Victorian & Edwardian Services (Houses) 1850-1914

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2 1850s - Middle Class

Any large, well-appointed middle class home required a reliable water supply and in the mid-nineteenth century this was a major preoccupation for the builder. The supply of mains water by private or municipally owned water companies was then still in its infancy and few houses were connected to piped water. Each house, therefore, had to be self-sufficient in this respect. One source was spring water. Establishing its presence was an important preliminary to construction work and could even determine the precise location of a house and so sinking a well was the usually the first building operation undertaken before the foundations were laid. The circular shafts with a minimum diameter of three feet were lined with brickwork and most were no deeper than thirty feet, the maximum depth at which a common iron suction pump could function. Where possible the well was dug close to the proposed site of the scullery or kitchen. Spring water was – in theory, at least - relatively pure and safe to drink but it was usually hard and not suited to laundering purposes as it caused soap to curdle. For doing the weekly wash and for other scullery uses rainwater was used. An average sized roof yielded between 21,000 and 35,000 gallons of water per year and so many good quality houses were supplied with large rainwater storage tanks in the basement from which the water was again drawn by a hand pump.
Good quality houses available for letting were often advertised as having ‘both kinds of water’ but water remained a scarce and unreliable commodity until after about the 1870s. Spring water from relatively shallow wells was liable to contamination from leaking or overflowing cesspools and this was often the cause of local outbreaks of typhoid and cholera. The scarcity of water also circumscribed how people kept themselves clean. Bathrooms were rare before the 1870s and most middle class families used small portable baths of tinplate which had to be filled and emptied by hand using servant labour. On a daily basis many people washed themselves using a ewer and basin of water set on a wash stand in the bedroom.

By 1850, virtually all middle class homes were equipped with a water closet. These were generally of two kinds: the valve closet and the pan closet. Both relied on a system of levers and cranks to operate a valve or pan to discharge the waste. The closet bowl and the mechanics were enclosed under a fixed mahogany seat and the flush water supplied from an overhead cistern which was typically filled by hand pumping water up from the basement rain water reserve. Pan closets were cheaper than valve closets and of a more robust construction but from the 1870s they were exposed as being unsanitary due to the impossibility of flushing clean their cavernous interiors. Both valve and pan closets were usually sealed from the soil pipe by the highly inefficient D-shaped water sealed traps which were not self-cleansing and often, therefore, the source of foul smells whenever the device was flushed. Sewage disposal was notoriously inadequate or even non existent at this time with WCs variously discharging liquid sewage directly into storm drains and ultimately into rivers or even into street gutters. Most decanted the sewage into cesspools dug in the back yards or gardens of the property and periodically these had to be emptied by nightmen who generally carried out this noisome task during the hours of darkness.

The family would usually take their baths in the privacy of their bedroom or in an adjacent dressing room but the water usually had to be carried up from the basement service area which would comprise a kitchen, scullery, pantry and larder and also stores for coal and ash. The service areas of the largest villas would also include a housekeeper’s room and butler’s office. Most service areas also contained a WC purely for servant use and in place of the expensive mechanical closets used by the family upstairs, they usually took the form of a simple ceramic basin attached to a water sealed trap. There were several variations of basin and trap closets according to the shape of the basin: thus there were long and short straight sided hopper closets whilst those with a rounded profile were known in the trade as ‘cottage’ or ‘servants’ closets’.
The kitchen contained a large fireplace – typically five feet wide - whilst a large dresser was usually fixed on the opposite wall. In most substantial houses the water supply and the sink was located in the scullery along with a wash copper set in brick and containing its own small firebox. The sink was usually made of a hard sandstone or grit such as York stone and placed on a brick plinth below a window. The kitchen fireplace opening was usually occupied by a large cast-iron range consisting of a coal burning grate flanked by an oven and boiler. The range was either open to the chimney or enclosed on top by a hot plate which forced the hot draught to circulate around the oven and boiler before being lost to the chimney. These closed ranges were held to be cleaner and more efficient but in reality they consumed prodigious quantities of coal and were, besides, time consuming to maintain.
Coal fires were also the chief means of room heating. In the 1850s and 1860s, the principal rooms of a middle class villa were supplied with the fashionable ‘arch plate register grate’. The grate – as the name suggests – was framed by an ornate round arched opening. Immediately above the grate there was a small D-shaped hatch known as a register door which provided rudimentary control over the air supply to the fire and when closed sealed off the fireplace completely from the chimney flue. Small hob grates, which had the front fire-bars set between two cast-iron panels, were fitted in the fireplaces of the rooms on the upper floors.
The light of a coal fire was also a valuable source of artificial light although by the 1850s many middle class homes had gas laid on for lighting. Amongst the well to do, gas was regarded as excessively harsh and bright and, moreover, associated with use in industrial and public spaces: the soft light of oil lamps and candles was widely preferred. Nevertheless, the principal reception rooms were usually fitted with gas chandeliers – or gasoliers – suspended from a central ceiling rose. They were always fitted with a ball and socket joint to enable them to be moved to one side and with a water slide which enabled vertical adjustment. Gasoliers were made up of several simple flat flame burners usually of the ‘union-jet’ or ‘fish-tail’ pattern which were made of cast-iron or brass with the top of the burner consisting of some non-conducting material such as steatite, a natural stone which, after firing was practically indestructible. Two orifices were drilled at an angle in the top so that two streams of gas impinged on each other to spread the flame to something like the tail of a fish. They were poor light givers but lent themselves to gasoliers and lamps with globes of glass as they did not produce a ragged flame. The use of gas lighting on the upper floors was often restricted at this period to the landing and the average middle class family probably retired to bed by the light of a candle.
Downstairs in the service area, flat flame gas burners without glass shades were generally used. The kitchen was sometimes illuminated by a pendant light with two burners suspended over the main work table although bracket gas burners fixed to a round wooden block known as a ‘pattress’ were also widely used and fixed above the mantle shelf above the range. These had either fish-tail burners or the bats-wing burner made with a slit in a domed top. The bats-wing burner produced a good light but the flame was inclined to be ragged with ‘horny’ ends and so was not suited for use with a globe.
©2008 University of the West of England, Bristol
except where acknowledged
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