The Development of English Semi-detached Dwellings During the Nineteenth Century
Buildings in England are heritage listed if they are of special architectural or historical interest, and based on the significance, appropriate conservation priorities can be determined.But to list, and then conserve, one must first identify, then research and assess. The problem is being able to recognise an important example of a semi-detached house (semi) if it is neither very old nor aesthetically appealing. The semi is the most common dwelling type in England, yet because it is typically suburban and ordinary, very little research into its origins and development has been carried out. As a result, semis are under-represented in heritage listings. And once listed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to set priorities for ongoing conservation work or adaptive reuse, without knowledge of the historical or social underpinnings of its significance. Even those ordinary buildings which do not reach the thresholds for listing risk being unnecessarily degraded, through demolition, decay or unsympathetic alterations, if there is no understanding of their stories or meanings, and no safeguards are built into the planning guidelines.
All of the listings of English semis sampled for this paper contained detailed descriptions of fabric, but negligible historical data. A simple search of English Heritage’s National Heritage List online database in July 2012 revealed only four listings for “semi-detached”. An advanced search for “semi-detached, domestic, dwellings” provided 1,931 listings which although more encouraging, still seems to be low given that England has over 7 million semis (Department for Communities and Local Government 2011).
Yet although most people consider semis to be a twentieth century invention, and therefore not worthy of attention by architectural historians or heritage professionals, semis played a key role as rural cottages for the working classes and suburban villas for the middle classes during the nineteenth century and this cultural value deserves to be recognised.
The English population doubled between 1801 and 1851. There was also a huge shift of population from rural areas to the cities and towns; the percentage living in rural areas declined from 80% in 1801 to less than 50% in 1851 and this trend continued for the rest of the century. Together with rapid industrial expansion, these factors had transformed both rural and urban areas by the end of the nineteenth century.
During the eighteenth century the doctrine of laissez-faire prevailed - the belief that there was no need for interference, especially by governments, in the structure of society (Morris nd). However, as the industrial revolution progressed much of the earlier housing in cities and towns disappeared under developments such as docks, roads and railways, and a high proportion of that which remained deteriorated rapidly through overcrowding. As squalid industrial towns proliferated, the philosophy of laissez-faire was gradually replaced by a realisation that housing reforms and some interventions were required for working class housing (Morris nd). The ideal housing for artisans (skilled workers) became something imposed on them by well-meaning philanthropists and designers of model dwellings who “linked architecture, artisans and morality” (Guillery 2004, 298). Similarly, as the vernacular traditions declined, the housing for rural tenants became more standardised as pattern books promoted model cottages (Long 2002).
In contrast, the growing middle classes during the nineteenth century were able to grasp the opportunities for advancement created by the industrial revolution, including the ability to move out of the city centres and into the surrounding suburbs. For them, housing became less uniform, with the development of fashionable new suburbs such as the picturesque styles of St John’s Wood and the later domestic revival styles of Bedford Park.
This paper traces the trajectory of the semi up and down the social spectrum during the nineteenth century.
Housing the Rural Working Classes
As a result of the parliamentary enclosures of rural land, which occurred for around 100 years after 1760, some people in open villages continued to build their own dwellings, but most of the building was carried out by the new estate owners in their closed villages. The estate villages of the eighteenth century tended to reflect the formal landscaping fashions of the time, but using the traditional vernacular styles of their regions. With the spread of the pattern books, advances in building techniques and the availability of new materials, the vernacular styles were gradually replaced with standardised, model cottage designs. The authors of pattern books for labourers’ cottages also sought to improve the morality and virtue of the labourer, by placing neo-classical architecture (“good” architecture) into the landscape, to address the negative social impacts of enclosure (Maudlin 2010, 13). The fashion for the picturesque gradually replaced the neo-classical and by the early nineteenth century a new estate village was expected to conform to the picturesque ideals, rather than just be an element in the landscape.
