Desirable Dwellings – Chapter Four: The Merely Respectable

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See also: Nigel Morgan’s Social and Political Leadership in Preston 1820-60

1. Housing and the Respectable Middle Class

Many people in Preston were sharply reminded of where they stood socially by the experience of the Great Strike and Lockout of 1853-4. At a meeting of shopkeepers (and the like) to consider their plight in 1854 one speaker said:

They would be well aware that there were two conflicting interests in this town – the employers and the employed, and there was only one publicly recognised body which occupied a medium between the two, and that was the body of tradesmen and shopkeepers (Preston Guardian 1 April 1854)

The housing in Avenham to the east of Bushell Place shows the architectural standing of this ‘body of tradesmen and shopkeepers’, and their domestic standing, for here were the streets with an average of less than one resident domestic servant per household.

There is another sharp difference to be recognised in this neighbourhood. Walking down Cannon Street and over Cross Street to Avenham Road or Chaddock Street, we cross a frontier between European tradition and the English deviation from it. Whereas in Europe throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century, it was perfectly normal for middle class townsfolk to live in apartments over town centre shops, in England by the later 19th century they were living in houses in the suburbs, having separated home from work.

Shopkeepers and tradesmen living in the traditional mode, over the shop, required three-storey buildings, the ground floor being used for their trade and the upper floors for family life. Despite modern commercial redevelopment in the town centre, there are still some surviving examples of such buildings in all the main streets, including one in the very centre of the town at the corner of Fishergate and Cheapside (now Burton’s), several in Fishergate itself and Church Street, and many more in Friargate. but the best place to appreciate the form and appearance of such houses is Cannon Street, off the south side of Fishergate. Built between 1809 and 1818, Cannon Street represents a continuation of the old pattern, with domestic accommodation over shops and offices (and some basement workshops). Census returns show that in 1851 these buildings were teeming with family life; and one can still sense the presence of the tailors. butchers, master bakers, jewellers and so on, who lived in them – with their wives, children, servants and apprentices.

Fig. 1. Cannon Street

Beyond Cross Street, we climb gently into a new world built on the framework of a very old one. The area known as Avenham is a broad brow between two brooks running into the Ribble. Syke Brook, the main source of water for the little medieval town (long since covered over), forms its northern boundary, approximately marked by the line of Cross Street, and Swill Brook is its southern boundary. At the beginning of the 19th century this brow was still divided into long narrow, strips running southwards almost the whole way between the two brooks, a pattern which was almost certainly created by ancient enclosure of strips in one of Preston’s medieval ‘open fields’. Winding across these strip-like fields was a track – Avenham Lane – which led from the bottom of Turks Head Court to the meadows which later became Avenham Park.

Fig. 2. Avenham on Baines’ map. [Frenchwood Tannery can be seen unnamed at bottom right alongside Swill Brook].
Between 1809 and about 1840 these ancient fields were sold piecemeal for the building of houses. As the sequence of maps shows, the boundaries of the fields dictated the line of the streets; and, in some cases, the size of the houses and their yards.

Avenham Road was the first, the street already laid out in 1809 but as yet without any buildings. By 1818 the first houses there were occupied by a solicitor, an attorney, a coach and harness maker, a flour dealer, and a couple of tailors – at least three of whom had offices or workshops in the old streets or courtyards of the town centre. A few of the houses in Avenham Road were 3-storeyed, like Cannon Street, otherwise, apart from one or two in Great Avenham Street and Latham Street, all the houses in this locality were of only two storeys: and all of them had cellars.

Fig. 3. Avenham Road

For several years the rear windows of Avenham Road overlooked fields, but in 1825 Little Avenham Field (‘eligibly situated on the east side of Avenham Road’) was advertised as building land, together with Great Avenham Field at the top of the brow to the south. The first purchasers evidently preferred the more open site on what became Great Avenham Street, and by 1830 there were more than thirty houses there. The other streets of this neighbourhood were added during the 1830s: on the townward side of Avenham Lane, Chaddock Street followed by Glover Street, and on the further side of the lane, Frenchwood Street and Latham Street (each of these pairs flanking the street already built). Myres’ map shows the stage reached by the mid-1830s. It also shows there was an interesting tendency for the first houses to be built at the end of the street furthest from the town. This had already happened on both sides of Avenham Road, where there were houses only at the top end in 1812; and the same process in Latham Street is still quite obvious in the differing appearance of the houses – a small group of late Georgian houses at the far end contrast with the rather forbidding Victorian terrace (‘Cuerden Place 1848’) at the near end.

