Skip to content

Changing rooms in eighteenth-century London

 

By Carys Brown | @HistoryCarys

On 8 February 1750, some time between the hours of 12 and 1 o’clock in the afternoon, Baptist Minister Benjamin Wallin was ‘musing’ at his desk in the upstairs study of his Southwark home when he suddenly

‘felt the Desk move the floor shake and the Front of the house seemed to incline forwards the strut and presently an sensation of some large body falling and sounding as the covered with a Blanket or as could arise from the fall of a Woolpack of a prodigious size’ [1]

The alarming sensation, also experienced by his daughter, wife, maid, and neighbours, turned out to have been an earthquake, the first of two to hit London within a month of each other. Wallin was among the many who interpreted this as a providential act; he preached on the matter three days later. Of more interest here, however, is that in the course of the detailed description he gave of the event in his diary, Wallin inadvertently left us a rich insight into the domestic space of a moderately wealthy eighteenth-century London household.

His account gives detail of various spaces in his house, and who was in them at the time of the earthquake. Firstly, Wallin tells us that he was ‘in my Study leanding on a Desk near the Window on the uppermost Floor’ and that his daughter ‘sat behind me writing her Copy’. On feeling the tremor they headed out of the room to find out what had happened and ‘found the Maid in the middle of the house affrighted going down on the same enquiry’. All three then proceeded down a further flight of stairs, at the foot of which they found Wallin’s wife, ‘no less surprized’, having emerged from ‘the Kitchen a back Room’ where she had been on an errand ‘by herself’, before heading outside to consult with their neighbours about what had happened.

What can Wallin’s brief description tell us about the space he lived in? The very fact that Wallin named specific rooms with clearly defined purposes is a reflection of the increasing “room specialisation” of this period, whereby rooms increasingly had clearly defined roles within domestic space.[2] Furthermore, the location of the rooms is significant. In the case of the kitchen, its location as a ‘back room’ at the bottom of the house may have been a product of changing ideas about private and public space, health concerns about the proximity of the kitchen to social areas, and an awareness of fire-safety in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666. All of this encouraged the placement of the kitchen at the rear and bottom of the house.[3] Wallin’s upstairs study is important too. The inclusion of the private study within domestic space as a dedicated room for intellectual retreat was a development of the previous century, made possible only as the number of rooms increased, particularly in wealthy houses.

Wallin’s description is helpful because unlike contemporary inventories or house plans, he gives not only an idea of the location of these rooms, but of who was in them at a particular point in time. Recent studies of domestic space in this period have emphasised that the significance of rooms in a house depended not just on their location, but on the time of day. These have enhanced historians’ understandings of how men and women used and occupied different rooms. However, contemporary diarists most often describe rooms in the context of social occasions, meaning that there is relatively little evidence about how spaces such as kitchens, studies, and bedrooms were used. Wallin’s description, by contrast, gives us a snapshot of the household at a particular time on (earthquake aside) an ordinary day. It is notable, for instance, that while the study is often interpreted as a predominantly male space, Wallin was there with his daughter at the time of the earthquake.

Historians of eighteenth-century culture and sociability are increasingly interested in how the uses of space in the home shaped social and family life. Wallin’s account, albeit brief, offers a rare glimpse into how a family caught unawares inhabited the spaces within their home at one otherwise unremarkable moment in time.

References:

[1] Oxford: Angus Library and Archive: ACC 269 – Diary and letters of Benjamin Wallin, entry for 11 Feb 1749/50.
[2] Sara Pennell, The birth of the English kitchen, 1600-1850 (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 43.
[3] Ibid, pp. 50-1.

See also:

https://www.geffrye-museum.org.uk/collections/thematics/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12483492

Image: Dr Johnson’s house. By Elliott Brown, United Kingdom [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: