The Unwelcome House Guest

Much of my research has revealed where additional inhabitants – lodgers, visitors, and extended family – slept at night in the homes of the late 19th century urban working class and rural labourers. Yet, one area I had been struggling to uncover is how householders felt about accommodating an extra body at night in what were often already cramped homes. However, I am excitingly beginning to unearth some inquests which do bring to light how some reacted to their nocturnal guests.

In March 1900, the Essex Standard reported on an inquest held pertaining to the death of a forty-one year old spinster, Florence Davison, resident of 69 Church Street, Harwich. This was not her own home, but the ‘two-room’ dwelling of her sister, Emily Salter, where Florence had lived ‘on and off’ for sixteen years. It is evident from the inquest that the Salter’s struggled to accommodate this additional household member, but nevertheless did as it is revealed that on the night preceding her death, Florence ‘retired at her usual time, about half-past ten…sle[eping] in the living room… [while Emily], her husband, and [adult] son sle[pt] in the other’. Feeling unwell, as had been the case for some months, Florence wished to stay in bed after the rest of the household had risen the following morning, but with ‘her bed’ positioned in the family’s only living space, she was awoken when the rest of the household arose and moved into ‘her sister’s bed’ in the other room. (Presumably, though it is not stated in the inquest report, Florence’s bed could be stowed away during waking hours in order to accommodate daily domestic life – such as is the example in George Godwin’s London Shadows (1854)). A few hours later Florence was found to be dead. A post mortem revealed that death ‘was due to failure of the heart’. The story, however, does not end there.

'Interior of House in Court' - George Godwin, London Shadows (1854)  ‘The room is little more than 7 feet long by 6 feet wide; the greatest height 6 feet 9 inches. The narrow bedstead, which is doubled up in the daytime, reaches, when let down, close to the fire-place… Our engraving makes the room appear too large’
‘Interior of House in Court’ – George Godwin, London Shadows (1854)
‘The room is little more than 7 feet long by 6 feet wide; the greatest height 6 feet 9 inches. The narrow bedstead, which is doubled up in the daytime, reaches, when let down, close to the fire-place… Our engraving makes the room appear too large’

More is revealed about Florence’s place in the home when the coroner, Dr John Harrison, questioned witnesses regarding Inspector Amos claim that Florence had been starved to death as result of her brother-in-law’s negligence. Examined by the coroner’s court as to his negligence toward both his family and sister-in-law, Thomas Salter, ‘a checker, but not in regular employment’, stated:

Deceased was his wife’s sister, and she became ill about two months ago. He suggested to his wife that she should have the parish doctor. The statement was quite correct as to the income…[He] never took any of it, and the only money he had ever received from deceased was…to settle a County Court summons against him. His average earnings were 16s. per week, and only on one occasion had they been without food, and that was the fore part of January. It was quite true that he never gave his wife any money, but that was through many reasons’.

Further questioned by the coroner, Thomas remarked:

the deceased had been the torment of his life’.

‘Asked in what way, he replied’:

through upsetting his home. He had never agreed to support her’.

Also called to give evidence was Inspector Amos. Having initially reported the death to the coroner he stated to the court:

In [his] opinion Salter had neglected his home greatly, and it was hearsay that [Florence] had no clothes to wear, and went about the house in nearly a nude condition’.

After the jury ‘brought in their verdict as natural causes’, the coroner then called Thomas back before the court:

the Coroner addressing him, said the Jury were unanimous that he should be severely censured for his neglect of the deceased. He ought to consider himself lucky that he was not committed to take his trial for manslaughter…had it not been for the medical evidence.—He (the Coroner) trusted he would take the warning to hear to treat others better were they placed in his charge in the future’.

It is evident in this inquest that Florence and her brother-in-law had a somewhat tense ‘symbiotic’ relationship, with Florence – of independent means – financially contributing to the household in times of crisis and Thomas (begrudgingly) providing her a bed throughout the sixteen years she had lived with them ‘on and off’.

This inquest leaves me with a significant question to explore in my research going forward – just how often were extra inhabitants in the homes of the working class unwelcome guests?

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