You never really know what you are going to find in the newspaper archives. For some families you’ll find all kinds of little titbits, for others you’ll find nothing. I found two interesting and intriguing articles about the brothers of my great-great-grandmother, that list exactly who was living in their family home during 1902 and 1903. The three brothers were George (aged 34, a postman, and reservist in the Royal Engineers), John Edward “Jack” (aged 31, a carpenter and reservist with the Royal Garrison Artillery), and William (aged 22, a bricklayer). There was also a younger brother, Philip, who was only 14 and was not named in the newspaper articles. Sisters Kate (my great-great-grandmother) and Louisa were married and lived away from home, and the youngest, Mary, 19, was in domestic service locally, and lived at home from time to time.
Here’s the first article:
From the ‘Southend Standard and Essex Weekly Advertiser’ 18 September 1902
GEORGE, JOHN EDWARD AND WILLIAM
“A GOOD ACT BY INADVERTANCE”
Mr. Oglesby objected to the claims of George, John Edward and William Lewis, as old lodgers at a house in Milton Street. He was going to fight this case very strongly indeed. There were these three old lodgers in this house, which contained three bedrooms. There lived in it Mr and Mrs Lewis, three grown-up sons and another son. The rent in this house was 9s per week, rates included, with the exception of water rate. In addition to this, there was a card in the window that there was a bed-sitting room to let. He asked on the face of it how these three gentlemen could occupy separate rooms.
George Lewis, in reply to Mr. Fletcher, said he had a separate bedroom. His mother and father and the youngest boy occupied one room, his brothers another, and himself the third.
The Barrister: Nobody else sleeps in your bedroom?
[George] Not that I’m aware of.
Barrister: You would be aware of it, you sleep there yourself.
As to the letting, Lewis added they put a bed in the front sitting room.
The Revising Barrister: I shall allow all three claims.
Mr Oglesby: We will have our lodgers increased next year.
Mr Lewis asked for expenses.
The Barrister: I will not allow expenses in this case.
Mr Oglesby: If I am not justified in raising this case I don’t know what case I am justified in raising.
In reply to the Barrister, Mr Fletcher said that Mr Oglesby had taken part in one of these claims.
Mr Oglesby: I had no intention of doing so.
The Barrister: A good act done by inadvertence.
This article is a fascinating glimpse into the living arrangements of my ancestors, which although seeming cramped to us in the present, were fairly typical of working-class town-dwelling families of the time. After all, an unmarried man couldn’t be expected to live alone, without a mother or landlady to do his laundry and cooking for him. But why were these living arrangements a legal issue, to be scrutinised in court?
The second, shorter article, from thirteen months later (8th October 1903) gives a clue as to the reason. Mr Oglesby, as could be expected, did not give up on this matter. This time, he issued a subpoena for John Edward Lewis, the second son. (The eldest son, George, was a reservist with the Royal Engineers, which may be the reason for his absence from court and the family home in this instance.)
[John Edward Lewis] said seven people lived in the house – his father, mother, three brothers, himself, and from time to time his sister. There were five rooms in the house, three bedrooms, a sitting room and a kitchen. There was also a “backhouse”. The sitting room was used for “sleeping purposes”; he and his brother slept there. When his brother George went away his sister came and occupied the parlour, and they went into “the little room”. He and his brother each paid their mother 12s a week. He had only missed two weeks during the last year.
The Revising Barrister once again reserved his decision. The defence lawyer, Mr Fletcher, commented “this is one of the difficulties of the lodger franchise”. The Revising Barrister agreed, “It is rotten to the core. One has to do the best one can with it.”
So what was the Lodger Franchise, and why was Mr. Oglesby so relentless about this case?
