HSS Research Seminar: Joe Harley on The Homes and Living Arrangements of the English Poor, c. 1670-1870Events — Talk Helmore 118 & Microsoft Teams
6 March 2023, 17:00
It has almost universally been argued that the homes of the poor prior to the twentieth century were of the lowest quality, being overcrowded, unsanitary, comfortless, vulnerable to the elements and insecure. We must, however, be wary of the truthfulness of these accounts. Many of these ideas are based on the writings of people who had agendas, such as the historian who wanted to advance their Marxist viewpoint, or the contemporary who wanted to promote novel building plans and new ways of living. This paper tests these ideas through the novel use of pauper inventories which note the material conditions of pauper abodes and the remarkable archive of Richard Cobbold who painted and described the homes of the poor in his village of Wortham, Suffolk. It is argued that, indeed, many contemporary writers were correct in their assumptions as the homes of the poor tended to be smaller than those of the wealthy and much more crowded. While some rooms in poor abodes became more specialised according to function, space was at a premium and so people would use the same rooms for a range of purposes such as sleep, work and cooking. By studying where items such as pictures and tea items were placed, this paper also shows how conceptualising the home into ‘frontstage’ and ‘backstage’ areas is too crude and simple a dichotomy. Nonetheless, it is clear that the poor took pride in their homes and worked hard to keep them as well turned-out as they could be, despite being impoverished.
Joe Harley is an expert in the history of poverty and consumption over the early modern Georgian and Victorian periods. He has published widely on these themes and is currently writing a monograph called At Home with the Poor: Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in England, c. 1650-1850 (Manchester University Press).
Free refreshments will be served from 4.45pm. Please bring a mug if you would like a warm drink.
Event contact: Jeannette Baxter and Melanie Bell: HSSresearch@aru.ac.uk