The Domestic Interior

The nineteenth-century slum house was typically a basic assembly of rooms consisting of a kitchen, a living space, a bedroom, a privy and sometimes a cellar and a shared outdoor space, such as a courtyard. The purpose of these rooms was variable depending upon the geographical region, the number of occupants and changes over time, such as the introduction of indoor plumbing. This blog will examine the domestic interior of the ‘typical’ slum house through the analysis of a range of primary sources including images, reports, investigative journalism and archaeological findings.

The kitchen will be discussed through the consideration of an engraving depicting the interior of a slum in 1886. The source used to illustrate the slum kitchen will reveal the confined spaces within which a lower-class family had to function.This will be supported with some photographs of reconstructions of the slum ‘kitchen’. In addition the engraving questions the conventional social views from the nineteenth century, and allows for discussion regarding the public opinion of this period in time.

The bedrooms and ‘private’ spaces of the slum house will be discussed with consideration of Henry Mayhew’s ‘Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-houses’ (1861-2). This piece of investigative journalism portrays the physical conditions of slum lodging houses. Mayhew documented his observations and used the testimony of tenants to portray many aspects of living in the lodging houses, such as the physical conditions and the criminal and immoral behaviour which occurred within them.

Concerning cellars in the slums, Mr Holmes’ testimony in the Second Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring into the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts from 1845 will be used as evidence of the living conditions of cellar-dwellings in Liverpool, with particular emphasis on poor sanitation. From this report it is possible to understand not only the types of people living in the cellars, but also how these people were viewed by the middle classes.

In relation to the parlour, archaeological evidence of clay pipes will be used to reflect the themes of slum-family values, gender roles and privacy. Smoking was an important luxury for the men, women and even the children who lived in slum communities; they experienced the comforts that smoking provided and they were not restricted by the strict domestic etiquette of the middle classes during the nineteenth century. Therefore, through analysing the smoking habits of slum families, it is possible to suggest that within the domestic interior of the slum house, there was ‘equality’ between the genders.

Finally, the privy shall be examined through the consideration of the excavation of the five closet toilet block in Hungate, York. This excavation is a clear example of the unsanitary conditions that were forced upon the occupants of a slum on a daily basis. Examining the old fashioned mechanisms of this toilet block, and the reports that came from the archaeological excavation, gives a clear insight into the lack of attention given to slums. This use of archaeological evidence is supported by Alan Mayne’s argument that material culture is instrumental in understanding everyday life in the slums. [1]

Throughout the analysis of these sources, themes such as privacy, family values and middle-class ideals shall be discussed. Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall discuss the middle-class values of privacy and family, and comment on how middle-class homes were beginning to be built with an emphasis on separation.[2] These sources aim to reflect the conditions and purposes of the rooms within the slums and how they were connected. A virtual tour of the nineteenth-century slum house will be provided, in which the idea of the house being a home will be presented.  This will be concluded by considering the genesis and reliability of these sources. It will also examine how accurate the sources are portrayed compared to reality of everyday life in the slums.

Paige Emerick, Jessica Hickman, Annie Hitchcock, Michael Ruddy and Euan West


[1] Mayne, Alan, ‘A barefoot childhood: so what? Imagining slums and reading neighbourhoods’, Urban History, 22:3 (1995), p.385.

[2] Davidoff, L. and Hall, C., Family Fortunes. Revised Edition (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 359-361.

[Featured Image] Unknown (English Photographer, 20th Century)., London Slums, c. 1900. Private Collection. Available online: Date accessed: 02/12/15