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THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF PRIVACY IN ENGLAND 1600-1900/
by
NORMAN F. CANTOR, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY
1
A REPORT SUBMITTED TO THE ASSOCIATION
OF THE BAR OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK,
Special Committee on Science and Law
Confidential -- For Private Circulation Only
January 28) 1964
THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF PRIVACY IN ENGLAND 1600-1900
The immortal Miguel de Cervantes might be sus-
pected of having out-victorianed the Victorians in his
statement that a "private sin is not so prejudicial in
this world as a public indecency, It were it not for the
fact that more than a hundred years passed between
Cervantes' death and Victoria's accession to the throne.
In Cervantes' time, as in Victoria's, it was not very
easy to commit a private sin in England. Indeed it was
not easy to find privacy for any purpose at all. At
first glance, progress toward privacy should have been
made after 1600 with the introduction of new styles of
building. However, alongside the architectural encourage-
ment of privacy, new English social practices grew up and
often circumvented the best-laid plans of individualists.
This encouragement and discouragement of privacy may be
seen through a study of personal life in England, in its
various aspects, between 1600 and 1900 A. D.
The most obvious shift, the architectural one,
was in the movement away from the "hall-house
ll
of earlier
times. Until the Tudor period,. daily life had centered
about a large hall occupied by the family and servant
alike. This dining-room-cum-living-room served as a place
to entertain and also to sleep. One end or a balcony room
would act as the family's sleeping quarters, while the
floor of the hall served the servants. A similar arrange-
ment on a simpler scale served the poorer classes. Life
revolved around the hall, though as the years passed, vari-
ous smaller chambers came to serve a variety of purposes.
The gentry found, however, during the Tudor years, that
"smaller and warmer rooms, each assigned to a special
use, ... were ... infinitely more desirable than the draughty
1
glories of the great hall. II Thus, the movement toward
privacy began. Servants were now segregated from the
family to a greater extent and not only ate separately
but also slept apart from it. I1Maids slept in the attics
... , and grooms and footmen in a separate bothy or over
the stables. Rooms and even beds were shared by two or
2
three 11 servant s. While greater privacy was thus made
possible by the subdivision of the house, it was still
restricted by the sharing of chambers. Servants might
sleep on trundle-beds; the family itself was more elabo-
rately equipped. Who can forget Will Shakespeare's
"second-best bed?"
The seventeenth century family used beds of
varying quality; the best bed, of course, was to be
found in the master bedroom. Other, less elaborate beds
were kept in other bedrooms and even in parlors, where
2
--
they added to the sparse seating arrangements for receiv-
ing guests. Thanks to a fear of night air, and possibly
also to an instinct for privacy, these beds were elabo-
rately curtained. As Christina Hole put it, man pre-
ferred "whenever possible ... to sleep in a Bort of private
inner chamber, solidly canopied overhead and completely
surrounded by tightly drawn curtains which were sometimes
3
pinned together at night for additional security." But
how did the couple get into bed in the first place? It
seems appropriate to examine some of the marriage customs
of the seventeenth century at this point, for practices
connection with this most intimate of human relationships
reveal much about the attitUde toward privacy.
The English had a reputation in Europe for their
lustiness, but their practicality was no less in evidence
in their marriage negotiations. Samuel Pepys, who did
not always seem to regard his own marriage vows with the
highest of respect, was every inch the practical man when
it came to the question of his brother's marriage. Thus
he commented (on October 21, 1662) on the negotiations
with Mrs. Butler for her daughter: "She tells me that
her daughter's portion is but t4oo, at which I am more
troubled than before; 11 while the bride's negotiators
objected to the small house offered. On the next day,
Pepys met Mrs. Butler again: "I find she will give but
3
£400 and no more, and is not willing to that, without a
jointure, which she expects, and I will not grant for the
portion. I find her a very discreet sober woman, and her
daughter, I understand and believe, is a good lady; and
if portions did agree, though she finds fault with Tom's
house and his bad imperfection in his speech, I believe
we should agree in other matters. , .11 As Christina Hole
commented, lithe children of the poor might marry for
love,., .but with the gentry it was far otherwise." A
girl had to have a dowry, or b9 IIcondemned to perpetual
spinsterhood, or to a marriage below her station .. , II In
spite of the troubles of the t i m ~ s and the cold business-
like eye of the contracting parties' representatives, how-
ever, many of these marriages tlblossomed into loving and
4
and close-knit partnerships that endured unshaken,. ,II
In these marriages for estates, the bride and
groom might be as young as 12 and 14 respectively. In
such cases, the spouses would return to their family
homes for several years "until in their late teens they
were considered old enough to begin their married life
together, II If however the couple were old enough, it
would be brought to bed with appropriate ceremonies by
the bridal party, and given a posset to drink before
being left alone at last. Since the honeymoon was spent
at the home of the bride's, and then the groom's family,
4
and much of it was devoted to receiving guests, not much
privacy could be obtained. Appearances, rather than feel-
ings, were of key importance. Sanitation was also an area
in which little privacy was available--or desired. Unlike
the earlier times, when the manuscripts reflecting daily
life featured "cheerful bathing scenes," the manuscripts
of Stuart days indicated that" Seventeenth century people
was in their own rooms, and not mUCh." There were no
bathroomsj "for everyday purposes the ewer and baSin
sufficed. No one then dreamt of anything so revolution-
ary as a daily bath ... 11 It was possible to bathe oneself
at a public bath, as Pepys snldely noted: "My wife busy
in going with her woman to the hothouse to bathe herself,
after her long being within doors in the dirt, so that
she now pretends to a resolution of being hereafter very
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clean. How long it will hold I can guess."
As there were no private baths, so there were
no toilets. In the manner of babies today, seventeenth
century people made to with commodes (chairs with pots
attached) or with Simple chamberpots, which were kept in
the bedrooms and emptied into the nearest convenient street
or stream. Unlike the medi,eval houses, with their built-
in privies, seventeenth century homes left much to be
desired in this respect. If they had privies at all,
they were in some out of the way corner, such as the
5
cellar; medieval homes of some size had them placed at
corners on living floors, with drains of a sort. Even
smaller medieval homes had outdoor privies a bit removed
7
from the house. Given the condition of the great un-
washed, it is not to be wondered at that coffee houses
gained such swift and widespread acceptance after the
introduction, around 1650, of chocolate, coffee, and tea.
These homes away from home smelled good, and offered both
companionship and a chance to be away from one's wife.
Just as two very different sides of seventeenth century
life were painted by the diarists John Evelyn and Samuel
Pepys, very different aspects of eighteenth century life
are to be found in the work of Henry Fielding and Jane
Austen. Both Tom Jones and Pride and Prejudice reveal
much about eighteenth century marriage and home life,
and therefore about privacy.
G. M. Trevelyan made the point that "No less
real, if more rare, than boorish Squire Western was the
learned country gentleman ... II but added that most well-
real, if more rare, than boorish Squire Western was the
learned country gentleman ... II but added that most well-
to-do gentry of the early eighteenth century were
anxious about their account books, their daughters'
marriages, their sons' debts and professions; attend-'
ing to their own estates and to the county ~ u s i n e s s
on the bench of magistrates, as well as to their
hounds and horsesj devoted to their gardens and
their ponds a little more than to their books;
living, as we should expect, a wholesome ~ n d
useful life, half public, half private ...
'r-
Even the half of their lives that was supposedly
private however was rather public in its nature.
As is the preceding century, marriages in the
eighteenth century were often arranged with an eye to the
size of , the bid being made rather than to romance. Thus
the attempt might be to force a daughter into
as Squire Western tried to force Sophia, or a sister, such
as Squire Allworthy's, might be disposed of in marriage
primarily on the basis of expectations:
the captain, ever since his arrival, at least from
the moment his brother had proposed the match to.
him, long before he had discovered any flattering
symptoms in Miss Bridget, had been greatly enamoured;
that is to say, of Mr. Allworthy's house and
and of his lands, tenements, and hereditamentsj of
all which the captain was so passionately fond, that
he would most probably have contracted marriage with
them, had he been obliged to have taken the witch of
Endor into the bargain ... 9
Eliza Bennet's friend, Charlotte, went into
marriage with the ridiculous Mr. Collins on the same basis:
In as short a time as Mr. Collin's long speeches
would allow, everything was settled between them
to the satisfaction of bothj and as they entered
the house he earnestly entreated her to name ,the
day that was to make him the happiest of men; ...
The stupidity with which he was favored by nature
must guard his courtship from any charm that could
make a woman wish for its continuancej and Miss
Lucas, who accepted him solely from the pure and
disinterested desire of an establishment, cared
not how soon that establishment were gained ...
10
It must be admitted that Miss Austen described
some love matches that did work out--that of Elizabeth
7
--------.. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - ~ -
h,
and Darcy, or of Bingley and Jane, for example-- but
noted somewhat sarcastically the worldly view that such
a marriage was really a mesalliance. As Mr. Darcy put
it, "Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority
of your connections?--to congratulate myself on the hope
of relations, whose condition in lire is so decidedly
beneath my own?" (P. 211) In spite of the conditions
of marriage, however, couples apparently got along with
each other. Certainly, they found some privacy for them-
selves in the ever more compartmentalized houses, for
they had many children.
As many as 20 or 25 children might be born to
a married pair, though not nearly so many would survive.
