Barbara Leckie, “Prince Albert’s Exhibition Model Dwellings”


This paper discusses Prince Albert’s Exhibition Model Dwellings built just off the grounds of the Great Exhibition in 1851. These model dwellings, designed by the architect Henry Roberts, contributed to growing efforts to place the mid-century crisis in housing of the poor at the forefront of public attention. They also made vivid the intersection of print culture and the built environment in three ways. First, they were a response to decades of print exposés of existing housing of the poor. Second, Roberts wrote a pamphlet, a how-to guide of sorts, on the Exhibition Model Dwellings as well as a book on model dwellings in general, The Dwellings of the Labouring Classes, that went into four editions. Finally, the Exhibition Model Dwellings were the topic of many contemporary print commentaries. These latter print commentaries will be the focus of this article. I want both to return the Exhibition Model Dwellings to the prominence they carried in the mid-Victorian period and to explore their contribution to the period’s conflicted response to the crisis in existing housing of the poor with respect to transparency, health, subject formation, and national identity.

engraving of the Crystal Palace

Figure 1: The south entrance to the Crystal Palace close to which the Exhibition Model Dwellings were situated

[The Model Dwellings were] an intervention which was much wanted, which humanity had called out for in vain, as all who know who have inspected the abodes of the industrious and poorer classes . . .

“Prince Albert’s Model Houses for Families,” The Crystal Palace and its Contents (1851)

The 1851 Great Exhibition is well known for its celebration of England’s industrial accomplishments. It is also well known for the innovative building in which the exhibition was housed: Joseph Paxton’s “Crystal Palace” (Fig. 1). Indeed, Paxton’s architectural accomplishment—the Crystal Palace’s massive scale, its use of iron and glass, and the unprecedented speed of its construction—is perhaps the most oft-discussed aspect of the Great Exhibition. Off to the side of the exhibition grounds, at the Knightsbridge cavalry barracks, however, was another innovative architectural structure that is less well known and less often discussed:  Prince Albert’s Exhibition Model Dwellings.

These two-storied, red-brick dwellings, presented as improved alternatives to existing housing of the poor, were in almost every way antithetical to the Crystal Palace in whose figurative shadow they sat (Figs. 2 and 3). They were solid, opaque, unflambuoyant, and quietly respectable. They were also a topic of keen attention both before and during the Great Exhibition, and yet they remain relatively unexamined by scholars. The intersection of the built environment and print culture, in particular, deserves attention for the ways in which it highlights the idea of the house in relation to health, morals (primarily understood in terms of subject formation), and nation. The Exhibition Model Dwellings also offer a fascinating study of a building project that was enthusiastically received by the public and yet failed to fully catalyze a movement for housing reform.

Model Houses engraving

Figure 2: Model Houses for the Labouring Classes

Model Houses engraving

Figure 3: Model Houses for Four Families

After touring the Exhibition Model Dwellings and experiencing the benefits of the clean walls, secluded spaces, innovative furniture designs, and private stairwells, the visitor arrived in a room filled with print documents. This final room offered a unique instance of the intersection of the built environment and print culture.  While the model dwellings were financed by Prince Albert, they were built under the auspices of one of the best-known building societies of the period, the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes (SICLC). The society’s honorary architect was Henry Roberts and the model houses were his design. Roberts was keenly attuned to the role of education in housing reform and he had long imagined a sort of museum for architecture and publications related to housing for the poor. The final room of the Exhibition Model Dwellings met that desire on a reduced scale. This room contained two types of publications: pamphlets and books documenting the current state of housing of the poor, and pamphlets and books documenting model dwellings designed to address and improve the dire conditions documented in the first category. There were also displays of architectural plans for the model dwellings through which the visitor had just walked as well as other model dwellings the society had built elsewhere. In other words, books like Robert’s The Model Houses for Families: Built in Connexion with the Great Exhibition of 1851 by Command of his Royal Highness, the Prince Albert, K.G., displayed in the final room, translate into print form the house through which the visitor had just toured. This book and others like it take as axiomatic that the home shapes the inhabitant and reflects the nation. They accordingly define housing problems in relation to the formation of flawed inhabitants and seek solutions that would improve subject formation by allowing for privacy, the flourishing of domesticity, and appropriate familial relations.

