The Working Man’s Cottage During the Regency
By the time George IV took the reins as the Prince Regent, England was the most powerful industrial nation in the world. Centres of commerce sprung up, bringing with them an increase in population. By the end of George IV’s reign, the “working class” had come into its own. These workers demanded housing within the towns they worked.
New parcels of land were developed within the urban areas, especially in close proximity to the mills at which the people worked. Speculators developed the land, providing housing to the semi-poor and collecting rents.
Oversight committees predetermined dimensions of the houses, but the quality of the materials used to construct the buildings and the workmanship involved were not. Builders often skimped on the quality of the work because the cost of building materials had skyrocketed during the Napoleonic War years. However, even after the war ended, the practice continued. There were large profits to be made and no one to stop the practice.
By 1839, records show an average of six people per room and 10 per house. The mortality rate was 21.8 per thousand. (The Period House, pg. 57). Jury-Rig houses – those with careless construction and inferior materials – were common. They were known as “Jerry houses.”
No proper streets existed for much of this housing. Poor sanitation, rubbish piles, and lack of fresh air marked the houses – sometimes more than 100 in total per acre. Older buildings within the urban areas were torn down and multiple houses replaced them larger one. In addition, many of those who came to the towns from the country had brought their livestock with them. Pigs, chickens, pigeons, etc., took up what land was available and added to the smell and filth of the city.
Within what seemed a closed and rigid social structure the working classes constructed their own exclusive world, remote from the acquisitive, accumulative impulses of the Victorian economy. In part, it was an escape from the harshness of the real world, in part an attempt to create community in the anonymity of the industrial town. Ultimately, through the growth of education and democracy, improvements in living standards, working conditions, housing, food and dress, the working classes became, to a degree, participant members of society, but for most of the period covered by these writings [1820-1920] they were both excluded, and excluded themselves, from public life. Behind the great public institutions and images of the Victorian age the working classes inhabited an inner, secret life which perpetuated traditional values and patterns of behaviour, essentially of rural origin, into the new urban industrial society. In past times almost the whole of life, including work, had gone forward within the circle of the family; increasingly, as the nineteenth century progressed, though much less quickly than is commonly supposed, work became separated from the family and the home, and the new cult of work sought to erect it into the centre of human existence. The working classes, it seems, for long rejected this unpalatable and alien notion. [18-19] (The Victorian Web)