Victorian England was a time of great prosperity in terms of technology advancements. The electric lightbulb, flushing toilets, and the cheese grater were just some of the inventions that revolutionised the world, but whilst huge strides were being made in this area of society, there were major issues with the standard of living, particularly in Victorian London.
Fair work wasn’t easy to come by, with the rapidly growing population, increasing numbers of refugees (especially from Ireland during the famine), notoriously low wages, and a severe lack of stable employment leaving as many as a third of Victorians in London living in poverty.
For those who were completely destitute, the workhouse was the only option. It provided free accommodation in return for arduous work, and whilst a bed was available, it was far from ideal and was a last resort. If someone was able to make a small amount of money each day but not enough to live in their own private residence, a common lodging house was a viable option.
In essence, lodging houses in Victorian London were a middle ground between private dwellings and the workhouse. For a small fee, typically around 4p per night, a person could stay in one of the beds within a lodging house. They would often be in overcrowded rooms with any number of other people, and they would have access to communal areas like a kitchen/dining area. Sometimes, landlords provided breakfast to the lodgers, but this wasn’t always the case.
It’s common for people to get confused about the difference between lodging houses and dosshouses, but they are the same thing: communal houses for working members of society to live in. They were also sometimes called single women’s houses, working men’s homes, and fourpenny hotels.
Though the common lodging house was better than the workhouse in the sense you didn’t need to undertake dangerous work or conform to a certain religion, living conditions were far from ideal. The rooms were grossly overcrowded, with relay systems in place in some homes. This meant a person could buy a share in a bed that they would have to split with up to two other people.
The relay would often be split into equal hours, meaning one person could sleep in the bed during the day whilst the other person was at work, and when the second person came home from work, they would kick the other person out of the bed to go to work so they could sleep in the bed overnight. If three people were sharing one bed, the relay would be split into eight-hour shifts.
This was far from ideal and afforded no privacy, plus, it meant lodging houses were rife with disease. With such poor sanitation and bedsharing a common practice, many people died from illnesses caught in the dosshouse. There were laws in place to try and provide some form of protection to lodging house residents, but they were scarcely implemented.
Such laws included washing bedsheets every week, keeping men and women separate, limiting the number of beds based on personal space allowances, and opening the windows every day from 10am to promote good ventilation. Unfortunately, many lodging house owners disregarded the laws, meaning residents lived in nothing short of desperate squalor.
The types of people who lived in dosshouses were viewed as the scourge of society; pickpockets, thieves, and prostitutes. Three of Jack the Ripper’s victims lived in the same dosshouse on Flower and Dean Street, owing to their popularity amongst low-earners and those who scrimped a living on a daily basis.
Crime became notoriously linked with dosshouses, with the upper classes looking down on them and Queen Victoria even calling for them to be abolished as a result of the associated crime, even though many living in the dwellings were simply down on their luck and trying desperately to avoid the workhouse.
As mentioned, prostitutes often lived in common lodging houses, including a number of Jack the Ripper’s victims. With so many people trying to steal a living, crime was indeed rife, but as so many middle- and upper-class people saw those living in dosshouses as somewhat sub-human, the police often turned a blind eye to violence and crime against the residents.
Many dosshouse residents didn’t have families and partook in work that was looked down on, affording them little to no protection from the authorities. This made them easy pickings for people like Jack the Ripper. It was the graphic horror of his crimes that made him notorious, though many still frowned upon his victims because of their living situation.
Not only were victims easy to come by in dosshouses, but it’s entirely possible that the Ripper lived in one himself. They were so overcrowded and rife with crime that it’s plausible he was able to avoid the police due to the anonymity granted by the common lodging houses.
They were problematic places to live to say the least, and they saw such a high rotation of residents that he could’ve easily hid in plain sight by moving from place to place unnoticed.
Common lodging houses played a prominent role in the East End in Victorian London. You can learn more about what life was like in these buildings, what the day-to-day life of residents was like, and how they provided the perfect hunting ground for Jack the Ripper by booking a place on one of our Whitechapel tours.