The Dickensian living conditions of thousands, possibly tens of thousands of people who find themselves trapped in Great Yarmouth is tragic and deliberate, more akin to an open prison surrounded by walls made from poverty than the up-and-coming holiday resort the local council is seeking to promote.
Header Image: Exhibition photograph of Great Yarmouth Row displayed at the Time and Tide Museum. Photo: John McKiernan, 22 August 2021
Over the years I have spent time in a number of places where living conditions are exceptionally poor. London had, and still has some atrocious landlords and dwelling. Margate on the Kent coast has clearly seen improvement since my time there in 2011 when I would visit ‘homes’ with multiple mattresses butting up to each other in rooms with only plastic covering the windows without glass. In spite of the progress, there remains a lot of accommodation still unfit for humans. The worst conditions I have personally experienced were the slums of Mumbai in India. Known as Bombay when I was there in 1995, the Mumbai slums consisted of families sharing floor space, often limited to one room. Larger families would turn the beds as restaurants turn tables, one person leaves and another takes the bed. I have seen pockets of this in London and more so in Margate, but it is in Great Yarmouth that I see an almost systemic approach to people living in housing in multiple occupancy (HMO).
Within a short time of being in Great Yarmouth, I became aware of large groups of people gathering on street corners. For the most part they kept their heads down and to themselves before boarding buses, and off they would go. These people it turned out were/are the chicken pluckers. Low paid, mainly immigrant workforce from a range of countries and ethnicities who live in HMOs and work in a number of poultry farms, the largest being Bernard Matthews. During the pandemic lockdowns several double decker buses with BM1 or BM4 on the front would speed in and out of the town, the BM (Bernard Matthews) representing the farm factory they were heading towards or returning from. It was noticeable there was no social distancing that could be observed on these buses as they often appeared packed despite the rising panic of Covid.
A new poultry plant which looks set to create at least 650 full-time jobs has been given the green light.
Beecles and Bungay Journal, Thomas Chapman, 17 April 2019, with accompanying photo below
For most people, regeneration of deteriorating buildings and public spaces means a general improvement in the living conditions of local people (leaving aside arguments of gentrification) and general uplift to the ambience of a place. In Great Yarmouth, the small clique of people who own large numbers of properties within Great Yarmouth, keeping the status quo, HMOs packed with people or families with low income is probably more financially lucrative than having an influx of higher income residents with spending power that the local businesses are desperate for. Generally speaking, having higher income earners comes with the headache of questions and challenges. They will soon begin to ask why are the neighbouring houses housing 10, 20 or even 30 people when there are only 4 bedrooms? How are there a dozen adults from different families living above one shop?
We were shown one premises by local businessman C, who proudly showed off the wall heaters he had recently installed in the 4 floor hovel he was hoping we might be interested in buying. The desired minimum auction price was set at around £130,000 and he told us how the ‘apartments’ generate around £18,000 per year from the four tenants and shop. From an investment point of view it may well have been a good return, from a human point of view it was a firetrap. A narrow staircase led up to the hovels where not even a proper kitchen could be seen; two spaces had only a tiny area with a microwave – I now struggle to remember if there was even a sink! The ‘apartment’ was less than 25 square metres and this included the toilet space, the beds took up the majority of the rooms, and none had the curtains open. The places were musty, and a heavy dampness that comes from habitats that have no ventilation.
This visit and other conversations with local landlords revealed a very depressing character of the average owner of large tracts of housing stock. These men, although there are probably landladies as equally as bad, should have been left behind in the 1970s rather than thriving in 2020. Charles Dickens would have had rich material had he met these local pillars of the community whilewriting a follow up to David Copperfield. It soon became clear that most of these landlords had impunity from any regulation as they are so embedded into the town, probably for generations. The interweaving of families, friendships and other forms of relationship means there is little if any rules being enforced. On top of this, there is a clear despising of the English on lower income for the position they find themselves and anyone foreign is deemed a lesser being it seems. It is a very sorry state.
Examples of housing in Great Yarmouth
The following photos provide examples of some of the housing stock in Great Yarmouth where people reside. We do not know, and have not knowingly met any of the landlords/landladies who own these properties.
Snaps of just a few of the many houses and public spaces in Great Yarmouth, (2020-2021)
There were, supposedly, some new Landlord regulations to encourage property improvement. Enforcement of regulations were already delayed when Covid hit, allowing the council a get out-clause from any inspections. The borough council found itself subject to a BBC news report about the appalling housing conditions of council tenants. There is a general lack of care that pervades the town beyond sweeping the streets.
Lots of reasons can be attributed to why there is a mentality to allow Great Yarmouth to deteriorate. Most of the arguments centre around economic activity or lack of it. However this is a red herring (pun intended – see Time and Tide post). Before the pandemic, Great Yarmouth had many businesses and infrastructure to expand and grow more commerce. There was the offshore and a healthy legal, accountancy and support services economy. For the arts and creative industries Great Yarmouth could be a Mecca, with large warehouses, big window buildings, good light and plenty of open space.
The reason for its decline in my view has been greedy landlords and an inept council and local political system. Ultimately people in poorer situations are so vulnerable that they often feel it is better to keep quiet than make a fuss, as this could risk the little they have. Rarely do struggling people have the option to just pack up and leave, so are at the mercy of landlords, unless protected by wider society. We heard many horrible stories while in Great Yarmouth, one example being a heavily pregnant lady being evicted at midnight. The police, from what I have managed to discover, do their best in difficult circumstances to help, but the tools of policing are limited when it comes to civil disputes. Landlords also know that the government will often subsidise or pick up rent for the lowest paid and that little or no attention is paid to how many people live at one address.
Will it change?
There is a small chance that the hype around people all rushing from the cities post pandemic will bring about a change in seaside resorts like Great Yarmouth. Indeed it might. Ten years on, Margate does seem to be slipping from the clutches of families and vested interests that stifled progress for many decades. However, the planning for this was not done by the local council but external public bodies, quite often in defiance of the local councillors and officers. Great Yarmouth does not benefit from being in the London orbit and the challenges that brings.
People in Great Yarmouth have been beaten into submission. There is little to speak of in the sense of community, everyone tries to keep their heads down. The council is secretive and it’s track record on delivering anything substantial is exceptionally poor. The decisions they are making with tens of millions of pounds of public money are appalling and little if any of this money will make even an iota of difference to the situation the present population finds itself in, beyond being able to go for a swim. My view for Great Yarmouth’s future remains grim and the outlook for most of the most deprived, glum indeed.