Join Hazel Baker as she talks with Dr Gillian Williamson as they discuss what it was like to be a lodger and a landlord in Georgian London. How living conditions encouraged the rise of coffee houses and how lodging houses had their own micro hierarchy.
Find out what James Boswell did to get kicked out of his lodgings in Downing Street and how a fire in Soho provided a real life account of the assorted neighbours.
I am an independent scholar. I received my PhD from Birkbeck, University of London in 2014 My thesis, which was published in 2016, was on the leading 18th-century monthly magazine, The Gentleman’s Magazine, and the way it articulated new ideas about masculinity and gentlemanliness. Since then I have been working on lodging as a socially and culturally important way of life in 18th-century towns and cities.
Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to our London history podcast, where we share our love of London, its people, places and history. This podcast is designed for you to learn things about London that most Londoners don’t even know, all in 20 minutes. I am your host Hazel Baker, qualified London tour guide and CEO of www.londonguidedwalks.co.uk
Our walking tours are for those who love London and want to make the most of their time here, no matter whether it’s for a weekend or a lifetime. We aim to deliver insightful and well-prepared London guided walks with genuine enthusiasm and professionalism. And in this podcast, we try to do exactly the same.
Get that cup of tea, put your feet up and enjoy!
Hazel Baker: So much happened in the Georgian period it’s easy to get absorbed into the big stories. In previous episodes, we’ve covered the financial disaster of the South Sea Bubble in episode 27, a Georgian ghost story, which intrigued both Dr. Johnson and the Duke of York in episode 28. We have looked at what the Georgians ate with The Regency Cook in episode 55 and how they managed their dental hygiene in episode 71.
Today, we’re going to carry on with that theme about regular folk, those trying to earn a living or trying to find somewhere safe and affordable to live in London.
Hazel Baker: Joining me in the studio today is Dr. Gillian Williamson, who has written a thought provoking book called Lodgers, Landlords, and Landladies in Georgian London. I can certainly recommend this book as it pieces together aspects of Georgian life that I hadn’t really considered before.
We are lucky to have whole streets in London that were built in the Georgian period, late 1700s and the early 1800s. But looking at those houses, there is something that we often miss. And this is where I start my conversation with Gillian
Dr Gillian Williamson: People now don’t appreciate quite how these elegant looking houses, , the classic Georgian terraces. If it wasn’t a really elite area like Grosvenor square, the houses housed a wide variety of people who were not anything to do with the main household.
In the Soho fire in 1785, it showed where all these people literally spilled into the street at nine o’clock at night. And you realise that the house doesn’t have a family and, , perhaps a servant or two, but they also have products, 3, 4, 5 people who are completely unrelated to her, just renting a room or.
Hazel Baker: And to think that is something that in the modern day, when you come to London, I came to London 20 years ago now, and there was no option of having my own space. I had to share a flat with other people and that was what I was doing all the way up to my mid to late thirties. There was no other option.
Dr Gillian Williamson: I think people, historians, often actually prefer change in some ways, or they’re looking for change, but I see lodging has shown, there is some deep continuity. It’s about the way people are compelled to live in life.
And also some continuity as of what it’s like when people are forced into some sort of shared space with people they wouldn’t necessarily otherwise have worn to or come across, , there are continuity’s about people stealing other people’s food from the kitchen. , it’s very much like student life today’s now ‘Who took my milk” or my daughter went to the fridge to find that someone had not only eaten her cheese, but they’d actually not even used a knife, just bitten the corner off. And it seemed that that sort of thing is the same.
There was an American gentleman, Samuel Curb who was a refugee from America because he was a loyalist. He was loyal to the crown. So he couldn’t stay in Salem, Massachusetts so he came to London and got into a fight. I think it wasn’t a terrible fight, but whether someone has stolen his lettuce from a kitchen in a house where he was lodging.
That is such a piece of continuity. And yet some things about the way they were living were very different.
Hazel Baker: Yeah, I liked how you highlighted the hierarchy of which you would actually lodged in the, the lady from the back room as it were.
Dr Gillian Williamson: I came across that, both in satirical writing that was from a lady in the back room. So looking down on that was from a piece of satirical journalism. I came across it. In order for it to work as a piece of humour, it’s got to be true, isn’t it? You’ve got to have enough truth in it that people understand exactly what you’re saying.
So it was fascinating that there’s this hierarchy of which is the best room in the front to the back, which level in a Georgian house to be in. I also want you to. Seeing that it’s sort of quite logical, the first floor room at the front will have those bigger windows we are used to, it’s more spacious because the stairs usually take up the space at the back of the house. And so it’s right across the front of the house. So this is obviously the best room. It’s lighter, it’s raised above street level, but you’ve not got to walk those extra flights of stairs. So you could charge. And that was a room that people offered. In their own household. These are shopkeepers in Soho who are landlords and landladies or a widow.
They would often choose to rent this best room out because it’s the easiest, I think it was the most valuable room and it was the easiest to make it look attractive. When someone came knocking at the door and showed it to them, then you also get these houses where there’s a whole range of people, of all social classes stacked in the house.
