Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Monday, 26 September 2016

Austerity and the taking in of lodgers

Mystery Guests in the Family

Ruth A. Symes

Recent austerity has forced many of us to consider innovative ways to increase the amount of cash in our pockets.  Liquidating the capital in our homes by re-mortgaging is a popular, if chancy method, but property has proved to be a valuable cash cow in other ways as well. Across the country, garages and attics have been cleaned out and rented as storage space or offices, for example, and many families in straightened circumstances have dusted down their spare rooms and rented them out, for months, weeks and even a night at a time. Likewise young people with no property to their names have found lodging to be a cost effective way of making the move to a new city for work.

Lodging and its more casual sidekick, so- called ‘sofa-surfing,’- might seem like a relatively cool and modern phenomenon, but  turning domestic space into hard cash is actually an age-old practice with its heyday in the Victorian period. And it should come as no surprise to family historians to find that many of their ancestors spent time as a landlord or a lodger, or even both, at moments in their lives when money was short.

Mystery guests pop up in homes all the time on the decennial censuses taken between 1841 and 1911 (and now easily available online at websites such as and The young man making a furtive appearance in one small Manchester terrace in 1891, for example, was 22 year-old Thomas Metcalf. After a bit of delving and with a better understanding of the times, his situation became clear. Thomas’s birthplace was Farndon in Cheshire, but his employment was as a carter on the railway in central Manchester (an employment he shared with his landlord). With bicycles, trams, cars and buses not yet invented, and train lines limited, the best option for Thomas would have been to find lodgings and walk to work.  

Young women were not considered safe in homes that took in lodgersAdd caption

Like Thomas, the vast majority of lodgers in the Victorian period were young men who may have moved to the industrial centres from rural areas, or indeed from other urban areas. They included navvies and builders who were gradually constructing the great Victorian cities. Many also came from the aspiring lower-middle and professional classes and included shop assistants, clerks, accountants, and trainee clerics. Workers may have lodged on a weekly basis returning home at the weekends, or may have lodged seasonally, moving on when their contracts finished.

In 1901, the same terraced house put a roof over the head of another paying guest, 55 year-old Hannah Perkinson, described on the census as ‘a weaver in a cotton factory.’  Contrary to popular belief a fair number of nineteenth-century females in trades such as dressmaking lodged in towns far from the places where they had been born and where the rest of their families remained. Unlike Thomas who was described as a lodger, Hannah was a ‘boarder.’ Her hosts, it seems had wised up. Boarders paid more since they took their meals with the family.

In the Victorian period, those who took in lodgers tended to fall into well-defined categories: widows and other unsupported women especially those who had previously worked as domestic servants; poverty-stricken and child-free couples in late middle age or early retirement; and poor young families where children were small and could easily be bundled into the same room as their parents thus freeing up space for newcomers. Whoever they were, the Victorian press turned up its nose up at those desperate enough to have to rent out parts their homes. Today, thankfully, the stigma is gone. Taking in lodgers is a practice undertaken by all manner of folk at all stages of their lives.

Modern landlords have it pretty easy compared to their Victorian counterparts. Our ancestors’ lodgers – though they might have had to bring their own ‘effects’ (i.e. furniture) with them -   expected their landlord or landlady to provide ‘attendance, light and firing.’ Attendance meant carrying water for the lodger, emptying his slops such as waste waters and chamber-pots, making his fire, running errands for him and cleaning his boots. ‘Light’ and ‘firing’ referred to the supply of candles and coal, a Victorian equivalent perhaps of access to electricity and WIFI today.  Rather than popping something in the communal microwave, nineteenth- century lodgers might have made meals on the fires within their own rooms, or might have bought their own food and paid a small sum for it to be cooked by the landlady.

Combatting austerity isn’t easy. Niggles about cleaning the bathroom, respecting private space and guarding property are all commonly cited as areas of conflict in the landlord-lodger arrangement. And so it was in the nineteenth century when the press relished describing the supposed uncleanliness and immorality of houses that were partly rented out. Male lodgers, it was frequently suggested, might defile their female hosts on the backstairs; female lodgers, on the other hand, were characterised as leading ‘loose’ lives away from the watchful eye of their parents. And then there were the many tales of neglectful lodgers who left candles or fires burning in their rooms which could potentially be a danger to property and people.

But let’s not forget the bonuses of the lodging arrangement. Many landlords now and in the past have achieved a better standard of life because of the money brought in by their lodgers, and the lodgers themselves, (able to live affordably near their work ), have, in turn, been able to support their own families back home.  

My new book, Unearthing Family Tree Mysteries, looks at a number of topical issues from our family histories such as lodging, emigration for work, fertility issues, and women’s career aspirations. Based on case studies which investigate 12 family history mysteries, this book gives practical tips on how to make best use of many kinds of historical record (including census material, birth, marriage and death certificates, recipe books, diaries, and passports), and how to set your ancestors’ stories in their correct historical context.


                                                                  New £12.99

                                                            Kindle Edition £7.34

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