“Our present abode is becoming daily more and more unpalatable. The street is infested with hackney coaches and blackguard appendages at all hours of the day. The houses are continually changing their inhabitants and always retrograding in their respectability. I think we should separate ourselves from those whom we should none of us like to consider our equals in station or rank in life.”
An appropriate abode was a pressing concern for most middle-class Victorians. In his diary entry for 21st January 1839, Anthony Evans – a clerk at the Bank of England – is clearly grappling with this concern. This short handful of lines reveals so much of what it was to be a Victorian middle-class man; a man of a certain professional station; a professional living and working in the infernal wen that was Victorian London – ever busier, ever more crowded. As contemporary Horace Walpole noted: ‘so prodigiously the population is augmented. I have twice been going to stop my coach in Piccadilly, thinking there was a mob, and it was only nymphs and swains sauntering and trudging.’
Victorian middle-class householders were driven by the desire to reside in properties that acted as immediately recognisable metaphors of their social standing and wealth. The Registrar General, in preparing the population census, concluded, ‘The possession of an entire houses is, it is true, strongly desired by every Englishman; for it throws a sharp, well-defined circle round his family and heath – the shrine of his sorrows, joys and meditations.’ Although Evans has such a house, in January 1839 he is fretting. Compton Street East, in his eyes, no longer accommodates the right sort of neighbours.
Bloomsbury was a desirable middle-class residential area in central London, between Holborn and Euston Road. When the Evans’ took possession of their new abode in Tavistock Place in July 1839, the houses there had seen some impressive residents. At the former No. 2 Tavistock Place, Zachary Macaulay (1768-1838), the philanthropist, lived in 1835. John Britton (1771-1857), the antiquary, lived at No. 10 between 1811 and 1820. Francis Douce (1757-1834), antiquary, lived at No. 32 in 1807, and John Galt (1779-1839), the novelist, lived there from 1822 to 1823. Between 1835 and 1837, Dr. Willan, the surgeon, lived at No. 35, and Francis Baily (1774-1844), the famous physicist and astronomer, lived at the former No. 37 from 1826 until his death in 1844. In the Victorian period it was still home to lawyers, artists and scholars, but the institutions had started to take over. In 1866, it was described by one resident as ‘a very unfashionable area, though very respectable.’
Relatively speaking, Bloomsbury offered to a middle-class respectable professional ‘affordable respectability’. It was important to have neighbours of equal social standing but it took an income of about £250 per annum to occupy even the rows of Pooter-esque middle-class suburban terraces. However, anyone with an income of £150 per annum at this time would probably have still regarded themselves as middle-class. The social standing of a clerk like Evans was in his manners, his dress, his background and his home, not in his income – which was relatively low. The anonymous author of Tempted London: Young Men (c.1889) informs the reader that bank clerks generally are a much-envied class, but they are envied principally by those who know nothing about them. He continues:
“A boy’s fortune is supposed to be made if he gets into a bank; but experience teaches that, beyond the fact of its being, under ordinary circumstances, a permanency for him, it possesses little advantage. Considering the large sums of money that are constantly entrusted to the keeping of junior clerks, as well as the amounts that are left constantly in the custody of cashiers and others, the flagrant under-payment that is the rule in several well-known banks cannot be too severely censured. Youths, to get into a bank, must be well-educated and have powerful friends; but having got into the bank, it is by no means a novel experience to discover that they might have done better outside.”
At the Bank of England, with the exception of every seventh vacancy, a clerk was appointed by each director of the bank in rotation. Joining between the ages of seventeen to twenty-five; the salary in a clerk’s first year was £50, increasing annually until it reached £250 per annum. In 1851, around 1-2% of the population had an income of over £150 per annum. This figure of £150 was roughly the annual cost of living for a senior clerk, including £25 on rent, £5 on taxes, £50 on food, and £30 on clothing and laundry. In sharp contrast, a promising solicitor might have earned over £4,000 per annum. Nonetheless, a clerk at the bank was a very respectable man, if not remunerated as highly as some others.
Fortunately, just as the English middle-class were defined more by values than by earnings, middle-class residential areas were differentiated not just for taste but also income. There were the village developments of Hampstead and Dulwich; developments along major roads, such as Islington and Camden; and estates planned by speculative builders, for instance Paddington and Somers Town. The middle-classes could also move relatively frequently due to their preference for short leases (three to seven years) – enabling a removal in response to their own rising or falling fortunes, but also if an area began to fall from favour.
They were far less concerned with home ownership and far more with location, occupancy and display. Whilst many of Evans’ fellow professionals had begun removing their family ‘shrines’ to the villa-developments speckling the leafy suburbs, Evans would resolve his residential anxieties by moving a surprisingly short distance; indeed, further down the same thoroughfare to Tavistock Place (some years later Compton Street East would be absorbed into Tavistock Place). It would seem that in Victorian London, then as now, what was regarded as an appropriate abode – that location-location-location – could be a mere stroll from a much less respectable one. Evans would remain for most of his life a Bloomsbury man; his extensive diary-keeping befitting his location.
About the Author: Dr. Alison C. Kay is an Honorary History Research Fellow at Lancaster University and independent educational consultant. She is also the editor of the Victorian Vestibule blog and can be followed on Twitter, here.