London: Bloomsbury Academic. 2021. Pp 256. £85.00 Hardback; £28.99 Paperback; £76.50 Ebook. ISBN: 978-1350212633.
How often, when we walk past surviving Georgian houses, do we wonder what life would have been like for the people who lived behind those closed doors back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? Probably not very often, if at all, if truth be known. We admire the classical architecture which has stood the test of time and is iconic of that period, but what about the lives of those who lived there?
Gillian Williamson’s book Lodgers, Landlords, and Landladies in Georgian London investigates what life would have been like behind those closed doors, both for the landlord/lady and for a lodger. The majority of homeowners weren’t rich and famous, they were more your average working people, living lives we may well be familiar with today – going to work to provide for their family, staying at home to raise the family, socialising with friends, but also taking in lodgers to make ends meet – so what was life really like behind those iconic Georgian doors?
I have to begin this review with a confession. As someone who spends most of their time in the eighteenth century, I had never given lodgers, landlords or landladies a second thought, but this book has definitely shone a very bright light into this world, and how much social history was hidden behind those doors. This book is quite probably unique in its investigation, which makes it utterly fascinating and extremely thought-provoking.
Lodging in the eighteenth century could be compared to a certain extent with multi-occupancy student accommodation today, but with the landlord/lady and possibly their family also living ‘on site’. A lodger rarely had their own door key, and did you even know that there was a ‘code’ to ringing a doorbell or knocking on one of those Georgian front doors waiting to be let in? Each knock or ring defined who you were and your status within Georgian society.
How did one approach the task of finding somewhere to lodge in Georgian London? In some ways part of the actual process of finding lodgings hasn’t really changed that much since the eighteenth century, instead, it has just become quicker. As with today, where you are going to live in London determined the price you would pay for lodgings. Some people only took lodgings for ‘The Season’, others only when Parliament was sitting, but for most, it was taken more as a long-term residence, assuming you weren’t ejected for a misdemeanour, or simply because the owner had a change in their situation, and you would perhaps stay there for about a year or so.
Williamson investigates this process thoroughly, in a step by step way, from the landlord/lady placing an advert in say a newspaper, to potential candidates applying, often via a third party, to how lodgings were advertised, how much it would cost to rent a room(s), the size of your accommodation and then of course, there were the extras to be carefully considered – did you want to do your own cooking in your room or pay for meals with your landlord/lady or dine out? How about laundry? – would you do you own or pay the household servant to do it for you? What about heating? – after all, it was cheaper to sit in the parlour with the owner rather than spend money on your own coals, but then maybe you would have to mix with other lodgers who you may or may not rub along with, who were also trying to save money on heating. Cost was of paramount importance, as were ways to save money on what was an expensive art of simply living. One amusing quote Williamson includes is a reference to the poet William Wordsworth who visited the Lambs at their lodgings, who were then charged extra for sugar as Wordsworth took more sugar in his tea than most – everything had its price!
Lodgers agreed an inventory so there could be no argument when they moved out, along with recompense at the end of the agreement for any damage caused, which it appears was not uncommon, be it spilled ink or fire damage, the list goes on. It was always worth considering when taking unfurnished accommodation that the lodger should check out the status of their landlord so that, should the bailiffs be called in, your possessions weren’t also seized to fund their debt.
Moving lodgings, now this was another performance in itself, such as packing your chest(s) then unpacking at your new location. Williamson investigates methods for arranging your chest to be transported for you, as of course it contained all your worldly goods. Next came the settling into new, strange accommodation, often with people you would never have associated with before and who you may not get along with.
Williamson cites several people who disliked this process intensely and for whom a record remains of their experiences. Then of course, there was the issue of having to live in a room with furniture and accessories which might not have been to one’s taste, but not being able to afford one’s own dwelling with a front door meant there was no choice. Funds determined the potential size of the accommodation, so it may have been just a tiny garret or several rooms with use of the household servants. Stereotypical gender roles were often assumed, with female lodgers having to fend for themselves, whereas it was commonplace for female landladies to do extra things for their male lodgers, such as repairing clothing and caring for them if unwell.
Some landlord/ladies allowed their lodgers to have their name on the front door to help callers know that you lived there, but it’s perfectly feasible you might be charged extra for this service.
Trying to ‘rub along’ together with strangers is never easy and that hasn’t changed despite the passage of two hundred years. We all have our own idiosyncrasies, as people did back then, but for most people today, we can close our doors and be ourselves – not so for many in Georgian London, as you had to consider the other lodgers.
The book comprises of seven chapters, plus an extensive notes section at the end and is without doubt a book which will appeal to anyone with an interest in social history, day to day life in the Georgian Era and social housing in general. The book is filled with fascinating anecdotes, and I have learnt so much from it, including much I had never even thought about, and as such I would highly recommend it. I’m sure it’s one I will return to again and again in future research.
Sarah Murden, FRHistS, is an eighteenth-century historian, genealogist and independent researcher, who has also co-authored five books, published by Pen & Sword books. Sarah is most well known for her website, All Things Georgian, which includes around 700 articles, covering all aspects of Georgian life.