This cottage, part of the Blists Hill Victorian town museum in Shropshire, is a reconstruction of a real squatter’s cottage, using the original materials and design. Victorian squatters were typically people who’d come from other parts of the country looking for work in the coal and clay pits, the brick works or the iron foundries.
Whereas contemporary squatters occupy unused buildings, then people occupied the land, constructing the shelter themselves. The cottages were built low, because the dry stone walls contained no mortar. This one consists of two rooms – a kitchen and a bedroom – and might have housed a large family. The original cottage was built between 1825-1841, at Burrough’s Bank near Telford. It was inhabited until the 1970s and its last occupant, an old lady, was reportedly reluctant to leave.
Cooking was done on the range in the kitchen. A cellar dug down into the earth leads off the kitchen; it was a cool place for storing whatever food there was.
A tin bath similar to this one would have been brought inside for use in front of the fire. Given the difficulty of heating water, it’s not surprising that everyone used the same water – in order of status. The main wage earner went first, the youngest child last – hence the expression about ‘not throwing the baby out with the bath water’.
The bedroom holds a child’s bed and a larger one. Especially in the poorest families, children worked too; women and boys both worked in the mines and in 1842 a government official was unhappy to find a four-year-old at work in the Hills Lane pit.
Outside, is a pig sty and a ‘privy’ (an old English word from the Latin privatus) or lavatory, consisting of a bucket under a wooden seat.
Of all the many interesting sites in the open air museum of Blists Hill, I found the squatter’s cottage the most moving. It seems to still hold the spirits of the people who once lived there, in the small beauties and comforts, combined with a sense of deep poverty, and hardships endured.
Squatting in England goes back to medieval times; the current government proposes legislation to criminalise the activity.
More on the Ironbridge Gorge Museums, including Blists Hill.