Cellar-Dwellings – Paige Emerick

Due to increased urbanisation during the nineteenth century many cities became overcrowded. As a result of this, the poorer working classes often lived in substandard housing, with several families living within the same house. This meant that all available space had to be lived in, despite whether it was habitable or not, which included the cellars of houses. In order to combat the poor living conditions of the slums, commissioners were sent to report on the standard of housing. In particular, Mr Holmes’ testimony of cellar-dwellings in Liverpool in 1845 highlighted the damp, cramped, dark and unventilated conditions that families had to live in:

‘Liverpool contains a multitude of inhabited cellars, close and damp, with no drain nor any convenience … I visited a poor woman in distress … she had been confined only a day, and herself and infant were lying on straw in a vault … with a clay floor impervious to water. There was no light nor ventilation in it, and the air was dreadful. I had to walk on bricks across the floor to reach her bedside, as the floor itself was flooded with stagnant water.’ [1]

Holmes’ testimony vividly highlighted the types of problems that occupants of the cellars had to contend with. In particular, he stressed the need for clean water, proper ventilation and good lighting. This is because, as James Treble highlights, one of the main problems with cellar-dwellings was that they were below street-level and therefore more likely to flood, and with flooding spread waterborne diseases such as typhus and cholera. [2] The placement of the cellars can be seen in this engraving from 1838 depicting a man in the street talking to those beneath him beside the cellars. [3]

Manchester cellar image
Engraving of the exterior of a cellar-dwelling, 1838 [3]
Therefore, social investigators, such as Holmes, entered the slum to witness first-hand the appalling living conditions of the cellars. When publishing their findings in materials such as town reports, newspaper articles and sensationalist writings, the middle classes were able to campaign for better town planning and health conditions. Moreover, by raising awareness of the living conditions of many of the poorest of the working classes in this report, Holmes campaigned for change to improve not just town planning and housing, but also to produce a healthier, stronger work force for the good of national efficiency. [4] This could be seen as enforcing ideal middle-class living standards upon the poor.

Holmes also sheds light on who was living in the cellars. With overcrowding rife, several families were forced to share a single house, with one family unit living in the cellar. Typically, it would be the poorest of the working classes who would occupy these rooms, such as dock workers or Irish immigrants.[5] However, it was not just back-to-back houses that contained cellars to be rented out. As Treble indicates middle-class homes would also rent out cellars for families to live in, or cellars could also be used as lodging houses.[6] Hence overcrowding and unsuitable living-conditions were cross-class problems, and not solely reliant upon the working classes to find a solution.

Liverpool Mercury Friday 7 December 1838
Report about cellar-dwellings, Liverpool Mercury, 7 December 1838 [7]
Moreover as Holmes’ report also highlights that cellar-dwellings, although a huge problem, were often contained to particular streets or regions. This can be seen from a newspaper cutting from the Liverpool Mercury in 1838, reporting that several Irish women had been convicted for keeping pigs in their  cellar nearby to where the Irish settlers lived, contributing further to poor health conditions. [7] This demonstrated the importance of the social investigators doing home visits to gain a better understanding of the precise problems in select areas, in order to target their campaign for improvements more specifically. Also by doing home visits the social investigator, such as Holmes, could learn about daily life for the poor and how they managed with living in unsanitary and dilapidated conditions.

Additionally, Holmes also described the type of people he found living in the cellars. He reported that he met a woman who had not long given birth in the cellar, implying that her husband was away at work. At first glance, this family arrangement typically follows that of the middle-classes’ ideal of separate spheres, where the man went out to work and the woman remained within her domain at home. Instead, as Anne Summers argues, many working class women also worked from homes in order to provide more income for the family. [8] Therefore this disrupts gender ideals by women having a joint role as homemaker and wage earner. Similarly, in another 1838 engraving of the interior of a cellar it is obvious that the middle-class ideals of separate spheres and privacy are not implemented.[9] Firstly, as Emily Cuming suggests, work was partaken in the cellar in order to increase the family income, which can be seen by the worker’s tools within the image.[10] Moreover, as the cellar was one large room it had multiple functions as a living space, a working space, a kitchen and a bedroom and therefore lacked the privacy of separate rooms that the middle classes invoked.

Manchester cellar image 2
Engraving of the interior of a cellar-dwelling, 1838 [9]
Additionally, the report is useful for understanding how the middle classes viewed the slum-dwellers. Holmes’ terminology of the ‘poor woman in distress’ lying confided on a flooded floor invoked strong imagery onto his middle and upper-class readers. Therefore this implored the middle classes to strive for improvements. Furthermore, by reports of social investigators in the home, especially at extremely personal moments such as giving birth, idemonstrated the lack of privacy within the working-class home and cellars. This highlighted the vulnerability of the poor, and especially of women and children who occupied the home most of the time, by allowing strangers to enter and inspect their homes unannounced.

