FOR MUCH OF the nineteenth century, the people living in Dublin’s tenements remain invisible to the historian.
So much of what constitutes the historical record for this period is derived from the perspective of the upper classes, with the conditions of the tenements only rarely depicted in art or prose.
At the turn of the twentieth century, however, images and reports of the city’s tenements became more common. The advent and popularisation of photography had much to do with this. Many of the most enduring images of Dublin’s tenements are photographs taken in the 1910s.
One of these images, of a tenement in Chancery Lane, is particularly haunting. It depicts a small crowd, of both children and adults, standing on the doorstep of a building, many spilling out onto a cobbled street. The various figures stare towards the camera. For many of them, this event was undoubtedly a novelty, perhaps the only time in their lives that a photo of them was taken.
John Cooke, Chancery Lane, off Bride Street, 1913.
When this image was taken in late 1913, Dublin’s tenements had already become one of the pressing social issues of the day. The city’s tenements represented different things to different people. For city officials, they were a health hazard. For landlords, they were a source of revenue. To moral reformers, they were too often a place of vice, drunkenness and wickedness. For nationalist politicians, they were a symbol of Dublin’s loss of political influence.
To the working class, arguments about the social or political causes of Dublin’s housing problems must have seemed rather abstract. A far more pressing set of questions occupied their daily lives: where could they find shelter? An apartment, a room, even a corner to live in? How much would this cost? How would they find work to pay for it? It is all too easy to view the tenements simply as a social ‘problem’, an issue to be debated and solved. But for thousands, the tenements were where they lived, slept, played, struggled and, quite often, died.
In 1906, the Irish Times ran a series of articles about Dublin’s tenement ‘black spots’. While the tone of the reporting was condescending at times, the reporter nonetheless provided a vivid description of what these tenement buildings were like.
With so many families sharing a house, most tenements were by necessity ‘open door’ – each apartment had a lock, but the front door of the building was left open. This had the effect of making the stairwells and hallways, in effect, public space. The journalist went on to describe how the chimneys nearly all smoke, and there is not a sound window in the whole building. The floors are all hills and hollows; from some of the rooms you can look straight down through the holes and see what is doing in the room underneath; here and there they are patched up with pieces from an old soap box, or they may be only covered with a sack.
The article told of how a single building contained many room types, of varying sizes and on different floors. The smaller rooms on the upper-most floors were generally seen as the worst: ‘The better class of workman will occupy a room or two on the ground or second floor; it is the ill-paid, under-fed labourer, with his over-large stock of youngers … that comes crowding into the top back room’.
This journalist went on to describe the rooms on the top floor of a tenement building: ‘that is where every shape of disease germ, both physical and mental, is being bred at hot-house speed. That top back room of the Dublin tenement house is the devil’s incubator. Its inmates can remain neither healthy nor clean, nor moral.’
In addition to the different type of rooms, the rent charged for a flat could vary wildly between different houses on a street and between different neighbourhoods within the city, as well as fluctuating over time and in relation to economic cycles.
John Cooke, Interior of tenement at 8 Waterford Street, 1913.
By 1901, there were 956 people living on Henrietta Street, in only 19 buildings. In that same year, the three most populous houses on the street were: No. 13 (containing 115 people), No. 3 (120 people) and No. 7 (89 people). How was a single house divided to accommodate these large numbers?
These apartments were described in terms that referred back to the building’s original eighteenth-century usage. For instance, the basement floor was referred to as the kitchen and was usually divided into the ‘front’ and ‘back’ kitchen. The ground floor, in addition to the hall, contained a ‘front’ or ‘street’ parlour, as well as a back parlour facing onto the garden.
The first floor’s main rooms were similarly divided, with ‘front’ and ‘back’ drawing rooms. The second floor usually contained a series of rooms that were referred to as ‘two-pair front’ and ‘two-pair back’, while the third floor or garret would similarly be divided into ‘top front’ and ‘top back rooms’. In the case of No. 14 Henrietta Street its original eighteenth-century plan comprised a large two-storey entrance and stair hall compartment, and three interconnected rooms. The ground and first floor comprised two reception rooms, one to the front, and one to the rear, with an adjoining antechamber, off which there was a small private ‘closet’ tucked behind the secondary stairs which ran from the basement to the third-floor level.
