Broadcaster: BBC Four
Reviewer: Phillippa Mapes
The BBC’s ‘At Home with…the British’ series, aired in May 2016, consists of three episodes each dealing with a different type of housing including the Tudor cottage, Victorian terrace and post-war high rise and all described in the programme as the ‘ordinary homes that most of us live in’. The series is presented by Dan Cruickshank, an architectural historian who has a considerable pedigree of academic publications to his name (including Life in the Georgian City, A History of Architecture, and The Architects Journal) and who is fast becoming a ‘national treasure’ for his informative and accessible television programmes on the history of buildings.
Despite Episode 2’s title (‘The Terrace’) and billing, this is not a programme about the terrace per se, but focuses on the Victorian terrace and specifically a case study of the terraces of Toxteth in Liverpool, built in the second half of the nineteenth century. The programme looks at how and why these houses were built and what life was like to live in them. At this point it is not clear why there should be such a particularly narrow focus for a programme billed as covering the terraced house in general, except for the fact that this type of house became more available to a greater range of social groups during the nineteenth century. Indeed, many of the social, economic and material issues affecting this form of housing development and described in the programme, (such as responses to increasing urban growth, restrictive land covenants, motives of the speculative builder and the cult of domesticity) were also features of the significant developments of terraced housing in the long eighteenth century in the expanding urban areas of Britain, albeit reflected in a different architectural style of terrace.
It’s hard not to like Dan Cruickshank with his gentle, avuncular manner and enthusiastic, whispering delivery. He takes us on an historical journey of the built environment of this particular area of Liverpool from its infamous slum housing in the early nineteenth century, to the single largest development of an estate by Welsh architect Richard Owens in the 1860s, and the urban decline of the area in the 1980s. On the way we explore subjects including the influx of Welsh labourers and builders, how different types of building material effected the appearance and cost of these terraces, and the consequences of improvements in sanitation provision on public health. The changing demographics of this area are also discussed as Liverpool’s fortunes as a port rose and fell in the nineteenth and twentieth century. In this clip Dan discusses building materials:
The hour-long programme covers considerable ground, using current footage of the streets as well as archive photographs and documents, street and house plans, plus oral history evidence from local residents. In places we are briefly whisked through a subject and on to the next, sometimes unconnected, section. At times it is also not clear if we are talking about a particular middling class or working class terrace or experience. For the historian well aware of the blurring of class boundaries and the difficulties of defining class in terms of living space, this is slightly frustrating. It is not until near the end of the programme, for example, that attempts are made to address this issue by categorising the terraces by the residents’ occupational status given in the 1851 census returns.
The tone of the programme is informal and in places light-hearted. We see Dan manfully loading cement into a mixer, having a go at splitting slates and scrubbing a front doorstep. We are made aware from the start that this is a programme about the homes of ordinary people and relevant to the viewer, not a weighty discourse on architectural styles. The down to earth approach is re-enforced throughout, such as by Dan giving a piece to camera about sanitation in the terraced house whilst sitting in an outside lavatory, and footage of a lady resident giggling as he innocently states ‘now I’ve got you here I can explore your plumbing in detail’.
Nonetheless Dan Cruickshank’s erudite credentials and affable manner carry him, and we are treated to some fascinating glimpses into rarely seen or previously inaccessible buildings, such as the remarkable Toxteth Reservoir, an enormous structure built in 1853 to hold thousands of gallons of water and supported underground by a vast gallery of cast iron pillars. In the clip below we gain access to one of the very few remaining examples of the Liverpool ‘court’ houses – slum dwellings built around a narrow courtyard:
Although the programme is interesting and absorbing, at times it feels like it would benefit from the perspective of a wider geographical context or comparison. One also wonders if there is a place in this documentary for Dan to interview a young mum and her daughter in a modernised terrace interior. Do we really need to know about her plans to paint the child’s room baby pink and hang a pink chandelier? However, as in the clip below, her enthusiasm and enjoyment of the house is palpable as she talks about its sense of history. Here the point of the programme becomes clear. This is not so much a documentary on the ubiquity of the terraced house, as an attempt to point out the value and richness of heritage of that these commonplace homes represent.
What Dan reveals is that vast numbers of these terraced houses were demolished as a result of the Toxteth Riots in 1981, as poor housing, rather than unemployment and racial tensions, were seen as a major contributor to this episode of social unrest. Unsympathetic, top down planning by Liverpool council had seen the decimation of the once prolific Victorian terrace in this area. We learn that the four remaining streets in the Granby area of Toxteth, saved from demolition by pressure from local residents, is the focus of an inclusive project run in partnership with the architectural collective ‘Assemble’ and was the winner of the prestigious contemporary arts award, the Turner prize in 2015 for its innovative approach to preservation and regeneration of these rapidly disappearing historic streets.
Dan Cruickshank is a Trustee of S.A.V.E. Britain’s Heritage, an independent charity which campaigns for the preservation of all types of historic building. In this capacity he uses the forum of this programme to raise awareness amongst us all of how vulnerable to loss our built heritage is. His personable manner stimulates an understanding and appreciation of the rapidly disappearing internal and external architectural details of these ubiquitous houses. With or without the toilet humour, this can only be a very good thing.
Phillippa Mapes is an AHRC funded PhD candidate in the School of History at the University of Leicester studying the English Wallpaper Trade in the Eighteenth Century.