Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine British towns and cities without their vast swathes of Victorian housing, often comprising entire suburbs. From humble cottages to resplendent mansions, more than four million of these antique ‘design classics’ survive today – an incredible one in six of all UK houses. It may simply be down to consequent over-familiarity, but these national treasures are not always treated with the respect they deserve.
Plain or posh?
One of the great delights of Victorian houses is that even the most ordinary terrace was built as a cheaper replica of grander dwellings. The design was very much concerned with reflecting status. To impress visitors, entrance halls would boast ornate ceilings, intricate joinery and elaborately patterned flooring. Guests could admire the opulence of these lavish features after being greeted by a maid. A separate hallway also facilitated access to individual rooms, a status-enhancing feature that differentiated a family home from a mere cottage.
The most prestigious room was the drawing room or ‘front parlour’. Here, a bay window and an imposing marble fireplace were much-prized features. Despite being the most ornate room in the house, this inner sanctum was reserved for formal occasions like receiving guests, or occasional use as a reading room. A second reception room, the back parlour or dining room, was the one used most for family recreation.
These contrasting adjoining spaces were frequently separated by only a set of double doors. Well-to-do families might additionally have a morning room and a study or smoking room. Space was also defined according to sex, particularly in larger houses, with the ‘feminine’ drawing room and ‘masculine’ study.
From mid century, the traditional division between the family (upstairs) and staff (downstairs in basement kitchens) evolved to front and back, with the rear of the property being strictly zoned for ‘service’. This was the domain of servants in all but the poorest households, occupied by the kitchen with its brooding cast-iron range and cavernous pantry for storing food and cutlery.
To the rear there was a small lean-to containing the scullery, a utility area used for tasks like preparing vegetables, laundry and washing up. Step out the back door and you’d be greeted by a small external store and a WC, or perhaps a primitive ‘earth closet’.
Upstairs, two good-sized bedrooms would be sufficient to accommodate even quite large families. Boys and girls were segregated, but each child having their own room is a relatively modern concept. Higher up the social scale, larger four or five bedroom houses from the mid Victorian period would typically have a small bathroom off the landing with the back bedrooms for the servants (located over the kitchen, safely out of eavesdropping distance from the family). More expensive homes might have a secondary staff staircase, with additional servants’ bedrooms and a nursery built into the attic.
Another measure of ‘plain or posh’ was where you stored your coal. Kitchen ranges and coal fires were the only source of heat in the house, guzzling prodigious quantities of fuel. In larger townhouses with external front steps, the cellar space underneath would be used for coal, delivered via a circular hole in the front garden path or pavement. Smaller houses without cellars had a coal bunker in the backyard, or simply made do with a ‘coal hole’ under the stairs.
Just about everyone can recognise a ‘typical’ Victorian house. But the sheer variety of materials used around the country was phenomenal. In many regions, traditional varieties of sandstone and limestone imparted a distinctive flavour. Granite, hardest of all, was widely used in north-east Scotland and Cornwall. In many coastal towns, walls were given a thick coating of stucco – a hard external plaster – because of the extra protection it afforded from sea winds and rain.
If there’s one material that defines Victorian architecture, however, it is brick. In the 19th century, almost every town had its own brickworks, churning out varying shades of whites, reds, yellows, purples and flinty silver greys. London’s famous yellow stocks were made from clay rich in magnesium and iron mixed with waste ash from coal fires.
Toughest of all, black engineering bricks, ‘Staffordshire blues’, were used in footings and damp-proof courses, as well as being laid in decorative bands to enliven colourful walls. Clay was also moulded to create special ornamental bricks, with patterns such as nailheads and rosettes, and rounded bullnose bricks applied to wall corners and window openings.
Guessing the date
The immense variety of architectural styles can make dating houses a tricky business. Loosely based on a Georgian template, Victorian architecture was strongly influenced by competing Gothic and classical architectural fashions. In all but the very cheapest housing, façades were ornamented with bay windows of one or more storeys.
