Desirable Dwellings – Chapter Five: Material Standards

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1. Contrasts

People who have plenty of change, who live in good houses, and content themselves with going to church or chapel, but never visit ‘the fatherless and widow in their affliction’, have no idea of the condition of those whose doors they pass daily, and of the difficulties with which they have to grapple.

While composing this short chapter, I have been staring at two sources of information about the insides of houses (both taken from contemporary newspapers), and trying to find ways of weaving them together as a coherent whole. Frankly, I was tempted to give up. Although they come from the same place and the same period, they seem to belong to two quite separate worlds.

On one side are advertisements for auctions of the contents of individual houses; on the other, various reports on the living conditions of the poor. In one, I read of four-posters and feather-beds; in the other, of a family of seven possessing only one bed, without blanket, sheet, or any other covering. Admittedly, each source tends to give a biased impression – the advertisements emphasising luxury, and the reports on the poor high-lighting the worst cases – but each contains truth. The question is, which is the more representative of the ‘typical’ home? I try to answer this at the end of the chapter

The trouble with the auction notices is that they represent only those homes which had contents worth advertising. On the other hand (given this limitation) they are a random selection of cases, and those who composed them, wishing only to sell the goods, had no other motives. It seems to have been normal practice for families moving out of town to sell of their furnishings, which the advertisements list in detail. I am using only a dozen or so examples which caught my eye in the Preston Guardian of 1849, for sales in houses ranging across the middle class spectrum from No 17 Winckley Square to ’18 Glover-street, opposite the gasworks’. (A thorough study, using hundreds of examples over a long period, would be fascinating, but there is no room for it here.)

For the domestic conditions of the poor, I begin with a series of four eye-witness reports printed in the Preston Guardian in November and December 1844, written by John Barton, ‘Visitor’ (probably a member of the Preston District Visiting Society which combined Anglican evangelism with voluntary social work), supplementing them from other sources where necessary.

John Barton’s report, quoted above, continues:

We scarcely ever fail to go upstairs and examine the bedding, and it is here we find the greatest amount of concealed misery’. So, taking this hint, let us begin the nosey tour of the homes of Victorian Preston in the most private part of them, their bedrooms.

2. Upstairs

The middle class bedrooms in my small sample of advertisements all had comfortable beds. Four-post mahogany bedsteads were on sale in Winckley Square, Bushell Place, Fishergate, Avenham Road, Bow Lane, and Ribble Place (facing the river at the. bottom of Fishergate Hill). There were also: a ‘mahogany Tudor Bedstead’ in Avenham Road. a ‘half-tester iron bedstead’ at No. 10 Chaddock Street, and ‘Tent bedsteads’ and a ‘mahogany-caned Posted Bedstead’ at Nos. 80 and 64 Frenchwood Street respectively.

Such bedsteads were designed to carry their own protective drapery, and these were variously finished with hangings of ‘moreen’ or ‘drab’ (stout materials of wool, linen or cotton, suitable for curtains); ‘handsome chintz’ (printed and glazed cotton); or ‘green damask drapery. (Damask was cloth with elaborately woven designs originally in silk but later in other materials. And this example was in Avenham Road.) Less elaborate beds found in the same houses were ‘French bedsteads’, simply ‘bedsteads’, or ‘camp bedsteads’. We may easily guess who slept on these – except at No 18 Glover Street (opposite the gasworks) which had only ‘three pairs of camp bedsteads.

For lying on, there were feather beds, flock, hair and other mattresses, and palliasscs (under-mattresses filled with straw). All the houses in my sample had feather beds, some of them specified as ‘white goose feather’, but those in the humbler streets also advertised straw mattresses and palliasses. For repose of the head there were bolsters and pillows; for covering, large quantities of linen, blankets, quilts, counterpanes, and so on. The middle classes slept easily; except, perhaps, the small number of brave souls who had spent a day visiting the poor.

‘A Visitor’, writing about the causes of mortality in the town, mentioned ‘Want of Bedding. From this the poor suffer severely. Five, six, and seven in a bed! Few have adequate covering, and many little more than a cotton sheet or two.’ (Preston Guardian 23 November 1844)

John Barton was shocked to find

Bridget C-, living in J-ward, with four children . . . The bed upon which all five laid, including mother, sick son of the age of seventeen, and three others, as well as the covering was not fit for any human being . . . She had bought a bundle of straw with which to stuff the bed afresh

A- S-. S- street . . . a widow and seven children . . Upstairs there was only one wretched bed on the floor, on which was lying a poorboy in the typhus fever. This, with very meagre covering, was the only bed they had had for a long time for eight persons . . . The poor woman had not Iain down for three nights.

