Monday, 28 June 2010

The Working-Class Lodger

Hello and welcome back. Deadlines and re-writes have taken up a lot of my recent time, but with apologies we now resume our schedule with a look at the elusive figure of the lodger in late Victorian Britain.
Dudley Street in Seven Dials by Gustav Dore
During the course of my research into the working-class home the lodger/boarder has always been a mysterious figure, evading an easy definition. They would have been a common sight in nineteenth-century cities however. 'Going on the Tramp' or 'Tramping' looking for work was an accepted part of many trades, even the engineer turned social-commentator Thomas Wright admitted unashamedly that he had travelled across the country seeking employment in his youth. Although the seasonal pattern of working on the harvest in the summer and returning to the city for labouring work during the winter was dying out by the late Victorian era, it remained a crucial aspect of the lives of many poorer groups such as newly-arrived Irish immigrants.
These groups found accommodation ranging from the Casual Ward of the Workhouse to common flop houses to sleeping rough. This post will concentrate on trying to look at those we can trace through sources - those taking up private lodgings in working-class homes. In attempting to examine them we will use three cases from the Old Bailey Online resource:
To access the cases simply enter into the 'Reference No.' section on the right the following numbers:
t18800112-116 (which should lead to George Barrett - Breaking the Peace - Wounding)
t18900623-520 (Edward Clowes)
t18931016-912 (Thomas Greenwood)
Lets start with the earliest case - that of George Barrett. Seemingly Barrett was obsessed with his former landlady Eliza Alabaster and when his advances were turned down became violent. Sliding up behind her he asked 'when may I know you?' having wanted 'improper intercourse' with her for some time Eliza claimed in her statement. Edward Bagely, brought to the scene by one of Barrett's daughters found Eliza dazed and bleeding after Barrett had shot at her. On his way to the Police station Barrett was heard to bemoan the fact that Eliza's two new male lodgers meant she no longer wanted him.
Whilst Barrett was clearly unhinged, two points of the case raise interesting questions about the nature of lodgers in the home. Barrett claimed in his statement that he had been driven to despair after Eliza had 'refused to renew' her intimacy with him. If they had indeed been in a relationship before he moved from the house, then Barrett's concern over Eliza's new lodgers seems more understandable. Also of interest is how Barrett obtained the gun - his workmate and employer's son had given it to him broken and apparently un-fixable, yet Barrett, out of sight of any of his employers/friends/family/fellow lodgers etc had managed to fix the gun to a reasonable standard, an impressive feat given how overcrowded and overlooked Victorian dwellings could be.
The second example demonstrates that violence was a two-way street for many lodgers. Edward Clowes, found guilty of stabbing his landlord George Crouchman with a fork, claimed that Crouchman himself was a violent man who had struck the first blow, coming into his room and attacking him (see Clowes' final statement in italics before the verdict). In countering this Crouchman emphasised (see the re-examination) that he had come up to see what all the shouting was about, and Clowes had just given his wife 'two black eyes' before he turned on him. Lodgers were obviously a disruptive influence in some homes - Crouchman had attempted to break up the domestic dispute because the noise was disturbing both his family and other lodgers in the house. Lodgers could obviously be a disruptive and potentially dangerous presence in the working-class home.
The third case, however, mentioning lodgers only peripherally, shows the positive benefits they could bring. Accused of neglecting his child, Thomas Greenwood claimed that he could not afford food as he was out of work and relying on the income from a lodger, who had yet to pay this week's rent. Greenwood's case demonstrates just how crucial a lodger could be to staying afloat as a family.
One thing to remember when using Old Bailey accounts is that these are Criminal records. The lodgers who appear in them, if not causes of crime themselves, can sometimes become tainted in our minds with their unpalatable surroundings. Whilst Greenwood's lodger may or may not have let him down, many other families relied on the income provided by lodgers to stay above the poverty line. For those interested in family history or the history of child-care there is a considerable amount of peripheral information on the census about lodgers. One interesting one, which I think challenges our pre-conceived notions of what a lodger is, is the position of 'child nurse' noted down as an occupation for children with different surnames (or sometimes nephews/nieces of the head-of-house) on the census. These were children taken into working-class homes to help around the house and with smaller children. In return they received food and accommodation, and sometimes a chance to go to school.
Further Reading:
Raphael Samuel - Comers and Goers in The Victorian City by Jim Dyos and Michael Woolf.
Samuel's article is one of the few that tackles the question of itinerant workers in the Victorian City.
Tom Crook - 'Accommodating the Outcast: Common Lodging Houses and the limits of urban governance in Victorian and Edwardian London' Urban History 35:3 for those interested in the lodging house aspect.