In addition, the Exhibition Model Dwellings themselves, like the Crystal Palace, provoked many print responses. These responses not only reinforce the points made in Roberts’s book but also help us to understand the complicated ways in which the housing crisis resonated for contemporaries. One issue to which commentators repeatedly turn is exposé: the exposé of corruption as a means to drive housing reform as well as the perils of exposé in relation to domesticity. Descriptions of the Crystal Palace are drawn to its glass construction and massive glittering body. They both contribute to and are captivated by “a new glass consciousness and a language of transparency” (Armstrong 1). Counter-intuitively, descriptions of the Exhibition Model Dwellings (and the broader discourse on housing to which they are related), are also bound up in this new language of transparency.[1] The Exhibition Model Dwellings, after all, were a response to the many exposés of the domestic interiors of the poor. Unlike transparency, however, the language of exposé is invested in a sharp distinction between the interior and the exterior. The transparency of the Crystal Palace, by contrast, begins to suggest ways in which such distinctions may be dissolved, a dissolution that was always an implicit component of the exposé. The Exhibition Model Dwellings accordingly placed a premium on the way that the integrity of the interior could be encouraged and supported by the built environment; the dwellings would then help to shape and cultivate the sort of domestic subject that middle-class reformers valued. At the same time, however, there were many other competing interests and ideologies: landlords were reluctant to relinquish control of the units they owned and to compromise their profits; those who promoted industrialization were reluctant to allow for its failures; and, in the context of both of these issues, social reformers sought to make their proposed reforms palatable in a political economy climate. Before turning to three contemporary articles in which these tensions and contradictions in relation to exposé, transparency, subjectivity, and national values arise, however, I want to offer a brief history of the Exhibition Model Dwellings.

1. The Exhibition Model Dwellings

The rise of model dwelling societies has been well documented.[2] The story of the build-up to the Exhibition Model Dwellings is one of tensions, disagreements, and finally compromise.[3] The SICLC was eager to have the Model Dwellings built on the Exhibition grounds, but the Exhibition committee, unwilling to spotlight any exhibit so closely aligned with social duress, hedged. It was only when Prince Albert stepped in that a compromise was reached and it was agreed that the dwellings could be built close to, but not on, the Exhibition grounds. Prince Albert had long supported the SICLC’s work and he saw the international focus of the Great Exhibition as a perfect vehicle for advancing the goal of adequate housing for the working and poorer classes. And despite the Exhibition committee’s wariness, the Exhibition Model Dwellings offered a cheery picture of the possibilities for housing the British poor and working classes, a counterfactual to the housing distress documented so extensively in contemporary print culture (Fig. 4).

room in Tyndall building

Figure 4: A Room in Tyndall’s Buildings

Roberts, like many of his contemporaries, argued that the house had a decisive impact on subject formation and his designs promoted “the comfort and moral training of a well-ordered family” (Dwellings 8).[4] His architectural vision, then, was a consolidation and continuation of prevailing values. It was communicated in his publications, architectural plans, and in the built realizations of his plans.[5]

The Exhibition Model Dwellings, organized on the model of the house tour for which visitors bought tickets, were at once architecturally and technologically innovative. The houses were applauded for their dedicated stairwells which ensured privacy in the individual dwellings, their innovative building materials, and their private spaces. Roberts’s hollow brick design, in particular, was singled out for praise. Countless commentators noted how porous standard bricks were; they “held water like a sponge,” as one critic put it, and from a single brick “a pint of moisture could be extracted” (“Great” 8). Roberts’s bricks, by contrast, were hollow, sound resistant, damp resistant, non-porous, and cheap to make (Fig. 5). The technological innovations of the house included new domestic appliances, ventilators, and improved grates (all of which are outlined, in particular, in Morley’s article discussed below). The carefully orchestrated tour of the houses was, of course, also designed to highlight the ways in which Robert’s plan redressed many of the existing faults in housing. Visitors completed their tour in a room with members of the SICLC available for consultation, and there was also a table, as noted above, with many of the society’s publications on display.

specimen of brickwork

Figure 5: Specimen of Brickwork

Read cynically, the model dwellings were just one more attempt to translate real structural inequalities and housing duress into commodified and capitalist terms. But these dwellings were also the first large-scale opportunity for a number of people to see what model dwellings might look like and, importantly, to imagine the lives of the poor by walking through spaces that they might someday inhabit. As William Glover notes, “any city,” and I would add, building, “is constituted as much imaginatively as it is physically of bricks and mortar” (xv). The Exhibition Model Dwellings translated the challenges of both a political economy perspective and an emerging sense of the need for a more centralized governmental intervention into the built space in which people lived. And they translated the general sense that the domestic hearth was central not only to subject formation but also national identity into the same built, experiential form. But there was an uneasiness here too. Many of the model dwellings’ innovations designed to ensure privacy were advertised through the house tour whose urgency was promoted based on unasked-for house tours of very real houses in very real poor neighbourhoods. The privacy of the home, in other words, was routinely flouted in the context of existing housing of the poor even as it was the theoretical pillar of housing reform.

