Do's and Don'ts of owning a Victorian Property
1. Timescale/historical accuracy:
- Do your research properly if you wish things to be in period. People often forget
that although the Victorian period ended with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 it did
NOT stretch throughout the previous century but started with the accession of Queen Victoria
in 1837. The period was divided architecturally into several phases, so you need to do careful
research, especially in the area of windows and furnishings if you wish your refurbishment
to be entirely authentic.
It might be wise to consult a good manual on this and other aspects of what goes with what. You can make a good start by purchasing the newly-published Victorian Society Book of The Victorian House (aurum £30) by Kit Wedd.
- These are the "eyes" of a building and, of all the external features, matter most. So Do replace windows that are out of keeping with the style of the house and DO
NOT replace original windows with pvc-u ones, or ones that do not constitute a like-for-like
Similarly try to retain all old glass if you have windows replaced. Victorian rolled plate glass had far more imperfections than the ubiquitous modern float glass. Consequently it produced far more interesting effects as the light passes through. You should make every effort to preserve it.
Sliding sash windows - mainly vertical - were common throughout the Victorian period. Plate glass arrived in 1832 - five years before Victoria ascended the throne. So the small pane windows so prevalent in the Georgian period soon gave way to six and later four paned vertical sliding sash windows with a single glazing bar down the middle. In the 1870s and 90s when the Queen Anne Revival style came in, glazing bars returned, so this is a good example of how house styles changed and developed during such a long period of architectural history.
Brickwork and Pointing
- Do use lime in your pointing between your brick or stonework. People forget that
although ordinary Portland Cement was invented in 1824 it did not come into widespread domestic
use until after the First World War. Your house therefore, if it is in brick or stone, will
have a lime mortar. If it is rendered outside it will have a lime render. Similarly the
inside plasters will be lime plasters, unless they have been replaced at some later stage
with more modern gypsum plasters. This is important not only for matching purposes if you
are undertaking new pointing or brickwork but also because of the question of breathability.
Modern houses generally depend on a series of barriers to keep water out. Old houses tend
to rely on the porous nature of the walls to allow water absorbed by the fabric to evaporate
out. The Victorians pointed their houses using several systems that are not as common today.
They liked the rather restrained form of pointing known as 'weatherstruck and cut', in which
the joint is 'struck' by the trowel, which is used to put a slope, designed to repel water,
on the mortar.
- Do choose replacement slates with care. Modern fibre artificial slates are unlikely
to be a good match for the Welsh slates that are likely to cover the roof of your Victorian
house. You will find that many of the imported slates - nowadays they come from as far afield
as China as well as Spain and other EU countries such as Greece - will match quite well,
as well as being far cheaper than traditional Welsh slates. However matching the roof fittings
could be difficult. Just as your bath taps, if they are genuinely old refurbished ones,
could cost you a great deal more than an old cast iron bath (provided you are prepared to
put in some elbow grease yourself) so the roof fittings could cost a great deal more than
Another good tip is to salvage all the slates you can from the roof that is being stripped. Very often many of the old slates can be re-used: only ones that are delaminating or cracked, or whose fixing holes have been chipped away are truly for the skip.
Fittings - bonnets, hips, valleys and ridges - might be hard to find. You might have to do a trawl round local reclamation yards, in which case you would be well advised to consult the SALVO website (see below)
- Do remember that the bathroom as we remember it today did not come into existence
until the 1880s, so the recreation of an exact Victorian bathroom is incompatible with today's
sanitary demands. To be correct you should avoid anything that is claimed to be of earlier
date and as far as possible avoid anything from the Edwardian period. Victorian-style bathrooms
are highly fashionable. At the cheap end you can pay as little as £6-£800 for a suite, while
at the top end a reclaimed brass showerhead and needle spray can cost as much as £16,000,
and a rolltop bathtub with lion's paw ornate or claw and ball feet £3,000, especially if
has a plunger.
Also beware couplings. It is not so bad with taps nowadays, but coupling wc pans with cisterns can be a minefield. The main problem is coupling an expensive antique or reproduction wc pan with a modern cistern. All the old WCs, whether or high or low level, had a pipe visible between the cistern and the pan. This is not the case with their modern equivalents. If you are after authenticity it would be a wise move to purchase the cistern and the pan from the same source because by no means all cisterns and pans interchangeable.
