Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Back to backs

by Richard Russell-Lawrence

A back to back in Birmingham
In the late Georgian period (1774-1810) Britain’s population was becoming more urban. The balance of the economy was changing from agriculture to industry. Industrial workers needed to live near their workshops and manufactories. New homes were required for workers in the growing towns such as Birmingham and Nottingham. During the 1770s a new type of house met this need: the back to back.

It was the same width as a small ‘through’ house (about 13 feet). It might also be two or three storeys high  but the major difference was that a back to back was only one room deep. The door opened into a kitchen living-room or ‘house-room’ on the ground floor. In the corner was a flight of steep stairs leading to the bedrooms above.  A kitchen range was set into the chimney breast but the bedrooms above seldom had fireplaces. A thin wall divided it from another house which faced the other way.

cutaway of pairs of back to backs
The  space to build them was found on small open spaces in towns which had previously been yards, gardens or folds. Alternatively, burgages, thin strips of land left over from the medieval system of farming, were built over as towns such as Leeds spread over nearby farmland. The cost of development was reduced by  cramming two dwellings onto plots with only a single street front.

The back to backs were built around a  communal yard, known as the ‘court’. This contained the communal facilities, the wash or ‘brew’ houses and the outside toilets known as privies. A wall might be built on the boundary of the property. Houses facing the street were regarded as more desirable than those facing the court. The rent was higher accordingly: Two shillings and sixpence per week compared with One and ten for a ‘back’ house. During the late Georgian period one side was left open which allowed both access and the removal of rubbish, ash from coal fires and cess from the shared privies.

burgages, narrow strips of land on which new urban houses were built

plan of a court showing the side open to the street
Soon back to backs became the most common form of urban housing in the growing industrial towns. Middle class businessmen & tradesmen lent money to builders to construct them. During the eighteenth century, buying & leasing small plots was both profitable and secure. The rent for a pair of back to backs was more than that of a single through house. The speculators sold them to investors who received annual rents of £5-6  for each house. Even members of the first building societies or building clubs built back-to-back houses for their own occupation. In 1787, rows of back-to-back cottages were erected by a building club in an area east of Vicar Lane in Leeds. The first back-to-backs in Nottingham were built in 1775.  By 1790 most of its 3,000 houses were back-to-backs. By 1841 the number had grown to 12,600. They were very small: the ‘house-room’ was just 12 by 11 feet but the yard was used for overflow if the weather allowed. They had other problems such as damp but to their occupants they were a home of their own. They were usually occupied by a single family of five. Conditions easily became insanitary especially during the Regency & Early Victorian period when the courts were closed by building on the open side. Access to the court was through a narrow tunnel. In Birmingham it was known as the ‘entry’. This could be as narrow as one foot six inches.

Above: detail from 1888 OS map of Birmingham
a Birmingham court, privies (right), wash house (left), entry (centre)
By 1801 the population of Birmingham had grown to 60,000; two thirds of them lived in back-to-backs. The 1888 Ordnance Survey map shows the centre of the town crammed with back to backs , mainly in closed courts near ‘Works’ with relatively few through houses. The National Trust has preserved some  back to backs which were in Court Number 15 of 20 on Hurst Street. Court Number 15 was built in the 1830s; during this period conditions in the courts were the worst due to overcrowding as the population of Birmingham grew to 522,000 in 1851. The communal privies were earth closets which were supposed to be emptied each week by ‘night men’. If this was not done they overflowed. This could infect the local water source which spread cholera and typhoid  in the closely  confined courts.  In Birmingham a major outbreak of Asiatic cholera in 1831-2 killed 32,000. In 1848-9 a further 64,000 died.

Above: a cellar entrance in Manchester
Some back-to-backs had cellars which were mainly used for storing coal but Liverpool and Manchester became notorious for their cellar dwellings. Insanitary conditions in towns threatened the entire population. As public awareness of this grew  some attempts were made to sanitise the courts. Ineffectual measures included lime washing 4-5 feet up the walls. The prevalent theory was that infectious disease was spread through inhaling bad air; known as ‘miasma’. Early legislation was aimed at improving ventilation by letting in more light and air. After the 1848 Public Health Act, conditions began to improve as local authorities passed by laws which specified minimum sizes for rooms, windows, street width, and standards for drainage & sanitation.

contemporary illustration of an insanitary, crowded court
The 1875 Public Health Act forced local authorities to act. In most towns it  was the end for back-to-backs. Somehow they continued to be built in Leeds and Bradford. The 1909 Housing and Town Planning Act effectively banned the building of back-to-backs. Leeds found a loophole as so many plots had already been granted planning permission so they continued to be built there until the 1930s. A  study, in 2008,  found that were  still approximately 19,500 back-to-backs in Leeds.   Elsewhere the new homes which replaced them were snapped up by the better off leaving  the courts still occupied.  The National Trust’s back to backs in Birmingham were lived in until the 1960s. Elsewhere, most back-to-backs have been demolished by slum clearances.

