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Early 20th century lodging and boarding-houses in London


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Illustration by Bronte Allan, 2020.

In March 1900 the magazine Nineteenth Century published the results of a survey among working women living in London. The report, titled Women Workers: How they live, how they wish to live, included tables collecting the data of around 600 participants and cites extracts from their answers. The survey investigated current living conditions of the interviewees, as well as how they wished them to be - all of it framed by the lively voice of author Emily Hobhouse. The third table showed ‘the percentage of rent on income.’ Hobhouse summed up the findings as follows:


‘In fact, women are paying between the fourth and fifth part of their slender means for a room and a bit, or a bit of a room. Neither is very satisfactory.’ [1]


Hobhouse's ‘room and a bit, or bit of a room’ refers to types of 19th and 20th century urban rented accommodation for single working adults, which come with a confusing array of names and architectural forms. There were common lodging-houses (which provided cheap beds for the working class), lodgings, boarding-houses (where the ‘board’ or table was shared with the landlady or landlord), bedsits (rooms combining bed- and sitting-room) or studios, flats and finally purpose-built hostels and hotels. In terms of generally restrictive and expensive boarding-houses Hobhouse's conclusion is clear:


‘the community, in the sense of the boarding-house, can be set on one side. Only one voice speaks for it; it is practically a dead issue.’ [2]


In 2016, the Brussels-based architecture office DOGMA published a design proposal titled Like a rolling stone: revisiting the architecture of the boarding house. The idea behind DOGMA's scheme is to provide accommodation for the single young worker in ‘an act, perhaps, of realism, against the ideology of the domestic which our generation neither can afford, nor desires.’[3] Their work around boarding-houses fits within a broader Anglo-European interest in forms of collective living today. This renewed attention can be understood as a reaction to both urban housing crises and the social and ecological burdens of suburban sprawl in the West. As DOGMA points out, the prevalent single-family typology fails to satisfy the needs of population groups such as the elderly and the single, and arguably contemporary two-income families. The current way of inhabiting the sprawled built environment, from Belgium to North America, has been related to the isolation of households, air pollution, loss of biodiversity and low ground water levels.


Clearly, there is a discrepancy between Hobhouse’s and DOGMA’s respective burial and resurrection of the boarding-house. Unlike a contemporary architect's point of view, the 19th and 20th century practice of taking in lodgers or boarders came out of a socio-economic need, both of the landlady and boarders, rather than from an affirmative concept of ‘living together’. Both parties, as well as wider society, tended to consider these living arrangements as necessary evils. By taking in lodgers a landlady could supplement the household budget, while accommodating single urban workers, widows and widowers, students, divorcées.


The gap between the common experience and visionary projection of boarding- and lodging-houses is not new. Already in the early 20th century their conceptualization was paradoxical: they were simultaneously considered as the symptom of a housing crisis by society at large, and as its modern remedy by a small architectural avant-garde. According to the historian Paul Groth ‘old-fashioned boardinghouses’ were the precedents of residential hotels and serviced apartments – as imagined by 19th century feminist and former boarding-house keeper Charlotte Perkins Gilman among others. These typologies would in turn inspire modernist architects such as Walter Gropius.[4] Today, the boarding-house leads of sort of historiographical double life. A passage from the recent publication A History of Collective Living (2019) exemplifies this. The authors discuss how the term boarding house was ‘suggestive of the modern and progressive lifestyles of the inter-war period,’ while adding the following footnote:


‘Originally, however, boarding house was used for the pensions of large American cities, run by single or widowed women to earn a living.’ [5]


Instead of considering these multiple perspectives as simply regressive versus progressive conceptions of domesticity, I would argue they point to the essential ambivalence of boarding- and lodging-houses as domestic ideals. Today this ambivalence is easy to grasp. There are many parallels between early 20th century London and current urban housing crises: shortage and speculation resulting in poor conditions and high rents. To many the minimum dwelling represents the only economically viable solution. As DOGMA well realise, their proposal comes dangerously close to the way housing companies today are re-branding overpriced rooms as desirable.[6] A female respondent to Hobhouse's survey made a comment that could just as easily be made today:


‘The supply of ladies' flats not being equal to the demand, companies ask their own price and insist on all rules they wish for.’ [7]


Like DOGMA however, Hobhouse firmly believed in the need for and the potential of an adapted form of the accommodation she herself was criticising. Hobhouse’s vision of a ‘co-operative’ and ‘elastic’ form of living, with ‘varying sets of rooms and a sliding scale of prices’ aligns with the conclusions of historian Paul Groth and economist Kathleen Scanlon today: management is the key to the emancipatory potential of these forms of shared housing. In other words, not the sharing itself, but the way it is shared.[8]

[1] Emily Hobhouse, "Women Workers: How they live, How they wish to live," Nineteenth century: a monthly review, 47 (Mar 1900), British Periodicals: 474.

[2] Hobhouse, "Women Workers," 475-476.

[3] Jack Self and Emma Caps. Like a Rolling Stone: Revisiting the Architecture of the Boarding House (Milano: Black square, 2016), 4.

[4] Paul Groth, Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 80, 92.

[5] Eberle, Hugentobler and Schmid, A History of Collective Living, 57.

[6] See Ella Harris' blog "Crisis Cultures. Exploring Rebrandings of Urban Precarity."

[7] Hobhouse, "Women Workers," 477.

[8] Ibid, 481. Eberle, Hugentobler and Schmid. A History of Collective Living, 34-40. Groth, Living Downtown, 169.

Copyright of image: © Bronte Allan

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