‘Where shall she live?’ The choices and challenges faced by the independent Edwardian woman in London – and some surprising answers

Those of us lucky enough to live in London today take so much for granted. Not least, the right to live where we want, with whom we want – and for our gender to play no part in that decision. Tonight, as part of the London Festival of Architecture, I attended a fascinating talk by Emily Gee, of Historic England, upon the subject of accommodation for women living in London between 1875 and 1925 – and the very great challenges and limitations that they faced.

The talk found us in the newly-renovated REST UP hostel, on the New Kent Road – a strikingly attractive, pre-WWI, baroque-style listed building. The reason behind this choice of venue was a powerful one: REST UP has been a hostel for over a century, beginning its days as a home for women and children only. At that time, it marked a significant shift in the type of accommodation available to women.

Emily began her talk by stating that the advancement of women in Edwardian England was a social phenomenon, the like of which the country had not seen previously. About one quarter of Edwardian women were engaged in work – not many more than during the previous century, but the kinds of work in which they were engaged in had changed considerably. For example, between 1861 and 1911, the number of female clerical workers increased from 279 to 124,000 – a massive increase, by anyone’s standards.

Companies such as Prudential Assurance, which in 1871 had made the then-revolutionary decision to hire women as clerks, had led the way – and innovations such as the telephone and the typewriter created new professions. By 1902, when the first large telephone exchange opened in London, 31% of women were engaged in domestic and industrial employment – and 4% as book-keepers, cashiers, secretaries, stenographers and typists. With many of these women gravitating towards London, this posed a big social and moral question in respect of an Edwardian woman, which the social reformer Mary Higgs summed up so pertinently: where shall she live?

Originally, religious organisations including the Church, Salvation Army and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) had taken up the challenge; for example, in 1878, John Shrimpton (founder of the YWCA) established the Homes for Working Girls in London. This came about following a letter in the press calling the public’s attention to the great need for some provision to be made for the “almost numberless girl-workers of London, nothing having been done to help these daily ‘bread winners’ to a better condition of “living”. A conference held in November 1877 resulted in the formation of a committee of ladies and gentlemen who decided to “help those who help themselves” by trying to gain an honest living; they would provide Homes for them, together with “healthful recreation”, and “surround them with Christian influences and friendly guidance at the most critical period of their lives.”

The first Home, named Alexandra House, was opened at 88 St John Street in West Smithfield in July 1878, followed by Victoria House in Bayswater in April 1879. By 1905 there were eight such homes, with 39,000 women having lived in the Homes since 1878.

Housing options for the most part remained meagre, however, as well as greatly influenced by class distinctions and religious sensibilities. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, working women campaigned for a “castle in the air”, in the form of a dwelling house with private rooms and a restaurant. Somewhere, in essence, where women felt protected – and comfortable.

It was new limited companies who were the next to address the housing challenge. At the heart of their endeavours lay a sound social principle embodied through a spirit of self-sufficiency, financial independence and the concept of lodging houses as business models. Sloane Gardens House, built for the Ladies’ Associated Dwelling Company, opened in 1888 in Lower Sloane Street. This strikingly elegant building housed 150 women and fitted in well with the surrounding mansion blocks. Later to become the Sloane Club, this place of residence included shops selling items made by its female residents, plus a library. As a business venture, however, it proved not to be financially sound.

Slowly, the number of accommodation options increased. In 1889, the Ladies’ Residential Chambers, on Chenies Street in Bloomsbury opened. Domestic and homely in appearance, it was aimed at middle & upper class women: doctors, artists and teachers, who were provided with their own rooms and a communal dining room. This was followed, in 1892, by Balfour & Turner-designed York Street Chambers, which offered 50 residents commodious flats, private and communal dining rooms – and separate sleeping quarters for servants. It was a comfortable home that suited working women and allowed them to foster a sense of camaraderie. It’s worth noting that both buildings were commissioned by limited companies; municipal and local authority authorities continued to be very slow to respond to demand.

York Street Chambers
York Street Chambers, Marylebone


By the early 20th century, it was clear that demand was far outstripping supply. Educated, professional women were the most in need of assistance – unlike their male counterparts who were well catered for in the form of places like Camden Town’s Rowton House, which housed 1,000 men and was praised by contemporaries such as George Orwell.