Buy The Book of the Edwardian and Interwar House by Richard Russell-Lawrence

Monday, 18 April 2011


Before the speculative builders of Georgian & Victorian England there were several famous or infamous seventeenth century entrepreneurs. At the time they were known as Projectors; men who undertook ‘projects’. We might call men like Nicholas Barbon or Thomas Neale ‘Wheeler Dealers’ or ‘Developers’. 
Nicholas Barbon (c1640 – c1699) was responsible for building much of the Middle Temple and surrounding streets including Essex Street, Buckingham Street and Devereux Court. He began in medecine as a physician but he abandoned it to take advantage of opportunities in business after the Great Fire of London (1666). Two lines of business were thriving: insurance and building. Barbon became involved in both. He borrowed money to hire gangs of workers to build on the sites of old aristocratic mansions such as Essex House, the present site of Essex Street  off the Strand. If necessary they demolished the building whether they had permission or not.

Above: Barbon houses in Buckingham Street

They built in the latest style: brick, flat fronted terraced houses which had sash windows with frames level with the front wall. They were also fitted with modest doorcases with rectangular fan lights. All these features conformed with the 1667 Rebuilding Act. The Act would have described them as ‘buildings of the second or third sort’ which were built on larger streets or main roads. The Act  was intended to prevent the ‘mischiefs’ caused by fire. But many of Barbon’s houses had parapets which actually anticipated the requirements of  the 1707 Act. The original style of Barbon houses can be appreciated in the Middle Temple Courts such as Pump Court and New Court which he also built. Although these were laid out as barristers’ chambers rather than dwelling houses, many Barbon houses have had their fronts altered or were rebuilt later under stricter regulations with stucco rendering or fully recessed windows. Due to the new system of leaseholds, seventeenth century houses were only intended to last as long as their leases but many of Barbon’s houses still stand perhaps because of the building regulations to which they were subject.

Above: a typical Barbon terrace in Holborn

Thomas Neale (1641 – 1699) was another developer or projector who was active nearby, north of Covent Garden. He is commemorated by Neale Street and Neale’s Yard. His houses survive above the shops in Neale Street. They are similar to Barbon’s houses ‘of the Second sort’ in brown brick with sash windows and parapets.

Above: a Neale terraced house above a shop in Neale Street. The window frames are as they were built.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Stuart: rare but relevant

Above: Houses showing the transition from timber framed to brick (c1614)

 Above: Classically styled terrace, attributed to Inigo Jones (c1641)

 Above: How builders copied the new classical style in bare brick (1658)
 Above: The oldest speculative buildings by Nicholas Barbon, in Crane Court off Fleet Street (c1670)
  Above: A prime example of the new style: Dr Johnson’s house, near Fleet Street built c.1700

Typical period houses from the Stuart period (1603-1714) are rare but relevant. During the Stuart period classical styles were first applied to typical houses and the brick built terrace replaced traditional forms of construction such as timber framed. Speculative builders began to supply the demand for urban houses in these new styles. The new style was flat fronted, brick, with sash windows.

The new developments were led by the outstanding Stuart architects, Inigo Jones and later, Christopher Wren. When the Edwardians rediscovered classical style they derived their forms from the Stuart period more than the later Georgian. The leading Edwardian architects called the Stuart period the English Renaissance, Edwin Lutyens referred to it as the ‘Wrenaissance’. Jones’ designs had the most influence on typical houses. In 1631 he designed the first brick built classical terrace for the Duke of Bedford’s development of Covent Garden. Only drawings of his terraces have survived. It was an example of really significant design because  speculative builders like Nicholas Barbon, were able to copy them.  Speculative builders would build the vast majority of Typical period houses. Speculative building was building in advance of demand, for rent.

