Board in Bloomsbury?

Recently, I’ve been working on a new chapter for the monograph I’m writing on nineteenth-century Bloomsbury, on boarding and lodging houses, forms of temporary accommodation that were very common throughout the nineteenth and for much of the twentieth centuries. (I realise there are important differences between boarding and lodging, but I am interested primarily in the commonalities of these forms of multiply occupied housing arrangement.) As Sharon Marcus (1999) has shown, these spaces violated the Victorian domestic ideal, bringing within the boundaries of what at least claimed to be ‘the home’ the unpredictability and danger we usually associate with the city’s streets. In addition to allowing for sexual adventure and misdemeanour, the boarding house was a space that generated daily inter-class encounter, even if its vertical form encoded a hyper-legible social hierarchy that gradated rich and poor, the ascending floors denoting class inversely so that the poorest lived up several flights of stairs in the attic. The boarding house thus compressed and verticalized urban difference. It lent itself to the proto-sociological eye, to the close anatomical observation of class in everyday life, and was valuable to the development of realism, naturalism, and modernism.

I’m especially interested in the particular kind of boarding houses Bloomsbury hosted in the nineteenth century, and in how they were represented in fiction. The ‘problem’ with Bloomsbury for middle-class commentators at this point in history was its proximity to the City, and by extension, to commerce. Its proliferation of multi-occupancy housing, in the form of its boarding houses and lodgings, as the century progressed, concretized the general problem by literally blending business with the domestic. Metonymized in the brass-plate outside the front door that advertised for guests, it was impossible for these places to maintain their distance from the idea of work and the material world, more broadly.

The following, from H. G. Wells’s Experiment in Autobiography (1934), remembers the author’s experience of Bloomsbury temporary accommodation in the 1880s. Reading now the author’s railings against the iniquities of poor housing then, one cannot help but wonder what he would have made of the current housing problem in London, in which the transformation of the city into a sink for global capital means that there does appear to be, for the moment,  ‘an infinite supply of prosperous middle-class people to take the houses provided’ (though not to live in them, of course). We in London still live under the negligent dominion of ‘planlessness’, but for many, the problem is precisely that, through vast inequality, some parts of the housing stock are becoming less densely occupied, not more. (The opposite is also happening simultaneously in other parts of the city, of course). One aspect of the complex mass of processes known as ‘gentrification’ is the reversion of subdivided houses of flats back into their original units, which become valuable assets to members of the extremely rich global elite. I wonder if Wells could have envisaged such a shift in London’s fortunes from laissez-faire ‘decline’ to laissez-faire ‘ascendancy’. In any case, I imagine he would have foreseen, correctly, that the ‘thousands and thousands of industrial and technical workers and clerks, students, foreigners upon business missions, musicians, teachers, the professional and artistic rank and file, agents, minor officials, shop employees’ of the present day would be equally badly served as those from his own times.

..181 Euston Road stands out very bleak and distinct in my memories. In the eighties Euston Road was one of those long corridors of tall gaunt houses which made up a large part of London. It was on the northern boundary of Bloomsbury. Its houses were narrow and without the plaster porticos of their hinterland and of Bayswater, Notting Hill, Pimlico, Kilburn and suchlike regions. They had however, narrow strips of blackened garden between them and the street, gardens in which at the utmost grew a dying lilac or a wilted privet. One went up half a dozen steps to the front door and the eyebrows of the basement windows were on a level with the bottom step.

So far as I can puzzle out the real history of a hundred years ago, there was a very considerable economic expansion after the Napoleonic war, years before the onset of the railways. The steam railway was a great stimulus to still further expansion, its political consequences were tremendous, but it was itself a product of a general release of energy and enterprise already in progress. Under a régime of unrestricted private enterprise, this burst of vigour produced the most remarkable and lamentable results. A system of ninety-nine year building leases was devised, which made vast fortunes for the ground landlords and rendered any subsequent reconstruction of the houses put up almost impossible until the ground lease fell in. Under these conditions private enterprise spewed a vast quantity of extremely unsuitable building all over the London area, and for four or five generations made an uncomfortable incurable stress of the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

It is only now, after a century, that the weathered and decaying lava of this mercenary eruption is being slowly replaced—by new feats of private enterprise almost as greedy and unforeseeing. Once they were erected there was no getting rid of these ugly dingy pretentious substitutes for civilized housing. They occupied the ground. There was no choice; people just had to do with them and pay the high rents demanded. From the individualistic point of view it was an admirable state of affairs. To most Londoners of my generation these rows of jerry-built unalterable homes seemed to be as much in the nature of things as rain in September and it is only with the wisdom of retrospect, that I realize the complete irrational scrambling planlessness of which all of us who had to live in London were the victims.

The recklessly unimaginative entrepreneurs who built these great areas of nineteenth century London and no doubt made off to more agreeable surroundings with the income and profits accruing, seem to have thought, if they thought at all, that there was an infinite supply of prosperous middle-class people to take the houses provided. Each had an ill-lit basement with kitchen, coal cellars and so forth, below the ground level. Above this was the dining-room floor capable of division by folding doors into a small dining-room and a bureau; above this again was a drawing-room and above this a floor or so of bedrooms in diminishing scale. No bathroom was provided and at first the plumbing was of a very primitive kind. Servants were expected to be cheap and servile and grateful, and most things, coals, slops, and so forth had to be carried by hand up and down the one staircase. This was the London house, that bed of Procrustes to which the main masses of the accumulating population of the most swiftly growing city in the world, including thousands and thousands of industrial and technical workers and clerks, students, foreigners upon business missions, musicians, teachers, the professional and artistic rank and file, agents, minor officials, shop employees living out and everyone indeed who ranked between the prosperous householder and the slum denizen, had to fit their lives. The multiplying multitude poured into these moulds with no chance of protest or escape. From the first these houses were cut-up by sub-letting and underwent all sorts of cheap and clumsy adaptations to the real needs of the time. It is only because the thing was spread over a hundred years and not concentrated into a few weeks that history fails to realize what sustained disaster, how much massacre, degeneration and disablement of lives, was due to the housing of London in the nineteenth century.


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