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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

Façade of a late Victorian terraced house in Derby: modernisation, individuality, and structural change

Another Dec20 post, on the façade of the late Victorian foundry worker's house, 'No. 8'. (The Flickr slideshow to the right shows photos from this building)... 


Past owners and inhabitants inscribe their presence and existence upon building façades. No. 8 provides a typical example of this: though originally constructed in the same style as neighbouring buildings (probably at around the same time and by the same builders), there are differences between this and other houses, which themselves often in some way differ to one another. This variety reflects the stories of the street, each modification marking a point in time when someone connected with the resident (whether tenant or landowner, builder or painter) interacted with the house. And, although we often think of such transformations as purely personal choices, unrelated to wider social, political, and economic change, this is rarely the case. Some of the more noticeable changes will be considered briefly below.


A glance along the street would suggest that it has changed little since its construction during the late 19th century – bar the move evident signs of modernity: the few cars belonging to residents, the church hall now built over the old graveyard, the tarmac covered road and pavement, and the numerous television aerials. But standing outside the front of No. 8, some of the changes made to this and adjacent buildings become obvious. The latest change – not to the house itself, but the installation of a feature directly outside the house – is the replacement of the street light last year by the City Council.
Façade, No. 8
This is the product and development of changes made to planning legislation in 1990, which included regulations surrounding ‘listed’ buildings – those recognised for their historic significance – and the designation of conservation areas: places of “special architectural or historic interest the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance”. In this case, the Victorian origins of the street has been emphasised by the style of the light – or ‘lantern’ as the work specification refers to this feature.
Cable box
Another relatively recent change seen along the street is the installation of equipment for cable TV and phone line, manifest in the faded brown plastic boxes appended to the fronts of houses – somewhat incongruous with the ‘re-Victorianisation’ of the smart new old-fashioned ‘lantern’. This was undertaken during the late 1990s – early 2000s, and both reflects broad technological developments, and transformations in the use and meaning of domestic space – at a time when the home was increasingly seen a place of entertainment and leisure. Such changes, in conjunction with, for example, economic developments (such as supermarkets offering inexpensive alcohol), and other technological developments (such as ‘home theatre’ equipment), have affected local economies.  Social venues (such as public houses) that were hitherto significant community locales increasingly found (and continue to find, according to publicans) it difficult or impossible to survive, further affecting social relationships outside the home, and influencing the transformation of community identities.


Hanging bracket, No. 8
A seemingly insignificant recent feature is the painted wrought iron bracket beside the door, which has in the past been used to suspend ‘hanging-baskets’ of flowers. Whilst the hanging-basket might simply be seen as an aesthetically pleasing injection of colour and individuality to an otherwise repetitive (and perhaps to some, bland) scene, it might also be seen in the context of notions of respectability, that were powerful in the late 19th - early 20th century, but which remain important today.[i] An earlier ornamentation on the façade of No. 8 might be represented by a wooden block in the wall above the bracket (before modern plastics were widely used, wooden pegs or blocks were inserted into the hole, and the screw inserted into the wood):
But the most noticeable changes are those made to the door and associated features, and to the windows.


Doorstep, No. 8
To the right is the front door; and beneath the door is a step – another important feature bound by notions of respectability; and one that relates No. 8 to broad social and cultural changes in the 20th century. The original doorstep (which it can be seen from some of the houses in the street was of stone, with a rolled edge) has been replaced by a rectangular ‘terrazzo’ step – a common addition to mid 20th century houses. The primary motivation behind such a change might have been practical: the stone was perhaps significantly worn through pedestrian traffic, and the terrazzo step is hard wearing; however, the other steps in the street seem to have worn well. Another motivation may again relate to changing social and economic conditions and attitudes. Associations between cleanliness and respectability were often manifest through treatment of the front doorstep in late Victorian and early 20th century Britain.[ii] At many terraced houses, it was scrubbed clean each day and reddened, or whitened  with pipe-clay or lime donkey stone – an arduous and time-consuming task (and particularly unpleasant on cold days), but often seen as an essential chore. However, conditions (which included over-crowing and poor sanitation facilities) sometimes meant such a task wasn’t practicable – and in some cases the door ‘step’ merely consisted of a stone threshold.[iii] It is possible that, as more women experienced changing work patterns, the terrazzo step enabled this task to be abandoned.[iv] The fortunate households with sufficient disposable income often paid ‘char’ women to do the ‘dirtier’ and more strenuous household chores, including step cleaning and whitening. Though a sign of respectability for the resident or home owner, step cleaning some who undertook the task found it humiliating.[v] One piece of family history may provide some insight into this. The memories of Mrs. H. relates how her grandmother, Ethel Wood (nee Morton), lived with her (i.e. Ethel’s) two small daughters (after one had died in a road accident) during the early 20th century in an almshouse in Derby; she struggled to support them and herself, after her husband had abandoned her. In need of any extra money, she was paid a penny each day to clean the steps of her more affluent sister, who lived in a larger house, a few streets a way; this situation carries a sense of shame and degradation in family history.[vi] The employment of children to do this task perhaps enhanced these feelings.[vii]


Remains of scraper, neighbouring property
Boot scrapers were commonly found in many Victorian terraces; considering the time taken in cleaning the step, this was perhaps a well-used feature. There were often made of stone, and fitted with a usually flat iron bar, which is nowadays commonly missing – as can be seen in the case of another house in the street.[viii]
Boot scraper No. 8
Sometimes they are removed completely; the invention and widespread ownership of vacuum cleaners from the 1960s onwards may have made them less necessary. Although it is possible that No. 8 was not in fact fitted with a scraper, the disorderly bricks (attempts have been made to sustain the Flemish Bond of the other brick courses, although this has necessitated substantial trimming of some of the bricks used) suggest that a scraper was at sometime removed (although if this is the case, it appears that old bricks were used to fill the remaining recess.


Front Door
The door is a 1930s replacement, made of timber with a leaded stained glass light. Immediately above the door is a cast iron number plate (perhaps fitted at the same time as the door). And the original light above the door – which is can be seen from neighbouring properties once consisted of 10 small panes – has been replaced by reeded obscure glass, again perhaps at the same time as the door (it is interesting to see early – perhaps original – crown glass in the light above the door of the adjacent house). The door has been painted several times since it was first fitted, although the original colour is yet unknown.
Many local terraced houses have been fitted with similar doors; the date of this change is perhaps significant. House ownership was becoming possible for members of the lower middle class – in some cases, for well-paid working class families – during the 1930s. But house purchase was still beyond the majority; nevertheless, improvement are common during this time, which will be discussed as each room in No. 8 is explored.
With regard to notions of home, the front door is one of the most important features of a house: it is the interface between the inside and outside world – between the familiar and predictable, and the strange and potentially dangerous. The door may be used a tool of power and autonomy, as others are prevented or allowed to enter our domain. But ‘behind closed doors’ not only stands for privacy – it may also stand for concealment and confinement: the home is not always safe.
The door furniture is mostly of lacquered brass, fitted sometime before 2001, perhaps incorporating an attempt at ‘period’ style; but the usual wear to the finish – which, in theory, provided a traditional look, but without the effort of regular cleaning – detracts from the appearance, which is now somewhat shabby.


Ground Floor Window
To the left of the facade is a 2 light sash window; although the two sliding frames are intact, the retention of original windows (some containing early, possible crown, glass) within many of the neighbouring properties indicate that an astragal (wooden glazing bar) previously divided the upper light into 18 panes, and the lower in two.  Above this window, more drastic changes have been made by the complete removal of the original sash window, and by its replacement by a two light, top hung, casement window. Fortunately, both windows retain their original stone sills.
First Floor Front Window
It may be presumed that these changes took place before Conservation restrictions were put in place: if new windows are to be fitted nowadays, they must replicate original style and (to some extent) materials. The insertion of ‘picture’ windows was common practice during the 1970s and 80s); although often seen as a step forwards aesthetically, one of the main reasons behind such a change was the ease of cleaning such windows, in comparison to those with many small panes of glass.[ix] Relationships between such acts of modernisation, and between changing gender roles and the increasing number of women that worked outside the home, might be conjectured.


From the top photo it can be seen that the original chimney stack remains, accompanied by possibly early chimney pots (as many houses in the street have the same type of pot, as can be seen from the second photo). This differs from many terraced houses, where pots are often removed, or replaced with cowls, as they are no longer needed, thanks to gas fires and central heating. The remaining chimneys and their pots place these terraced houses – like many thousands of Victorian (and earlier, and later) houses in Britain – in the contexts of British industry and technology. As a nation then with plentiful supplies of coal, this was the fuel of choice for industrial areas. But as notions of comfort, technology, and economies changed (which incorporated the effects of changing gender roles – as more women worked outside the home), other forms of heating became preferable, which, as noted, sometimes led to the transformation of chimneys.
The chimneys also give a clue as to the use of interior domestic space: their placement within fixed points in the home to a large extent determined use of each room. But other factors - economic circumstances, notions of ‘respectability‘, illness, and changing concept of ‘comfort’ - influenced how these facilities. This will be discussed further as we move through each room of the house in future posts. For now, external remains make it apparent that sources of heat were provided for the front and back rooms; the double chimney pots suggest that the rooms above were also served with fireplaces – although other evidence indicates that they were rarely used: this topic will be covered at a later date.


Finally, the original cast iron guttering has been replaced during the later 20th century with plastic guttering – a cheaper, perhaps more easily maintainable, alternative, but not in keeping with the style of the house.
Guttering of No. 8 on the right


The narrow facade of No. 8, whilst seemingly demonstrating attempts at individuality, in exhibiting aesthetic choice, and in undertaking ‘modernisation’ in relationship to personal needs, these changes embody broad social relationships, political power, economic change, and technological developments. The process of change continues, as the house undergoes another decorative renovation. The interaction of individual, family, community and nation is writ upon the house, as are the different ways of life that each generation experienced.
If you have any information, memories, or photos to share that relate to the topic of this post, or have evidence for life in the past in your house, please contact the Project Director.


[i] For mention of hanging baskets on working class houses in the early 20th century, see Foley 1977: 7; see also Upton 2001, fig. 62. Window boxes and plant pots on window sills may embody similar notions of pride, although occupants perhaps gained greater benefits from the blooms, which were often seen as ‘cheerful’ in the absence of a garden: see Layton (1977 [1931]: 2), though were also found on sills of houses with gardens (Upton 2001, see figs. 12, 25, 48, 62). Upton (2001, fig. 67) notes the establishment of a Window Gardening Society in Birmingham in 1904; boxes and pots were of course often the only option for tenement housing.
[ii] See Muthesius (1982: 55, 238), for a brief discussion of the development of associations between cleanliness and respectability, and of the role of whitening in social differentiation. Lime-wash had been used (being painted on exterior walls) during the 19th century in the belief that this would prevent contamination from infectious disease (see Upton 2001: 35, 85); this may have further associated notions of cleanliness with step whitening.
[iii] An example of a whitened step fronting a terraced (or back-to-back) house in Birmingham during 1904 can be seen in Upton 2010, fig. 65; however, a sign indicates that the house was occupied by a building contractor, and perhaps suggests middle-class pretensions, despite the ‘poor’ location. A photo that possibly shows a local example is in Palmer 1997: 91, though this may simply be due to very light stone, or the use of paint – it is in any case a local business (The Nottingham Castle Public House): ‘respectability’, and especially signs of cleanliness, were perhaps particularly necessary. Probable examples are in Palmer 1998: 77, top left (Bridge St.), and 118, top photograph, left (again Bridge St., 1930s). From most photos of local terraced houses, it appears that whitening, at least, was not as widespread or regular as memories might suggest; however, the possibility that step reddening is less easy to detect in early and poor quality black and white photographs and their reproductions remains. For an account of local practices, see Goodhead (1983: 26, 27); she mentions that, in the nearby West End, some cleaned and whitened their steps, but this was not universal. Mike Green (Green n.d.) mentions the step reddening; he goes on to describe the morning ritual of scrubbing and whitening (using pipe-clay) the front door step (and scrubbing an arc of pavement beyond the step) of two-bedroom terraces houses within inner-city Derby during the interwar period. Memories from outside Derby also record this task: in Kettering (Hankins 1999: 23); and in Liverpool.
[iv] There are records of men or more frequently, boys employed in domestic service undertaking this task (Thompson 2005: 77); but it remained predominantly ‘women’s work’, amongst those of the least tolerable kind.
[v] Step cleaning and whitening in the Edwardian Period is noted, e.g., in Arthur 2006: 198; Horn 2001: 12; Thompson 2005: 24. For the interwar and wartime periods (particularly in the context of domestic service) see: Dawes 1973: 84-5; Horn 2001: 181; see also Goodhead 1983, for local history. See also Muthesius 1982: fig. 27.
[vi] Pers. com. Mrs. H., Derby, 2011
[vii] For an Edwardian example, see Thompson (2005: 24); for testimony relating to ‘step girls’ in earlier decades, see Layton (1977 [1931]: 9).
[viii] See Muthesius 1982: fig. 28, for a more complete example. Due to erosion and heavy use, the bars sometimes needed replacing; this is mentioned in the late Victorian fictional Diary of a Nobody, by George and Weedon Grossmith, for example.
[ix] The somewhat risky techniques of window cleaning are outlined in Green (n.d.; see also Hankins 1999: 23)


Arthur, Max 2006 Lost Voices of the Edwardians
Dawes, Frank 1973 Not in Front of the Servants. Domestic Service in England 1850-1939
Foley, Winifred 1977 No Pipe Dreams for Father. Scenes from a Forest of Dean Childhood
Goodhead, Elsie Elizabeth 1983 The West End Story. Derby During the Depression. A Social and Personal History
Green, Mike n.d. Pre-War and Derby Memories
Hankins, Ken 1999 A Child of the Thirties
Horn, Pamela 2001 Life Below Stairs in the 20th Century
Layton, Mrs. 1977 [1931] ‘Memories of Seventy Years’, in Margaret Llewelyn Davies (ed.) 1931 Life As We Have Known It, by Co-operative Working Women, pp. 1-55
Muthesius, Stephan 1982 The English Terraced House
Palmer, Derek 1997 The Demolition of Derby
Palmer, Derek 1998 Westenders
Thompson, Paul 2005 The Edwardians. The remaking of British society
Upton, Chris 2010 Living Back-to-Back
Woolf, Virginia 1977 [1930] ‘Introductory Letter’, in Margaret Llewelyn Davies (ed.) 1931 Life As We Have Known It, by Co-operative Working Women, pp. Xvii-xxxxi

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