavell Street on the east and The Highway on the...

, headed by Canon Samuel Barnett
Samuel Augustus Barnett
Samuel Augustus Barnett was an Anglican clergyman and social reformer particularly associated with the establishment of the first university settlement, Toynbee Hall in east London in 1884....

. The company was one of the most successful providers of housing to the very poor in the East End of London
East End of London
The East End of London, also known simply as the East End, is the area of London, England, United Kingdom, east of the medieval walled City of London and north of the River Thames. Although not defined by universally accepted formal boundaries, the River Lea can be considered another boundary...

, being founded along religious lines rather than being preoccupied with capital return on investment, which was the biggest reason behind the lack of success of earlier builders.

Following Octavia Hill
Octavia Hill
Octavia Hill was an English social reformer, whose main concern was the welfare of the inhabitants of cities, especially London, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Born into a family with a strong commitment to alleviating poverty, she herself grew up in straitened circumstances owing...

's principles of female residence managers, the company employed female rent collectors including Beatrice Potter (later Webb, co-founder of the London School of Economics
London School of Economics
The London School of Economics and Political Science is a public research university specialised in the social sciences located in London, United Kingdom, and a constituent college of the federal University of London...

) and Ella Pycroft. The company built a large number of dwellings in what is now the London Borough of Tower Hamlets
London Borough of Tower Hamlets
The London Borough of Tower Hamlets is a London borough to the east of the City of London and north of the River Thames. It is in the eastern part of London and covers much of the traditional East End. It also includes much of the redeveloped Docklands region of London, including West India Docks...

, starting with Katharine Buildings
Katharine Buildings
Katherine Buildings were model dwellings in Cartwright Street, Aldgate, London, the first project of the philanthropically-motivated East End Dwellings Company. The block was built during 1884, and opened in 1885 as model apartments for the working class. There were 628 single rooms with shared...

 in 1885.

Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company

The Four Per Cent Company was founded by a group of Anglo-Jewish philanthropists in 1885, headed by the banker Nathan Rothschild, 1st Baron Rothschild
Nathan Rothschild, 1st Baron Rothschild
Nathan Mayer Rothschild, 1st Baron Rothschild, Baron de Rothschild was a British banker and politician from the international Rothschild financial dynasty.-Life and family:...

. They built large residences across Spitalfields
Spitalfields is a former parish in the borough of Tower Hamlets, in the East End of London, near to Liverpool Street station and Brick Lane. The area straddles Commercial Street and is home to many markets, including the historic Old Spitalfields Market, founded in the 17th century, Sunday...

 and Whitechapel, later branching out towards Hackney
London Borough of Hackney
The London Borough of Hackney is a London borough of North/North East London, and forms part of inner London. The local authority is Hackney London Borough Council....

 and South London, with a remit to provide (although not exclusively) for destitute Jews in the East End.

The company later re-named itself the Industrial Dwellings Society (1885) Ltd., and is today known as IDS.

Other companies

There were a large number of companies operating in the nineteenth century, particularly in London, around twentyeight at the time of the Cross Act. Other names include the South London Dwellings Company
South London Dwellings Company
The South London Dwellings Company was a philanthropic model dwellings company, founded in London in 1879 during the Victorian era by the prominent social reformer Emma Cons....

 (founded by Emma Cons
Emma Cons
Emma Cons was a British social reformer, educationalist and theatre manager.-Early life:Born in St. Pancras London, she trained as an artist and joined the Ladies' Co-operative Art Guild, London, run by Caroline Hill, mother of the future housing reformer and founder of the National Trust, Octavia...

), the Chelsea Park Dwellings Company, the National Dwellings Society, the City and Central Dwellings Company, the London Labourers' Dwellings Society (founded by William Alexander Greenhill
William Alexander Greenhill
William Alexander Greenhill was an English physician, literary editor and sanitary reformer.-Biography:...

), the Real Property Investment Association and later the Guinness Trust
Guinness Trust
The Guinness Trust is the oldest member of the Guinness Partnership, a group of housing associations. It is a UK registered charity providing affordable housing....

, Lewis Trust and Sutton Trust
Sutton Trust
The Sutton Trust is an educational charity in the United Kingdom which aims to provide educational opportunities to young people from non-privileged backgrounds...


