Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes, by Thomas Wright, 1867 - Part 3 - Social and Domestic Life - Only a lodger

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A FEW years since, one of the chief topics of the "silly season" was, whether or not 300l. a year was a sufficient income for a man to marry upon. Among matrimonially-disposed gentlemen of limited income, marriageable young ladies, and mothers with marriageable daughters, this important question is still a debated and undecided one, though the present extravagance of living almost inevitably tends to a negative decision. But whatever doubts there may be as to the prudence of marrying upon an income of 300l. a year, there can be no doubt that for a clerk or an "intelligent artisan," whose income only reaches 80l. or 90l. a year, but who yet likes to be decently dressed, or to indulge in such luxuries as the purchase of a favourite book or a summer's holiday, marriage is an act of folly, if not of crime. And as many of the young men thus situated have the good sense to see their position in its proper light, and others of the same class are bachelors by predilection, the result is, that in manufacturing and mercantile districts there are always numbers of young men with incomes of less than a hundred a year who are unmarried. Now, though a man with an income of 300l. a year may not consider himself justified in marrying, he can at least afford to live in chambers. Or he can rent apartments in the house of a family of " highly Christian" or "strictly Evangelical" principles or he can take the "sitting and bedroom" [-263-] which are "to be let furnished" in the dwelling of a family of "cheerful and musical disposition." In any case, he may be well provided for.
    The clerk or mechanic with less than a third of 300l. a year, cannot go and do likewise. Neither in chambers nor furnished apartments will their income permit them to take up their abode. No! When a young man in this rank of life leaves the parental roof, he must make up his mind to enter his next dwelling-place in the humble position of one whose individuality is from thenceforward to be merged into that of his landlady - who will speak of him as only her lodger; while by the inhabitants of the neighbourhood he will be known, not by his own name, but as Mrs. So-and-so's lodger. And though some of the more ambitious of these young men may, on the principle of calling a spade an agricultural implement, bring themselves under the heading of "residence," with partial board, they know that that high-sounding phrase is a mockery, and that practically they are only lodgers. Why a single man, who in the office or workshop is considered "as good as the best," should, merely because he is a lodger, be regarded by those among whom it is his lot to live as an inferior being, who is not able to take care of himself, and towards whom it is not necessary to observe the customary courtesies of society, I am at a loss to understand. I have been a dweller in the houses of lodgerdom for a number of years, and I have pondered the question deeply; but I am constrained to confess that I have not been able to arrive at any satisfactory conclusion. To a superficial observer, it might appear that a lodger is thus contemptuously treated because he does not marry and get a home of his own. But this is riot the case; for when a Lodger gets married, [-264-] his landlady invariably declares that he is a fool, and did not know when he was well off.
    There is certainly no positive harm in being a lodger, and even if there was, to be a lodger is in many cases - my own, for instance - an unavoidable necessity, and the hardships which are inseparable from a state of lodgerhood are sufficiently hard to bear. That a lodger who "pays his way," and is a source of profit to those with whom he lodges, should be "treated as one of the family" in such disagreeable points of domestic government as being compelled to have cold dinners on washing days, and (metaphorically) having his nose snapped off when, by the smoking of the kitchen chimney, the breaking of some portion of the household crockery, or other domestic mischance, his landlady has been "put out," is bad enough. Such treatment as this is, however, a natural result of being a lodger, and, like many other disagreeable things, is nothing when you are used to it. But when in addition to having to endure evils that are to a certain extent unavoidable, you are treated as though you were a big child, are allowed to have no will of your own, and are always spoken of as only a lodger, it is rather too bad. None but those who have suffered from having it applied to them can fully estimate the utterly humiliating power of the word "only." I have read that 
    "All that poets sing or grief hath known
    Of hopes laid waste, knells in that word alone;"
but for my part, I would be disposed to give the palm for an utter misery-conveying sense to that word only. "It is not good for man to be alone," but to speak of a man as being alone does not necessarily imply that he is contemptible, while to speak of him as being only [-265-] anything does. However insignificant a man may be, whether he is a German Prince or "a pauper whom nobody owns," you have merely to prefix only to the description of his insignificance, and you intensify it a thousandfold. It is the constant use of this terrible word "only," in conjunction with the term "a lodger," that has been chiefly instrumental in producing the now generally received opinion that a lodger is a person to be despised. Is a man in his wife's "black books," or does he find himself powerless in his own house, he in either case fully expresses his position by shrugging his shoulders and simply observing, "I'm only a lodger." Even beggars know that a lodger is a person of no consideration in a household, for if by chance you open the door in answer to the knock of any of those importunate personages, you have merely to say, "I'm only a lodger," and the most persistent beggar will immediately take him or herself off; though in the street, they would probably have stuck to the same lodger until they had succeeded in extorting black mail from him. So well is this last phase of the powerlessness of a lodger understood that it has become a regular practice with many men who are householders and fathers of families to get rid of mendicants, collectors of missionary funds, and other importunate callers, by boldly asserting that they are only lodgers.