Fig. 4. 17 and 18 Latham Street
Fig. 5. Cuerden Place in Latham Street

Unlike the Stylish and Comfortable localities around Winckley Square where the great bulk of Preston’s ruling class lived, the Respectable colony on the eastern fringe is only a sample of this social level in the town, because geographical segregation was both diffused and slower among tradesmen and shopkeepers. If the Respectable colony of Avenham had any particular characteristic of its own, it was probably that this was the first residential suburb for people who had neither trade nor shop: teachers, clerks, minor officials, travelling salesmen, and so on, whose incomes and standards of living were similar to shopkeepers and tradesmen, but whose working contacts and ambitions drew them towards the fashionable folk. Among them were certainly a few people of reforming mentality, interested in Liberal political causes and self-help by moral and mental improvement of themselves, their families and fellow-men in general. The great apostle of such causes in Preston, Joseph Livesey, was living in Great Avenham Street in 1830 (according to the Land Tax book), and so were several of his friends and allies. They were the ‘Guardian readers’ of the 1830s and 1840s, especially when Livesey himself began publishing the Preston Guardian in 1844. Unfortunately, Great Avenham Street soon became known as an unhealthy locality (whoever laid it out had not bothered to put in a sewer); and by 1838 Joseph Livesey had taken his family back to Church Street.

In the census returns for these streets at the middle of the century, one occupational category really stands out – those who apparently did not work for a living. Nearly half the heads of households in Latham Street, Chaddock Street and Avenham Road gave their occupations as ‘Independent’ or ‘Proprietor of Houses’ or sometimes ‘Retired Builder’. Such numbers suggest that this was a favoured locality for petty landlords who lived on the rents of working class dwellings, and the next section will look at one of the methods they may have used to achieve this position – local Building Societies.

Otherwise the rich social mixture of the place can only be fully conveyed by the census returns themselves, but perhaps a brief character sketch of two of these six streets will capture its essence. I take Great Avenham Street and Frenchwood Street as examples.

Fig. 6. Frenchwood Street
Fig.7. Great Avenham Street

In 1851, almost exactly half of the houses in these two streets contained resident servants, mostly housemaids. In both streets the largest single occupational category of heads of households consisted of those whose income came from property or investments, such as annuitants, fund-holders, and proprietors of land or houses. In Frenchwood Street lived eight shopkeepers (grocers, drapers, chemist, pork merchant etc.), and in Great Avenham Street another four, but these were of humbler station, two of them being beersellers. The range of occupation was otherwise wide: Frenchwood Street included an attorney, an architect, a cotton manufacturer (i.e. employing handloom weavers), five skilled craftsmen (e.g. plasterers, joiner, coach builder), and a cheese merchant who was one of Joseph Livesey’s sons. There were five teachers or ministers of religion in Frenchwood Street, six in Great Avenham Street, and roughly similar numbers of coal, corn or spirit merchants; and in Great Avenham Street, William Livesey, proprietor of the Preston Guardian (employing two resident servants). At the opposite end of the scale were five artisans: in Frenchwood Street a compositor, and in Great Avenham Street a dyer, a machinist and a brush-maker and a joiner who were both still journeymen (and therefore worked for other men). Three people in Frenchwood Street were, or had become by force of circumstances, lodging house keepers.

The average size of the households of these people was much lower than in either the wealthier area to the west or the poorer to the east: 4.36 for these two streets together. Most houses contained between three and five people, but three of them contained ten or more, including the home of the cotton manufacturer Joseph Gillow, who was a leading member of the local Catholic community and had a household of twelve, including three servants, at No. 50 – a larger home on the corner of Avenham Place. This was a Comfortable household isolated among the merely Respectable.

As far as one can tell from the census returns, wives in these Respectable homes did not go out to work. Perhaps one of the reasons for tradesmen and shopkeepers separating their homes from their shop was to remove any doubt on this matter, so that their womenfolk could move among ladies as equals. But this does not mean that the women did not work, for only half of them had the assistance of living-in servants, and how many of the others had daily maids we shall never know; nor how many of their daughters acted as unpaid maids to the household. There were two or three female heads of households whose occupation as ‘dressmaker’ or ‘schoolmistress’ show that there were some women who had to work, and there may well have been some wives who did some paid needlework without wishing to confess this fact to the enumerator (or whose husbands forbade them to do so). In this respect we are not only at the respectable fringe of the area as a whole, but also at the fringe of respectability.

The relationship between Respectability in these streets and Style a short walk to the west is perhaps most delicately indicated by the presence of a few people who must have been acceptable in the most wealthy households for certain well-defined purposes: the ‘French Teacher’ of Frenchwood Street, the ‘Tutor’ of Great Avenham Street, the ‘Teacher of Classics’ of Latham Street (later headmaster of the Grammar School), the ‘Professor of Music’ at No 29 Ribblesdale Place – and the ‘Dancing Master’ who lived at the top of Chaddock Street.

2. Building Societies

In the early 19th century a Building Society was just what the name suggests: a small group of local people who clubbed together to pool regular savings for the purpose of building houses for themselves, usually for their own occupation. In this period very few people owned the houses they lived in; almost all rented them from others, but almost a third of the houses in Great Avenham Street in 1830 were owned by their occupants (nine out of thirty recorded in the Land Tax book). One of these owner-occupiers was Joseph Livesey, who did all he could to encourage ‘self-help’ organisations such as the Mechanics Institute and the Friendly Societies – which included these terminating Building Societies. This strongly suggests that many of the houses in these streets may have been built with the assistance of Building Societies.

‘The Preston Building Society’ was one of several such societies in the town. A copy of its Rules (held at Lancashire Archives) shows who formed it, what it was for, and how it worked. It was formed in 1822 and run by twelve trustees, whose occupations (given in the Rule book) were much the same as those of the residents of the Respectable colony in Avenham; (eg a manufacturer, a druggist, a bookseller, a schoolmaster, etc). Their rules state that the members ‘have agreed, by monthly subscriptions, to raise a sufficient Fund to enable each of them, to build or purchase one or more Dwelling house or Dwelling houses.’

Like all other Friendly Societies at that time, the members were to meet regularly throughout the year (usually at a named public house or inn), in this case on one Monday every month, ‘until every member shall have received his or their purchase money’. Attendance at the meetings (from 7 30 pm to 9 30 p m ‘by the church clock’) appears to have been compulsory, and there were stiff fines for late attendance at the club room (hence the reference to the church clock). Members were also fined for attending ‘disordered by liquor’, for using indecent language, or for fighting.

The subscription was ten shillings per month for a full share, five shillings for a half share. A full share gave an entitlement to the final sum of £100, and the privilege of having the money was sold to the subscribers one at a time ‘as the trustees appoint’. If a member was building a house, he had to deposit his security (a mortgage. or deed in trust) in the club box, to which there were four keys, each held by a different person; and his money would be paid to him a third at a time, beginning when the trustees were ‘satisfied that he has built a sufficient portion of the building’, and ending when the trustees had examined and approved the finished house. If a member was buying his house he could have the whole amount in one payment. After building or purchasing their houses, members continued to pay a slightly reduced subscription, until all had been provided for, and the club was wound up.

Little Building Societies like this not only helped individual families to put a roof over their heads; they also provided a source of capital which enabled men of modest means and frugal habits to become owners of ‘property’ and landlords in their own right. A notice of auction of building society shares shows how an ordinary shopkeeper had used two different societies to become a proprietor of houses – in this case, working class cottages in the area north of Church Street. Such connections with building societies probably supported many of the numerous petty landlords who appear in the Land Tax books; and may explain the ‘independence’ of some of the inhabitants of Avenham. Evidence for this is hard to find (and I found this example only by accident), so for the meanwhile I am forced to rely on a mere scrap to justify my hunch that the pattern was common.

The value of the shares in ‘The Preston Building Society’ – £l00 – was approximately equivalent to the cost of building one house of the type found in Frenchwood Street or Chaddock Street (for example). Even without more positive evidence, it is reasonable to suggest that many of the smaller houses in Avenham, and elsewhere in the town were built by members of modest Building Societies. With such a theory in mind, close examination of the houses themselves becomes quite interesting.

3. The Houses

Chaddock Street is a good example. Although at first glance each side seems to be a continuous row, and all the houses look the same, there are some small signs that they were not built continuously, and that they are not all the same. Vertical joins in the brickwork at irregular intervals show that houses were being built one, two or four at a time On the east side of the street, for example, Nos 6. 7. 8 and 9 were built as one group, Nos 10 and 11 as a pair, the next four in a group, then No. 10 on its own, followed by Nos 17 and 18 as a pair. And so on. Such a sequence might well be a result of the periodical maturing of shares in terminating building societies, and it is observable in all the other streets of this area as well.