Queen Anne herself bore an enormous number of children]
only to have all of them die before she did. On lower
social levels, where homes were far smaller than those
of the Queen or the very well-to-do, there was great
overcrowding. It was not, howe'fer, only the very poor
who suffered in this way; Lady Townshend once commented
of someone's home that it was "just such a house as a
parson1s, where the children lie at the foot of the
bed, II nAIl classes in England then were very prolific, II
11
as one author put it succinctly.
At this time, in the cities, there were two
kinds of prolific households: those of the well-to-do
8
,
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,
~
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merchant, and of the impoverished worker. In L o n d o n ~
"the merchant prince and the shopkeeper slept, each with
his family, over his place of business--servants and
prentices in the garrets, and porters and messengers
packed away anywhere in cellars and warehouse, If with a
privy out in the back. However, in this London of cheap
gin, there also lived "dockers and unskilled casual
labour ... under the most filthy condltions of overcrowd-
ing, without sanitation, police or doctors, and far
beyond the range of philanthropy, education and religion. II
The work of Hogarth, perhaps more than anything else,
makes the misery clear. In his "Oln Lane, 11 the pawn-
brokerls has a handsome doorway and is in an excellent
state of repair, it carries on a flourishing buSiness,
where men and women are pawning their tools and house-
hold goods ... we see a drunken populace in the last stages
of emaciation and disease; a corpse is being coffined ...
a suicide can be seen hanging from a beam ... II All of
this is contrasted with "Beer Street
ll
and its robust
12
prosperity.
In between the London of gin and the estate of
a Mr. Darcy, is to be found the not yet depopulated
village. Rather like a flock of Miss Marples, the
villagers were fascinated by the "daily human drama
9
t!
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of their own village, with its poaching affrays and smug-
gling adventures, its feuds and loves, its ghosts and
suicides, its quarrels of miller and innkeeper, of parson
13
and squire." In short, just such a village as that in
which the truth was "universally acknowledged, that a
single man in possession of a good fortune must be in
want of a wife," or in which Tom Jones made love to Molly
Seagrim once too often. A love of drinking, gambling and
wenching characterized much of eighteenth century country
society, as the magnificent movie based on Tom Jones
makes clear so joyfully. The Industrial Revolution, the
evangelical movement, and a small woman named Victoria,
were however to have a devastating effect upon the free
and easy--and unprivate--way of life.
Between John' \-lesley and Queen Victoria, lusti-
ness didn't have much of a chance. Worse, a veneer of
respectability was slapped on a SOCiety which was decidedly
not pure all the way through. liThe growing 'respectabi11ty'
of the well-to-do classes ... diminlshed the numbers and
position of the more fortunate 'kept mistresses,' who had
played such a considerable part in Eighteenth century
society. But for that very reason the demand was in-
creased for the common prostitute who could be viSited
in secret, II and so a II great army" of them grew, Oliver
Twist's Nancy among them. Of course, prostitution was no
III
new thing, but its extent and the attitude toward it in
Victorian England were significant.
This was the era of the shift from "licence or
gaiety to hypocrisy or to virtue," From cheerful parish
religion, the move was made back to family prayers, and
that horror, the English Sunday, was introduced. From
wenching, the move was made to the inhibited puritanical
sexual code--double standard and all--still with us. And
with it all, the cursed hypocrisy which clothed piano legs,
bowdlerized the classics, and trafficked in Tlyoung girls
14
for home and foreign sale. II The house the Victorian
family lived in, its size and education, its servants,
and the gay life of its young blades, reflected one side
of the coin; the life and conditions of the newly industri-
alized poor reflected the other. In order to obtain an
idea of the status of privacy in this period, we must ex-
plore both sides, both Englands.
liThe typical Englishman of the nineteenth century
is the solid citizenll as one author put it. He worked in
the heart of London, but lived in "the most class-conscious
house" yet seen. His home was new, narrow, tall--in some
respects very like the New York City brownstones of the
same period. The servants, relegated below stairs to
work, became "quite literally the lower classes. II All of
the cooking and so forth was done in the cellar. On the
11
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ground floor, respectability began; the family dining room
in front, and the study at the rear set the tone. One
flight up, there was "the drawing-room, the best room in
the building, the sacred shrine of the Lady of the House,
the gilded cage of her daughters." On the next floor,
were the master bedroom in the front and another bedroom.
Upstairs, three and four floors up, the children (and
servants) were assigned space cut off from the respectable
adult life of the house. The children were definitely not
to be heard. The servants were tlhuddled together in small
bedrooms ... in primitive discomfort and with complete lack
15
of privacy. II Presumably the parents of the family had
enough privacy, for full nurseries were the fashion
through the century; the Queen had set the example. It
was only in the l890's that parents faced with school-fees
to pay and a position to maintain began to limit the size
of their families. Perhaps the greater availability of
birth control information toward the end of the century
had something to do with this.
