Victory For The Victorians
by Lisa De Silva
The Victorian era (1837-1901) played host to one of the countries greatest housing booms. A combination of population growth and industrialisation, led to many people migrating from rural to urban areas, creating a massive demand for new homes. During this period, over 6 million houses were built, many of which are still standing today. Now bored with regular flat-fronted Georgian architecture, the Victorians were eclectic, ornamental and decorative in their styling. Let’s take a closer look.
The arrival of the rail network, the abolition of tax on glass and bricks, together with new manufacturing processes, had a huge impact on Victorian domestic architecture. It ended the need to build houses using local materials, as building products could now be manufactured elsewhere, before being moved to site by rail.
This was the era of the terrace, built back to back and tightly packed for the working classes, but more generously spaced for the wealthy. As a reaction against Georgian understatement, Victorian architects experimented with a number of decorative styles from striking Gothic, through to simple Arts & Crafts, but there are a number of architectural features common to most Victorian homes.
These include patterned brickwork, created using coloured bricks, terracotta chimneys and slate roofs, made from materials quarried in Wales and carried by rail.
During the early part of the period, decorative roofs were all the rage, with gables covered in terracotta ridge tiles and edged with stylised wooden panels, known as bargeboards. These were often topped by ornamental finials.
Sliding sash windows are another characteristic of Victorian homes and with the development of large panes of ‘sheet glass,’ windows initially comprised six large panes, later reduced to four. Threesided bay windows were also popular as was stained glass, which was used in doors and as detailing at the tops of windows.
With the mass production of plaster mouldings, plasterwork became increasingly ornate as the mouldings could be made in a factory and put up by general tradesmen. Consequently, plaster ceiling roses and cornicing were the norm, with the level of detailing dependant on the status of the room.
Skirting boards were deep and many homes had dado rails to protect wall coverings from chair backs and picture rails for hanging paintings and prints.
In larger homes, there was usually a cellar to store the coal required for the open fires and an attic room, which provided accommodation for domestic servants.
Inside the Home
During this time a succession of technological developments, transformed the lives of wealthier Victorians. Candles were still common at the start of the period, but over the years, gas and eventually electric lighting became increasingly widespread, with chandeliers and wall lights gracing the main reception rooms.
Colour schemes were dark and rich, with deep reds and greens particularly popular. Paint effects, like stencilling and stippling, were common and when wallpaper went into mass production during the mid 19th century, William Morris floral, bird and animal prints became the height of fashion. Wallpaper was usually applied between the skirting board and dado rail.
Grandiose fireplaces were a prominent feature of the more important rooms, which were often crowded with furniture, including button-backed chairs, sofas, ottomans and chaise longues, plants, ornaments and paintings.
The Victorians also loved heavy curtains, which kept out both the cold and prying eyes. These were hung in layers, with heavy velvet and damasks, which draped to the floor, hung over layers of lace fabric and all finished with elaborate tasseled tiebacks.
Even today, many Victorian houses retain the geometric terracotta floor tiles running through the hallway. Throughout the rest of the house, floorboards and rugs were common, although both carpet and linoleum were introduced around 1850.
Bedrooms would contain a four-poster bed, or one with curtains, a wardrobe, chest of drawers, hip bath and a marble topped washstand, with towel rails on both sides and a tile splash back. As the Victorians learned more about hygiene, bed curtains gradually lost their appeal, as while they helped to keep out the drafts, many thought they were a breeding ground for germs.
The range was the heart of the kitchen, used for both cooking and heating water. Dressers were used to store equipment, such as crockery and cooking utensils. Pots and pans made from copper and cast iron would be hung from the ceilings or the walls.
However, a combination of improved water supply and developments in ceramics and iron, revolutionised sanitary ware. Along with a greater appreciation of hygiene, this led to the bathroom becoming an increasingly important room. While the poor still relied on a shared water pump and outside street toilets, many wealthy Victorians enjoyed flushing toilets, plumbed in baths and hot and cold running water.
Car ownership was rare and with no need for garages, larger Victorian houses were built with gardens at both the back and front of the plot.
The ‘Plant Hunters’ of the Victorian era had introduced a vast array of fruits, vegetables and plants from all over the world, but for these exotic breeds to flourish came the necessity of building glasshouses. Luckily, the abolition of the glass and window tax in the mid 19th century, along with the invention of plate glass, led to the development of the Victorian garden glasshouse.
This was used to grow home produce to feed family and guests, but over time some of these larger rooms were furnished with ornate cast iron furniture, becoming places to relax and socialise.
So, next time you wonder at a ceiling rose, or enjoy your greenhouse or conservatory, just remember to thank our Victorian predecessors.