Blog, Blog and News, Fellowships and Grants, Prizes

“Bad” Breadwinners: The Necessity for a Lodger(s) in the Working-Class Homes of Victorian England – Vicky Holmes

Gathering a thousand plus newspaper reports of coroners’ inquests regarding lodgers and the households who took them in, I have been able to examine many aspects of this domestic arrangement. I have been able to ascertain a broad spectrum of households with lodgers – a surprisingly high number headed by men – but also the reasons that necessitated their presence. In this blog post, I identify the overarching reason for the taking in a lodger, or lodgers, into the marital home as a consequence of a deficiency in the male breadwinner’s earnings. As Emma Griffin’s work[i] has also recently demonstrated, these shortfalls could be brought about under varying circumstances, but, as I will illustrate, only in cases of the uttermost deficit did it necessitate the presence of a lodger in these homes and rarely did it much improve their desperate situations.

Low wages, coupled with the economic demands of a growing family, required some to households accommodate a lodger. When 38-year-old Mary Sherwood died from a lack of nourishment and medical attention following a miscarriage, her husband, Nottingham shoemaker Alexander Sherwood, provided details to the coroner of his precarious earnings, other household income, and some household expenditure: ‘[he] earned about 15s. a week … but last week he only earned about 10s. One of the children went out to work and got 2s. a week[,] and then there was 6s. 9d. rent to pay. The remaining money was all they had to live on’; ‘they’ being six children and his wife. An additional 2s. a week came from taking in a female lodger, but even with this, Sherwood could not adequately feed his family or afford the necessary medical assistance for his wife.[ii] Similarly, despite being, as he described, in ‘full work’, agricultural labourer, John Perry, earnt just ‘13s. a week wages,’ a wage far from sufficient to support a family of six. To supplement his income, they had taken in a lodger, bringing an additional 2s. 6d. a week. But, again, there was no buffer for emergencies. His daughter was badly burnt, Perry could not afford the medical treatment required and a delay in receiving assistance brought about his daughter’s untimely death.[iii]

A crisis could also compel the presence of a lodger in a male-headed household. The temporary loss of the breadwinner wage through unemployment, illness, injury, or even imprisonment, abruptly placed many households on the brink of destitution, to which a lodger could provide a temporary reprieve. When farm labourer William Brooker fell ill – ‘laid up for nearly a year’—his (already low) wages ceased. With two dependent children, his wife had some assistance from the parish. Still, this was far from enough to sustain a household during a period of precarity. Therefore, the Brookers temporarily took in a lodger to supplement their poor relief.[iv] Meanwhile, 55-year-old Ann Walton found herself supporting her husband, William, a labourer, who ‘had not been working for some time, owing [to] a rather low despondent condition of mind’. Like many women in her position, limited to low paid and menial labours, Ann ‘had a mangle, and took in washing occasionally’, but this was insufficient to keep the roof over their head. Instead, their regular income came from their lodger.[v]

Drunkenness or idleness in a husband also compelled wives to take in a lodger. Birmingham resident Charlotte Ball, found herself in straitened circumstances after marrying a man of ‘intemperate and idle habits’. Despite having two young children, it was she who endeavoured to keep her family through her earnings as a brushmaker. Yet, this alone did not prevent a fall into ‘extreme poverty’. To survive, ‘portions of the household furniture [was] sold on one or two occasions in order to provide them with proper food and clothing’. Promptly, Charlotte turned to another man to provide her with regular income, by taking in a lodger.[vi] Where a husband entirely refused to work, a married couple could become wholly dependent on lodgers. For example, 15-year-old Hannah Taylor’s husband, pig dealer James Taylor, twenty years her senior, being of ‘indolent habits’, turned out to be a poor provider. Therefore, they ‘principally relied for maintenance upon taking in, as lodgers some of the labourers [excavators] on the railway’. Indeed, such was their reliance, they accommodated ‘as many as ten’ in ‘two little rooms’.[vii]

Perhaps the most negligent of all breadwinners were those who deserted their wives. Poor Law Guardians were often unwilling to support these women and few found sufficient remuneration, if any, through the courts.[viii] Some abandoned wives entirely maintained themselves by taking in lodgers. For example, 48-year-old Elizabeth Garry, of 175 Dartmouth Street, Birmingham, being ‘separated from her husband … obtain[ed] sufficient to support herself by accommodating lodgers’. Before separating, they also appear to have taken lodgers, suggesting that Elizabeth was already making up a deficiency in the breadwinner’s contribution.[ix] In Bristol, c.27-year-old Louisa Ferris, was left with two children to maintain after her marriage broke down following ‘continual domestic differences’. With no financial support forthcoming from her estranged husband, her ‘mother and stepfather [having] consulted as to the best means of supporting her, and they took and furnished [a] house, under the idea that, by taking in lodgers, she might half contribute to the support of herself and her children’.[x] Others maintained themselves through lodgers and other domestic labours. For the final three years of her life, Manchester’s Mary Miller ‘earned her living by dressmaking and letting lodgings, her lodgings for the most part being females’. However, when necessary, Mary also accommodated male lodgers.[xi] Similarly, Annie Burnett, while not legally married, found herself deserted when the man with whom she cohabited – and, it seems, had three children with – departed for Australia. To keep the roof over their head, ‘she [had] done a good deal of charing [sic]’ and took lodgers into her small home.[xii]

What also connects many of these cases is that bringing a male lodger into the home resulted in domestic tragedy. Suspicions arose surrounding a lodger’s presence in the marital home. Indeed, lodgers were seen as one of the “three evils” of marital breakdown –  the other two being selfishness and greed – and evidence of this does arise in the inquest reports. Mary Brooker, having ‘slept’ with their lodger, became so consumed with the idea that the affair had resulted in a pregnancy that she took her own life. Ann Walton was murdered by her husband ‘on the grounds of jealously, but little evidence was adduced to support the insinuation’ of a sexual relationship with the lodger. Similarly, believing his wife ‘tended to show [a] marked preference for the lodger’, John Ball, in an attempt to punish his wife for the supposed misdemeanour, took the life of their child. Moreover, Hannah Walton was murdered by her husband after she eloped with one of their lodgers. Such violence did not end when these women were deserted by their husbands. Louisa Ferris, Mary Miller, Annie Burnett, and several other women in my sample suffered abuse at the hands of their male lodgers. Evidently then, while a lodger’s financial contribution to these struggling households could be almost at the point of worthless, their presence could nevertheless have significant consequences for those living under the same roof.

Vicky Holmes is a historian of the Victorian working-class ‘at home’ and a Women’s History Network Early Career Fellow, 2021-22. Her research, using reports of coroner’s inquests in the local press, has gained unprecedented access to the spaces inhabited by the Victorian working class. Her first book, In Bed with the Victorians, which examines marital life through the marriage bed, was published in 2017. She has also recently published an edited collection, The Working Class at Home, 1790–1940.

Image: Still from the 1927 film The Lodger: The Story of The London Fog (wikicommons)

[i] Emma Griffin, Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy (Yale University Press, 2020).

[ii] Nottingham Journal, 29 February 1876, p. 3.

[iii] The incumbent, in response to Perry’s plight, granted ‘him a note to the relieving officer’ at Walsall. However, a miscommunication at Walsall meant that Perry’s daughter never received medical assistance and she died from her injuries. The medical witness at the inquest stated that ‘in all human probability the child’s life would have been saved’ had medical aid been called upon. Birmingham Daily Post, March 23, 1858, p. 2; Birmingham Journal, March 27, 1858, p. 7.

[iv] Sussex Agricultural Express, 23 January 1894, p. 3.

[v] Bradford Daily Telegraph, March 8, 1870, p. 4; Newcastle Courant, March 11, 1870, p. 2.

[vi] Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, October 14, 1876, p. 6.

[vii] Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 9 July 1840, p. 3.

[viii] For more information on women’s treatment under the Poor Law and the failings of systems in place to obtain money from errant husbands, see Pat Thane, Women and the Poor Law in Victorian and Edwardian England’, History Workshop, 6 (1978), pp. 29–51.; Marjorie Levine-Clark, ‘From ‘Relief’ to ‘Justice and Protection’: The Maintenance of Deserted Wives, British Masculinity and Imperial Citizenship, 1870–1920’, Gender & History, 22 (2010), pp. 302-321.

[ix] Birmingham Daily Post, December 22, 1876, p. 6; 1871 census TNA RG10/3143, f. 37, p. 21 s115.

[x] Bristol Times and Mirror, 15 February 1845, p. 2; Bristol Mercury, 7 November 1846, p. 2; Bristol Times and Mirror, 07 November 1846, p. 1.

[xi] Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, March 2, 1888, p. 8; Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, March 1, 1888, p. 8.

[xii] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, November 8, 1894, p. 6. Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, November 8, 1894, p. 3; Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, December 1, 1894, p. 3; Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, November 8, 1894, p. 3; Yorkshire Evening Press, November 8, 1894, p. 4. It seems likely, given that Annie is untraceable in the 1881 census, that she was living under the name of her tally husband. She indeed perhaps even viewed herself as married, for in the 1891 census, believing the father of her children to have died in Australia, she listed her marital status as ‘widow’. 1891 Census TNA RG12/4012, f. 75, p. 14, s. 85.