The ‘”Healthy” Metal Bedstead?

It has been while since I last wrote a blog post. Indeed, since my last post I have had a baby who is now a toddler. After exploring the life cycle of working-class marriage in the Victorian era through the beds they inhabited in my Palgrave Pivot In Bed with the Victorians, I am now turning my attention to the bed itself. I have, in my continued use of the coroners’ inquests, uncovered a wide range of wooden bedsteads in the Victorian working-class home – four post, tent, french, and stump – in varying conditions. However, one surprise has been the discovery of metal bedsteads from as early as 1878 being present in some of the dwellings inhabited by the poorest of the working-class.

Metal bedsteads, as Lesley Hoskins has explored in her work on nineteenth-century inventories, only began to increase in popularity in middling homes from the 1860 as a result of mass manufacture and falling prices. The main selling point of a metal bedstead was its ‘hygienic qualities’ – since they did not harbour bedbugs.[1] Thus, they were seen as ideal for those spaces where such infestations might thrive, including the homes of the working-class. Yet, as the coroners’ inquests reveal the presence of a metal bedstead (in the cases I have found so far all comprising of iron) in the working-class home did not necessarily entail a healthy night’s sleep.

In late 1892, Elizabeth Butcher of Lowestoft (Suffolk) found herself before the authorities on two occasions. The first was a charge of neglect brought before the Police Court, and the second was a coroner’s inquest held regarding the death of her seven-year-old son—Charles Henry Butcher. The subsequent newspaper reports reveal much on the material aspects of the family’s home—88 Seago Street—and their sleeping arrangements. Struggling to make ends meet on her husband’s meagre earnings as a smacksman, Elizabeth Butcher had several lodgers occupying the front rooms while the family resided in the backrooms. Several witness at both the neglect proceedings and coroner’s inquest described the house as being in a ‘dirty’ state. The back bedroom – where the children slept —contained two ‘old iron bedstead[s]’, on which there were two straw mattresses ‘rotten with filth’. Furthermore, ‘There was not an atom of bedclothing in the house [instead] old coats and a jacket were used as a covering’. Other signs of ‘the direst poverty’ were also evident around the family’s home, as stated in Police Sergeant Roxby’s testimony in the inquest. Having gained access to the Butcher’s home after the death of Charles – a death granted unprecedented access to such homes – ‘The only food he found was a loaf of bread, a little butter, and a small quantity of port wine’. It was unsurprising then, to find that Charles, who was noted as having ‘been very weak since birth’, had struggled to thrive under such conditions. Becoming unwell and deteriorating quickly, he died suddenly from what the medical witness concluded was ‘syncope…probably accelerated by the want of sufficient nourishment’.[2]

At a similar case in Chelmsford, in 1903, regarding the death of a brassmoulder’s child, it was recorded in the newspaper report of the coroner’s inquest that: ‘The bed in which the father and mother slept was filthy. There was a lot of old coats, but no recognised bed clothing at all. There was a mattress, which was filthy dirty. Everything was filthy dirty…In the children’s room there were two iron bedsteads, with the same sort of bedclothing—old pieces and coats’.[3]

These and other coroners’ inquests which reveal iron bedsteads in working-class homes on the brink of poverty raise several questions that I have yet to answer. How did such families acquire these metal bedsteads? Perhaps, in the case of the Chelmsford brass moulder, this was somehow obtained cheaply through their employment. Certainly, one of the other owners of an iron bedstead (which was the only thing left in a bedroom consumed by a fire) was a whitesmith. As it has been suggested by Angela McShane and Joanne Begiato, the bed frames were potentially already in the property, having been left by previous inhabitants. Had they perhaps, even, been provided by landlords/landlady? Were the cheapest forms of these metal bedsteads—the metal stump bedstead—widely available on the second-hand market and thus in better times the working-class householder had been able to afford them? And, finally, one question aside from the purchase and ownership of these, why is it the household’s children generally sleeping upon the household’s metal bedstead?

[1] Phyllis Bennett Oates, The Story of Western Furniture (Landham, MD: New Amsterdam Books, 1998), p. 169.

[2] Eastern Daily Press, Oct 11, 1892; East Anglia Daily Times, Nov 21, 1892.

[3] Chelmsford Chronicle, January 13, 1903