A History of Homes

By Tim Lambert

Celtic Homes

The Celts lived in roundhouses. They were built around a central pole with horizontal poles radiating outwards from it. They rested on vertical poles. Walls were of wattle and daub and roofs were thatched. Around the walls inside the huts were benches, which also doubled up as beds. The Celts also used low tables.

Roman Homes

After the Roman Conquest, upper-class Celts adopted the Roman way of life. They built villas modeled on Roman buildings and they enjoyed luxuries such as mosaics and even a form of central heating called a hypocaust. Wealthy Romans also had wall paintings called murals in their houses. In their windows, they had panes of glass. Of course, poorer Romans had none of these things. Their houses were simple and plain and the main form of heating was braziers.

For the wealthy furniture was very comfortable. It was upholstered and finely carved. People ate while reclining on couches. Oil lamps were used for light. Furthermore, some people had a piped water supply. Water was brought into towns in aqueducts that went along lead pipes to individual houses. However Roman rule probably made little difference to most poor Celts, especially in the north and extreme southwest of England. For them, life went on much as it had before. Their houses remained simple huts.

Saxon Homes

Life was hard in Anglo-Saxon times and homes were rough. There were no panes of glass in windows, even in a thane’s (noble’s) hall and there were no chimneys. Floors were of earth or sometimes they were dug out and had wooden floorboards placed over them. There were no carpets. n Rich people’s houses were rough, crowded, and uncomfortable. Even a thanes hall was really just a large wooden hut although it was usually hung with rich tapestries. Thanes also like to show off any furniture they owned. Any furniture must have been simple and heavy such as wooden chests.

A Peasants Hut In The Middle Ages

Peasant homes were simple wooden huts. They had wooden frames filled in with wattle and daub (strips of wood woven together and covered in a ‘plaster’ of animal hair and clay). However, in some parts of the country huts were made of stone. Peasant huts were either whitewashed or painted in bright colors. The poorest people lived in one-room huts. Slightly better-off peasants lived in huts with one or two rooms. There were no panes of glass in the windows only wooden shutters, which were closed at night. The floors were of hard earth sometimes covered in straw for warmth.

In the middle of a Medieval peasant’s hut was a fire used for cooking and heating. There was no chimney. Any furniture was very basic. Chairs were very expensive and no peasant could afford one. Instead, they sat on benches or stools. They would have a simple wooden table and chests for storing clothes and other valuables. Tools and pottery vessels were hung on hooks. The peasants slept on straw and they did not have pillows. Instead, they rested their heads on wooden logs.

The peasant’s wife cooked on a cauldron suspended over the fire and the family ate from wooden bowls. Candles were expensive so peasants usually used rushlights (rushes dipped in animal fat). At night in summer and all day in winter the peasants shared their huts with their animals. Parts of it were screened off for the livestock. Their body heat helped to keep the hut warm.

Rich People’s Houses In The Middle Ages

The Normans, at first, built castles of wood. In the early 12th century stone replaced them. In the towns, wealthy merchants began living in stone houses. (The first ordinary people to live in stone houses were Jews. They had to live in stone houses for safety).

In Saxon times a rich man and his entire household lived together in one great hall. In the Middle Ages, the great hall was still the center of a castle but the lord had his own room above it. This room was called the solar. In it, the lord slept in a bed, which was surrounded by curtains, both for privacy and to keep out drafts. The other members of the lord’s household, such as his servants, slept on the floor of the great hall. At one or both ends of the great hall, there was a fireplace and chimney.

In the Middle Ages, chimneys were a luxury. As time passed they became more common but only a small minority could afford them. Certainly, no peasant could afford one.

About 1180 for the first time since the Romans rich people had panes of glass in the windows. At first, glass was very expensive and only rich people could afford it but by the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the middle classes began to have glass in some of their windows. Those people who could not afford glass could use thin strips of horn or pieces of linen soaked in tallow or resin which were translucent.

Furniture in the Middle Ages was very basic. Even in a rich household chairs were rare. Most people sat on stools or benches. Rich people also had tables and large chests, which doubled up as beds. Rich people’s homes were hung with wool tapestries or painted linen. They were not just for decoration. They also helped keep out drafts. In a castle, the toilet or garderobe was a chute built into the thickness of the wall. The seat was made of stone. Sometimes the garderobe emptied straight into the moat!

