Building the Victorian City: Splendour and Squalor

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By 1900 Britain had produced the world’s largest cities and the first industrial cities. These phenomena led to vast technical, social and architectural challenges. Victorian architects and engineers met these with some of the most impressive feats of construction since the cathedrals of the middle ages. 

This is a part of the lecture series, English Architecture: Into the Modern World.
Simon Thurley’s four lectures complete his survey of English building from the Saxons to the present day. The theme is modernity and tradition. This is the story of how British architects struggled to find an architectural language that met the needs and aspirations of a society in a state of rapid change while negotiating deep and popular traditions and beliefs. Two World Wars shook the nation producing the seemingly contradictory emotions of nostalgia and progress. Out of this has come the world in which we live.
The other lectures in this series are as follows:
    English Architecture and the First World War
    Forwards and Backwards: Architecture in inter-war England
    Coming to Terms with Modern Times: English architecture in the post-war era

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10 October 2012

Building the Victorian city:
Splendour and Squalor

Dr Simon Thurley

While the seventeenth century had been characterised by the enormous and rapid growth of London urban growth in the eighteenth century was more evenly spread. London continued to grow, but the number and size of provincial towns increased too. In 1801 the government commissioned the first official census; it found that 8.3 million people lived in England an increase of about 25% since 1750. By 1831 the population was 13.1m. England’s population was increasing 50% faster than any other European country and a third of its people lived in towns. Between 1800 and 1841 Sheffield doubled in size, Bradford grew by 10%, Leeds tripled from 50,000 in 1800 to 150,000 by the mid century, Manchester went up from 95,000 to 350,000.

Impressively England managed to feed this urban expansion. By 1800 each farm worker produced enough to support two workers in manufacturing and services. London and the northern manufacturing towns sucked in excess rural labour creating new jobs in handicraft and retail, traditional employments with independent masters and only a small waged workforce. In these businesses an imperative developed to introduce machines, not because there was a shortage of people, but because employing them was expensive. A London labourer’s wages were 14 grams of silver a day while in Amsterdam it was 9 grams and only two in Vienna.

In these lectures I have stressed the role of towns and their inhabitants in architectural innovation and change. In the nineteenth century the architecture of England was again transformed: market halls, hotels, baths, dispensaries, libraries, Sunday schools, chapels, asylums, workhouses, cemeteries, hospitals, bazaars, arcades, theatres and other new building types come to dominate the landscape. The tastes of wealthy town dwellers had independence and distinctiveness and cannot be seen as watered down versions of aristocratic ones. They also had money. Merchants, financiers and professionals had substantial disposable income some of which was invested in the National Debt but much was put into turnpikes, bridges and canals, and after 1814 into public utilities, especially gas.

Yet those who had money and who promoted the new buildings in the provinces were much less interested in their physical environment than their predecessors who built Bath, Cheltenham and the ordered squares of the West End of London. The new and expanding towns of the north were introverted and private places where the wealthy lived in detached villas not sweeping terraces and crescents. Workers housing was built willy-nilly with no thought to a larger plan. This aesthetic indifference was partly due to the predominance of evangelicalism amongst the wealthy for, though some were interested in architecture, most thought spiritual things more important and what buildings looked like was a minor concern.

In fact overall the interests of this new provincial society were much less frivolous, the assembly room and the theatre were replaced by the reading room, library and chapel. A new enthusiasm for learned societies swept the country: in 1749 there had been only 450, but by 1799 there were 1,100. Palaeontology, geology, natural history, chemistry and political economy were just a few of the areas covered. Many societies built premises for their meetings and collections. The Scarborough Philosophical Society commissioned a museum in 1828-9 to the designs of the Yorkshire architect and museum aficionado R.H. Sharp. Its upper part was a circular room in which contained a revolutionary display of fossils. Literary and Philosophical Societies sprang up in large numbers after the end of the wars many, like the Newcastle ‘Lit and Phil’ built impressive clubhouses or libraries; the successful local architect, John Green designed them an immaculately constructed library in a Greek style in 1822.

But of course towns were above all places of economic exchange, a role that became increasingly important with the development of agriculture and manufacturing in the countryside. While agricultural produce was still sold in town centre market places by retailers, the market for wholesale agricultural produce moved first into private rooms in inns and then into corn exchanges. Hundreds of exchanges were built from the 1820s right up to the end of the century. In an exchange grain was sold to wholesale dealers by means of a sample displayed by growers on tables in a large hall.  In 1828 a consortium of businessmen in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, formed a company and commissioned Lewis Vulliamy to design a corn exchange for the town. It has a portico of four giant ionic columns facing the high street, above the entrance to the trading floor, designed for 65 dealers, stood a statue of Ceres, goddess of grain. Such allegorical references were common on these buildings whose elaboration expressed civic economic aspiration rather than simply meeting the needs of traders.

The retail trade also diversified and expanded. In the south of England, after the Napoleonic Wars, there was a shop for every 30-40 people, perhaps double the density that exists now. Shops were increasingly outlets for finished goods and fewer were fronts for workshops at the rear. As a consequence one of the most visible changes in the period after 1700 was the gradual adoption of glass windows: by 1750 the shops on the City of London’s principal thoroughfare, Cheapside, were all glazed and after hanging signs were banned in London in 1762 shops began to have their names painted on a frieze or facia above the windows. By 1800 this was the case for almost all shops such as the amazingly rare survival in Haymarket, shows the effect perhaps dating from as early as the 1850s.

Much larger establishments began to be built in London and provincial centres and it was these that led the way in fixed prices and an insistence on cash payments demystifying shopping for a new generation of middle class clients. Some were proprietor owned and operated like the giant bookshop opened in Finsbury Square in 1789-91. James Lackington’s shop, ‘The Temple of the Muses’ was designed by George Dance who made use of cast iron columns to support galleries stocked with books. Other establishments were speculatively built by developers and space was rented to traders. By 1830 most large towns had one of these bazaars, a large emporium, home to numbers of traders selling a variety of goods. Like Dance’s bookshop they used new technology, particularly iron and glass to create large light halls. The most celebrated bazaar was perhaps the Pantheon on Oxford Street, London. Designed by Sydney Smirke in 1834 it comprised a hall 116ft by 88ft covered by a glazed barrel vault. Amongst other conveniences there was a room in which ladies could await their carriage. An alternative model for the speculator was to build an arcade - a covered shopping street containing a number of individual shops each with its own front door. Not the first, but the biggest, was the Burlington Arcade, Piccadilly, London, designed by Samuel Ware and opened in 1818. It was 585ft long containing 72 two story shops selling ‘jewellery and fancy articles of fashionable demand’.

While shops for the wealthy were transformed into ordered and elegant emporia, an ornament to the streets in which they stood, the traditional town market was still a chaotic open-cry exchange. After the Napoleonic wars a more fastidious society looked askance at the petty crime, disorder, filth and chaos of town markets. The pragmatic solution was to re-house the market in a single large building under the control of the local authorities. As most towns wished to keep their historic market places this involved compulsory purchase of areas of poor housing in town centres to create a site for a new building.

But the best surviving Georgian example is Covent Garden Market, designed by Charles Fowler, master of market design and an expert in the use of cast iron. Brilliantly Fowler created a building that rationalised the complex interactions of the market giving growers, buyers, wholesalers and retailers defined zones. The structure is formed of three parallel ranges enclosed by a curtain of granite Tuscan columns. This arcade is interrupted at the corners by pyramid-roofed pavilions designed as pubs or coffee houses. Above, at each end, were terraces where more exclusive goods were sold to superior customers.

