Monday, July 7, 2014

Victorian Houses – Part 1 - Dwellings of character but not without their problems!

Living conditions in the vast majority of Victorian houses would not have been easy and justifies the need to improve living conditions through regulation

Approximately 18 months ago I wrote an article which compared the difference and characteristics of living in a modern dwelling compared to an ‘older’ one. Within the article (Link) I also discussed the impact of ever changing regulations and how this is having and influence on house design and construction:

It has been a requirement for many years under UK Building Regulations to construct buildings with high level of thermal efficiency and this is something that is constantly being amended to make buildings even more thermally efficient and air tight than ever before.  So, the decision to live in a more ‘modern’ building will often revolve around this higher level of thermal comfort and modern facilities that these buildings offer.  Many seem to be prepared to accept these, sometimes characterless, standardised houses, with perfect right angles and flush plastered walls, which seems to be the conventional ‘norm’ for those buying modern houses today.  Accepted, there will always be some exceptions where those constructing new houses will try to incorporate architectural and period features however these are few and far between.  The reason this is so rare is usually because of a desire to squeeze as many plots onto a site as possible, to be built as cheaply as possible and to therefore maximise return.  There is also a general reduction in available traditional craft skills, which are being lost as older craft workers retire and colleges fail to teach new ‘apprentices’ these craft skills.

Victorian Minton Floor - Source:
Modern dwellings have many positive attributes however in general terms there is a lack of character compared to certain types of older houses.  Take the Victorian era for example, where in most cases you get a real sense of history from the moment you approach the dwelling and especially when you walk through the front door.  This of course is on the assumption that the dwelling has not been modernised or refurbished to a point where most or all of the character features have been removed! It is true that you could argue that you cannot get a sense of history from a modern dwelling because this can only happen over time, however,  in all honesty it is difficult to see how future generations will look back at our current stock of modern houses in the nostalgic way we can now look back at Victorian houses.  Despite this, living conditions in these dwellings in Victorian times would not have been easy as we will see below, and justifies the need to improve living conditions through regulation.

Victorian back to back house - Source:
It was during the Victorian period (1837 – 1901) that the development of the railway network in the UK really evolved which for the first time allowed transport of large quantities of materials throughout the UK.  Prior to this house builders primarily made use of local materials.  At about the same time bricks were starting to be mass produced which resulted in them becoming more affordable and used much more widely throughout the UK. Although this allowed dwellings to be constructed more widely many of the working class Victorian population, particularly in towns lived in poor quality accommodation often with large families sharing just two rooms, one downstairs and one upstairs.  These types of houses became know as ‘back to back’ houses, because three of the four walls were shared walls with other dwellings.  For a moment just image this environment with only one main entrance door to the front and one window on the ground and first floor of the front wall only, resulting in poor natural lighting, limited ventilation in addition to poor sanitation. These would not have been comfortable houses to live in!

Source: :
Not all Victorian people lived in back to back houses and terraced and even semi detached house were constructed in large numbers, which are largely the types of Victorian Houses that you will see throughout the UK today. Hygiene and sanitation in Victorian houses was a particular problem.  Bathrooms, as we know them today did not exist in the vast majority of Victorian Houses.  Most families would own a steel bath, which would be stored in a small yard (if they had one) and brought in once a week and placed it in front of the fire, which was the warmest place in the house.  The whole family would use the bath with the water topped up to keep it warm.  Also, there would have been no running water to the vast majority of Victorian houses.  Each house would collect their water from a water pump (see image above), which would be located somewhere in the street outside.  Anyone who was unlucky enough to live at the wrong end of the street would have quite a journey carrying buckets or containers of heavy water to supply their dwellings.

Using a toilet in Victorian times would also have been an experience.  Most toilets were located in an outhouse at the rear of the property.  Many of these are still present today, however thankfully in the vast majority of cases, WC facilities have been moved into the main dwelling, usually within the bathroom.  These former WC outhouses started to be used as coal sheds, however with the rapid decline of coal use they were used for general storage.  Again imagine yourself needing the toilet in the middle of the night in the depth of winter.  You would need to get out of your nice warm bed into a cold house (solid walls with no insulation and no central heating I’m afraid!), find your way to the outhouse in a poorly lit building, go outside into what could be sub-zero temperatures and even snow and then use the toilet!  This does not sound like a lot of fun does it, and should help us to appreciate the facilities we have available today.

Despite the character, charm and sense of history that we can get if we live in or visit a Victorian house today, it is fair to say that the vast majority of those who lived in these houses in Victorian times would not have felt the same.  In part 2 next week I will identify some general characteristics of Victorian houses and in part 3 the following week I will discuss some typical defects. Be sure to take a look at these articles.

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