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Archaeology of domestic life in early 20th century Britain

The aim of this blog is to publish data on early 20th century buildings, whilst this is still accessible. Much material of interest to the historian is being destroyed through 'home improvements' and DIY, and objects are increasingly being divorced from their context through dispersal after the death of their owners. By creating an easily accessible contextual record of material culture, it is hoped that those interested in this period of history may have a resource through which the details of domestic life might be studied.

If you have any artefacts of interest, or make discoveries during the process of your own investigations that you would like to share, please contact me!

Monday, 28 May 2012

Behind the façade of No. 8: a late Victorian terraced house in Derby

Another Dec20 post, describing the front room of No. 8 (a late Victorian foundry worker's house)...

Front room: panorama from front door


What follows over the next three posts are the (often mundane but frequently telling) traces of human action that may be used, in conjunction with other forms of evidence, and alongside comparisons of similar contexts, to consider the changing use and significance of the front room of No. 8. Amongst the minutiae are more general discussions on living conditions in this house at different times – since its construction during the late Victorian period, and in comparison with those of today – exploring the impact of technological transformations upon daily life.
Many of the descriptions of household features and practices below may seem unnecessary to older readers, who might in varying degrees be familiar with the early 20th home. But it is just these ‘small things forgotten’ that get lost in history – seen as everyday and unimportant, they are rarely recorded and pass from memory; these details often hold the key to unlocking the human stories of the past.[i]
If readers have personal or family memories that might expand upon this information, and would like to share their thoughts, please comment at the bottom of the post, or contact the Project Director. Many details have surely been missed, and some may have been misunderstood. Many of the features described below potentially survive in other local terraced houses: if readers living in comparable homes may be able to add to these discoveries, so please send in information if encountering similar evidence of earlier activity. If readers based outside Derby would like to contribute information, a geographically wider project (with similar aims to Dec20) can be found here.
This first post on the front room will begin by describing the room, looking at architectural and decorative features. The second will consider ‘home comforts’: warmth and lighting; and the third will consider decoration; the fourth will explore the social and cultural significance of the front room.


On entering through the front door, the visitor steps straight into the front room, which is a comfortable size for a small terraced house (though slightly smaller than some of the other houses in the terrace), measuring approx. 10 1/2’ x 11 1/3’ (c. 3.21 m x 3.46 m).


From the front of the house, it was evident from the chimneys that a solid fuel open grate originally heated the house. This is evident on entering the room, in the projecting chimneybreast, which measures 31.5 cm deep by 1.37m wide. (The next post will consider heating, and the ways in which occupants used the alcoves over time, by considering the introduction of electricity). In common with many terraced properties, the original grate of No. 8 was removed some time ago (certainly before 1999 – probably several years previously. The exact form of the original grate is uncertain, although considering the construction date, it is likely to have been a slow combustion register grate, (in contrast to the earlier arch plate) consisting of an iron rectangular plate, canopy, and frame (which commonly contained a surround of glazed ceramic tiles), lined with ceramic firebricks.[ii] Without removing the flooring (which wasn’t possible during the survey) the size and form of the hearthstone is unknown; but stone hearths were increasingly tiled during and after the late 19th century.
Chimney-breast: enhanced image, to show position of earlier fireplace 
The position of early fireplaces within terraced (and other) houses can often be seen in rough outline, in cases where the fill (often plasterboard, the join with the wall feathered with plaster) isn’t flush with the wall surface (see the subsequent post on the front bedroom – such an outline is clear). In this case, a professional – who was clearly a very good plasterer – filled in the hole left by the previous fire, so it’s quite difficult to see the traces of earlier features (which are further covered by wallpaper). This is even harder to see in photos, so filters have been used to enhance the outline (see above). It is not possible to be certain whether previous residents acted in the same way as many other occupants of terraced houses in the 1930s – 50s: by removing the ‘old fashioned’ cast iron grate, and replacing this with a ‘modern’ fireplace.
Whether or not this was the case, previous owners later fitted a gas fire in the place of an ‘open fire’: this was of a style found in the 1980s (which may still be purchased today). At some point in the past 5 years, the gas fire was removed for safety reasons, and the fireplace finally sealed. These seemingly practical and individual changes relate to broader social and cultural transformations; as there’s quite a bit of information to fit into this post, some of the factors behind changes made to heating, cooking, and lighting facilities will be discussed in the next post on ‘home comforts’. following post will examine decoration.


