Debunking Suburban Neurosis and the ‘mundane trap’ of the suburban villa

(This blog post was first published on this blog’s sister site, Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres, which centres on my suburban research with colleagues at University College London)

Prompted by a blog post by the Wellcome Trust on suburban neurosis and the Peckham Experiment, I’m jotting down here my own reading on this supposed illness. In the blog post, Giulia Smith points out that the Pioneer Health Centre (developed by Dr Innes Hope Pearse and Dr George Scott Williamson) was intended to ameliorate the prevalent ‘anxieties about the ability of low-to-middle-class mothers to raise their children by themselves in the privacy of their own houses’. These ideas were based on a hypothetical illness, suburban neurosis, which would mean that ‘unhappy mothers would be unable to produce happy, healthy offspring’.

The conception of suburbs as a mundane trap were widespread amongst the cultural elite. See for example George Orwell’s excoriating ‘A line of semi-detached torture-chambers where the little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and the wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches.’[1]

suburban villa_image from MoDa
Image courtesy Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, Middlesex University

Simultaneous with Orwell’s novel, came supposed medical confirmation that suburbs were bad for family stability and structure, and indeed for women’s health. A doctor from the Royal Free, based his The Lancet note, ‘The Suburban Neurosis’ on his work in in hospital’s outpatient department, claiming that a new group of ‘neurotics’ had come to his notice. ‘Less poverty stricken’ but worrying about money, with few friends and not enough to do or think about.

snip from Taylor_1938_1

What wonder that the underdeveloped, relatively poor mind of the suburban woman seeks an escape in neurosis…

And as long as life offers the suburban woman so little to live for, so long will she continue at last to pluck up her courage and add to the numbers in our out-patient waiting halls…

We have, I fear, let matters go too far in the jerry-building, ribbon-development line…

If the house can be disposed of, a flat near a few friends may work wonders.[2]

snip from Taylor_1938_2

Yet, as Judy Giles points out, escaping to the suburbs from the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of their parents’ poverty was a sign of progress in which ‘modernity means a bathroom, an indoor toilet, and an ‘up-to-date drawer space’ (p. 49).[3]. Suburban modernity was embraced rather than spurned, though this is not to say that ordinary women too did not feel the same longings as modernist male literary elites.


Young housewife Bill Brandt
Young housewife, Bethnal Green, London, 1937. Bill Brandt (copyright Focus Gallery,

The diagnosis persisted for decades more, further reinforced by a study by Margot Jeffreys of a group of relocated East Enders, who moved into an out-London housing area South Oxhey, in the 1950s. In fact, ‘Jeffreys found ‘no definite symptoms of a higher incidence of a psycho-neurotic illness than women of the same age elsewhere’.[4] One of the authors of the suburban neurosis paper actually refuted it in 1964[5] and, as Mark Clapson has pointed out, many problems were attributable to initial settling in, coupled with high numbers of ill people at top of list for allocations to the area.[6] Nevertheless, a review of the literature today will find that suburbia and the New Towns are continuing to be being blamed for female neurosis, or its analogue: New Town Blues as distinct from the general phenomenon of moving home.

The Oxhey estate near Watford, built soon after 1950 to house people from inner London, had a rate of mental illness higher than the national average, despite having a good layout, greenspace within the estate and good access to Oxhey Woods … Possibly this is an early example of the “suburban neurosis” that has been widely reported from Britain’s New Towns.[7]

The above-quoted article is in fact associating poor mental health with a lack of social contact. There is some truth in this: social isolation (or loneliness – though they are not synonymous) can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,[8] but the suburbs aren’t necessarily the cause of poor health per se. My new collaboration on the Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network will hopefully shed some more light on the role of the built environment in this complex issue.


[1] Orwell, G. (1939). Coming Up for Air. London, Gollancz.

[2] Taylor, S. (1938). “The Suburban Neurosis.” The Lancet 231(5978): 759-762. Intriguingly, Taylor refers to the Pioneer Health Centre at Peckham as a model (though without the health facilities) for the sort of solution he offers: to establish a sort of club that would contain, under one roof, “a swimming bath and gymnasium, a cafeteria, a day nursery, the public library and reading, smoking and games rooms.”

[3] Giles, J. (2004). The Parlour and the Suburb: Domestic Identities, Class, Femininity and Modernity. Oxford, Berg.

[4] Jeffreys, M. (1964). Londoners in Hertfordshire. London: Aspects of Change. Centre for Urban Studies and R. Glass. London, MacGibbon and Kee. 3: 207-255.

[5] We found no real evidence of what one of us (Taylor) twenty five years ago described as ‘the suburban neurosis’, nor of what has more recently been described as ‘new town blues‘”. Taylor, L. and S. Chave (1964). “Mental health and environment.” Mental Health and Environment.

[6] Clapson, M. (1999). “Working-class Women’s Experiences of Moving to New Housing Estates in England since 1919.” Twentieth Century British History 10(3): 345-365.

[7] Douglas, I. (2005). Urban greenspace and mental health. Manchester, The UK Man and the Biosphere Committee (UK-MAB).

[8] Holt-Lunstad, J., et al. (2015). “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 10(2): 227-237.

