The Victorian era heralded great changes throughout not only our own country, but also in the then British Empire, much of which can be seen today in our streets in the form of industrial buildings, churches, bridges and of course, houses.
The Victorians knew how to build stuff to last, and if you live in a Victorian home, there are some things you need to think about to keep it in tip-top condition and to get the most out of living in a piece of history.
I have just moved into a large Victorian home myself and now the dust has settled after moving, It’s time to renovate, refurbish and add some sparkle to our new home.
I’m going to run through some of my thoughts, add a bit of history, and tell you the sort of things you may find if you decide to move to a Victorian house in the near future, of if you live in one now, you should find this handy.
The legacy the Victorians left us.
The Victorian period of history is generally defined as the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901), who was then succeeded by Edward VII, ushering the Edwardian period.
The Victorian period in history was, by far, the most powerful time in the history of the British Isles, bearing in mind Victoria was also the queen of Ireland, not just what we know now as the “UK” and also the vast British Empire.
The British empire at the time was at it’s peak, Britain “owned” half the world, we had the most powerful navy, great strides were made in Science, Engineering, Architecture and education, among a myriad of other disciplines.
This was reflected in expanding towns and cities, with tens of thousands of homes, usually built along social class lines, and it is these homes we will look at today.
What makes a Victorian home different than a modern one?
If you stood a modern home next to a Victorian one, side by side, the biggest difference you should immediately notice is the sheer SIZE of the older property, both vertically and horizontally, characterised by high ceilings and large windows.
Modern homes are constructed very differently too, with modern homes having cavity walls, and often built from brick, compared to my home which is essentially constructed from rubble, with a thick coat of render over the top.
The walls in my Victorian home are about 4 feet thick in places!
In my own city (Plymouth) there are 1000’s of Victorian homes, some grand and some tiny little cottages, but 150 odd years later, they are still standing and still providing homes for people, which is more can be said for some of the ugly post war housing that appeared in the various bomb sites scattered around the city.
Many Victorian homes have been ruined by modern features and the photo below is a prime example. We repaired and painted this property back to it’s traditional appearance but look at the 2 houses either side.
They have been completely ruined by pebbledash!
Bear in mind this can be expensive to remedy and often needs the help of an exterior wall coating company rather than a decorator, as a lot of work needs to be done to fix the issue.
Bay windows, like the one above, were installed as people did not generally have very good lighting, so as much natural light was the only way forward, very different from today’s artificially lit homes. Also homes often had servants or staff and you can sometimes find evidence of that in an old Victorian home.
You just need to sit in one and imagine the scenarios of maids doing the beds, a cook preparing the family meal, and servants making up the dinner table and serving the meal. This wasn’t a lifestyle that was solely for the wealthy and remember, no cars in the street and all women stayed at home to raise the children.
Another big difference is the fact that older homes are usually more draughty than modern ones, often because of not only un-insulated walls, and possibly a roof space with no insulation, but also old wooden sash windows which can make the house very cold in winter.
Back in the days when these properties were built, measurements were often a guesstimate by the craftsman, often with surprising accuracy too, but never as accurate as modern, factory-made windows.
These issues can be easily fixed in your Victorian home by adding loft insulation and draught excluders around doors and windows. In some cases you can replace the old wooden windows with modern ones, but pay attention to detail as you don’t want to ruin the character of the house with windows that have a modern design.
In our house, the previous owner changed the windows to UPVC, but they had to be a certain shape as our street lies in a conservation area and we are not allowed to alter the appearance of the front elevation.
This differs from listed buildings, of which many are from the Victorian age. Listed buildings also come under different laws and building regulations, so if you are unsure, it would best to contact your local council for advice.
Bare floorboards, a good idea or not?
Another problem you may find all to commonplace in heritage homes, is the trend of bare floorboards, often with a large rug laid down. Very trendy but cold as hell in winter time.
When these homes were built, fitted carpets were not invented and often the maid had to roll up the rug, take it into the back yard, hang it on the washing line, and beat it with a stick to get the dust out. Thank God vacuum cleaners were invented.
So if you have bare wooden floorboards in a Victorian home, chances are you will have huge gaps between the boards, perfect for an updraught to chill you in in winter time.