If you like right up to the garrett. Well, again, going back, , you said about the content street fire, and so in 1785, you’ve got everybody from some quite well to do genteel lasers on that first floor at the front room to somebody in the attic who’s described as a lodger was an oil and vinegar seller.
So I can’t imagine that she had taken that round the streets to the basket or knocked at people’s doors. So you’ve got everybody from genteel retired ladies to a street seller or stacked in this one house, which is also a family house and the shop, , it’s just a very, very busy crowded space with people across the social spectrum.
Hazel Baker: Yeah. I agree. It got me thinking about how as a woman wanting independence. So you mentioned Aphra Behn. What was the social price to living in lodging houses, also writing as a profession, you’re on the outskirts of society anyway, writing for a living anyway. Having somewhere safe to live, having a roof over your head it’s so important. What was the price women had to pay in order to have her own home, because you’re not living with your family, are you?
Dr Gillian Williamson: No, you’re not. So you’re not also, you’re not living, you’re single. And there were plenty of these single women living in lodgings and they were not sex workers, which was the cultural portrayal of it.
These were ordinary working women ranging from that oil and vinegar seller to, for example, the actors within each bowl to, I covered a lot in the book because that’s an example of a well. Successful celebrity woman who never lived in any rooms and other people’s houses and appears to have no aspirations to, I think she gained independence by that.
She didn’t have to live under the protection, but saw the stifling protection of a male relative. But the price you pay is it’s a fragile relationship. You can lose your home as a lodger, very rapidly. If something goes wrong with the host household, if someone dies for seal, their circumstances change, you then get stopped the whole business.
You’ve got to find somewhere again. So it’s, it’s not permanent. And I suppose you could feel there was an element of risk to your reputation because of that. Cultural belief that women by themselves like that, or possibly prostitutes, obviously there’s bold had a firm reputation of her own as an actor and writer.
And she was also a widow, which I think may have helped, that she has somebody widow, albeit a brief marriage and not frankly, a particularly contented one. I think perhaps her widowed status gave her a certain standing. Respectability, but yes, I think it’s perhaps that you have, but I don’t think the women seem to have worried about it.
I’m Elizabeth, Elizabeth Carter. There’s a gentle scholar, lived in lodgings. She doesn’t seem concerned about what people would think. It’s quite comfortable. You’ve got an, probably a landlady to be your companion and have a bit of chat with a cup of tea. And if it goes well, you might even go on little shopping trips together and it’s all quite pleasant. So I’m not sure they do lose very much on this slight reputational loss.
Hazel Baker: Like you mentioned about potential shopping trips and that actually having someone to talk to. It’s nowadays where, especially with the pandemic, we’re talking about people living on their own and really suffering from loneliness.
Whereas if you’re living in a house with other people and they may be, are as equally beholden to you because obviously you’re providing the income. There is a value of exchange.
Dr Gillian Williamson: Yes, I think so. I think in terms of social exchange, obviously fundamentally it’s about money. Someone wants to pay a fair price or cheap price for a room and the person letting the room what’s that bit of extra cash income. So money is always at the core of it, whatever people pretend. Over and over again, in newspaper advertisements, either someone looking for lodgings or someone offering a room to rent this thing about some company or sociability is mentioned as a sort of an added benefit of their arrangements.
And clearly. Household Singleton householder, eh, it’s lonely sick to you. It’s a lot to you. It’s a lonely city. It’s a city of strangers, constant in migration, a very high death rate typically of children and its population is really only growing because there’s constant throughput of people arriving from the provinces or from overseas.
And I think you can imagine them arriving at the docks. Like another gentleman I cover is Joseph Emin and an Armenian who arrived in London in about 1751 from Calcutta for a merchant family. It was a young man. He speaks good English. He’s been to an English school in Calcutta. He writes at the docks.
He knows nobody in London. He’s beholding really to any fellow Armenian. He can somebody up with, but just landlords and landladies are really important thinkers. He says it’s awesome. He was a father and she a mother to me. So I think it can sometimes have that relationship as well. Almost a caring relationship, but always with that core of the cash, the cash transaction behind it.
Hazel Baker: Yeah. I think that that’s something that we kind of forget don’t we in terms of the human to human relationship, not just the cold hard cash. And I remember you mentioning food as well as lodging. So, I can’t remember her name. Now, the actress lady she moans about the food could be better.
Dr Gillian Williamson: I was probably Elizabeth Inchbald. Yeah, she cause she also, she always affected me, always lived in launching sex once or twice when she stayed with friends briefly between lodgings and when she became elderly and not so well by elderly to us, it doesn’t seem that old to be honest or not to me anyway, , and she’s not wanting quite so much independence.
She was living in a lodging house. That’s an effect on the way everybody was like an older person. And you were looked after a bit more. Yes. And the food wasn’t. But then you don’t have to take it, this is the great thing about it. You can, you can have the. And then lots of people do have board as well as lodgings, but it’s a sort of a flexible arrangement.