If you desire authenticity the decoration of your Victorian-style bathroom or toilet should tend towards simplicity. Decorating the room with pictures, ornaments or accessories should be avoided: The Victorians regarded bathrooms as essentially functional places.
- Do avoid fully-fitted kitchens if you wish to be authentic. But DO remember that the built-in kitchen dresser was usually something designed into the property by the architect from about 1760 until the time of the First World War. Like Victorian bathrooms, the kitchens of the period were designed to be primarily functional, so they were quite sparse in their furnishings. Apart from the dresser the other definite items of furniture would have been a scrubbed wooden table on which food was prepared in the centre of the room and several plain chairs. If you are restoring a Victorian house which has the traditional kitchen plus scullery - or perhaps kitchen scullery and walk-in larder - think hard before knocking all three through into one large room. Such an action might well achieve something considered more "modern" today, but it will be to the detriment of the Victorian feel of the house.
- Do try to be authentic. Carpets should be heavily patterned in dark green, red
or pink and white, with large three-dimensional designs incorporating flower, animals and
sometimes geometric motifs. Most Victorian houses had some carpets, but there was usually
a two-foot wide margin around the perimeter, with the floorboards quite often stained or
stenciled with geometric or floral designs.
There was a vogue for parquet in the early years of Victoria's reign It was affordable in the best middle class housing, although sometimes it was restricted to a decorative border.
In the better Victorian house encaustic tiles (tiles in which the decoration is achieved by stamping a design in soft clay into the body of a tile before it is fired) would be found somewhere. Likewise small, shaped coloured "geometric" tiles. Do take care when renovating them using modern replacements: the colours can often clash and you may have to go to a specialist who keeps a stock of reclaimed originals. Linoleum was also widely used after its invention in 1877.
8. Front Doors:
- Do beware of cheap mass-produced "Victorian-style" front doors that may not be in period. In the larger and better Victorian houses the external doors were invariably painted, unless they were made of hardwood. Typically they had four panels but there might have been two smaller glazed panels at the top. Later in he century stained and etched glass became very popular in these panels. Door furniture was often solid rather than elaborate. A lot of the present day "Victorian" door furniture is based upon the manufacturer's idea of what it was like rather than what it was actually like. A good reference book should help.
9. Joinery and Internal finishes:
- Do remember that in a Victorian house the quality of the internal finishes directly
related to the status of the house. The carpenter was responsible for all the structural
timbers and the joiner for all the woodwork that showed. The vogue for stripped pine is
a recent creation. The Victorians saw pine as an inferior timber that should be painted.
Do avoid ripping out Victorian staircases wholesale and replacing them with pseudo-Victorian ones. Far better to repair if at all possible because you will it hard (and expensive) to find authentic reproduction of the often elaborately carved and decorated balusters and newel posts found in Victorian houses. In the Victorian period the newel post varied from being a piece of solid carved wood to a simple cluster of wooden sticks. The balusters were often of quite complex designs, scrolled and twisted into floral and gothic shapes or carved into intricate fretwork. Towards the end of the century simple stick balusters became more fashionable.
Dado rails became very popular in the middle of the century. They were particularly popular in hallways and dining rooms where they protected the plastering on the walls from chair backs and people rushing through.
Wallpaper is perhaps the single most important element in the decoration of a Victorian room. The number and variety of wallpapers produced to serve this large market was enormous, ranging from sophisticated designs hand-printed onto rag paper, to mass-produced floral patterns run off onto cheap wood-pulp paper. Many good reproductions of these papers are available today.
- Do try to reinstate key features like original fireplaces, pine floorboards and pine woodblock floors. Other features you might consider reinstating include shutters, four panel internal doors and door furniture, encaustic tiles in the vestibule, damaged modern plasters with original lime plaster, and staircase spindles with new ones that match the originals.
- *The Victorian Society: 020 8994 1019. www.victorian-society.org.uk
- *Salvo (national directory of reclaimed building materials): 020 8761 2316. www.salvoweb.com
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