Victorian London - Houses and Housing - Housing of the Middle Classes - finding a house

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Houses A few general hints upon taking a house may be useful. Having chosen your neighbourhood, and found a house to be let, you will do well to consider if the situation be quiet or noisy; the width of the street; the nature of the paving in front; the outlook at back; whether there are any objectionable businesses or trades carried on in the neighbourhood; any mews, cab-yards, or carriers’ premises adjacent, or any public place of resort for folk who like to be merry at midnight; any noisy church or chapel bell to annoy you, or any railway running underneath you; whether near omnibus or tram routes; distance from various railway-stations; and places of public worship and public amusement. Most London houses of any pretensions are let upon lease; and upon the estates of the large landholders, particularly, the restrictive covenants, and the covenants to repair, maintain, and uphold, are very stringent. In taking leases of houses upon such as the Bedford, Portman, or Portland estates, remember that it is often of value to get the lease direct from the freeholder, or to get the whole term remaining in the person between you and the freeholder, as it is the custom on these estates at the expiration of the term to grant to the occupying tenant a renewal of lease upon improvement of the premises or payment of fine or increased rental. The next considerations are the state of repair and sanitary condition of the house, and on these points you will do well to consult some competent practical architect, otherwise you may unexpectedly find a large outlay necessary for a new roof, new floor, new drainage, or other expensive work. Most London houses have basement storeys below the level of the street, and most basements are damp. Their dampness arises from several causes. The use of porous bricks in the walls, and the absence of a damp-proof course to arrest the absorption of moisture from the earth in contact with the lower portions of the wall, is of frequent occurrence. In some parts of London land-springs may give considerable trouble, and in this case land drains must be laid, care being taken that they are not in direct communication with any soil drain, or with the public sewer. Another source of damp is the absence of air space under the floors, and arrangements for the free admission and passage of air. Air bricks properly distributed, and, perhaps, lowering the level of the ground, will then be necessary. In all cases it is desirable to well drain the subsoil and to have a good layer of concrete 6in. thick under all basement floors. The level of the ground externally being higher than the floor internally is frequently the cause of damp, and in this case the construction of a good open area is often practicable, but, if not, a properly constructed dry area will be the best remedy. On of the greatest dangers to health is the presence of sewage gas in the house.—(See DRAINSsee also GAS.)  

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Household Advice Manuals - Cassells Household Guide, New and Revised Edition (4 Vol.) c.1880s [no date] - House-Hunting