In the other England of Disraeli's IItwo
Englands
ll
, however, families were large with far less space
and money. The new jerry-built housing for the factory
workers was miserable. The "pioneers of t progress t saved
space by crowding families into single rooms or ... under-
ground into cellars ... providing no drains--or, worse still,
12
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by providing drains that oozed into the water supply." It
was only the shock of the cholera epidemics in 1832 and
1848 that IIscared society into the tardy beginnings of sani-
tary self-defenc=, II Edwin Chadwick, the pioneer in this
field, noted that "more filth, more physical suffering and
moral disorder
ll
were IIfound among the cellar pop\.llations
of the working people of Liverpool, Manchester or Leeds
and in large portions" of London than in England's worst
16
prisons. It was inevitable that the children of such
homes should grow up with the knowledge of debauchery,
with little if any sense of privacy, and certainly no op-
portunity for enjoying it. Unlike the Alice who might be
told stories of a Wonderland, the London slum child grew
up with degradation as his companion. Dicken's depiction
of Oliver Twist's companions in Londonls underworld was
not so exaggerated as might be thought. There were at
least two Englands, then in Victorian times; though
there had always been two the contract between
the two in the nineteenth century was appalling. In
addition to the obvious differences in food, education,
and the like,_ the amount of privacy that an individual
could attain was governed by his social condition.
In England, through the three centuries between
1600 and 1900, architecture developed so that more privacy
was possible, but thanks to the growth of the population,
13
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1
.,
the industrial development, and the shift in social patterns,
men enjoyed little privacy, Only those who could afford it
could hope for privacy, and not always get it even then.
Thus, on the purely personal--as distinct from the legal--
level, true privacy was still lacking in England at a very
recent time. It was only when enough homes were built
by the county councils in the later years of the nineteenth
century that the masses of Englishmen were enabled to have
some real degree of privacy. However, the growth of real
privacy depended as much on a change in patterns of living
as upon the number of rooms available. It is not surpris-
ing that a concept of privacy was so long in developing.
14
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Notes
1
2
Christina :io1e, The English Housewife in the
Seventeenth Century (London: Chatto and Windus,
1953), pp. 25-26.
Hole, pp. 26 and 40.
3 Hole, pp. 38-39.
4 Hole, pp. 8, 9, 14; The Diary of Samuel Pepys,
. ed. G. Gregory Smith (London: Macmillan and
Co., 1929).
5 Hole, pp. 3,4,13,23; John Ashton, Social Life
in,the Reign of Anne ... (London: Chatto and
Windus, 1897), pp. 33-34.
6 Hole, p. 41; Pepysl entry for Feb. 21, 1665;
Dorothy Hartley and Margaret M. Elliot, Life and
Work of the Peo Ie of En land ... The Seventeenth
Century New York & London: G.P. Putnam's Sons,
1929), p. 71.
7
8
Hole, pp. 42-43.
G. M. Trevelyan, Illustrated En lish Social Histo
Vol. Three: The Eighteenth Century London, etc.:
Longmans, Green and Co., 1951, p. 15.
,
9 Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling
(New York: Random House, n.d.), p. 32.
10 Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (New York: Pocket
Books, 1956), p. 135.
11 Rosamond Bayne-Powell, The English Child in the
Eighteenth Century (London: John Murray, 1939),
pp. 7, 32.
12 Trevelyan, pp. 39, 44, and R. C. Wright 's notes
on p. 174.
13 p. 25.
14 James Laver, Victorian Vista (Boston: Houghton
Mifflin Co., 1955), p. 11; Trevelyan, Vol. IV,
p. 26; Ideas and Beliefs of the Victorians
(London: Sylvan Press, 1949), see especially
comments by Beales and Glover, pp. 354, 3 5 6 ~
362, 363.
15 Laver, pp. 27-28, 31.
16 Laver, pp. 66-67.
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Also consulted:
E. S. de Beer, ed. The Diary of John Evelyn. London, etc.:
Oxford University Press, 1959.
R. W. King. England from Wordsworth to Dickens. New York:
Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1929.
Marjorie and C.H.B. Quennell. A History of Everyday
Things in England ... 1733 1851. New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1934.
Peter Quennell. Victorian Panorama ... New York: Charles
. Scribner's Sons, 1937.
Gladys S. Thomson. Life in a Noble Household, 1641-1700.
London: Jonathan Cape, 1937.
H. D. Traill, ed. Social England, Vols. IV, V, VI. New
York; G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1903-4.
G. M. Trevelyan. England under Queen Anne, The Peace
and the Protestant Succession .. London, etc.: Longmans,
Green and Co., 1934.
G. M. Young. Victorian En land: Portrait of an A e. 2nd
edition. London: Oxford University Press, 195 .
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