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High Street History: Houses

Updated Tuesday, 3rd July 2007

A house is more than a house. It's even more than home. It can be a history lesson, too.

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Cardiff rooftops
Cardiff houses


Houses are wonderful sources for studying how people may have lived in the past. Their architectural features may give us clues as to when they were built and what type of people would have lived in them. Grand and exuberant decorations, for instance, often date from the Victorian and Edwardian period when the better off wanted to display their wealth and taste openly. Contrast these with the relatively modest facades of the Georgian period that came immediately beforehand.

Where houses are situated can also, in conjunction with other local buildings, give us clues as to how a town grew and changed over time. Could the date when a street was built suggest the coming of a railway station nearby, perhaps? Towns frequently expanded outwards as transport links improved in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, creating suburbs. A lot of suburban housing dates from the Edwardian or the inter-war period; it can often give us signs of people’s taste and values in the way their homes looked.

Portico and fanlight

Portico and fanlight

Here we have a particularly fine example of the increasing tendency towards house ornamentation that began in the late Georgian period. Entrances to Georgian houses were often emphasised with a portico. Below the portico is a fanlight: these were popular for about 100 years from the mid-1700s, although they became simpler in design from around the turn of the nineteenth century.

Bricked up window

Bricked up window

Between 1696 and 1851, the ‘Window Tax’ was levied on houses with more than six windows. Many people have blamed this tax for the country’s man bricked over windows, as people sought to evade the tax. But although it accounts for many of them, it isn’t the whole story. At least as man ‘blind’ windows were the result of pattern building, which was popular throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this, the bricked-up opening were park of a pattern that was supposed to enhance the appearance of the house. As a rule of thumb, if the absent window maintains the symmetry of the building’s appearance, then it was probably built in to a model.

Dormer window


French in origin, dormer windows developed to bring extra light and ventilation into attics that received little from gable end casements. They are often found in more rural areas and many date from the 1700s. Some have gabled fronts, but the one pictured here is hipped. It is probably from the eighteenth century, although we should be cautious as these features can post-date their buildings.

Bay window of house

Bay window

Bay windows at the front of houses became very common in suburban housing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Here we have an archetypal illustration of this type of suburban property. Though this house is almost certainly Edwardian, the style remained popular throughout the inter-war years. The plastic window frames, however, are a much later addition!

Taking it further

Urban history is covered in the Open University course Cities and technology: from Babylon to Singapore (AT308). You may also be interested in Start writing family history (A173).


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