Many a humble suburban villa was embellished with Disney-style Scottish baronial features found on grander houses, such as corner turrets and castellated battlements. But as tastes became ever more eclectic, embracing swirling Tudor chimneys, Dutch stepped gables, and sweeping Swiss bargeboards, there was a growing reaction later in the century towards tradition and simplicity, with ‘Old English’ Queen Anne revival and cottagey Arts & Crafts designs.
Here are some clues that should help identify the approximate age of your house:
- Georgian influence is still evident in elegant terraces with slate-clad shallow roofs hidden from the street behind low parapet walls, and smooth, well-proportioned façades with symmetrically arranged windows and doors.
- Main walls were commonly rendered with stucco, but with classical ‘Italian villa’ features, such as string courses, arches, and cornerstones. Some more expensive houses have façades made from smooth ashlar stonework.
- Sash windows still have multiple panes.
- The standard plan comprises two rooms over three floors, with single-storey rear additions.
- Many larger townhouses still had basement kitchens, with imposing front steps leading up to the main entrance.
- Classical Italianate styles compete with increasing Gothic influences.
- Traditional slate roofs are topped with decorative terracotta ridge tiles, and pointy finials supersede Georgian hidden parapet roofs.
- Exposed brick or stone walls eclipse white fully stuccoed frontages, and façades feature contrasting colours of brickwork, with string course bands and arches of mainly red or yellow brick.
- Large polygonal ‘splayed’ bay windows appear, initially single storey, with two storey common from the 1870s. Sash windows now just have one or two larger panes, while window and door surrounds become more ornamental, and manufactured stone lintels and sills start to replace brick arches and sills.
- Townhouses with semi-basements were still common by 1870, with imposing flights of steps up to the front door, but full basements had largely disappeared, superseded by deeper layouts, with long corridor layouts.
- Rear additions sprout another floor or two, occupied by bedrooms.
- Outdoor WCs or privies were a feature in most mainstream housing, with internal bathrooms in some more expensive properties.
Late Victorian and Edwardian
- From the 1890s, Queen Anne revival was a major influence on mass suburban house design, featuring red brick with white stone dressings, or white painted joinery.
- Later Arts and Crafts styles saw tile-hanging, white painted roughcast and pebbledash, and large overhanging gables over stout square bay windows.
- Elaborate timber porches featured coloured glass in front doors and black half-timbered ‘mock-Tudor’ gables.
- Upper sashes were now divided into multiple panes, but wider casements were becoming popular, some of cast iron with leaded lights. Small coloured blue or red panes were popular in fanlights and windows adjoining doors.
- Edwardian layouts become wider, with squarer hallways. Kitchens were now tucked into the main house or in shallower rear additions, and separate sculleries were phased out.
- Roofs were built to a steeper pitch with fashionable manufactured clay tiles.
- Most houses now featured internal WCs and bathrooms, except in the poorest housing.
Gothic versus Classicism
By the mid-Victorian period there were two powerful architectural forces at work. You were either a ‘Goth’ or an Italianate neoclassicist. In contrast to the Georgian emphasis on symmetry and the unity of whole terraces, the Victorians were more concerned with promoting individuality, breaking up terraced frontages with prominent bays and porches.
The neoclassical style was strongly influenced by medieval Italian architecture, while Gothic inspiration was derived from medieval cathedrals. Inevitably, speculative builders pinched ideas from both camps, and by the 1850s elements of Italianate and Gothic had crept into many streets.
Loosely based on the design of Roman villas, these included shallow hipped roofs and big overhanging eaves supported on brackets. Rounded brick arches were set above paired windows, with carved Roman columns to bays. Showy contrasting coloured brickwork included red and yellow bands, and corners highlighted with white stuccoed quoins. Grander houses might boast a tower or ‘campanile’, emulating the taste of the Royal family.
Inspired by the architecture of medieval cathedrals, examples were pointed arches over windows and doors, pointed gable walls with massive carved or moulded bargeboards, and church-like stained glass. Steep slate roofs may have sprouted church belfry towers, perhaps sporting a discreet gargoyle, while bays and front porches saw Gothic columns with carved foliage. Brickwork was often in contrasting colours.
The Victorian terrace
Of the five million plus Victorian houses that were built, most were terraced. These were economically efficient to build and were a strong structure, with each house supported by its neighbour. Even cheaper to build were squalid back-to-back houses, while other variations included cottage flats and Edwardian maisonettes – almost identical to terraced houses except for the telltale twin front doors.