The most economical form for the new estate cottages was the attached brick or stone dwelling, based on the form of the existing farm buildings, many of which had already been converted to attached dwellings. The double farm cottage was built not because land was too scarce for detached houses, but as a means of reducing costs (there was a saving in materials by sharing a wall) and keeping the houses warmer in winter. It was said that “this species of cottage can be built cheaper than two single ones, and, in general, these double cottages are found to be warmer and fully as comfortable as single ones” (Smith 1834, 27).
It was not only the pattern books which inspired the picturesque rural cottage builders. The prominent architect John Nash (1752-1835), with his assistant George Repton, in 1811 designed Blaise Hamlet, a group of houses around a green, for retired employees of Blaise Castle House. Unusually, eight of the cottages are detached, the additional expense and care for the tenants perhaps being justified because the owner was a Quaker philanthropist. The ninth building is a double cottage. Blaise Hamlet became an exemplar for the picturesque, although for many estate owners their new villages had only the minimum of picturesque styling – enough to satisfy fashionable tastes, but built as cheaply as possible (Figure 1).
As the industrial revolution increasingly impacted on the working classes in the cities, towns and rural areas, some concerned middle class citizens formed societies to try and improve the living conditions of the labouring class. A group known as the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes was formed by Benjamin Wills in 1825 (Curl 1983, 75) and the same year the Secretary to the Society, architect John Hall, published a book of designs for cottages and schools for the “rural poor”. In this book Hall notes that the objective of the Society was:
...an increase of comfort and happiness to the labouring classes:- an encouragement towards the attainment of a true independence, which, while it makes them superior to idleness, intemperance, and parochial relief, will tend to lessen their vices, and create a pleasurable observance of all the duties of society. In short, an inducement to preserve health by the exercise of cleanliness, delicacy, and industrious morality (Hall 1825, 7).
He added that “For Delicacy:- There must be three sleeping rooms, to enable the parents, the boys, and the girls to sleep separate; an arrangement very little known at present”. These were ideals which picked up many of the concerns expressed earlier by the architect John Wood the Younger in his pattern book of 1781. The designs in Hall’s book were mostly of pairs of pisé (rammed earth) cottages, which for the period were remarkably spacious (Figure 2). Adopting Wood›s principle from more than 40 years before, he believed that it was:
best to build them in pairs, not only as respects economy, but for the purpose of vicinity, supplying neighbours to minister to each other in times of sickness &c. &c. (Hall 1825, 8).
Hall went on to specify that each pair of labourers’ cottages should be on 2.5 acres of land, to allow for the growing of wheat, fruit and vegetables for consumption and sale. The book was targetted at the «nobility and gentry» in the hope that they would improve the lives of the labourers on their estates - it was also calculated that the landowner would receive a return of 7.5% on his capital.
Perhaps not surprisingly, only one school and none of Hall’s ambitious cottage designs were built, and the Society folded. However Wills and several other members in 1827 formed the Labourer’s Friend Society which that year built six pairs of picturesque cottages at Shooters Hill in Kent (Bardwell 1854, 10) (Figure 3).
One of the most influential books of dwelling designs was published in 1833 (with many later editions) by John Claudius Loudon, a prolific writer of architecture and gardening magazines and books. His Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm, and Villa Architecture and Furniture provided designs in a range of fashionable architectural styles, for both builders and owners (Figure 4). Continuing the progressive humanitarian agenda commenced by Wood and Hall, Loudon’s principal interest in cottages was “as devices of social formation and agricultural production” (Maudlin 2010, 19).
As the century progressed there was a move away from the picturesque cottage, to a more functional cottage which could use mass produced materials such as bricks and slate. The double cottage form however, remained widespread.
Housing the Urban Working Classes
Philanthropic societies such as the Labourers’ Friend Society had a very limited impact on rural dwellings. Instead they focussed their attention onto the urban working class. Some of the enormous population increase was a natural increase, but the major impact was from rural workers moving to the towns and cities. This created a huge demand for housing.
