Home improvements are not just a modern phenomenon. People have been extending, altering and rebuilding their homes for centuries. Of course it was the wealthy and, later, the middle classes who could afford to employ architects, builders, and carpenters to carry out the work, and I would hazard a guess that there are not many properties over a hundred years old standing today exactly as they were built.
A house I have been researching in Warwickshire recently is a case in point. Described in early documents as ‘a tenement with croft and hovel‘, it is perhaps not surprising that the owner decided to make a few changes as soon as funds were available.
Extensions were added first at one end of the house, then at the other. The hovel was converted into a habitable dwelling and sold off with some land. Then more land was disposed of and built on. The arrival of the car demanded the need for a garage to keep it in. When conservatories became fashionable, one was built, then knocked down and replaced with another. When the property was advertised for sale in 1946 it had been transformed into ‘a choice Tudor half-timbered country residence‘. And not a hovel in sight.
One of the hazards of house history research is keeping track of how a property was known at different times in its history. I encountered a typical case when working on a former Shropshire vicarage recently. It turns out that the house was originally a farm, then became a vicarage, and now it is a private house.
To confuse matters further, when the property was a farm, the vicarage was elsewhere in the village and it was due to land being exchanged in the 1860s that it became more convenient to nominate my client’s house as the home of the next incumbent. It took some time to unravel this but, once understood, it made perfect sense and accounted for the significant upgrading of the property by the incoming parson.
Earlier this month I was contacted by BBC Radio Shropshire who were running an on air discussion about the places where listeners grew up. My mother used to shudder as she recalled their house next to the Thames being flooded in the 1950s before I was born. It was built before the Thames was embanked and the house would have been above the level of the river at high tide. After embankment, a river wall was built, roads and pavements were raised and consequently you had to go down two steps into the house.
When the river rose dramatically on the night of the flood it cascaded over the wall and into the riverside properties. My mother found herself waist-deep in water in her front room. Despite the horror of the situation, it was her description of potatoes floating past from the kitchen that sticks in my mind. That and the fact that the electricity supply remained on throughout, to the shock of the man who came to reconnect it after the water had receded.
From the archives
Caught in the act – a delightful tale of a misdemeanour recorded by the Staffordshire Advertiser in May 1862:
‘A thief entered the room of a bailiff in Paris and was escaping in a hurry through a window with some linen, when in descending, his trousers caught in a hook and he remained suspended opposite the window of a commissary of police who, hearing the noise of his unexpected visitor, jumped out of bed and to prevent him from escaping while he dressed himself, tied his legs fast to the blind.’Posted in News