Technical improvements included the provision of suspended timber ground floors, damp-proof courses (from 1875) and, not least, the development of effective sewers, plumbing and toilets. Larger windows and higher ceilings also helped create a lighter, airier indoor environment.
Victorian houses were remarkably consistent in their internal layouts, being relatively narrow in width, with a fairly standard ‘three-room deep’ plan accessed via a deep corridor. Wider, double-fronted houses were the exception. Upstairs, the layout of the bedrooms echoed the pattern of the ground floor, but because kitchen floors and ceiling heights were lower to the rear of the property, the layout also had to be ‘split-level’ upstairs, with steps down into the back rooms.
The social pretence of announcing visitors in a resplendent hallway was, by necessity, dispensed with in many smaller dwellings. Here, the main door from the street would open straight into the front parlour or, in semi-detached houses and end terraces, into a small lobby at the foot of the stairs from a side entrance door.
To save space, in cramped workers’ cottages the kitchen sometimes occupied the back parlour, with a small adjoining scullery and outside privy. In the majority of such homes, the stairs formed a partition between the front and back rooms.
No other period in British housebuilding has witnessed a greater variety of materials. Traditionally, bricks, lime mortars and renders were hand-produced on site. But from the mid-Victorian period onwards, key building materials started to be manufactured in volume, while steam power facilitated the excavation and processing of natural resources, such as slate, timber and stone.
Later in the century, the spread of the railways made it possible to deliver manufactured materials at affordable prices across the country. However, the perpetuation of local skills and traditions made this a uniquely rich and varied period – the best of both worlds.
Traditionally, bricks were made by hand from clays of variable quality dug out of the ground for the footings. But the lack of a consistent, reliable product meant that in the earlier years of the 19th century, brick was regarded as an inferior material to be avoided in favour of stone, for those who could afford it, or else concealed behind a thick coating of stucco. From the mid-Victorian period, the new technology of coal-fired kilns and improved presses led to cheaper products, along with predictable quality, size, evenness and colour.
New technology was also applied to quarrying and stone-cutting so that buying ready-cut components became much cheaper. The hard-wearing nature of stone made it especially suited to exposed, heavy-duty parts of the building – lintels, window sills, copings and steps.
The appeal was also driven by snob value, because smooth dressed ‘ashlar’ was the preserve of expensive mansions. Hence incorporating elements of decorative stone added a certain status to houses lower down the social scale. Smooth dressed ashlar blocks could be employed in small amounts as posh-looking corner quoins, neatly contrasting with the brickwork.
Ready-made components were also widely used for decoration, with flower patterns on window lintels, classical Greek deities projecting above front porches, and ornate columns to bay windows. These artefacts were moulded from cement mixed with stone or brick dust, in imitation of the expensive carved variety. Similarly, stucco render was applied to many bays, entrance porches and ornamental columns in place of stone. Stucco was later revived as a finish for some grander late Victorian and Edwardian white ‘wedding cake’ houses.
Slate was the most common roofing material used by Victorian builders. Cheap and widely available, it was also incredibly durable and lightweight. But traditional wavy pantiles remained popular in some areas, such as East Anglia. The demise of slate came towards the end of the century as affordable manufactured clay tiles become fashionable.
The finishing touches
When it comes to re-creating authentic period décor, old black-and-white photographs can sometimes be misleading. Research has shown that Victorian railings were often painted a bright bluish green, rather than gloss black. Similarly, fashion dictated that many residential window frames were decorated in the greeny colour of expensive patinated bronze in the new Palace of Westminster. Maroon and brown were other popular colours for external woodwork.
The Victorians were masters of deception, with softwoods sometimes skilfully grained to simulate expensive woods such as oak or mahogany, and cheaper materials like slate painted to emulate marble. Interior walls were universally covered in plaster, usually lined with wallpaper or some form of wood panelling.
This feature is an edited extract from The Victorian & Edwardian House Manual by Ian Rock (£25, Haynes), who is a chartered surveyor and director of survey price comparison website rightsurvey.co.uk.