I quite loved A Social History of Housing by John Burnett. I’m still trying to get my head around quite what a difference the industrial revolution made to how cities and towns worked and looked like and were lived in, which requires a slightly dfferent periodization I think, but here we start in 1815.
A time of flux, the 1800s. Professionals (see, I’m not entirely sure who they are in 1815) are moving out of the centres. The houses they leave behind are being subdivided and becoming overcrowded, the poorest quarters. Outside city centres, housing was being built up in terraces, back-to-backs and courts in very unplanned way, ‘by considerations of immediate profit‘ (11).
There were, of course, a few exceptions where one landowner regulated what happened to development — many examples are up here in the North, I have been to them (and didn’t notice I confess!). There is Ashton-under-Lyne, where the Earl of Stamford included conditions about ‘good, firm and substantial build’ in the leases. Huddersfield, where Sir John Ramsden ‘enforced wide streets and “good, straight houses”‘ and Glossop, laid out by Duke of Norfolk in regular form and regulated ‘streets, avenues, passages, drains, sewers and other conveniences‘. (11) Most other such exceptions are to be found in London.
Architects were not involved in the activities of speculative builders or any kind of planning. Possibly the first example of when this changed was the work of Norman Shaw, who in 1876 designed the middle-class suburb of Bedford Park. I found a lovely lithograph of it:
It’s in the V&A collection, and their description is quite nice too, tying it back to William Morris:
In 1874 William Morris imagined an ideal town where ‘people lived in little communities among gardens and fields, so that they could be in the country in five minutes.’ The realisation of this idea was Bedford Park, a suburban development funded by a socially minded entrepreneur and designed by several prominent architects. This print shows the Tower House and its surrounding garden. Bedford Park had an important influence on the Garden City Movement of the following decades. 
Architects mostly simply added embellishments onto houses, and put all of their energies into designing larger more public buildings or country mansions. Thus is was speculative builders who have had the most influence really, using the cheapest materials to hand and designing with one finger in the wind of popular opinion on a desirable house, but with the main eye to profit.
Part of what I love about the book is how it looks at design and materials as much as anything else. Burnett notes that while brick came to dominate the trade there were also many restrictions.
[S]uitable brick-earth deposits were not widely diffused, fuel for firing bricks was scarce in many areas, and transport of the finished product over any great distance was difficult and costly. The result was that no one building material dominated…English house before the 19th century had been built of a wide variety of locally available materials. These included stone (either ‘dressed’ or ‘rough’ and supplemented with turves, furze or any mixture of available materials), timber (for building a frame, filled in with clay, wattle and daub, lath and plaster, or weather-boarding), and in areas where neither of these was easily available, like East Anglia, clunch and flint. (27)
He’s not much of a fan of these other forms, picturesque as he admits them he describes the living conditions as generally quite terrible.It’s interesting to compare his descriptions to those of Clough-Ellis of cob and chalk — admittedly fancier houses, but proof they could be kept clean and comfortable and warm, though it seems too often they were not.
This is also a book of both city and country — I love that too. The next chapter is on the country cottage. It has to start, however, with the enclosures, with people forced out of their cottages through all sorts of means — creating intense overcrowding in those that were left. Interesting how this was driven by desire for the land (greed you know), but also later by changes in poor rates after 1795 requiring parishes to support the ‘indigent’. This gave extra inducement to tear cottages down so families could not settle (greed you know). There grew a distinction between closed parishes, controlled by one (or two) landowners, who had torn all worker accommodation down, and open parishes inhabited by multiple small proprietors where all those evicted settled as an occasional labour force for the parishes where they could not live. This was noted as a problem in the amendment act of 1834 and became one of the political questions of the 1830s and 1840s.
Burnett catalogues the ‘general hierarchy of accomodation that was available to the working classes‘ (58). They are pretty grim.
Almost always, cellar-dwellings are described as dark, damp and airless, the abodes of the most feckless, improvident and intemperate sections of the population, and the sources of much of the dirt and disease which sullied the industrial towns. Very often they are equated with the period of Irish immigration from the 1820s to the 1840s, with the implication that cellars have not been used for habitation by the english worker until his standard of living was forced down by alien influence. (58)
Intended primarily as very temporary shelter of a minimal kind, all too often they became permanent homes for the near-destitute and near-criminal classes and almist indistinguishable from a normal tenemented house except by their gross overcrowding and promiscuity. (62)
It’s a bit later, but Mary Higgs’ firsthand experience of these was fascinating.