The Lodger Franchise
In 1895, Mr H.W Paul, the Liberal MP for Edinburgh South, called for a second reading of the Lodger Franchise Bill. At the time, the only lodgers who could register to vote were those whose lodgings were worth £10 a year unfurnished. He proposed that lodgers should really be considered “occupants”, whose landlord simply happened to live in the same house, as opposed to somewhere else, and argued “Surely the fitness of a man to exercise the Franchise could not depend upon the place where his landlord resided.” He claimed that 5/6 of lodgers were currently excluded from the vote by the current franchise: “every working man who happened to be a lodger; in other words, every working man who did not happen to be married”, and concluded “That was a state of things which no one could desire to continue.”
However, despite his proclaimed belief that this bill was “in the interest of both Political parties”, it was immediately objected to by the Tory MP for Harrow, Mr W Ambrose, who said “It was the worst form that could be adopted”, would “embarrass all those who were concerned with elections” and “was nothing less than an impropriety”. The Bill was passed, but continued to be disapproved of by many politicians and those in the legal profession. We saw above that the Revising Barrister in Southend described it as rotten to the core”.
The Lodger Franchise gave voting rights to working men of low income, which threatened the establishment of the upper and middle classes. These two articles about the Lewis brothers demonstrate the reluctance of legal professionals to follow the law that they were nonetheless bound to, and also their struggle to understand how different the living arrangements of the working class were to their own. Mr Oglesby seems to find it unlikely that seven adults could possibly live in one small, five-roomed house, although up and down the country many families were in the same situation, but the root of his disapproval is clearly that all three brothers were exercising their legal right to vote. These two short articles tell us not only the details of my ancestors’ living arrangements but also give a glimpse into the social and political divisions of the late nineteenth and early 20th century. Between 1885 and 1918, a great many changes and reforms were made within the voting franchises, with the result that the total registered electorate of the United Kingdom grew from 5.7 million to just over 21 million in those 23 years.
When we think of the history of the right to vote in this country, we tend to focus on the Suffragettes, but the ruling elite also sought to suppress the rights of the working class. One seamstress, Hannah Mitchell, said she was drawn to the Suffrage Movement by “a unity of purpose… which made social distinction seem of little importance”. The first edition of the women of Votes for Women, declared “the women who are in our ranks know no barriers of class distinction”. Historians and scholars are divided on how true these claims really were – after all, the most prominent and powerful suffragettes were born to wealthy families – but nonetheless it’s clear that the establishment were keen to continue to suppress both women and the working class.
What happened to the Lewis brothers?
No further court cases regarding the number of lodgers in the Lewis household appear in the newspapers, perhaps in part because the number of occupants in the Lewis household was soon to decrease. Sadly, John Edward “Jack” Lewis died only two years later, of tuberculosis. He died at home; his youngest sister Mary (then aged 21) was the informant on the death certificate and present at his death. With six adults and a teenager living in the small five-roomed house, it’s a miracle nobody else in the family died of the disease.
George Lewis married and left the family home the following year in 1906. Mary Lewis married and left in 1909, and then father Edward died in 1910, leaving the house with only three adult occupants: mother Mary, and brothers William and Philip Lewis (who had grown up by then and was working at his father’s former place of employment, the local gas works). By 1911, the Lewis family had a new “lodger” – a young woman called Louisa Haynes, who went on to marry William Lewis two years later. But of course, as a woman, she had no right to vote, so Mr Oglesby could have no legal objection to her, whether he was aware of her or not.
The longest living of the Lewis siblings was my great-great-grandmother (and namesake), Kate Williams. On the 1939 register she is recorded as a widow, living alone in her childhood home that was once so full of life. When she died in 1958 it passed to her eldest son John Edward Lewis Williams (born a few months after the death of his uncle John Edward Lewis, and known as Jack just like his namesake). In 1966, the house, along with most of the street, was bought and demolished by the council to make way for a new road. From the 1870s to 1966, 64 Milton Street, Prittlewell, was home to at least fourteen members of my family, across three generations.
When we are lucky enough to find newspaper articles such as those above, they can enrich our understanding of the lives and social contexts of our ancestors, and bring to life the names and addresses we may find on a census.