Exploring Architecture: Discover the Secrets of Victorian Homes
What makes a Victorian house Victorian? Take a tour of the architectural features and decorative details characteristic of the era
Britain’s cities, towns and villages are made up of buildings that hail from numerous architectural periods. On a walk through any town, you could encounter homes from the Georgian, Tudor and Edwardian eras to name just three, and it can often be difficult to distinguish one period from another. Victorian architecture makes up a large proportion of those buildings, and many of us live in Victorian homes today. This is a quick look at what distinguishes Victorian homes from the rest, the history behind the architecture and the design elements that make up their distinctive style.
History at a Glance
What Victorian architecture – buildings constructed during the reign of Queen Victoria
Main characteristic Terraced housing, generally built to accommodate workers moving to cities to work in factories
Professional advice from:
Martyn Clarke of Martyn Clarke Architecture
Hugo Tugman of Architect Your Home
The Victorian era refers to the period in which Queen Victoria ruled Britain, from 1837-1901. Following the Industrial Revolution, which began around 1760 and lasted until about 1840, production methods and manufacturing processes had changed greatly. The beginning of the railways meant building materials that would previously only have been available to those in the local area were now available countrywide.
People flocked to the towns looking for work. ‘The explosion of the property market happened in the Victorian era, so they were forced to mass produce homes to accommodate all of the workers,’ says Hugo Tugman. This is why Victorian properties make up such a large proportion of homes in Britain’s cities today.
See how to bring a Victorian home into the 21st century
Kitchens were considered to be the territory of servants for the wealthy, and would certainly not have been on display to the public in smaller homes. Beyond the main house would have been what is called a rear projection or outrigger, which housed the kitchen, pantry and, historically, an outside toilet.
‘The only rooms to be presented to the public were the formal reception rooms. That’s probably one of the biggest differences between an original Victorian property built in the 19th century, and one now: things like cooking were certainly not something on show to friends and guests,’ says Martyn Clarke. The rear projections were often more than 6m long, and can be extended sideways today to create around 40 sq m of space.
Cars were invented towards the end of the Victorian era, so Victorian homes would not have had garages, hence the multitude of properties today with on-street parking. People would have travelled by foot, steam train, horse, horse-drawn bus and, in the case of the wealthy, horse and cart.
Most rooms in a Victorian house would have contained a fireplace, as open fires were the only form of heating. The lack of heating also had an impact on room sizes. ‘It meant big, open spaces were unrealistic,’ explains Hugo Tugman. ‘Heavy curtains would also have been common to block draughts, as windows were single-glazed.’
Plate glass – which allowed for larger panes – arrived in 1832. Typical Victorian windows were made up of four or six panes fixed to wooden runners that slide vertically, called sash windows.
Often homes would have bay windows, either circular or rectangular. ‘Bay windows are very characteristic of the Victorian era, and can even go up to three storeys high,’ Martyn Clarke explains.
‘The Victorians embraced ornament in the detail and in the form of their buildings,’ adds Hugo Tugman. ‘They would have had bays to create more interest in the modelling.’
Victorian homes often had floor tiles in the porch area and hallway. Terracotta was a common colour, as were black and white, and geometric patterns, such as this one, were typical.
Victorian buildings typically had a front porch marking the main entrance to the house. Their features vary depending on the grandness of the property. Small terraced houses would typically have had a small sheltered area, while grander properties might have had steps, gables and carvings around the porch.
The quality of joinery and moulding was directly related to the status of the house. Moulding gives form and shape to a room and was an important element in Victorian interior design. Grander homes would have had much more elaborate moulding with decorative details, including ornate coving and ceiling roses, which were designed to catch the smoke rising from gas lights. ‘You can have different grades of fireplace, different levels of cornicing – different levels of embellishment across the board,’
says Martyn Clarke.
The terraces designed to house working families were often very small and built in close proximity to one another. A typical house of this kind was a two-up, two-down (two rooms upstairs and two downstairs). Sometimes, a whole street would share just a few toilets. Some families may have had as many as 12 children – a source of income at the time, because they could be sent to work – so space was extremely tight.
Despite their compact footprint, Victorian homes are characteristically well proportioned, making them comfortable living spaces, ‘they have the best-proportioned spaces, with high ceilings and great depth,’ says Martyn Clarke.
The emerging middle classes lived in larger terraced and semi-detached houses, just streets away from the more crowded homes of the working classes. They were more likely to have flushing toilets and servants quarters in the loft or basement, depending on the status of the family. Their internal finishes would have been more elaborate, particularly in the public rooms.
Tour an elegantly renovated Victorian villa
For the wealthy, Victorian mansions were a space of refuge and comfort. These homes were very grand and would have followed all of the latest fashions, including heavy curtains, flowery wallpaper and extravagant furniture. Rich, dark colours were à la mode, as were button-backed armchairs, ottomans and chaise longues.
‘Often they had riotous colours, and they embraced colour much more than we readily give them credit for,’ says Hugo Tugman. Servants would have lived downstairs and been responsible for the cooking and cleaning, lighting of the fires, heating of water for washing, and helping members of the family to dress.
Victorian architecture forms a large part of Britain’s history, and shapes much of our architectural landscape today. Many of the larger homes have been subdivided into flats, and extensions have often been added to both large and smaller homes to make the most of the space.
There are numerous ways to update Victorian homes. ‘You can add a contemporary extension, lay underfloor heating and renew sash windows,’ says Martyn.
But while Victorian homes have been brought into the 21st century, many aspects of their history and character endure.
See how to gently bring a Victorian home into the 21st Century
Do you live in a Victorian home? What is your favourite feature? Share your thoughts in the Comments below.