From Chamberpots To Co-ops: Flatshares Through The Ages
The Debrief: What did the average flatshare look like 50 years ago, or 100? Did platonic digs even exist? We did some research.
Once upon a time, the path was well-established: parents’ house, marital home, grave. Maybe the odd week in Whitby if you were lucky. But while it’s easy to assume we’re basically Generation Flatshare, what with 58% of us now living with people we are neither related to nor (officially) sleeping with, the truth is that communal living has been going since decades before your housemates One Hour Shower Sal and Where’s-My-Penne Pete were even twinkles in their father’s eye. It just looked a little different…
What with all the doom-filled headlines and parents continually sending us links to fixer-upper three beds in Cumbria, sometimes it’s sometimes easy to feel like we’re the first generation who didn’t buy a house before they were entirely out of puberty. But in fact at the start of the last century, around 90% of properties were rented rather than owned by the people who lived in them.
Likewise, we might assume that houseshares were unheard of unless you were dusting the master’s silverware with a pinny on, but actually London was full of lodging or boarding houses – kind of like Edwardian halls of residence – filled with people from the lower middle and working classes who needed to stay in town for their jobs.
Buildings like Bruce House in Covent Garden had previously been grimy, pissy brothels full of pretty criminals (so exactly like halls of residence then), but in 1894 was taken over by local councils and benefactors, spruced up and turned into cheaper, more cheerful and altogether less Dickensian alternatives to the other option: lodging with a landlady who might cut your kidneys out in the night and sell them to the pieman.
In 1900, Common Lodging Houses would cost around 6d a night, which works out at about £2.75 in today’s money – only a small percentage of the average weekly income back then, leaving plenty for bread and bonnets and inviting Jim from the Red Lion over for backgammon and chill.
During the first few decades of the 20th century, plenty of women were living away from the family home, but not for single gal fun times – most were in domestic service. According to the 1911 census, 28% of all employed women in England and Wales (that’s 1.35 million) were employed as maids, cooks and servants.
Bed and board were usually thrown in for free, though you’d be working seven days a week, up at the crack of dawn to empty the chamberpots and sleeping in threadbare ‘virgin quarters’ well away from any potential hook-ups with the footmen.
And while, aside from service, an unmarried woman living away from her family was basically rarer than an airy double room in Clapham for under £400 a month now, there was a whole different kind of housesharing going on back home – the kind where you shared with your Mum, Dad, Nan, Grandad, Auntie Jean, Cousin Brenda, five kids and three parakeets without batting an eyelid.
There wasn’t room to bat an eyelid.
Most women’s experience of Jazz Age Britain wasn’t exactly one long clubhopping sesh with your stockings down and your knees rouged, but there were changes afoot. After the loss of so many men in World War One, houseshares were borne out of necessity as middle class women took in lodgers to bring in an income and cover the upkeep of their family homes. If you’ve read The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (do, by the way), then you’ll be familiar with the set-up.
In real life, the country’s new lodgers probably spent more time having cold baths and awkward chats on the landing and less time having hot sapphic trysts with their unfulfilled landladies, but hey, Google doesn’t seem to know that for sure.
With men marrying older and dying younger than women, widows were pretty commonplace in the first half of the 20th century, which actually lead to more non-nuclear households than some decades to come. Plus, there were more (ffs) ‘spinsters’ around too – in the 1930s 15% of women never married at all, a number that dropped to almost nothing between the 40s and the 70s when people decided that gambling with their autonomy and future happiness was all worth it for the tiny bags of sugared almonds, or something.
Decadent bohemians like Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell’s Bloomsbury Set led the way in unconventional houseshares, but even respectable middle class types might have had the chance to move into a room of one’s own while they trained or worked. More often than not living in a boarding house with a draconian landlady breathing down their necks, housesharing for women between the wars was a far cry from today’s rental sitch, but it still offered an exciting escape from the shackles of the family home.
Plus, they were a hell of a lot safer than whatever the 30s equivalent of Gumtree might have thrown up.
THERE’S A WAR ON. While the world spent six years battling against the ultimate shitty flatmate, on the home front people were displaced and thrown together left, right and centre. More than 80,000 young women signed up to the Women’s Land Army, living together on farms or in hostels while they worked to save the country from potential starvation.
Vita Sackville-West wrote in her 1944 study of the Land Girls, ‘She lives among strangers, and the jolly atmosphere of homely love or outside fun is replaced often by loneliness and boredom.’ Which will strike a chord for anyone who’s ever silently eaten packet noodles alone under a duvet to avoid talking to Mad Bantz Barry, though in fairness we didn’t also have to till a field for 12 hours a day with bombs dropping on our heads.
In 1952, the average woman got married at 21 and had a baby at 22, meaning you barely had time to fasten your girdle and work out whether a cauliflower perm suited you before you were booted from under your parents’ roof to under your husband’s.
That said, during the 50s women also came to outnumber men in London’s offices for the first time ever – but in an era where the young had never had it so good, bold independent types with a salary were more likely to live alone or as a lodger than share with flatmates. The Joan and Peggy from Mad Men dream was still a few years off yet.
