Evicting the Troublesome Lodger in Victorian England

At the recent Social History Society online conference, a question was posed to me as to how easy it was to evict a lodger from one’s home in Victorian England. The answer this appears to be variable. Certainly, those vulnerable could find themselves rapidly dislodged upon the whim of their landlord or landlady, with little, if any, notice given. Yet, the process of evicting a lodger was not always straightforward, with landladies/landlords facing resistance and even retaliation in their attempts to remove a lodger from their home. And, if a lodger refused to leave despite being given written notice, there was little legal recourse they could take to have the lodger forcibly removed. Therefore, it is not unsurprising to find tragic outcomes to such cases.

In August 1894, shoemaker Thomas Walker and his wife took up lodgings in the Hackney home of James and Mary Whitton.[1] It rapidly transpired that the Walkers were going to be troublesome lodgers. ‘Contempt’ grew between Mrs Walker and her landlady after they ‘had some words’. These words, however, soon became coupled with violent actions. Three weeks into their lodgings with the Whittons, ‘On [a] Saturday morning Mrs Walker came into the kitchen, and insulted [her landlady] by throwing a pail of water over her head’. After a further exchange of words, Mary Whitton ‘struck’ her lodger. Unable to tolerate the conduct of Mrs Walker in their home any longer, Mr Walker was informed by his landlady that evening that, ‘You must find another place for your wife, for she is a dangerous one’. Responding, Mrs Walker ‘spat’ in her landlady’s face and stated, ‘I’ll leave when I like’. James Whitton then handed Thomas Walker ‘a written notice to quit’. However, this merely served to fuel the fire that was already getting out of control.

After an evening of drinking, the Walker’s returned to their lodgings at around one o’clock on the Sunday morning. Having disturbed their landlord  at this late hour, most likely having risen from bed to let the lodgers into the house, Mr Walker then directed ‘beastly language’ at James Whitton before retiring to bed. The following day, after causing a disturbance and quarrelling with the Whitton’s other lodgers, James Whitton entered the Walker’s room and remonstrated Thomas Walker for his behaviour. Retorting his landlord, Walker, ‘like a wild animal’, challenged the 33-year-old Whitton to a fight. Brushing off this request, James Whitton returned downstairs. Antagonising his landlord/landlady further, Thomas Walker ‘took two pails of water and threw them on the floor of his room’, aware that the water would come down ‘in a perfect pour’ into the Whitton’s room below. Increasingly fearful of the behaviour of their lodgers, they called in two policemen. Unfortunately for the Whittons, while the policemen expressed the opinion that Walker was ‘a rascal that ought to be punished’, they did not have the power to remove the Walkers from their home. No more than an hour after the policemen’s visit, James Whitton would be dead.

After the Police departed, the situation rapidly escalated. Thomas Walker pushed his landlady out of the back passage and into the yard, ‘[striking] her on the nose with his fist’. Screaming for her husband, who ran to her aide, he was seized by Walker who ‘struck him unmercifully about the head with a salt box’. Believing their lodger intended to kill her husband, Mary Whitton ‘seized a tin can and struck Walker about the head’. Domestic objects thus being used to commit and resist domestic violence in this instance.

Victorian Salt
“LEEDM.E.1962.0150.0017” by Leeds Museums and Galleries is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Whittons and at least one other lodger then fled to the parlour, locking the door behind them. In homes accommodating lodgers, such a lock was intended to prevent the ‘light-fingered’ lodger from stealing the household’s most valuable objects.[2] Nonetheless, this lock did little to prevent the access of the most determined lodger. Walker ‘kicked at the door until he broke the panel in’. Convinced that his lodger meant to murder him, James Whitton jumped out of the window to get help. However, crossing a low fence, Whitton ‘overbalanced and fell’—’He was picked up dead’. At the ensuing coroner’s inquest, steering the jury, the coroner, Mr Richards, stated ‘that the case was clearly one of manslaughter. The deceased, while trying to escape from the illegal violence of the accused, and while labouring under the fear of being murdered, had lost his life’. Such a steer from the coroner was not entirely unusual and following his recommendations, ‘after a short consultation’, the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter. A warrant for Thomas Walker’s arrest was issued, whereby he was charged with ‘feloniously killing and slaying his landlord’ and sent to Newgate to await trial.[3]

Whitton’s case was far from unique. When Mrs Mary Allen, of 17 Lomas Street, Burnley, Lancashire, informed one of her lodgers (with whom a sexual relationship had also taken place) that he was to find new lodgings on account of his behaviour making her other lodgers uneasy—“I am not going to have my house emptied for the sake of you, and this is the last meal you will have here”, he reacted by beating her to death in full view of her lodgers sat round the table eating the midday dinner Allen had prepared for them. Convicted, William Crossley was executed by hanging at Strangeways.[4] The same fate, however, was not shared by the Whitton’s lodger. On Thursday 22nd September 1870, in the Fourth Court of the Central Criminal Court, before Robert Malcolm Kerr, Esq., 36-year-old Thomas Walker was found ‘Not Guilty’. The defence, conducted by Mr Montagu Williams, argued that the fall and not the blows received at the hands of Walker was ultimately the cause of death.[5] Running at the same time in another court was the infamous Waters baby farming trial and, clearly deeming Walker’s case not worth the copy, the various London newspapers reporting daily on the proceedings of the Central Criminal Court omitted any summary of Thomas Walker’s hearing



[1] Several other newspaper reports spell their surname is Whitting and, at the Old Bailey trail is referred to as Walter Whitting. However, for the sake of consistency, the name used is that given in the most detailed account of the coroner’s inquest.

[2] Charles Dickens, Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings, London: Hesperus (1863); Lesley Hoskins (2011) Stories of Work and Home in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, Home Cultures, 8:2, 151-169, DOI: 10.2752/175174211X12961586699720

[3] London Evening Standard, Sept 8, 1870, p, 7; The Day’s Doings, Sept 24, 1870. p.10

[4] Manchester Evening News, Jul 31, 1894, p. 2; Manchester Courier & Lancashire General Advertiser, June 14, 1894, p. 8.

[5] Proceedings of the Central Criminal Court, 19th September 1870, p. 60 http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/images.jsp?doc=187009190060

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: