Late Regency/Early Victorian Era Cottages for the Working Man

The Working Man’s Cottage During the Regency

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

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. 

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)

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.

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)

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

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

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.

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

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

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 architecture, British history, Great Britain, Living in the Regency, real life tales, Regency era, Victorian era and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Late Regency/Early Victorian Era Cottages for the Working Man

  1. carolcork says:

    Regina, I was born and lived in Walsall which is nine miles north of Birmingham and I remember the back-to-backs there.

    • That is area of which I just of late learned more. I always love when add those little tidbits, Carol. It makes the post more interesting. I could show you houses in many coal mining areas in the U.S. that look similar.

      • carolcork says:

        Eileen, Birmingham was one of the centres of the Industrial Revolution and still has a network of canals which were used for the transport of goods. My husband used to work for British Waterways (now Canal and River Trust) and we spent many hours walking the towpaths in the area. Of course, much of the industrial heritage has disappeared now.

        There were coal mines at Cannock which is nine miles north of Walsall and, of course, we now live in South Wales and the coal mines of the Rhondda Valley transported coal all over the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I actually live on Penarth Marina, which was once the site of the docks where coal was loaded onto the ships.

  2. carolcork says:

    Apologies, Regina! I’ve referred to as Eileen. I frequently comment on fellow blogger, Eileen Dandashi’s site and I’m constantly mixing you up when I’m commenting! 😱

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