Elsewhere, a working shoemaker, with a wife and five children, had ‘one old dirty bed with neither blanket, nor sheet, nor any covering’. In a cellar down a narrow court were ‘a sickly female and two children, lying on the floor on straw.’ In another cellar, an old woman with a leg so bad she had not been able to lie down for four nights: ‘Under the bed the floor was very damp, and the doctor said this was the cause of her complaint.’ (This was in December.)

Many of these pitiable people were in such extreme poverty because they were out of work; they were out of work because they were ill; and many were ill because poverty forced them to live in such circumstances. Those who found themselves in this circular trap were not typical of the mill-operative majority in the town. On the other hand, given the smallness of working class houses, and the large size of their households, multiple occupation of beds must have been commonplace anyway. The only contemporary survey of this question which I have found is in the Rev. John Clay’s Report on the Sanatory Condition of Preston ( 1843), which was intended to rouse people to take action and therefore deliberately concentrated on the worst, selected a limited area in the south-eastern comer of the town, probably the handloom weaving colony near Horrockses works. This area, containing 422 dwellings, revealed ‘2,400 persons sleeping in 852 beds. i e an average of 2.8 persons to each bed.’ In 84 cases 4 persons slept in the same bed.

Bedding in working class homes was normally quite different from that in middle class houses. Joseph Livesey, who organised a bedding charity (and once found 7 persons in one bed), reported that beds were filled with straw or had only an old carpet for covering. During one hard winter he had personally distributed 900 sacks of chaff for new beds (at 8 pence a sack).

We look in vain for any other furniture in the ‘bedrooms’ of the poor, as described by the Visitors anyway. Middle class bedrooms, on the other hand, were cluttered with necessities, from the floor upwards. Carpets, matting, and ‘druggets’ (coarse woollen floor coverings), which the poor would have slept under, were here in their proper place, on the floor. No 17 Winckley Square had a ‘very fine Kidderminster carpet, but then, so did No. 10 Chaddock Street. Standard items of furniture were washstands with ‘chamber ware’ – a washing bowl together with a large jug in which the maid brought warm water for washing – and free-standing towel rails. And commodes, sometimes called ‘night commodes’: a commode was either a stand with a little cupboard containing a chamber pot, or else a cunningly designed wooden chair with the pot under a lid in the seat. All these were necessities, because as yet there were no bathrooms, even in Winckley Square. One or two sophisticated bedrooms also had bidets (No. 10 Bushell Place, and Avenham Road, for example).

Chests of drawers, dressing tables, and wardrobes, are also frequently mentioned in the advertisements: the best were of mahogany, and the others, simply described as ‘painted’, probably of deal. (These common deal furnishings, now assiduously stripped of their paint, are frequently seen in antique shops, advertised as ‘Victorian pine’.) At Ribble Place was a wardrobe with a dress cupboard at each end, and a ‘fine mottled birch wardrobe in French polish’; at No. 17 Winckley Square, a painted wardrobe ‘with double wings, and fitted up with drawers’. Some bedrooms were also equipped with chairs: ’12 chamber chairs in cane seats’ at No. 17 Winckley Square; and similar chairs at No.64 Frenchwood Street.

Last, but not least in significance, were ‘looking glasses’: smaller ones for viewing the face and hair, such as the ‘toilet looking glasses’ at No. 80 Frenchwood Street, and the ‘mahogany framed Toilet Looking glasses’ at No. 64; or full-length ones such as the ‘dressing glasses’ in Bow Lane. I doubt whether there were many looking glasses in the homes of the poor.

3. Downstairs

Coming downstairs, we find an even greater range between the extremes. At the lower extreme there was obviously a fixed bottom limit (no furniture at all), and some people were close to it, such as the shoemaker with a wife and five children, ages one to twelve, earning 10 to 11 shillings a week, who had lately come out of lodgings and taken a house,

but had nothing to begin house with. They had not a single chair. and their table consisted of a four-penny Irish butter tub, which they turned end up. This vessel served them for water-tub, washing-tub, table, and a seat. They had no pan to boil potatoes in.

The upper extreme seems to have been fixed only by the space available for stuffing things in. In a large house such as No. 5 Ribblesdale Place there was plenty of space, and on the death of the owner in 1851 the newspapers advertised the auction of:

The whole of the beautiful and valuable HOUSEHOLD FURNITURE . . . supplied within the last few months by the first houses in the trade, regardless of cost. and all new.