By most reports, the Exhibition Model Dwellings were a huge success. Queen Victoria visited the houses on 12 July 1851 and praised their construction (Curl 101); Charles Dickens and Angela Burdett Coutts visited them, as did Edwin Chadwick and George Lewes’s friend F. O Ward.[6] There are countless examples of Roberts’s plans being widely executed both in England and abroad and they received the Exhibition’s highest award, the Council Medal (Curl 97).[7] In the end, by Roberts’s estimate, over 250,000 people toured his houses. Here, too, the imaginative force of the house coincides with its built environment: one’s moral standing could be measured by one’s interest in, and practical experience of, housing reform.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the design of the Exhibition Model Dwellings was better received by many than the design of Paxton’s Crystal Palace. Rev. Dr. Cumming said: “I do believe that when higher intelligences shall pass through Hyde Park, they may look with pity upon the Crystal Palace, while they look with satisfaction and delight upon those buildings, raised by my friend Mr. Roberts, and patronized by Prince Albert, as the noblest spectacle to be witnessed in that collection. (Cheers.)” (“Seventh” 118). And at a June 1851 meeting for the Metropolitan Sanitary Association, the Earl of Carlisle connected the architecture of the Crystal Palace with the homes of the poor in a different way:

They had (he said) close to where they sat, that remarkable building which was in itself a shrine to labour; but while they gazed on the long array of its radiant offerings, or the results of its harmonious combinations, let them not refrain from tracing them back in thought to the crowded workshops, to the damp cellars, and to the stifling garrets in which so much of that collected mass of ingenuity and splendour had been elaborated. And they should derive, perhaps, not the least precious lessons which the Crystal Palace could teach, if, transferring their care from the work to the workmen, they studied, as best they could, to surround the abode of his daily health with some portion of the decency, the comfort, and the enjoyment which he so plentifully enriched their own. (“Social” 115)[8]

The London Times brought these two points together: it repeatedly encouraged visitors to the Exhibition to also tour the model dwellings, noting the “great importance” of the exhibit and its “instructive” nature; and it castigated “the sanitary defects of the dwellings of the poor,” which “were felt to be a reproach to our civilization” (“Great” 8). Due to lack of upkeep, a failure to replace buildings that could no longer be occupied, and a general disregard of the massive influx of people to cities, labourers had “to live in abodes totally unfit for human habitation.” But the “question remained”: “how was the working man to be provided with a suitable home at a rent which his wages permitted him to pay?” (8). Roberts’s model dwellings provided an answer. With their hollow bricks, glazing to aid cleaning, relative spaciousness, lack of expense on decorative details, durable materials, and good ventilation, these houses provided much superior accommodation at affordable rates.[9] The Times concluded that the Exhibition Model Dwellings were a “sincere, honest and sensible attempt” (8) to provide adequate homes for the working classes. But if the Times provided an overview of the model dwellings in relatively straightforward terms, three other contemporary print responses offer direct and indirect satirical commentary on these model dwellings that throw into relief the complicated relationship between housing, architecture, and modern innovations. The first article sarcastically suggests that the Exhibition Model Dwellings are a conspiracy against the landlord; the second suggests that, despite the model dwellings, it is a fallacy to believe that industrialization has produced benefits that outweigh its harms; and the third adapts the transparency of the Crystal Palace to a critique of existing housing of the poor and a call for more model dwellings.

2. From the Landlord’s Perspective: The Great Conspiracy

Charles Dickens’s close colleague, Henry Morley, was one of the many visitors to the Exhibition Model Dwellings, and he provides a detailed and satirical description of his experience through the jaundiced lens of his fictional character, the landlord Bendigo Buster. His article, “Bendigo Buster Visits the Model Cottages,” was published in Household Words in July 1851. Buster is exactly the sort of landlord the model dwellings are designed to critique. He takes advantage of his tenants’ desperation by renting rooms at high rates and shirking repairs. It later emerges that he owns properties in Church Lane, one of the most egregious locations for housing in disrepair. Buster’s response to the model dwellings is indignation: “Their object [the model dwelling societies] is to defraud owners [like him] of existing cottage property, by offering tenants a superior article at the same price. Pretty competition for a Prince to be engaged upon!” (337). This article affords a wonderful opportunity to experience what the house tour was like for contemporaries as well as conveying competing claims of landlords, reformers, and tenants and the suspicion—mocked here but evidently widespread in the period—of social reform strategies.

