Britain is succumbing to the siren song of single living

Illustration by Owen Davey

We have become accustomed to unprecedented levels of personal privacy at home. My own urban terrace was designed as a family house for a respectable railwayman in the 1870s. A draper’s assistant and his family occupied it in the 1880s, but by the 1901 census it had been divided into three separate households: a widow and her four adult children, two aging spinsters, and a farrier and his wife were all squashed in. My complaints about lack of space for my boisterous family of five seem positively queenly.

Astonishing transformation is afoot in British homes. We have to wait till next year for processed data from the 2011 census, but forecasters expect the continued shrinkage of household size and a sustained shift towards solitary living. So many Britons have never lived so separately. The 2001 census revealed that 80 per cent of the available household spaces in Britain were whole houses. Yet the groups within these houses are dwindling fast. Average family size has plummeted, from the typical Victorian brood of six children, to just over two in 1945, to 1.8 today.

Family togetherness has been transformed by central heating (now in 95 per cent of homes), microwave foods and the proliferation of TVs and computers. Home is where most expect to express their individual tastes, not bow to the routines of a collective. Now we worry about the decline of family meals and the atomisation of domestic life. The internet, the laptop and the mobile phone have bred new fears about breaches of family privacy and the electronic invasion of our domestic frontiers.

Meanwhile, houses containing traditional family units are now in a minority. Households headed by a lone parent accounted for 23 per cent in 2007, and with divorce on the rise, the trend is accelerating.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the proportion of people living alone in Britain has roughly doubled since 1971. Solo living is increasingly the fate of the elderly, especially widows. Yet it is the proportion of people aged between 25 and 44 living alone that is growing the fastest. The metropolitan singleton is the great quarry of advertising – high-spending, sociable and self-indulgent. It has never been easier to please yourself.
Before the 20th century, surviving outside a hierarchical household was a toilsome business. Even as late as the 1950s, if ordinary men and women wanted to escape the family they had to take rooms in a boarding house and eat what the landlady dished up, or improvise in a dingy bed-sitting room.

Living in digs was gradually improved by new amenities. Individual gas fires meant no more labouring up the stairs with a coal bucket. Small gas and electric water heaters produced moderately hot water on tap, so no more banking up the fire to heat the cistern, or boiling up water in a pan for a stand-up wash with a flannel. A gas ring for heating up a quick supper freed the bedsitter from the landlady’s shepherd’s pie.

The first launderette in Britain was opened in 1949 in Queensway, London, in the heart of bedsit land. Individual refrigerators were very late on the scene, so you had to put any Liebfraumilch in the sink, the milk on the window ledge and rely on your tin opener. Katharine Whitehorne’s Cooking in a Bedsitter (1961) offered some gallant recipes for the gas ring – Poulet Marengo, Tripe Catalan and Shrimp Wiggle – and evoked squalid rooming houses, with a whole section on “Landladies; the Horror of”.

The first census in 1801 arose amid fears of overcrowding and shortages, stoked by Thomas Malthus’s gloomy predictions of over-population. It revealed that Britain’s population approached 11 million. At last count, it was 57 million.

But our homes are much emptier. Census predictors expect some increase in the number of young adults lingering with parents in the face of prohibitive property prices, but overall the trend to solo living looks set to rise. The 2011 census will confirm the emergence of a more self-sufficient, atomised lifestyle – with far-reaching implications for our economy and society. The microwave meal for one defines the way we live now.

 

Amanda Vickery

Amanda Vickery is professor of early modern history at Queen Mary, University of London. She is the author of Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (Yale, 2009). Her BBC Two series At Home with the Georgians is available on DVD

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