An area of plaster has been removed from an interior wall (between the front room and the stairs) – hidden from sight within the cupboard of the right-hand chimneybreast alcove. As expected for work not destined for display, the finish is much rougher than that of the brickwork at the front of the house (see the previous post). This interior wall is again built using a Flemish Bond, and would have been covered with two or three coats of lime-based plaster.
Interior wall


The floor feels different beneath the visitor’s feet today, compared to how it would have done originally: modern cushioned laminate flooring overlays the original timber floorboards. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been possible to get to see beneath the modern surface to be certain of the finish of the boards throughout the room. However, the alcoves either side of the chimneybreast now contain shelves and modern (1990s or earlier) cupboards. The floorboards are visible within both cupboards, and as would be expected from comparisons with neighbouring and similar housing elsewhere, they are likely to be ‘deal’ (pine), or fir.
Floor boards, within left alcove cupboard (also showing early blue distemper)
These boards are not stained, which is unusual for a house of this age and type (as can be seen in a photo of floor boards in the back bedroom; this form of decoration will be considered in a subsequent post); they are also relatively ‘fresh’ (compare with those in the back bedroom, when this information is posted). This may indicate that boards have been replaced, perhaps due to rot, or to insect infestation, such as woodworm; alternatively, the floorboards may have been sanded – an act that became particularly popular in the 1980s-90s – which removes decades of patina that demonstrated past taste; though they are not varnished, which often followed sanding). The discovery of fragments of wallpaper, tightly sandwiched between the wall and the ends of the boards, perhaps supports the possibility that the boards have been replaced, although subsequent modifications may have pushed the paper into this position, or boards may have been lifted in fitting or modifying gas piping. The style of the wallpaper (which will be considered in the post on decoration), suggests that if replaced, this was undertaken some time ago (perhaps 1960s-70s). Another indication that, if replaced, this was not done recently, is the beading that seals the gap between wall and skirting board (a technique to reduce draughts); this seems to have previously run around the room, but since been removed (perhaps when the previous – since removed – floor covering was fitted, between the late 1980s and mid 1990s). This beading overlies the ‘fresh’ boards, and underlies paint that pre-dates the 1990s decorative scheme, which also overlies the adjacent skirting board.
Floorboards and beading in right alcove cupboard


Skirting board on back wall of front room
Around the base of the walls, what is likely to be the original skirting board can be seen. When painted, it is often difficult to determine the age of skirting board, as modern replacements commonly replicate early profiles, although early skirting boards often have less crisp lines than modern examples (original board are sometimes damaged, decay through rising damp, or may be removed during modern damp proofing). Within the left alcove cupboard, there are only partial remains of skirting board; the paint on the wall – perhaps like the later wallpaper (see the subsequent post on decoration) – continues down to the floor. This may indicate that the builders did not fit skirting board within this corner, suggesting the presence of a fixture (such as a fitted cupboard) within this corner during early occupation. A further clue supports this interpretation: paint remains suggest that the skirting board turned at right angles from this stub to meet the face of the chimneybreast. In addition, the vibrant blue wall colour appears only in this alcove: from the skirting board stub in this alcove, and in the right alcove, the wall finish is different.
Paint on skirting board stub suggesting a return across the left alcove to join the front of the chimneybreast
The pattern differs in the right alcove cupboard. Here a power socket was fitted or modified during the late 20th century on the wall of the chimneybreast. This has led to the removal of the short stretch of skirting board on this wall, revealing the original surface and subsequent early decorative traces at the point where it joined the skirting on the back wall of the alcove (a subsequent post will discuss decoration).
Skirting board in right alcove cupboard: removal of the chimneybreast piece of board has revealed the original wood finish of the board, and the wood stain and paint above
As many (especially builders and DIY enthusiasts) will know, though decorative, skirting board has a practical purpose: by leaving a gap between wall plaster and floor – the skirting covering this gap – rising damp could to some extent be limited. It is also a useful buffer to protect the wall from wet mops!


The plaster moulding in the centre of the ceiling (the ‘ceiling rose’) suggests the location of one original light fitting (see the following post): again it had a practical purpose: the painted or varnished moulding made it easier to clean accumulated soot residue from suspended gas lamps.[iii]
Ceiling rose, No. 8
As well as the moulded plaster ceiling rose that is a common feature of terraced houses of this date, moulded plaster  cornice lies between the ceiling and walls. This feature went out of fashion during and after the 1920s, when increasing concerns over hygiene saw the cornice as a dust trap.[iv]
Cornice, front room of No. 8
Many houses of this date are fitted with usually wooden picture rails – these features continued to be fitted in houses during the interwar period (although the profiles were usually simplified during the 1930s), but were often removed during and after the 1950s, during modernisation. Removal of wallpaper from the chimney-breast during renovation revealed no indications that a picture rail had previously been fitted; it’s not been possible to remove wallpaper elsewhere in the room to see if this is representative. However, the walls in this room (and in other rooms) that are painted (and not papered) have no indications that a picture rail was previously fitted; there were also no signs of picture rails in a neighbouring property; further investigation of other neighbouring properties may answer this question.


