The Great Housing Boom: Housing in Victorian England

Huge numbers of new homes were built in the Victorian era — hardly surprising in view of the demographics of the time. Census returns for 1801 and 1851 show the population almost doubling during those years; between 1801 and 1911 it almost quadrupled, rising from about 9 million people to 36 million by 1911 (Long 2). But supply and demand were unevenly matched. According to Stefan Muthesius, "there was often a glut" of houses for the better-off, while many of the "poor and lowest paid" (24) were still inadequately housed by the end of the period. The complicating factor was speculation. Generally speaking, land belonging to the old great estates was bought or leased and then developed, and when the houses were built they were rented rather than sold: Muthesius writes, "Until the beginning of the twentieth century 90 per cent of all houses were rented from private landlords" (17). Speculation was risky (witness the fate of John Galpin in North Oxford), and the poor provided a less profitable rental market anyway. Hence the shortfall of new housing at this level of society. Nevertheless, the population explosion was bound to produce a general boom in house-building.

Another reason was more subtle and yet more prescriptive in effect. This was the drawing in on itself of the nuclear family, with its focus on home and hearth. As usual, Dickens had his finger on the pulse of the age when he showed Wemmick in Great Expectations, happily ensconced in his "castle", away from all the pressures of work and the city. People wanted to escape the increasingly industrialised, frenetic, impersonal world outside. (For a glimpse of this world, see the London street scene depicted in a Harper's issue of 1859.) Each family wanted its own haven, and, with the rise of a salaried middle class and the advent of first the horse-drawn omnibus, and then the railways, more and more employees wanted that haven to be out in the fresher air of the suburbs.

Left: Holly Village, Highgate. Right: 12, Park Village West by John Nash. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

New smart terraces were built on what were then the outskirts of town, and from mid-century onwards, especially, some were able to protect their privacy further by renting semi-detached or detached villas. These of course could better reflect their occupants' own personalities — personalities which could not be expressed in the workplace. As at the more rarefied top end of the market, the demand here was for individual specifications, or at least a variety of styles from which to select. Early examples of varied and picturesque suburban developments were Park Village West near Regent's Park, where, for example, No. 12 alone has an Italianate tower; and the assortment of quirky Gothic houses in Holly Village, Highgate.

In total, the number of houses built rose from about 1.6 million in 1801 to about 7.6 million by 1911, with several surges in the 30s, 40s, and early 50s, and major booms in the late 60s, later 70s, and then again at the turn of the century (see Muthesius 17 and 20). The period from the mid-century onwards is generally considered the most exciting of all, the enthusiasm generated then amounting to a veritable "housing revolution" (Crowley 109).

Related Material

Sources

Crowley, David. Introduction to Victorian Style. Royston: Eagle, 1998.

Long, Helen C. Victorian Houses and Their Details: The Role of Publications in Their Building and Decoration. Oxford: Architectural Press, 2002.

Muthesius, Stefan. The English Terraced House. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982.

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Last modified 19 September 2008