Renting in Eighteenth-Century London

Few issues face the modern Londoner with more regularity than the trials, tribulations, and pitfalls of the renting market. The majority of the city’s population lease their accommodation, pay nearly twice the rate of those outside the capital, and spend an average of a third to half of their income on rent. For a proportion of the market this reflects comfortable living with secure contracts but, as regular newspaper horror stories tell, for many high prices are charged for poor-quality accommodation, tenants living in rooms which resemble cupboards or sheds. While gentrification, the right-to-buy scheme, and a lack of investment in housing are among the many factors which have made these problems currently particularly grievous, they are, however, far from new developments in the history of housing in the metropolis.

Many eighteenth-century residents of the capital, living in cellars, single rooms, tenement blocks, or garrets (essentially an attic with a bed in it) would find the contemporary housing market painfully familiar. Hogarth’s The Distressed Poet depicts a typical garret with peeling wallpaper, shabby furniture, no covering on the floor, a single empty cupboard, and possessions cast aimlessly around the family as the local milkmaid brings in an extensive bill which they look unable to pay. Paying rent was so widespread that it even extended to those resident in debtors’ prisons who were able to secure private cells with comfortable furnishings for the right price (usually between 1s and 2s 6d a week). Not all rent payers were those in ramshackle rooms as the largest houses in London were also often rented for vast sums. Some took these at yearly rates but significant numbers of country gentlefolk leased urban mansions just for the season, paying exorbitant rates for a few weeks worth of housing. Then, as now, renting was a universal but far from shared experience for those from London’s diverse makeup. 

William Hogarth, The Distressed Poet (1736)

Though we can draw similarities about the experience of housing quality, comparing how much was paid for rent is more complex. Most eighteenth-century contracts were oral handshake agreements between landlords and tenants who often shared the same building, the details of which are lost. However, through off hand comments made during criminal trials we can build a sense of what the market was like in general terms, particularly how much people were paying and how secure their contract was. Witnesses, victims, and the accused (referred to collectively as deponents) occasionally mentioned the rent they paid though not with any sense of regularity or even reason. A search of the tens of thousands of cases held within the online records of the Old Bailey between 1740 and 1800 using the simple term “rent” returns only several hundred cases and in only one in six trials did a participant specifically state how much rent they paid, how frequently they paid it, and what type of accommodation they rented. Even then, many declarations are far from without context. While deponents might bring up such a detail incidentally as part of their testimony, others declared their rent to assert themselves as respectable members of the community and therefore trustworthy witnesses such as Jeffery Rushton in 1743 who in opening his account of a burglary told the court: ‘I rent a House. I have a Chamber, a Kitchen, and a Shop, and pay Five Pounds a Year’. Additionally, the predominance of trials concerning petty theft from lodgings inevitably increases the number of poorer young people brought to trial. A study of rent declarations from trials is not then a scientific assessment of the market, revealing the precise percentage of Londoners who rented a specific type of accommodation. However, it still offers a window into the realities of renting, revealing that the insecurities and high costs of renting in the capital particularly for the young are nothing new.

“The Old Bailey, Known Also as the Central Criminal Court” (1808)

While the trials do not necessarily constitute an exact reflection of the renting market, these witness statements do provide sufficient breadth to make comparisons between different renting experiences in terms of cost. There was a relatively even gender divide amongst those stating rents of 48 women and 55 men; a similar divide existed between the 61 renting rooms or lodgings and the 47 who leased an entire building. Almost all the data from the Old Bailey refers to residences though people in eighteenth-century London paid rent on all sorts of properties, from prisons and palaces to wells or pubs. Five deponents reported rents paid on commercial properties, most at a high annual rate. While many of those renting residential properties will have worked within them – several reporting they kept shops within the building – these exclusively commercial ventures appear to have come at a premium. George Davis in 1743 paid £60 a year for ‘a House to cure Lunaticks’ and a coach house with stable cost Thomas Bishop £12 in 1795. Cheaper commercial venues were available though only for fractions of a property. Michael Almon sublet a stable for just two guineas in 1770 and Samuel Watts rented a small cellar to use as a warehouse in 1763 for 30 shillings a year. At the other end of the renting spectrum Thomas Staples paid £177 a year for a substantial public house ‘and likewise [kept] a Turnpike’ road in 1747, though unlike almost all other renters in the trials Staples was from outside London, called in as a character witness from North Foreland on the far east coast of Kent.

The remaining 103 declarations of rent were for residential properties; though they indicate that renters were drawn from across the economic spectrum, as a group female renters appear to have been generally poorer than their male counterparts. The majority of women (62.5%) said they lived in their rented accommodation alone (though usually within a broader household) compared to less than a third of men. In part this reflects the fact that it was probable a married female deponent might be represented by her husband in court, however, being alone was also a fact of life for women in London. Several reported having husbands (or at least intended husbands) from whom they lived apart for economic reasons as well as having been abandoned such as Eleanor Coge and Joseph Booth who lived apart in 1792 while he ‘was out of work’ or Mary Macarthy’s husband who ‘went to sea about a month ago’ in 1794, a case which was particularly common after war with France broke out in 1793. Additionally, thirty-five women paid their rent on a weekly basis (usually between a shilling and half a crown) suggesting that female renters were likely to have less security over their living arrangements being regularly vulnerable to eviction. We should remember though that for some people, particularly women awaiting the return of a husband, short-term contracts were preferable, instead placing risk on the poorer landlords as their tenant might leave at any moment. 

Nine female deponents paying weekly did share their accommodation offering more security. The majority, like those paying quarterly or yearly, were residing with a husband though two lived with men they were not married to (one certainly as a mistress), two with female roommates, and one with her mother. However, the reason most women lived alone is that they were young immigrants looking to live cheaply, coming to live in the city to build wealth so as to later settle comfortably outside London. All of them will have been working. Some worked from home such as Mary Durbin who in 1759 made ‘pens for booksellers to rule their streight lines in their books’, renting two pair of stairs for 2s 6d weekly, while Mary Patmore ran a school from her room for 2s until she married in 1789. Ann Hales who was strongly implied to be a prostitute paid Mrs Murphy (whom the court suspected was a brothelkeeper) half a crown a week for a single room in Blue Anchor Court in 1790. Most women, however, worked out in unspecified roles that probably included a high rate of service, either in shops or domestically such as Susannah Emery who left her furnished room (costing 3s a week) each day to work in ‘a gentleman’s house’. Some even had more permanent businesses despite lacking domestic security; Eleanor Morris fell behind on her rent for ‘a two-pair-of-stairs room ready furnished, at three shillings a week … because she was obliged to pay her workmen she employed, as she made tents, and she said she was not paid herself’.

Young men living alone shared many characteristics with their female counterparts. Five of the eighteen men rented houses, paying upwards of £50 a year, though the remainder were, like women, young and renting transitionally while they earned enough to marry, paying between two and three shillings a week. Some older men lived on unsecure contracts either out of habit or necessity. Isaac Alvarez (‘a very respectable man’) was paying 6s a week for ‘a furnished back parlour’ in 1788, apparently being a middle age bachelor. At the other end of the economic spectrum Edward Stack, who was 48 and living apart from his wife, paid 6d a night for his room in the Three Tuns Inn in Smithfield. Despite his daily rent (suggesting that he might move on quickly), Stack was not making a short stay and that this was the only accommodation he could get. His landlord William Goodall declared ‘I let lodgings to this man on the 9th or 10th of February; Mr. Stack … took it from night to night, but he told me he should continue till the month of June’. This contract probably reflected the publican’s suspicion that his tenant might not be able to make payments and thus allowed him to quickly evict Stack if he proved delinquent, Edward admitting ‘I paid Mr. Goodall sometimes nothing, but chalked up’ (meaning it was added to his tab until he either paid or William lost patience).

Based on the rents they paid and the contracts they took, the renting of a house was a more secure way of living, open to those in their thirties or older with regular income. Sometimes the shift from precarity to paying a premium for secure property happened over months rather than years. Mary Fox paid the tiny sum of a shilling a week in 1743 to rent ‘an empty room … for three weeks in the Time of my Necessity’ while her husband (a Surgeon and Apothecary) was in prison for ‘a conspiracy’. By the time she came to court some months later the couple were reunited and renting a house for £24 a year. Almost all houses were let on longer contracts, payments being due either yearly or quarterly. Such contracts cost more than temporary agreements for lodgings with the exception of John Morgan, a day labourer, who lived with his wife and child in a house in Islington which was ‘given me gratis by my master’. Only three houses were contracted on a weekly rent. In at least one case this reflected the desire to only remain in London temporarily. The applicant for the lease of a large house in fashionable Sackville Street managed to bargain the rent down from seven guineas a week to six and a half (still nearly £400 a year), operating on behalf of a gentleman from the country who was presumably seeking to take the house only for the season. Five paid rent on houses quarterly (amounting to full costs of between £4 and £45 a year) not unlike modern renters. The remaining thirty-four paid rents between £5 and £60 annually, averaging at around £20 and with seven paying more than £30 a year. This group were mostly male householders with families who had earned their way out of weekly lodgings but could not afford to (or did not seek to) buy a house of their own. While the majority appear to have therefore been relatively comfortable, at least two sublet parts of the house to raise extra money perpetuating the cycle of weekly rent payments which they personally had escaped.

So how much were eighteenth-century Londoners spending on rent? The average lodger spent between 1s and 6s a week with the most common rate being half a crown (2s 6d). Householders meanwhile were more varied, in part due to the size of properties as some small houses on the fringes of the city might be no bigger than a rented pair of stairs. Realistically though to obtain a house one required an income which could handle between £10 and £50 a year, roughly between an extra 4s and 19s a week. A building labourer in London might expect to earn about 2s a day for each he worked, maybe 10s a week if he was lucky, with women probably earning about two thirds of this in similar occasional work. Renting also appears to have not been a static experience as average rents rose overall from £10 to over £20 between 1740 and 1800 with even for lodgings doubling from £4 to £8. Lodgings remained viable for working people but this price rise probably made houses ever more unaffordable as the period progressed and the population swelled further.

Renting in London has never been easy. With the number trying to live and work in the city always exceeding the available accommodation, rates will continue to exceed the value they offer for most people. The exact nature of these difficulties changes over time – modern Londoners probably spend a higher percentage of their income on rent and the idea of being able to rent a family home in central London, even if only a pipe dream to many eighteenth-century renters, is likely laughable to their modern counterparts. However, rent in the eighteenth century was not cheap, the cells of debtors’ prisons frequently being more affordable than the attic rooms they tore people away from. Additionally, the shortness of most contracts was a significant problem for those who could not guarantee they would be able to find work every day nor how long the interval might be between labour and payment. Today’s freelancers sending constant emails to remind accounting departments of what they are owed might count themselves lucky that they do not have to pay each week or even every day to keep a roof over their heads. 

(For those interested in the data used in this brief look at rent I have included details of the deponents in this Appendix post, each relating to a trial within the database)

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