When No. 14 was converted to tenements nineteen separate flats across its five levels were created, one flat in each of the house’s eighteenth-century rooms. Looking at the ground floor, we see that the large room at the front of the house called the front or street parlour) was subdivided to form a three-room apartment, with the large two-bay rear room (the back parlour room or family dining room) subdivided to form a four-room flat.
The ground floor also contains two one-room flats, the one to the rear occupying the ‘antechamber’ and the other located to the right of the front door, occupying the ground-floor space of the original eighteenth-century entrance stairhall. The original staircase of this house had been stripped out when it was converted to tenements, and (on the ground floor) the entrance hall was divided by a timber-framed partition wall, leaving a dark entrance passage, as well as a small one-room flat.
There was a similar layout of reception rooms on the first floor, with the ‘front drawing room’ subdivided into a three-room flat, and the ‘back drawing room’ (originally a formal dining room) subdivided into a four-room flat, with a one-room flat occupying the antechamber room at this level.
The individual rooms within each apartment were divided using timber-framed and lined partitions rising to the height of the door in each room, approximately 2.4 metres high. These partitions had evidently been installed by Thomas Vance, who had used similar partitions in his previous lodging houses, and partitions were also to be found in the other townhouses on the street and on neighbouring streets.
John Cooke, Interior of Newmarket tenement, 1913.
This illustrated layout of the house can be usefully read alongside notebooks held by the Valuations Office that date from 1912, and which provide descriptions of each of the nineteen apartments in the house. The notebooks provide invaluable information on the form of construction, the plan and dimensions, the physical condition and accommodation arrangements including sanitation provisions (toilets and taps) for many of Dublin’s tenements.
They offer information on the number of official tenants per flat and the rent they paid. In many entries, including that for No. 14 Henrietta Street, the agents and lessor (the landlord) are also identified.
This differs from the census of the previous year, which recorded 100 people in the building; a considerable number of those listed on the census were described as lodgers, sub-tenants, or visitors. The earlier 1901 census had already revealed that a majority of the households living in No. 14 had either a ‘boarder’ or a ‘visitor’ (likely a boarder the family did not want their landlord finding out about).
The 1912 notebooks also provide a breakdown of the rents for each apartment (see below). Unsurprisingly, the two cheapest flats were located in the basement, with the least expensive being the ‘back right’ apartment which fetched a rent of 1s. 6d., and which, at the time, was inhabited by two adults and two children. Similarly, the apartments on the upper-most floor (often known as the ‘garret’) were generally cheaper than elsewhere in the house, with most rented at 3s. 3d.
The building was administered by an agent named Carroll, based at 54 Dawson Street. Carroll was presumably working on behalf of the Vance Estate which still owned the house, although a Commander Heathcote and Dr Beamish, both trustees of the Vance Estate, were listed as ‘immediate lessors’.
The 1912 valuation notes that while No. 14 had been a ‘Class A’ tenement, it had been recently downgraded to a ‘Class B’, with its valuation lowered from £62 to
However, despite this downgrade, evidence indicates that Henrietta Street was still not the ‘worst of the worst’ of Dublin’s tenements. In 1914, a survey of tenement families reported that the average weekly rent for a tenement apartment was 3s. or less, and evidence from another inquiry that same year showed that the majority of families paid between 2s. and 2s. 6d.
John Cooke, Interior of tenement, the Coombe, 1913. These images show the grim conditions in older tenement areas in the Liberties, such as the Coombe and Newmarket Square.
Only the two cheapest apartments in No. 14 (both in the basement) fell into this price range. Admittedly, these were three- to four-room apartments, which always fetched more than the average one-room flat. But taken alongside anecdotal evidence about the conditions in Henrietta Street, it would seem the house was in the mid-to upper-range of tenement accommodation.
Quite often a struggling family might find themselves engaged in a ‘night flit’, loading up their belongings onto a cart and ‘trotting furtively and swiftly through the darkened streets to another wretched habitat …’ A ‘flit’ was the last straw, ‘if a few shillings could be scraped together to pay for the hire of the ass and cart; for, were they to remain, the sheriff’s men would be in on the morrow, and their pathetic scraps of property put under the hammer … towards the arrears of rent’.
Taking Henrietta Street as an example, in 1901 there were 152 households on the street. A decade later, only 16 of those families still resided on the street. It is doubtful that the families who left the street during this decade found any improvement in their living situation if they stayed in Dublin. As a later housing inquiry was to hear about Dublin’s tenement dwellers: ‘the only change they can get is that to a neighbouring court or street, a rise or fall of a few degrees in their condition, or a short space in prison’.
