What was it like renting a room in Georgian London?
It may seem strange in our home-owning obsessed times, but thousands of Georgians – from modest milliners to world-famous poets – chose renting a room over gaining a toehold on the property ladder. Gillian Williamson explains why
June 1785 in London was uncomfortably hot, relieved on the evening of Thursday 16th by a light breeze. Where Compton and Greek Streets met in Soho, shopkeepers were closing for the day, with residents propping open their windows and making ready for the night.
In the second-floor front room at Mrs Hannah Barker’s house, milliner Mary Gay had tucked her son into bed and was tidying up. She opened the closet door. Suddenly the room filled with flames and smoke. A fire had burned through the wall separating the Barker residence from the neighbour: Mr Glossop, a successful candle-maker.
Panicking, Mary grabbed her child and raised the alarm. Two more women appeared on the landing: unemployed servant Mary Harivin and a clergyman’s daughter. Without time to gather belongings, they raced downstairs, alerting Gilbert Dring, the tailor on the first floor. Mrs Barker unbolted the front door. With her three stepchildren, sister and housemaid, they all ran into the street joining other residents who were fleeing flames fanned by the wind and sucked into open windows.
There followed a night-long battle to save people, homes and possessions. Surgeon Andrew Nihell had the narrowest escape, dragged with ropes from the rubble of a collapsed house. Dawn brought a sorry sight: 15 houses had been destroyed, and more damaged by smoke. The charitable response was immediate, raising £1,281 4s (more than £200,000 today). By 1 July, the first payments were being made to victims.
Outnumbered by lodgers
These payments reveal something about Compton and Greek Streets that we might not anticipate but which would have been expected at the time. These ordinary terraced houses – three storeys with two rooms to a floor, a basement and garret, in a respectable part of town – were not just family homes and businesses. They accommodated scores of lodgers renting rooms in someone else’s house, for cash, usually paid weekly.
Of 85 claimants in the aftermath of the blaze, 16 were householders (the main occupants of the properties with leases from the freeholder, the Portland Estate). Twenty-nine were their personal or business servants. However, householders and servants were outnumbered by 40 lodger claimants, representing at least 65 individuals across 22 affected houses. They included Mary Gay and her son; Mary Harivin; the clergyman’s daughter; Gilbert Dring; and Andrew Nihell, his wife and child.
This 1785 snapshot demonstrates how sizeable was the proportion of lodgers in London. Late 17th-century statistician Gregory King estimated that there were 42,500, which equated to eight per cent of the capital’s residents – more than the population of Norwich, then England’s second-largest city. Some districts housed many lodgers: the City business area around the Royal Exchange; and Westminster’s “centrical” area of Fleet Street, the Strand, Covent Garden and Soho. These areas appeared often in newspaper advertisements from would-be lodgers and landlords/ladies:
BOARD AND LODGING WANTED
For a gentleman and his wife, Board and Lodging in a reputable private regular family, in any airy street within
the city (the nearer the Royal Exchange will be preferred).
LODGINGS FOR A SINGLE GENTLEMAN
Most desirable FIRST FLOOR, genteelly furnished in a small private Family, the Drawing Room fronts the River Thames, very contiguous to the Temple and Somerset Building.
As London expanded onto green fields, lodging spread into its new suburbs: Fitzrovia, Marylebone, Kensington and Islington. The only addresses where lodgers were unlikely to be found were the aristocratic squares of the West End.
The most common ways of finding lodgings were through personal recommendation and “the tramp” – walking the streets looking for cards in the window, then knocking at the door to view. It often didn’t take long to find lodgings: the market was busy. All the homeless Compton Street fire lodgers had new accommodation nearby by early July. One pamphleteer thought lodgers moved on average twice a year.
Some moved far more frequently. With many rooms to choose from, lodgers could readily feel dissatisfied and fantasise about something better, or better value. In November 1763 young Scot James Boswell, the future biographer of Samuel Johnson, took three rooms in Downing Street with Mr and Mrs Terrie, for 40 guineas a year. Almost immediately he decided that the cost was excessive. He found cheaper rooms two streets away in Crown Street for £22 a year but, rather than move, used the threat of leaving to haggle the Terries down to £30 a year.