After making their way through the crowds eager to experience the popular house tour, Bendigo Buster and his wife give the guard at the door their ticket:

So we went in, under the recess, and turned to a door at the foot of the stairs. That door was locked; so I turned sharp round on [the guard]. Move on, says he; the four sets of rooms are all precisely on the same plan. What, says I, all exhibited with the doors locked, for to be peeped at through a keyhole? But I saw the door was open opposite, so we went in. (338)

He finds himself in a small, crowded living room. There is a dresser that doubles as a window shutter when it folds up, and he amusingly derides this device noting that “it’s indifferent whether you say that a model cottager is forced to make pies on the window shutter, or to barricade his window with a dresser” (338). He wryly observes the hollow bricks, the lack of wood and other flammable materials, the cement (rather than earthen) floors, the “model grate” to prevent excessive smoke, the ventilators, and the placement of shelving above the reach of children (“model children not being exempt from a propensity to taste the ‘rat poison’ or break mugs” [338]).

The tour repeatedly urges domesticity through the cultivation of privacy, which underscores the bond between the built environment of the house and subject formation. The house is filled with examples of how to increase privacy: the scullery doubles as “a dressing room, supplied with water, to which husband and wife may retire and wash in privacy, as sanitary fellows say they ought to do every morning” (339); the unusual external staircase ensures that “each family may go home without crossing a neighbour’s threshold” (339); and the hollow bricks guarantee that “the inhabitants of each room enjoy a perfect privacy” with respect to sound (340-41). Bendigo Buster’s conclusion is based not on the needs of privacy for the poor, however, but on his need for privacy as a corrupt landlord who does not want his affairs looked into too closely. He takes offence to the literature in the last room and concludes, “Mind your own business, and don’t be prying into the affairs of other people” (341). This last room is full of “pamphlets and prospectuses” outlining the condition of existing housing of the poor—that is, translating into print the “bad house” for which this “good house” (the model dwelling) serves as a potential replacement.

Buster’s response to the Exhibition Model Dwellings ironically indicates the value of “prying into the affairs of other people” even as it marks an important distinction, not made explicit in this literature, between corrupt landlords like Buster whose business operations demand scrutiny and the poorer classes who endure an unjust “prying” into both their homes and their habits. At any rate, as Morley is at pains to illustrate, housing reform is required because of the corrupt behavior of landlords like Buster, and it may rely on the infraction of the homes of the poor to take stock of the actual state of housing. But improved housing, of which the Exhibition Model Dwellings are an example, will redress this problem and ensure that privacy is spatially enforced and encouraged through the design of the built environment. Morley was no doubt wise to use humor to draw his reader into a more receptive position with respect to model dwellings and to render more legible the housing distress endured by the poor who, as the Earl of Carlisle remarked above, returned each evening after a day of toil on the Crystal Palace to garrets and cellars that were scarcely habitable.

3. From the Perspective of Voltaire’s Ghost: The Great Fallacy

A month later, in August 1851, Blackwood’s published an article entitled “Voltaire in the Crystal Palace,” in which W. H. Smith imagines Voltaire’s return to earth as a ghost. This ghost of Voltaire evaluates the “progress” of the nineteenth century and casts doubt on the mechanization that the real Voltaire had valued in his former life. To do so, he focuses on the Great Exhibition. The ghost describes the railway that he takes to visit the Great Exhibition in terms of its noise and its speed but it is not until he gets to the architectural structure of the Crystal Palace itself that he acknowledges an appreciation for the technological advances that could produce such a structure. In particular, he is struck by the “organization of labour” (142)—architects, engineers, and workmen laboring in concert—that has made the Crystal Palace possible. But skepticism soon follows. This skepticism is most evident, indeed, in the contrast between the houses of the rich and the houses of the poor that offer a counter-commentary on the technological advances and the impact of industrialization. Voltaire comments to his enthusiastic interlocutor:

“I walk . . . through the spacious streets and squares of London. I see the residences of your wealthy men: the exterior is not pleasing; but if I enter I find in each what deserves to be called a domestic palace. In these palatial residences many a merchant is living amongst luxuries which no Roman emperor could have commanded. I lose my way amidst the dark, noisome, narrow streets and interminable courts and alleys of this same London. Each house — each sty — swarms with life. And oh, heaven! what life it is! They are heaped like vermin. They prey upon each other.  How they suffer! how they hate! Full of corroding anxieties, they endure a wretchedness and torture which no Roman emperor could have inflicted upon his slaves.” (145)