    One of the most aggravating circumstances connected with the social position of a lodger, is that landladies, the persons to whom lodgers are the most profitable, should be the first to cause their (the lodgers') humiliation. The alliterative description "fat, fair, and forty," would have conveyed a very accurate idea of the personal appearance of my first landlady, who had been represented to me as "a nice motherly woman," with whom it would be a great advantage for [-266-] a young man fresh from home to lodge. She was an eminent sister of a Primitive Methodist congregation, of which her husband was one of the local preachers, and was supposed by herself, and such of the sisters of the congregation of which she was a member as were not envious of her fame, to be possessed of at least all the terrestrial virtues. Having ascertained that this good woman was willing not only to receive me as an inmate of her house, but likewise to undertake the superintendence of my religious training (of which last generous offer I did not avail myself), I waited upon her, and was not long in arranging terms. "Don't you think the terms are reasonable?" she asked when she had named them. "Very," I answered; and indeed they were, for the house was comfortably furnished, and the sister a neatly-attired, pleasant-looking, and comely dame. "Ah, you see," she said, when I had assented, "we are not taking you to make money out of you; we are trying to live in the fear of the Lord, and are not greedy after the things of this life; but as we have no family of our own, we thought a respectable lodger would be company for us." I became a dweller in Sister Jones's house on a Monday morning, and up to the following Sunday morning all went merry as a marriage-bell, and I began to think that I was going to escape the ills that I had heard lodgerdom was heir to. But on the Sunday morning a circumstance occurred which, though slight in itself, was sufficient to indicate that sooner or later the fate of my race would overtake me. After breakfast I had taken up the "Weekly Screamer," and was intent upon a more than usually scurrilous and illogical leading article, when the paper was suddenly snatched from my hands by my landlady, who sternly asked me if I thought reading newspapers on a Sunday morning [-267-] was proper behaviour in the house of a God-fearing couple. And before I could reply to this abruptly-put question she bounced out of the room (taking the paper with her) to get ready for chapel. "I wont stand that," I said to her husband, when I had recovered self-possession enough to speak. " Oh, pray, sir! pray, sir!" he said, in an alarmed tone, "don't say anything to her. She'll soon come round, and she's one of the sweetest creatures in the world so long as you let her have her own way, but if you rouse her she's a regular devil, and when she once gets in the tantrums it lasts for weeks, and then she leads me an awful life." I thought this rather curious language for a preacher to use, but as while he had been speaking I had become cool enough to consider that what had occurred was not worth leaving comfortable lodgings for, I calmed his fears by telling him that I would take no further notice of the affair. The donning of her chapel-going garments seemed to exercise a soothing influence upon the temper of the sister, for on coming downstairs again her countenance wore its usually serene expression, and she observed in as apologetical a tone as it was possible for a landlady to assume towards so inferior a being as a lodger, that although she did not wish to interfere unwarrantably with any person's freedom of action, she considered it her duty as an unworthy servant of the Lord to remonstrate in a Christian spirit with those whom she found wandering in the path that leadeth to destruction. It occurred to me that, applied in the eminently practical manner in which it had been in my case, this doctrine might occasionally be productive of unchristian results; but I kept my thoughts to myself, and merely replied that the sentiment was doubtless a highly commendable one. And this acquiescence, and a little judicious [-268-] praise bestowed at dinner-time upon the excellent cooking of the Sunday joint (it was nearly raw, the oven having got cold while the sister was at chapel), fully restored me to my landlady's good graces. For a month afterwards all again went so pleasantly that I once more began to entertain hopes that I should yet escape the humiliations of