The Middle-Class House
Londoners have always been famous for 'the agility, the ease and the quickness' with which they climb up and down large numbers of stairs and the people of our period had already adopted that vertical way of living which distinguishes the London living space from that in most other continental capitals. The typical middle-class house was similar to those which estate agents today call Georgian or Early Victorian, a narrow-fronted tall house with three, four or five storeys with two or sometimes three rooms to each floor. Most houses had a yard at the back, sometimes with access to warehousing or stabling and so through into a narrow back lane, while a few had proper gardens, mostly those in the suburbs but including a few of the grander houses in the centre of the City. Most
houses had a cellar, normally not as high-ceilinged as the modern 'basement', with storage for business purposes or for coal, beer and other things belonging to the household. Nearly all houses also had a garret floor set in the roof, which was used for servants' bedrooms, storage and occasionally for work purposes, the looms of weavers often being set up in garrets with large windows to catch the light.
Most of the houses in which the middling people lived were comparatively new, either because they were in areas which had only been recently built up or because they were City houses rebuilt after the Great Fire. The Rebuilding Act of 1667 had laid down strict rules of standardization which reflected the best practice already existing and so reinforced the tendency to uniformity of London houses. There were to be four classes of house: those of four storeys (not counting garrets) on the 'high and principal streets', three storeys on 'streets and lanes of note' and two storeys on 'by-lanes', while provision was also made for houses 'of the greatest bigness', 'merchants' houses' of a maximum height of four storeys which generally stood back from the street with courtyards and gardens. The thickness of walls and ceiling heights on different floors were specified and builders were required to use non-inflammable materials such as brick, stone and tiles. Such provisions meant that most London houses would have looked almost exactly the same had it not been for the individuality of builders, which was reflected in the use of different colours and patterns of brickwork, elaborate cornices and balconies, mean or magnificent doorways and windows and the like.
Not very many middling people owned the freehold of their houses, most freeholds in the City belonging to public bodies, such as the Corporation, parishes, hospitals and Livery Companies, or to ground landlords who tended to be absentee and aristocratic. This latter group also owned most of the land in the West End and the suburbs, which they developed by selling long leases to builders and other speculators or to potential occupiers who wished to build on their land. Owners of City freeholds also sold long leases and over a third of our sample owned a lease of their dwelling-houses for which they paid a quit or ground rent to the landlord. The amount paid ranged from the full commercial rent or rack-rent to a fairly nominal
sum and valuations varied accordingly, the valuation of a lease on a rack-rent normally being zero and of a long lease with a small quit-rent being between eight and twelve times the computed rental income which could have been earned had the property been let out. Such valuations obviously fell as the date approached when a new bargain had to be struck with the ground landlord and a fresh capital sum (known as a fine) laid out to extend the lease.
Leases tended to be very long. An average of twenty-seven years remained on the leases of dwelling-houses occupied by our sample when they died and, of course, such leases would have been considerably longer when first negotiated. Most corporate bodies had had financial difficulties during the Civil War and Interregnum, and had decided to solve these embarrassments by sacrificing long-term annual rental income in return for selling long leases for as large a fine as they could get. This process was intensified by the Great Fire. Landlords were desperately keen to rebuild but few had the capital to do the job themselves. The easiest solution was to get the occupier or some other person to rebuild at his own expense in return for a further extension of the lease, often to sixty years or more, and a reduction of the ground rent.
Investment in long leases tied up capital, several hundred pounds in the central City area, which could have been invested in a business. It is not surprising, then, that the majority of our sample rented their shops and dwelling-houses, either from the owners of long leases or directly from the ground landlords. In 1776, Adam Smith thought that house rent in London was greater than in any other European city, partly 'from those causes which render it dear in all capitals, the dearness of labour, the dearness of all the materials of building . . . the dearness of ground-rent', but also because of 'the peculiar manners and customs of the people which oblige every master of a family to hire a whole house from top to bottom'. Such conditions already existed in our period and rents were high, especially in the major shopping streets. The highest rent that has been found in an inventory was £80 a year paid by a jeweller in Cheapside; typical high rents in the central City area or the Strand were £50 to £60 a year; while off the main streets
in the City or in meaner areas, rents for middle-class houses were about £20 to £30.