It is no surprise in this context that Voltaire, weary of his visit to the Great Exhibition, is captivated by the Exhibition Model Dwellings as he leaves. Here he sees a source of hope and an object for his admiration. He tours the model dwellings and is impressed by the information offered, the prospectus for building similar plans that he is given in the final room, and the “scheme of judicious philanthropy” that the houses represent (153). The interlocutor who has served as his antagonist throughout his visit to the Exhibition reappears and seizes this clear evidence of progress to advance the larger claims for more general technological and industrial advances that he has been making. But Voltaire remains unconvinced. Yes, the Exhibition Model Dwellings are impressive, but they do not outweigh the crushing impact of industrialization he has seen elsewhere, nor does the promotion of philanthropic enterprises counterbalance systemic social flaws. Before his interlocutor can offer a rebuttal, Voltaire evaporates before his eyes, thankful that he does not live in this new society. For Voltaire, industrialization is the source of, rather than the solution to, the housing crisis. And it is the very “progress” showcased by the Great Exhibition that is a fallacy, exacerbating rather than improving housing distress.

The choice to return Voltaire from the dead to offer a commentary on the Great Exhibition, industrialization and, for my interests here, housing of the poor and model dwellings is telling. As an Enlightenment figure, Voltaire stood not only for reasoned debate but also democratic revolution. Morley offers a picture of the corrupt landlord for whom the Exhibition Model Dwellings may serve as an alternative. For Smith, however, even these model dwellings cannot compensate for a system that is deeply flawed. Where Voltaire’s interlocutor sees the model dwellings as grounds for an argument against socialism—“socialists . . . are manifestly wrong,” he exclaims, and it is only good design rather than total upheaval that is wanting (153)—Voltaire himself quietly upholds the value of systemic change that is, for some, the Enlightenment’s legacy. While the last article on which I will focus here also deploys a vision of sorts to capture its response to the Great Exhibition, its deepest implications address not mid-century politics but rather the “new language of transparency” that is implicit in the two articles discussed thus far.

4. From the Visitor’s Perspective: “The Great Transparency”

In Morley’s and Smith’s articles, existing housing of the poor is the point of departure for the need for model dwellings. In Morley’s article, this existing housing is implicitly referenced by way of Buster’s real-estate holdings and directly by way of the articles in the final room outlining existing conditions. In Smith’s article, existing housing is what Voltaire describes to illustrate the failure of industrialization. In both examples, existing housing of the poor is demonstrated to be at a crisis point. And yet despite a massive amount of print documentation on precisely this issue, many commentators note that the general public seems either unaware or apathetic with respect to the gravity and extent of the problem. Housing was at once central to the public imagination, as witnessed by its extensive print commentary, and also off to the side. Just as the Exhibition Model Dwellings were not allowed to occupy a site on the Exhibition grounds proper, so too the debate on housing for the poor was close to but somehow not quite central to the country’s most urgent concerns. Commentators at once said that everyone acknowledged that housing was the first and most pressing concern of the nation and that no one was aware of the housing crisis and solutions were in short supply.

An article entitled “The Homes of London Crystallized; or the Great Transparency,” published in The Labourers’ Friend in October 1851, best captures these contradictions and brings transparency into sharpest focus with respect to the mid-century housing crisis. Morley critiqued the corruption of landlords and Smith critiqued current political formations; both presented their arguments through the impact of the Exhibition Model Dwellings. “The Homes of London Crystallized,” however, focuses on existing housing conditions by manipulating the transparency conceit of the Crystal Palace. The writer uses the architectural innovation of transparency as a narrative device to imagine all of built London as transparently available to view. Like Voltaire’s ghost, the writer seeks confirmation of England’s grandeur, and tacitly its “progress,” by turning to the state of the nation’s homes.

The narrator begins by enthusiastically describing his visit to the Crystal Palace; it prompts in him proud reflections on his position as an English man and the many wonders of which his country is capable. Still marveling over the beauty he has witnessed, the narrator retires to a chair in St. James Park and has a sudden “strange fancy” on how remarkable it would be if all of London could become exposed to view. “What,” he wonders, “if all these massive walls were suddenly to become transparent, and London converted into one vast glass bee-hive!” He continues:

How various would be the scenes disclosed. How interesting were the million homes of our great metropolis thus laid open to one’s view! ‘Home,’—that word so especially dear to every English heart, and which, combined with comfortable, —another word still more peculiarly our own,—presents to the mind a picture of domestic enjoyment, more frequently perhaps to be found in England than in any other part of the world. (155)

He wishes that some “Asmodeus” figure were available to perform this exposé for him and, reflecting with satisfaction on the sights he would see, he falls asleep (155).[10] No sooner is he asleep, however, than he falls into a reverie in which his wish is granted. An old man appears who offers to show him the interiors of all of the public buildings in London. But the narrator prefers only what he cannot usually see: “The homes of London—from that of the peer to the humblest artisan—are what I desire to explore,” he tells him (154). The old man nods and touches a “noble mansion” and the walls “instantly became transparent” (155). And from there they move on to aristocratic homes and middle-class homes. At first, these satisfy in all the particulars that our narrator had imagined.

