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Vicky Holmes – Lodger in the Bedroom

2014 October 22
by lucinda matthews-jones

Vicky Holmes – University of Essex

This post accompanies Vicky Holmes JVC 2014 article ‘Accommodating the Lodger: The Domestic Arrangements of Lodgers in Working-Class Dwellings in a Victorian Provincial Town’, which can be downloaded here.

In my article, ‘Accommodating the Lodger: The Domestic Arrangements of Lodgers in Working-Class Dwellings in a Victorian Provincial Town’, I attempt to locate the lodger and reappraise our understanding of their position in working-class homes, including their place in the family’s bedroom.Despite the idea that the homes of the Victorian working class were relatively open spaces, their bedrooms have remained relatively unexplored by contemporaries and historians alike. Social commentators of the time, finding themselves shut out from bedrooms in private dwellings, drew their accounts of how the poor slept from where they could gain access–common lodging-houses –which hardly represent the ‘typical’ experience of the domestic lives of the working class.[1] Historians too have struggled to gain access to the bedrooms of the Victorian working class, peeking only round the bedroom door by using pauper inventories. Yet, some contemporaries were granted unprecedented access to the homes of the working class—those of the Victorian coroner’s court. As a result, they have bequeathed to historians an extant record of the features, objects, and inhabitants of these seemingly private homes. These accounts can be explored through the original records where available and in newspaper reports of coroners’ cases, thanks to the Victorian fascination with all things gory.

In the course of its investigation, the coroner’s court was permitted access to homes where a sudden or unnatural death had occurred, including bedrooms.[2] In the cases of suspected accidental infant suffocation, in particular, the coroner and his court were able to view the ‘bedroom’ in order to witness the body lying in situ and, as one Ipswich coroner stated, in order for “the jury to appreciate the mother’s account of how she had brought up a large family in a state of dire poverty.” Upon entering the house, the local newspaper remarked how the jurors could see that “the dwelling consist[ed] of one living room and two bedrooms, and was devoid of furniture excepting a table, chair, and bed downstairs.” While the mother’s testimony, revealing the family’s nocturnal arrangements (as so many such cases did), stated that on the night of the fatal incident the three occupants of that downstairs bed were herself, her husband, and the infant. The mother reveals to the coroner’s court that their other young children, four in total, slept in the house of a woman named only as ‘Mrs. Brown’ for 4s. a week.[3]

My article reveals that coroner’s courts found that bedrooms and even beds in the working-class dwellings were not always just inhabited by family members, but sometimes a lodger. While the (middle-class) coroner baulked at this, it appears that accommodating a lodger in the bedroom, while probably not ideal, was a perfectly acceptable domestic arrangement in some working-class households at least.

 

Vicky Holmes is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of History, University of Essex. Focusing on the homes of the Victorian working class, her research interests include domestic dangers, nocturnal domestic practice, lodgers and lodgings, and the experience of the elderly at home in the late nineteenth century. Forthcoming publications include articles on domestic methodologies and dangerous domestic objects.

You can follow Vicky’s research exploring the domestic lives of the 19th century working class via her blog and twitter @Vicky_Holmes. Or email holmes.v.j@gmail.com

 

 


[1] Françoise Barrett-Ducrocq, Love in the Time of Victoria (London: Verso, 1991), pp. 21-2; Tom Crook, ‘Norms, Forms and Beds: Spatialising Sleep in Victorian Britain’, Body and Society, 14 (2008), 15-35 (p. 20)

[2] More on the Victorian coroner’s court, press coverage, and my methodology can be found in my forthcoming article: ‘“Death of an Infant: Disclosures as to Cottage Accommodation”: Coroners’ Inquests and the Study of Victorian Domestic Practice’, Home Cultures 11 (2014), 305-332.

[3] ‘Life in an Ipswich Court’, Ipswich Journal, Saturday, 23 June 1900, in 19th Century British Library Newspapers.

 

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  1. The Lodger’s Threshold | Dr Vicky Holmes

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