A lengthy but selective list mentions, among other things a massive mahogany telescopic dining table, sideboard, full dinner service, a suite of drawing room furniture in rosewood, carved mahogany hat and cloak stand, ‘valuable eight-days time piece’, oil paintings and water colour drawings by J.M.W. Turner, Hunt. David, Cox (etc), silver plated tea and coffee services, ‘capital kitchen dresser’, a cellar of wines ‘selected with the most critical taste in Claret, Burgundy, Madeira, Sauterne, Moselle, Hock, Champagne . . .’; and a Rifle, double-barrelled gun, and revolving pistol.

This was an ideal to which others aspired, according to their means and apparently almost regardless of space or convenience. A running inventory of all possible finishings mentioned in the advertisements would make tedious reading, so I shall pick out a few characteristic items, and leave the reader to dwell at leisure on the contents of the two examples printed here [?].

Dining rooms were furnished with the largest possible mahogany dining table, some with extra leaves and telescopic action, the one at Ribble Place being ten feet long. With the dining table were sets of mahogany framed chairs upholstered in hair cloth; and mahogany sideboards. In drawing rooms and parlours were sofas and chairs of similar material, and sometimes rocking chairs, but the real passion was for tables: occasional tables, card tables. ‘loo tables’ (loo was a kind of card game), circular tables, Pembroke tables (with drop leaves and gate legs), ‘Lady’s Work Tables’ (for sewing and embroidery), and writing desks. The social purpose of all these tables was to provide as many separate centres of conversation or activity as it was possible to fit into a room. Anyone who was bored with the conversation, or beaten at cards, could sit and stare sulkily at the lustre-ware on the shelves of the ‘what-not’, tinker with the inlaid musical-box; or if in a more aggressive mood, annoy everybody else by hammering out a hymn tune on the piano-forte. When silence tell, time ticked heavily away in an eight-day pendulum time piece. At No.80 Frenchwood Street, a small house already crammed with ‘Sofa, Sofa-bed, mahogany Pembroke and occasional Tables, and Lady ‘s Work Tables’, evidently leaving no room for a piano, music was provided by a ‘fine singing Canary-Bird, with elegant brass-wire wrought cage’.

4. Lighting

If the homes of such widely different social classes had anything at all in common, it was revealed at nightfall, for then almost everybody lit candles. The poorer majority used the traditional, inefficient, and smelly tallow candles, made of animal fat (22 ‘tallow chandlers’ were recorded by the census in 1851). Better-off people probably used wax candles, but the self-snuffing wax candle with a platted wick, familiar to us, was not introduced until the 1840s. The only alternatives to candles were oil lamps and gas light. But before the discovery and refinement of mineral oils such as paraffin, about 1850, oil lamps depended on fish or whale oil, and were unlikely to have been popular outside the fishing communities where such smells were familiar. Gas light had been used for street and factory lighting in Preston since 1815, but it was probably introduced only slowly into private houses – and then only the most advanced and expensive. The incandescent mantle, which gave out a brilliant light, was not invented until 1884; before then, gas gave light only from the naked flame of the ‘bat-wing’ jet, which not only made small rooms smelly and hot, but were suspected as dangerous.

The advertisements in my small sample therefore mention candlesticks or chandeliers, and rarely anything else; but one includes a ‘hall lamp’ (presumably oil); and in Avenham Road there was a ‘lacquered Gas Chandelier, with three burners, telescopic pipe, ornamental balance-weight, and cut ground-glass shades’. Such detail suggests that this was a novelty in 1844; but it is hard to be sure because in a large house built in that year at ‘Crow Hill, Oxford Street’, advertised in October 1850, ‘All the apartments are fitted up with gas’. Perhaps this was just the start of domestic gas lighting

5. Cooking, Storage and Laundry

While dependence on candlelight may have brought almost all householders down to the same level, cooking (etc) separated them into three distinct classes. Members of the top and the bottom classes either did no cooking themselves, or very little of it; but for opposite reasons. In wealthy households, cooking was done by servants in a kitchen which was either in the basement or in the rear wing. In poor households, especially those of the mill-operative classes, much of the cooking was done outside the home altogether, in a public bakehouse which was usually underground. Younger readers may think this a ‘likely tale’ but recent discoveries of such cellar bakehouses have proved it to be true; and the long history of the custom has been attested by the memories of old people, including one whose recollections of Preston between 1830 and 1850 were published in a local newspaper in 1892:

In Paradise-street and Vauxhall-road were public bakehouses, for not much cooking was attended to at home. There was one also at the bottom of Pleasant-street. To these places bread and dinners were taken from the neighbourhoods . . . (Richard Aughton Backward Glances at Old Preston, Preston Guardian January 1892)

The old rural custom of baking bread in a communal village bakehouse was well adapted to the long working day of the cotton mills, where so many of the women worked from dawn to dusk and beyond. They would prepare their dough and their hot-pots at night, drop them off at the bakehouse on their way to the mill before six o’clock the next morning, and collect them again, ready-cooked, on their way home in the evening.