Burnett writes that the line between tenement and boarding house thin and shaky, describes the rise of the rookeries, and he gives a list:
St Giles, Saffron Hill, Ratcliffe Highway, Jacob’s Island, Berwick Street (St James’s), Pye Street, Westminster in London. Oxford Rd, Little Ireland, Parliament St, ‘Gibraltar’ in Manchetser, Boot-and-Shoe Yard in Leeds, the ‘shambles’ behind Long Row in Nottingham, and areas in Durham, Newcastle, Gateshead and Barnard Castle. (64-65)
Some were old house, some new built, but
…in general, tenements were to be found in existing, and often old, houses which had once accomodated families of substance, if not affluence, but which had now sunk to rooming-houses of an infinite variety of respectability and disreputableness. They were part of the process of town decay. (65)
Burnett writes that all of the other forms of housing were ‘not specifically designed as such: they were strictly residual, left over and adapted from their original us as family dwelling for better-off classes, and because never intended for multi-occupation, necessarily lacking in the requisite amenities’ (70). But not back to backs, those were a new thing. He quotes Chadwick (who is actually quoting a Mr Mott) on just what these were:
An immense number of the small houses occupied by the poorer classes in the suburbs of Manchester are of the most superficial character; they are built by the members of building clubs, and other individuals, and new cottages are erected with a rapidity that astonishes persons who are unacquainted with their flimsy structure. They have certainly avoided the objectionable mode of forming under-ground dwellings, but have run into the opposite extreme, having neither cellar nor foundation. The walls are only half brick thick, or what the bricklayers call “brick noggin,” and the whole of the materials are slight and unfit for the purpose. I have been told of a man who had built a row of these houses; and on visiting them one morning after a storm, found the whole of them levelled with the ground; and in another part of Manchester, a place with houses even of a better order has obtained the appellation of “Pick-pocket-row,” from the known insecure and unsubstantial nature of the buildings. I recollect a bricklayer near London complaining loudly of having to risk his credit by building a house with nine-inch walls, and declared it would be like “Jack Straw’s House,” neither “wind nor water tight:” his astonishment would have been great had he been told that thousands of houses occupied by the labouring classes are erected with walls of 4t inch thickness. The chief rents differ materially according to the situation, but are in all cases high; and thus arises the inducement to pack the houses so close. They are built back to back, without ventilation or drainage; and, like a honeycomb, every particle of space is occupied. Double rows of these houses form courts, with, perhaps, a pump at one end and a privy at the other, common to the occupants of about twenty houses.
The later work of councils would be to tear all of them down.
‘Through’ Terraced Houses
For many town workers in the first half of the century the quality hierarchy ended here. For a minority…of skilled artisans, it extended to a higher level… the ‘through’ terraced house, with two ground-floor rooms and with light and and access at both front and back: it followed that there would also be some small area of private space–garden or yard–at teh rear of teh house with entrance from a continuous alley running behind the terrace. (77)
These were the direct descendant of the Georgian town terrace, and earlier groups of rural cottages
…the residents of divided houses and interior courts set back and screened form the main roads inhabited little, private worlds in which they shared space and amenities like water and privies in a communal way: their lives were more interdependent and more public, though separated from the mainstream of ‘progress’ by warrens of narrow passages, alleys and stairways. Such places were anathema to Victorian reformers who assumed, not always correctly, that they ineviatbly bred vice and criminality as well as dirst and disease. In the terraced house, on the other hand, the front faced the public street and was exposed to teh general gaze and attention: family life was turned inwards, towards the back room and the back yard or garden, usually separated from its neighbours by high brick walls. Private territory replaced public space, and as the terraced house spread in many towns in the sceond half of the century into the typical working-class dwelling, a new type of privatized family life developed, which was to be an important part of the social transformation of the Victorian age. (79)
These were just what they sound like. So on to who was building what and how, because the design of houses themselves only gives a taste of what it was like to live in them. As important is how they sat within the city.
Cities were in fact changing quickly, and government was being forced to respond. More on this exciting phase in part 2.
[Burnett, John (1986) A Social History of Housing: 1815-1985, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.]