In the brilliant The Condition of the Working Class in England, Friedrich Engels delivered a damning appraisal of Birmingham’s lodging houses as he saw them in the early 1840s:
The lodging-houses for proletarians are rather numerous (over four hundred), chiefly in courts in the heart of the town. They are nearly all disgustingly filthy and ill-smelling, the refuge of beggars, thieves and tramps and prostitutes, who eat, drink, smoke and sleep here without the slightest regard to comfort or decency in an atmosphere endurable to these degraded beings only.
Engel’s observation appears to be a moral one, directed at the inhabitants rather than the material structure of the town. He goes on to highlight the low mortality rates during epidemics in contrast with other local towns, such as Wolverhampton and Dudley and that also that there were no cellar dwellings in the town. However, in 1849 the issue of Birmingham’s lodging houses was raised again, when Sir Robert Rawlinson presented his report on the town to the Government’s General Board of Health. Birmingham’s lodging houses appear to have been ordinary houses where rooms were let out to families as well as itinerant workers. The lodging houses were built around courts, which were often badly drained. Brasshouse passage was one such part of the town and Rawlinson’s investigation revealed that the population here in 1849 was as follows:
68 adult males
78 adult females
32 children aged under 15
108 children aged under 12
20 lodgers both male and female
Making a total of 306 residents in 64 houses. William Moseley Richards, surgeon at Birmingham’s dispensary, reported to Rawlinson that he had ‘not seen any other road in any other part of Birmingham in so filthy and dangerous a state’.
The Birmingham Street Commissioners denied many of the allegations of the report, but it was damning enough to ring the death knell for the Commissioners and in 1851 the Town Council took full control of administration in the Borough. The new municipal men introduced their own set of rules and regulations, in accordance with national policy at that time just coming in, to manage these huge sanitary issues. Bye-laws were added which introduced corporation regulation of a number of private interests, including lodging houses and these are outlined below. Interestingly at this time, the council also investigated the possibility of building corporation ‘model’ lodging houses. The Rawlinson Report on Birmingham can be viewed at the Local History section at The Library of Birmingham, the bye-laws below were taken from the second volume of Birmingham Council minutes BCC 1/AA/1/1/2 [Archives, Heritage and Photography at the Library of Birmingham]
Regulations for common lodging houses under ‘The Common Lodging Houses Act 1851’
No. 1 No keeper of a common lodging house shall receive in such house, or in any room thereof, a greater number of lodgers or other persons than shall be fixed by the local authority on the report of their Inspector of Common Lodging Houses, and expressed in a ticket to be signed by such officer, which ticket shall be according to the form contained in the schedule to those regulations annexed and marked B. and the keeper of such lodging house shall hang up in a conspicuous part of each room into which lodgers are received a like ticket stating the number of lodgers allowed to be received and shall keep the same at all times visible and legible.
An adequate supply of the said tickets may be had upon application at the office of the Inspector of Nuisances in Moor Street.
No. 2 The keeper of such lodging house shall reduce the number of lodgers upon receiving notice to that effect from the local authority, such notice stating therein the special cause of the same being given and the period not exceeding one month during which it shall continue in force.
No. 3 Two children under eight years of age to be counted as one adult lodger
No. 4 Rooms used as kitchen or scullery for the use of the lodgers shall not be occupied as sleeping apartments
No. 5 Rooms in the basement or below the level of the ground shall not be used as sleeping apartments
No. 6 Persons of opposite sexes shall not occupy the same sleeping apartment, except married persons, or parents and their children under 14 or children under 10 years of age
No. 7 The keeper of such lodging house shall cause the windows of every sleeping room in such lodging house to be kept open to the full width thereof from nine to eleven o’clock in the morning and from two till four in the afternoon of every day, unless prevented by tempestuous weather or by the illness of any inmate in such room and during the time the windows are open as aforesaid, he shall cause the bed clothes of every bed in such room to be turned down and exposed to the air: but in those rooms occupied by persons who are obliged to work during the night and sleep in the day, the windows shall be kept open from two till four o’clock in the afternoon
No. 8 The keeper of such lodging house shall cause the floors of all the rooms, passages and stairs in such lodging house to be thoroughly swept once at least in each day and thoroughly washed once in each week. And shall cause the walls and ceilings of every room to be thoroughly cleansed and well and sufficiently lime washed, twice (at least) in every year during the months of April and October; and the blankets, rugs, or covers used in such lodging house shall be thorough cleansed at least four times in every year, that is to say at least once some time during the first week of each of the several months of March, June, September and December
No. 9 The keeper of such lodging house shall cause every room in such lodging house to be ventilated to the satisfaction of the Inspector of Common Lodging Houses.
In case of fever or any other infectious or contagious disorder occurring in any such lodging house, the keeper of such lodging house shall forthwith give notice thereof to the Inspector of Common Lodging Houses, that he may inspect the same, and direct any disinfecting process which he may deem necessary and effectual; and the keeper of such lodging house shall cause the blankets and bed clothes used by any person affected by such disorder to be thoroughly cleansed, and the bedding to be fumigated and if the same consists of shavings or straw to be burned immediately after the removal of the person affected by such disorder, in such manner as may from time to time be ordered by the Inspector; and when the District in which any such lodging house is situate is visited or threatened by any epidemic, endemic or contagious disease, the lodging house keeper shall make such reduction of the number of lodgers in each room as the Council shall direct
No. 10 Every such lodging house shall be furnished with a dust bin of sufficient size to contain the dust, ashes etc. that accumulate in the intervals of its being cleared away which shall not exceed two weeks
No. 11 A water closet or privy shall be provided for every such lodging house, having a yard or other facilities for erection thereof and where such facilities do not exist or where the closet or privy is used in common by the lodgers of two or more houses, the privy or closet must be provided in some place conveniently contiguous to the satisfaction of the Inspector, and for every twenty lodgers to be accommodated a separate closet or privy shall be provided
No. 12 The drains, the closets and sinks shall be trapped so as to prevent the effluvia coming up from the sewers or cesspools. The sink in the yard shall be so placed as to take all wash water through the drain from the closets
No. 13 The water closet, seat, floor and walls shall be kept free from filth and clean in all other respects
No. 14 The yards and areas of every such lodging house shall be properly paved, so as to run dry and effectually take off all waste water
No. 15 Every such lodging house shall have a proper drain communicating with a common sewer where such sewer is within 100 yards of the premises
No. 16 The keeper of such lodging house shall provide such accommodation for cooking and washing and such a supply of water for the use of the lodgers as shall be satisfactory to the Inspector
No. 17 Each room occupied as a sleeping apartment shall be furnished with bedsteads and sufficient bedding for the number of lodgers authorised to be received in such room