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My last post on 18 June 2016 looked at the squalid conditions under which most Irish immigrants existed in Stafford during the Famine and, indeed, beyond. That post ended with some comments about the Council’s harassment of Irish lodging house keepers for overcrowding their dwellings and the creation of ‘nuisances’.  That prompted me to look a bit more closely at the general role of lodging houses in Victorian Stafford and this rather long post is the result.

What was a lodging house?

In one sense the character of a lodging house seems obvious – it was the place where the poorest of the poor and the vagrants of Victorian society were forced to find a bed if they were not to sleep on the street or in the Workhouse. When it came to defining precisely what a lodging house was, however, Victorian legislators struggled and some of their problems also afflict the historian researching them today. Many households in Victorian times took in lodgers – so did that make them all ‘lodging houses’? Clearly the answer is no. The framework legislation on lodging houses in 1847 and 1851 failed to arrive at a workable definition.[1]  Finally, regulations issued under the 1853 Common Lodging Houses Act specified that the essential distinction between lodging houses and any other premises containing lodgers was that ‘persons being strangers to one another, that is, not being of the same family, and promiscuously brought together, are allowed to occupy the same room’.[2] Hotels, inns and taverns were explicitly excluded although at the margins many cheap pubs and beer houses in practice did operate as de facto lodging houses.

62 Foregate Street. Built around 1698, this grand house was divided in the 19th century and the left hand end was continuously used as a lodging house. The right hand side was the Dewdrop Inn from 1860-1910 (Picture from J. Connor, The Inns & Alehouses of Stafford: through the North Gate, 2014)

62/3 Foregate Street. Built around 1698, this grand house was divided in the 19th century and the left hand end (62) was a lodging house from the 1840s to c1914. The right hand side was the Dewdrop Inn from 1860-1910. (Picture from J. Connor, The Inns & Alehouses of Stafford: through the North Gate, 2014)

The 1853 definition is used for this study of Stafford with the additional limitation that households must have contained at least three unrelated ‘lodgers’ to qualify as a lodging house. This excludes places where one or two lodgers were taken in as a supplement to the family income, though inevitably the borderline can be fuzzy. It is also sometimes imprecise when there is a mixture of lodging nuclear families, couples and individuals. Another problem is that many of the houses in Stafford were miserable two room cottages packed into the back streets and yards. There are cases where two small dwellings were knocked through into one ‘lodging house’ or one house was packed with lodgers whilst the keeper’s family lived next door. A final practical problem is that house numbers were frequently changed during the nineteenth century and it can sometimes be difficult to trace the use of particular properties accurately.

The earliest registers of licenced lodging houses in Stafford do not appear to have survived and the extant data runs from 1878.[3] Even if they were available for the whole period, the list of registered lodging houses would certainly be an incomplete picture since many operators evaded the licencing authorities, particularly in the 1850s and 1860s. This study therefore uses the Register data but also identifies likely lodging houses from the Census returns and from contemporary newspaper reports.  Evasive householders may well have under-reported lodgers in the Census returns but they remain, nevertheless, the best source we have for snapshots of the overall picture.

Lodging houses formed a reserve housing stock catering for the migrant, the vagrant and often the deviant of Victorian society. They were regarded with suspicion by ‘decent’ society and they posed challenges to the authorities in terms of the responsibilities for inspection and control and the development of workable relationships with lodging house keepers.[4] These issues can be seen in the case of Stafford.

The overall picture

The graph shows the number and breakdown of lodging house occupants in Stafford from 1851 to 1901. The green sections show the Irish-born and descended occupants divided between lodging house keepers and their families (‘IFam’) and Irish-born and descended lodgers (‘ILod’), Similarly the non-Irish are divided into families (‘NFam’) and lodgers (‘NLod’). There were 41 identifiable lodging houses in 1851 and the number then dropped to 31 in 1861, 17 in 1871, rose to 19 in 1881 and then fell again to 12 in 1891 and 9 in 1901.