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Samuel Curwen was a merchant from Salem, Massachusetts. Loyal to British rule, during the American Revolutionary War, he sought sanctuary in England, staying from 1775 to 1784. In this nine-year span Curwen moved lodgings at least 34 times. His journal records a rollercoaster of excitement at a new room (“conveniently large, and time my own, free from interruption… landlady excellent tempered”), followed by growing disenchantment with hosts (“uncommonly rude and indecent”) and fellow lodgers (“a caterwalling child crying”, or a person who “disturbed me with German flutes”).
Others moved for darker reasons. Poet Percy Shelley was a notorious offender. His marriage a failure, he flitted with lover Mary Godwin from lodging to lodging, staying at at least nine addresses between September 1814 and May 1816, leaving a trail of unpaid rent and bailiffs acting for his angry wife.
It was not just those too poor to rent a whole house who lodged. As the Compton Street records show, Georgian lodgers comprised men and women, singletons and families, from a variety of social and geographical backgrounds, sometimes all within one house.
Boswell and Shelley were not the only famous London lodgers. In the 1760s the Mozarts, on a working European tour, lodged with a hairdresser and then a corset-maker in the centrical district. Bank of England architect John Soane courted his wife, Eliza, while living for two years as a Miss Cecil’s lodger at 53 Margaret Street, off Cavendish Square. Lord Byron lodged in St James’s as a student.
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Lodging meant that hosts gave up rooms in their home to strangers. They lost privacy but gained an extra income that might fully cover their own rent. Meanwhile, lodgers had to live in a limited, multi-purpose space. Artists William and Catherine Blake had two modest rooms in Fountain Court, Strand. One was for business reception. In the other they slept, cooked, ate and worked.
Describing living in one room above a Strand milliner’s, the actor and author Elizabeth Inchbald wrote: “I am all over black and blue with thumping my body and limbs against my furniture on every side: but then I have not far to walk to reach any thing I want; for I can kindle my fire as I lie in bed; and put my cap on as I dine; for the looking-glass is obliged to stand on the same table with my dinner.”
Why, then, was lodging attractive? Firstly, it was flexible. It was easy to move at short notice, to negotiate one’s own terms, and to renegotiate if circumstances changed. This suited those with precarious incomes. In the 1790s Francis Place, an ambitious young tailor and radical, moved with his family as his income fluctuated, shifting between one room, a room with a curtain screening the bed, and the relative spaciousness of a room plus windowed closet.
Flexibility appealed, too, to writers, artists and actors. In 1737 Samuel Johnson arrived penniless in London seeking a living by his pen and recalled a friend’s advice. On £30 a year (in his friend’s eyes, the minimum needed to maintain some sort of gentility), the budget was 18d a week for a garret room, a daily 1d on a bread-and-milk breakfast in the room, 3d nursing a drink in a coffeehouse to save on coals, 6d for dinner in a chophouse, and no supper. This left £10 a year for clothes and sundries. A smart appearance mattered more in maintaining a reputation than grand accommodation.
Lodging was also carefree, avoiding responsibility for home maintenance and liability to serve in parish offices or pay most taxes. It was often associated with the bachelor lifestyle of men like Boswell; students at the Inns of Court, art schools and hospitals (there was no university in London until 1826); or those visiting the capital for leisure.
Benjamin Haydon lodged alongside fellow artists in Rathbone Place in 1807. Older and failed, he reminisced nostalgically: “Happy period! – painting and living in one room, as independent as the wind – no servants, no responsibilities, reputation in the bud, hopes endless, ambition beginning…”
Freedom from responsibilities also released time for work, especially writing. For, as Scottish author Thomas Carlyle, lodging off Euston Road, wrote in 1831: “One needs but little room to work profitably in; my craft especially requires nothing but a chair, a table, and a piece of paper.”
The ill and elderly could also benefit. Specialist landlords catered for their needs, typically in semi-rural locations away from the noise and dirt of central London. After nearly 40 years lodging in London, Elizabeth Inchbald spent her final years in a string of these establishments with their regular hot meals, communal parlours and company. She described vividly the downbeat atmosphere at one such “retirement home”, Mrs Voysey’s, at Leonard’s Place, Kensington: “All the old widows and old maids of this house are stretched upon beds or sofas with swoln [sic] legs, nervous head-aches, or slow fevers, brought on by loss of appetite, violent thirst, broken sleep, and other dog-day complaints…”
Finally, lodging promised domestic comfort, increasingly valued by Georgian Britons. Rooms at an inn or coffeehouse were satisfactory for a night or two, but were public and rowdy, with only passing company. Lodgers on the other hand had some sense of belonging to a family, and often favoured this over commercial “common lodging houses”:
BOARD and LODGING
Wanted for a young Gentleman near the Royal Exchange, in a respectable regular family…
No Boarding-house need apply.
