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The decline of neighbourliness

Updated Wednesday 9th May 2012

Emily Cockayne, associate lecturer for the Open University discusses the social changes that have happened over the garden fence

Washing line Creative commons image Icon amypalko under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license It is commonly thought that we are at a nadir of neighbourliness. In my book, Cheek by Jowl. A History of Neighbours (2012), I chart changes in neighbourliness, and explain how a tipping point came in the mid-20th century. Before then, people were more familiar with those who lived nearby. Many neighbours helped each other out, practically, emotionally and even financially. Poor people were especially supportive of each other. Sometimes neighbours helped at the start of life; a baby born before 1950 was more likely to be born at home in the presence of a neighbour than in hospital in the presence of the father. After 1950, the reverse became true.

Kevin Harris, a community development consultant, has argued that neighbourliness requires ‘mutual recognition among residents through repeated informal encounters’. However, opportunities to bump into each other declined in the 20th century, and they continue to decline. Until the end of the 19th century most neighbours shared water supplies and WCs. Even as late as 1951, 21 per cent of the population shared a toilet with a neighbour. Women would often wash clothes and linen together in the shared yards of the back-to-back houses and tenement blocks. They would ‘hang out’ together, pegging laundry across shared spaces. Our homes have welcomed increasing numbers of gadgets – allowing washing and drying to be carried out completely indoors. The historian F.L.M. Thompson argued that the ‘release from the necessity of doing one’s dirty washing in public was literally the path to respectability’. It also gave female neighbours fewer opportunities to chat. 

Conflicts could arise in the queue for the pump and privy, and my book includes many examples of nuisance neighbours from the past. However, this was only one facet of these unavoidably intimate relationships, to be set alongside knowledge of habits and foibles and the remembrance of past kindness. This nuanced understanding is absent nowadays and neighbours rapidly contort through ignorance into imagined gargoyles.

Automotive mobility allows us to retain and cultivate friendships and familial bonds over long distances. We can drive to the supermarket or leisure activities, taking us away from neighbours we used to meet in the corner shop, or down the local. Cars have also chased children off the streets, taking their play indoors and taking away another source of contact between neighbours. 

An Observer article from 1945 decried the decline of neighbourliness, which it defined as ‘friendly help ... between woman and woman’. At the turn of the 20th century about a third of women worked away from home, and women would be the most active neighbours in the community, providing networks of reciprocal help. By 1971 over half of women worked away from home and now the figure is closer to two-thirds. The social glue of gossip over the garden fence dried up. These developments occurred at different times, and the pace of change was varied in different types of settlement. However, in all areas of the country, opportunities for active neighbouring declined.

Unlike our ancestors, most of us don’t need to ask our neighbours for assistance because we buy our own things and we no longer share combs, jugs and tools with the neighbours. We prefer not to live in our neighbours’ pockets. The welfare state has provided services which neighbours had previously performed. These developments have seen us nurture and develop our sense of privacy. In Point Counter Point (1928), Aldous Huxley has the young working-class socialist Frank Illidge declare that ‘The rich haven’t got any neighbours.’ By contrast, the poor, living cheek by jowl, could afford ‘no refined and philosophical ignoring’ of the neighbours, and in extremis, ‘there can be no question of refusing’ to help. In modern Britain, most of us can afford to live like Huxley’s rich neighbours, ‘boxed up’ in our ‘own secret house’. 

I am not saying that swapping old fashioned neighbourliness for mobility, affluence, women’s liberation or the welfare state was a bad bargain, and in fact the same surveys which inform us that we do not know our neighbour’s name, often also tell us that we generally trust the people who live near to us. If we are friends with our neighbours then it is probably because we genuinely like them, not through a sense of social obligation, or in expectation of reciprocal favours in hard times. Few would choose to return to the heyday of neighbourliness, if that is what it was, connected umbilically to grinding poverty and a paucity of welfare services.

Does this topic interest you? The OU Arts Faculty offers two Masters Level Modules which cover similar themes, MA History part 1 and MA History part 2

What are your experiences of neighbourliness? Share your views using the comments facility. 


Cockayne, E. (2012) Cheek by Jowl. A History of Neighbours. The Bodley Head, London.

Harris, H. ed. (2006) Respect in the Neighbourhood. Russell House, Lyme Regis.

Huxley, A. (1928) Point Counter Point. Chatto and Windus, London.

Thompson, F.L.M. (1988) The Rise of Respectable Society. A Social History of Victorian Britain 1830–1900. Fontana Press, London.


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