The Working Man’s Cottage in Late Regency/Early Victorian Eras

Birmingham back-to-backs, now preserved, showing the shop fronts and the entrance to the courtyard

Birmingham back-to-backs, now preserved, showing the shop fronts and the entrance to the courtyard

The Working Man’s Cottage During the Regency

First paperback edition, featuring a detail from a 19th century aquatint by R. D. Havell. In the background John Blenkinsop's locomotive can be seen. (Wikipedia)

First paperback edition, featuring a detail from a 19th century aquatint by R. D. Havell. In the background John Blenkinsop’s locomotive can be seen. (Wikipedia)

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.

Typical across-street washing line arrangement with pulley operated from street level in Armley, Leeds, 2004 ~19th-century houses in West Yorkshire, 2004 in Leeds, Armley (Wikipedia)

Typical across-street washing line arrangement with pulley operated from street level in Armley, Leeds, 2004 ~19th-century houses in West Yorkshire, 2004 in Leeds, Armley (Wikipedia)

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.

Working class life in Victorian Wetherby, West Yorkshire, England. Bishopgate, a former slum area in Wetherby.

Working class life in Victorian Wetherby, West Yorkshire, England.
Bishopgate, a former slum area in Wetherby.

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.”

A jerry built house on Amhurst Road collapses, as reported in the London Illustrated News, 1862. © Hackney Archives

A jerry built house on Amhurst Road collapses, as reported in the London Illustrated News, 1862. © Hackney Archives

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)

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in British history, buildings and structures, George IV, Georgian Era, Great Britain, Living in the Regency, Living in the UK, Regency era, Victorian era and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Working Man’s Cottage in Late Regency/Early Victorian Eras

  1. These workingmans houses were I believe the forerunners to what became the “council house”, I actualy grew up in one, In fact it seems it was once the largest in the world, …….

    “The most ambitious estate built to reward soldiers and their families after the war was the massive Becontree estate in Dagenham which was to become the largest council housing estate in the world. Work by the London County Council on the estate started in 1921, farms were compulsory purchased and by 1932 over 25,000 houses had been built and over 100,000 people had moved to the area. The new houses had gas and electricity, inside toilets, fitted baths and front and back gardens. LCC also, however, had strict rules for new tenants on housework, house and garden maintenance, children’s behaviour and the keeping of pets. The estate expanded over the Essex parishes of Barking, Dagenham and Ilford with nearly 27,000 homes in total creating a virtual new town with dwellings for over 30,000 families.”

    I cut and pasted that from this site which seems in a way to follow on from your post, it’s rather long but may interest you. My parents were two of the original people on the estate moving onto it in 1931 just after the were married, we lived there right through the war and left in February 1951 when we migrated to Australia.

    http://fet.uwe.ac.uk/conweb/house_ages/council_housing/print.htm

  2. That’s an interesting look into the working classes’ life in Regency/ Victorian England! I didn’t know much about them as they are generally “invisible” in art/ literature of those times. Do you know where I can find more information about them, other than the Victorian Web?

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