City centres which had previously been inhabited by a mix of the prosperous middle class and the workers who supported them, became enclaves of the working classes as the middle classes moved to the suburbs, their old houses were subdivided, and the spaces around them were infilled. The labouring class mostly lived in cellars, tenements and lodging houses in subdivided buildings, or in purpose-built dwellings such as back-to-backs (in the north of England) and terraced houses. This created what the middle classes soon called slums, a term first used in 1812 (Guillery 2004, 290). Artisans could afford slightly superior housing outside the city centres, although building in brick was expensive, resulting in rows and rows of very small terraced dwellings. As the vernacular traditions waned, artisans’ housing became uniform and monotonous, albeit not as slum-like as the labourers’ housing.
By 1830 the poverty and living conditions of the growing urban underclass could no longer be ignored. Welfare payments, if available at all, were funded by local taxes in each town and there were increasing concerns amongst the middle and upper classes that their taxes were encouraging the poor to be lazy and workshy. A new Poor Law was introduced in 1834, which required the poor to enter a workhouse before they could receive assistance. Working class discontent was threatening the status quo. Politicians feared civil unrest, and outbreaks of cholera and typhoid also highlighted the health problems resulting from substandard housing. In 1842 Edwin Chadwick reported to the Poor Law Board on the sanitary conditions and planning laws (if any) within towns and a Royal Commission on the Health of Towns reported in 1845, noting in particular the poor standard of terraced housing and back-to-backs. Gradually a program of government reforms in housing and public health was introduced. At the same time, philanthropic attention turned from the housing of rural labourers dispossessed by enclosure to the urban working classes. Their concerns extended to the moral hazards supposedly caused by the substandard housing.
Various societies were founded during the 1840s and 1850s as a result of Chadwick’s report and the Royal Commission’s findings, including the Suffolk Society for Bettering the Condition of the Labouring Classes (1844), the Hereford Cottage Association (1846) and the General Society for Improving the Dwellings of the Working Classes (1852) (Tarn 1973, 4, 24). Some of these groups did little more than discuss issues; however in 1847 the Birkenhead Dock Company built some workmen’s model dwellings – two blocks of architect-designed tenements – which were claimed to be the first of their type in England (Tarn 1973, 5).
The scope of the Labourers’ Friend Society expanded in 1844 when, as a result of the various reports on the housing conditions of the urban working classes, it was reconstituted as the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, adopting the name of Wills’ earlier society. The new Society had powerful backers and patrons, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and its Honorary Architect was the highly regarded Henry Roberts (The Labourer’s Friend, June 1844, 1). The Society embarked on a program of raising funds from investors to build model dwellings for urban workers to “show the way” in how workers should be housed. There was also to be a return on investment for the backers. However, unlike some later organisations, it was in effect a philanthropic society, because its dividend, set at a maximum of 4%, was not an attractive investment at that time.
All of the Society’s published designs were by Henry Roberts, as well as the designs for the model dwellings which were actually constructed.
The first model dwellings were commenced in 1844 by the Society, but despite the earlier designs by Hall, they were not semis but two long rows of two storey terraces and flats at Pentonville near Bagnigge Wells (Roberts 1853, 6). These were followed by model lodging houses for single men and, in 1850, a large tenement block for families in Bloomsbury. This illustrated the stark contrast between the Society’s ideal of a spacious semi for a labourer, and the requirement for a philanthropic society to house as many people as possible on limited land in the city, at an affordable rent. However, they continued to aspire to semis as the ideal urban dwelling for labourers. In 1850 the Society published The Dwellings of the Labouring Classes, written by Henry Roberts. Although the Society’s actual model dwellings were terraces and large tenement blocks in the city, Robert’s book of designs contained plans and elevations for model houses adapted for towns as well as agricultural and manufacturing districts (Figure 5). He included semis for both towns and rural areas.
On the ground of economy, as well as for other reasons which it is unnecessary to detail, the dwellings generally are designed in pairs, care being taken to prevent, as far as possible, the interface of adjoining families with each other, by placing the entrance doors at the opposite extremities of the cottages, whilst, by carrying up the chimney-stack in the centre, the greatest possible amount of warmth is obtained from the flues (Roberts 1853, 21).
Meanwhile a second influential society had been incorporated by Royal Charter in 1845. The Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes was founded by Rev Henry Taylor, with the dual aims of providing housing for the poor and generating a commercial return on investment for the backers. Unlike the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes which concentrated on providing model dwellings for others to copy, this organisation had a commercial focus on actual development. Its Charter provided for limited liability and a maximum dividend of 5%, with any excess funds reinvested in the business. It was the dual philanthropic and commercial aspects which gave rise to the “5% philanthropy” tag for such groups (Tarn 1973).
The Association mostly built tenement blocks for families, and lodging houses for single people. However, in 1854 the Association acquired five “double cottages” in Queens Place, Dockhead (The Labourer’s Friend Society, 10th Annual Report) and in 1866 the Association built Alexander Cottages, at Beckenham in Kent, on land provided by the Duke of Westminster. This development initially comprised 16 pairs of semis but two years later there were 164 semis (Tarn 1973, 27). Despite their success (a return of 7%) the Association then turned its focus back to the city and tenement block buildings.
While the council house is widely assumed to be a product of the twentieth century, it actually had its origins fifty years before, when it was becoming more obvious that neither private enterprise nor the philanthropic societies could provide adequate housing for the most disadvantaged sections of the community. The Labouring Classes Lodging Act 1851 gave local councils the option to acquire or build lodging houses; it was one of the earliest attempts at government intervention in housing. In 1866, following an outbreak of cholera, the Sanitary Act defined overcrowding as a “nuisance”. This Act applied to all types of dwellings and enabled local councils across England to deal with overcrowding, again with negligible effect because there was still a widespread view that poverty was created by the poor themselves.
Nevertheless, the relationships between disease, poverty, crime and slums were causing an increasingly political problem for the government. The Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Act 1868 gave local authorities the power to order the repair or demolition of substandard dwellings, at the owner’s expense, although vested interests made it mostly impotent. The notable exception to this lack of action on working class housing was Liverpool Council, which in 1869 built St Martin’s Cottages, four storey blocks of tenements (demolished in 1977) which the council claims in a plaque opposite the site to be the “first council houses in Europe”.
By the turn of the century it had become clear that while semis were an appropriate and widely used dwelling type for labourers in rural areas where the cost of land was low, in urban areas only high density terraces and, increasingly, tenement blocks, could provide the required returns on investment. Speculators continued to build terraces, often of poor quality, for artisans, and local authorities did not have the land on which to build low density housing such as semis. The ideal of semis for the urban working classes could not be achieved. Labourers could barely afford a tenement and the rare examples of urban semis which were built could be afforded only by the wealthier artisans.
Although the model dwellings and pattern books did little to influence the speculative builder to improve standards, there were employers who were inspired to improve the conditions of their industrial workers by building new self-contained villages to house them. These model villages were set out with dwellings, roads, village squares, churches and other community facilities to provide what the developer thought was an ideal environment in which people could live happy, healthy lives and therefore be more productive at work. Often based on an idealised medieval village (Barrett and Phillips 1987, 92) with its supposedly superior sense of community and value systems, the new villages were designed to be models of how people (especially the labouring class) should live. Whilst sometimes being described as model villages, the new villages on the rural estates were focussed mostly on the aesthetics of the village, rather than promoting how the occupants of such a village should live (Darley 2007). Even when landowners did have the welfare of their labourers in mind, their model dwellings were rarely part of a planned village with other facilities.
The motives of the industrialists were broader than pure philanthropy. By ensuring that their workers were housed properly, they could engender loyalty and a more stable workforce. They could also encourage what they saw as appropriate behaviour through rules and regulations governing the tenants of their villages. Most importantly, they could attract workers to factory sites which in many cases were in remote rural areas or on the fringes of towns.
Several well-known industrial model villages were built around the woollen mills of West Yorkshire, by three related families. Colonel Edward Ackroyd built a model village between 1849 and 1853, adjacent to his large textile mill at Copley, just south of Halifax. Although he used the services of the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, the mostly two-roomed dwellings were in three long rows of 36 back-to-back terraces, with an area of allotments. In 1861 Ackroyd also commenced a model village for workers at his Ackroyden mill. Although containing no back-to-backs, this village had shorter terraces surrounding a large open square.
