Amongst other things, the provisions of the Housing of the Working Classes Act gave enforcement powers to local authorities, in relation to sanitary conditions and overcrowding in housing.
Wreningham born William Lane came to Great Ellingham with his wife and two children before the birth of their son William c.1896.
The 1901 census captures 32 year old farmer William Lane living in Church Street, Great Ellingham, not far from the Parish Church. With William is his 28 year old wife, Ethel, and six children: Hetty 7, Olive 6, William 4, Sidney 3, Violet 1 and two month old Robert.
The census states that the next door property was ‘unoccupied’. I think it possible that Robert Oldfield with his family moved into this property after the 1901 census, but before 1903.
The 1902 Register of Electors show William Lane as occupying land and a tenement near to the Church in Great Ellingham.
Extract from Map. Second Edition 1907. Wayland Union & R.D. Norfolk Sheet. Courtesy of Ray & Maureen Beales
The black dot on the extract of a 1907 map shows the position of the cottages which I believe once belonged to William Lane.
Lane’s cottage and the adjoining cottage (also owned by William Lane), were destroyed by fire in March 1903, just a couple of months after a visit by the Medical Officer of Health to the cottage which William Lane let to Robert Oldfield.
Although the map is dated 1907 (four years after the fire), I am confident of the position of the cottages. The newspaper report of the fire refers to the cottages being opposite Mr Neave’s shop in Church Street.
By 1911, William Lane and his family had moved to Rockland St Peter.
Robert Oldfield’s Cottage
Details of a ‘Special Report of the Medical Officer of Health‘ appeared in the Eastern Daily Press of the 14th January, 1903. The Medical Officer reported that he had visited a cottage in Great Ellingham, which was owned by William Lain (Lane). The property was tenanted to Robert Oldfield.
The Officer noted that the thatched roof of the “very old” cottage was in need of repair. It would likely let in rain. Apart from this defect, the cottage appeared to be “in pretty good repair“.
What I found disconcerting were the details of the living conditions of the Oldfield family.
The Medical Officer reported that the family appeared to be “in the most abject state of poverty.” Such conditions were the worst imaginable. “They have no bedding at all, no furniture and the children seem to have little or no clothing.” It was also reported that “a girl of 15 or 16 is sleeping on a few old rags and a sack on a brick floor downstairs.”
In addition, on visiting the adjoining premises also belonging to William Lain, the Medical Officer found that there was no water supply on the premises, the result of the well having run dry. He gleaned from Mrs Lain that it was intended to deepen the well to facilitate the water supply.
There are several questions arising from this report.
How common was it to find families living in such dire circumstances at this time? Who reported the defects in the roof to the authorities?
Given that other than the leaking roof, the Medical Officer found the dwelling to be in ‘pretty good repair’, was the Medical Officer’s visit prompted by someone anxious to bring the plight of this family to the attention of the authorities?
Other Cases of Properties in Want of Repair
1901 – Mrs Elvin’s Cottage at Cade’s Hill
The Norfolk News of 7th December, 1901, included a special report from the Medical Officer for Health which was read to a Meeting of the Wayland District Council. The Medical Officer had inspected a premises at Cade’s Hill, Attleborough. [Cade’s Hill also known as Cakes’s Hill or even Kate’s Hill, is near to the border of Great Ellingham and Attleborough].
He found “a wretched hovel” occupied (and he also believed it to be owned) by “an old lady named Elvin“. The Inspector did not think it “a safe place for an old lonely woman to live“‘. He deemed it unfit for habitation. It had no water supply and no “proper outhouse accommodation“. [I assume here the Inspector was referring to a lack of sanitary facilities].
Mrs Elvin was reported to have told the Inspector that she was going to live with her son, which the Inspector thought was “the best thing she could do“.
1901 – James Carter’s Cottage in Great Ellingham
In addition, it was also reported that the same Inspector also attended at a cottage in Great Ellingham. This cottage, described by the Inspector as “a most dilapidated old cottage quite unfit for habitation” was occupied by James Carter, who was described as “an old man over 80“.
The 1901 census finds 80 year old widower James Carter, described as an agricultural labourer, living alone in Bow Street, Great Ellingham.
