Old houses hold and preserve history. Unlike other possessions, old houses predate us and may well outlast us. With a bit of rummaging you can often produce an exact date when an old house was built. The Lodge pictured left was restored by Vintage Property Restoration in 2012. It appeared on the 1890 ordinance survey map of Leeds but did not appear on an 1880 layout of the area. Eventually a search through the West Yorkshire archive in Morley uncovered a certificate of planning permission granted to one time owner of Tetley’s Brewery, Sir Charles Ryder, in 1882.
But property history is about more than dates and one of the riches of restoration work is that it puts you in direct contact with the social history of houses. Secrets of the times houses were built in; secrets of the people who lived within; and secrets of the men who have built, repaired and converted houses over the years can all be revealed once floor boards come up.
Social History of Housing
The Victorian and Edwardian houses that constitute roughly half of Leeds’ housing stock reflect three social classes. The traditional back-to-back worker's tenements can still be seen in parts of South and East Leeds though most were demolished in the slum clearances of the early 1900s. The remaining terraces were generally built after the 1875 Public Health Act and are more sanitary through-terraces that give onto a back alley or ginnel. Despite a Dickensian reputation for squalor, disease and poverty, many are solidly built and can make nice homes.
Tenements were built adjacent to, and stood and stand in contrast to, the towering bourgeois townhouses “up on hill”. There are many of these across North Leeds today with the best examples found in Chapeltown and Headingley. Replete with carved stonework, gothic features and gentrified interiors they stand witness to the enormous wealth generated in Leeds in the decades following the industrial revolution. The plethora of carved stonework also stands testimony to the ingenuity of the Victorian builders who manoeuvred the huge pieces of stone into position using nothing but horses, bars and block and tackle.
After 1880 the emergence of a middle class gave rise to a halfway house between the tenements and gentrified townhouses. These are the elegant terraces still prevalent in Chapeltown, Burley, Kirkstall Meanwood and Hyde Park today. They are distinguishable by sparse gothic decoration (typically a sculptured key stones over the front door), bow windows and high ceilinged reception rooms. They typically have three bedrooms, possibly a maid’s room in the loft, and rarely have much garden.
By the 1930s this aspirational middle class had grown. Their demands combined with hard-up cheap labour and cheap money following the Great Crash, paved the way for an explosion in house building which gave Leeds its plethora of three bedroom semis. These vary greatly in size and décor. Though often overlooked by restorers and vintage house enthusiasts, many semis are replete with attractive art deco features and stained glass windows.
How They Lived
Large Victorian townhouses give up many clues as to the social structures and domestic chores of the time. Many still have the bell systems used to summon servants to particular rooms. Large stone washing slabs and wall mounted oil lamps can be found in cellars and when excavating it is common to uncover white tiled cold rooms that have been paved over. Contrary to the caricature of Upstairs/Downstairs, Kitchens in most Leeds townhouses were usually located on the ground floor. They are distinguishable from the main reception rooms by the lack of ornamentation, the Yorkshire stone slab floors (often carpeted over), and the wide chimney stacks that would have housed ranges.
The Dining rooms are typically adjacent to the kitchens and are typically the most lavishly decorated rooms with ornate high ceilings, extravagant cornices and grandiose fireplaces. Often slightly less ornate drawing rooms and living rooms tend to be at the front of the house were sofas occupied the window bays.
The first thing to look at when trying to determine the original layout of old houses is the line of the cornices. If this is interrupted then the room has been partitioned and the original layout changed. Another tell-tale sign of partitioning is if features like fireplaces and bay windows are no longer central.
Large Victorian townhouses often had surprisingly few, though usually very large, bedrooms. Three is common and there was rarely more than one bathroom. Conversion of these houses is always a tussle between the need to create more bedrooms and the desire to reinstate large rooms to their former glory. The Servants quarters and box rooms in the attic often provide the key to making more bedrooms without spoiling the gentrified quarters on the first floor.
Conversion and Reinvention
Leeds’ housing stock has been constantly converted to meet new needs and cater for new social structures. After the war many townhouses, particularly those with little garden, were converted into flats. Today the larger suburban detached houses built around 1900 are increasingly turned into retirement homes. The three bed semi which met the aspirational needs of the 1930s middle class now appear poky and increasing numbers are being extended and converted into four or five bedroom houses.
Work on such conversions puts you in direct contact with the tradesmen and architects who came before you. Most old houses have a substantial revamp every thirty or forty years and once floor boards come up and fitted furniture is taken out glimmers of the property’s history are revealed.
Dating previous works is often made easy by the habit of bygone plasterers of stuffing newspapers into holes. Less exact dates can be estimated from old materials. For example, square head nails were common prior to 1920 when “French” wire nails became widely used, cavity wall construction is rarely found in walls built before 1914, and lath and plaster walls and ceilings died out with the introduction of plasterboard after 1945.
Joist and roof voids often reveal historic litter. Old cigarette and match boxes and newspapers are common and it is not unusual to find clay cutty pipes and even old tools between floors or when excavating.
Then there are the distinct periods in interior décor and fittings. In the 1930s thousands of ornate Victorian and Edwardian fireplaces were ripped out and replaced with smaller tiled art deco fire surrounds. Art deco bathroom suits likewise replaced many traditional Victorian free standing baths.
Other changes and add-ons are less easy to spot. When Vintage Property Restoration started work on the property pictured left we discovered that the battlemented bay windows to the front and rear were not original but were in fact 1920s add-on though this certainly doesn’t detract from their splendour.
When my son was born, a whimsical midwife told me that I was nothing more than a bridge between my parents and their grandchildren. House restorers are likewise little more than links between the tradesmen of the past and those of the future. The houses, for the most part, endure.