Rooms of their own

Affordable housing remains a highly topical issue for those starting to make their way in the world of work. A report last year by the Joseph Rowntree Association found that 30% of 20- to 34-year-olds live with a parent or guardian now compared with only 20% twenty years ago, which was more likely to result in over-crowded living conditions and poorer mental health outcomes.

The challenge of finding affordable accommodation is one that would have resonated with many Victorian women trying to earn a living in the late 19th century. Many sectors required a period of apprenticeship, for which a fee had to be paid. In areas where an apprenticeship per se was not required, some other form of training had to be undertaken and the salary for entry-level jobs was often low. In 1883, a pamphlet published by the Homes for Working Girls estimated that 800,000 women were supporting themselves through paid work and 320,000 of them were in London. Access to socially acceptable, affordable accommodation was a real issue for women who were unable to live at home, could not live in a house with strangers and could not afford to rent a flat or house on their own.

There was early mobilisation by charitable organisations. The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and Girls Friendly Society were two groups that were quick to address this issue and they were quickly joined in 1878 by the Homes for Working Girls in London and the Home Life Society. The latter stated that it was formed ‘for the purpose of providing the comforts, privileges and protection of “home life” for girls of good character who have to live in London apart from their parents’. By 1881, it had a Young Women’s Home at 220 Marylebone Road where Ada Nettleship‘s mother, Margaret Hinton, was the Lady Superintendent. It advertised itself as being for ‘dressmakers and other young persons’, who tended to be artists’ assistants, governesses and milliners. They later added a second location at 26 New Cavendish Street.

Some cities got their act together and provided municipal accommodation: in Glasgow the city provided a lodging house for women as early as 1872; Manchester opened Ashton House with beds for over 200 women in 1910 and there was some provision made in Cardiff the following year.

A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris by Gwen John, 1907-9

However in London, little was done for women by local councils and so the period between 1888 and 1914 saw a spate of development of accommodation projects and residential clubs, initiated by women, aimed specifically at working women in the professions. They tended to be found mainly found in Chelsea, Bayswater and the Cromwell Road but Bloomsbury and Marylebone were other chosen locations. These are just some of the ones I have come across where women in the FT-She 100 were involved.

Two were set up as commercial enterprises, with shareholders and a promised return. The first was The Ladies’ Associated Dwellings Company which opened the Sloane Gardens House, 52, Lower Sloane Street in 1888. This eventually had room for 150 women, with a mix of different accommodation options. There were some single bed-sitting rooms as well as smaller cubicles, where women could sleep at night, using the common living spaces during the day. Mary Harris Smith was at one of the early meetings so she might have been involved in some capacity, as a shareholder or perhaps the auditor.

It was quickly followed by The Ladies Residential Chambers Company. Set up in February 1888, one of the founding directors was Agnes Garrett. Along with four other directors, including James Beale (a solicitor, owner of Standen House and one of her clients), their company built a block of purpose-designed accommodation on Chenies Street, off Tottenham Court Road. Shareholders included many of the directors’ family members and several women overseeing educational establishments, among them Louisa Gann, the principal of the Female School of Art in Queen Square and Elizabeth Wordsworth, principal of Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. The architect was J.M. Brydon. The grand opening was in May 1889, with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Lady Harberton and Emma Cons among the guests.

For women who could afford it, this was generally a much better option than renting tiny rooms from a landlady. For one young teacher who was sharing rooms with a friend in a private house the idea of having a small two-bedroomed flat with a tiny kitchen to prepare breakfast and a common dining room which offered a tasty dinner and lively conversation with artists, authors and political workers was ‘the promised land’. Even though the rent was relatively high and residents had to furnish their own rooms, the amount spent on having to eat out to avoid the terrible food in a boarding house and the much more pleasant environment made it worth it. A second project, York Street Chambers, opened in Marylebone in 1892, with room for 50 women.

Other projects were more philanthropic. These included:
The Bee Club, 19 Oakley Street, Chelsea. Founded in 1901 by Beatrice Headlam, probably using money she inherited from Emily Massingberd. Cecil Gradwell was one of the committee members. The target audience was teachers, secretaries and clerks: applicants had to be earning less than £150 a year to be eligible (presumably gross income). When it opened the charges were 21-28 shillings a week for accommodation and board, so with 20 shillings in an old pound, this would mean at least 35% of residents’ pre-tax income would have been going on accommodation and food and this option would have been out of reach for someone like Alice Head or Beatrice Gordon Holmes, who both reported earning £1 a week (i.e. 20 shillings) in their entry-level secretarial jobs at around this time (but were able to cope because they could carry on living at home).

The Beechwood Club, 6 Oakley Street, Chelsea. Founded in 1895 by Cornelia Adair. This was also aimed at women working as teachers, secretaries or clerks, or training for these jobs, with an income under a threshold set by the committee members, again including Cecil Gradwell.

The Three Arts Club, 19A Marylebone Road, (opposite Madame Tussauds). Opened in December 1911 and aimed at women workers and students in the musical, fine arts and crafts and theatrical professions it had also had committee to screen applicants. Lena Ashwell was one of the originators of this scheme, which had eighty bedrooms and cubicles.

The writer Dodie Smith secured a room there a few years later when she was 19 and working in the theatre and described it as her ‘spiritual home’. She went on: ‘It was an impressive, five-story corner-house..with a fine lounge overlooking a high, walled garden with tall plane trees… I could only afford a cubicle – even that was seventeen shillings and sixpence a week, with breakfast – but it had a large window with a plane tree brushing against it and from the first I liked it better than any room I had ever had. There was good weathered-oak furniture from Heals (not that I had then heard of Heal’s) and an air of modernity.. The cubicle partitions started a foot above the floor (so that shoes were apt to wander into neighbouring cubicles) and ended several feet from the ceiling. One could hear every sound made by occupants of even distant cubicles; yet there seemed to me to be a pleasant feeling of privacy. Perhaps this was because I was on my own at last, instead of being a paying guest.’

These schemes were driven by women because more than a century ago, they recognised that without access to affordable accommodation, many other women would not be able to participate in the workforce. Their solution was to make living cheaper. The other route, obviously, is to pay better. Nowhere is this more relevant today than for interns. Interns in the UK are now legally entitled to be paid the minimum wage but for 18-20 year olds this is just £6.56/hr, rising to £8.91 for 23 year olds. The national living wage is £9.50 and the London Living Wage is £10.85/hr. If employers are serious about attracting the best talent, regardless of gender, race, and socio-economic background, internships need to be affordable for all. Research by the Sutton Trust in 2018 suggested that 25% of internships were still unpaid. Any employer who is touting its diversity and inclusion credentials but not paying interns properly needs to have a serious re-think.

Sources include: Morning Post 14/12/1878; Congleton & Macclesfield Mercury and Cheshire General Advertiser 30/10/1886; The Queen 7/9/1895; 11/5/1901

‘A London Home in the 1890s’ by Molly V Hughes (1946); ‘Look back with mixed feelings’ by Dodie Smith (1978)

“Where Shall She Live?”: Housing the New Working Woman in Late Victorian and Edwardian London by Emily Gee in Living, Leisure and Law: Eight Building Types in England 1800-1941, ed. Geoff Brandwood (2010)

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