But when the old man entreats the narrator to follow him down “a narrow lane . . . . through dark and cheerless alleys” the narrator’s complacent view is abruptly challenged. They arrive at “a gloomy court surrounded by tall piles of buildings, of a most wretched and dilapidated appearance. At the touch of the revealing wand, these dusky walls instantly became purified into a transparent medium. God of love and pity, what scenes of unutterable debasement, pollution, and misery, were then disclosed to my view!” (156). He continues in terms familiar from many other print descriptions of houses of the poor in the period:

Each of the rooms of these many-storied buildings was tenanted by one, two, three, four; nay, in some instances by five families, huddled together, or barely separated by the space of a few inches, on straw, rags, or shavings, without distinction of age or sex, in a state of indescribable filth and wretchedness. The impurity of the surrounding atmosphere, the revolting sight, almost made me stagger backward for a moment. I turned in horror to my guide. (157)

Surely, he says, there is some mistake. These buildings and rooms must be anomalies. There can be no more of them. They must, he implores, be exceptions to the rule of “domestic affection” he has observed in the old man’s earlier revelations. But the old man disabuses him of such a mistaken view; “There are thousands of such exceptions,” he remarks (157). These homes, moreover, abut the homes of the wealthy. The old man tells the narrator to brace himself for more views of domestic distress; he takes his hand and shows him courts “crowded with the abodes of misery” that “lay hidden in the dusky winding of narrow lanes, perilously close to the abodes of the great ones of our land” (156).

The narrator feels “sick”; the pride he had in his country, generated by the splendour of the Crystal Palace and confirmed by the first houses he saw, is shattered. “What can I do to remedy such dreadful evils?” (157). A lot, the old man replies. In a Christian register, he suggests helping others in need and closes with the injunction to “remember . . . what you have seen is reality” (158).  The narrator wakes from his sleep with the old man’s words still in his head and with the sense that he must, indeed, do something. He writes:

Perhaps many among you have never heard of the sad state of things existing around your homes, and which have now been brought before you. Others, possibly, like myself, may have heard, shuddered, grieved, resolved;—but have also allowed their good resolutions to fade away, under the mingled influence of humility, faint-heartedness, and personal interests and occupations. (158-59)

This time, he vows, the good resolutions will not fade away. Charity is one option for Christian-minded people, but there is also another. “[M]odel lodging-houses,” he writes, “are no longer an untried experiment; but have already proved a safe and profitable mode of investing money” (159). Indeed if his reader plans to visit the Crystal Palace—and everyone should for its beauty—one should also visit the Exhibition Model Dwellings. He concludes as follows: “Think, resolve, speak, act! Let neighbours and fellow-parishioners form associations without needless delay. Let head, heart, hand, and purse be engaged in the work; nor let us ever rest till this foul reproach be rolled away from our country; and all our great town can bear to be transformed to crystal cities” (160).

This article brings together housing for the poor in print culture, model dwellings, and the Crystal Palace under the sign of what the narrator calls “a great transparency.” With the aid of his Asmodeus-like guide, the narrator has seen into the homes of London. And the narrator is dismayed by what he sees. Exposing the homes of the poor to scrutiny invites a call for action and reform. It simultaneously suggests the value of the print description of existing housing of the poor that the narrator offers here and of the built solution that the narrator finds in the example of the Exhibition Model Dwellings. While one cannot argue with any certainty that the architectural innovation of a transparent structure generates a response to the housing crisis in terms of transparency, it is interesting that the “Homes of London” reverses the force of transparency in the examples offered to display not the industrial accomplishments of the nation at mid-century but rather the industrial costs. And these costs are communicated not through new technological advances but rather through the imaginative and ideological force granted to the English home.