Modern gas and electrical appliances, such as refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, ceramic hobs and microwave-ovens, have made it not only possible but apparently normal to combine many contradictory functions (hot and cold, wet and dry) in a single room which we call ‘the kitchen’. People of the early 19th century would not have believed that this was possible; and for them it was not. They really did need separate rooms for cooking, for washing up and laundry, and for food storage; and their relative standards of living might be assessed by the extent to which the accommodation or their houses made this possible.

The ideal, found in Preston in Winckley Square and its vicinity, was a whole suite of service rooms, placed in a basement if possible, but otherwise in a rear wing. Some of those in basements have survived almost unaltered. The most important room was the kitchen, with a large stone-framed rectangular fireplace, some of which may have had a cooking range equipped with a central grate, an oven on one side and a hob on the other. The range had been developed in the late 18th century following the invention of coke-smelting of iron, but it remained a fairly crude contraption, with a roasting spit mounted on the front. The fully developed oven-and-boiler range (toilsomely stoked, riddled, and black-leaded by our grandparents, and sometimes lovingly but innocently restored by ourselves) does not appear to have reached Preston until well into the second half of the 19th century.

Most families, and presumably all of them below the level of the comfortable middle class, cooked (if they cooked at all) on an open fire in a hob-grate. The physical evidence for this probably does not exist, as such crude and old-fashioned cooking grates would have been replaced by ranges, sooner or later, but occasional illustrations of the interior of the common man’s home show this sort of fireplace in use. Pots were hung over the fire or in front of it, on hooks; roasts were turned on a spit in front – either a proper iron spit on a frame, or a ‘poor man’s spit’ – .a piece of string hanging from the mantelpiece. Kitchens were hot, sweaty, and smelly.

Food storage ,on the other band, called fora cool larder, commonly provided by a room in the cellar fitted with stone shelving and sometimes with a large stone table called a ‘keeping stone’. Most middle class houses had a cellar larder. Those with the kitchen on the ground floor rather than in the basement would also have had a small working larder near the kitchen, and all would have had a pantry for dry foodstuffs.

The other essential accommodation was for wet functions, such as washing up and laundry. The better middle class houses had a room for each of these. The scullery, a small room near the kitchen and at the back of the house next to the drain (if there was one), was furnished with a slopstone. This was a large stone slab, fixed to the wall at a low level, with a shallow hollow in the upper surface and a drain hole in one corner. On it were placed the washing tubs and pails in which washing was done.

Laundry, especially in households which had plenty to wash, needed space, and in middle class houses this room was usually in the cellar. Its characteristic essential was a washing boiler or set-pot, which consisted of a deep iron bowl set in a brick base, with a small fireplace underneath and a chimney flue above. Many of these structures can still be found in cellars, but when they have been removed their former existence can be recognised by the flue, or remains of it in the wall above. A cellar floor sloping slightly towards a central drain hole is another sign. So are slopstones in a cellar. A fully equipped laundry room also had a fireplace with a hob grate: this was presumably for heating the pair of flat-irons needed when the washing was dry. The examples of such cellars which l have found were in Ribblesdale Place, Latham Street and Cross Street, but they must have been virtually universal in the servant-rich vicinity of Winckley Square.

Acute readers may have noticed that l have not mentioned taps in any of these rooms. This is not because they do not exist, but because they could not have been installed until after 1832 (as the next chapter [see Deadly Dwellings] explains). At one house in Ribblesdale Place there is a blocked doorway in the rear wall of the cellar, which once led to a flight of steps up to a pump in the back yard.

The full set of service rooms needed for stylish and comfortable living, was trimmed down for those who could afford only respectability, on the 3-room plan. The most important difference caused by a reduction in accommodation was that the kitchen took over the ground floor back room, (leaving only the front as a ‘reception room’). Built-in cupboards beside the kitchen fireplace replaced the pantry for storage of dry foods, but there was still a storage cellar under the front room, usually with stone shelves. The two wet functions – washing-up and laundry – were now combined in a scullery in the rear extension. Most of these sculleries have since been converted for use as kitchens, but their original function is often revealed by the remains of the set-pot flue and its chimney. (The old slopstone may be in the yard, enjoy mg a new lease of life as a miniature flower bed).