Saltaire near Bradford, was developed adjacent to his alpaca mill by Sir Titus Salt between 1851 and 1861. The architects Francis Lockwood and William Mawson chose a high-density urban solution for the mill and its self-contained village, despite the availability of land. The dwelling type was determined by the status of the occupants, based on a survey carried out by Salt. Labourers were housed in long grids of terraces (there were no back-to-backs), while those such as overseers with a slightly higher status had a row of larger terraced houses with gardens. Further up the scale were managers in short terraces with gardens, and for those at the top, five pairs of semis with gardens.
The third pioneering model village developer in West Yorkshire was John Crossley, who was inspired by Ackroyd to create West Hill Park Estate at Crossley Mill near Halifax in 1863. Like Ackroyden, the village contained a range of dwellings to match the status of its occupants. Each row of terraced houses contained dwellings of a certain size, many of which had gardens. A People’s Park (designed by Joseph Paxton) was created nearby with six pairs of large semis overlooking its southern edge. This clearly indicated the superior status of the semis. The model villages adopted the urban dwelling hierarchy, with semis only for the higher status workers, rather than the rural norm of double cottages for even the lowest levels of worker.
Other industries also created a demand for large numbers of workers’ cottages. The model villages around the cotton mills of Lancashire came later than those of Yorkshire’s woollen mills, because the cotton prices had been depressed by the American Civil War. As collieries expanded in scale with improvements in technology during the second half of the nineteenth century, housing in the form of terraces was provided, but without the additional features which would classify them as model villages. Semis in colliery housing were rare, with status being indicated by factors such as the length of the terraces.
Although providing a relatively high standard of dwelling for workers, the early model villages were not architecturally sophisticated, and the industrialists themselves were often actively involved in the layouts and the designs of the buildings. It was not until Port Sunlight was developed near Liverpool for the employees of Lever Bros that the involvement of architects became a key component of model village design. Importantly, the increased involvement of architects did not change the hierarchy of dwelling types in the villages. The mix of terraced houses for the lowest ranks, pairs of semis for the middling ranks and detached dwellings for the managers or foremen was maintained.
Some model villages had already been built in the vicinity of the Port Sunlight site. The Wilson brothers of Price’s Patent Candle Factory had built some short terraces, with open space, front and rear gardens, allotments, a school and a church at Bromborough Pool in 1854. There were two pairs of semis for the managers. Although very austere, it was one of the first “house and garden” model villages. Semis for the workers were added to the mix (built on the sites of the allotment gardens) between 1889 and 1891 (Wirral Borough Council, 2007) (Figure 6).
The development of Port Sunlight model village commenced in 1887. William Lever used architects William Owen and his son Segar Owen and stated in 1888 that:
It is my and my brother’s hope, some day, to build houses in which our work-people will be able to live and be comfortable – semi-detached houses with gardens back and front, in which they will be able to know more about the science of life than they can in a back-to-back slum (cited in Darley 2007, 142).
Despite Lever’s initial preference, there was insufficient land for all the houses to be semis. However, even with a mix of short terraces, semis and a few detached dwellings for managers, the density was low. In addition, the layout minimised the number and length of the streets. Both of these features were later embraced as principles of the garden city movement.
With Bourneville, George Cadbury was less a philanthropist and more an economic rationalist than was Lever. His intention was that his village would net a return of 4% after costs, and unlike Port Sunlight, it was not built exclusively for his employees. He had aspirations to provide a model village to “encourage a social intermixture of all classes” (Tarn 1973, 159) and, as a Quaker, Cadbury was also keen to promote moral improvement.
The Cadbury cocoa works moved to a new site near Birmingham in 1879, and the village of Bournville commenced on a small scale with a detached house for the manager and six pairs of semis, with large gardens, to house key workers. Bournville expanded significantly after 1895, mostly with semis and some short terraces.