The amount of rent a family could afford (and their ability to consistently pay it) was obviously dependent on their income. The wages of a Dublin worker could vary depending on their occupation, with highly skilled tradesmen earning as much as 40s. a week.
Keeping these distinctions in mind, it was generally agreed upon that 18s. a week was a good estimate of an ‘average’ weekly wage in the city. Taking 18s. as a starting point, an average weekly budget for someone living in the tenements might resemble that produced below. Out of a typical household budget of 18 to 20s. a week, the proportion of income spent on rent was between 15 and 17 per cent, which was roughly in line with English working-class budgets.
After rent, the greatest expenditure was food. For those living in the tenements, ‘diet’ was not a matter of taste or preference so much as it was about the weekly struggle for survival against poverty and illness. For many, their diet was both meagre and monotonous. The most common item in the typical diet was bread, with the two-pound white baker’s loaf being the most popular variety in Dublin.
Meat was rarely consumed, usually reserved for the main wage-earner in the family, most commonly in the form of bacon, pig’s cheek or herrings. Often a family might stretch their limited funds by buying scraps from the butcher or inferior meats that were about to spoil. In the home, perishable goods like milk and margarine were stored in a shaded corner or put in a bucket of cool water.
Tea, oatmeal, sugar was sealed in tins to keep out pests. Pieces of gauze were used to cover exposed food from flies. No matter how these goods were stored, there were always problems concerning the quality of foodstuffs. While milk was widely consumed, it was often condensed skimmed milk that had little fat and was thus unsuitable for growing children in need of calories.
In 1910, an analysis of Dublin’s working-class diets was carried out in a study of twenty-one families, with the very poor deliberately excluded. Of these twenty-one ‘typical’ working-class families, only five achieved the necessary level of protein and all but six of the families were found to have an inadequate intake of calories.
Figure 84 (right) John Cooke, A view of Church Street, 1913.
The tight budget that many families operated on, as well as the uncertainty about future earnings, meant that the poor frequently purchased commodities like sugar and tea in small quantities, making them more expensive than if bought in bulk. Most families derived the bulk of their calories from shop-prepared bread, instead of porridge or pulses, which were prepared in the home. This was partly due to the difficulties of cooking in tenement houses and the expense of fuel.
With such tight budgets, there was little money left for furnishings or clothes. With
so many families living on so little, clothes were often hand-me-downs, with one writer declaring that ‘half the population of Dublin are clothed in the cast-off clothes of the other half’, while another described how ‘the people slept in their clothes … They never washed them – never took them off’.
John Cooke, Faddle’s Alley, off Dowker’s Lane, 1913. This image shows the backyard of a family living in Faddle’s Alley, in the Blackpitts area.
Accounts of the tenements in the early 1900s also comment upon the barren interiors of most rooms, the lack of furniture or material comforts. As one man would later recall about the tenements in this period, although the Georgian exteriors of these buildings ‘still managed to preserve some traces of the quondam dignity … their interiors were another matter altogether’.
He described how ‘the great old rooms’ inside these tenements were bereft of all furniture save the most miserable makeshifts, with the faded paper of two generations back peeling off the high walls in long ribbons because of the damp; with holes in the flooring so that you had to mind your step and the laths showing through the broken plaster in the ceilings. What beds! What dirt!
Bill Doyle, Children playing on Henrietta Street, 1960s
Another account from 1913 described how some rooms were totally devoid of any sleeping accommodation, a piece of sacking or rags being considered such for a whole family; it was quite exceptional to get a room properly fitted with bed or bedding, table, chairs, or some decent domestic utensils … the notes of a bird in a cage never sound in the ears of those I visited, and not a flower in the window-sill brightens the tenement room. One copy of the Red Magazine, and that for firelight, was all the printed matter that met my eyes in all the poor dwellings I entered.
Figure 83 (above) John Cooke, Engine Alley, Meath Street, 1913.
In establishing some basic facts about the people who lived in Henrietta Street, we are lucky to have two ‘snapshots’: the censuses of 1901 and 1911. While neither census is entirely comprehensive (the 1911 census is slightly more detailed), they nonetheless provide the best insight we have into the nature of the tenements on a street-by-street basis.