The main visible difference between the houses is in the arrangement of access to their back yards. At the south end of each side of Chaddock Street the back yards of the end houses could be reached along a narrow path behind them. This was not possible in the middle of the row, so a through passage or lobby was made from the front to the back. When two houses were built as a pair, the lobby was placed in the centre, between them: but when a house was built on its own, then the lobby was at one side – presumably the side where a house had already been finished. On the east side, for example, Nos. 10 and 11 and Nos. 12 to 15 have central lobbies, but No. 16 has a side lobby; and similar differences can be seen on the opposite side of the street.

Fig.8.  Chaddock Street

Despite the pleasing architectural harmony of these streets, the houses are varied in size and type. Almost all are 2-storeyed, and single-fronted (i.e. one room wide. with the entrance hall at one side). The important variations are in their ground plans and cellars, and in the arrangement of access to the back yards. The foundation of respectability – both literally and metaphorically – was the cellar: and the function of this depended on whether the house was built on a simple 2-room plan, or a 3-room plan with the third room in a back extension. The differences show up only when one explores the buildings in detail, as comparison of No. 9 and No. 44 Frenchwood Street demonstrates.

Fig. 9. No. 9 Frenchwood Street
Fig. 10. No 44 Frenchwood Street

No. 9 (on the east side) was originally built on the 2-room plan. Downstairs, the front room was the parlour and the back room was the living-kitchen. The cellar under the front room, reached by steps leading from the kitchen, has a drain hole in the middle of the floor, and a washing-boiler or ‘set-pot’ under the chimney: the cellar was evidently the washing or laundry room. No. 44 (on the west side) was built on the 3-room plan, the back extension providing a scullery which originally had a set-pot in one comer – the flue for it is visible upstairs. As at No. 9, the cellar is under the parlour, but the steps to it run down from the scullery rather than the kitchen, and it has no drainhole and no set-pot. The function of this cellar was therefore storage, probably of food. Anyone who has been housewife to a family will need little imagination to appreciate the differences between a house with a scullery/wash-house and a cellar, and one with only a cellar. Quite apart from the advantage of the extra useable volume provided by the scullery, the comfort of the living kitchen must have been far greater, the scullery serving as a porch to both the cellar door and the back door, instead of having both these in the kitchen.

There were comparable differences upstairs. Both had three bedrooms, but in No. 9 (on the 2-room plan), the third bedroom was made by taking space from the front bedroom, making a very small room over the entrance hall. At No. 44 the two main bedrooms were large, and provided with fireplaces for winter comfort, the third bedroom was over the scullery, with no heating of its own, and would have served for the accommodation of the servant, if the family had one.

So great were the advantages of the 3-room plan that a rear extension was sometimes added to houses built originally on the 2-room plan: this had in fact happened at No. 9 Frenchwood Street (in combination with No. 10), but other 2-room houses in the row on this side remain in their original form to this day.

None of these 2-room houses in the row (Nos. 2-10) had a resident servant in 1851. One can easily understand why not

Whether built singly or in groups, of two storeys or three, with or without rear extensions of various kinds, or any of the other minor variations which were possible within such narrow limits, there was one feature of these houses which distinguished them from their wealthier neighbours to the west, and was significant for the future of the town as a whole. This was the arrangement for access to their back yards.

Except for Cuerden Place in Latham Street, which shared a back road with Bushell Place, none of these streets had back road access to their yards. There is a rear footpath between part of Great Avenham Street and Latham Street, and another at the top of Chaddock Street. Otherwise, the only way to the yards of each street was through the buildings themselves, from the front.

The reason for this seems to be that the fields in which these streets were laid out were long and narrow, so that rows of houses were built with their back yard walls where the boundary hedges had been. This field pattern was probably a result of enclosures of ploughing strips in one of the ‘open fields’ of medieval Preston: so the peculiar plan of terraced housing in Preston could be said to be an indirect consequence of medieval farming.

There were already many working class houses in the town where no provision had been made for this at all, so that whatever needed to be taken out of the yard had to be carried through the living rooms. One or two houses in Avenham Road appear to have had this handicap, and a row of eleven on the east side of Frenchwood Street would have had, if another row of houses had been built behind them. Something about this inconvenience made Itself felt so strongly that the builders of all the other Respectable houses provided a separate through-passage or ‘lobby’ from the from to the back of each house or pair of houses

The through-lobby appears to have been Preston’s peculiar contribution to the history of town houses in this country. Its function Is explained below, and its Impact for the rest at the century will emerge at the rest of this book and in its sequel [Deadly Dwellings]. The Respectable middle class of early 19th century Preston had set a standard winch turned out to be unfortunate.

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