This weeks Big Friday Find was prompted by a request for more information about the picture from the late 1890s used in this previous post. Looking through the photographs and trying to find out more about them I discovered a sad story.
Lodging houses, or doss houses as they were commonly known, were a very basic solution to the housing problems encountered in British cities. Housing wasn’t cheap and most people lived in a large family group in one house so that they could share the costs.
Many people struggled to find accommodation they could afford, some may have moved away from home to find work, others could have no living relatives and sometimes taking a bed in a lodging house was the only option. In 1909 there were about 150 common lodging houses in Manchester to house around 7000 people.
For fourpence or sixpence a night, a bed could be acquired for the night. Some places operated a shift system where one person occupied the bed during the day and someone else would use it at night.
The owners of the lodging houses were generally keen to make as much profit as they could from their properties so they made use of every inch of available sleeping space. Sometimes the beds were crammed together as shown in the picture in the original blog post, another method was creating “cubicles” a method which divided the room up into small wooden pens.
Jack the Ripper aficionados will know that most of his victims were regular users of lodging houses; there are well documented links between lodging house residents and lives of crime and prostitution. Various laws and acts were passed which attempted to improve the lodging houses and ease the concerns of social reformers. However most of these dealt with overcrowding, separation of the sexes, sanitation and control of diseases, rather than the safety of the residents. Consequently, disaster struck. These photographs show the destruction caused when on February 8th 1909 a fire broke out at the Grosvenor Street lodging house.
Nine people lost their lives in the fire. Newspaper reports from the time suggest that the narrow passageways between the cubicles became a smoke filled maze that some men couldn’t find their way out of. Looking at the image below you can understand why.
Following the fire, it was agreed that new fire safety measures needed to be introduced. Reports from the inquest suggest that the owner of the lodging house had been told what needed to be done in order to reduce the risk from fire, however he didn’t feel it was necessary and there was no legal requirement to make the changes.