These were major fixed costs to set against a business, the equivalent of the wages of one or even two journeymen for a year or of three or four domestic servants and their keep. One way to make sure that one could pay the rent even when trade was poor was to take in lodgers, particularly high-class lodgers who could pay a good rent, and this was a common practice. Adam Smith thought that competition between shopkeepers in this respect explained the low rates paid by lodgers compared with the high rents paid by shopkeepers for their houses, although in fact the rates paid by lodgers do not seem to have been particularly low. Jonathan Swift was paying 8s. a week or £20 a year for the first floor (a dining-room and bed-chamber) of a house in Bury Street in 1710, a rent which he thought 'plaguy deep' but was about the norm for lodgings suitable for gentryfolk during the reign of Queen Anne. In 1706, Francis Tallents reported to a friend in Derbyshire that 'you can not expect to board at London under £20 a year at least for yourself, and proportionately for your maid'. The poor, few of whom earned £20 in a year, obviously paid very much less and de Saussure said that weekly rates for rooms in London ranged from 'sixpence to half a guinea a head'. However, most lodgers in middle-class houses, who tend to be described by such labels as 'Mister' or 'Captain', were paying nearer half a guinea than sixpence and such payments could be a useful income for a shopkeeper. It was, however, a considerable nuisance to have your first floor occupied by strangers, as can be seen when the lay-out of houses is considered.
The number of rooms and their distribution within the house obviously varied, depending on the number of storeys, on whether a back extension had been built, and on the idiosyncrasies of particular builders. Nevertheless, the structure of London houses led to some uniformity in the way that they were laid out. A common arrangement was to have the shop or workshop on the ground floor, with cellar beneath and yard behind, the kitchen and dining-room on the first floor, two bedrooms including the best bedroom on the second floor and then either a third floor with two more bedrooms with garrets above or
straight up to the two garret rooms, which were most commonly used as servants' bedrooms.
Another arrangement was to have the kitchen on the ground floor. This was sometimes because the house was small, such as that of William Justice, a comb-maker in Whitechapel, who had his workshop at the front and his kitchen at the back on the ground floor, a dining-room and one good bedroom on the first floor and two garret bedrooms above. People who needed no shop were also likely to use the ground floor as living space. Joshua Marshall, who built many houses for other people, showed his own preference with a front parlour and kitchen on the ground floor and a large yard behind where he stored building materials. Many merchants and professional people needed only a counting-house at street level and would use the back of the ground floor as a large kitchen which could be extended out into the yard in the form of a buttery or washhouse. This made access to piped water easier and gave servants plenty of work space, but it also meant that all the food had to be carried up 'one pair of stairs' since most people had their dining-room on the first floor, normally the grandest floor of the London house.
Not everyone occupied a whole house, even in the middle station. Some people only rented one or two floors in somebody else's house. Some managed with even less, such as the Levant merchant William Edwards, who died worth nearly £6000 but was living with his wife and small baby in only two rooms. However, Edwards was only thirty-one and had been married less than a year when he died and he would probably have moved into something more fitting to his status if he had lived longer. Many other people rented or owned the lease of a whole house, but did not fill every room with their family, servants and goods. The other rooms would have been occupied by lodgers, some in furnished rooms, which appear in inventories since the furniture was the property of the deceased citizen, and some in unfurnished rooms, which usually do not. This can lead to some confusion since rooms or whole floors will be missing from the inventory and one can easily get a false impression of the lay-out.
Thus the number of rooms used for domestic purposes might vary quite considerably. The smallest living space in our
inventories was a single room occupied by Lawrence Pinder, a rather poor widower with one child, who was probably boarded out; the largest, not counting inns and taverns, was nineteen rooms occupied by James Birkin, a wealthy alderman and Levant merchant who lived in Mincing Lane, a property which included gardens, summer-house, stables and warehouses and whose lease was valued at over £5000. Houses can be found with every number of rooms between these extremes, but for most people there was considerable uniformity in the number of rooms which they occupied, as is seen in Table 8.1 above. Nearly two-thirds of houses had between five and eight rooms, which were typically arranged on three or four floors (including garrets) above the shop, the standard arrangement for the
median seven-room house being five bedrooms, kitchen and dining-room or four bedrooms, kitchen, dining-room and parlour.
In Table 8.2 (p. 211), it can be seen that richer people tended to have more rooms, as would be expected, but the medians do not cover a very wide range, varying only from six for the poorer members of the sample to nine for the richest, despite the fact that the latter were at least ten times as rich as the former. Rooms in the houses of the rich were no doubt larger than those of the poor, but the constraints on London houses meant that there were limits to the ostentation one could display in one's dwelling-house. There was just not enough room in good commercial areas for many urban palaces on the scale of James Birkin's house in Mincing Lane, even though there were many other wealthy men with the £5000 necessary to acquire the lease.