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What were the most important influences affecting middle class housing between 1918 and 1970?

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What were the most important influences affecting middle class housing between 1918 and 1970?

        In 1918, Britain’s middle class was larger than it had ever been before. The increase in clerical and service industry jobs meant a greater percentage of the population was doing non-manual work. Through these types of occupations, the middle class found they were earning a regular income, and as a result began to money manage, the majority having a bank account by the outbreak of the Second World War. The middle class also had ‘a widespread agreement […] about the proper standards of middle class life’.[1] This agreement coupled with an interest in money management led the middle class into becoming owner-occupiers of their houses. McKibbin argues that a rapid fall in construction costs, the willingness of building societies to supply the middle class with mortgages and the fact that ‘British tax laws made owner-occupation an attractive form of investment’, meant that ‘by the outbreak of the Second World War, almost 60 per cent of middle class families either owned or were buying their houses’.[2] This was such a marked change that, between 1918 and 1970, ‘home-ownership […] defined the character of the English middle class’[3].

        Instead of staying in town centres, the middle class moved outwards, even further afield than the previous suburbs that had developed towards the latter half of the 19th century. ‘The official preference […] for low-density housing developments on the fringe of the built up area’[4] derived partly from the moral attitudes of the Victorians which stressed the importance of light and fresh air. Living in the suburbs meant the middle class were removed from the dirt, congestion and noise of the city, and could enjoy the fresh air of the nearby countryside. It was typical for rows of semi-detached houses to be built along the length of existing arterial roads. However, McKibbin argues this process of ‘ribbon development’ meant homes were distant from shops and services and devoid of a traditional sense of community.

        The movement outwards into the suburbs would not have been possible without the development of transport which made living away from the city centre more convenient. London was served particularly well by the

underground rail system, so much so, that advertisers used it as a selling point in the London suburbs. Elsewhere in the country, electric trams served the residents of suburbs and for those living off the main roads, motorbuses were convenient due to their flexibility. The middle and upper middle class could afford to take full advantage of road improvements by investing in a motorcar. Car ownership increased quickly during the inter-war years with 2,000,000 households owning a car in 1939, compared to just 109,000 in 1919.

        When it came to the development and design of the suburbs, the building industry was there to cater for middle class aspirations. The way in which they designed the suburbs ‘reflected the desire of the middle classes for houses which looked old and comfortable’,[5] and although building companies working on large developments were beginning to employ architects by the 1930’s, the majority relied on using pattern books. Also, suburban houses in the inter-war years were mostly speculatively built by large firms who did not need an immediate sale. Building reached its height during the 1930’s housing boom, forcing the industry to become extremely competitive. Some argued that price wars ‘forced down the quality of work and materials’,[6] and felt that builders spent more time working on a houses’ curb appeal than on using good craftsmanship. However, these houses were not jerry built, the need to be cost effective in order to remain competitive meant that ‘new materials and methods were tried out […] in some cases improving housing’[7]. In addition, the quality of building work was improved when the National Housebuilders’ Registration Council was established, in which members had to build to a set standard and offer a warranty to purchasers.

        The style of house most favoured by the middle class during the inter-war years was the neo-vernacular type. Builders had to create a ‘rural idyll’, making suburbs look picturesque with village greens, trees and grass verges. Detached houses were preferred but as they were expensive, developers instead built semi-detached houses and placed them around winding roads and closes. Stylistically, ‘the suburban semi-detached […] had to express a degree of individuality without being too different from its neighbours’[8] so to appeal to buyers, houses were based on ‘a variety of texture based on neo-vernacular models from higher up the architectural and social scale’.[9] This included half timbering, tile hanging, weather boarding, red herringbone brickwork and pebble dashed walls. Features such as dormer windows, gabled porches and leaded windows were also very popular with the middle class buyer. However, probably the most important features were the porch and the bay window, the latter because it defined the private house from the council house, in effect acting as a show of status. The porch, which was often gabled, framed and emphasised the front door and gave the impression of entering something grander than a semi-detached house.image00.jpg

         Social developments influenced the size and layout of private houses after 1918. Firstly ‘the rise of home ownership amongst a widening middle class went hand in hand with another drastic change- the end of domestic service. Live in servants were becoming a thing of the past’.[10] Although the middle class was larger then it had ever been previously, Burnett argues that it was also ‘poorer than its Edwardian predecessor’, and as result ‘servant-keeping […] became a privilege of upper income levels’.[11] This meant houses could be smaller because they did not have to include servant’s quarters. However, they also needed to be smaller to make cleaning easier for the

middle class housewife who had to take on the role of the maid. Demographic changes also led to the house becoming smaller. A decline in the birth rate meant smaller families; they were 1.5 million fewer children in 1939 than in 1900, which brought the average number of children per family to 2.2 compared with 3.5 in 1901. In addition, Britain was seeing a rise in the popularity of the bungalow which served as a solution to the longer life expectancy of the population. The bungalow was ideal for pensioners with a large enough disposable income to invest in a small home for their retirement.

        The vernacular revival apparent in the suburbs was very different from the style that was popular with architects in the twenties and thirties. The Modernist style could be identified in most architecturally designed public buildings across the country. Factories and offices built in the 1930’s for example; had mostly flat roofs, horizontal panes of glass and white rendering, which perhaps explains why only small touches of the modernist style penetrated the suburbs. The fact that the middle class wanted to escape from work and city life made the style unpopular when it came to the design of the home. They did not want to be reminded of work when spending time at home with the family. However, some developers tested the style out on the buyer by building some houses with horizontal windowpanes wrapped around bays, stepped windows and flushed panelled doors. Although some of these houses were given flat roofs, most showed a compromise by having a pitched one. Not only were the modernist houses unpopular, they were also impractical; the metal window frames rusted which caused the glass panes to crack and the white rendering was prone to cracking and was expensive to repaint. These houses may have served well on the continent but were unsuitable for the British weather.image01.jpg

        As mentioned earlier, the middle class felt that light and fresh air were important for health and a nice home. This led to an alteration in the way houses were laid out. Firstly, back extensions were ‘gradually being superseded by squarer layouts which ensured more light in all rooms’.[12] In addition, the Public Health Act 1875, eventually led to the disappearance of the basement, which was considered dark, damp and unhealthy. The garden became an important part of the home at this time, providing the opportunity to experience the fresh air of the nearby countryside. The middle class did not want to have to share their gardens so each house had to have a private garden with easy access. As a result, French windows leading onto the back garden became more or less standard after 1920.

        During the Second World War, 450,000 houses were destroyed and over three million damaged. Although the bombing left Britain with an even bigger housing shortage than in 1918, it also gave the government a chance of a new start in terms of urban development. Instead of simply expanding the suburbs of existing towns, the government created New Towns. Each had its own cultural identity and housing and industrial developments. The style of the New Towns was controlled by a master plan which, as Aslet alleges ‘relied largely on terraced houses and occasional low-rise flats’.[13]

         In 1918, Lloyd George promised to build ‘habitations fit for the heroes who have won the war’, and from then up until the 1970’s, local authority housing was provided across Britain. The style of the council housing affected the middle class idea of how their house should look. During the inter-war years when council houses were neo-Georgian, the middle class chose the mock Tudor look. After the Second World War, local authority housing took on the Utility style which was ‘bereft of adornment out of economy’[14] and usually had characteristic plain slab door hoods. This change in style meant private housing could now include neo-Georgian features, such as pediment porches, without looking like council housing. This gave private housing a simpler outline compared to the ostentatious mock Tudor look of the pre-war housing. However, because the building industry was also starting to cater for lower levels of income than before, Burnett argues that housing standards converged and ‘private housing […] at the lower end was scarcely distinguishable from […] council housing’. [15]image02.jpg

        The relatively simple outline of the lower middle class house led the upper middle class to adopt a different style. They favoured the Colonial look with its colonnaded façade, bow windows and double garage. It is perhaps not surprising that a revival in classical architecture encouraged the re-development of inner city Victorian villas during the Sixties. Thompson,[16] in his study of Islington, reported that the ‘middle class […] were gradually ousting working class sitting tenants with names like ‘Ron and Cliff’ and thus ‘gentrifying’ the borough’. He also noted that the middle class buyer ‘makes his early Victorian house older by fitting a six-panelled Georgian front door with exact reproduction brass door furniture’.[17]

        The layout of the home started to change after the 1950’s due to the increasing informality of domestic life. Where as the parlour had gradually filtered out of house plans during the 1930’s, so too was the strict room divisions that the middle class had once always insisted on. Homes were more open planned and it was acceptable to have combined living and dining rooms and to also dine in the kitchen. This affected the middle class so much that ‘the kitchen […] was the centre of middle class life’.[18] Also, as life was increasingly focused around the home and family, children were less segregated from the rest of the family. Added to the layout of the house was the integral garage, which demonstrates the extent to which car ownership had become part of middle class life.

        The development of equipment for use within the home was the biggest influence on the middle class house after the war. By the 1960’s, most speculatively built houses were fitted with central heating and those who owned houses without, soon had it installed. Kitchens started to be fitted with cupboards and worktops and an array of gadgets were offered to the middle class housewife. ‘Status had shifted away from the home onto moveable objects, particularly gadgets replacing servants’[19] and the concept of ‘keeping up with the Jones’ was born. Everyone could afford gadgets of some sort and as a result, houses had to have electric power points in every room which was a big difference from the houses of earlier on in the century where one or two sockets would have served the whole house.

        Two influences on middle class housing that have not been mentioned in detail, are the economy and the media which are crucial in understanding why middle class housing took on the shape it did. Firstly, without the strong economic growth of the 20th century, the middle class would not have had the real income or the stability to buy a house. Most importantly however, was the media influence which created the whole idea of the ‘ideal home’. The Daily Mail Book of House Plans aimed to ‘show how the majority of people would wish to live in the perfect world of any particular year’[20] and the Ideal Home Exhibition told people how their homes should look. The popularity of television and radio enabled attitudes and fashions to be spread easily across the nation. By 1970, the media was telling the middle class what to think, how to live and what to buy.image03.jpg


[1] McKibbin, R., 1998, Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951, Oxford University Press p72

[2] ‘Ibid’ p73

[3] ‘Ibid’ p74

[4] Aslet, C. & Powers, A., 1985, The National Trust Book of the English House, Viking p268

[5] Aslet, C. & Powers, A., 1985 p273

[6] Burnett, J., 1978, A Social History of Housing, Methuen p253

[7] ‘Ibid’ p254

[8] Barrett, H. & Phillips, J, 1993, Suburban Style, Little Brown & Co. p125

[9] Aslet, C. & Powers, A., 1985 p272

[10] Gray, E., 1994, The British House, Barrie & Jenkins p135

[11] Burnett, J., 1978 p258

[12] Barrett, H. & Phillips, J., 1993 p100

[13] Aslet, C. & Powers, A., 1984 p275

[14] Gray, E., 1994 p184

[15] Burnett, J., 1978 p295

[16] Thompson, M., Rubbish Theory, OUP

[17] Thompson, M., Rubbish Theory, OUP as quoted by Gray, E., 1994, The British House, Barrie & Jenkins, p160

[18] Burnett, J., 1978 p302

[19] Barrett, H. & Phillips, J., 1993 p137

[20] Rivers, T., 1992, The Name of the Room, BBC Books p27

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