‘Poor as this place is, it is still a home’ –

A weaver's room in Spitalfields.

Victorian city dwellers and moving home

After 30 years of living in the same house, I grew wearisome and troubled by its gradual decline. The trouble was it was not my house and there was not much that could be done but to appeal to the landlord for help.

There was no use refurbishing it. Many years ago when I was in therapy, I wrote that it was like putting a sticking plaster over a decapitation. Well, the same could be said about that house. Refurbishment was pointless. For years though, the landlord disagreed and so my pain went on and on.

Finally, the extent of the repairs became something my landlord could not ignore and they agreed to move myself and my family with an emergency maintenance transfer.

After three weeks of chaos and anxiety, I am writing this from my new home. But despite my hatred for the previous property, I feel unsettled and lost.

It doesn’t seem right. I know that it will eventually feel right because adaptation is the greatest asset of a species. But it made me think about memories and attachments to buildings, the objects within them and how we are privileged to hold onto our possessions.

Those objects we own make memories tangible. We look at them, we hold them and remember moments. Those times we spent with people; our visits to far off places. When we move we can take those memories with us.

My new local church. A gem in the landscape and a reminder that churches and community buildings gave our ancestors the boundaries of their home district, providing a sense of belonging. (c) 2023 Mish J Holman

The walls and the fabric of buildings, the stair rail and banister we stroke time and time again as we descend the stairs, the windows which give us a particular angle to view the fireworks over London on New Year’s Eve, the musty smells of each room, the birds we feed in the garden, the camellia, the rosebush, and all the other plants we nurtured – these are familiar things that make home feel safe and give us our sense of belonging. They are the anchors of stability, but we can’t take them with us.

All this made me think of my ancestors, many of whom were Londoners for several generations. Some of them were constantly on the move. Where did they store their memories? They had so few objects apart from a few photographs if they were lucky. Those photographs must have taken on a role of huge significance in lieu of other possessions.

And when they were fortunate enough to have a precious possession, it was often pawned. They could not hold onto objects for very long. They did have their stories though. Without material objects, the only way to keep a memory alive is through a story. And they told them while stirring the stew pot or ironing in the parlour or at Christmas tea.

Poverty of course was the reason their homes were not full of objects of memory. But imagine with the frequency of moving from lodging house to lodging house how difficult it must have been to take possessions with them?

And why did they move so frequently?

After the Local Government Acts of the 1870s and 1880s authorities began a programme of slum clearances. Obviously this was a necessity, but many families found themselves being forced to move from one slum to another because that was all they could afford.

Illustration from ‘London Shadows’, by George Godwin

In the inner cities this was a habit they had learned for decades. As children they would have moved with their parents while the head of the household looked for work. Casual work meant jobs needed to be within a walking distance. So to be first in line for employment it was necessary to know quickly when and where work was available. In late nineteenth-century London, it has been estimated that three-quarters of workers living in south London walked to work. No doubt this was replicated in other areas north of the Thames.

This type of commute changed slowly across London as the century progressed and it wasn’t until after the First World War when employees benefited from the improvement in transport links, that long distance commuting started to rise.

Those who could afford it took homes in the suburbs and garden towns with their recently improved transport connections. This coincided with a campaign headed by the newly appointed health workers and the established sanitation officials concerned with the welfare of children. They wanted fresh air and open spaces for children to thrive.

Larger houses on the edge of town, but within reach of familiar territory meant room for a small vegetable garden and keeping livestock. Selling produce could bring in additional money and it could be a useful side hustle, but if they got it wrong and rented somewhere way beyond their financial means, they may have ended up looking for somewhere new to live. Often, back in the denser areas of the city.

This was particularly true of seasonal workers. This type of work could bring a change in fortune that could send the coffers either up or down. If it went against them, families were forced to move according to their circumstances.

With such a rapidly changing infrastructure and the increasing adoption of transport for commuting, the census authorities wanted to know how far people were travelling to their place of work, hence the workplace question on the 1921 Census.

They may have noted the change, seeing the mean journey for those employed in London jumping from five kilometres (as it was in the nineteenth century) to around ten kilometres in the first thirty years of the twentieth century.