So as we enter the Victorian period English towns were more serious, socially more ordered more private places than their Georgian predecessors, but with a much lessened sense of theatre in public space. They were also more professionally designed. People who had designed buildings had historically either been talented gentlemen or aspiring craftsmen, but after 1750 the size and complexity of buildings grew, the spectrum of materials and techniques diversified and the people who designed buildings were of different sorts. Three distinct strands began to emerge, architect, engineer and contractor. Engineers had been the first to turn their discipline into a profession forming an Institution in 1818. The expansion of the canal network and the building of the docks had created a whole new discipline and in 1763 the term Civil Engineer first appeared in a London directory. Their public reputation was high and after 1793 war with France further glamorised their achievements. It is not surprising that John Rennie was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral and Thomas Telford  in Westminster Abbey.

It took longer for an architectural profession to develop. In the eighteenth century the notion of an architect as design genius mediating between builder and client was, for most practitioners, a long way off. Many prominent architects such as John Nash, Robert Adam and Henry Holland were still speculators who designed, built and sold buildings. Many other, less successful, architects searched for a role in the increasingly pluralistic world of late Georgian building. Various attempts had been made since the 1770s to create a club for architects, but it was only in 1834 when The Institute of British Architects was formed to give a distinct definition to the profession of architecture against those of engineer or surveyor.

While various types of contract had existed in the building trades since the middle ages from 1800 it became in increasingly common to make a fixed-price contract with a single builder for the entire construction. This method had been used by the Barrack Department and the Navy Office during the Napoleonic Wars and was increasingly used by private sector. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane designed by Benjamin Wyatt and built in 1811 was perhaps the first major private building to be built by gross contract. In 1828-30 Henry Lee and Sons with Samuel Baker and Sons won the contracts to build Covent Garden Market. The largest building contractors such as the Cubitt family employed their own architects and could offer clients a design-and-build service as, in fact, they did for Queen Victoria at Osborne House, Isle of Wight.

The rise of the building contractor and the fixed price contract was symptomatic of an increased commercialisation of architecture noted, with dismay, by many architects such as John Soane. Domestic building speculation, which had started in earnest after 1666, now dominated the building world. In the decade 1811-21 309,000 houses were built in England and Wales, the following decade saw 443,000. Very large military and manufacturing complexes created buildings larger and more prominent than the cathedrals. The traditional patrons of architecture, the church, royal family and Aristocracy were now minor sectors of an economically and socially broader and more commercialised clientele. English Architecture had, in fact, been commodified.

But before we go any further I want to return for a moment to the increasing industrialisation of Britain, for as well as massive population growth this drove new buildings and new cities.

Before 1830 the English economy was an organic one. Energy was derived from muscle, wind and water power and from burning timber. Timber was the national staple essential for building construction, for shipping, for industrial production and for domestic heating and cooking. It was this latter use that provided the most significant challenge. As London grew, seemingly out of control, it became essential to free it from its dependence firewood which is why, from the sixteenth century, coal production was so important. In 1700 England’s coal production was five times that of the whole of the rest of the world and the furnace in which it was burnt was London.

In the 1620s coal-burning grates and chimneys were more widely used in the Capital but for coal to become London’s sole domestic fuel it was necessary to perfect both grate and chimney for mass housing. The huge building boom stimulated by the Great Fire did this creating effective coal-burning chimneys and fireplaces for everyone and by 1700 every new building in London could burn coal. As well as ameliorating London’s energy crisis this stimulated advances mining technology as demand continued to soar. The most important spin-off was the invention, in 1712, of the Newcomen steam engine for pumping water out of mines. By1800 there were 2,500 steam engines in Britain: France had 70. The Newcomen engines were set in brick houses 40ft tall in which a massive iron or brass cylinder sat on a brick-cased boiler. The piston was linked to a large oak beam pivoted on the wall of the engine house and the see-saw action could be harnessed to pump dry mineshafts. These crude but powerful machines used huge amounts of coal, but opened up seams that were previously inaccessible. This represented a huge leap in power; indeed by 1760 the additional energy that coal production released into the English economy was equivalent to an additional 15 million acres of forestry.