Lodging house occupants, Stafford, 1851-1901

Lodging house occupants, Stafford, 1851-1901

Lodging the Famine immigrants

In January 1851 five Irish lodging house keepers were summonsed for keeping their houses ‘in a filthy and unwholesome state.’[5] Not surprising. Of the 533 Irish-born people in Stafford in 1851 – the vast majority of them Famine immigrants – two thirds (364) were living in 41 identifiable lodging houses in the town. An average over eleven people were crammed into each of these tiny dwellings. Typically about a third of them were the householder’s own family and the rest were families, part-families or lone individuals who were the destitute victims of the Famine and who desperately needed somewhere to live. On Census night in 1851, for example, Patrick Welsh was living at No. 4 Allen’s Court with his wife and baby and they had taken in eleven other people who were a mixture of lone individuals, married couples and one widowed woman and a tiny baby. Round the corner at No. 4 Malt Mill Lane Patrick’s brother John, his wife and two children were host to three couples, a widowed mother and her adult daughter together with William Flanagan, a young single labourer. These were typical Irish lodging houses during the Famine period. The Council got their knife into Patrick Welsh. In 1853 he was fined 40s for overcrowding his lodging house. It was the third time he had been prosecuted.[6]

Lodging houses in 1851

Lodging houses in 1851

A lot of the householders who took people in during the Famine crisis and its aftermath doubtless exploited their tenants – after all, income from lodgers was essential to their own survival. Living conditions were shocking in any case. These people were not, however, professional lodging house keepers. They had ended up in the role through chance and necessity and only one of those visible in 1851 ultimately made a long-term business of it. This was the Kelly family at 52 New Street. James and Jane Kelly are known to have kept lodging houses at various places in the town in the 1850s and 1860s and we shall meet Jane again in 1868.[7] Most were, however, offering accommodation and minimal support on a casual basis to compatriots from their own area in Ireland. At 18 Back Gaol Road, for example, Thomas Jones made sure the Census enumerator took full details of precisely where everybody in his house had been born.  All but one of the fourteen people there (from seven different families) came from the borderlands of Galway, Roscommon and Mayo that were the source of many of Stafford’s immigrants. A network of contacts and information was clearly at work, a feature which has, of course, been widely seen amongst more recent immigrants to Britain.

Not all the lodging house keepers were Irish, however. In 1851 nine of them were English and they didn’t offer much to the Irish. Most were linked to the shoe trade and typically took in shoemakers ‘on tramp’ but at 46 Foregate Street John Faulkner was already operating a fully-fledged commercial lodging house. The sixteen lodgers there in 1851 had a wide range of occupations but only John Connor, a farm labourer, was Irish. Faulkner was to continue in the lodging house business in the same area until his death in 1883, aged 77.[8]

Lodging houses and migrant labour, c1855-65

During the Famine crisis lodging houses had played a vital role housing the flood of destitute emigrants but that function died away as the Famine Irish either settled in Stafford in their own accommodation or moved on elsewhere. By 1861 the numbers using lodging houses had declined steeply and it had changed in character. Many Irish had long come to the Stafford area for seasonal harvest work and this process carried on after the Famine. These people needed lodgings. In 1861 over 60 per cent of the Irish males in lodging houses were agricultural labourers and another fifth were building labourers. In other words, the lodging houses were now catering for more ‘normal’ migrant workers and the lodging house keepers also changed. The number of lodging houses had dropped to 31 and seventeen of them were kept by men who claimed to be agricultural labourers. These were people who had settled in Stafford, continued to work (to some extent) on the farms but also probably acted as ‘gang masters’ with lodgings for migrant workers with contacts in their areas of origin in Ireland.