Outside of London, the Pilrig Model Dwellings Company and Edinburgh Co-Operative Building Company were active in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland, the second largest city in Scotland, and the eighth most populous in the United Kingdom. The City of Edinburgh Council governs one of Scotland's 32 local government council areas. The council area includes urban Edinburgh and a rural area...

, Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

, building a number of what have come to be referred to as colony houses
Colony houses
The colony houses of Edinburgh were built between 1850 and 1910 as homes for artisans and skilled working-class families by philanthropic model dwellings companies. The first development was the Pilrig Model Buildings, near Leith Walk. Later developments across the city were built by the Edinburgh...

. Other companies, such as the Chester Cottage Improvement Company and the Newcastle upon Tyne Improved Industrial Dwellings Company built in specific areas only. Other buildings were erected by individuals, such as Hugh Jackson's New Court, in Camden Town
Camden Town
-Economy:In recent years, entertainment-related businesses and a Holiday Inn have moved into the area. A number of retail and food chain outlets have replaced independent shops driven out by high rents and redevelopment. Restaurants have thrived, with the variety of culinary traditions found in...

, London, and Sir James Gowan's Rosebank Cottages in Edinburgh.

Baroness Burdett Coutts

Baroness Burdett-Coutts was a private philanthropist who gave to many and varied charitable endeavours. One of the most significant private inputs into the provision of working class housing was Columbia Square in Bethnal Green
Bethnal Green
Bethnal Green is a district of the East End of London, England and part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, with the far northern parts falling within the London Borough of Hackney. Located northeast of Charing Cross, it was historically an agrarian hamlet in the ancient parish of Stepney,...

, a block estate completed in 1857. Architecturally, it was a precursor to the imposing Peabody Dwellings, having been designed by Peabody's architect, Henry Darbishire. The addition of a grand marketplace modelled on Saint Chapelle in Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

 made the design distinct, but the project was seen overall as a failure, finally being demolished in 1960.


The MDC movement was strongly supported by individuals like Lord Shaftesbury, who was president of the Artizan's Company for some time, for providing a plan to "completely alter for the better the domiciliary habits of the people of the metropolis". Others, such as Engels, criticised the movement as "Proudhonist," and a means of ensuring the longevity of capitalism
Capitalism is an economic system that became dominant in the Western world following the demise of feudalism. There is no consensus on the precise definition nor on how the term should be used as a historical category...

 through a process of embourgeoisement.


In the twentieth century and beyond, opinions over the MDC movements have tended towards two positions. The first, adopted by free market
Free market
A free market is a competitive market where prices are determined by supply and demand. However, the term is also commonly used for markets in which economic intervention and regulation by the state is limited to tax collection, and enforcement of private ownership and contracts...

 economists, asserts that the financial success of some of these companies shows that they could have been a significant help to the poor, if their operation was not interrupted by the arrival of social housing in the form of London County Council
London County Council
London County Council was the principal local government body for the County of London, throughout its 1889–1965 existence, and the first London-wide general municipal authority to be directly elected. It covered the area today known as Inner London and was replaced by the Greater London Council...

 estates. Others argue that the failure of MDCs to meet the needs of the very poorest demonstrates that they were a stepping stone towards the inevitable necessity of state intervention to solve the housing crisis.
MDCs have been particularly criticised for failing to provide for the very poorest of society, concentrating on the labour aristocracy, the upper strata of the working classes.

Further reading

  • Dennis, R. (1989) The Geography of Victorian Values: philanthropic housing in London, 1840-1900. Journal of Historical Geography 15(1), pp. 40–54
  • Morris, S. (2001) Market solutions for social problems: working-class housing in nineteenth-century London. Economic History Review 54(3), pp. 525–54
  • Stedman Jones, G.
    Gareth Stedman Jones
    Professor Gareth Stedman Jones is a British academic and historian.Educated at St Paul's School and Lincoln College, Oxford, where he read History, Stedman Jones went on to Nuffield College, Oxford to take a DPhil....

    (1984) Outcast London: a study in the relationship between classes in Victorian society. London: Penguin
  • Tarn, J.N. (1973) Five Per Cent Philanthropy. London: Cambridge University Press
  • Wohl, A.S. (1977) The Eternal Slum: housing and social policy in Victorian London. London: Edward Arnold
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