Homes through time: Some homes can reflect social change over a century

In 1995, I took advantage of this opportunity by purchasing a semi-detached home in Wolvercote in north Oxford. The house was built in 1934 and had only been decorated once. It has never been modernized. I had no idea that the experience I gained in the house would shape the rest of my 20-year career as a designer historian.

The newly built home at Rosamund Road was originally purchased by Vernon Victor Collett and his wife Cecilia Wells (1897-1995). The couple moved in with their sons Basil and Roy. Vernon worked at Wolvercote Paper Mill on a modest salary. Both Vernon and Cecilia came from solidly working class backgrounds.

Exterior of semi-detached home at Rosamund Road in Wolvercote (Oxfordshire), 1995. James R. Ryan is the author.
Vernon was the youngest of six children. His father was a milkman, and his mother was a former housekeeper and daughter of a innkeeper. Cecilia, the fourth child of a deceased house builder whose widow had to become a charwoman in order to support her family, was one of five children. Vernon was the only person in his family who owned his own house. He is an example of a person with a modest salary who could afford to buy a house in the mid-1930s.

The affordability of home ownership was at its highest in British history during this period due to the falling prices, availability of small three-bedroom homes and affordable credit. By 1939, 31% of homes were owned by owners , up from 90% in 1910.

The Nation of Homeowners
Around 20% of UK’s housing stock was constructed before 1914, and a staggering 17% between World Wars. The interwar boom in house building facilitated home ownership. Nearly 3m homes were built for private sales, and over a million people moved from renting to owning. As Britain became a nation of homeowners, the desire for a home-centered lifestyle also grew. This period laid the foundations of the popularisation of home as a central part of identity in Britain.

Poster for Woolwich Equitable Building Society c. 1935. BADDA4715, courtesy of Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture at Middlesex University. Author provided
Local authorities built more than one million houses in response to the Addison Act of 1919, which demanded “homes worthy heroes”, i.e. troops who had served during World War I. These homes were built for heroines who worked in munitions or other war-related work. These homes set new standards in house construction and minimum space standards. These homes were not affordable to the poorer working classes, despite being proposed as a way out of slums.

In 1934, an Oxford housebuilder built what became known in the trade as ” Cutteslowe walls ” – two-metre-high walls with spikes on top – to separate the residents of his estate from the “slum-dwellers” who lived on the local authority estate. The walls were finally removed in 1959, despite years of protests by tenants on the council estate.

The Colletts only had two children, compared to their own families, which consisted of between six and seven. The small families of two or three kids were typical of respectable lower middle-class workers and aspirants in the interwar period who wanted to improve their living standards.

The ‘ideal home’ and the’real home’
Front reception at Rosamund Road in Wolvercote. 1995. James R. Ryan is the author.
Rosamund Road was not the Art Deco riot that some museums have led you to believe. There were some remarkable consistency in UK homes during the 20th century, with furniture that was made to last and dark colors to hide dirt from everyday life. Fixture, fittings and furnishings were often a combination of different styles and periods. Rosamund Road, for example, imagined ” Tudorbethan ” styles of furniture, and “modernistic ” linoleum and carpets, as well as paint colours, wallpaper borders and paint colors in its front reception, which was kept to be used best as a lounge.

Kitchen at Rosamund Road, Wolvercote, 1995. James R. Ryan is the author.
Rosamund Road was restored and curated by me, a former V&A Curator, while I lived a 1930s-style lifestyle. I transformed the small “kitchenette”, a lean-to extension, into an ideal of interwar. It had an enamel top table, a Belfast sink and some shelves. I bought a 1930s Easywork kitchen cabinet that had storage behind the doors. It included a meat safe, a flour hopper, and a metal-lined meat safe. The worktop was also removable. It was the predecessor of fitted kitchens, which didn’t take off in Britain until the 1960s .

A House Through Time, BBC Two, series 2, Ravensworth Terrace in Newcastle. BBC Two, FAL
Beware of gadgets and electrical appliances. Although washing machines and refrigerators were available in 1934, their widespread use did not follow. Curling tongs, irons and other appliances were the most common. Even in the case where irons were concerned, only about a third households owned one in 1935. The convenience of electrical appliances was more important to households than the saving of women’s labor.

In their bricks, mortar, walls, floor mouldings, fixtures and fittings, and layouts of their interiors, our houses contain the physical evidence of the past inhabitants. Imagine what the houses might have looked like and how they changed over time. This gives us a rich insight into social history.

Anyone who has studied family or home history knows that standing where an event took place and wondering what the walls could say is a powerful experience. As a historian of design and culture, I find the everyday rituals that are revealed in our homes to be just as fascinating and moving.

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