Here is the solution, and it called “Stop G-p” (Stop gap)
It’s available from Amazon, priced at around £23 for a large roll and what you do is, take an old credit card and run it along the gaps between the floorboards, and maybe if it’s really dusty, use a hoover too. Then you fold the product into a V shape and insert it into the gaps. It works, I assure you.
Does size matter?
Despite what the wife tells me, yes size does matter, or at least it did to Victorians.
Most homes were built according to your social class, so a dockyard labourer, for example, would live in a humble cottage, whilst merchants, naval captains etc, would live in large homes befitting their status.
There are many examples of streets in my city that contain a neat row of identical terraced homes and then a much larger house on the end of same the terrace. This wasn’t by accident.
This would signify that the terraced houses contained, for example, white collar workers, whilst the larger house at the end would indicate the supervisor or manager, of the same people who lived in the same street and probably worked at the same place too.
The above project, from way back in 2004, had “lean-to” outbuildings at the rear which would have been the kitchens, laundry and bakery, to serve the owners of the house, a real life “upstairs, downstairs” situation. The small lawn at the rear of this house would have actually been a vegetable garden to provide the kitchens, and not a grassed area.
One problem that many Victorian houses have in modern times, is the wanton destruction of original features such as ornate plaster work, fireplaces etc, that were ripped out in the quest to modernise homes. Everything was forward looking after WW2 and history was something that, it would seem, many people wanted to forget.
Putting these features back into your home can be rewarding, can add value, but can be expensive too, but if you do some of the work yourself, you could be quids in.
Things you can do to improve your Victorian home.
If, as we mentioned above, features have been ripped out, let’s see what things you can consider putting back.
Firstly we can look around inside. If you look upwards you should see a ceiling rose like in the image below, or if not, at least around the top edges of the walls you should see ornate coving.
If it’s not there now, it’s expensive to put back properly, although there are cheaper ways of doing it such as buying modern replacements which are stuck onto the wall.
We found some really nice ones at londonplastercraft.com although it’s not an easy job to fit yourself, often requiring the room to be stripped bare and a portable tower scaffold erected inside the house.
Also many older homes had what was known as a “range cooker” in the kitchen, often powered by coal, and very inefficient to use and to maintain. Sometimes these old ranges are left inside the house as a character piece but if you want to re-use it, they must be restored and converted to modern use, which can be very expensive.
There are specialist companies who can do this, it isn’t a DIY task, and we would suggest looking at something like osbornerestoration.co.uk as they seem to know what they are doing, however……
In our home, we have inherited a Rayburn cooker.
Rayburn cookers are very similar to an AGA, although as far as I can tell, the difference being that AGA’s are a constant heat, but Rayburns, ours included, can be turned down or up as required, although it’s a delayed response and can take many hours to get to the right temperature.
We think our model is from the 1950’s possibly, although I can’t be sure. It certainly belts out the heat. This one has been converted to run on heating oil or Kerosene, and once a year a lorry turns up in the back lane with 1000 litres, which at current prices, costs around £300.
A Rayburn can also be configured to power hot water and heating, although ours just cooks! We are still getting our heads around how to use it! It’s a great addition to an old house and 2nd hand ones start from around £4,000, although delivery and fitting is extra as of course these are very heavy.
You could try someone like countrychoicecookers.co.uk who, based on their website, they seem to really know their stuff, although we haven’t used them ourselves so you would need to speak direct to them for advice.
Finally, the pro’s and con’s of living in a Victorian house
The good bits.
- Larger rooms and generally more internal space.
- City homes are often near to parks, shops and schools.
- A higher quality construction than modern homes.
- Full of both character and potential
- Thick walls, avoiding noise pollution from neighbours.
- A good supply of suitable homes always on sale or to rent.
The bad bits
- Lack of off-road parking for your car(s).
- Higher maintenance, heating and lighting costs.
- Restrictions on alterations and improvements (in some cases)
- More likely to be terraced than semi or detached.
- Can be draughty and cold in winter months.
- More likely to attract vermin such as mice and squirrels
- Modernising and restoring an old home can be expensive
Overall, you cannot compare “like for like” when considering a Victorian home, but if bought wisely and restored sympathetically, not only are you preserving a bit of history, you can enjoy a large house, full of character, for many years to come.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed this article and found it helpful. Please note any products mentioned on this page are ones that have been personally used by me and I did not receive any payment or inducement to mention any products or websites. Thank you