The Secret World of the Victorian Shelter


I woke up with a start. In an instant, I was at the window. An icy moon lit up the back yard. But there was no movement, nothing wrong. What had woken me up? Then the gate moved on its hinges, opened a few inches, then slammed shut against the bricks. That was it – the door slammed. I crossed the room, returned to bed, my feet cold on the linoleum. Then I heard it: a clatter of aluminum.

Now there was light under my door, feet on the stairs, my mother’s voice near and my father’s further away. Then I was on the stairs, my heart nervous to be standing at that unknown hour, at the bottom of the three flights of stairs, along the corridor which was frozen with the night air and behind my back. mother at the kitchen door. I pushed my head between his hip and the doorframe.

Jack lay among the ruins of the table, his four legs like those of a stricken spider, his back broken and around him pots and sieves, pots, jars and ladles, once housed on the shelves that he had cascaded from the wall.

The kitchen demolition was never touched on and after a while I started to think I had it all figured out. Circumstantial evidence, however, confirmed my recollection: a new deal table appeared in the kitchen the next day. Moreover, Jack was a prodigious drinker, determined to end his evenings in the most inhospitable places. He was once found in a coma, with his back leaning against a phone booth door and another across the hood of the Austin A30. The kitchen incident looked like the night he embraced the auto revolution.

Over the days and weeks that followed, the tenants continued to sit around the living room walls while waiting for their dinner, out of sight by their open newspapers, as close to each other as soldiers. Romans with their shields tied together in a turtle formation. They read the Manchester Evening News, the Cork Weekly Examiner, the Irish Independent and the Western People, while Radio Eireann rippled in the background.

On one occasion, annoyed by the bookish atmosphere, I grabbed a poker from the fire and tried to wipe Harold Macmillan’s mustache from the front page of the Inishowen Independent. In a flurry of flames and pounding, the room filled with smoke and the entire diary was consigned to the foyer. My father’s anger faded at the indulgent laughter from the Inishowen man and some of the tenants supported my actions, adding that “burning is too good for this Macmillan”.

As always, they forgave me. They kept giving me half crowns on payday and taking me to high mass, when sometimes during the homily my tutor would come out to suck a Sweet Afton deep. Back home, I marveled at their chunky boots encrusted with ocher clay, their stiff mud pants, the smell of wet wool and damp earth they gave off when they came home from work and from work. the smell of brilliantine and stale Guinness from their blue Sunday costumes. . Almost every week one of them disappeared, leaving for Kilburn or Digbeth, to be replaced by another from Connemara or Kilkenny.

But above all, I wondered why these men lived with us and not in their own homes, with their own wives and children. Who were these fourteen men that my mother fed in relays every evening?

When I asked my father told me they were tenants, men who had left home to find work in England. As far as I can remember, they have fascinated me. Uprooted, but from a specific time and place, they lived in a twilight realm, neither at home nor far from home. Without the financial or social responsibilities of adults, in many ways they exemplified the ideals of working class masculinity – tough, strong and independent.

When I began my research for the book, I was dismayed to find little mention of the shelter in the standard social and economic stories of the time, where they only appeared in a footnote. page of the main developments. Yet, paradoxically, it is impossible to browse a local newspaper of the time without finding a mention of this ubiquitous institution and its links with crime, prostitution, drunkenness, disease, misery, juvenile delinquency, violence and murder. To cite just one example: Jack the Ripper victims all lived in an area where every second house was a safe house and at least two of his victims lived in such places.

The very term “common dwelling house” raised the jaws of honest people. Investigative journalists who ventured there were sure to have a passionate readership. The world they described was no less exotic than that of the Kalahari Bushmen and Maasai warriors; yet the tenant and the shelter were as much a part of Victorian life as the beggar and the pub. They were at the heart of every city and town in Britain and at the heart of working class life.

As early as 1749, the worst part of one of London’s most notorious rookeries, the streets around George Street and Church Lane, caught the attention of Henry Fielding. The neighborhood, he said, contained “a large number of houses reserved for the reception of thugs and vagrants who lived there for two cents a night”. He goes on to mention a woman “who alone owns seven of these houses, all with miserable mansard cellar beds … They sell gin at a penny a liter.”

By the mid-19th century, shelters were a feature of every town and village and formed an accommodation system connecting most parts of the country and making them accessible to travelers of small means.

The shelter I grew up in the 1950s was one of the last of its kind. Social and economic changes, the development of migration patterns and innovations in the construction industry, have reduced the demand for navvy. But the shelter, the home of Britain’s itinerant workers, has a long and fascinating history, little of which is available to the general reader. I hope my book will help fill this gap.

Joseph O’Neill, born and raised in the large Irish community of Manchester, is a freelance writer and broadcaster. His work appears in all of the major family history and genealogy magazines in Great Britain and Ireland. His books include Crime City (Milo Press), A History of the Victorian Manchester Underworld, and The Manchester Martyrs (Mercier Press) which deals with the development of Irish nationalism and the last public multiple execution in Britain. His Manchester in the Great War (Pen & Sword) was released earlier this year to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the war. The Secret History of the Victorian Shelter (Pen & Sword) is his sixth book.

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