In 1902, along came Brabazon House, in Pimlico. Designed by R. Stephen Ayling and funded, again, by a private limited company, it appealed to investors by providing a suitable return on their capital – but also through the knowledge that they would be helping women in straitened circumstances. The biggest challenge for its architect was to accommodate 100 women in suitable surroundings, providing privacy with a communal element. This would be the first building of its type in London.

R.S. Ayling was also responsible for Hopkinson House, which opened in 1905 and accommodated 120 women. Having learned many lessons from the building of Brabazon House, Ayling ensured that this new building included a large communal room, bicycle store, nursing room and a restaurant. A further innovation was the addition, to each bedroom, of a metered gas fire which allowed its tenant to boil a kettle.

Just one year previously the first YWCA hostel had opened its doors. Designed by the renowned British architect Arthur Beresford Pite, the hostel provided a range of options, from small cubicles to much bigger bedrooms, which could be rented on a daily, as well as a weekly basis. The hostel was closely managed by a matron and its residents complained bitterly about overbearing rules and a lack of privacy (read: unreasonable curfews and no male guests allowed).

Building work continued apace, with architects generally doing their best to disguise the institutional function of such dwellings. For example, in 1914, the Girls’ Friendly Society (GFS) opened a women’s-only lodging on Francis Street, in Westminster, designed by RS Ayling in Wrenaissance style. Housing 80 women, in good-size bedrooms, the building offered some new features, including a waiting room where girls who came into town as passengers on the early morning workmen’s trains could wait in safety for their working day to begin. It was opened by the Bishop of London, who commented, approvingly, “…when a girl came to London to earn her living she was confronted with loneliness and with moral dangers…Where was she to find friends and that quiet religious influence which would be her mainstay in time of temptation?” Whilst not a religious or charitable foundation (the Society hoped for dividends comparable to those achieved by investors in other, similar, hostels), it was intended that the hostel be a place of shelter.

During World War One, housing needs increased significantly as women moved to London to participate in the war effort; this placed a great strain on the existing hostels. Some efforts were made to address this situation – as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the very building in I heard this talk was originally a women’s lodging house built by Joseph & Smithem in 1913, financed by the Jewish philanthropist Ada Lewis. How Ada would smile if she could see her building now: a more glamorous or cosmopolitan hostel it is hard to imagine.

Also in 1913, the Mary Curzon Hostel for Women opened in King’s Cross, its aim to house the “respectable poor”. Civic in appearance and domestic in style, the building housed 55 women and was built in memory of Lady Curzon of Kedleston, the American aristocrat and wife of Lord Curzon. 1916 saw the opening of Nutford House, in Lisson Grove; aimed at “educated women workers”, this home was designed in Wrenaissance style by Victor Wilkins, who exhibited his design at the Royal Academy in 1915. It contained private bedrooms for 100 women and one matron, but all other facilities were shared.

Mary Curzon Hostel for Women
Mary Curzon Hostel for Women, King’s Cross


Post-war, new accommodation tended to be built in suburbs such as Highgate, which offered more space and fresh air than their urban counterparts. A good example is Waterlow Lodge, a Grade II-listed building in Hampstead Garden Suburb; designed by Baillie Scott, at the request of the social reformer Henrietta Barnett (herself the founder of Hampstead Garden Suburb), the complex housed fifty flats, together with allotment strips, a communal restaurant and bicycle sheds. These flats were aimed at single working women who could not afford servants but liked the idea of co-operative living. The complex was joined in 1927 by Queen’s Court, built by the United Women’s Homes Association for working women.

In concluding her talk, Emily emphasised again the great strides made by women in the latter part of the 19th century and early part of 20th century. How well these women fared in their quest for independence depended in part on their class – as we’ve seen, middle class women fared much better in the type of living arrangements available to them than their working class counterparts, who often found themselves housed in tiny cubicles, enjoying very little privacy. That said, Mary Higgs can indeed feel proud that, thanks to tireless campaigning both by her and many of her contemporaries, her question, ‘Where Shall She Live’, was, in the end, answered.


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