Lohos 1861

Lodging houses in 1861

This changed function for lodging houses also saw the emergence of professional Irish lodging house keepers. Seven of those operating in 1861 (or their families) continued in the business into the 1870s, 1880s and even the 1890s. The Hingerty family are an example. Patrick and Bridget Hingerty were outsiders to most of Stafford’s immigrant Irish because they came from Co.Tipperary. This ‘outsider’ status seems to have characterised a number of lodging house keepers and emphasises that it was a distinctly pariah occupation in Victorian society.  The Hingertys settled in Stafford in the early 1850s and by 1855 they were running a lodging house at No. 12 Back Walls North. In that year Patrick Hinnerty (sic) was fined ten shillings plus costs for infringing the lodging house bye-laws. [9] Patrick died in 1866 but Bridget carried on there until the late 1870s.[10] These premises continued to operate as a lodging house right into the Inter-War period, although by then the Hingertys had long gone and their descendants had integrated into wider Stafford society.

The Kelly family were also outsiders in that they came from an area of eastern Mayo that was outside the region of Stafford’s other Irish immigrants. They are known to have operated lodging houses in New Street (1851), Bell Yard (1859), Cherry Street (1863-6), Mill Street (1866) and Malt Mill Lane (1868).[11] James and Jane Kelly’s lodging houses housed the floating poor – tramps, hawkers, itinerant workers and new immigrants from Ireland and they were before the magistrates on a number of occasions for flouting the by-laws and other types of trouble.[12] The end came in 1868 when the premises in Malt Mill Lane were exposed as the base for a gang of juvenile thieves. Jane Kelly herself was the organiser and received a cut of the proceeds. She was given a year in prison and settled in the Potteries for some years after her release. She later returned to Stafford and died there in 1881.[13]

The residual role of lodging houses, c1866 to the 1900s

From around 1866 increasing use of machinery meant Staffordshire farmers needed fewer seasonal and casual workers and this meant that the use of lodging houses by migrant Irish farm workers declined sharply. Agricultural labourers who doubled as lodging house keepers also largely disappeared from the market and the number of lodging houses dropped from 31 in 1861 to 17 in 1871. Eight out of the thirteen Irish lodging house keepers were now fully commercial operators. Michael and Mary Ward, for example, had started in the 1850s in the overcrowded slum of Middle Row, Gaol Road, but by 1871 they had moved to No. 42 Broad Eye and they operated a de facto lodging house there until Michael’s death in 1882. Mary continued the business until she died in 1888.[14] They never registered with the authorities but operated in the shady world of unlicenced lodging houses.

Thomas Durham did become a registered lodging house keeper. A bricklayer’s labourer from Co. Mayo, he seems to have arrived in Stafford in the early 1870s and by 1873 was already running a lodging house in Back Walls South. In April that year two tramps got drunk and the ‘house was made hideous with their noises.’ The male tramp got an axe and threatened his wife with it but he said ‘it was a playful way of showing affection’.[15] The incident gives a flavour of lodging house life at its worst. In 1879 Durham took over Hingertys’ lodging house at No. 12 Back Walls North and remained there until just before his death in August 1891, at which point he was described as a ‘ragman’. The business was re-registered in October by Elizabeth Perry, a Staffordshire woman, and it thereafter remained in English hands.[16]

Census evidence shows that the trend towards English domination of both the occupants and operators of lodging houses was interrupted around 1881. The number and proportion of Irish occupants in that year was substantially above that in 1871 and five new Irish operators were in the market, although all had ceased by 1891. This spike in activity must have been due to the new surge in emigration from Stafford’s traditional sources in Mayo, Galway and Roscommon brought about by the agricultural depression after 1879, with its renewed evictions, the Land League movement and the Land War. The newly arriving Irish found beds in transient lodging houses whereas the larger and established commercial businesses – 12 Back Walls North, 52 Back Walls South, 76 Foregate Street and 54 Grey Friars – now catered for a wide range of largely English occupants.  Elizabeth Lees’s establishment at 76 Foregate Street, for example, was registered for up to 28 lodgers in five rooms.[17] She was given a month in gaol in 1887 for buying a deserter’s army shirt, an example of the pathetic transactions that could occur with lodgers desperate for money.[18] In February 1896 the Council Public Health Committee removed Lees from the register because she had failed to notify the authorities about two cases of smallpox in her lodging house ‘and in other ways had shown herself to be incompetent’. All the lodgers and the whole house had to be disinfected and the premises ceased at that point to be a lodging house.

