Book review: The Secret World of the Victorian Lodging House by Joseph O’Neill

When a man died in a London lodging house in 1834, 17 people shared a room with the rotting corpse for three days without noticing that anything was amiss.

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 6th January 2015, 3:47 pm
The Secret World of the Victorian Lodging House by Joseph ONeill
The Secret World of the Victorian Lodging House by Joseph ONeill

It was a story that shocked the nation and allowed the sheltered middle classes an eye-opening glimpse into the world of the common lodging house.

The response to details of the notorious inquest was appalled incredulity and convinced many that common lodging houses were the embodiment of evil, threatening good order and human progress.

Writer and broadcaster Joseph O’Neill – raised in a Manchester lodging house owned by his parents in the 1950s – lifts the lid on the rows of back street houses that were transitory homes for thousands of men, women and children in the 19th century.

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Criminals, drifters, beggars, the homeless, immigrants, prostitutes, tramping artisans, street entertainers, abandoned children, navvies and families fallen on hard times – a whole underclass of people on the margins of society passed through Victorian lodging houses.

In this fascinating, brutal and revealing book, O’Neill brings us a riveting account of hardship, squalor and inevitable violence… but it also a heart-rending tale of determination, pride, camaraderie and survival.

For the first time, O’Neill reveals the truth about the lives of these forgotten people and their experiences, explaining why the lodging houses gained such a poisonous reputation, why they were clustered in certain areas of the country and why they virtually disappeared in the years before the First World War.

The decline of work on the land led many to flee the countryside in the 19th century. Soon lodging houses could be found in almost every city and town, and a shortage of general housing meant they were central to working class life.

The 1851 census revealed that one in eight homes in England included a lodger of some sort and in cities such as Nottingham and York, the figure rose to one in five. By the 1860s, Manchester had 472 lodging houses and even in the early 20th century, a ‘Penny Sit-Up’ still thrived in Preston where 60 men slept on the floor in a room measuring just 25ft by 18ft.

For decades, the very term ‘common lodging house’ raised the hackles of the respectable and the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, which took place in a London area in which every second house was a lodging house, only increased their notoriety.

Labelled seedbeds of infectious disease, they were seen as training schools for criminals and the haunts of prostitutes, fences, thieves, beggars and conmen of every description, and blamed for corrupting the young and enticing innocent girls into prostitution.

The reality, however, was more complex as lodging houses also provided a mutual support system for those scratching a living and for whom life was a relentless battle to keep body and soul together.

They sheltered those who refused to ‘go to the parish’ and enter the workhouse, preferring instead to cling to their independence and continue the struggle for respectability. They were a haven for the unbroken stream of people pouring into the burgeoning cities and provided accommodation for Irish labourers, itinerant hawkers, peddlers and the low paid.

O’Neill’s painstaking research into the ‘night-time havens of the wandering tribes’ brings to life the lost world of the lodging houses and their eclectic inhabitants, from discharged soldiers and the elderly to immigrants and the colourful street entertainers who lit up the gloom of drab Victorian street.

These hardy lodgers may have spent their nights sharing beds with bugs, thieves and worse but, for many, it kept them out of the dreaded workhouse and provided shelter, self-respect and vital companionship.

(Pen & Sword, hardback, £19.99)