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:

The “narrow streets and meaner houses” of Soho in 19th century London

“Segregation is one of the key methods of accommodating difference” (Peach, 1996: abstract)

It’s been interesting to see the large number of responses to the cover of my new book, Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography. Clearly the Charles Booth maps of poverty resonate with anyone who knows London even in a small way. Just as I’ve seen when people visit my offices (where the maps are pinned to the wall), people’s immediate reaction is to peer closely at the map and search for where they live, or at least somewhere familiar, to see what is was like in the 1890s.

Section of Charles Booth’s Descriptive Map of London Poverty, 1889, sheets 1-4. Image copyright David Rumsey Map Collection, The map’s streets are coloured in a range of colours from warm (yellow, red and pink) to cool (blue to black) to represent classifications from ‘wealthy’ to poor. See key to map below.


It took several iterations to determine which part of the map to show. In the end I chose to centre the image on the West End, rather than the End End of London (which is the more obvious illustration of the spatial dimensions of social cartography, as I wanted to highlight how even in central London, poverty was situated cheek by jowl with prosperity). At the same time, it is clear how the area west of Regents Street is significantly more prosperous than the district to its East.

This matter is not by chance. H.J. Dyos has written how John Nash’s decision on the alignment of the new Regent Street in his masterplan from 1809– 33 was a conscious confirmation of the perceived need for separation between the ‘streets and squares occupied by the nobility and gentry [to the west], and the narrow streets and meaner houses occupied by mechanics and the trading part of the community [to the east, broadly in the Soho district]’.

Regents street slide
John Nash’s plan from 1812 for the new Regents’ Street and Park alongside section of the Charles Booth map of 1889, showing the same area.

The spatial configuration of Booth’s West End is worthy of closer scrutiny, and indeed it formed part of a research project I ran over a decade ago, where I compared the two districts to see if my earlier findings regarding a correspondence between poverty and spatial segregation (measured using space syntax methods) was replicated in the West End of London. Indeed this was the case: both in the study area and in its comparator area, north of Oxford Street, we found a rise in spatial integration alongside a rise in prosperity similar to the pattern shown for the East End. It is notable that the integration values for the red (‘middle class’) streets were much higher in the area north of Oxford Street, whilst gold (‘upper middle and upper’ class) streets had an average value which was below the average red values in the north, though only marginally so. (We concluded this reflected the way in which the wealthiest squares of London have the tendency to step back from the main roads, leaving only one flank facing the city’s busier arteries).

Analysis of the study area, which covered the area east of Regent Street and south of Oxford street, also considered morphological factors such as block size, and showed the study area to have much smaller blocks and narrow streets than its surroundings. The effect of smaller block size is an intensification of the grid, with the ability to make more small-scale journeys. In other cases, where this is coupled with high levels of integration, small block size has been found to correspond to areas of intensified commercial activity.

This is explained by Penn (2003), who shows that “one of the primary effects of the built morphology and its use by people” is to enable movement, smaller blocks enable speedier journeys across the grid. Penn’s second effect is that the “morphology of the environment defines a local visual field and so defines the area from which one can derive visual information and within which one can potentially be considered visually co-present with others” (Penn, 2003: 62.12).

In the cases here, smaller blocks are not coupled with large visual fields and high integration, so, the consequence effect is likely to have been localised patterns of movement and social interaction, which do not engage as well with the larger scale built environment (and the larger patterns of socialisation).

These findings help explain how both Soho and the East End emerged over time as poverty areas. It also helps explain how these areas have acquired a history of being the place of sub-cultures, whether of specific economic activities, specific markets or specific social groups, such as the Italian immigrants who set up restaurants in 1880s London.

“Halfpenny Ices”. From ‘Street Life in London’, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith. Copyright London School of Economics (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0). (See Sponza, 2002).


[i] For full analysis, see section of special issue of Progress in Planning (Vaughan, 2007).

For more on poverty in London, see blog post on the John Snow map of cholera in Soho.


Dyos, Harold J. 1967. The Slums of Victorian London. Victorian Studies XI:5-40.

Peach, Ceri. 1996. The Meaning of Segregation. Planning Practice and Research 11 (2):137-150.

Penn, Alan. 2003. The Shape of Habitable Space. Proceedings of the Fourth International Space Syntax Symposium, London. pp.: 62.01-16

Sponza, Lucio “Italian ‘Penny Ice-men’ in Victorian London” in Kershen, Anne. 2002. Food in the Migrant Experience. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Vaughan, L. 2007. The spatial form of poverty in Charles Booth’s London. Progress in Planning: special issue on The Syntax of Segregation, edited by Laura Vaughan 67 (3):231-250.