HISTORY OF THE HOUSE with Charles Wilson-Watkins

Family History, Charles is a researcher and family historian

In the second of this series about the history of our homes, we move on to a different part of the town. Let us get out our 1840s Monopoly Board and roll the dice to see where our counter lands. We’ve rolled a 6, so starting from Gloucester Place, we pass the Assembly Rooms, brush pass the ‘old’ Guildhall, passing the Swansea Museum, go through Wind Street, and land on High Street. We have also moved forward nine years to 1849. High Street has changed to its present format. Residents of High Street would have been of the middle class. Most of the houses comprise of a couple of rooms with the additional small attic room, located above the shop. The proprietor of the shop, lived above the premises with his family which could have included up to 4/5 children. High Street though, was in the shadows of the ‘Slums of Swansea’ located nearby.

In the last edition of The Bay, I wrote about the introduction of the Electoral Registers in 1837, and only those who owned a property made the mark to have an entry. What about those other people, who didn’t own a property? Where can we find them?

We have to rely on the Rate Books. Rate Books have had different uses over the years. They first made an appearance before the Acts for Relief of the Poor, in 1598, when the church kept the books for holding an account of the yearly values of properties in the area. These lists can be found in the parish Vestry Accounts, the Overseer’s Accounts, or the Churchwarden’s Accounts. This Act was replaced by the 1601 Poor Law Act, which formalised the rating system and specified the compulsory setting of a local rate. The Act made the Parish responsible for the Poor Relief and the registrations of all properties. Rates were collected three times a year, June (Midsummer), October (Michaelmas) and January (Christmas).

During the 18th century, the Rate Books show the ownership of the property, and the amounts collected. It is these books that we can use as a substitute to the census. The use of a building can be traced in this way; it is easy to follow the occupation of an address over a period.

The sudden absence of a name could indicate death, change of ownership or movement from the area. Rate Books are arranged street-by-street, which can be a hindrance when tracing a named individual. Rate Books also list those people who were too poor to pay.

After 1834, the books listed both owner and occupier of a property. In the example that’s accompanying this article (pic above) is the Rate Book dated March 1849, for High Street.

Let’s look then at No 1OccupierJoseph Marshall

Owner – William Richards, he seems to have owned a few properties

Description of Property – House

Gross Estimated Rental – £12 (£1,065 today)

Rateable Value – £10 (£888 today)

Rate in the Pound – 10s

Total Amount to be Collected – 10s and Amount Actually Collected – 10s

West Glamorgan Archive Service, Civic Centre have a variety of Rate Books including Rate Books for Swansea Borough and parts of neighbouring authorities, 1845-1975.

Carrying on with our tour of the house we come into the bathroom. During this period of the 1840s, we certainly had a huge divide be-tween the upper and lower working classes and the level of sanitation they would expect in their homes.

Bathing during this period was not a daily ritual. It wasn’t until the 1870s that a bathroom took its first form in the house. Wealthy residents, like that of Stirling Benson, could have paid to have a water tap fitted into their homes, allowing “bathing”, which was usually carried out using a basin and ewer, then progressing to a small portable bathtub, which was filled and emptied by a servant, often taking an hour to complete. No rest for the wicked!

It would be around the 1900s that a working-class house was first built with a bathroom. Families of the slum area of Swansea, during the 1840s, didn’t have the luxury of a water supply to their houses, but had to rely on a communal pump in the street and the heavily polluted River Tawe. Sanitation was very basic or non-existent, with many of the houses having a privy housed in a small structure at the back of the house. Often a few families would have shared this. The reservoir at Brynmill, which held 5,500,000 gallons, was fed from the Brynmill Steam and other sources (now Brynmill Park), was dug during the 1840s, and provided insufficient water to supply the upper classes located in the lower parts of the town.

Lacking adequate water, in the slums, resulted in outbreaks of disease. Summer 1849 saw a major outbreak of cholera in Swansea, which resulted in 150 deaths. Missionary Griffith John lost both his parents to the dreaded cholera. John is credited with introducing Christianity into China.

NEXT MONTH, we move on to 1851, maps and the Irish influx


Rate Books – with kind permission from West Archive Service, Civic Centre


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