16th Century Homes

In the Middle Ages, rich people’s houses were designed for defense rather than comfort. In the 16th century, life was safer so houses no longer had to be easy to defend. It was an age when rich people built grand houses e.g. Cardinal Wolsey built Hampton Court Palace. Late the Countess of Shrewsbury built Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.

People below the rich but above the poor built sturdy ‘half-timbered’ houses. They were made with a timber frame filled in with wattle and daub (wickerwork and plaster). In the late 16th century some people built or rebuilt their houses with wooden frames filled in with bricks. Roofs were usually thatched though some well-off people had tiles. (In London all houses had tiles because of the fear of fire).

Furniture was more plentiful in the 16th century than in the Middle Ages but it was still basic. In a wealthy home, it was usually made of oak and was heavy and massive. Tudor furniture was expected to last for generations. You expected to pass it on to your children and even your grandchildren. Comfortable beds became more and more common in the 16th century and increasing numbers of middle-class people slept on feather mattresses rather than straw ones. Chairs were more common than in the Middle Ages but they were still expensive. Even in upper-class homes children and servants sat on stools. The poor had to make do with stools and benches.

In the 15th century, only a small minority of people could afford glass windows. During the 16th century, they became much more common. However, they were still expensive. If you moved house you took your glass windows with you! Tudor windows were made of small pieces of glass held together by strips of lead. They were called lattice windows. However the poor still had to make do with strips of linen soaked in linseed oil. Chimneys were also a luxury in the 16th century, although they became more common.

Furthermore, in the Middle Ages, a well-to-do person’s house was dominated by the great hall. In the 16th century, well-off people’s houses became divided into more rooms.

In wealthy Tudor houses, the walls of rooms were lined with oak panelling to keep out drafts. People slept in four-poster beds hung with curtains to reduce drafts. In the 16th century, some people had wallpaper but it was very expensive. Other wealthy people hung tapestries or painted cloths on their walls. In the 16th century carpets were a luxury only the richest people could afford. They were usually too expensive to put on the floor! Instead, they were often hung on the wall or over tables. People covered the floors with rushes or reeds (or mats of woven reeds or rushes) which they strewed with sweet-smelling herbs.

In the 16th century, prosperous people lit their homes with beeswax candles. However, they were expensive. Others made used candles made from tallow (animal fat) which gave off an unpleasant smell and the poorest people made do with rushlights (rushes dipped in animal fat).

In the 16th century, the rich had clocks in their homes. The rich had pocket watches although most people relied on pocket sundials. Rich Tudors were also fond of gardens. Many had mazes, fountains, and topiary (hedges cut into shapes). Less well-off people used their gardens to grow vegetables and herbs.

Tudor houses

None of the improvements of the 16th century applied to the poor. They continued to live in simple huts with one or two rooms (occasionally three). Smoke escaped through a hole in the thatched roof. Floors were of hard earth and furniture was very basic, benches, stools, a table, and wooden chests. They slept on mattresses stuffed with straw or thistledown. The mattresses lay on ropes strung across a wooden frame.

In 1596 Sir John Harrington invented a flushing lavatory with a cistern. However, the idea failed to catch on. People continued to use chamber pots or cesspits, which were cleaned by men called gong farmers. (In the 16th century a toilet was called jakes).

Rich 17th Century People’s Homes

In the late 17th century furniture for the wealthy became more comfortable and much more finely decorated. In the early 17th century furniture was plain and heavy. It was usually made of oak. In the late 17th century furniture for the rich was often made of walnut or (from the 1680s) mahogany. It was decorated in new ways. One was veneering. (Thin pieces of expensive wood were laid over cheaper wood). Some furniture was also inlaid. Wood was carved out and the hollow was filled in with mother of pearl. At this time lacquering arrived in England. Pieces of furniture were coated with lacquer in bright colors.

Furthermore, new types of furniture were introduced. In the mid-17th century chests of drawers became common. Grandfather clocks also became popular. Later in the century, the bookcase was introduced. Chairs also became far more comfortable. Upholstered (padded and covered) chairs became common in wealthy people’s homes. In the 1680s the first real armchairs appeared.

