The House by the Thames

The House by the Thames by Gillian Tindall

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Authors: Gillian Tindall
clothes of good cloth; they could entertain guests elegantly, if they wished, in their first-floor room with its view of St Paul’s. They weren’t, perhaps, quite gentlefolk (though the old appellation ‘gentleman’ for a member of the landed upper classes was being more and more widely applied to anyone who looked and sounded the part) but they might reasonably expect, if business continued to prosper, that their sons or grandsons might be gentlefolk. Meanwhile, it was reckoned that on an income of no more than £50 a year (which was about three to five times that of a labouring man) a small family could live, with care, in genteel comfort – though many ‘middling people’ had a considerably higher income than that.
    Our popular image of eighteenth-century interiors is largely derived from the surviving grand houses of the time, and should be treated with caution. It is nevertheless true that general levels of both comfort and gentility in London were steadily increasing. Just as, in the seventeenth century, pewter had replaced the old wooden trenchers and chairs had replaced the oak benches and stools, so now blue and white ‘Oriental’ pottery – much of it made along the river in Lambeth – became more widely used, and chairs became more comfortable with new paddings. Small ‘Turkey’ carpets now covered bare boards. It would seem from this – though I have not seen the point expressly made – that those age-old household nuisances, rats and fleas, had at last been banished from well-run homes, though constant vigilance was no doubt still required to protect the nice new furnishings. In addition to the heavy old cupboards, lacquered cabinets appeared, and cane work from India and small marquetry tables; silver tankards and bowls were more widely distributed, so were mirrors and prints. A clock became a standard feature of a comfortable home, as did tea-pots, tea-caddies and delicate cups for the new expensive habit of ‘taking tay’. Candles, earlier carried around in single candlesticks, could now be stuck in fixed wall-sconces, often with a mirror behind them to reflect more light.
    But sheer space in a family house was still quite restricted, as compared with later English middle-class norms: living rooms frequently contained beds that folded away for the day into cupboards or were tipped up and disguised as bookcases. In 49, the one or two servants may have slept in the attic, which at that date was a small room tucked away behind the cornice so as not to spoil the house’s ‘rational proportions’. (The present larger attic is a twentieth-century addition.) But there cannot have been anything of a subterranean ‘below-stairs’ life in this house in the eighteenth or much of the nineteenth century: its cellars, built long before for storage not for habitation, were penetrated by little air or daylight, and artificial light was not then a feasible option. I am not even sure that, in the eighteenth century, the cellar at the front had the narrow, gridded opening in the pavement above that appears in early twentieth-century photos. (This was covered in again by the 1950s.) It is most likely, given Bankside’s vulnerability to flooding up to the late nineteenth century, that the front cellar had no opening to daylight at all and therefore could never have functioned as the classic Georgian or Victorian kitchen.
    I believe that the kitchen was where it had probably been in the days of the inn: in the back room on the ground floor which opened onto the yard and garden. The front room, on the opposite side of the central lobby and stairs, may have served as a family dining room – although, within a generation or two, it had probably become a place of male resort, where the master of the house and his associates smoked and talked and where paperwork was done. In any case, it was customary in the eighteenth century for meals to

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