But it was the harnessing of rotary power from steam engines that created a new type of city. Manchester became the centre of the cotton industry having perhaps as many as sixty cotton mills by 1815. Its early prominence was due to its location as a hub on the canal system. Manchester’s mills were different from the rural water-powered mills invented by Richard Arkwright which I talked about in my last lecture. They were tall, close-packed, canal-side, urban and steam powered. The first Manchester mill to be wholly powered by steam was the Piccadilly Mill in 1790; it was a five story job with the engine and boilers attached mid-way along one side. Ancoats, on the Ashton and Rochdale canals on north eastern edge of the city, became the most intense area of development, indeed the world’s first industrial suburb. The mills were tall and narrow in proportion to their length, generally of L or U shape and built of local brick roofed in Welsh slate with full height external stair and privy towers. Their casement windows were of a width. A large arched entrance was provided for the workers, often with stone vouissoirs; the offices, which were often less austere were entered separately. Engine houses and chimneys were normally integrated.

Ancoats represents a decisive shift in British manufacturing and in British urbanism. Large scale enterprises needed to be in urban areas where the labour, materials and capital were available and from 1800 a new type of dense, dirty and busy urban landscape developed. Places like Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham became dominated by gigantic factories and surrounded by the grim housing of their employees. In Ancoats, as the factories sucked in more workers, a housing crisis emerged: the area had a population of 11,000 in 1801, and 31,000 by 1831. The urban mill owners did not provide accommodation for ordinary employees and so it was left to building speculators to provide. Mill workers could only pay low rents so housing had to be cheap to build and densely packed on expensive land. The solution was the back to back house, a terrace of houses where each house shared three walls with others. One room wide and deep they had no through ventilation, no back yard and no privy. Normally built around yards which contained communal sanitary facilities huge numbers of these houses were built across the north of England, in Leeds alone there were nearly 30,000 in 1910.

This is a description of such a street in Westminster in the 1880s:

‘Although there is a sewer, the houses are not drained into it, but into cesspools in surrounding premises.  The rooms are crammed with occupants, irrespective of number, age, or sex, are most horridly dirty, as is also the scanty furniture, and many of the houses are very dilapidated, and without a semblance of ventilation.  The cisterns or water butts are NEVER cleaned out; front kitchens, without any areas at all, are used as dwellings; the houses are let and underlet two, three, four times deep; and the privies are so filthily dirty on floors and seats as to prohibit their natural use and at the south-end of the street are large premises filled with cows on the basement and upper floors, from which the stench at times is unendurable.  None of the houses are provided with ashbins, and such are the filthy habits of the inhabitants that the street would be impassable, but for the daily cleaning of it by the scavengers’.

Today we give the name slum to these types of dwelling. Slums were discreet areas of cities containing a discreet under class and such places persisted in England for more than a century. But health and welfare campaigners were determined to deal with the problem and some fundamental changes were wrought in the later nineteenth century.

The first big thing that happened is that workers housing began to become much more self contained. Instead of sharing privies, yards and even kitchens houses were built as individual units. Public space –the courts of the back to backs, disappeared and lost their semi private character. Houses were now found on roads where light and air could get in and people could create a private world of domesticity behind doors and walls. Here is a shot of Leeds at the turn of the century. The houses are still back to backs, but they are built in terraces to facilitate better ventilation. The full break can be seen at Nelson, more specifically Whitefeild, the most complete Victorian townscape in Pennine Lancashire with a mix of houses, mills, weaving sheds, church and school integrated with a canal. The majority of the buildings date from 1860 to 1890 and each is a tight self-contained unit with its own little yard at the back with provision for the soli to be taken away from the detached privy in a back alley.

The second thing that happened was that science and technology came to revolutionize working class life:

This domestification, the increasing sense of domestic isolation and privacy was a trend that took place in middle class housing too. The terrace, so favoured before 1820s, became increasingly replaced by villas or semi-detached houses. The first estate in London to build villas rather than terraces was the Eyre estate in St John’s Wood. But every town of any size became ringed by the villas and semis of the middle classes where the better off would live in privacy and domesticity within their own cells.