lodgerhood. But on giving my usual knock one afternoon on going home to tea, I heard a great shuffling of feet and rattling of cups and saucers within doors; and while wondering why my knock should have caused this commotion, I heard my landlady say, "Oh never mind, my dears, don't disturb yourselves, it's only the lodger;" and the next instant she opened the door. On entering I found about half a dozen ladies seated round the tea-table, upon which one of them was just replacing a bottle of spirits which she had been attempting to conceal, saying to my landlady with a sigh as she did so, "Laws, my dear, what a start it give me; though I might have known by the time of day that it was only the lodger." A glance at the now composed countenances of these ladies convinced me that from that time forth they would regard me and speak of me as "only a lodger;" a person whose good or bad opinion was of no consequence, and before whom the sisters of Zion might openly put a strong "lacing" of brandy in their tea, and disparage their neighbours' characters. For during the quarter of an hour that I remained in the room with them, they discussed the character of a widow whom they were one and all in the habit of gushingly addressing (to her face) as "my dear," and unanimously arrived at the conclusion that "if everybody had their own," she (the widow) would not go to market in a silk dress, and, in the case of the unmarried daughter of one of the local preachers of their congregation, [-269-] a verdict was returned to the effect that she set her cap at every marriageable man that she met, and that she was no better than she should be. Nor was this openly contemptuous treatment of the sisters the only humiliation I was destined to receive at their hands. One Sunday morning, a few weeks after the episode of the tea-party, I consented to go to chapel with my landlady; and as I was at that time "young and foolish," and given to coming out strong in the matter of elaborate Sunday costume, I flattered myself that I should create a sensation among the plainly dressed congregation of "The Primitives." Nor was I altogether disappointed. On entering the chapel I felt that I was the observed of all observers. I had scarcely taken my seat when I had the satisfaction of hearing a pretty young woman ask in an eager whisper of an elderly female, whom I afterwards recognised as one of those who had been at my landlady's tea party- "Who is that nicely-dressed young man?" Here then was a pleasing recognition of the impressive character of my attire, and the due effect of a gold guard and a signet ring. With a sense of extreme self-satisfaction pervading my mind I listened intently for the answer. "Who do you mean?" asked the elderly female. "Him," whispered the pretty Primitive. "Him?" repeated the elder sister in a contemptuous tone, "He's only Sister Jones's lodger." From that moment .1 was conscious that any interest which this young sister might have felt in the "nicely-dressed young man" was dispelled. This was the unkindest cut of all. That the whole of the brethren, and the old and plain-looking among the sisters of Little Zion, should have known that I was only a lodger and contemned me accordingly, would have been to me a matter of supreme indifference. But that the interest which a young and beautiful [-270-] sister had seemed disposed to evince for me should have been turned to indifference, if not contempt, by the knowledge that I was only a lodger, was humiliating to the last degree.
    But notwithstanding such small miseries as these, the period of my residence with Sister Jones was a comparatively happy one; for though like the rest of her sex the sister had her little weaknesses, she was in all the more important transactions of life a kindhearted woman, and in the broadest and most essential principles of Christianity, a true Christian. And though I was only her lodger, I shall ever recall the memory of the kind, comely sister with grateful affection; for she nursed me through a violent and malignant fever with all a mother's tenderness. Dear, kind old landlady, she has long-since gone "to the land of hallowed rest!" and when, some years after I had ceased to be her lodger, I entered Little Zion for the second and last time, it was to hear her funeral sermon preached; and though a fastidious critic would have considered the preacher vulgar and bombastic, I know that one at least of his hearers bowed his head and wept before he had made an end of it.