In 1901, the majority of those living in Henrietta Street (88 per cent) were Roman Catholic. Of the remaining 12 per cent (112 people) the bulk were members of the Church of Ireland (85), followed by those who were members of the Church of England (22). Thus, Anglicanism accounted for most of the Protestant presence on the street. There were, however, a small number from other denominations: two members of the Plymouth Brethern (a Protestant evangelical movement which had originated in Dublin in the 1820s), as well as one Wesleyan Methodist, and two Presbyterians.
Of those Irish residents who were non-Dubliners, the majority came from Leinster, although there were several from the other three provinces. What is striking is the forty-six people in Henrietta Street who were born outside of Ireland. Half of those born outside Ireland were from England, particularly English industrial towns like Manchester, Leeds and Halifax. Another seventeen people came from Scotland, mainly Glasgow and nearby textile towns. This would suggest that Dublin still had significant ties to Britain via economic migration to manufacturing centres.
However, by far the most revealing category of information the census provides is that concerning occupation. What did Henrietta Street’s residents do for a living? It seems that the street was representative of the wider Dublin economy, with a heavy emphasis on low-skill and casual labour. By far the most common jobs on the street were ‘general labourer’ and domestic servants. In 1901, the single-largest category of employment on the street was ‘laundress’, due to the 45 women working in the laundry at Our Lady’s Home, run by the Daughters of Charity at Nos. 8, 9, and 10.
Industrial or factory work accounted for only a small proportion of people in Henrietta Street (less than 5 per cent of those who were employed). In 1901, just under 10 per cent of Henrietta Street’s residents worked in the construction trade, in trades such as carpentry and brick-laying. Small manufacturing, mainly clothing, accounted for just over 8 per cent of those employed in Henrietta Street, with tailoring and dressmaking accounting for the bulk of this.
However, there were a good deal more working in the low-skill carrying trades, such as porters or servants, or in the low-skill end of transport, such as ‘car drivers’. Taken as a group, these low-skill and unskilled workers account for just under 18 per cent of the working adults in Henrietta Street in 1901. This ignores numerous adult males living in the street who did not give any description of occupation, meaning the unskilled contingent is most likely substantially higher.
In 1911, a quarter of the city’s adult males were employed in unskilled ‘general labour’, such as the carrying trade and casual labour on the docks. This meant that the workforce was extremely vulnerable to victimization by employers, low wages, long hours and periodic unemployment. The city economy’s reliance on transport and distribution, as well as the dominant industries of brewing and distilling, meant a high proportion of workers were casual, often discharged in slack times. Periodic unemployment was often built into many occupations with seasonal periods of slack work being a feature of tailoring, dressmaking and the building trades.
As with the census, these sources provide a diverse range of occupations, from fish dealers to mattress makers. However, they also reinforce how vulnerable those who were general labourers in the carrying trades were to poverty.
Among those who found themselves in a Dublin prison between 1885 and 1906, giving Henrietta Street as an address, just under 40 per cent were general labourers. Similarly, in the workhouse, ‘general labourers’, servants and ‘char women’ together accounted for 46 per cent of those who gave a Henrietta Street address in this period.
It was not just the male workforce who suffered from Dublin’s weak economy. For the city’s working women, the lack of any large sources of industrial employment meant fewer opportunities compared to most British cities. The proportion of women engaged in distribution in Dublin, ‘dealing’ particularly, was far in excess of most British cities.
Other low-skill casual occupations for women were obviously domestic servant, but also ‘charwomen’ or washerwoman. Women were a crucial part of the working life of Henrietta Street and the city as a whole.
Henrietta Street was a young street: in 1901, the average age was twenty-three and a quarter of those living on the street were under ten years of age. Conversely, it was rare to reach old age: those over the age of 65 accounted for only 1 per cent of the street’s residents at the beginning of the twentieth century.
‘Street arabs’, children on the street, Dublin, 1900.
The result was that children were a very big part of day-to-day life in Henrietta Street. In 1907, one newspaper described how Henrietta Street continued to be a popular location with children:
The article went on to note that these children also made use of the grounds of the King’s Inns: ‘these gardens are every day swarming with children, for whom they furnish a safe and admirable playground’.
Such descriptions give us an impression of the type of games that these children used to play, an insight into how young people from the tenements had fun and enjoyed themselves. However, for middle-class observers, the ‘perpetual playground’ of the street was a dangerous thing.
Tim Murtagh is an author. His new book, Spectral Mansions – The making of a Dublin tenement, 1800–1914 is out now.
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