At the weekend, I explored part of the New River - celebrating its 400th birthday later this year - on a walk with Peter Berthoud of Discovering London. As well as finding out lots about the history of this amazing engineering project, which still provides much of London's water, we also saw a rather intriguing ghost sign.
Until well into the nineteenth century, the New River ran along Colebrooke Row in Islington. However, it was a more conventional street by the time this sign was painted onto a large Georgian house. At the top, it appears to have said 'HOTEL' or 'HOSTEL', although only a few letters can now be made out. The rest of the lettering, though, is much clearer:
9D and 1/- PER NIGHT
4/6 AND 6/- PER WEEK
There were clearly two classes of room: the ninepence per night/four shillings and sixpence a week economy option, and the more expensive choice at a shilling a night or six shillings for the week. Sadly, the sign doesn't indicate what the difference between them was.
The house had somewhat reversed in purpose. Between 1894 and 1900, it had been certified as an auxiliary home for St Nicholas' Catholic Industrial School for Boys, able to house 40 pupils. The 1901 census shows it as a children's home, with a married couple as superintendent and matron; an assistant and cook to help them; and 39 boys aged between eight and thirteen, designated as boarders or inmates.
By 1911, the boys had gone, replaced by women. The only male in the household was the lodging house manager, who along with his wife and two servants had 30 boarders. Their professions give some idea of their social class: a corset maker, a piano teacher, a neck tie maker, a newspaper seller, many servants and dressmakers... Many had been born in London, but others came from elsewhere in Britain, from Ireland and from France. The entry concludes with a statement that the house had ten rooms (including the kitchen but excluding sculleries, bathrooms, landings and so on).
The sign, despite its limited information, is therefore a window into social history. It reminds us not only that women have long been a crucial part of the workforce, - about a quarter of women were in paid employment at this time - but also that they faced considerable difficulties in finding accommodation. A year before the census, Mary Higgs had published Where Shall She Live? The Homelessness of the Woman Worker; in 1909, a petition had been presented to London County Council demanding a hostel for women. Such accommodation for working women, even when provided by reformers, often sounds rather unappealing, with cubicles rather than individual rooms (an option presumably taken for the thirty women in our ten-roomed house).
Brabazon House in Pimlico - a philanthropic venture nonetheless promising a return for investors - charged five shillings and sixpence a week for a cubicle in 1915. The similarity of price supports the idea that our sign relates to the ladies' boarding house operating in 1911. It thus captures an important social moment, when women moved from home to take up employment in the city - with all the opportunities, and challenges, that brought.