 One of the earliest surviving classical terraces (c. 1641), in Lincoln’s Inn fields, is attributed to Inigo Jones. The oldest surviving brick-built terraced houses in London, on Newington Green (1658) show how the speculative builder made cheaper copies of features such as pilasters and capitals using bare brick. Speculators such as Nicholas Barbon and Thomas Neale turned the disaster of The Great Fire of London into an opportunity. The Fire destroyed  14,000 buildings (80% of the houses in the City of London). The Building Acts which followed specified that new houses should be built in brick or stone for the better preventing mischiefs that may happen by fire’. Successive Acts followed. The 1707 & 1709 Acts were passed during the reign of Queen Anne ( 1702-1714; as the daughter of James II, she, too, was a Stuart).
 Speculators like Barbon and Neale were pretty unscrupulous but they had to build in brick. Barbon built between the City and Westminster, around Fleet Street.  Neale built Neale Street , Neale’s Yard (Covent Garden) and Seven Dials. Above the colourful shops some of his speculative buildings still survive.
 My next post will describe Barbon’s houses in more detail.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Churchfarmhouse museum

This seventeenth century brick farmhouse (circa 1660) was once the center of a dairy farm which also grew fodder for London’s horses. Its business declined after the decade of the disappearing horse (1910-20) when the internal combustion engine and the Type B motorbus took over from horses. Many of the ring of farms around London were sold off for building the expanding suburbs. The local council bought the farmhouse in 1944. At first, they used it to re-house families whose homes had been destroyed or damaged during World War Two. In 1961 it was opened as a museum but due to local government cuts, it will close on 31 March.
As well as being one of the oldest dwelling houses in the London area, the museum currently has three authentic room sets: an 1820 farmhouse kitchen, an 1850 dining-room and a scullery. The scullery is a personal favourite because it includes a reconstruction of a set-pot which was how many people heated water before appliances such as the geyser became available (1869 onwards).

Top: Churchfarmhouse museum

The museum’s three authentic room sets: an 1820 farmhouse kitchen

The1850 dining-room

The set-pot in the scullery

There is a possibility that HADAS The Hendon & District Archaeological Society
 may take over the site but, sadly, the museum will be unable to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary this year .
 For the latest news and advice as to how to help save it go to  http://www.churchfarmhousemuseum.co.uk/Main%20Menu.htm

Monday, 14 February 2011

Palaces, brick boxes & council houses

English vernacular may be described as cottage style architecture. The two main sources of period house styles were the vernacular and the classical. The classical tradition in English domestic architecture began with royal palaces and filtered downwards through society. But no less an authority than William Morris dismissed as ‘brown brick boxes’  perhaps the most greatly admired examples of the classical tradition: late Georgian terraced houses.
From top: the Banqueting House, Whitehall, one of the first classical buildings in Great Britain

the palatial grandeur of the north side of Queen Square, Bath (1736)

large terraced house in Bedford Square, London (1780)

small late Georgian houses in Stokesley, Yorkshire

How the Golden rectangle was applied to the front of a large terraced house

Large Regency and early Victorian houses in Brompton Square, London

Neo-Georgian council house (1923)

The Banqueting House, Whitehall  (1622)  was the first complete classical building built in Britain. King Charles the First’s surveyor, Inigo Jones, designed the Banqueting House, as part of a much greater development. This was to have been the Royal palace of Whitehall. The Banqueting house was the only part that was actually built. Ironically, on 30 January 1649, Charles the First stepped through one of its first floor windows onto the scaffold where he was executed. Although the classical tradition began under the Stuarts (1603-1714), including Queen Anne (1702-1714), it became what we know as Georgian.

Inigo Jones also designed the first classical terraced houses in the north west corner of the Duke of Bedford’s development of Covent Garden (c.1630). But it was the Woods development of the terrace, in Bath, which brought about it s success as the predominant urban style. When the rich stayed in town they did not object to living in terraced houses which looked as though they were part of a palace. John Wood, father and son, achieved this by emphasising the centre and ends of their terraces and adding giant columns. John Wood the elder first applied this to Queen Square in Bath (1729-36). Bath has the advantage of being in a stone area. Stone gave the buildings additional grandeur. Jane Austen stayed in Queen Square. She described it as having ‘all the grandeur of architectural excellence’.

The form of Georgian with which many of us are familiar is built in London’s brown brick. By the late Georgian period builders could apply classical proportions to the front of a large house without an architect.  Even  William Morris conceded  that  a ‘brown brick box’,  such as those in Bedford Square, had ‘some style about it and even some merit of design, if only negative’. He meant that it was formulaic. Indeed it was, speculative builders had learnt how to apply the ‘golden rectangle’ to the front of a large terraced house. The style was applied to large, medium and small houses across the full social range.

During the Regency and early Victorian periods the large terraced house became even larger. This was due to the need for additional bedrooms and ‘coal in the cellar and servants in the attic’ as a French observer put it. It grew upwards to fit the additional rooms. Classical proportions were applied to individual features such as windows. Once again the speculative builders could meet this demand by themselves.

 But the Edwardian neo-Georgian revival was led by architects who started designing neo-classical country houses about 1905. The leading Edwardian architect, Edwin  Lutyens called it the ‘high game of classicism’ or the ‘Wrennaissance’ which acknowledged that what the Edwardians called Georgian was actually Stuart.

