From: The Early Victorians at HomeCategory: 19th century
In town or country mansions, newly built or old, there was usually a central block with wings at each side. One wing with kitchen, pantries, laundry, storerooms, servants’ hall, housekeeper’s room and servants’ bedrooms, the other for the children and their retainers, with necessary night and day nurseries, schoolrooms, governess’s room, rooms for the upper nurserymaid (later called ‘nanny’), the under nurserymaids, and the children’s bedrooms. Master and mistress had their own bedrooms, dressing-rooms and rooms for their personal servants in the main block. But in houses of the middling and lower middling sort, such as the four or five storeys high detached or semi-detached houses in suburban Brompton, or the villas with grounds at Blackheath, or those of the new terraces in Bayswater, there were two or three bedroom floors above the drawing room. The first bedroom floor for master and mistress and, possibly, elder children, the attic floor for servants with the children’s floor sandwiched between.
The most important feature of the master bedroom was the commodious double bed. No longer was this bedroom used as a morning reception room where the lady of the house received visitors, male or female, in bed, as she had done from the time of Queen Elizabeth until well on in the eighteenth century.
The simplest and barest rooms of all were those of the servants on the attic floor. The housemaid’s bedroom, which she shared with another maid, was furnished with an old double or two single beds, a chest of drawers, a small hanging looking-glass-not to see her face in, but to enable her to adjust her cap-the old Regency tripod wash basin and ewer and, possibly, the clothes press, much battered, for her clothes. Failing that, a pegged board was ascrewed to the wall and served to hang her clothes upon. Above this was a shelf to hold a few boxes. Often a cheap curtain tacked to the shelf, or a separate calico curtain on rings, concealed the clothes. The scrubbed floor had a rug, possibly relegated from a child’s room, a table for candlesticks and trinkets or ornaments of her own, a chair or two and that was that.
In grander houses with a servants’ wing, the rooms were better and here there was a servants’ hall, and a hierarchy to be preserved among the servants. Housekeepers were, of course, grander and in great houses servants took enormous pride in being in ‘good service’.
Yet even the most ill-housed, ill-fed and underpaid servant was far better off than the poor who lived in the teeming tenements of London, Manchester, Liverpool and in the mushrooming industrial towns with their squalid rows of back-to-back houses, or in the tumbledown cottages of farm labourers. Anyone who reads Henry Mayhew’s great work on the conditions of the poor in London alone, emerges half-blind with rage and pity.
Page after page of Mayhew’s book gives innumerable case histories. One family of five, he tells us, lived in the front basement kitchen of an old house in which every room was let to a different family. This family of five was very unusual: although all they had to sleep in was one bed, the room was spotlessly clean. To have kept a room spotless when water came from the nearest pump and had to be carted home in a battered bucket or in buckets hanging from a yoke over the shoulders so that the stone floor could be scoured daily; to live five in a room and yet keep that room clean and neat, to take turns in sleeping two or three in the one bed, must have taken unbelievable determination and endurance. But this family was an exception to the general rule.
Another ‘terrible hovel” which he visited had the broken windows stuffed with rags or brown paper to keep out the cold and damp. In this house with a sloping roof and half the tiles missing, he groped his way up a tottering, broken staircase to a room filled with smoke from a defective chimney. The room-where three women lived-was about nine foot square, the paper hung in shreds from the walls, the ceiling was broken and patched, but the occupants didn’t lack water as they caught it in jugs placed on the chimney piece. A rag of a carpet made from old mats inadequately covered the rotting floor. It was useful as it prevented things dropping through the floor boards. The rent was ninepence a week-a penny per square foot-and the room was furnished with three broken chairs, backless and nearly seatless, a rickety table and some bits of crockery.
In Liverpool, the darker and dingier streets inhabited by the poorer classes at every two or three steps a gin shop and the people filthy in clothes, and in person ragged, pale, women nursing their babies at dirty bosoms, men haggard, drunken, careworn, hopeless, but with a kind of patience, as if this were the rule of their life… Sometimes a decent woman may be sitting sewing or knitting at the entrance of her poor dwelling, a glance into which shows dismal poverty.
From: The Early Victorians at Home. 1837-1861 by E. Burton