This meant that prior to the war those seeking work were looking for something within five kilometres of where they lived. And home was preferably near their childhood ties and network of family and friends. This must have given them a sense of belonging, as well as giving them access to childcare when needed.


Their family, friends, and work colleagues were their anchors of stability in lieu of possessions and the constant fabric of a family home.

And when their parents were elderly they could fulfil their obligations as carers if they were still living nearby. Parental welfare also brought on unwanted stresses and often a change in circumstances though. If their parents became widowed or could no longer care for themselves then it was necessary to bring them in under the one roof. This may have resulted in the loss of a room and the need for the whole family to upsticks.

Another addition to the household also meant the need for more rooms. Usually more rooms for as little rent as possible if the family were particularly poor. In such situations they may have had to go without furniture and possessions until they found themselves in a better situation.

It wasn’t just children that made it a necessity to find a house with more rooms, home working required a larger space. A good proportion of Londoners were self-employed, some working in the clothing trade out of their own homes. They may have been both employed and self-employed (a bit of a headache for the enumerator explaining that to the householder when asked what to put down on the census schedule). When they lost their employment, they were force to turn to home working full-time to take up some of the loss in earnings. For this they needed the space. And so they moved again.

A change of job was not always because of the nature of casual work. They may have been lazy, their employer may have been a greedy, venal slave driver, and the employee was desperate to escape. Or it could have been as simple as not liking the job. It’s a surprise to learn they could afford to be that choosy, but they were.


As the breadwinner grew older, moving for work and new situations became riskier. The markets were often flooded with young bloods and there weren’t many positions for a forty-year-old.

Henry Jacques found it was very difficult to gain new employment past forty. Here was a man who throughout his life in London had moved 31 times, 26 of these relocations occurred after he left home in 1858, frequently because of his work situation.

He did take the risk as an older man, deeming it to be worthwhile owing to the health of his family. He wrote:


‘The health of my dear one and of the children was such that it was put into my heart to try and arrange to remove to a suburb of London. The doctor was always in the house to one or another and, after mature thought and prayer, it was ultimately resolved that we should look out for a house away from these dense districts. Very many families were leaving the district for the more salubrious air of Leytonstone and Forest Gate. These two Hamlets then were little more than
villages.’

Jacques’ personal situation and the number of moves he had endured were no doubt an exception rather than the rule. A study taken during the 1990s in collaboration with family historians revealed the average number of lifetime moves for individuals born between 1840 and 1899 was 5.3.

The reasons for moving correlated broadly across the study and when taking an overview of Jacques’ life thanks to his detailed diaries, the parallels are very similar. It will be of no surprise to learn these reasons were a combination of employment, family and housing. If staying in their area of familiar networks, 31.5 per cent of moves were undertaken for housing reasons, 25.0 per cent occurred on marriage, 23.5 per cent for work-related reasons and 10.4 per cent for other family reasons or due to personal crises.

This sessile oak marks the entrance point to the nature reserve close to my new home. Like the church, it acts as an anchor to my locality, to my home. Trees like this no doubt did the same for our rural ancestors who cherished local features and used them as recognisable spots in the landscape. (c) 2023 Mish J Holman

In part two of this blog I will muse on how moving affected our ancestors sense of rootedness and stability by looking at the scholarship on material objects in the home, and on what ‘home’ actually meant to our poor ancestors.

(c) 2023 by Mish J Holman for Family History Gifts. Do not reuse without permission.

Sources

Pooley, C. & Turnbull, J., (2000) ‘Migration and urbanization in North West England: a reassessment of the role of towns in the migration process.’ In: Siddle, D. (ed.). Migration, mobility and modernization in Europe. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, pp. 186-214 29 p.

Pooley, C. & Turnbull, J., (1997) Changing home and workplace in Victorian London: the life of
Henry Jaques, shirtmaker. Urban History, 24(2). Cambridge University Press.

Green, David R. (1988) Distance to Work in Victorian London: A Case Study of Henry Poole, Bespoke Tailors. Business History, 30(2), pp. 179-194., DOI: 10.1080/00076798800000030

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