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An essay by Helen Hunt Jackson

English Lodging-Houses

Title:     English Lodging-Houses
Author: Helen Hunt Jackson [More Titles by Jackson]

Somebody who has written stories (is it Dickens?) has given us very wrong ideas of the English lodging-house. What good American does not go into London with the distinct impression that, whatever else he does or does not do, he will upon no account live in lodgings? That he will even be content with the comfortless coffee-room of a second-rate hotel, and fraternize with commercial travellers from all quarters of the globe, rather than come into relations with that mixture of vulgarity and dishonesty, the lodging-house keeper?

It was with more than such misgiving that I first crossed the threshold of Mrs. ----'s house in Bedford Place, Bloomsbury. At this distance I smile to remember how welcome would have been any alternative rather than the remaining under her roof for a month; how persistently for several days I doubted and resisted the evidence of all my senses, and set myself at work to find the discomforts and shortcomings which I believed must belong to that mode of life. To confess the stupidity and obstinacy of my ignorance is small reparation, and would be little worth while, except for the hope that my account of the comfort and economy in living on the English lodging-house system may be a seed dropped in due season, which shall spring up sooner or later in the introduction of a similar system in America. The gain which it would be to great numbers of our men and women who must live on small incomes cannot be estimated. It seems hardly too much to say that in the course of one generation it might work in the average public health a change which would be shown in statistics, and rid us of the stigma of a "national disease" of dyspepsia. For the men and women whose sufferings and ill-health have made of our name a by-word among the nations are not, as many suppose, the rich men and women, tempted by their riches to over-indulgence of their stomachs, and paying in their dyspepsia simply the fair price of their folly; they are the moderately poor men and women, who are paying cruel penalty for not having been richer,--not having been rich enough to avoid the poisons which are cooked and served in American restaurants and in the poorer class of American homes.

Mrs. ----'s lodging-house was not, so far as I know, any better than the average lodging-houses of its grade. It was well situated, well furnished, well kept, and its scale of prices was moderate. For instance, the rent of a pleasant parlor and bedroom on the second floor was thirty-four shillings a week, including fire and gas,--$8.50, gold. Then there was a charge of two shillings a week for the use of the kitchen-fire, and three shillings a week for service; and these were the only charges in addition to the rent. Thus for $9.75 a week one had all the comforts that can be had in housekeeping, so far as room and service are concerned. There were four good servants,--cook, scullery maid, and two housemaids. Oh, the pleasant voices and gentle fashions of behavior of those housemaids! They were slow, it must be owned; but their results were admirable. In spite of London smoke and grime, Mrs. ----'s floors and windows were clean; the grates shone every morning like mirrors, and the glass and silver were bright. Each morning the smiling cook came up to take our orders for the meals of the day; each day the grocer and the baker and the butcher stopped at the door and left the sugar for the "first floor front," the beef for the "drawing-room," and so on. The smallest article which could be required in housekeeping was not overlooked. The groceries of the different floors never got mixed, though how this separateness of stores was accomplished will for ever remain a mystery to me; but that it was successfully accomplished the smallness of our bill was the best of proof,--unless, indeed, as we were sometimes almost afraid, we did now and then eat up Dr. A----'s cheese, or drink the milk belonging to the B's below us. We were a party of four; our fare was of the plain, substantial sort, but of sufficient variety and abundance; and yet our living never cost us, including rent, service, fires, and food, over $60 a week. If we had chosen to practise closer economies, we might have lived on less. Compare for one instant the comfort of such an arrangement as this, which really gave us every possible advantage to be secured by housekeeping, and with almost none of the trouble, with any boarding or lodging possible in New York. We had two parlors and two bedrooms; our meals served promptly and neatly, in our own parlor. The same amount of room, and service, and such a table, for four people, cannot be had in New York for less than $150 or $200 a week; in fact, they cannot be had in New York for any sum of money. The quiet respectfulness of behavior and faithful interest in work of English servants on English soil are not to be found elsewhere. We afterward lived for some weeks in another lodging-house in Great Malvern, Worcestershire, at about the same price per week. This house was even better than the London one in some respects. The system was precisely the same; but the cooking was almost faultless, and the table appointments were more than satisfactory,--they were tasteful. The china was a pleasure, and there were silver and linen and glass which one would be glad to have in one's own home.

It may be asked, and not unnaturally, how does this lodging-house system work for those who keep the houses? Can it be possible that all this comfort and economy for lodgers are compatible with profits for landlords? I can judge only from the results in these two cases which came under my own observation. In each of these cases the family who kept the house lived comfortably and pleasantly in their own apartment, which was, in the London house, almost as good a suite of rooms as any which they rented. They certainly had far more apparent quiet, comfort, and privacy than is commonly seen in the arrangements of the keepers of average boarding-houses. In the Malvern house, one whole floor, which was less pleasant than the others, but still comfortable and well furnished, was occupied by the family. There were three little boys, under ten years of age, who had their nursery governess, said lessons to her regularly, and were led out decorously to walk by her at appointed seasons, like all the rest of good little English boys in well-regulated families; and yet the mother of these children came to the door of our parlor each morning, with the respectful air of an old family housekeeper, to ask what we would have for dinner, and was careful and exact in buying "three penn'orth" of herbs at a time for us, to season our soup. I ought to mention that in both these places we made the greater part of our purchases ourselves, having weekly bills sent in from the shops, and in our names, exactly as if we were living in our own house. All honest lodging-house keepers, we were told, preferred this method, as leaving no opening for any unjust suspicions of their fairness in providing. But, if one chooses to be as absolutely free from trouble as in boarding, the marketing can all be done by the family, and the bills still made out in the lodgers' names. I have been thus minute in my details because I think there may be many to whom this system of living is as unknown as it was to me; and I cannot but hope that it may yet be introduced in America.

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Helen Hunt Jackson's essay: English Lodging-Houses