Bournville, unlike Port Sunlight, had very little attention paid to the layout of the buildings within the village, and many of the early semis were of an urban design which ignored their rural setting. Nevertheless both Port Sunlight and Bournville provided inspiration for the later garden cities. They were responsible for the “cloaking of working class housing in a middle class disguise” and “breaking down the distinctions between housing for the workers and housing for others” (Darley 2007, 144,145). In addition, Cadbury fulfilled the goals of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes by proving that:
a low density layout could be a practical possibility even for the working classes, and unwittingly he opened the flood gates to a new kind of suburbia (Tarn 1973, 161).
Housing the Middle Classes
Although the middle class had been “rising” for centuries, it was still only 15% of the population in 1851. At the upper level were the industrialists and merchants, in the middle the professionals and clerks, and at the lower end the tradesmen and shopkeepers. Members of the middle class were aspirational, and sought to differentiate themselves from the working classes. Moving out of the city centres, away from the working class terraced housing areas, had the advantage of distance from the threats to health inherent in overcrowded slums with limited sanitation, and also ensured that middle class families were not influenced by the perceived poor morals and unacceptable behaviour of the working classes. The middle classes defined themselves by strict cultural norms and values, with a particular emphasis on family, and their dwellings were a very visible and powerful statement about status. The need for privacy was an overarching middle class attribute; both it and the employment of one or more servants were key characteristics which impacted on the size and form of a nineteenth century middle class dwelling.
The middle class suburbs in smaller towns and cities were closer to the city centres, yet were still clearly separated from working class areas. Because land was cheaper in the smaller towns, housing densities were lower and the middle classes could often readily afford detached housing. For example, detached villas for the middle class started appearing in villages such as Edensor in 1839 (Darley 2007, 121). But for the larger cities such as London, detached housing was beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest of the middle classes.
The initial response by speculative builders to the need for distinctive and separate middle class housing was to build estates of large terraces in new suburbs. The fashionable picturesque styles were not readily applied to high density urban housing, but as country estates and detached suburban villas began to display forms which rejected order and uniformity, the Georgian terrace gradually became less popular, although terraces continued to be fashionable in London, even for the upper classes, long after they had fallen from favour elsewhere. A pair of suburban semi-detached villas however, provided an ideal canvas on which to display picturesque styling and allowed for a garden setting in an imitation of the rural landscape, although the transference of lower class perceptions along with that dwelling type was avoided by adapting the cottages for a middle class clientele. Even the term “cottage” became interchangeable with “villa” in the suburbs.
The architect George Dance the Younger (1741-1825) is credited with being the first to use semi-detached villas in a design for a suburban London estate (Galinou 2010, 77). However, his Camden Estate plan of 1790 was not built.
Planning for St John’s Wood (the Eyre Estate) commenced in 1794. John Burnett states that it was “the first suburb to abandon the terrace in favour of the suburban villa” (Burnett 1986, 107). Further, Mireille Galinou (2010) claims that it was not only the world’s first planned villa estate but also the first garden suburb, predating that movement by 100 years.
The dwellings in the first master plan were to be large numbers of semis (plus a few detached houses) on substantial plots, with the whole estate set out in lines, squares, crescents and circles, and with a planned infrastructure such as roads and sewers. Unusually, status was denoted by the sizes of the gardens for each semi, rather than dwelling type. The use of semis for the estate was a deliberate attempt to build a respectable neighbourhood which would embody the moral virtues of the natural, simple, village way of life, as exemplified by the rural double cottage.
The master plan was revised several times, but retained the mix of mostly double houses. Building commenced in 1805 under architect John Shaw. The developer Walpole Eyre described his new estate as a “cottage estate” and although he then used the terms “residences” and “houses”, the first dwellings to be built on the estate were the Alpha Cottages, a mix of semis and detached houses (Galinou 2010, 67). For many years the Eyre Estate continued to be developed with some terraces, but mostly with semis and detached villas.
Suburban expansion gathered pace in 1815, after the French wars. Most of the early upper middle class estate development, such as the prominent builder Thomas Cubitt’s housing in Belgravia, was based on large, high quality terraces surrounding landscaped squares. However, from 1824 John Nash designed two villa developments (Park Village East and Park Village West) along the sides of the new Regent’s Canal. Nash’s urban villages comprised mostly classical stuccoed pairs of villas which appeared to be single houses (Figure 7). Nash was very influential in making the semi-detached villa socially acceptable, as long as it retained the appearance of a single large villa, and was in a socially desirable location.
The building boom of the 1840s was characterised by the speculative builders creating new middle class semis. The various editions of Loudon’s pattern book were influential in the revival of styles such as half-timbering and latticed windows for these suburban semis, and other architects soon developed pattern book designs to satisfy middle class aspirations (Figure 8). The outcome of the speculative building boom was that the semi became widely available to the middle and lower middle classes, as the popularity of the suburban middle class terraces waned.
The extension of the railway network facilitated the spread of the ad hoc middle class suburbs, but planned estates for the upper middle class also took advantage of the improved access. The Bedford Park Estate (1875-81) was developed beside Turnham Green railway station by Jonathan Carr and designed by several architects including Edward Godwin and Maurice Adams. More famous was (Richard) Norman Shaw who was the suburb’s architect from 1877, adopting the Queen Anne style. The estate contained some terraces and detached dwellings, but most of the buildings were pairs of semis (for example Figure 9). The houses were arranged around existing trees and roads; each dwelling was set back from the road and had its own garden. The dwellings all had hot and cold water, inside toilets connected to sewers, and ground floor kitchens rather than the usual basement kitchen. They were in stark contrast to the speculative semis which were being built in the suburbs and towns at that time, which Shaw described as “the small Victorian house with bad ornament in stucco, its travesties of classical detail, the deplorable legacy of John Nash and the speculative builders of the thirties and forties of the nineteenth century” (cited in Tarn 1973, 156).
The new suburb received fulsome praise from many quarters and its character made it a prototype for the later garden cities and suburbs. Walter Creese attributed its success to the “cogent expression” of the “English dual requirement, the seeking of new images through the restoration of old values” and “the beginning of the essentially modern and middle class search for some effective compromise between street and home, dynamic and static, public and private, big scale and little elements in the suburban picture” (Creese 1966, 89).
Unfortunately, for some the novelty value of Bedford Park soon palled and the experiment was not repeated for some decades. Suburbia continued to expand mostly in rows of terraces. The architect M H Baillie Scott voiced protests in the late 1890s. He saw only two alternatives, both unappealing – the building of small unimaginative houses on identical plots or colonies of model cottages where:
…the earnestness and reality of the ancient village is replaced by complacently picturesque semi-detached cottages which seem to constitute a sort of high-class suburbia. In attempting to mimic larger houses they become little villas and in their pretensions fail utterly to succeed on any count. Art is underlined everywhere and each of these miniature bijou residences seems to pose and smirk in the conscious appreciation of its own artistic qualities (cited in Darley 2007, 186).
Peter Guillery attempted to quantify the sizes of the various social classes in London at the end of the eighteenth century – upper income 2-3%, middling sort 16-21%, artisans 25% and labourers 50%. He suggests that it was immigration from rural areas during the previous centuries which “sowed the seed for the rise of both London’s working trades and its middling sort”, although he warns that there was considerable ambiguity and mobility between the upper level artisans and the lower level middling sorts (Guillery 2004, 11-13). John Burnett suggested that the middle classes formed 15% of the population in 1851 (Burnett 1986, 14, 97). Nevertheless, despite the academic difficulties with strict definitions and measurements of social class, by the end of the nineteenth century terms such as “working classes”, “labourers” and “artisans” had been enshrined in legislation and adopted by philanthropic societies and pattern book authors. Such terms clearly implied a lesser social status than the more ambiguous middle classes.