*     *     *     *     *

In each of the responses to the Exhibition Model Dwellings discussed above, the authors describe the dwellings in a manner that is inseparable from their position in relation to the Crystal Palace. They are print responses to the built space of the dwellings, but just as the built space includes a room dedicated to the circulation of print, so too the print descriptions produce the terms for our comprehension of these spaces. If the Crystal Palace was a shocking affront to the built environment understood as an enclosed and impenetrable space, these print descriptions use the idea of transparency to figuratively dissolve the walls of the existing housing of the poor as well as the walls of the Model Dwellings themselves. Seeing through the built environment, then, is articulated as a powerful vehicle of comprehension even as it confuses and upsets earlier models based on the integrity of built space and its defining boundaries.[11]

The Crystal Palace celebrates mid-century England’s industrial accomplishments. The detractors of the Model Dwellings were right to be cautious; these dwellings, despite their architectural innovations and technological advances, point to a darker side of industrialization. The Exhibition organizers were, accordingly, eager to keep the model dwellings off the Exhibition grounds. In addition to the print documents on existing housing of the poor and model dwellings, however, the visitor was also directed back to the Crystal Palace itself in which she or he would find a model, in miniature, of the Model Dwellings at the booth for the SICLC (Fig. 6). The descriptions of existing housing of the poor that Exhibition organizers were so reluctant to acknowledge, in other words, were positioned at the very heart of the Crystal Palace itself: the descriptions are in the reading room, which was itself in the “model” of the Model Dwelling that was, in turn, in the Crystal Palace. The fantasy of transparency opens to view that tiny doll’s house of a reading room with its grim documentation just as the dreamer in the last article sees inside existing homes of the poor on his night’s journey.

Model Structure engraving

Figure 6: “Model Structure Placed in the Exhibition of the Works of All Nations, 1851.” Note the way in which the Crystal Palace serves as a backdrop for this model that then echoes back to the actual Model Dwellings adjacent to the Exhibition grounds proper.

But the poor do not wake up from any dreams to find themselves comfortably napping on a bench. And it is an open question whether the language of print exposé or transparency improved their housing conditions. It is clear, however, that at this mid-point in the century, housing of the poor—both existing housing and suggestions for improvement—was a fraught topic that concentrated many key issues related to subject formation and national identity. In this paper I have wanted to return these fraught and contested issues to the position, at once central and marginal, that they carried in 1851. Again and again, commentators return to the house as a litmus test for the value of industrialization. In doing so, they render the house transparent and compromise its valued privacy. What is seen when one looks inside existing housing of the poor delivers a massive blow to British self-regard. And the model dwellings can offer only an inadequate form of redress because from this moment forward they are never fully detachable from the ideas for which the Crystal Palace stands: transparency, mobility, industrialization, and the conflicted perils that these new trends pose to domesticity for all classes.

Barbara Leckie is an Associate Professor cross-appointed in the English Department and the Institute for the Comparative Study of Literature, Art, and Culture at Carleton University. Her publications include Culture and Adultery: the Novel, the Newspaper, and the Law, 1857-1914, Sanitary Reform in Victorian Britain: End of Century Assessments and New Directions (an edited collection of documents on sanitary architecture and reform), as well as many articles on Victorian print culture. She is currently completing “Open Houses: The Architectural Idea, the Rise of the Novel, and Nineteenth-Century Modernity.”


Leckie, Barbara. “Prince Albert’s Exhibition Model Dwellings.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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Barbara Leckie, “‘The Bitter Cry of Outcast London’ (1883): Print Exposé and Print Reprise”


[1] Landon refers to the structure’s “ideological transparency” (29)—which is different, of course, from an ideology of transparency.

[2] See Tarn and Wohl, for example. Tarn suggests that the goal of the Exhibition Model Dwellings, which was publicity, was accomplished, and many designs and requests for designs were sent to SICLC in following years (21); however, this project was the Society’s “culmination” and its work fell off in later years. The intertwining of architecture and worker’s housing had an early model in Robert Owen’s influential socialist vision in his work on the mill town, New Lanark, in Scotland. In 1817, he published his Report to the Committee of the Association for the Relief of the Manufacturing and Labouring Poor in which he not only discussed urban planning in detail but also provided a drawing and model for his imagined town. John Macarthur also provides an excellent study of over one hundred pattern books for cottages on landed estates between 1775 and 1843. He identifies Nathanial Kent’s Hints to Gentlemen of Landed Property (1775) as the first book of its type to link cottage architecture to the improvement of labourers and observes that the impulse to “police and train behaviour through architecture” (120) is evident in most of the pattern books he consults. John Wood’s A Series of Plans for Cottages or Habitations of the Labourer, Either in Husbandry or the Mechanic Arts (1777), published a few years after Kent’s work, takes up many of these issues. John Claudius Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Cottage, Farm, and Villa Architecture and Furniture, published in 1833 and reprinted through 1846, is one of the best-known architectural treatments of labourers’ housing to follow Kent and Wood. Edwin Chawick also included detailed plans for labourers’ cottages, many of which are from Loudon, in his Sanitary Report (1842).

