One of the buildings at Quarry Bank that will be newly open to the public after 2017 will be 13 Oak Cottages. It’s known locally as the Pickled cottage, because it has been literally pickled and left untouched and unaltered (and empty) since around the 1960s, if not earlier. It was built sometime during the 1820s, when the Gregs started the rapid expansion of the village to house its growing workforce. We know from the painstaking research recently completed by Ksenija Kolerovic that by 1841 it was occupied by Peter Nicklin, who was listed as a ‘cotton spinner’ in the 1841 census, but as working in ‘Making up’ and as an ‘Odd hand’ in the Mill’s wages books during the 1840s and 50s. He was aged 58 in 1841, and his wife Ann, was 52. Ann lived with him at 13 Oak Cottages and is not listed in either the census or the mill wages books as having paid employment. Along with Ann and Peter Nicklin, Catherine Burn (a 26 year old dyer at the Mill) lived with them as a lodger, and was joined by Mary Brown, a spinner, from 1845, according to information in rent books. The cellar was occupied from 1844 by Mary Bradbury (aged 24), who worked in the 1st card room on the drawing frames, her husband, William (aged 26), who worked in the 3rd card room at the mill, who lived there with one, and possibly, two young daughters. Though it’s hard to trace the occupants before the 1841 census, which was also the date that a detailed surviving rent book was begun, after this date, we can list the inhabitants of number 13 to the twentieth century.
What is most striking about this description of the occupants in the early 1840s is not who they were or where they worked, but how many of them lived in what is a very small house by today’s standards. And though the Nicklins had lodgers, they appear to have had no children living with them, whilst other cottages in the village would surely have housed sizeable numbers of offspring. The Oak cottages, in common with many of the cottages at Styal, were constructed of two rooms per floor, so at number 13, the Nicklin household lived in small 4 rooms, the Bradburys in two cellar rooms. Though these houses seem cramped by modern standards, they would not have appeared so to contemporaries – particularly compared to the sorts of slum housing for workers in nearby towns such as Manchester, famously described by Engels in his Condition of the Working Class in England (1848). The cottages at Styal were also almost certainly better built and in a better state of repair than much urban worker housing.
In thinking about how we present this cottage to visitors once it is open to the public, we can obviously talk about who lived here, but I also want to give visitors a sense as well of what it was like to live here. In this respect, I can drawn on my own research on the use of domestic space in smaller trading households in towns such as Manchester and Liverpool during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Living in such small spaces was not simple, and the ways in which inhabitants would have shared their living space contradicts both traditional historical models of growing domestic privacy during the eighteenth century, and our own modern ideas about privacy and space. In households such as that of the Nicklins, restrictions on the size of living accommodation made many of the formal distinctions of space that we are used to unlikely. This means that we can’t assume that people applied single uses to different rooms as we do today – thus it seems quite possible that inhabitants would sleep and sit and socialize and cook and eat in the room we might think of as the front room (the first one you enter from the front door, which tellingly contains a range), whilst the back room might have been a form of kitchen and/or scullery (though without running water). It is also likely that unrelated individuals would have shared bedrooms, and probably beds. Whilst we might baulk at such ideas – not just sleeping in a room in which food is prepared and eaten, but especially bed-sharing – it is clear that company and physical proximity were often more highly prized in the early nineteenth century than was a more modern understanding of privacy (especially if it was cold). And we know, of course, that any workers who had come from the Apprentice House would have been used to sharing beds with others, whilst in a period when large families were the norm, sharing beds with siblings would have been standard.
But this doesn’t mean that privacy wasn’t important in terms of upholding certain standards of respectability. The Nicklin household included two female lodgers, and the separation of the sexes to preserve modesty – especially between men and women who weren’t related or married – and to prevent inappropriate sexual relations would have been important. Although men and women appear not to have been generally segregated in terms of daily activities during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there were clearly exceptions to this rule where sexual impropriety or modesty were concerned: such as mending undergarments, washing and not engaging in illicit sexual behaviour. Ensuring this sort of privacy meant that individuals had to abide by sets of unwritten rules about behaviour and conduct, such as not washing in front of those of the opposite sex, or men allowing women to mend their stockings in private. Failure to do so could mean that the familial dwelling switched from being a place of companionship, affection and the well-practiced art of ‘rubbing along’ together, to a site of tension and struggle. Of course we know from the story of one well-documented resident of the village, Esther Price, and others, that unsanctioned (that is, unmarried) sexual conduct did go on, but it was likely to be frowned upon by more godly and ‘respectable’ villagers.
Understanding how people negotiated shared existences in cramped spaces helps us to understand the ways in which they went about their everyday lives. I want to try to answer questions such as: What did a typical working day look like? What did mill workers do when not at work? Did they have time for leisure, and if so, what types of leisure? What did they eat? How much of their food did they grown in the small gardens to the front of the cottages? Where did they cook? How did they wash their clothes? Where did they wash themselves (presumably in the back yard, from a water butt or using a shared pump)? Where did they go to the toilet, since the cottages don’t seem to have had bathrooms (a shared privy)? Perhaps you can think of some others? I’ll do my best to answer them by next year.