    On leaving Sister Jones's lodgings I went further and fared worse in the matter of landladies. In the town to which I then removed lodgings were few and far between, and choice of landladies extremely limited. The landlady in whose house I was, owing to these circumstances, compelled to take up my quarters, was a decidedly disagreeable person to live with. She was of a most violent temper, and on the second day of my residence with her she informed me, in reply to a remark of mine to the effect that I would like to have my dinner at a regular hour, that she never took any d-d im-[-271-]perence from a lodger. And when I had been with her a fortnight, she was committed to gaol, without the option of a fine, for seven days, for husband-beating; the beating in question having consisted in laying her husband's head open with a saucepan. But this imprisonment had anything but a subduing effect upon her temper; for on the day that she came out of prison she again violently assaulted the unfortunate being who, by a cruel fiction, was supposed to be her lord and master. She considered, and not altogether without reason, that it was the sight of his bandaged head, when he appeared in court to beg of the magistrates to let her go free, which had been the chief cause of her being imprisoned. At the earliest possible opportunity I quitted the abode of this termagant, and was fortunately much happier in my next choice of a landlady. She was a decent woman and a good cook, and conscientiously did all in her power to make me comfortable; and, as I showed a proper appreciation of her efforts in that respect, and tried to give her as little trouble as possible, I soon became a favourite with her. Still I was only a lodger, and the favour with which she regarded me had a decided air of proprietorship about it. She would talk of "my lodger" in much the same way that she would of "my best chest of drawers" or "my new carpet." Her greatest weakness was an extreme admiration of muscular Christianity; and her favourite idea was that it was the chief, if not the whole duty of man, to "lick" any one who should in any way offend a female. Moreover, although I was one of the most peaceful of men, and had never "licked" or attempted to "lick" any one, my landlady, by some process of the inconsistent female mind, became possessed with the idea that I was a sort of unprofessional Tom Sayers, [-272-] and openly boasted to her female friends that her lodger could "lick any man in the street." Sometimes her propensity to speak of my supposed prowess was productive of disagreeable consequences to me. One morning, in the course of an altercation with a milkman, whose mixture she had stigmatized as rubbish, she said to him that if he gave her any of his impudence she would make her lodger give him a good "licking." The result of this threat was that the milkman, accompanied by a considerable body of friends, met me at night, and made a number of pressing inquiries as to whether I wanted to fight - urgently inviting me to "come on," and so forth. I confess I declined to do so. On another occasion a drunken Irishman, who by some chance had wandered into the respectable part of the town in which my landlady's house was situated, was making night hideous by howling out, "Send out your min and I'll bate them all, I will!" For some time no one took any notice of this midnight disturber of the peace, but at last my landlady threw up her bedroom window, and addressing the pot-valiant Patlander, ordered him to go away. "It's not ye I want, ye ould Jezebel," roared the Irishman, furious at being attacked by a woman; "send out your min, I tell ye; send out your min, and I'll give them all a bating, I will, I will." "Send out your min, indeed!" answered my. landlady; "I'll send out my lodger, and he will bate you, if you talk about bating." How this encounter might have terminated I cannot say; but fortunately a policeman appeared upon the scene, and the Irishman took himself off. But a few days after this occurrence I was horrified by meeting, in the immediate vicinity of my landlady's house, a gigantic Irishman, in a state of intoxication, who asked me if I could oblige [-273-] him by pointing out the man that lodged with the ould Scotchwoman at No. 4. I need scarcely say that under such unpleasant circumstances I denied all knowledge of that person. "Well, I tell you, sur," rejoined the Irishman, "there's not a part about him that his mother ever touched that I wont bate when I lay hould of him." Having given expression to this comprehensive threat, this son of Erin left me to prosecute his search after "ould Jezebel's lodger." I am happy to be able to state, however, that he never succeeded in "laying hould of him." Nor are such positive annoyances and humiliations as these the only ones to which the unhappy man who is only a lodger is subjected. His every movement in the house, which by the great commercial law of payment he has a right to consider in some degree his own, is criticised and found fault with not only by his landlady, but by every gossiping acquaintance of hers. If the lodger spends his evenings at home, the gossips openly speak of him as a mollicot, and inflame his landlady by telling her that they would not have a man mollicoting about their house among a lot of women. While if he goes out in the evening and returns to his lodgings late enough to have to use his latchkey, the gossips will assert that "he is not out to those hours for any good," and will originate and circulate dark rumours concerning him; rumours which, while they mark the unfortunate lodger as an unquestionable "bad 'un," leave the minds of those who hear them in doubt as to whether he spends his evenings in committing burglary or in the more harmless occupation known as "cupboard courtship."