So far we have been looking at the dark and grimy, the domestic and the public space. But there was another side to the Victorian city. The public and commercial buildings.

Almost as soon as the Bank of England was completed in 1734 it was too small. The Wars of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War between them added £88 million to the National Debt, the majority of which was administered by the Bank. By 1790 over three hundred clerks worked there. The bank’s architect between 1764 and 1788 was Robert Taylor; he was responsible for quadrupling the size of the buildings and creating a massive windowless walled enclave in the centre of the City. Of all Taylor’s extensions at the bank the east wing with its great domed Broker’s Exchange, the Rotunda, was the most important. This was effectively the world’s first stock exchange, in here British government paper securities were publically traded, in just the same way that tangible commodities had been traded over the road at the Royal Exchange). Four identical Transfer Halls led from the Rotunda where transactions were formally registered. Taylor’s inspiration was the Pantheon, one of ancient Rome’s most imitated buildings. Rotundas were found everywhere in the late eighteenth century.

Externally the Bank made a substantial impact on the Commercial heart of the city creating an impressive ensemble with the mansion House and the Royal Exchange. Its dominant architectural presence was mirrored by its institutional presence. It was widely recognised that its success as an exchange for Government stocks had bankrolled the most expensive wars the world had yet seen, and to national benefit. As it gobbled up land in the City demolishing the old taverns and drinking houses where business had traditionally been transacted, it began to create a new world of professionalised finance conducted in purpose built offices.

Though William Pitt instituted a so-called sinking fund to fund the French wars and introduced the first income tax fighting France still managed to add £591m to Britain’s debt trebling it to £834m. To handle this the Bank’s staff doubled to over a thousand. Once again it needed expanding. Now the Bank’s architect was John Soane, (in post 1788 to 1833) and here he produced his best, most important, though tragically lost, work. The Bank’s complex operations were redesigned over a 45 year period and the whole site wrapped in a quarter-mile long screen wall raised up on a plain podium but elegantly grooved and capped with a crenelated skyline of Greek and Roman motifs. At the north west corner was an elegant portico – the Tivoli Corner, designed to be a centrepiece in the re-planning of the city. The exterior certainly expressed strength and security, but it was curiously picturesque, a function of the synthesis of architectural styles. Inside the treatment was similar, Soane used forms from the ancient world as well as medieval forms to create an increasingly original and abstract style. This is the Old Dividend office designed by Soane in 1818-23 and photographed in the 1920s.

The period after Peel’s Bank Charter Act of 1844 (which gave the sole power to the bank of England to issue currency) to 1870 saw London established as the world’s preeminent financial centre. The concentration in London of expertise, knowledge and money attracted merchants, bankers, brokers and agents from all over the world to transact their business. Other cities had control of single markets, Liverpool controlled cotton and Newcastle controlled coal. But London was the centre for the moment markets. In this way London seized global financial confidence and its bills of exchange became the currency of international trade.

The first commercial telegraph system was developed by Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone and installed on the Great Western Railway from Paddington to West Drayton in 1839. However it was an American, Samuel Morse who invented a language for electronic messaging that became the standard code for electric communication. Development in the technology of underwater cables led to the laying of the first successful transatlantic wire in 1866 and by 1872 the telegraph network could reach every continent placing London at the centre of a global communication. This is how London managed large percentages of trade in commodities like coffee and rubber although it produced none and consumed little.

The architectural effects of the success of the City were huge and stimulated by a number of events on the ground. The first was the burning of The Royal Exchange in 1838. Its replacement took much more notice of its position in the centre of the City showing a monumental portico facing the bank of England and the mansion house creating a sort of forum. This in many senses set the tone for a much grander stone architecture that came to dominate the central business district. 

