One of the most important characters in student life during the university’s first century was not a member of the university at all, but that notorious figure, the landlady. Original plans for the current Dunedin campus, occupied by the university from the late 1870s, included residential accommodation for both students and professors. However, due to lack of funds the intended ‘boarding establishment’ was dropped, along with some of the staff accommodation (four houses for professors did go ahead – these are now known as Scott/Shand House and Black/Sale House). Students from out of town had to find their own place to live. Independent flatting was unheard of in the university’s first 50 years, and even after the churches set up residential colleges (Selwyn in 1893, Knox in 1909 and St Margaret’s in 1911), private boarding appealed to many as a cheaper option. Local newspapers from the late-19th and early-20th centuries include numerous ads from students looking for board, plus a smaller number advertising rooms specifically for students.
We know sadly little about the women who provided this essential service. Some local families had one spare room they rented out to help the household coffers, but many landladies were widows or single women who offered several rooms to lodgers, this being their only source of income. If the premises were large enough – some housed around 10 people – this would be termed a boarding house. An 1884 street directory lists several boarding houses close to the campus: Mrs Henderson Morrison and Mrs Eliza Fisher had boarding houses in Albany Street, Mrs Isabella Maffen in Clarendon Street, Mrs Mary Coles in Dundas Street, Mrs Lucy Stuart in Union Street, and Mrs Margaret Maher in Leith Street; Charles Crapp, also in Leith Street, was one of the few male boarding house keepers. Of course, at that early date, when Otago had just 120 students, many of their boarders were working men and women. As the university grew, students became a larger part of the accommodation market and landladies advertised specifically for them. Caledon House was providing accommodation in Albany Street by the mid-1870s; it provided ‘every convenience’, including harmonium and bath, according to one 1881 advertisement. This and earlier ads made no mention of students, but by 1896 it was listed by then-landlady Mrs Johnston as ‘Private Board and Residence; convenient for students; every home comfort; terms moderate’.
The standard of boarding accommodation varied. In 1890 medical students Charles Hector and Bartholomew Wilford, both from Wellington, boarded with Mrs Taylor. In the manner of every generation of concerned parents, Charles’s father was unhappy to discover him ‘hard at work in a cold room – no fire’, when visiting town. Bart Wilford became ill with rheumatic fever shortly afterwards. He and Charles apparently shared a room, and Bart was moved to the sitting room with a nurse to care for him, while Charles was sent by his father, perhaps concerned for the spread of infection, to other lodgings. When Bart developed possible symptoms of typhoid, Hector’s father wrote to his wife: ‘I have told Charlie that he must not go back to Mrs Taylor’s again. The back premises are not what they should be’ (a discreet reference to the toileting arrangements). Sadly, Bart Wilford died soon afterwards of his acute rheumatic disease.
In 1932 the university council established a new board of control with council, staff and student reps; though prompted by disciplinary issues it was concerned for the well-being of students and its sub-committees included one for lodgings. That committee compiled a list of ‘approved’ lodgings and took some responsibility for their conduct and the matching of students with rooms. Long-serving physics lecturer Agnes Blackie chaired the lodgings committee for some years and recalled the procedure. ‘In early December the chairman visited the approved lodgings to find out about probable vacancies. The landladies would almost unanimously declare that nothing on earth would induce them to take students again. A second visit in January would find them cheered up again and willing to re-enter the fray’. Though Blackie was sometimes called on to make peace between landlady and lodgers, she found complaints about student boarders were rare. She developed considerable respect for these women: ‘I came to have a kindly feeling for the landladies; many of them were battle-scarred veterans who had conducted lodgings for many years, terribly over-worked, but very proud of their past students and what they had done in life’. After Blackie’s stint, the administration of the lodgings committee was taken over by a part-time lodgings registrar; this later evolved into the student accommodation office.
Students were not always easy lodgers. In a 1953 publication on residential halls, Harold Turner pointed out that a shortage of good private accommodation was partly students’ own responsibility: ‘The householder whose peace was disturbed at 3 o’clock by lodgers returning from a party, who finds his electric heater left on all night, the bedding burnt by cigarettes, ink splashed on the furnishings, bicycles repaired in the bedroom or his lodger in bed with his boots on, will not be inclined to accept students the following year’. A word of advice appeared in the 1946 Otago University Review: ‘Suppose you get something (wherein at home you would only kennel an ill-favoured cur), then let tact and discretion be your motto. Don’t comment audibly on the odd-looking whiskery old goat in the picture above the mantelpiece – it is probably the relict’s late lamented. Also, take your boots off when you pinch her coal, for be you never so scientific, you cannot explain that keeping the light burning till 2 a.m. makes you an economic proposition at fifty shillings a week’.
Some fortunate lodgers could enjoy ‘all the comforts of home’, but many experienced frustrations with ‘petty restrictions and nagging concerning the use of various facilities’. There was often, noted Turner, ‘inadequacy in the physical conditions, in the lighting, heating, provision for privacy or for quietness for study’. This was, of course, the payback for cheap accommodation. That cheapness was important, because it opened the world of university education to people of humbler means. The working class origins of most landladies also played a role in keeping students from middle class or more privileged backgrounds in touch with the concerns of working people as they dined at their table each day. Most landladies provided regular cooked meals and this was a big convenience for students.
As the number of places in residential colleges grew and flatting became popular, private board began a terminal decline and the landlady became a rare beast. Flats might be just as cold, dark and noisy as a boarding house, but they offered a new level of freedom, which became an increasing priority for young people. Boarding places couldn’t keep up with the growing student roll anyway. There was a ‘diminishing number of old fashioned land ladies’, noted the 1965 accommodation office report, though there was always a response to university appeals to the public to take in boarders. That year 12% of all Otago students were living in private board, down from 17% in 1957; by 1975 the number had plummeted to 3%.
‘Your typical landlady can be classified under two headings – a) Avaricious. b) Maternal’, wrote a 1940s student. Some were eccentric, some irritating, and others much loved. Do you have any stories to share of landladies? I’d love to hear more personal stories about these great characters from Otago’s past!