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

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.