The Way They Lived Then

The Last Country Houses

by Clive Aslet
Yale University Press, 344 pp., $29.95

Among the many notions now withering in the mood of skepticism of the Eighties is the contention that the English are demonstrably English. They founded parliamentary democracy, yet they tolerate a prime minister whose powers far exceed those of George III or Peel or Gladstone. They pride themselves on being molded by religion and tradition, but England is the most heathen country in the West and one whose contempt for the past is expressed yearly in vandalism and the destruction of ancient buildings and the countryside. Peaceful and tolerant? Violent crimes multiply, English football fans are notorious as the hooligans of Europe, and the militant left is now faced by an intransigent right which despises the poor and the social services that soften their hardships. Yet there is one important physical characteristic that distinguishes England and Wales from the rest of the Continent, and indeed from North America. The system of housing the inhabitants of their cities differs from that of any other Western country—including Scotland. In the cities the English and Welsh still live mainly in terraced houses.

There they stand in every town, rows and rows of attached houses crazily following the line of long-forgotten footpaths or hedgerows, like caterpillars crawling over the landscape. Flying into Heathrow from the Continent, or gazing out of the window of a railway carriage as the train moves through the towns, who can fail to be struck by the sight? Nowadays the pattern is broken by an occasional new development, its houses set at angles to each other, or by the now notorious tower blocks of apartments beset by swirling winds, their smashed amenities covered with litter and graffiti. But just before the beginning of the First World War only 3 percent of dwelling in England and Wales were apartments, and Stefan Muthesius argues that the terraced house gave England a standard of housing superior to that of any other country.

By that time the classic family town house had evolved. It was two stories high, the upper floor consisting of three bedrooms with a bath and lavatory connected to a sewer. The house could also be connected to the gas, electricity, and telephone mains, and the water was heated in the kitchen. At the back was a private garden. Only central heating was missing. But what was even more significant was that such houses were built in rows in a fashion that had descended from eighteenth-century London. The great terraces of town houses built by Adam and Nash were first copied, then modified, then transformed into different styles of architecture by the speculative builders who created English cities and towns. The pattern of housing was the same for the lower middle and even the working class as for the upper classes except that their terraced houses were more expensive and larger.

Why was the pattern so different from that in cities elsewhere? Why were there no vast blocks of apartments in the center and detached and widely spaced houses in …

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