By the end of the nineteenth century the industrialisation of England had caused myriad social and environmental changes in urban and suburban areas, and enclosure had changed the face of the rural landscapes. The typical urban terrace form was gradually abandoned by the middle and upper classes who moved to cottages or villas in the suburbs and when the byelaw terrace became the default dwelling type for the working classes, a terraced house of any size was deemed socially inferior. In larger cities such as London, it was the semi which became the ideal compromise between density and cost, and which affordably satisfied the middle class aspiration for separation from the working classes.
Some attempts had been made to provide middle class apartments in the centre of London as an alternative to suburban sprawl, but despite this, the flat continued to be seen as suitable for the working classes only. So with detached housing unaffordable for most, a semi was by default, and despite the criticisms, the middle class dwelling type of choice.
The detached upper class suburban villa had split into two during the eighteenth century, although in the correct location and with the right form and style, the architect-designed pairs remained socially desirable for the upper middle class. When the middle classes adopted the values of the rural village, including its double cottages, for their suburbs, this opened up opportunities for the nineteenth century speculative builders to provide double villas for the aspirational middle and lower middle classes. In effect, semis had moved down the social scale from the upper middle class to the rest of the middle class. The urban artisans were provided with terraces or tenements, while the labouring classes remained in the older housing, much of which had become slums.
In rural areas the middle classes were generally able to afford detached housing, and the labourers in their new estate villages were provided with semis, a trend reinforced by the pattern book authors and social reformers, and embraced by the villagers for whom attachment on one side of their dwellings was well established. Terraces remained the primary housing for some new villages (in particular those whose owners cared little for philanthropy) and most new industrial housing.
The class distinctions made manifest by dwelling type were therefore very clear at the end of the nineteenth century. Although the semi-detached form had followed very different paths up and down the social scales in the city and the country, semis as villas were the dwelling type of choice for the middle classes in the suburbs and semis as double cottages housed the working classes in the country. This set the scene for the garden city movement and the post-war public housing regime which arose from it. These twentieth century phenomena were at last able to move the semi down to the urban working classes, thereby allowing the semi to become the most common dwelling type in England.
Despite the popularity of the semi, the prominent architectural historian John Summerson was of the opinion that:
The Italianate villa suffered the ultimate humiliation by becoming two houses rather than one (cited in Galinou 2010, 8).
John Ruskin lamented in 1878 that the occupants of suburbia were “lodgers in these damp shells of brick, which one cannot say they inhabit, nor call their ‘houses’ …but packing cases in which they are temporarily stored, for bad use” (cited in Barrett and Phillips 1987, 42). The author of the Greater London Plan of 1944, Patrick Abercrombie said in 1939:
The individual house and the long terrace give way to the semi-detached villa, perhaps the least satisfactory building unit in the world (cited in Oliver et al 1981, 76).
Helena Barrett and John Phillips were of the opinion that:
The idea that any aspect of suburbia is worthy of closer inspection, let alone its architecture or design, has nearly always been considered unlikely; suburban life has traditionally been a target for vilification, its architecture an object of derision (Barrett and Phillips 1988, 7).
These attitudes may help to explain why semis are generally not considered to be “heritage” unless they are old enough to qualify. Yet the architects and historians who are apt to dismiss the semi as a substandard product of the speculative builder are overlooking the contribution that many prominent architects made to the evolution of the semi, particularly during the nineteenth century. Semis should be looked at without an overly judgemental eye; one must also look beyond fabric, especially if they are not architecturally sophisticated. They have stories to tell about economic and social change, fashion, government legislation, new technologies and most of all, about how people lived. The semi reflects the cultures it was built for. As such, semis deserve to be better understood, and hopefully as a result, better valued as part of the built heritage of England.
The Bedford Park Society (nd) http://www.bedfordpark.org accessed 23 August 2011.
Department for Communities and Local Government 2011 English Housing Survey: headline report 2010-11, http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/statistics/pdf/1785484.pdf (accessed 9 March 2012).
HMSO 1842 Report to Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department, from the Poor Law Commissioners, on an inquiry into the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain.
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How to cite: Lofthouse, P 2013. The Development of English Semi-detached Dwellings During the Nineteenth Century. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 22:83-98, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/pia.404
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Published on 14 February 2013.