By Dr. Alexander Wakelam
Historian of Britain
Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure
Around two o’clock in the morning of February 15th 1732, Robert Atkinson, a sadler, returned home drunk from the alehouse. His mother Ann Atkinson, having sent the maid to bed at midnight, had sat up to wait for him so that she could lock the door behind him (the symbolic ending of the household day) and while she waited drank about a pint of gin. The drunken pair soon argued and maybe about twenty minutes later, Ann slipped under suspicious circumstances at the top of the stairs of the home she and Robert shared with their maid Mary Parrot, Robert’s apprentice John Barber, and their three lodgers: Captain Dunbar, Arthur Gold, and Gold’s younger brother. When she hit the tiles at the bottom ‘her Skull was broke … of which she instantly dy’d.’ As the trial at the Old Bailey that followed this case shows, for most people in eighteenth century cities, the idea of private personal space was little better than an illusion.
In London, the home of the Atkinsons, a population of 500,000 by 1700 made it almost impossible to find solitary space even making it unlikely one would be able to sleep alone. Most adult inhabitants would be living with at least one stranger, possibly more, lodging being a necessity across the social spectrum. In Bethnal Green for example though the number of houses increased from 215 in 1664 to 1800 in 1743, the population rose from 8496 in 1711 to 15,000 by 1743, or about 8.3 people per house. Many of these would have been transient servants who regularly moved lodgings; one of Atkinson’s own lodgers had only stayed ‘3 or 4 months’ back in 1727. Londoners were forced then into living cheek by jowl with strangers in their own homes, without even any stability over who those strangers were.
Even when the inhabitants of a house were known to one another, there was no guarantee of finding privacy within the home. Robert Atkinson’s home was highly permeable, even while occupants were asleep. Mary Parrot, the Atkinson’s maid, listed her bed as ‘below in the kitchen’ adding that ‘my Mistress [Ann] lies with me’ – she slept where she worked with her employer next to her. The door seemingly had no lock allowing Robert (whose mother held the house keys), drunk and naked, to enter her room and kiss her (‘give me a Buss’). Mary was able ‘with much difficulty’ to fight him off. Ann also entered the room suggesting that the traffic into and out of Mary’s sleeping quarters could be regular. Other members of the house had access to some privacy; the Golds were able to ‘bolt the door’ when Mary fled to their room for safety. However, the two adult brothers had to ‘lay together’ meaning that neither of them had total privacy. Siblings sharing beds or sleeping spaces wasn’t uncommon in the period and many others had to share sleeping spaces with other lodgers or even servants. Capt. Dunbar, John Barber and Robert all had their own rooms, though Barber’s room was at the top of the house and therefore presumably the worst room, the draughty attic – his privacy coming at a price.
The privacy of domestic life could become rapidly public even if not visibly. Ann attempted to lock Robert in his room causing him to yell ‘Damn ye, ye old Bitch, do ye think I’ll be lock’d up in my own House?’ A number of the inhabitants recorded being woken by this phrase suggesting that even behind locked doors one’s activities weren’t safe from the ears of strangers. They could presumably hear your movements, conversations, and activities (both innocent and otherwise) on a daily basis even when voices weren’t raised. Even neighbour Henry Gobin, asleep in his own home ‘behind the prisoners house’, was able to hear the shouts and later was able to discern words accurately from the cries of Robert upon finding his mother dead at the bottom of the stairs.
This doesn’t mean that the urban population were totally devoid of privacy or didn’t seek it. The Golds clearly did have some privacy from the rest of the household with their bolt, which allowed them to secure the space that they rented, against their landlord. Those without their own room could still make a claim to a private place – typically a locked box. These were very personal places; in 1795 a Lucy Stockford describes in another case how she had the inside of her cheap pine box ‘covered with flowered paper’ – a style often associated with bedrooms or closets. In a theft case from 1785 the court asked why the suspect, John Godfrey’s ‘places’ were not searched; a witness responded, to their surprise, that ‘he has no place, he has no box.’ Clearly he was the lowest of the low in society, without any place (even one so simple as a box) to call his own.
As Robert sat weeping naked in his hallway, his mother’s bleeding head in his lap and an increasing number of neighbours and watchmen streaming through his wide open door in the small hours, any last illusion of domestic privacy evaporated. However, it is equally clear from the witness statements from the trial that there wasn’t much there to destroy. While the term “private” in this period was a more ineffable concept, denoting simply that which was not deemed public or referred to secret/suspicious activity, it would seem from sentimental attachments to private places like boxes that they did desire some form of what we would now call privacy. Though the inhabitants were never safe from peeping eyes at the cracks in doors or even the sounds of other inhabitants intruding upon their private silence, this didn’t stop them from trying to find it. They bolted their doors, and locked up their boxes to draw a line (even if it was flexible) of what was theirs and lived as best they could amongst the strangers in their home. They may not have had a strict name for it or a the basic level of privacy we might expect, but to the inhabitants of the Atkinson household that evening it would surely have been clear that their home had gone public.
The trial in its full-published account is available to read here thanks to the digitisation of the Old Bailey’s Proceedings: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t17320223-41