Hey though, if you wanted platonic company that badly there was always the convent.
FINALLY IT’S THE 60S! And the 60s, as pop culture won’t ever let us forget, were all about sex, rugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The sex you were having, and the rugs you were buying to do it on, in the comfort of your very own hip bachelorette pad with your groovy new flatmates Susan and Barbara from the chemist’s.
Except of course, all that was only happening for the select few. Even by 1968, the year that Hair first brought naked hippie orgies to the West End stage, still only 6% of 18-31 year olds lived with platonic roommates while everyone else was still under their parents’ roof, married or living alone, Holly Golightly-style.
Those 6% were protected by the Rent Act 1965, though, which made it an offence for landlords to unlawfully evict you. No matter how much sex and how many rugs you were having.
By the 70s, flatsharing as a concept was finally solidified – both in real life and in pop culture, by sitcoms like Man About The House and its US remake Three’s Company. They were particularly scandalous because the eponymous man was sharing with two women. Women! With… parts! Without any of them getting pregnant or burning in Hades or anything! It’s OK though, they told the landlord he was gay and plenty of farcical 1970s ‘hilarity’ ensured.
Back in the real world, the early 70s was the last time that more people in the UK rented their homes than owned them, with the average house costing £5,632 – less than three times the average £2k a year salary (these days the average salary is £25k and the average house £238,874, just to put things into miserable perspective).
With the property market booming, only 10% of homes were rented in the 1980s, but those 10% made damned sure they had a great time with their beanbags*, black ash furniture* and giant brick phones*. Bookended by The Young Ones and Men Behaving Badly, the decade’s flatshare heroes managed to be all ladsladslads before ladsladslads was even a thing.
That included ladiesladiesladies too, though. In 1988 some 23% of 22-24 year old women lived with flatmates rather than family, compared to only 15% two decades later – the surge probably because more women than ever before were going to university (the proportion of female undergrads finally overtook male in the mid-90s), getting a taste for ‘digging’, as my Nan would put it, away from the family hearth.
‘But there’s one of those dancing sunflowers in a pot* and a stolen roadsign in the bath!’ they would probably think, wistfully. ‘I couldn’t possibly leave to get married now. Who would I watch Minder* with?’
*All genuine 80s references.
In many ways, the 90s were the golden age of the flatshare. Property prices were soaring, people were getting married later than ever before, and nearly a quarter of people in their early 20s were living outside a family or couple. Then we also had Monica, Rachel et al unreasonably raising our expectations of 20-something real estate one velvet-covered footstool at a time – plus their less glossy UK equivalents on This Life and Spaced.
But it wasn’t just fictional roomies that were having all the fun. The whole idea of young, sexy real people living under a roof and having young, sexy, real times held such fascination that we all sat around for hours watching MTV’s The Real World. Launched in 1992 (fun fact: it’s still going! Who knew?), the Big Brother precursor famously put seven strangers in a house together, ‘to find out what happens when people stop being polite... and start getting real.’
Realer than the time my uni housemate let her room out to a German lady and her teenage son for two weeks without telling us, though? Realer than that, MTV?
Poor Frau Schmidt. The things she saw.
You’d assume that rates of housesharing have been going up steadily for the past few decades as the moral standards of the nation declined, wouldn’t you? But you’d be wrong.
Actually, between 1961 and 2009, the proportion of people living in households without a couple at the helm halved from 12% to 6% – though not because we all suddenly decided we couldn’t cope with the pass agg Post-its anymore and shacked up romantically with the nearest thing breathing, but because property got so expensive that loads of people started moving back in with their parents. A whopping 20% more 20-34 year olds lived at home in 2011 than in 1997.
And while youngsters were more likely to be eating from the parental fridge, the over-30s started taking their places round the communal Smeg instead. According to Spare Room, in 2007 the average age of Brits living in shared accommodation was 33.
There was also a boom in professionals owning houses outside London but renting rooms in the city during the week, creating the kind of lovely, civilised part-time flatshare experience you dream of each time you come home on a Friday night to discover your living room’s been turned into a poetry salon/XBox convention/sex dungeon/swamp.
The 2010s, AKA now
And so, here we are.
Rents have been rising more than £1,000 a year since 2010, with the average property costing £1,204 a month to rent in London and £774 a month elsewhere. A recent US survey found 58% of roommates lived together primarily because of finance and convenience, which is hardly shocking – in fact, it’s quite sweet to think that other 42% might be in flatmatehood for the companionship. Or just the chance to keep nicking all their posh friend’s Waitrose Essentials pâté.
And as well as your usual twentysomethings, there’s been a recent surge in over-40s teaming up to split the cost – from single parents sharing childcare and astronomical urban rents to idyllic co-housing communities full of retired people doing group yoga and growing cabbages together, mid-life flatsharing looks like the new frontier. And it’s sensible.
Maybe by focusing on the benefits – camaraderie, companionship, lower costs – we can refine the idea of communal living so it works way beyond the chaos of our twenties and into proper adulthood?
We’re just going to need a few more Post-its.
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