What life was like for working class folk

Photo:Auction of No 7 Bread Street

Auction of No 7 Bread Street

From Terry Etherton's collection

Photo:Auction of No 43 Redcross Street

Auction of No 43 Redcross Street

From Terry Etherton's collection

North Laine in the early 1900s

By Peter Crowhurst, North Laine resident

The documents on the right give us a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people who lived in North Laine in the early 1900s. The documents advertise properties in Redcross Street and Bread Street that were to be auctioned off in a sale at the Old Ship Hotel on Wednesday 8th April 1903. Using the house descriptions they give, together with other oral histories available, we can get a pretty good idea of what life must have been like for ordinary working class folk in Brighton in 1903.

What were these streets like?

Redcross Street, which now leads to City College car park, and Bread Street, which now leads to Belbourne Court, were both typical of North Laine streets at the time. Redcross Street was largely made up of small terraced houses with two rooms on each of three floors, while Bread Street was more mixed use, with not only terraced housing, but also having a large foundry - The Star Foundry - as well as Brighton Electricity Works.

The industrial quarter

At the time North Laine was Brighton’s industrial quarter, having several foundries, breweries, malt houses, timber yards and the locomotive and carriage works at the station. The inhabitants of the area would not have had far to go to work or indeed for any of their shopping because in North Road and Gardner Street there existed every type of shop and business imaginable.

Mostly let to tenants

The layout of houses in North Laine was similar to that described in the auction documents. Most houses were let to tenants, who would stay many years. A tenant might rent a single room, a couple of rooms or indeed the whole house. It was important in Victorian society to be in a street where decent people resided, people who kept themselves and their houses clean. It was better to be in an entirely residential street where there was less likelihood of dirt from industrial premises and the rents reflected this. Houses in streets like Bread Street cost about 9s (45p) per week to rent while a house in Redcross Street, further away from industrial grime, would cost about 12s (60p). Two rooms (which would be big enough for a family) would cost you 5s (25p).

Layout of the houses

Both auction documents give good descriptions of the layout of the houses and they are very similar. You will notice that the bedrooms on the first floor (top floor) are fitted with stoves, indicating that the rooms could be sublet.  A couple might rent a room or a family two rooms. The ground floor usually consisted of two rooms and these were usually bedrooms, again often fitted with stoves so that tenants could cook. Sometimes (see 42 Redcross Street) the front room was used as a parlour, which was the best room, to be used just on Sundays or for special guests. To have a parlour or best room indicated a certain status. On the ground floor was the kitchen, the scullery, and sometimes a living room with perhaps another bedroom depending on the size of the house, and a yard which included an outside toilet.

The ground floor was the focus

The focus of life in the house was the ground floor. In the kitchen food would be prepared and cooked on a range. Some houses in the area still did not have ranges by 1900 and might use just a stove. Also in the kitchen there would be a large sink for general washing, together with a coal bin and a pail for rubbish. Most homes would have at least one, if not two dressers to keep crockery and utensils.

Wash day on Mondays

Outside the kitchen would be the scullery where the copper and tin bath would be kept. The copper would be used to heat water to be used in washing clothes on Mondays, whilst the tin bath would be used for the initial washing process and for bathing. Wash day on Mondays involved several processes, including soaking and washing clothes in soda, then boiling them in the copper before using the mangle to get rid of the water. After all this, clothes (almost all white) would be hung in the yard or, if too wet outside, then on a clothes horse hung in the kitchen, which would make the kitchen damp. Dripping water would be caught for bathing.

Very few bathrooms

Few houses in North Laine would have had bathrooms. Instead the water from the range and the copper would be used to provide warm water for bathing in the kitchen. Often women were reluctant to use the tin bath and preferred to bathe in the privacy of their own rooms. If the family could afford it there was the relative luxury of the newly opened slipper baths at the bottom of North Road, where for 2d (1p) you could luxuriate in a hot bath in a private cubicle for half an hour.

No inside toilets

North Laine houses did not have inside toilets. The toilet was in a shed at the end of the yard. There would be no light there and the only paper available was newspaper on a piece of string. Needless to say a trip to the toilet in the middle of the night was not something to contemplate so you had a potty underneath your bed.

Mostly gas lighting

As well as there being no bathroom or inside toilet, heating and lighting were quite primitive by today’s standards. Most (but by no means all) houses in the area had gas lighting by 1900 (using the gas meters which had been introduced from 1890) but a gas light was not cheap and was usually confined to the living room. Gas gave off more light than candles but was wasteful, unreliable and dirty. It ruined books and pictures and blackened ceilings. For health reasons it was not used in bedrooms, so going upstairs in winter you needed a candle. There might also be an oil lamp in the living room, which would provide light to darn and read by.

Cleaning the house was hard work

Keeping these houses clean must have been a continuous job for the woman of the house and, as people were judged by how clean their clothes and house were, women often suffered hernias through the hard work and toil of keeping their houses clean. Wooden tables and chairs were constantly being scrubbed and even brush handles were scrubbed until the wood was white.

Pigs and chickens as well

Residents in streets like Bread Street would also have kept pigs and chickens in their yards to supplement their food, thereby making the cleaning even more difficult. Just imagine the smells of living in Bread Street with outside toilets, pigs, the smoke and noise from the Star Foundry and the Electricity Works (both using coal brought into North Laine from the station), as well as the Regent Foundry, the largest employer in town.

All in all a far cry from life today in North Laine!


[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 204, May/June 2010]

This page was added on 20/06/2010.

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