Lodging houses in 1901

Lodging houses in 1901

By 1901 lodging houses in Stafford primarily catered for English itinerants; there were very few Irish occupants because, in Stafford at least, immigrants had mainly settled there in earlier decades and there were relatively few new immigrants arriving. Other places in Britain and overseas were more attractive. One new part-Irish family did, however, emerge as lodging house entrepreneurs in the late Victorian period. Thomas Comar was a labourer who had been born around 1855 in Dunmore, Co. Galway, a classic place of origin for the Stafford Irish. He must have been one of the emigrants who came to the town after the crisis of 1879, perhaps because he already had contacts there. He married Ellen Best, a hawker from Worcestershire, in Stafford in 1884 and in 1891 they were living at 18 Sash Street.

In Sash Street the Comars were already taking in lodgers and in 1895 the couple moved on to much greater things. On 2 September of that year Ellen was registered as the keeper of a lodging house at No. 8 Back Walls South.  The place was a substantial old house that had now fallen on hard times since it was registered with seven rooms catering for 56 lodgers, by far the biggest lodging house in the town. On Census night in 1901 there were in fact 61 lodgers in the property, so the Comars were obviously happy to breach the regulations for extra money. Only one was Irish, Thomas Mitchell, a labourer who had been born in Dublin. In 1907 the registration of No. 8 was taken over by Alma Beatrice Moore née Churchley. [19]She was treated as Thomas and Ellen Comar’s daughter but the relationship was irregular and is difficult now to fathom.[20]  Alma and her husband Henry Moore continued to run the business in the succeeding years although Henry was killed in the Great War and Alma subsequently remarried.[21]  Ellen had died in 1909 but the widowed Thomas lived on in the lodging house. In 1911 he was a ‘sanitary worker’ for the corporation in 1911 and he was still living at No. 8 when he died a quarter of a century later.[22]

Council inspection and control

Lodging houses were perceived by the Victorian ruling and middles classes as potential dens of deviance and danger, and local authorities were encouraged to subject them to a degree of supervision and control beyond that applied to the rest of the housing stock. Stafford Borough seems to have been fairly rigorous in pursuing lodging house keepers guilty of misdemeanours and for much of the period that meant it was the Irish who were particularly targeted since they offered most lodgings. From Famine times onwards there were frequent prosecutions for breaches of lodging house by-laws, particularly for non-registration, mixed-sex occupation, failing to limewash premises and overcrowding beyond the permitted number.

The borough police force was given the job of enforcing the regulations and the force seems to have pursued suspected miscreants with vigour and officiousness, particularly if they were Irish. A typical case occurred 23 February 1881. At 5.30 am in the dark of this February morning a constable hammered on the door of Ann Mannion’s cottage at No. 3 Snow’s Yard.  He went inside and upstairs he found one person in excess of the licenced number and downstairs in the kitchen Ann and three children were sleeping in one bed and two other women were sleeping in another. Mannion said one of the people upstairs was her son ‘who had been to attend to the lodgers’ and that she was ‘ignorant of having broken the law’. The court was told, however, that she had been fined previously for the same offence and had been supplied with a copy of the regulations. She was fined ten shillings with seven shillings costs or the alternative of fourteen days in gaol.[23]

The widowed Ann Mannion was clearly the victim of police harassment of this stigmatised slum court and it is noteworthy that the incident took place during the surge of new Irish immigrants after 1879. Ann Mannion did not remain in the business professionally, though she probably took in casual lodgers again. As the number of lodging houses declined, and the houses became larger commercial businesses, prosecutions also fell away. By the 1900s relations between the police, council and commercial lodging house keepers were probably more collusive and prosecutions relating to lodging houses normally concerned criminal acts by lodgers not by the keepers.

