Thursday 24 March 2011

An Ideal Home

If you've ever wondered about the layout of grand town-houses in Belgravia, like the one in 'Upstairs Downstairs', then wonder no more ... here's a piece from Robert Kerr's The Gentleman's House (1871, 3ed.) - a guide to good design in the 1860s/70s  - which gives you an idea, because it contains a full floor-plan. I don't believe you will won't find many of these on the web, so enjoy ... [click image to enlarge].

IT is enough to say that London houses are generally very defective in respect of plan. Upon the strength chiefly of an intelligent commercial liberality, which led him to adopt spaciousness and substance as his maxims, one celebrated "speculating-builder" acquired such a good name for his houses, that Belgravian footmen have been known to intimate that they should respectfully decline to take  service in a house of any other man's building. Nevertheless, except in respect of the space and substance alluded to, it is difficult say - where the houses of this builder are better than others of their class. The common fault lies, in fact, not so much in anything else as in the difficulties of site,—the contracted width and disproportionate depth, for instance, the succession of stories all not equal in the area, but necessarily similar in structural partitionment, the want of side-light and side access, and, in the case of more important houses, the inadequacy of the Basement-story for the accommodation of Offices in complete form.
    The design represented by our plate is a recent attempt (at the invitation of the late Marquis of Westminster) to develop the in way which the principles of plan belonging to a Gentleman's House may be applied in London. The frontage is 32½ feet, and depth about 140 feet, inclusive of the space for Stables ; and the dimensions are the least that can be accepted for a really good house.
    On the Basement the entire depth of the site is covered; including the usual space between the House and the Stables, which is left open, however, from the ground-level upwards. There is the ordinary street-area in front; and similar areas are formed at the back wall and at the Stable-wall, for further lighting below. Then the are introduced two other areas, or more technically wells, necessarily as small in size as would be admissible, extending from bottom to top at the party-walls, whereby to obtain at least such as amount of side-light and air as can be thus had. These wells serve to give windows to the Back-stair throughout, the Scullery and Larders, the Bath-rooms and Water-closets, and various other small supplementaries; also to the Staircase-Hall (in addition to a skylight) and to an Ante-room on the First-Floor; so that, without rendering the ordinary Family-rooms in any way dependent upon so scant a supply, we are able to give to the multitude of little places, which go far so to make up the comfort of the house, that light and air without which they are of little service ;—in fact, no fewer than thirty such apartments (besides the Back-stair) obtain windows by means of these two wells.
    The Offices accommodated on the Basement are Kitchen, Scullery, Pantry, and Larder; Butler's Pantry, Bedroom, Safe, and Cleaning-room; Housekeeper's-room, Still-room, Store-room, and Servants'-Hall; a Wine-cellar and a Closet for beer; a small Laundry, a small Housemaid's-closet, and a Sleeping-room for two men-servants; besides the usual vaults in front, and similar ones in the extreme rear,—the latter of which, it is submitted, ought to relieve the former of coals and dust. The Back-stair has a Lift from bottom to top. If these Offices are sometimes of small dimensions, it must be remembered that the question in London is not of what spaciousness they can be had, but whether they can be had at all. To guard against the transmission of kitchen-vapours, the door of the Kitchen is placed in a Porch ; and the dinner-service would pass through a hatch within, and upwards by means of the Lift and Back-stair.
    On the Ground-floor we have a Dining-room at the back (as it ought to be, if possible), an Entrance-Hall which is not the mere Passage of common usage, a Cloak-room and Closet, a Library, which is necessarily small, but which has only yielded to still more important considerations, a spacious Staircase-Hall, and a Service-closet for the Dining-room. The Entrance-door opens in the middle of the Front, and is not pushed away to one side in the ordinarily unstately manner.
    On the first-floor we have two spacious Drawing-rooms and a connecting Ante-room. This is by some objected to. The L-shaped suite of two rooms with folding doors has become so thoroughly established in London houses, that people forget the fact that a similar arrangement in the country would be considered by themselves to be a gross vulgarity. The difficulty, however, is how to connect two rooms, if placed at back and front, with the Staircase between. This is resolvable into the question how to make an Ante-room wide enough to be other than a mere passageway. In the present plan, 10 feet is the width, which must certainly be held sufficient.
    On the Second-floor there are two complete Private Bedroom-Suites, one for the heads of the family and one for guests, with a Bath-room (for gentlemen) in addition. On the next Floor we have one inferior Private Suite, three ordinary Bedrooms, a second Bath-room (for ladies), Linen-room, Soiled-linen-room, and Housemaid's-closet. The story above accommodates a complete Nursery-suite and Bedrooms for the female-servants, one for the lady's-maid being specially adapted and furnished with a Wardrobe-closet attached. Still higher, in the roof, there would be Luggage and Lumber-rooms, and any further Servants'-rooms that might be required. The Lift in the Back-stair communicates with every story throughout.
    The Stable-building in the rear accommodates on the Ground-floor three Stalls and a Loose-box, and two Carriage-houses; and in one of these there is provision for harness, including a fireplace. On the Upper floor there are the necessary small Loft, and a Living-room, three Bedrooms, and Closets, for the coachman.
    The blank corner of the plate offers an occasion for representing the manner in which such houses can be grouped in a row, on the principle that every one shall be distinguished from its neighbours by a projection in the Facade, and not by a mere boundary-line between two shades of paint on one flat surface; but this is rather beyond our province.

[As an aside, I'd like to thank those who have donated to my site in the last year or two - it was your generosity which enabled me to buy this book ... more to follow!]


  1. Interesting. I've been looking at the plan- and have two questions.
    1 Is the 'lift' a dumb waiter?
    2 Presumably the Back stairs are for servants' use. In that case- why don't they go up to the top floors, where the servants' rooms are. Surely the servants didn't use the main stairway?

  2. 1. Yes - well guessed! From the same book (not same house):

    "A Lift may advantageously be provided in almost every good house in connexion with the Back Staircase for coals luggage linen the Nursery dinner and whatever else may be heavy to carry up stairs "

    2. I think the stairs do go all the way - just that they're marked as such only on the ground floor. I think a small 'lift' is envisaged, within the well of a narrow set of stairs going up to the top floor.

  3. Ian,

    Your first question has already been answered. As to the second one, I believe you're simply misreading the plans. The back stair does indeed reach the top floor. In fact, it's the only stair that does; the main stair ends at the Third Floor, which is the uppermost family floor.

  4. Andrea Kaston Tange25 March 2011 at 04:56

    Gervase Wheeler's The Choice of a Dwelling also contains numerous plans, at least some for town houses, which are more modest than Kerr's. One useful thing that becomes clear in comparing them is that Kerr's observation in his preface, namely that "the fundamental idea of this treatise is that large houses and small houses, from the largest indeed to the smallest, if well devised as English Residences, have all alike the selfsame principles of plan, differing of necessity in scale, because they differ in size, but not differing in purpose.” Comparing numerous plans across a range of scales demonstrates pretty strongly the principles of hierarchical separation, the modes of access, etc., that prevailed (at least as ideals).

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