Overall, Holmes’ testimony is useful for shedding light on both the living conditions of the cellars in the slums, and how the middle classes viewed the poor. The terminology used in the report is effective in invoking sympathy for the poor, but also to instigate change, both in terms of health reforms and instilling middle-class family values upon the working classes.

Paige Emerick



[1] Mr Holmes’ testimony in Second Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring into the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts, PP [610], xviii (1845), 22., cited in Treble, James H., ‘Liverpool Working-class Housing, 1801-1851’, in Chapman, Stanley D. (ed.), The History of Working-class Housing: A Symposium, (Devon: David & Charles (Publishers) Limited, 1971), pp.179-180

[2] Treble, James H., ‘Liverpool Working-class Housing 1801-51’ in Chapman, Stanley D. (ed.)., The History of Working-class Housing: A Symposium, (Devon: David & Charles (Publishers) Limited, 1971), p.168

[3] Anonymous, House Cellar Dwellings (Exterior), engraving, 1838, Manchester Local Library Image Collection, Available Online: http://images.manchester.gov.uk/Display.php?irn=1174&QueryPage=%2Findex.php%3Fsession%3Dpass&session=pass&QueryName=BasicQuery&QueryPage=%2Findex.php%3Fsession%3Dpass&Restriction=&StartAt=1&Anywhere=SummaryData%7CAdmWebMetadata&QueryTerms=cellar&QueryOption=Anywhere, Date Accessed: 10 December 2015

[4] Harris, J., Private Lives, Public Spirit: A Social History of Britain, 1870-1914, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p.230

Roger, Richard, ‘Political Economy, Ideology and the Persistence of Working-Class Housing Problems in Britain, 1850-1914’, International Review of Social History, 32 (1987), p.113

[5] Treble, ‘Liverpool Working-class Housing 1801-51’, p.169

[6] Treble, ‘Liverpool Working-class Housing 1801-51’, p.171,178

[7] Anonymous, ‘Nuisances’, Liverpool Mercury, 7 December 2015, Available Electronically: http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.derby.ac.uk/bncn/retrieve.do?sgHitCountType=None&sort=DateAscend&prodId=BNWS&tabID=T012&subjectParam=Locale%2528en%252C%252C%2529%253AFQE%253D%2528tx%252CNone%252C7%2529cellars%253AAnd%253ALQE%253D%2528jn%252CNone%252C6%2529%25221ZTU%2522%253AAnd%253ALQE%253D%2528da%252CNone%252C10%252912%252F07%252F1838%253AAnd%253ALQE%253D%2528MB%252CNone%252C26%2529%2522BLN1%2522%2BOR%2B%2522BLN2%2522%2BOR%2B%2522BRNY%2522%2524&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&searchId=R3&displaySubject=&searchType=BasicSearchForm&currentPosition=3&qrySerId=Locale%28en%2C%2C%29%3AFQE%3D%28tx%2CNone%2C7%29cellars%3AAnd%3ALQE%3D%28jn%2CNone%2C6%29%221ZTU%22%3AAnd%3ALQE%3D%28da%2CNone%2C10%2912%2F07%2F1838%3AAnd%3ALQE%3D%28MB%2CNone%2C26%29%22BLN1%22+OR+%22BLN2%22+OR+%22BRNY%22%24&retrieveFormat=MULTIPAGE_DOCUMENT&subjectAction=DISPLAY_SUBJECTS&inPS=true&userGroupName=derby&sgCurrentPosition=0&contentSet=LTO&&docId=&docLevel=FASCIMILE&workId=&relevancePageBatch=BC3203951060&contentSet=UBER2&callistoContentSet=UBER2&docPage=article&hilite=y, Date Accessed: 10 December 2015

[8] Summers, Anne, ‘A home from home – women’s philanthropic work in the nineteenth century’, in Burman, Sandra (ed.), Fit Work for Women, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p.38

[9] Anonymous, House Cellar Dwellings (Interior), engraving, 1838, Manchester Local Library Image Collection, Available Online: http://images.manchester.gov.uk/Display.php?irn=2932&QueryPage=%2Findex.php%3Fsession%3Dpass&session=pass&QueryName=BasicQuery&QueryPage=%2Findex.php%3Fsession%3Dpass&Restriction=&StartAt=1&Anywhere=SummaryData%7CAdmWebMetadata&QueryTerms=cellar&QueryOption=Anywhere, Date Accessed: 10 December 2015

[10] Cuming, Emily, ‘‘Home is home be it never so homely’’: Reading Mid-Victorian Slum Interiors’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 18:3 (2013), p.373


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