House historian Melanie Backe-Hansen explores the huge changes in Britain’s homes – from Georgian townhouses to post-war suburbia


Early to mid Georgian (1714-1800)

Illustration of an early to mid Georgian era house (illustration by Ed Crooks)

The early Georgian period saw the country transform from a rural economy to the beginnings of an industrial one. After the 1666 Great Fire of London, a number of building acts introduced guidelines on the use of materials, room sizes and height, along with four grades of house – and so the ubiquitous Georgian terraced house with sash windows was born. The late 18th century would also see the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the associated mass migration to large cities had an impact on the number of houses available.

In a large terraced house, the basement was used for the kitchen and scullery, while on the ground floor was the dining room and other private family rooms. The principal rooms could be found on the first floor, with taller windows and higher ceilings – known as the piano nobile ('noble floor'). These were intended to be shown off to guests, so they would be finely decorated.

In smaller urban homes, the main rooms were entered on the ground floor, with a parlour at the front and a kitchen and scullery at the rear. There were no internal toilets or bathroom – the privy was sited in the yard.

Top architectural points to look out for...

  1. Built predominately in the Classical style, inspired by the ancient Roman world, centred on simplicity, symmetry, and precise proportions.
  2. Early in the period, houses were largely plain brick or stone with sash windows, but later stucco began to appear along the ground floor exterior.
  3. Later in the 18th century, more decoration began to appear, including fanlights over the front door, pilasters along the façade, as well as decorative mouldings.

Professor David Olusoga: “Any home can offer up a micro-version of british history”

The presenter of A House Through Time shares his thoughts on the series

When people set out to discover the histories of their own homes, what many soon discover is that alongside the bricks and mortar history of architecture and design runs another narrative. Just as fascinating is the long, intergenerational history of the lives of the former residents.

Each of the houses featured in the three series of A House Through Time were, over the centuries, home to in excess of 200 people. For houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries, these figures are entirely normal; the numbers are always higher for homes that, for part of their history, were subdivided into flats or tenements.

As houses and the districts in which they stand move up and down the social spectrum, and in and out of fashion, the range of people from different class backgrounds and life experiences that may have lived in any individual home is often broader than many people imagine. What this means is that any home can offer up a micro-version of British history.

Regency (1800-1830s)

Illustration of a Regency era house (illustration by Ed Crooks)

Strictly speaking, the Regency period dates from 1811 to 1820 (when the future George IV ruled as regent for his father), but stylistically it spans the early 1800s.

By the final years of the 18th century, the appearance of the urban house was beginning to include more decorative features, but it was the early 19th century that would see this come to full fruition. By this time the Industrial Revolution was in full swing: many homes were smaller, including terraced houses, two-up two-downs and back-to-backs.

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For many, the layouts of Regency housing were limited in variation, but for those with more income they included more decorative features, such as cornicing and moulding. There was also an increase in the number of possessions with which to fill houses during this period, such as furniture, fabrics, crockery, and tea sets.

What’s more, improvements in manufacturing and the lower costs of transport, as well as improving salaries for a growing class of professionals, saw an increase in the number of people able to afford more ‘luxuries’. There might be improved facilities, perhaps with a cold water tap in the scullery, along with a ‘copper’ for heating water for washing.

Top architectural points to look out for...

  1. Houses still had symmetrical facades, but they also had more decorative elements inspired by the British Empire and beyond, including influences from India, China and Egypt. This led to more ornate features, including decorative ironwork, particularly on balconies, as well as railings and drainpipes.
  2. Stucco began to be used across the entire façade and porticos or columns appeared around entrances.
  3. Windows also became more elaborate, being taller with thinner glazing bars and large panes of glass, as well as bay windows, which might run the full height of the facade, particularly in the spa towns.

Early Victorian (1840s-1870s)

Illustration of an early Victorian era house (illustration by Ed Crooks)

By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in June 1837, the country had already seen vast changes due to the Industrial Revolution, with a population boom across Britain to match: exploding from around 10 million in 1801 to around 19 million by 1841.

Housing at this time ranged from large homes accommodating one family and several servants, down to the smallest working-class house, which might be shared by a large family and lodgers. ‘Back-to-backs’ and houses in narrow courts had limited facilities, where overcrowding was common; combined with limited sanitation and access to water, they led to terrible slum conditions, exacerbating the spread of diseases such as cholera.

At the same time, however, there were the large swathes of new streets and houses, built by speculative builders popping up across the country. In the larger homes occupied by the growing middle classes and upper classes, a huge turnaround in home comforts became available. These properties featured increasing amounts of internal decoration, such as ceiling roses and cornices, along with improvements in services, including gas lighting and even a flushing water closet. Mass production of goods and materials also inspired more furniture and furnishings.

Top architectural points to look out for...

  1. Architects argued between the merits of the Classical style and the Gothic, believed to be a truer English style. Earlier, the Classical style dominated and was defined by the full stucco façade with pillars.
  2. Sash windows still dominated, but improvements in glass making meant there were larger panes, and topped with pediments.
  3. Early examples of Gothic Revival appeared, based on a medieval ideal; these featured pointed windows, steeply pitched roofs, different coloured brick, as well as some elaborate features, such as towers.

Late Victorian (1870s-1900)

Illustration of a late Victorian era house (illustration by Ed Crooks)

The late Victorian period would see the continued development of the outer suburbs, encouraged by improvements in transport. The population growth continued, rising rapidly from 16.8 million in 1851 to 30.5 million by 1901 in England and Wales.

Inside medium-to-large homes, the ground floor would boast either the main reception rooms or private family rooms. The kitchen was more likely to be found at the rear of the ground floor. In larger houses, the first floor remained the main entertaining space, while in smaller homes this floor would contain bedrooms. After the popularity of the water closet at the Great Exhibition of 1851, internal WCs became more common.