Although there were obviously some design compromises in the respectable 3-room house, the basic separation of functions was still possible, but this began to break down in the 2-room plan house, where functions had to be doubled. The essential minimum of respectability, the front parlour, could be retained only by using the back room as both kitchen and scullery: a large kitchen fireplace in the back room was almost (but not quite the last claim to a standard of living above that of the unmistakably working class. The other was the cellar under the front room, doubling as larder and laundry.

Below this level, we come to the vast majority of the ‘terraced’ houses of Preston built on the 2- or 3-room plan but without cellars. Here, compromise was a way of life. For one thing, the lack of cool storage for food must have inclined people to live from hand-to-mouth, even if poverty didn’t force them to. The only separation of functions which was possible was between hot-and-dry and cool-and-wet. Whether 2- or 3-room plan, all these houses had a scullery. The trouble was, in the 2-room plan the back room was the scullery, doubling as the laundry (with a set-pot). The front room was therefore the kitchen, doubling as everything else. In both plans, the staircase was physically in the back room but in 3-room houses it rose from an entrance hall at the front, and in 2-room houses from one corner of the scullery.

Given the labour and inconvenience of cooking on an open grate, and the long hours of work in the mill for six days a week, it is hardly surprising that ‘not much cooking was attended to at home’. And. with an almost complete lack of tap water until the late 1840s not much washing or laundry could have been done either. It was the sanitary implications of this practical reality which, in 1848, persuaded the Town Council to build Preston’s first public Baths and wash-houses.

People who had to go out for their cooking and washing, who rented their houses by the week, and then spent 10 or 12 hours of every day (except Sunday) out at work anyway, must have had an understanding of ‘home’ quite different from that of the middle classes above them. The home-and-family values cultivated by the Victorians (and passed on to us) were the creation of those who could afford a middle class standard of living. They could afford privacy (and probably needed it); whereas the great mass of working people, in some of their most basic functions, lived communally (and probably needed to also).

6. Relative Standards

Returning to the question of what was the typical standard of living in early 19th century Preston, the main difficulty is the absence of information about material standards between the extremes. I simply do not know how to find out how many households had mattresses and blankets rather than straw or chaff beds, or tables and chairs rather than upturned butter tubs. All I can suggest is using global figures to estimate the number of households in crudely-different social classes.

For example, the census abstracts tell us that there were 2,115 female ‘domestic servants’ (including ‘housekeepers’) in 1851, and this total would include daily maids as well as resident servants. This gives us a theoretical maximum number of middle class households enjoying a ‘servant-employing’ standard of living. But we know that a large minority employed two or more servants, so the real number of middle class households by this definition was probably between 1,500 and 2,000. The total number of inhabited houses in the town at the same time was 11,348. Therefore the number of households in Preston which were not middle class (in this sense) was probably between about 9,500 and 10,000, say 85 per cent.

A similar global estimate can be derived from figures of water prices and rents given in G T Clarke’s Report of 1849: out of about 11,000 houses, about 8,000 were then supplied with water, about 7,200 of these being rented at £10 a year or under. Adding the 3,000 without water, we have some 10,200 rented at £10 per annum or less or 92 per cent of all the houses in the town. We may fairly estimate that about 10 per cent of all households enjoyed ‘middle class’ standards of living.

Finally, there is the evidence of a comprehensive survey of the domestic economy of operatives in one small district published in the Moral Reformer (February 1832). In this district, 243 families were recorded, 139 of whom were handloom weavers. The average size of families was 5.3 and their average weekly income was 11/10d (11 shillings/10 pence), or 2/2d per person. But the handloom weaving families among them, paying higher rents because of their attached workshops (2/6d or 2/9d. compared with 2/- or 2/3d), as well as the costs of some of their working materials, were poorer than this average. Deducting rent, taxes, and fuel from their earnings left them with an average disposable income of 1/1d a week per person; in the ’58 worst cases’, only 8d a week.

Whether the national average standard of living rose or fell as a result of the Industrial Revolution – a question which has caused quarrels among professional historians – any measurably difference between the end of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th was as nothing compared with the differences which existed side by side within a single community during that period. In Preston the theoretical average was low, and most people lived below it.

When Queen Victoria was still a young woman, very few of her subjects in this town were living in homes with standards of living which we have carelessly come to think of as ‘Victorian’. But if indoors was bad, outdoors was worse. (See Deadly Dwellings).

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