Identifying the origins of your Victorian house

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Identifying the origins of your Victorian house

Let’s have a look at the different types of Victorian house – this will help you to understand how life was lived in your house and the best way to make any renovation faithful to it’s history.

For ease of reference we can segment Victorian houses by the types of inhabitants:

  • Upper class with extensive staff – usually lived in large country houses or large 3 or 4 storey town villas with gardens
  • Middle class with staff of 1-3 – lived in more modest country or two or three storey suburban houses with small servants quarters. Typical semis were often disguised as detached houses so as to raise their status.
  • Working class – lived in a typical Victorian terraced house one room and one corridor wide, with a yard and an alley at the back in a town or city centre, near their place of work e.g. a factory, mill or large estate. Often these clusters of houses were built by a large employer. or estate owner to make the journey to their own house more pleasing and impressive.

Victorian architecture is really varied in style – from the West London white terraces to the red brick inner city back to backs with alleys illustrated by the likes Coronation Street. Victorian houses used to be thought of as cramped, dark, cold and cluttered but there is a new breed of Victorian lovers who fall for the symmetry, solidity and high ceilings of a Victorian house and wish to restore many elements of the interior to their former glory.

Just to make you aware of the reality of housing in the Victorian era (and give a jolt to your rose-tinted glasses), not all Victorian houses were of such good quality and as comfortable as they appear to be nowadays. Much bad housing existed which was unhygienic to live in, poorly built and cramped without any means of sanitation, however these slums were later pulled down, so we are actually only left with the best of the Victorian houses which to some degree colours our positive perception of the Victorian house builders.

What’s in a name?

One of the easiest ways of dating your house or of identifying local events is by analysing your street name. Many streets were named after recent significant events. For example Coronation Street would have been built around the time of the Coronation, Alma Road would have been named after that battle in the Crimean war and Beaconsfield Road named after Disraeli became Earl of Beaconsfield. Other streets were named after some aspect of the history or features of that location or the name of a former owner of the land.

Victorian housing for the masses was mostly built by owners of factories or mills, Estate owners, or speculative builders. Speculative builders would often buy plots of land from an estate owner, who decided to sell once the value of the land as a building plot exceeded that which it could earn from farming - not much has changed there. Usually plans for the whole area had already been drawn up so the speculative builder would be building according to plans drawn up for the whole development, potentially consisting of hundreds of houses.

A speculative builder would often build a short row of houses in an identical style, using identical features such as coving, doors, windows, staircases etc. Unless he had a lot of money behind him, he was unlikely to be able to afford to build a whole terrace and you can often see where the plots belonging to one builder ended and another began through subtle differences in styles and materials of neighbouring houses that on first glance look to be identical. Being a speculative builder was not necessarily that attractive as in those days only 10% of the population owned their own houses – the speculative builder would have limited options for making his investment back; selling to a landlord who would rent the house out, or renting the house out himself and making his investment back slowly. This made margins tight and therefore speculative builders tended to economise on design and aesthetics and use standardized features mass produced and sold in catalogues. This is one reason why Victorian mass architecture is viewed as rather amateurish compared with the larger more individual middle and upper class architect designed properties.

Most properties would have been built by local builders and up to the early 19th century, would have used all local materials. This changed during the Victorian era when it became cheaper to transport building materials so that they could be bought from further afield and house design became more varied. However you still find that cement colours can vary according to building sand available locally and similarly brick colours are dependent on the locally extracted clay and methods of firing. These characteristics will give your house and area it’s own unique personality.


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