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English rural housing c. 1450 - c. 1950

English rural housing c. 1450 - c. 1950

This project focuses on transitions in the small English rural house from the late medieval period to the late twentieth century. It examines the cottages and lesser farmhouses widely found in the English countryside. Pictures of medieval village housing are rare and show low windowless and chimney-less hovels of wood and thatch, circumscribing the day-to-day worlds of their inhabitants. By the mid-twentieth century rural workers frequently lived in three or four- bedroomed houses of brick and tile, with running water, adequate heating, electricity and sometimes gas. The focus of the book is on those transitions – involving the constructional changes of the 'Great Rebuilding' of Tudor and Stuart times, and the moral and social concerns for overcrowding and family life from the later eighteenth century, and the growth of rural social housing– and their economic and social context. In contrast it provides new light on both middle-class 'cottage' building in the period 1750-1850, and twentieth century building and cottage conservation in the countryside.

The project draws on the painstaking reconstruction of the building process and regional difference in surviving rural buildings undertaken by vernacular architects, and the work of the architectural historians, more often concerned with larger and more elaborate houses. It relates these to underlying social and economic changes, the coming of glass windows, brick chimneys and coal grates that permitted the redesign of basic housing, and the rise of large farms the left many families landless and sparked the early expansion of social housing in the countryside before 1750. This regime was destroyed by the New Poor Law of 1834, which left the housing needs of rural families at the mercy of philanthropic grandees who built model villages, and small proprietors who created rural slums by packing their land with additional accommodation. The unexpected application of legislation intended for urban slums to a rural context from 1890 brought rural social housing to the fore in the twentieth century, bring social and cultural conflict with urban refugees whose search for the rural idyll lay in stark contrast with country people's needs.

The project's major outcome, the fruit of over twenty years' research, is a book that draws on a wide range of sources: the surviving buildings in the landscape, old maps, drawings and paintings, architectural plans, as well as the records of poor overseers, local authorities, philanthropic landowners and central government reports and enquiries, to uncover a little known world and a fresh perspective on rural England. The geographical perspective is on England, but comparative perspectives from across the British Isles, Europe, and beyond, will be embedded throughout.

The intermediate outcomes are a large number of conference papers, journal articles, and book chapters, some of which are listed below:

  • 'The management of rural building in seventeenth-century Buckinghamshire' Vernacular Architecture 29 (1998 pp. 43-56) [with Prof Malcolm Airs]
  • 'Housing the rural poor 1650-1850' Agricultural History Review 48 pt 2 (2000.)
  • 'The parish and homes for the rural poor 1700-1850' in P. Sharpe & J. McEwan Accommodating Poverty (Palgrave Macmillan 2010)
  • 'La dynamique du pouvoir dans les villages anglais du XIXe siècle : logement et protection sociale' chapter 6 of P. Jessenne, L. Brassart, N Vivier (ed.) Clochemerle ou république villageoise ? La conduite municipale des affaires villageoises en Europe XVIIIe-XXe siècle (Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, December 2011)
  • 'Permanence and Impermanence in Housing Provision for the Eighteenth-Century Rural Poor in England' in Shammas, Carole (ed) Investing in The Early Modern Built Environment: Europeans, Asians, Settlers and Indigenous Societies (Brill, Leiden 2012)
  • 'Making sense of Detached Kitchens: the implications of documentary evidence from seventeenth century Wiltshire' Vernacular Architecture 46 (2015)
  • Improving English Rural Housing 1890-1945' (for volume ed. P. S. Barnwell to be published by OUDCE 2017)