1908 – Cottage in Attleborough Occupied by William R Beales
In 1908, there was a report in the Norfolk Chronicle of 22nd February of a matter discussed at a meeting of the Wayland District Council. The Medical Officer of Health reported that he had visited an “unwholesome house in Attleborough“. The property was owned by the Great Eastern Railway Company and occupied by an employee, William R Beales.
The Inspector found that the walls to the property were structurally defective. The walls and the floor were “exceedingly damp“. The property had no drainage. The Inspector also commented that he had known there to have been “a great deal of illness” in the cottage, and he concluded that the state of the cottage was “prejudicial to health by reason of dampness“. The Council’s findings were that the railway company would be given a month’s notice under the Housing of Working Classes Act, in order to rectify matters.
A Reason behind the Medical Officer’s Visit
The thatched roofed cottage in Great Ellingham occupied by the Oldfield family was probably not the only dwelling in the district to be in need of repair.
However, given that the leaking roof to the Oldfield’s cottage does not itself appear to have necessitated the building to be classed as ‘unfit for human inhabitation’ (as touched on in the other reports I have mentioned), I wonder whether the visit by the Medical Officer of Health to the Oldfield’s cottage was more to do with the conditions in which the family were living.
Was Robert Oldfield ‘down on his luck’? Was he unable to find work in order to support his family? Was Robert Oldfield prevented from being able to work because of illness or disability?
A report of the matters which had been heard by the Magistrates at East Harling published in the Norfolk News of 2nd May, 1903, may provide some answers.
Robert Oldfield, a labourer, of Rockland All Saints was charged by Mr George Downes, the Relieving Officer to the Wayland Union, with neglecting his wife and three children on the 19th January, 1903.
George Downes informed the Magistrates that Robert Oldfield was “turned out of a cottage at Great Ellingham“. He also told the Magistrates that Oldfield was a “lazy good for nothing man. He could have work, but he would not do it. He never paid rent, and consequently no one would let him a house“.
Robert Oldfield was committed to prison for one month with hard labour.
Robert Oldfield’s Story
It seems likely that just a few days after the visit of the Medical Officer of Health to the Oldfield’s cottage in Great Ellingham in January, 1903, the Oldfield family was visited by the Relieving Officer for the Wayland Union and, as a result of the visit, Robert Oldfield was brought before the Magistrates.
The reports in the newspapers may only provide us with part of the story behind this family’s plight at the beginning of the 20th century. We can but hope that the family’s situation improved following Robert Oldfield’s spell in prison. Did Robert Oldfield look for paid work on his release and was he successful in holding down a job?
With the name ‘Robert Oldfield’ being a particularly common name around the area, I have not with any certainty been able to identify this Robert Oldfield (or any members of his family) on the 1911 census.
As mentioned, I believe the cottage in Church Street, Great Ellingham, once occupied by the Oldfield family, together with the adjoining cottage of their landlord, was destroyed by fire within weeks of the Oldfield family leaving the property.
Housing of the Working Classes Act 1885. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Vict/48-49/72/enacted Accessed 14th January 2021
1901 census RG13/1867/71, RG13/1867/80
1911 census RG14/11483/122
1902 Mid Division of Norfolk. Attleborough Polling District, Parish of Great Ellingham. “England, Norfolk Register of Electors, 1832-1915,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-62VH-XHL?cc=1824705&wc=MX69-538%3A161034801%2C161186101%2C161131101 : 21 May 2014), Norfolk > Mid division > 1902 > image 23 of 498; Record Office, Central Library, Norwich.
Eastern Daily Press 14th January, 1903 The British Newspaper Archive. www.britishnewspaperarhive.co.uk Accessed 28th December, 2020
Norfolk News 7th December, 1901 The British Newspaper Archive. www.britishnewspaperarhive.co.uk Accessed 6th January 2021
Norfolk Chronicle 22nd February, 1908 The British Newspaper Archive. www.britishnewspaperarhive.co.uk Accessed 6th January 2021
Norfolk News 2nd May 1903 The British Newspaper Archive. www.britishnewspaperarhive.co.uk Accessed 28th December, 2020