[3] The relationship between the Exhibition and the workers on which it relied (both for the building and for the industry) had always been uneasy. The Royal Commission’s Working Classes Committee, formulated in the early stages of planning, was dedicated to working out these relationships; it dissolved, on Dickens’s initiative, when the participants realized their proposals would not be taken seriously by those in a position to make the changes and recommendations they desired.

[4] In 1852, Southwood Smith similarly writes: “it is not the man that makes the house, but the house that makes the man, and determines his fate” (“Eighth” 118). George Godwin memorably noted “as the home, so what it sends forth” (1) and Roberts bluntly made the same point again in 1861: “These homes make these people, generation after generation” (Healthy 37).

[5] Roberts’s pamphlet on the Exhibition Model Dwellings was initially only five pages long but it was later expanded into a book of 84 pages. On 21 January 1850, Henry Roberts read a paper entitled “On the Dwellings of the Labouring Classes” to the Royal Institute of British Architects.

[6] In 1846, Dickens also visited Roberts’s Bagnigge Wells model houses and in 1851 he visited his Streatham House model dwellings.

[7] Nevertheless, they were not inexpensive to build and their replication in anything like the numbers required was not possible with existing building resources and laissez-faire political structures. As Joseph Paxton soberly notes with respect to the cottages built on the Duke of Devonshire’s estate, these dwellings too may have been unrealistic because the poor did not have the funds required to pay the rent on such buildings. Curl writes: “Scarcely any of the illustrious Europeans who visited the Great Exhibition failed to examine the Prince Consort’s Model Dwellings, and few returned to their own countries without some of the publications written by Roberts. According to Roberts, his designs for the Exhibition houses gave the philanthropic housing movement an impulse greater than it received from any other single effort. His descriptive accounts of the building were translated into German and French, and German edition was published in Berlin. These Model Dwellings were the basis for many designs all over the Continent and in America” (163). It is possible that the Council Medal is one honour that Roberts should have received but did not. The Medal, oddly, did not single out Roberts and an apology was given. Curl speculates that this failure may have been related to public knowledge of Roberts’s affair with a working woman.

[8] It was at this meeting that Dickens makes his famous remarks on vestry interests and centralization. Cumming made a similar point: “Whilst, then, you go to that Crystal Palace, and whilst your sympathies and your admiration are sent forth to the very ends of the earth, recollect that Prince Albert has left there something to recall your sympathies to your own threshold; and whilst you are thinking of much to be admired in every corner of the globe, let that cottage in Hyde Park remind you that there may be but a brick wall between you and much wretchedness and misery and want that you can remove. (Cheers.)” (cited in “Seventh” 118). Consider also this comment from The Leader: “Underneath the magic brilliance which dazzles the bewildered visitor in the Great Exhibition, how few distinguish the grim misery which lies hidden there! Who passes from the work to the workman and asks—What of all that glory does he share? What of all that joy will light his home? What of hope his dim old age?” (cited in Auerbach 192).

[9] Many of the features of the model dwellings were themselves part of an exhibition in the Great Exhibition itself. It included architectural drawings and plans of model dwellings as well as two models of houses and directed visitors to tour Prince Albert’s Model Houses for Four Families (“Model Structure” 90-92).

[10] This reference to Asmodeus derives from Alain-René Lesage’s Le Diable Boiteux (1707), which itself is based on Luis Vélez de Guevara’s El Dialbo Cojuelo (1641). Asmodeus is a devil-like figure who removes the rooftops of those who live in high society to expose the scandals within.

[11] Pamela Gilbert discusses transparency and opacity in Mapping. She aligns the “advent of modern space” with the “transparency of modern space” (xiv) and argues that social theorists responded to “space perceived as opaque and corrupt” with a conception of space as “transparent” (28), a transparency that was enabled by maps that gave the “illusion of absolute specificity and transparency” (33). However, the apparent transparency offered by the map is very different from the apparent transparency offered by the domestic interior. Further, while transparency can be read as part of a broader project to render visible and trackable recalcitrant populations (along the lines of disciplinary arguments), when that transparency is mobilized at the level of the domestic interior it raises questions both about transparency qua transparency and the epistemology of “uncovering” or exposé—the hidden secret in/of the interior—in general. See also Armstrong for a discussion of “looking through” and “looking on” (7-8).