In the early 17th century the architect Inigo Jones introduced the classical style of architecture (based on ancient Greek and Roman styles). He designed the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, which was the first purely classical building in England. The late 17th century was a great age for building grand country homes, displaying the wealth of the upper class at that time.

Poor People’s Homes in the 17th Century

However, all the improvements in furniture did not apply to the poor. Their furniture remained very plain and basic. However, there were some improvements in poor people’s houses in the 17th century. In the Middle Ages, ordinary people’s homes were usually made of wood. However in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, many were built or rebuilt in stone or brick. By the late 17th century even poor people usually lived in houses made of brick or stone. They were a big improvement over wooden houses. They were warmer and drier.

In the 16th century chimneys were a luxury. However, during the 17th century chimneys became more common and by the late 17th century even the poor had them. Furthermore in 1600 glass windows were a luxury. Poor people made do with linen soaked in linseed oil. However, during the 17th century glass became cheaper and by the late 17th century even the poor had glass windows.

In the early 17th century there were only casement windows (ones that open on hinges). In the later 17th century sash windows were introduced. They were in two sections and they slid up and down vertically to open and shut. Although poor people’s homes improved in some ways they remained very small and crowded. Most of the poor lived in huts of 2 or 3 rooms. Some families lived in just one room.

18th Century Homes

In the 18th century, a small minority of the population lived in luxury. The rich built great country houses. A famous landscape gardener called Lancelot Brown (1715-1783) created beautiful gardens. (He was known as ‘Capability’ Brown from his habit of looking at land and saying it had ‘great capabilities’). The leading architect of the 18th century was Robert Adam (1728-1792). He created a style called neo-classical and he designed many 18th-century country houses.

The wealthy owned comfortable upholstered furniture. They owned beautiful furniture, some of it veneered or inlaid. In the 18th century, much fine furniture was made by Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779), George Hepplewhite (?-1786), and Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806). The famous clockmaker James Cox (1723-1800) made exquisite clocks for the rich.

However the poor had none of these things. Craftsmen and laborers lived in 2 or 3 rooms. The poorest people lived in just one room. Their furniture was very simple and plain.

19th Century Homes

In the 19th century, well-off people in Britain lived in very comfortable houses. (Although their servants lived in cramped quarters, often in the attic). For the first time, furniture was mass-produced. That meant it was cheaper but unfortunately standards of design fell. To us, 19th-century middle-class homes would seem overcrowded with furniture, ornaments, and knick-knacks. However, only a small minority could afford this comfortable lifestyle.

In the early 19th century housing for the poor was dreadful. Often they lived in ‘back-to-backs’. These were houses of three (or sometimes only two) rooms, one on top of the other. The houses were literally back-to-back. The back of one house joined onto the back of another and they only had windows on one side. The bottom room was used as a living room and kitchen. The two rooms upstairs were used as bedrooms.

The worst homes were cellar dwellings. These were one-room cellars. They were damp and poorly ventilated. The poorest people slept on piles of straw because they could not afford beds. Fortunately in the 1840s local councils passed by-laws banning cellar dwellings. They also banned any new back-to-backs. The old ones were gradually demolished and replaced over the following decades.

In the early 19th century skilled workers usually lived in ‘through houses’ i.e. ones that were not joined to the backs of other houses. Usually, they had two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. The downstairs front room was kept for the best. The family kept their best furniture and ornaments in this room. They spent most of their time in the downstairs back room, which served as a kitchen and living room. As the 19th century passed more and more working-class people could afford this lifestyle.

In the USA Augustus Pope patented the first modern burglar alarm in 1853. Melville Bissell invented a carpet sweeper in 1876.

In the late 19th century worker’s houses greatly improved. After 1875 most towns passed building regulations which stated that e.g. new houses must be a certain distance apart, rooms must be of a certain size and windows of a certain size. By the 1880s most working-class people lived in houses with two rooms downstairs and two or even three bedrooms. Most had a small garden. At the end of the 19th century, some houses for skilled workers were built with the latest luxury – an indoor toilet.