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Volume 1



THE word "home" has in our language a force and a beauty which it scarcely has in any other, and which makes it pleasant to the cars of every Englishman. The house is not the whole of home, but, inasmuch as a good and comfortable and well-ordered house contributes greatly to the happiness of home, we propose to say something upon that subject. At one time or another it is the lot of most of us to have to seek a house as our place of residence, and also to deal with inconveniences in our actual dwellings. With regard to the first point, no absolute rules can be laid down which shall be applicable in all cases, although some hints will be found of general utility. We cannot always determine where we will live, I as that is often very much controlled by circumstances.
    Some have to select their dwellings in large towns and cities, where the conditions of salubrity may be less favourable than is desirable. But even then it is not seldom possible to make a selection, and when it is possible, every precaution ought to be taken to secure as airy and healthy a situation as may be. Supposing we have so much liberty, we should endeavour to avoid close and narrow streets and densely-populated districts; we should seek for a residence which does not lie low, or on soil which is at all swampy and ill-drained, and we should try to get a house built upon gravel, sand, chalk, or rock. We must also aim at having a good share of sunshine, and light, and air. Even if we can choose our home in the suburbs, we shall be wise to look out for an open situation, and neither too closely hemmed in by trees, nor standing upon a bad soil. A very large number of speculative builders will remove from the ground they build upon every particle of gravel, or other useful subsoil, in the neighbourhood of London, and will have the excavations filled in with all kinds of refuse and rubbish. It is needless to say that one's house might as well stand in a marsh as upon such materials, for unwholesome exhalations will arise, and various forms of disease be induced in consequence. This is not all the houses erected upon such ground are liable to be damp, and apt to settle down, causing cracks in the walls and partitions, bulging out in some places, and shrinking in others; hence windows and doors get out of order, and do not shut and open properly, and expose the inhabitants to draughts.
    In the case of newly-built houses it is usually possible to find out whether they have been honestly erected from the foundation to the top. If old and worthless materials have been largely used in the construction, and if the work has been executed in a slight and slovenly manner, it will soon become apparent.
    All these are matters to be inquired into, even if we are about to take a house favourably located ; and of course it is suicidal not to make inquiry if we are going to purchase a house. But even these points are not all, because the drainage, lighting, ventilating, and internal arrangements have to be looked to. An ill-drained house is a nuisance, and yet, because proper drainage is apt to be expensive, builders are often tempted to sin in this matter. As for the lighting by means of windows, the windows should neither be too few nor too small, nor should they be badly placed. The ventilating is a matter which is not always so readily determined, though in general there will be cause of complaint if the rooms are small and the ceilings low, and if the halls and passages are narrow and confined. For the internal arrangements there will need to be a careful inspection. It should be seen that every door and window opens and closes properly, and has appropriate fastenings ; that cupboards, shelves, and closets are fixed in suitable positions ; that ranges and fire-grates are adapted to the places they occupy; that the floors are sound and level, and not full of great cracks, and with wide spaces between them and the skirting boards round the rooms. If gas is laid on, the meter ought to be sufficient for the number of lights, and the pipes should not be too small, nor limited to too few rooms. If there are Venetian blinds, they must be inspected and tested, and care taken that they are in proper condition and order. Water, of course, will be laid on, and it must be looked to. Inquire if the pipe is of sufficient bore; whether the taps are in good state, sound and strong; whether the water is on the main, or only let in at certain hours of the day ; whether the cistern - of which there must be one in any case - is out of doors or indoors ; and of what material and capacity it is. If the cistern is out of doors you will be without water when severe frost sets in, and you will perhaps be annoyed by the bursting of the leaden pipes when the thaw comes. There is no need really to have the cistern out of doors, and it is a nuisance when it is so. Should it not be properly covered over, the water will be contaminated with what are termed "blacks," in and near large towns and cities. Then, as for the material, a leaden tank or cistern is not wholesome, but mischievous, and therefore one of slate, or some such material, is in all respects preferable. The sink-stone in the back kitchen should be large enough for your requirements, and should be properly provided with a waste-pipe to carry off the water. Such things as copper or boiler, oven and boiler, and well-constructed water-closets, in proper positions, will also all have to be looked after. Finally, a coal-cellar of adequate capacity, and into which coals can be readily conveyed from the street, without filling the house with dust, begriming everything, and causing endless confusion, is to be regarded as a necessary.
    There will be less to look after out of doors, but something demands attention even there. If there is no foot- pavement with good kerbing, there will be annoyance in wet weather, and the steps will get very dirty. A lofty and a narrow flight of steps is undesirable on many accounts. If steps are numerous, they are inconvenient to ascend in bad weather, and require much extra cleaning while, if they are narrow, they look mean, and do not supply good accommodation. In front of some houses there is an area, with an entrance to the basement under the ground-floor. Although this construction has some advantages, it is open to serious objections. Should the door be left open, a draught like a hurricane will sometimes sweep through the whole house. These areas offer a temptation to dishonest persons, who by their means may get access to an unwatched kitchen or breakfast-room, and carry away a plate-basket or other valuables. The messengers of tradesmen, the milkman, the butcher, the hearth-stone boy, and others, may, and do, at these area entrances, waste time in idle gossip. Anyhow, they furnish frequently too ready exit or admission to such as one would rather keep out or in, as the case may be. The house-hunter will be wise to look at this, and, if he takes such a house, to decide whether he will keep that entrance regularly locked or unlocked. Where houses are in terraces, this construction may be the only one that allows of a second entrance. In some terraces, the back doors open into a lane at the rear of the gardens behind, in which case no prudent housekeeper will forget the lock. Semidetached houses most commonly have a side door leading round to the back, and it is a good arrangement, probably the best, for town dwellings. Such a door should, however, have good fastenings, like all others, because it will not be wise to leave it always open.
