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The Mysteries of Early 18th Century Living

Posted by on September 22, 2014

Last weekend institutional buildings and private homes were generously made available to nose around as part of the annual London Open House 2014.    With so many choices I settled on a private house in Soho; 68 Dean Street built in 1732 to help give me an idea of the house and living conditions that Joseph and his family might have experienced.

It is unusual to find 18th century private residences that have not been dramatical remodelled by the demands of later generations of residents and their changing tastes.   No 68 Dean Street was saved from much alteration because it became the trade shop and warehouse for  the famous watchmakers Benford O’Shea, from 1869-1983.  Its commercial usage did not require modern interiors, just good solid walls and floorboards.

When the current owner bought the house it had lain empty for 10 years.  All other buyers had been frighten away by its Grade A listing and its unloved state.   The restoration led to unexpected discoveries. The first was two ‘hidden rooms’ in the rear attic inter-connected via a 4′ high door. Inside one of the rooms was found a giant ale bottle discarded by the plasterers in 1732. These attic rooms purpose remains a mystery since it was thought that servants did not ‘live in’ at that time. However fireplaces have now been discovered in the attics of two houses in Meard Street, and a complete servants quarters in No 5 Meard Street which disproves the experts theories about servants.

Little is known about early 18th century water and waste management in town houses but the discovery of 2 cesspits in 68 Dean Street has provided the first example of a complete waste and water management system of the period. The cesspit for ‘upstairs’ was discovered in the rear vault. A combined servants’ cesspit and soakaway was discovered in one of the front vaults.   The night soil man would come at regular intervals throughout the year with his unfortunate young helper who would be lower into the cesspits to shovel the sewage into buckets between the hours of midnight and 5am.  Both cesspits were accessible through a basement door in the front of the house and a side entrance to the rear of the building so as not to disturb the residents and their servants with the smell or sound.  The effluence was then taken to local farms.

As I climbed higher up the stairs to the family’s private rooms there was a discussion as to how more than one generation or working families might live together and yet have their own space within the house.  Looking at the two original doors that opened off to the second and third staircase landings it was possible that one couple could call the front room theirs and another generation claim home in the back two rooms which were only accessible through the one door off the landing.   In fact one of these doors had its own letter box cut into the wood.

The main learning for me was that no one is really sure how people lived in the past and that if we want to leave a trail behind about our living and working conditions we need to document it so there are no mistakes.   There is always something for a writer to do!

Nicola Stevens © 2014

One Response to The Mysteries of Early 18th Century Living

  1. Diana Devlin

    Very interesting to read about an ‘ordinary’ house, rather than a stately mansion. It’s always the sanitary arrangements that are most intriguing!
    Thanks, Nicola

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