Living with Buildings – On Housing and Health

It was interesting to listen to the latest episode of Thinking Allowed, in which Laurie Taylor interviewed Iain Sinclair about his recently published book on the relationship between housing and health (Living with Buildings: And Walking with Ghosts – On Health and Architecture). As I wrote in Mapping Society, there is a long history of buildings and urban environments being blamed for the poor health of their inhabitants.  See for example the ‘Lung-Block’, a single block in New York that was found in 1906 to be riddled with cases of tuberculosis:

copy image MoL (1)

“Infection comes not only from the room, but as well from halls and stairways. An old Italian, a hopeless victim, sits out on the steps in front all day long in the sun, while the children play around him, and all through the evening, with men and women beside him. His cough never stops. The halls behind and above are grimy, offensive, lying heavy with cobwebs, and these cobwebs are always black. The stairways in the rear house are low and narrow, uneven, and thick …”[1]

copy image MoL (2)

The programme had a reading from just three years earlier, on the state of poverty in London, with Jack London writing of the disease prevailing amongst the destitute men crowding the surroundings of Christchurch Spitalfields. In fact, there is an even more apposite section in the same book, People of the Abyss, on the situation in Frying Pan Alley[2]:

“There were seven rooms in this abomination called a house.  In six of the rooms, twenty-odd people, of both sexes and all ages, cooked, ate, slept, and worked … In the adjoining room lived a woman and six children.  In another vile hole lived a widow, with an only son of sixteen who was dying of consumption.  The woman hawked sweetmeats on the street, I was told, and more often failed than not to supply her son with the three quarts of milk he daily required … And, what of the coughing and the sweetmeats, I found another menace added to the hostile environment of the children of the slum … My sweated friend, when work was to be had, toiled with four other men in his eight-by-seven room.  In the winter a lamp burned nearly all the day and added its fumes to the over-loaded air, which was breathed, and breathed, and breathed again.”[3]

copy image MoL (3)

Well into the twentieth century – and indeed in the twenty-first century, as the programme showed, buildings and cities continued to be seen as a source for physical malaise. Descriptions of the diseased body of the city have come to represent both a symbolic and a literal state of living in poverty, yet the precise causal association between urban living and urban disease remains elusive.

[1] Huber, J.B., Consumption, its relation to man and his civilization, its prevention and cure. c. 1906, Philadelphia: Lippincott. See also my earlier post on ‘The Lung Block’, here:

[2] See also the post on the Spitalfields Life blog:

[3] London, J., The People of the Abyss (2014 edition with original photographic plates; Introduction by Iain Sinclair). 1903 London: Tangerine Press. Quote from Gutenberg edition:

Thinking Allowed: Maps and Postcodes

I had the pleasure of speaking to Professor Laurie Taylor last week, in an episode of his programme Thinking Allowed, which has been running for many years on BBC Radio 4. I was invited to discuss my most recent book, Mapping Society: The spatial dimensions of social cartography, published with UCL Press last month.[1]

Click here to listen to the programme:

Mapping Society does several things: it is a chronology of the evolution of social cartography, from focus on disease in the early parts of the 19th century, to a shift to poverty towards the end of the century and then to crime in the opening decades of the 20th century. It also takes each cartographic type and shows how it is used in a variety of disciplines today, from planning, urban design through to public health – where arguably it started in fact. It also traces the evolution in types of social survey but most importantly, emphasises the spatial dimensions of urban society. In short, it focuses on the complexities of social maps, by using space syntax, a theory and method for analysing urban spatial systems as way into studying the spatial structure of social patterns.

I was a guest of Thinking Allowed alongside Professor Roger Burrows from Newcastle University, whose recent book[2] (co-authored with the inventor of the Mosaic classification system, Richard Webber) employs geodemographic profiles to categorise people on the basis of their geographical location, namely, according to the characteristics of their immediate neighbours (rather than based on personal characteristics, such as age). Now while I agree with the authors about the origins of social enquiry stemming from Charles Booth, I have a different interpretation of Booth’s aggregation of resident populations as involving a ‘neighbourhood effect’.

Booth classified streets rather than localities, and this was I believe an approach that very much recognised the importance of the spatial configuration of a person’s home address in shaping their opportunities. Indeed I maintain that the ‘neighbourhood effect’ is anchored in the opportunities that the streets where you live give you to mix both with people like yourself and those unlike yourself. As I’ve written elsewhere in response to Robert J Sampson’s brilliant study of disadvantage in Chicago,[3] the ‘why’ or ‘how’ neighbourhood effects emerge might help us draw broader lessons about the interrelationship between street configuration and social outcomes. For example, is segmentation of a deprived neighbourhood from places of work or lack of accessibility to education opportunities a factor in the entrenched persistence of its deprivation?

Booth’s use of the street – or frequently the street segment – as the unit of analysis was a fundamental component in shaping thinking at the time regarding how best to intervene in an apparently problem area, as it emphasised the tractability and specificity of the problem. As O’ Day and Englander have written, Booth’s premise was that that empirically derived evidence of distress was necessary before policy decisions could be taken by government.[4] In a sense, the moral geography that his classifications suggest moved his contemporaries’ thinking away from simply labelling an area as disordered, and therefore subject to deviant behaviour, towards refocusing efforts on the buildings and streets that were part of the problem. Unfortunately, this is something that we frequently forget nowadays when we allow ecological fallacies to write off areas, such as approaches that label areas as being prone to crime, without getting to grips with the underlying causes of crime, nor indeed the nature of that crime.

The images below are from a book chapter that I wrote for a Museum of London Docklands exhibition on the East End at the time of Jack the Ripper, that attempted to dispel the industry around his murders by contextualising the setting with academic scholarship (see chapter here: Mapping the East End ‘Labyrinth’.)

[1] Vaughan L. (2018) Mapping society: the spatial dimensions of social cartography, London: UCL Press.

[2] Webber R and Burrows R. (2018) The Predictive Postcode: The Geodemographic Classification of British Society: SAGE Publications.

[3] Sampson R. (2012) Great American City: Chicago and the enduring neighborhood effect, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4] O’Day R and Englander D. (1993) Mr. Charles Booth’s Inquiry: life and labour of the people in London reconsidered, London: Hambledon Press.