    If landladies were an eminently and distinctively superior race of beings, the fact that it is they who have been chiefly instrumental in bringing about the [-274-] humiliations of lodgerdom would have less of bitterness in it. But they are not a superior race. I am painfully competent to speak on this subject, and I emphatically repeat that landladies are anything but a superior race of beings; and though the assertion would doubtless lay me open to a charge of partisanship, I would not be asserting too much if I were to say that as a class landladies are in many respects inferior to those much contemned members of society who are only lodgers. I have known many landladies who were "given to drink," and I once lodged with one who drank a barrel of porter belonging to me. She said it must have been the rats; but of course I knew better than that. I have known others who have borrowed their lodgers' money, and - without his knowledge - pawned his clothes, and refused to repay the one or redeem the other; and once, through a quarrel between a landlady of mine and one of her neighbours, I learned that she (the landlady in question) having by some means learned that a self-adhesive envelope could be easily opened by exposing the gummed part to the steaming spout of a boiling kettle, had for months been in the habit of opening and reading my letters, and retailing their contents to the gossips of the neighbourhood.
    Tis true that in times of sickness and distress the woman will in the majority of instances rise superior to the landlady, but even when playing the Good Samaritan a landlady cannot help showing that she considers a lodger an inferior being, and one who is incapable of taking care of himself.
    I have spoken principally of my own sorrows as a lodger, but that I have at the same time spoken also as a representative man, thousands of unhappy lodgers could bear mournful testimony. As the ill-used class [-275-] to which I belong is not considered competent to have a voice in the election of the legislative body, it has no claim on the attention of "honourable members," and those who compose it (the lodger class) have no means of "ventilating" their grievances in "the house." But though public business, private bills, and the grievances of free and independent electors, may exclude legislative discussion of "the lodger question," or the introduction of a bill for the erection of homes for lodgers, there can be no reason why private enterprise should not take up this important subject; and it is a matter of surprise that in this age of companies some energetic promoter has not started a "Lodgers' Home Company (Limited)." That such an undertaking would pay there can be no doubt, for were it once known among lodgers that there was a prospect of their becoming inmates of a home, in which each would have the exclusive use of his own little room, with the privilege of using, in common with the other members of the establishment, a comfortable dining-room, and smoking-room! and where they would be attended to by cleanly and competent servants, instead of being held in abject subjection by domineering landladies, and waited upon by miserable slipshod little slavies of tender years and weak frame - they (the lodgers) would take sufficient shares to " float" the concern. And once floated, success would be certain; for the prices paid for lodgings of a very inferior class would be sufficient to pay a good per-centage on the amount of capital required for successfully carrying out an undertaking of this kind. A plainly built "home" of three stories, the lower one comprising dining-room, smoking-room, cooking department, and servants' sleeping apartments; and the two upper ones consisting of fifty small rooms each; [-276-] each apartment being made to combine sitting-room and bedroom, and thus affording accommodation for a hundred lodgers-could, I believe, be built and furnished for eight thousand pounds, and managed for about five hundred pounds per annum. At a rental of five shillings per week per lodger, there would be an eager competition to obtain lodgings in an establishment such as I have attempted briefly to sketch, and an income of thirteen hundred pounds a year would thus be assured to the proprietors of the establishment. Nor would the rents be the only source of profit. In commercial and manufacturing towns-and those are the towns in which homes for lodgers are chiefly required - the majority of lodgers get their meals in eating-houses, so that the functions of an eating-house might be added to a home with advantage to its inmates and profit to its proprietors. And now, as I think a little reflection will show that the establishment of a "home" for lodgers would be a happy blending of philanthropy and profit, I trust that the day is not far distant when the hearts of those who are only lodgers will be gladdened by the sight of a prospectus of "The Lodgers' Home Company (Limited)."


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