But it was the compact forms of neo-Georgian which led to its widescale application when council houses were being built on a large scale after the First World War. The architect Louis de Soissons chose a local version of red-brick neo-Georgian for Welwyn Garden City. It became the usual style for interwar council houses. Houses for sale were usually built in the vernacular style to distinguish them from council houses.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Formed by Fire

Recently, I have been helping my wife with research into fire engines. She is interested in the equipment used around 1862 when hand pumped engines were still more common than the new steam engines. But it drew my attention back to the fact that regulations against fire were one of the main factors that made period houses ‘typical’. The earliest building regulations were intended to limit the spread of fire in times when, heating, cooking and lighting all involved naked flames from open fires, torches and candles. Thatched roofs were banned in London as early as 1216 because they were such a fire risk. After the Great Fire of London, the 1667 London Building Act was passed by parliament. It applied to newly built houses. This banned timber framed buildings as well as thatched. Although the London Building Acts only applied to the capital, they were copied by local authorities in other towns such as Lichfield which finally banned thatched roofs in 1690.
 Above top: timber framed house in East Grinstead (1599) Above: the  oldest existing brick  terrace in London (Stoke Newington, 1658)

 Successive acts tried to make houses more fireproof by stripping off all external woodwork and making windows more recessed. The intention was to make the street into an effective firebreak. These regulations gave each period distinctive features; for example, it is easy to tell early Georgian from mid or late Georgian. An early Georgian house has windows with frames which are level with the front wall. A mid Georgian house has windows which are set back four inches. A late Georgian house has windows which are recessed (the face of the wall is built in front of the window box). By the mid Georgian period wooden door cases had been banned along with any other projecting wooden items. In London during the late Georgian period front walls were built up into a parapet to form a more effective fire break. Also party walls between terraced houses had to be built up above and through the roof (known as an upstand). Other towns copied the London Acts; such as Warwick, which had been destroyed by fire in 1694. It was rebuilt under an Act of Parliament based on the 1667 London Act. Bristol followed suite in 1778. Building in brick or stone became standard in towns.

 The 1774 London Building Act went even further: it sorted houses into four rates and it specified the street width according to the height of the houses. The four rates of the 1774 Act predicted the social class of the occupants. The largest size or First Rate was for ‘the nobility’. These were houses of over 900 square feet on the entrance floor. They were exceptional rather than typical but the Second Rate for ‘merchants’ were typical large Late Georgian houses (500 to 900 square feet on the entrance floor). The Third Rate was described as for ‘clerks’ (350 to 500 square feet on the entrance floor). This resulted in medium sized houses. The Fourth Rate was for ‘mechanics’ or artisans (less than 350 square feet on the entrance floor). This gave us the small house. In the late Georgian period large, medium and small  houses were all built in similar flat-fronted, brick terraces. The London Building act of 1774 also specified street width in relation to the height of the houses. This created whole streets and even neighbourhoods of the same size of house.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Elsynge Road

In and around this suburban sidestreet, there is an unusual collection of mid-Victorian houses, mostly in semi-detached pairs. They were built as show houses for the Great Exhibition of 1851 but the area was still green fields because the nearest station, Clapham Junction would not open for another twelve years. So how did people get there to see the show houses? Either by omnibus or in their own carriages. This suggests that the potential market for these house were prosperous merchants who could afford to live on the healthier edge of London.
The houses feature the latest styles: Gothic gables, Flemish gables and windows arranged in pairs in the Italian Rennaissance style as well as the established classical. They are mostly arranged as semi-detached villas with their front doors at opposite sides to give a greater sense of privacy. Most of them were built with half-basements and all of them include the latest feature: the bay window.
Illustrated (above) semi-detached pair with Gothic gables, bay windows and windows arranged in pairs in the Italian Rennaissance style.

Monday, 3 January 2011

What is a Period House?

Late Victorian Medium by Richard Russell-Lawrence
by Richard Russell-Lawrence

A typical period house is an urban terraced or semi-detached house built over seventy years ago. The original front of the house usually still has distinctive features  which are common to the period in which it was built such as a bay window. Bay windows began to be built after 1851 when both window and glass taxes were abolished. During the mid Victorian period (1851–1874) they were cant or straight sided.

The periods are not merely identified by the reigning monarch but by distinctive developments and features common to that generation. For example the reign of Queen Victoria spanned three generations and numerous developments which profoundly affected peoples homes such as the Public Health Acts of 1848 and 1875. During the late Georgian period (1774-1810) the population of the United Kingdom began to change from having an urban minority of twenty-five per cent. By 1914 the country had an urban majority of eighty per cent.