You don’t have to have the landlady’s food. If you don’t want company at the table or you find the food too much. And often it’s the hours of eating that people didn’t like, I think landlords and landladies, they tend to be from what we’d call the middling sort. So the middle-class trading pharmacy and they do things like get up, have their meals and go to bed early compared to like.
Certainly raffish people about town like James Boswell, and they usually find the hours a bit on bearable. So a bit, but you can have them do everything from catering in your room, , buying snacks, a loaf of bread, a piece of cheese, and each in your room to going out and eating with friends and sort of cheap top pals, or perhaps a slightly more up market if time or getting a takeaway.
I think until doing this, I hadn’t realised how much, quite a lot of London, how important were take away meals. I’m an owner of a goal. So it talks about when he’s living in cheap lodgings and working as a, the, in the city that his dinner was something between two pewter plates from the cook shop, which he took back. And so like a student now, perched on the edge of his bed or something, eating this sort of lukewarm pie. And there’s a whole street.
Yes, it’s fascinating. And then, so that’s sort of continuity in some ways. With the sort of life of a particularly younger lodger with the life of a modern student’s life; you’re in this one role, the confined room and got everything in it. You’re working in it, sleeping in it. And I think the big point of change is you’ve also got your chamber pot in it, in the 18th century.
People nearly always ask, what do they do about going to the toilet? And it’s no worse, of course, than being anybody else who had got a chamber pot. The householders probably had a chamber pot in their room as well. So, you have all that going on in your room and it’s all a very cramped space.
And I’m just amazed that some people like Anglo-Irish novelist, playwright and poet Oliver Goldsmith or Samuel Johnson or Elizabeth Ingoldsby and William Blake produced great and surviving works of art while living in a room about 14 foot square. And doing everything in it. I think it really made me think about the space these people had at their disposal.
And then it makes you think about why the rise of things like the coffee house was so popular. Probably because so many people were living in such a little room that it’s quite nice to get out.
Hazel Baker: I lived in Covent Garden for over five years. I had my one room, as you said, everything was in it and I just had to get out. I lived life by not being at home.
Dr Gillian Williamson: Yeah. So then you get this thing where people with a precarious income, particularly people who are sort of hack-writers, I feel terrible saying the max about someone like got Oliver Goldsmith or Samuel Johnson’s whose reputations have sort of gone before them, but there were not wealthy men on the back of their writing.
You could economise; you take a cheap room, like a garrett or something at the back on the second floor, one of the nastier rooms in the house. And you’re not paying very much for that, but because there’s this infrastructure in London of things outside where you live, you, you don’t have to, your room is not on show to anybody noticed Samuel Johnson passed on this advice: You can live cheap in a garrett for 18 pence a week and just tell someone, you can find me at such and such coffeehouse so you don’t have to reveal the squalor of your accommodation because there is (in London), this big infrastructure of places to meet people out outdoors; go for a walk in a park or sit in a warm coffee house.
Yeah. So I think that adds a little layer to why we think 18th century people valued conversation and social ability so much in these settings where they mix socially. And I think it’s part to get out of the room. As simple as that.
Hazel Baker: I think you mentioned James Boswell when he’s living in Downing Street and a deal that he did with his landlord where they could have one nice meal in the room with his friends a month?
Dr Gillian Williamson: He could have meals at a shilling ago, which he didn’t really do often, he was allowed to use the parlour in the mornings and gradually in his journal, he starts calling it “my parlour”, but it’s not, of course, it’s Mr. And Mrs. Terry’s parlour. And he uses every morning and he reads the paper. The hairdresser comes and does his hair every day.
And then towards the end of his stay, And it was what broke the relationship. He used it in the evening for a party with his friends and they were making a lot of noise on his own admission. He and his young friends. He was a young man at the time, they were making a lot of noise. They’d been drinking the householder Mr. Terry thought they had the housemaid in there with them.
Boswell never said “we did” or “we didn’t” in his own account of this thing. So maybe they did have the house maid in there. So obviously the landlord there is concerned about respectability and exactly what’s going on under his roof and he stormed into the room and threw them out.
And that ended up being the deal breaker. For that lodging arrangement he had as a young man, he had invaded the landlord and landlady’s his own space, used it when he wasn’t entitled to, disturbed the whole household potentially laid them open to accusations because it wasn’t a respectful house. I think probably the maid wasn’t in there because from other examples I’ve seen, usually if something like that to be picked up on by the landlord or landlady, it was the maid who was sacked on the lodger who stayed. Although, probably with the relationship cooling somewhat. Usually it was the working class, young woman who was told to go.
Hazel Baker: A sobering thought. Well, thanks very much Gillian. For listeners, we will continue this conversation in next week’s episode, but this time we will be discussing the role of the Georgian landlady.
You can always join me for a guided walk or a private tour of Georgian London bookable online.
That’s all we got time for today. See you next time.
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