Victorian London - Houses and Housing - Housing of the Middle Classes - Interior Design, Decoration, Furnishing - Description of a typical interior

    The small space between the street-door and the stairs, hardly sufficient in length and breadth to deserve the pompous name of a “hall,” is usually furnished with a couple of mahogany chairs, or, in wealthier houses, with flower-pots, statuettes, and now and then a sixth or seventh-rate picture. The floor is covered with oil-cloth, and this again is covered with a breadth of carpet. A single glance tells us, that after passing the threshold, we have at once entered the temple of domestic life.
    Here are no moist, ill-paved floors, where horses and carts dispute with the passenger the right of way; where you stumble about in some dark corner in search of still darker stairs; _ where, from the porter’s lodge, half a dozen curious eyes watch your unguided movements, while your nostrils are invaded with the smell of onions, as is the case in Paris, and also in Prague and Vienna. Nothing of the kind. The English houses are like chimneys turned inside out; on the outside all is soot and dirt, in the inside everything is clean and bright.
    From the hall we make our way to the parlour —the refectory of the house. The parlour is the common sitting-room of the family, the centre-point of the domestic state. It is here that many eat their dinners, and some say their prayers; and in this room does the lady of the house arrange her household affairs and issue her commands. In winter the parlour fire burns from early morn till late at night, and it is into the parlour that the visitor is shewn, unless he happens to call on a reception-day, when the drawing-rooms are thrown open to the friends of the family.
    Large folding-doors, which occupy nearly the whole breadth of the back wall, separate the front from the back parlour, and when opened, the two form one large room. The number and the circumstances of the family devote this back parlour either to the purposes of a library for the master, the son,or the daughters of the house, or convert it into a boudoir, office, or breakfast. room. Frequently, it serves no purpose in particular, and all in turn. 
    These two rooms occupy the whole depth of the house. All the other apartments are above, so that there are from two to four rooms in each story. The chief difference in the domestic apartments in England and Germany consists in this division: in Germany, the members of a family occupy a number of apartments on the same floor or “flat”; in England, they live in a cumulative succession of rooms. In Germany, the dwelling-houses are divided horizontally—here the division is vertical. Hence it happens, that houses with four rooms commu­nicating with one another are very rare in London, with the exception only of the houses in the very aristocratic quarters. Hence, also, each story has its peculiar desti­nation in the family geographical dictionary. In the first floor are the reception-rooms; in the second the bed-rooms, with their large four-posters and marble-topped wash-stands; in the third story are the nurseries and servants’ rooms; and in the fourth, if a fourth there be, you find a couple of low garrets, for the occasional accommodation of some bachelor friend of the family.
    The doors and windows of these garrets are not exactly air­tight, the wind comes rumbling down the chimney, the stairs are narrow and steep, and the garrets are occasionally invaded by inquisitive cats and a vagrant rat; but what of that?  

    …. We leave the Doctor between the horns of this dilemma, and descending a good many more stairs than we ascended, we find our way to the haunts of those who, in England, live under­ground—to the kitchen. 
    Here, too, everything is different from what we are accustomed to in Germany. In the place of the carpets which cover the floors of the upper rooms, we walk here on strong, solid oilcloths, which, swept and washed, looks like marble, and gives a more comfortable aspect to an English kitchen than any German housewife ever succeeded in imparting to the scene of her culinary exercises. Add to this, bright dish-covers of gigantic dimensions fixed to the wall, plated dishes, and sundry other utensils of queer shapes and silvery aspect, interspersed with copper sauce­pans and pots and china, the windows neatly curtained, with a couple of flower-pots on the sill, and a branch of evergreens growing on the wail round them—such is an English kitchen in its modest glory. A large fire is always kept burning; and its ruddy glow heightens the homeliness and comfort of the scene. There is no killing of animals in these peaceful retreats. All the animals which are destined for consumption, such as fowls, ducks, pigeons, and geese, are sold, killed, and plucked in the London shops. When they are brought to the kitchen, they are
in such a condition, that nothing prevents their being put to the fire. And then, in front of that fire, turned by a machine, dangle large sections of sheep, calves, and oxen, of so respectable a size, that the very sight of them would suffice to awe a German housewife.
    Several doors in the kitchen open into sundry other subterraneous compartments. There is a back-kitchen, whither the servants of the house retire for the most important part of their daily labours—the talking of scandal apropos of the whole neighbourhood. There is also a small room for the washing-up of plates and dishes, the cleaning of knives and forks, of clothes and shoes. Other compartments are devoted to stores of provisions, of coals, and wine and beer. Need I add, that all these are strictly separate?

    All these various rooms and compartments, from the kitchen up to Dr. Keif’s garret, are in modern London houses, lighted up with gas—and pipes conducting fresh, filtered, and in many instances, hot water, ascend into all the stories—and there is in all and everything so much of really domestic and unostenta­tious comfort, that it would be very uncomfortable to give a detailed description of every item of a cause which contributes to the general and agreeable effect.

Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853

    The wine merchant sat in his dining-room next morning, to receive the personal applicants for the vacant post in his establishment. It was an old-fashioned wainscoted room; the panels ornamented with festoons of flowers carved in wood; with an oaken floor, a well-worn Turkey carpet, and dark mahogany furniture, all of which had seen service and polish under Pebbleson Nephew. The great sideboard had assisted at many business-dinners given by Pebbleson Nephew to their connection, on the principle of throwing sprats overboard to catch whales; and Pebbleson Nephew's comprehensive three-sided plate- warmer, made to fit the whole front of the large fireplace, kept watch beneath it over a sarcophagus-shaped cellaret that had in its time held many a dozen of Pebbleson Nephew's wine. But the little rubicund old bachelor with a pigtail, whose portrait was over the sideboard (and who could easily be identified as decidedly Pebbleson and decidedly not Nephew), had retired into another sarcophagus, and the plate-warmer had grown as cold as he. So, the golden and black griffins that supported the candelabra, with black balls in their mouths at the end of gilded chains, looked as if in their old age they had lost all heart for playing at ball, and were dolefully exhibiting their chains in the Missionary line of inquiry, whether they had not earned emancipation by this time, and were not griffins and brothers.

Charles Dickens & Wilkie Collins, No Thoroughfare, 1867

With one exception, all parts of the abode presented much the same appearance as when Stephen Lord first established himself antiquated, and in primitive taste. Nancy's bedroom alone here. The furniture was old, solid, homely; the ornaments were displayed the influence of modern ideas. On her twentieth birthday, the girl received permission to dress henceforth as she chose (a strict sumptuary law having previously been in force), and at the same time was allowed to refurnish her chamber. Nancy pleaded for modern reforms throughout the house, but in vain; even the drawing-room kept its uninviting aspect, not very different, save for the removal of the bed, from that it had presented when the ancient lady slept here. In her own little domain, Miss. Lord made a clean sweep of rude appointments, and at small expense surrounded herself with pretty things. The woodwork and the furniture were in white enamel; the paper had a pattern of wild-rose. A choice chintz, rose-leaf and flower on a white ground, served for curtains and for bed-hangings. Her carpet was of green felt, matching in shade the foliage of the chintz. On suspended shelves stood the books which she desired to have near her, and round about the walls hung prints, photographs, chromolithographs, selected in an honest spirit of admiration, which on the whole did no discredit to Nancy's sensibilities.

George Gissing, In the Year of Jubilee, 1894

see also Mrs. C.S.Peel in "Homes and Habits" (article) - click here