Interior window frame
The front room of No. 8 is bright – not only due to the magnolia emulsion that is ubiquitous within modern houses, especially rental properties such as this. The window, which fills much of the wall behind the front door, lets in quite a lot of light; this may relate to legislative changes made not long before the house was built. The Public Health Act of 1875 provided guidelines for byelaws on room and window size for newly constructed houses; although the adoption of such guidelines by local authorities was a gradual process, c. 1600 councils had adopted the national models by 1882.[v] Concerns over the need for sufficient air and light to limit disease instigated the development of byelaws during and after the 1860s to regulate the construction of smaller houses; the height of the rooms (in comparison to earlier ‘cottages’) also aided airflow – a concern that was to continue into the 20th century.[vi] Maps suggest that when No. 8 was built, the aspect was as open as today (being situated across the road from a graveyard, beyond which were the railways lines of the goods yard), and that light filled the room as it does today.
The previous post discussed the original form of, and subsequent changes to, the window as seen from outside the front of the house. These changes are also visible from the inside: much of the original frame is intact, although the glazing bars have been removed, in order to insert two large panes (the significance of fitting ‘picture windows’ was also discussed in the previous post).


Door between the front room and lobby to the original kitchen
The door that faces the visitor as they enter from the street is probably one of the original fittings of the house. It is in a style typically found within terraced houses built during the late 19th – early 20th century: there are four panels, each of which are framed by thin architrave. However, this door may not have originally come from this doorframe. As can be seen, previous residents have stripped the paint from this door; occupants often undertake this task themselves (using either a heat gun or chemical paint stripper), with the door in situ – there is some evidence of this (burn marks and ineffective paint stripping) on this and other doors in the house. But doors are otherwise often removed and taken to professional paint strippers (where the doors are dipped in vats of caustic chemicals); and when returned – as all the doors of the house are often removed, stripped, and refitted, at the same time – they are not always put back into their original frame. There are a few clues that may point towards a door being replaced within a different frame to that from whence it came: the original position of locks can often be seen, as can the latch housing in the frame – sometimes these features do not align. But if doors have been subjected to professional paint stripping, shrinkage (which can frequently be seen by cracks and gaps in the panels) must be taken into account. The removal of paint, to expose the ‘original’ timber fabric of door became popular in the 1980s (and continues today), in part relating to a taste for original features. However, this practice in no way reflects Victorian, Edwardian, and interwar tastes: doors were almost always painted (with the occasional exception of the oak and mahogany doors set within panelled rooms) – this will be considered in a following post on decoration.
Burns to the door, suggestive of DIY paint stripping, and remnants of early varnish or paint
Doors of this type were often boarded over during the 1950s-70s, in order to attain a flat surface, which was seen as modern (flat door surfaces began to appear within wealthier houses from the 1920s onwards). This can often be detected (as it can with this door) by the presence of small holes around the edge of the door, where panel pins held a sheet of hardboard in place; many of these coverings were removed during and after the 1980s, when tastes for ‘antique’ fittings became popular, although some still remain in place today. The presence of a large hole in the door, indicating removal of the original handle, and the fitting of a (probably more ‘modern’) higher in the door, may date to this phase of modernisation.
Location of early lock, and adjacent housing, and position of previous handle, and position of panel pins (circled in red) from previous door covering
Having described the main features of the room, the following posts will go on to consider utilities (such as gas and electricity), decoration, and social significance of the front room in No. 8, by making comparisons with similar houses, by exploring written, visual, and oral history, and exploring the changing use of the room.


[i] See Deetz 1999, for a wider discussion of the importance of examining the ‘common place’ traces of daily life in historical archaeology.
[ii] New designs in register grates (which incorporated iron doors that could be used control the flow of air into the chimney) were developed locally (by Derwent Foundry Company, Derby); the slow combustion grate, developed in 1870, more economical than previous grates, as the solid base reduced the air flow from beneath;  this type was replaced c. 1900 by re-introducing the bottom grate, but with an ash-pan reducing the updraught (Everleigh 1983: 9, 11-3)
[iii] See Yorke 2006: 85
[iv] See Bowden 2009: 367
[v] Upton 2010: 40-1.
[vi]See Upton 2010: 47; Meller 2009: 401


Bowden, Sue 2009 ‘Consumption and consumer behaviour’, Chris Wrigley (ed.) Companion to Early Twentieth Century Britain, pp. 353-72 Deetz, James 1999 In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American LifeEverleigh, David J. 1983 Firegrates and Kitchen Ranges Meller, Helen 2009 ‘Housing and Town Planning, 1900-1939’, Chris Wrigley (ed.) Companion to Early Twentieth Century Britain, pp. 388-404 Upton, Chris 2010 Living Back-to-Back Yorke, Trevor 2006 The 1930s House Explained

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