Domestic comfort implied pleasant rooms. Advertisements repeatedly described lodgings as neat, airy and elegantly furnished. In 1811 Shelley, expelled from Oxford University, chose rooms in 15 Poland Street for the pretty trellised wallpaper.
Yet not all lodgers were as lucky as Shelley – after all, from the landlords’ perspective, extra luxury meant smaller profits. Upon moving in, lodgers might find furnishings lacking. Pushy lodgers like Boswell demanded better. He had the Terries make a door between two of his rooms and buy him breakfast cups, a bureau, carpet and new bed.
Some lodgers bought “missing” items themselves. Samuel Curwen purchased a second-hand bureau-table for a room at Furnival’s Inn Court, Holborn. Others created a homely ambience with small objects. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, had books and coffee-making equipment; Elizabeth Inchbald arranged ornaments and pictures; and writers Charles Lamb and his sister Mary pasted prints on the walls and added rugs and chairs to their Temple rooms.
Potential lodgers were attracted by the prospect of socialising in the home. Advertisements and diaries show lodgers’ and hosts’ love of conversation, cards and tea in the parlour, reading together and outings. In his twenties, the future American statesman Benjamin Franklin was employed as a printer and lodging near Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He enjoyed evenings chatting with his landlady over anchovies and bread and butter, washed down by a shared pint of ale.
Not everyone was as amiable as Franklin, however, or as accommodating as his host. Despite all they had done for him, Boswell eventually tired of the Terries, calling their company “confined and vulgar”. The crunch came when he used their parlour, to which he only had morning access, for an evening party. Alcohol-fuelled antics led to a terrible argument and a parting of the ways.
Cosy fireside chats and pints of ale may have defined many landlord-tenant relationships in the 18th century. But, even in this golden age of lodging, acrimony and break-up was only a drunken party away.
The dangers of being a landlady in Georgian LondonGeorgian gossip-mongers preyed on women who let out rooms
Eighteenth-century lodgers were drawn from all parts of the social spectrum – from milliners to celebrated composers to future founding fathers of the United States. But what about the people who put them up?
Many Georgian landlords and landladies came from the middle class of professionals: shopkeepers and skilled artisans in “clean” occupations such as the manufacture of clothing.
Among married couples it was often the wife who managed the lodgers. It was work similar to wifely housekeeping responsibilities: caring for a family, cleaning the house, and buying, preparing and serving food.
Yet not all landladies were married, and not all came from the “middling” sort. Many were single or widowed, and undertook these tasks not from love and Christian duty, but for money. And that often came at a price.
Inviting strangers into the home – and turning that home into a business – was dangerous for Georgian women’s reputations, and opened them up to all manner of ridicule and vilification.
If the stranger-lodgers were female, her home could be misinterpreted as a brothel, with her the “madame” and her lodgers sex workers. If they were male, the relationship was open to sexual innuendo.
Novels, plays and prints exploited these landlady stereotypes. In Frances Burney’s play The Witlings, landlady Mrs Voluble is a nosy gossip, rifling through her lodger’s room the minute he goes out. In Samuel Richardson’s popular novel Clarissa, the heroine is lured to West End lodgings that prove to be a brothel run by sinister bawd Mrs Sinclair.
These cultural attitudes affected how lodgers, especially men, perceived real-life landladies. They were angry if they failed to provide caring services gratis. (Samuel Curwen complained when his landlady Mrs Atwood, of Knightsbridge, went out for the day when he was suffering the after-effects of an enema for his constipation.)
They also regarded landladies, their daughters and maidservants as sexually available. One landlord, a Mr Malton of Chelsea, caught his lodger, William Hickey, creeping downstairs after lights out to join their 16-year-old daughter in her bed.
When relationships soured, higher-status lodgers, like Boswell and Curwen, were snobbishly abusive. Society’s harshest judgment came in the reaction to the 1761 murder of Anne King by her lodger, the Swiss miniaturist Théodore Gardelle.
King was very much the victim in this episode. Yet she received little sympathy from the popular press, which portrayed her as “showy”, and exhibited a gleeful preoccupation with her “gentlemen callers”.
Gillian Williamson is a historian and the author of Lodgers, Landlords, and Landladies in Georgian London (Bloomsbury, 2021)
This content first appeared in the March 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine