A brief history of housing in England and Wales

The historical recognition of the form of houses tends to be identified by reference to a period of English architectural style, for example Tudor or Victorian. The majority of the current housing stock dates from the middle of the nineteenth century and later, although there are earlier houses in existence, such as sixteenth century (Tudor), seventeenth century (Stuart, Carolingian, William and Mary), eighteenth century (Queen Ann, Georgian) and early nineteenth century (Regency). Nearly all of the extant houses of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are houses that were built for the so-called middle class (e.g. merchants and professionals) and upper class. Only rare examples of cheaper housing from these periods still exist.

The mid- and late nineteenth century (Victorian) saw a huge boom in the construction of housing in response to the mass movement of people from the countryside into the cities as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Cheap terraced houses for the workers, more spacious semi-detached houses for the managers and detached villas for the owners were developed in vast numbers on the outskirts of older towns, often by speculative builders, sometimes by the well-off themselves. These houses had solid walls of brickwork and/or stone, sometimes finished with render, roofs of clay tiles or slates, brick or timber-framed internal partitions, gas lighting, rudimentary cooking, washing and lavatory facilities and coal fires for heating. Much of the cheapest housing was of poor quality, using, for example, sun-baked bricks, and has subsequently been demolished. However, large numbers of terraced, semi-detached and detached Victorian houses are still in existence, albeit modernised at various times during the intervening period.

Houses built in the first decade of the twentieth century (the Edwardian period) are considered by many experts to be the pinnacle of quality in terms of workmanship and materials. Facilities are similar to those of the preceding century but of better quality. This period also saw the rise of the Garden City Movement, based on the writing of Sir Ebenezer Howard, who was highly critical of the urban development of the period and promoted the idea of a planned city with generous public spaces and buildings, low-density houses with large gardens in broad tree-lined streets and separate zones for factories and other industrial development. This led to the creation of garden city towns, such as Letchworth, Hampstead Garden Suburb and Welwyn.

The period between the First World War and the Second World War (the inter-war period) saw much greater state intervention in housing. Previously, involvement on the part of the state had been restricted to the provision of legislation encouraging local authorities to take action, but now the government legislated and provided the funding for the development of council housing, i.e. local authority social housing. There was also considerable private speculative housing development, leading to the suburban expansion of many cities. Both the council and the private housing of the period, particularly the former, reflected some of the principles of the Garden City Movement, especially the low-density housing, large gardens and broad tree-lined streets. This period saw cavity-wall construction and concrete foundations become standard. Floors and roofs were still constructed using cut timbers, bathroom and kitchen fittings were installed as standard, but were still very basic, hot water was often provided by a gas heater and space heating was again based on open fireplaces. Many rural houses still had no piped water, mains electricity or mains drainage.

During both World Wars housing development was suspended and after the Second World War little housing construction took place, apart from repairing bomb-damaged houses, until the mid-1950s when the post-war period of house building really commenced. Both council housing and private speculative development boomed for the next 20 years, although the standards were still relatively low, e.g. few new houses had central heating and roof insulation was non-existent until 1965, and then only minimal. However, most rural properties now had mains electricity and water, and mains drainage became more common.

Gradually, from the 1970s onwards, trussed roofs, often finished with concrete tiles, became standard and modern timber framed construction became relatively popular after a difficult introductory period; even where cavity construction continued to be used, timber or steel framed internal partitions were commonly installed. Central heating became the norm, and during the 1990s, cavity wall insulation and double glazing became standard in new housing developments. Dry wall finishes were also prevalent for new development. During the past 30 years or so, increasing use has been made of new materials and techniques. Examples include composite timber products for structural purposes and finishes and plasticised products, ranging from components such as windows to paint systems. There has also been recognition that many older and sometimes discarded, or unfashionable, products and materials are still relevant, e.g. clay roof tiles, roofing slates, lead work and lime mortar.