Accommodating Grandpa – A 19th Century Example

Co-residence with kin in old age past and present has been widely discussed by historians of old age, the family, and community, but one area that has hitherto remained somewhat of a mystery in co-residence situations is how, in the already cramped dwellings of the urban working-class and rural labourer, these elderly relatives were accommodated.

In my recent article in the Journal of Victorian Culture I have already begun to explore the accommodation of the lodger in these homes through a study of coroners’ inquest reports and I now seek to ask how offspring accommodated their elderly parents when they were no longer in the position to remain in their own homes. It is well documented that Grandma was, in increasing old age, far more likely to be taken in by kin, than was Grandpa – the arguments for which is numerous and beyond the scope of this particular blog post.

The case I want to explore today is a coroner’s inquest which reveals how one Grandfather was accommodated in his son’s household. In June 1841, the Census Enumerator for Butley, a small Suffolk village, recorded that the residents of one of its households was John Barham, a 35-year-old Agricultural Labourer, Emma Barham aged 33, three children – aged 15, 10, and 4, as well as Henry Barham, aged 75 years.[1] We can infer, from his surname, Henry was related to the family he was now residing with, but so many other questions remain as to his accommodation in this household: when and why had he come to live in this particular household? What was his relationship to the family with whom he resided? And, in what was most likely an already overcrowded household, where did Henry sleep? – are just a few of these.

Yet, a tragedy befalling this household just weeks before the Census was taken not only reveals that the Barham’s had four children in total, but it also begins to uncover some of those questions pertaining to Henry Barham’s domestic circumstances. On 19 April 1841 an inquest was held on the body of 20 month old Elizabeth Barham, who had died as a result of consuming (accidentally) bread and butter laced with arsenic intended to destroy the mice that had been overrunning the Barham’s home. Called to give his account of the fateful event was ‘Henry Barham of Butley, labourer’. Recounting to the coroner’s court his evidence, Henry Barham stated that he had come to live with his son ‘at Michaelmas last’ (so he had been living with them for some months) and during this time ‘my little granddaughter slept in the same chamber as me’.[2] One supposes that this sleeping arrangement was born out of practicality and cannot have been an ideal solution to accommodating ‘Grandpa’. Sharing a chamber with such a young child undoubtedly would have disturbed his sleep from time to time, although on the day of the fatal accident it was the chimney sweep arriving at half past five which woke the still sleeping members of the Barham household.

There are still numerous aspects I would like to uncover as to Henry Barham’s experience of living with offspring in his increasing old age. One frustratingly unanswered question is how Henry felt about his living situation. Did he relish sharing a household with his son and young family? Or, did he yearn for the peace and quiet of his own home? While I doubt, in this particular case, I will be able to answer such a question, other inquests do reveal such intimate and pertinent details regarding the various household arrangements of the elderly in 19th century society…

[1] HO107/1028/2/7 Page 7

[2] SROi HB10/9/55/15

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