Victorian London - Houses and Housing - Housing of the Poor - Furnishing and Decoration

      At fifteen the London factory-bred girl in her vulgar way has the worldly knowledge of the ordinary female of eighteen or twenty. She has her “young man,” and accompanies him of evenings to “sing-songs” and raffles, and on high days and holidays to Hampton by the shilling van, or to Greenwich by the sixpenny boat. At sixteen she wearies of the frivolities of sweethearting, and the young man being agreeable the pair embark in housekeeping, and “settle down.”
      Perhaps they marry, and be it distinctly understood, whatever has been said to the contrary, the estate of matrimony amongst her class is not lightly esteemed. On the contrary, it is a contract in which so much pride is taken that the certificate attesting its due performance is not uncommonly displayed on the wall of the living-room as a choice print or picture might be; with this singular and unaccountable distinction that when a clock is reckoned with the other household furniture, the marriage certificate is almost in­variably hung under it. It was Mr. Catlin of the Cow Cross Mission who first drew my attention to this strange observance, and in our many explorations into the horrible courts and alleys in the vicinity of his mission-house he frequently pointed out instances of this strange custom; but even he, who is as learned in the habits and customs of all manner of outcasts of civilisation as any man living, was unable to explain its origin. When questioned on the subject the common answer was, “They say that it’s lucky.”

[click here for full text of The Seven Curses of London]

James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869

One room in this district is very like the other. The family likeness of the chairs and tables is truly remarkable, especially in the matter of legs. Most chairs are born with four legs, but the chairs one meets with here are a two-legged race - a four- legged chair is a rara avis, and when found should be made a note of. The tables, too, are of a type indigenous to the spot. The survival of the fittest does not obtain in these districts in the matter of tables. The most positively unfit are common, very common objects. What has become of the fittest I hesitate to conjecture. Possibly they have run away. I am quite sure that a table with legs would make use of them to escape from such surroundings.
As to the bedsteads, they are wretched, broken-down old things of wood and iron that look as though they had been rescued a little late from a fire, then used for a barricade, afterwards buried in volcanic eruption, and finally dug out of a dust-heap that had concealed them for a century. The bedding, a respectable coal-sack would blush to acknowledge even as a poor relation.
I have enumerated chairs, tables, and beds, not because they are found in every poor home - there are several rented rooms which can boast of nothing but four walls, a ceiling, and a floor - but because these articles placed in one of these dens constitute what are euphemistically called 'furnished apartments', a species of accommodation with which all very poor neighbourhoods abound.
The 'furnished apartments' fetch as much as tenpence a day, and are sometimes occupied by three or four different tenants during a week.
The ' deputy' comes for the money every day, and it is pay or go with the occupants. If the man who has taken one of these furnished rooms for his 'home, sweet home' does not get enough during the day to pay his rent, out he goes into the street with his wife and children, and enter another family forthwith.
The tenants have not, as a rule, much to be flung after them in the shape of goods and chattels. The clothes they stand uptight in, a battered kettle, and, perhaps, a bundle, make up the catalogue of their worldly possessions.
This kind of rough-and-ready lodging is the resource of thousands of industrious people earning precarious livelihoods, and they rarely rise above it to the dignity of taking a room by the week. The great struggle is to get over Saturday, and thank God for Sunday. Sunday is a free day, and no deputy comes to disturb its peaceful calm. The Saturday's rent, according to the custom of the country, makes the tenant free of the apartments until Monday.
It is the custom to denounce the poor as thriftless, and that they are so I grant. The temptation to trust to luck and let every day take care of itself is, it must be remembered, great. Life with them is always a toss-up, a daily battle, an hourly struggle. Thousands of them can never hope to be five shillings ahead of the world if they keep honest. The utmost limit of their wage is reached when they have paid their rent, kept themselves and their horribly large families from starvation, and bought the few rags which keep their limbs decently covered. With them the object of life is attained when the night's rent is paid, and they do not have to hesitate between the workhouse or a corner of the staircase in some doorless house.

George R. Sims, How the Poor Live, 1889

She did not want to dress yet, but rather to sit down and think, so she twisted up her hair into a little knot, slipped a skirt over her nightdress, and sat on a chair near the window and began looking around. The decorations of the room had been centred on the mantelpiece; the chief ornament consisted of a pear and an apple, a pineapple, a bunch of grapes, and several fat plums, all very beautifully done in wax, as was the fashion about the middle of this most glorious reign. They were appropriately coloured--the apple blushing red, the grapes an inky black, emerald green leaves were scattered here and there to lend finish, and the whole was mounted on an ebonised stand covered with black velvet, and protected from dust and dirt by a beautiful glass cover bordered with red plush. Liza's eyes rested on this with approbation, and the pineapple quite made her mouth water. At either end of the mantelpiece were pink jars with blue flowers on the front; round the top in Gothic letters of gold was inscribed: 'A Present from a Friend'--these were products of a later, but not less artistic age. The intervening spaces were taken up with little jars and cups and saucers--gold inside, with a view of a town outside, and surrounding them, 'A Present from Clacton-on-Sea,' or, alliteratively, 'A Memento of Margate.' Of these many were broken, but they had been mended with glue, and it is well known that pottery in the eyes of the connoisseur loses none of its value by a crack or two. Then there were portraits innumerable--little yellow cartes-de-visite in velvet frames, some of which were decorated with shells; they showed strange people with old-fashioned clothes, the women with bodices and sleeves fitting close to the figure, stern-featured females with hair carefully parted in the middle and plastered down on each side, firm chins and mouths, with small, pig-like eyes and wrinkled faces, and the men were uncomfortably clad in Sunday garments, very stiff and uneasy in their awkward postures, with large whiskers and shaved chins and upper lips and a general air of horny-handed toil. Then there were one or two daguerreotypes, little full-length figures framed in gold paper. There was one of Mrs. Kemp's father and one of her mother, and there were several photographs of betrothed or newly-married couples, the lady sitting down and the man standing behind her with his hand on the chair, or the man sitting and the woman with her hand on his shoulder. And from all sides of the room, standing on the mantelpiece, hanging above it, on the wall and over the bed, they stared full-face into the room, self-consciously fixed for ever in their stiff discomfort.
    The walls were covered with dingy, antiquated paper, and ornamented with coloured supplements from Christmas Numbers--there was a very patriotic picture of a soldier shaking the hand of a fallen comrade and waving his arm in defiance of a band of advancing Arabs; there was a 'Cherry Ripe,' almost black with age and dirt; there were two almanacks several years old, one with a coloured portrait of the Marquess of Lorne, very handsome and elegantly dressed, the object of Mrs. Kemp's adoration since her husband's demise; the other a Jubilee portrait of the Queen, somewhat losing in dignity by a moustache which Liza in an irreverent moment had smeared on with charcoal.
    The furniture consisted of a wash-hand stand and a little deal chest of drawers, which acted as sideboard to such pots and pans and crockery as could not find room in the grate; and besides the bed there was nothing but two kitchen chairs and a lamp. Liza looked at it all and felt perfectly satisfied; she put a pin into one corner of the noble Marquess to prevent him from falling, fiddled about with the ornaments a little, and then started washing herself. After putting on her clothes she ate some bread-and-butter, swallowed a dishful of cold tea, and went out into the street.

W. Somerset Maugham, Liza of Lambeth, 1897