Most 19th century homes also had a scullery. In it was a ‘copper’, a metal container for washing clothes. The copper was filled with water and soap powder was added. To wash the clothes they were turned with a wooden tool called a dolly. Or you used a metal plunger with holes in it to push clothes up and down. Wet clothes were wrung through a device called a mangle or wringer to dry them.

At the beginning of the 19th century people cooked over an open fire. This was very wasteful as most of the heat went up the chimney. In the 1820s an iron cooker called a range was introduced. It was a much more efficient way of cooking because most of the heat was contained within. By the mid-19th century ranges were common. Most of them had a boiler behind the coal fire where water was heated.

However, even at the end of the 19th century, there were still many families living in one room. Old houses were sometimes divided up into separate dwellings. Sometimes if windows were broken slum landlords could not or would not replace them. So they were ‘repaired’ with paper. Or rags were stuffed into holes in the glass.

Gaslight first became common in well-off people’s homes in the 1840s. By the late 1870s, most working-class homes had gaslight, at least downstairs. Bedrooms might have oil lamps. Gas fires first became common in the 1880s. Gas cookers first became common in the 1890s. Joseph Swan invented the electric light bulb in 1878. Edison invented an improved version in 1879. However electric light was expensive and it took a long time to replace gas in people’s homes.

In the early 19th century only rich people had bathrooms. People did take baths but only a few people had actual rooms for washing. In the 1870s and 1880s, many middle-class people had bathrooms built. The water was heated by gas. Working-class people had a tin bath and washed in front of the kitchen range.

In the 1890s, for the well-to-do, a new style of art and decoration appeared called Art Nouveau. It involved swirling and flowing lines and stylized plant forms.

20th Century Homes

At the start of the 20th century, working-class homes in Britain had two rooms downstairs. The front room and the back room. The front room was kept for the best and children were not allowed to play there. In the front room, the family kept their best furniture and ornaments. The back room was the kitchen and it was where the family spent most of their time. Most families cooked on a coal-fired stove called a range, which also heated the room.

This lifestyle changed in the early 20th century as gas cookers became common. They did not heat the room so people began to spend most of their time in the front room or living room, by the fire. Rising living standards meant it was possible to furnish all rooms properly not just one.

During the 20th century, ordinary people’s furniture greatly improved in quality and design. In the 1920s and 1930s, a new style of furniture and architecture was introduced. It was called Art Deco and it used geometric shapes instead of the flowing lines of the earlier Art Nouveau. The name art deco came from an exhibition held in Paris in 1925 called the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs.

At the beginning of the 20th century, only rich people could afford electric light. Other people used gas. Ordinary people did not have electric light until the 1920s and 1930s. In the early 20th century vacuum cleaners and washing machines were available but only rich people could afford them. They became more common in the 1930s, though they were still expensive. By 1959 about two-thirds of British homes had a vacuum cleaner. However, fridges and washing machines did not become really common till the 1960s.

The first practical electric fire was made in 1912 but they did not become common until the 1930s. Central heating became common in the 1960s and 1970s. Double glazing became common in the 1980s. Plastic or PVC was first used in the 1940s. By the 1960s all kinds of household goods from drain pipes to combs were made of plastic.

In 1900 about 90% of the population rented their home. However, homeownership became more common during the 20th century. By 1939 about 27% of the population owned their own house.

Meanwhile, the first council houses were built before the First World War. More were built in the 1920s and 1930s and some slum clearance took place. However, council houses remained rare until after World War II. After 1945 many more were built and they became common. In the early 1950s, many homes still did not have bathrooms and only had outside lavatories. The situation greatly improved in the late 1950s and 1960s. Large-scale slum clearance took place when whole swathes of old terraced houses were demolished. High-rise flats replaced some of them.

However, flats proved to be unpopular with many people. Some people who lived in the new flats felt isolated. The old terraced houses may have been grim but at least they often had a strong sense of community, which was usually not true of the flats that replaced them. In 1968 a gas explosion wrecked a block of flats at Ronan Point in London and public opinion turned against them. In the 1970s the emphasis turned to renovating old houses rather than replacing them. Then, in 1979 the British government adopted a policy of selling council houses.

Last revised 2023