The later Victorian period saw attempts to overcome the dire housing conditions of the lower classes, with employers and philanthropists attempting to provide better housing. This included Saltaire near Bradford, created by mill owner Sir Titus Salt (1803-76). By the end of the period, the introduction of various bye-laws and health acts would also begin to see great improvements in living standards for many.

Top architectural points to look out for...

  1. More alternative architectural styles appeared, including Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, and the Arts and Crafts. Houses had more red brick and terracotta, Gothic-shaped windows and door surrounds, as well as timber features, large chimneys and turrets.
  2. The repeal of the brick tax in 1850 (in force since 1784) and the Window Tax in 1851 (in force since 1696) paved the way for moulded brickwork and terracotta, along with larger bay windows and stained glass.
  3. Rows of late Victorian homes included a mixture of features, including towers, Gothic-shaped windows, plus terracotta details, patterned roof tiles, and a recessed door with stained glass panels.

Edwardian (1901-1914)

Illustration of an Edwardian era house (illustration by Ed Crooks)

The Edwardian period, named for King Edward VII, was brought to an abrupt end at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Standards in housing had improved greatly since the early Victorian period, while the improved affordability of goods, as well as changes to work practices, meant many were better off in the Edwardian period.

New streets were laid out with larger plots, which allowed for greater front and rear gardens. Inside the house, there might be more decoration and a wider, tiled hallway. The main reception rooms on the ground floor were similar to their Victorian predecessors, but often featured more creature comforts, such as curtains and carpets. The way houses were managed also began to alter, with a shift in the way servants worked. And better services and appliances were becoming more available in the home, such as gas, electricity, and internal plumbing.

Following early attempts at philanthropic housing, including Bournville for Cadbury workers in Birmingham, the Edwardian period would see the introduction of the garden suburb and garden city – pre-planned communities surrounded by greenbelt. The first of these was Letchworth, in 1903.

Top architectural points to look out for...

  1. Houses featured front porches with timber detailing, gables and mock-Tudor decoration. Interiors also featured large rooms with high ceilings, along with large windows and stained glass.
  2. Stucco was no longer popular; the Edwardian period saw an increased use in other building materials, including terracotta and coloured brick, along with pebble dash.
  3. The mixture of architectural features continued, but with additions such as tile cladding, bargeboards on gable ends, plus protruding windows with casements on the top part.

Inter-war (1918-1939)

Illustration of an interwar era house (illustration by Ed Crooks)

After the devastation of World War I, the inter-war period saw a growing focus on providing better housing for all. The success of the garden city movement inspired further garden suburbs, but also influenced local council projects. Returning servicemen were promised “Homes Fit for Heroes”, while the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919, known as the Addison Act, offered subsidies to local authorities to build new houses.

The most common form of abode was the semidetached house in the suburbs, featuring a living room, dining room, three bedrooms, as well as bathroom, toilet, and a small kitchen. The kitchen was small, but would include a cooker and built-in cupboards, and most new homes had electricity and a boiler for hot water. Other new laboursaving devices included vacuum cleaners. Other accommodation in this period included bungalows and private flats, which featured fitted kitchens and internal plumbing, and lifts and concierges for flats.

In the early 1900s, only around 10 per cent of people owned their own home, but by the end of the 1930s this had risen to around 25 per cent. By 1939 more than one million council houses had been built.

Top architectural points to look out for...

  1. The neo-Georgian style was popular at this time, particularly with council housing, which featured brick facades with simple details.
  2. Mixtures of historic architectural features continued, including Tudor timber-framing, nicknamed ‘Tudorbethan’, along with tile hanging, inspired by the Arts and Crafts, and the new ‘Streamline Moderne’ (often described as Art Deco).
  3. Prominent gables, as well as large front bays, squared or round, were popular. The casement window was more popular, along with feature coloured glass. The front door was often in a porch with glazed tiles. They might also feature decorative elements inspired by Art Nouveau.

Post-war (1950s-1960s)

Illustration of an postwar era house (illustration by Ed Crooks)

The impact of German bombing raids during World War II caused widespread devastation, with close to half a million homes destroyed or made uninhabitable. The provision of housing became a top priority.

The initial post-war period saw a rush of non-standard construction, including the ‘pre-fab’. The 1946 New Towns Act allowed the government to acquire land and create communities around ‘New Towns’ (purposely built to reduce crowding in urban areas) and by the end of the 1960s more than 20 such towns had been completed. Planners and authorities also aspired to a new housing future, illustrated by the popularity of the tower block in the 1960s, providing good quality homes with indoor bathrooms and toilets and fitted kitchens. Initially these were well received but, by the 1970s, the utopian ideals had fallen short.

The private 1960s home had larger rooms, particularly after the Parker Morris report in 1961, which highlighted the importance of space. This period also saw the adoption of the L-shaped living arrangement, as the kitchen became integrated with a dining space. There were more appliances, including washing machines, fridges, and even televisions. A noticeable change was also the removal of the fireplace.

Top architectural points to look out for...

  1. The tower blocks of the 1960s were largely built with concrete.
  2. Many suburban houses of the 1950s and 60s appear rather plain, flat, and boxy, but they feature large rectangular windows, with opening ‘top lights’ and front doors glazed with rippled glass.
  3. Roofs could be flat, but were more likely to be low pitched, with the end gable covered in barge board. By the 1960s, brick was popular, but with various colours, including red, yellow, white and brown.

Melanie Backe-Hansen is a house historian, and research consultant for A House Through Time. Her most recent book is Historic Streets and Squares: The Secrets on Your Doorstep (History Press, 2013)

A House Through Time series three, presented by David Olusoga, begins on BBC Two on 26 May


This content first appeared in the June 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed