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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

No. 8: Exploring a late Victorian urban terraced house

Over at Dec20, building investigations have begun in earnest, and have revealed some interesting traces of early life, so I'll post these here, for anyone outside who the project may be interested... 
NO. 8: background and historic environment
The first house to be investigated - 'No. 8' - is located on the northern outskirts of the modern City Centre. It’s not what would be called 'slum' housing: much of the housing that was described in this way was demolished in the 1950s-60s. It is, however, an interesting case study, typical of many of the small terraced houses built during the 19th and early 20th century for urban industrial workers. The opportunity to investigate this house in detail, during a spell of decoration (in preparation for the property being made available for private rental), has revealed some interesting early evidence – particularly for previous decorative schemes.
This 2-3 bedroom  house  was built c. 1890, as one of a 'dead-end'  terrace of 8 houses, which lies in an area with a long and interesting history (that includes a Roman fort and settlement, an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, probable Viking, later Medieval, and post-Medieval, activity). However, for the purpose of this project, focus is upon the late Victorian housing, which was (at least at first) largely occupied by those employed within the many industries that were in walking distance of the street, and occupation of this housing into the 20th century.
The street (pictured above) was named after Sir Alfred Seale Haslam, who it is reputed built the street to house workers in his foundry. These houses, though basic, were distinguished from many of the nearby ‘poorer’ houses - not only by difference in size. Additional space in comparison to some local houses (such as the typical two-up-two-down, which itself was a ‘cut above’ the local ‘back-to-backs') was provided by the annex, which gave the occupants an additional upstairs room, and a scullery downstairs; an additional small room next to the scullery  perhaps represents a coal-house. The scullery is likely to have housed a ‘copper’ - as suggested by the remains of a chimney in the room above (this will be reconsidered in a future post).
Plan of No. 8, 1900-1901, showing position of 'privy' at the bottom of the garden
This compares favourably to many local households, which often had to rely upon an external wash-house, frequently shared by several other families; some did not even have access to shared facilities. In addition, No. 8 was provided with a separate toilet (albeit at the bottom of the garden), for personal (i.e. family) use; again, many local households had to share sanitary facilities (this feature will be also considered in more detail in a subsequent post). Small ornamental details also show attempts to go beyond the purely utilitarian: a moulded brick string-course decorates the façades.[i] But when we look inside the property in a subsequent post, it can be seen that the social status of this house was still below that of other nearby terraced houses.
String course, No. 8 front façade
Other features demonstrate the changing building regulations of the day: building regulations were increasingly being introduced. From the 1860s - 70s it was necessary to suspend floor-boards upon joists (to limit damp), rather than laying boards directly upon earth, with the insertion of 'air-bricks' to allow air-flow - the example for No. 8 can be seen below. Damp proofing courses were also increasingly incorporated at the end of the 19th century; the modern Tarmac pavement covers any early damp proofing at the front of the house, although a lead course can be seen at the back of the house (this will be discussed in a future post). Laws governing drainage, stability, and air flow had been incorporated within the Public Health Act of 1875, and further regulations were defined within bye-laws during this and subsequent decades.
Ceramic air-brick, front of No. 8
A wall at one end of the street separates these houses from the smaller houses beyond; the other end of the street leads onto a now tree-lined recreation ground.[ii] A church (built in 1851) is accessed from this quiet street; though now sometimes busy, due to the church hall, for the earlier years of occupancy, pedestrian traffic past No. 8 is likely to have been light: the modern hall overlies what was a graveyard.

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                                       Union Iron Foundry, City Road

The industrial ties may suggest the apparent care in constructing what were comfortable and spacious working class houses. After  a fire in 1873, Haslam rebuilt the nearby early 19th century Union Iron Foundry (which in 1868 he had renamed as the 'Haslam Foundry and Engineering Company'), and subsequently extending the building, which can be seen today.[iii] Haslam was a pioneer manufacturer of marine refrigeration machinery, which enabled international trade in consumable to develop.[iv] Family (to which at some point I will return) and oral history relates that the factory manufactured munitions during WWII; it has long been familiar to locals as 'Bliss's' (after becoming part of the E. W. Bliss Group).
Factory roof can be seen on the mid left edge of the photo (taken from end of the street: see photo above, showing church)
Maps, and historic environment records of extant remains, note other industries near to the street (within 500m). The list  includes further iron foundries and engineering works, boiler works, an electric light works, timber yards and saw mill, several corn millscement and plaster worksdye works, and St Mary's railway goods yard and a railway station serving the Derby - Leeds line; a textile mill  and the Silk Mill were situated across the nearby River Derwent.
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Restored St Mary's Wharf railway buildings; see Palmer (1997: 69-71), for early photos

The good preservation of these buildings (both domestic and industrial) has led to designated as a conservation area; despite this recognition of historic significance, and of the architectural value of the buildings, plans are currently under way to largely demolish the Union Foundry.
For further information on the area within which No. 8 is situated, the church that lies a few metres from the building houses a Heritage Centre, which provides local history exhibitions.
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] See Muthesius 1982: 236 ff., where the social significance of ornamentation is discussed.
[ii] Ibid., for a short discussion on the social significance of such segregation.
[iii] Clay, P. 2008.
[iv] Ibid.


Muthesius, S. 1982 The English Terraced House
Palmer, Derek 1997 The Demolition of Derby

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