Then there were road improvements, particularly the cutting of new thoroughfares such as Cannon Street (1852-5) and Queen Victoria Street (1866-1871) which opened up new plots for development while, of course, the railways had cut great swathes through the city opening it up for development. As a result a place that had been largely made up of residential scale Georgian buildings was transformed. 80% of buildings standing in the City in 1855 had been demolished and replaced by 1901. All the new buildings were commercuial and so the character of the City was changed too. The population was 129,000 in 1850; in 1900 it was only 26,000.

The charge for the new commercial heart of London was led by the insurance companies eager to use the appearance of their offices to infuse their business with a sense of confidence, solidity and endurance. The first was actually built in the West End, The County Fire Office and was designed as part of John Nash’s Piccadilly Circus in 1829. The earliest building in the city (burnt out during the war, but largely intact) is the old Atlas Insurance Office on Cheapside by Thomas Hopper of 1838.  A homage to the banqueting House on Whitehall this smooth essay in classicism oozed confidence and permanence.

Stylistically the first wave of big commercial buildings constructed in the 1830s and 40s were Italianate, heavily influenced by Charles Barry’s Reform Club and Travellers Club on Pall Mall. The style was reassuringly business-like and perhaps conferred some of the prestige of the clubs on their more commercial descendants. The Queen’s Assurance Company office on Gresham Street still survives designed by Sancton Wood in 1858. Moving into the 1860s insurance companies looked to their headquarters buildings to convey slightly different messages. The emphasis was less on the sober management of funds; much more on the advertisement of success and wealth generation. The Royal, an insurance company started in Liverpool, constructed a huge and flamboyant building in Lombard Street in 1857designed by John belcher. This was essentially an extension of their colossal annual advertising budget of some £20-30,000.

The banks started to move from the sober and domestic premises like that still occupied by Hoare’s bank today to Italianate offices similar to those occupied by the insurance companies. In the 1860s, like the insurance companies they became much more showy. One of mu favourite buildings in the City is the National provincial Bank on Bishopsgate by John Gibson. This incredible structure made the bank of England itself look dowdy and established firmly in the eyes and minds of the city the bank as a national rather than just a provincial success. 

What were these places like inside? Well, they all had impressive ground-floor receptions or banking halls, handsome boardrooms on the first floor and, in the basement, strong rooms, boiler rooms and refreshment rooms for the clerks. Many or indeed most had additional lettable space.

I have dwelt long on London because London became the most important centre of commercial exchange in the world. But stylistically the tides of fashion I have described flowed in the other great English centres of commerce too. In Manchester, as in London, the warehouses of the merchants were built in the same fashionable Italian Palazzo style. For the Manchester traders this was perhaps more suitable as they saw themselves as latter-day Gonzagas or Medici. The first palazzo-style warehouse was built in 1839 and the style soon transformed the cramped and dingy feel of the city centre into a handsome and cosmopolitan space. This is one on Charlotte Street of 1855-6. Here is the colossal S and J Watt warehouse on Portland Street built in 1851-6. still based on the Fifteenth century ilalian Palazzo but already straining to be an impressive mega structure advertising the success of the business within.

So in the end what was distinctive about the English city in the nineteenth century? I chose splendour and squalor as my title and of course these contrasting ideas, areas and types of building are fundamental to understanding the city. But the big change that I want to bring out tonight was the change from the public city, ordered, open and permeable to the private city, closed, introverted and domestic. There was a different appreciation of space, how it was used and who it belonged to. It was a city for a different type of people, a society that was far more serious-minded, religious and focussed on business. It was, in fact a society created essentially by the wars against France of 1793 to 1815. And it was war that was to change society again. My next lecture will deal very specifically with the architectural impact of the first world war. I hope you will join me on 14th November as we enter the 20th century.


                                                                                                                                        © Dr Simon Thurley2012

Professor Simon Thurley, former Provost of Gresham College

Professor Simon Thurley CBE

Visiting Professor of the Built Environment

Professor Thurley is a leading architectural historian, a regular broadcaster and was, for thirteen years and Visiting Gresham Professor of the Built Environment.

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