A Short History of British Housing

Finding the essentials for healthy living has been one of the key drivers for the development of British housing and the changing ways we expect to live. In the RIBA's collections, there is evidence for 150 years of changing attitudes to housing in Britain.

Franklin Terrace, Argyle Street, Glasgow, built in 1851. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection Churchill Gardens Estate, London, in the 1950s. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection Panorama of three generations of building, Pimlico, Westminster, London, 1960s. © Eric de Maré / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

An article in the popular architectural journal the Builder on 1 February 1862 highlighted some basic problems in housing. At the time slums were common and conditions in those of Glasgow were so overcrowded and insanitary that the journal declared “…no other part of the British empire presents more extreme features of misery and wretchedness than Glasgow ” (p.69). But nearby in the city’s more fashionable and suburban areas speculators had overbuilt: “At this moment there are upwards of 5,000 empty homes in Glasgow” (p.70). The mismanagement of our housing stock is not just a modern phenomenon.

...no other part of the British empire presents more extreme features of misery and wretchedness than Glasgow.

In the same month the Builder  also looked at the “essentials of a healthy dwelling” (p.71-72), such as ventilation, non-absorbent construction materials and the provision of sanitation. Architects were looking for standards and ways to build well, and these increasingly included homes for the labouring classes. Simple proposals included legislation to “…prevent the building of small houses on undrained land, and without proper sanitary arrangements” (15 February 1862, p109).

New towns and garden suburbs

Design for The Glade, Letchworth Garden City, for Sir John Gorst, 1906. © RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections
Design for The Glade, Letchworth Garden City, for Sir John Gorst, 1906.
© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

50 years later the  Architects’ & Builders’ Journal  (February 1912), now known as the  Architects’ Journal , recognised that during the rapid and unplanned growth of the Victorian era many homes had been “…laid out with little or no regard either to the general interest of the towns or the particular interests of the people who were to live in the houses” (p.147). After the publication of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-morrow  in 1904 which advocated for small self-sufficient communities and houses with more green space, there was a growing movement to radically improve cities and the living conditions for the people living in them. The journal reported about the success of the different design and management strategies deployed in the low-density developments of new garden cities like Letchworth, inspired by Howard, and garden suburbs like Bournville and Port Sunlight.

Predictions for the future

Some homes of tomorrow will actually revolve to catch sunshine.

After World War II the nature of houses had changed; suburbs grew and there were technological advances and changes in planning legislation resulting in slum clearances and the growth of high-rise living.

Amongst the high-rise schemes reported in the periodicals of the time was the 19-storey maisonette block designed by Cotton Ballard & Blow. Overlooking Notting Hill Gate, London, it was part of a redevelopment initiated by the London County Council to widen the road and completely rebuild the land on either side using slab blocks. The  Architectural Review (February 1962) criticised elements of this multi-storey development for being “ overpowering ” in a neighbourhood of predominately four to three storey terraced Victorian houses. Inside this reinforced concrete structure were modern facilities and sanitation: bathrooms, toilets, under floor heating, living rooms, kitchens connected to refuse chutes and most had two bedrooms (p.89-96).

Notting Hill Gate redevelopment seen in its urban context, Kensington, London, 1962. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Image: Notting Hill Gate redevelopment seen in its urban context, Kensington, London, 1962.
© Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

In the  AR  predictions were also made of the way people would live in the future: “Some homes of tomorrow will actually revolve to catch sunshine” and with new methods to mould and curve materials “…the future should prove to be less angular in architecture as well as in furniture construction” (p.78). Meals would be made on mobile cooking trolleys and we’d all be sitting on inflatable plastic furniture.

Conservation and renovation 

Living patterns in Britain continued to evolve; open-plan living was popular, as was remodelling rather than demolishing existing buildings. The RIBA Journal  (February 1997) looked at two projects where the living areas were no longer restricted to inside the house. In Edinburgh, Richard Murphy Architects renovated an Edwardian House so that interior and exteriors spaces connected and the family could use the garden as an extension of the house, establishing a relationship that previously was strictly segregated. In a listed Georgian house near Waterloo, London, Azman Owen Architects created an extension of the kitchen by extending a work surface into the garden.

This potted journey through the periodicals in the RIBA’s collections prove that housing is an issue that will not go away.

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