Foregate St 62 today_0001

62/3 Foregate Street today. Now a listed building, the whole frontage has been reconstructed and all trace of the division between the old lodging house and the pub removed.


It is clear that the various types of lodging house in Victorian Stafford carried out the function of a reserve stock of accommodation sensitive to changes in need and demand. In broad terms we have seen three phases in lodging house history of which the first two particularly related to the Irish. Firstly there was the response to the Famine crisis and then there was the shift to accommodating seasonal migrant labour. Finally the sector contracted back to the ever-present residual role of providing cheap beds for mainly English itinerants and marginal workers. In that form it continued to exist until the creation of the Welfare State.

[1] The Town Improvement Clauses Act, 1847, the Common Lodging Houses Act, 1851 and the Common Lodging Houses Act, 1853.

[2] Quoted in ‘Shelters and Common Lodging Houses’ in the British Medical Journal, 21 September 1895.

[3] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D3704, Stafford Borough Council Register of Common Lodging Houses, 1878-1940.

[4] T. Crook, ‘Accommodating the outcast: common lodging houses and the limits of urban governance in Victorian and Edwardian London’, Urban History, Vol. 35, No. 3 (2008), pp. 414-436.

[5] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 1 February 1851.

[6] SA, 8 October 1853.

[7] John Herson, Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, MUP, 2015), pp. 113-122.

[8] Stafford Registration District, Deaths, April-June 1883, 6b/6, John Faulkner.

[9] SA, 7 April 1855.

[10] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, Vol. 2, Entry 2326.

[11] The Kelly family were still living at No. 5 Bell Yard at the time of the 1861 Census when James was described as an agricultural labourer and Jane a washerwoman. No lodgers were listed in the house but the Kellys may, of course, have been lying. It would have been in Jane’s character but it means they do not appear amongst the 1861 lodging houses in my list.

[12] E.g. SA, 30 June 1859, 6 October 1860, 6 January 1866, 30 June 1866, 25 January 1868.

[13] Herson, Divergent Paths, pp. 116-7 and 119.

[14] Stafford Borough Council burial records 04/7713, Michael Ward ‘hawker’ 9 April 1882 and Mary Ward ‘widow’ 22 April 1888.

[15] SA, 19 April 1873.

[16] SRO, D3704 SBC Register, entries 19 December 1879, 6 October 1891, 9 November 1896. SBC burial record 06/11075, Thomas Durham, 29 August 1891.

[17] SRO, D3704, 6 Register, September 1886, Elizabeth Lees.

[18] SA, 29 January 1887

[19] SRO D3704 Register, 26 November 1907.

[20] Alma Beatrice Churchley baptised 4 April 1886 at Bidford on Avon, father George Thomas Churchley, mother Mary Ann (perhaps Ellen Comar’s sister). Warwickshire County Record Office; Warwick, England; Warwickshire Anglican Registers; Roll: ENGL 09000 11 (Ancestry database accessed 24 July 2016)

[21] J & C Mort (publishers), Stafford’s Roll of Service in the Great War, (Stafford, 1920), Cpl Henry Moore, 1st Worcestershire Regt., France, 27 October 1914, 8 Back Walls South; Stafford RD, marriages, January-March 1921, 6b/30, William G. Penny and Alma B. Moore.

[22] Stafford RD, deaths, January-March 1909, 6b/15, Ellen Constance Comar and March 1935, 6b/26, Thomas Comar. Thomas’s effects were valued at £56 11s 11d, a paltry sum, so superficially he had made little from the lodging house. He may, of course, have prudently disposed of his estate to his daughter before death. England and Wales National Probate Calendar, 1858-1966 (Ancestry database accessed 25 July 2016).

[23] SA 26 February 1881.