    A small garden in front of the house looks well, unless in close neighbourhoods where nothing flourishes, or in a north aspect. Under favourable circumstances, such a little garden is a desirable adjunct, provided it is well kept. London dwellings of moderate size seldom have gardens [-100-] all round, and yet in the suburbs few need be without a garden in the rear. As everybody loves flowers, everybody will desire such a garden. We say "loves flowers," for a kitchen-garden is not in every case possible near the metropolis. Flowers and evergreens and ornamental trees can be selected for all situations, and a small garden is not necessarily expensive, while it may afford pleasure and opportunities for exercise. If a house has a garden, its condition should be noted, and it will be borne in mind that a garden to a new house is too often a mass of rubbish. There may be no paths, or none properly made and gravelled; or there may be no flower-beds, or none with more than a sprinkling of soil over brickbats and mortar, and the like. Now, if a garden does not cost much to keep, it costs something to make, and he who has to pay for the first laying-out of such a garden as we have described, will be suffering for others' faults. "A pound saved is a pound gained," and this is never more true than in the matter of a garden. Surely it is as much the duty of a landlord to provide gravel paths to a garden as floors to a house, and it is nothing short of dishonesty to carry away the soil, and thus to force a tenant to buy more to put in its place.
    If there are any out-offices, see that they are what they profess to be ; that the so-called stable and coach-house, for example, are fit to contain a horse and a vehicle larger than a perambulator or a bicycle. The cabins which are advertised for stables and coach-houses are too often ridiculous.
    Without going further into these details, it must be a fundamental principle with one who seeks a house in or near a great city, or anywhere else, to ascertain what he requires and can afford. If in business, the house must not be at too great a distance, nor of difficult access, involving serious outlay of time or of money, or of both. If with limited income, or quiet and domestic habits, a house is not to be too large. Nobody ought to take a smaller house than he requires for comfortable occupation, if he can afford to pay for it. As a general rule, it should be borne in mind that it is bad to get a house either too large or too small.
    Another question which house-seekers should put is as to the character of particular localities. They may, if they like, ask whether such a street is fashionable or unfashionable, but they will surely ascertain whether it is respectable or not. Everybody knows that some neighbourhoods are not in good odour, and that, in consequence, they are gradually deserted by persons of real respectability, and commodious houses become inhabited by an inferior class at a lower rent. However, it is to be observed that the scale of rental varies in localities respecting the character of which no objection is raised. Some of the suburbs of London are more expensive for rent and living than others, although not more healthy and respectable. Parishes in which rents are moderate, and living cheap, very often contain an additional number of poor, and in actual practice it may be found that what is gained in rent and other items - especially provisions - is lost in rates and taxes.
    The inequality in taxes is remarkable, and therefore every man who is about to take a house should obtain, in writing, a list of the taxes to which it is liable, the amount at which it is assessed, and the actual sums it has paid or would have paid for a year past. Many persons get annoyed by discoveries in this direction which might have been made earlier, and avoided. Those who go to buy a house may fall into even greater mistakes. For instance, a house is to be sold for £750 in one place, and elsewhere the same, or one very similar, can be bought for £600. Supposing the houses are equal, and the localities equal, and the leases equal, the house at £600 may be the dearest. The purchaser may discover that his extra ground rent alone is more than interest upon the difference between the prices of the houses. Attention will have to be given, therefore, to other points than rent and price when houses are taken for a term, or the lease purchased. Long as our list of precautions has been, it is by no means complete; but it is impossible in any paper on this subject to specify everything which in various circumstances may demand attention from an intending tenant. Our object in specifying these has been to exhibit a summary view of the points to which house-seekers should direct their attention. We have had in our mind rather thus far those who would rent than those who would buy a residence, although we have dropped a few hints which the would-be buyers may turn to account.
    Far less need be said about choosing a residence in a small town or village, although even there, there are sundry evils to be guarded against. The reputation of the place generally should be ascertained, and if it be not considered a healthy one it should be avoided. In any case, the situation selected should not be too low or confined; it ought not to be damp, nor in close proximity to standing waters, nor to be near any manufacture or occupation from which noxious gases and bad smells might rise. To choose a house on the top of a hill is not always wise ; for, unless the constitution be strong, exposure to cold winds and fogs and rapid changes of temperature will be hard to bear, and productive of mischief. A moderate elevation is best, and if there be a slope it should be gradual and not steep. Much also depends upon the subsoil ; if tenacious, like clay, the water which falls will not percolate through it, but run off near the surface, and a house upon such a slope will suffer, of necessity. If, however, the side of the hill be sand, gravel, or stratified rock, there will be less danger. But in all cases, the soil in the immediate vicinity of the house should be flat ; not higher at the back walls than at the front, and properly drained, especially at the rear of the building.
    It is always well for ordinary persons to secure them. selves against violent and cold winds, as the north, north. east, and east. Therefore, houses exposed to these winds - should not be chosen ; those with an aspect ranging from south-east to west are usually preferable, especially if sheltered on the other side by high ground or trees. When gardens and orchards either slope towards the south, or are open on that side, they will produce earlier and better crops. Houses at the sea-side are to be chosen with regard to corresponding advantages, although when they are only visited for a temporary sojourn little is thought of the house, the greatest part of the time being spent out of doors.
    Wherever a permanent residence is in view in a small town or the open country, it will be necessary not only to ascertain in general all the peculiarities of soil, climate, aspect, &c., but also facilities of access. Good roads are important ; and now that travelling is so common, it is of importance to be within convenient distance of a railway-station. Another point is the cost and ready procurableness of coal, provisions, and whatever else is required for domestic consumption, and not produced in the garden. Water is simply a necessity, and cannot be dispensed with, and it ought to be abundant at all seasons, and good. In some places, otherwise desirable, water is plentiful in autumn and on to mid-summer, and then so scanty as almost to fail. With regard to the quality, nothing need be said to prove that bad water, as mere surface drainage, or springs charged with certain mineral substances, is an unmitigated evil; you cannot be too particular in this matter. Finally, wherever a residence is erected or provided, care should be taken that it is supplied with all needful domestic offices that it should have a pleasant look-out, and that it should neither be in lonely wilderness nor in a close and [-101-] crowded thoroughfare. As already observed, the house is not the whole of home, but it goes far to make one ; and it is our duty to do all we can to have a bright and healthy dwelling, and as many domestic conveniences as we can get.

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