The Suburban Semi


My earlier post on Metroland looked 'in the round' at the outer suburbs which carpeted London between the two World Wars. To place this in time, the majority were built in the 1930's. The memory of this decade is coloured by the events in Europe, where Hitler was on the rise, and the USA, recovering from the depression than was more severe than here. Put aside the misery in the declining north as well, the Jarrow Marchers came from a different, declining world. In South East England, Stanley Baldwin's people were doing well. Think radios, lido's, new industrial estates along the arterial roads.

The opportunities move south! 

London expanded with new development propelled in large part by people who expected to commute into London grew rapidly both in population and area who wanted to buy their house rather than rent it and who could then exercise an unprecedented degree of control over where and what they bought; and that was a semi in the suburbs. Why? Often, it was an aspiration to live in a greener, cleaner Arcadia, within easy reach of the city centre or good roads. 

Now I want to turn my attention to what the design of the semi-detached houses that predominated. Like the cut of a business suit from M&S or the lines of the Vauxhall, we don’t give much thought to what they look like, other than to make unflattering comparisons with the ‘character’ of earlier buildings and the idyll pictured above. 

The basic functional requirements were unsurprisingly much like those of their Victorian and Edwardian predecessors, with living rooms and a kitchen arranged off a hall with bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. But there were changes. They were on average smaller and, for instance, while middle class Victorians often wanted a scullery or space for a servant, they didn’t need a garage. I imagine the proud gardeners of the early suburbs would be horrified by their floral legacy being used as hard standing for the bins or a Ford Focus. 

The external designs differed from their pre-war antecedents and bore little resemblance to inter-war housing elsewhere in the world, partly because the weather was different and land usually less abundant than it was elsewhere, but also because of haphazard borrowing from earlier traditions in English housebuilding. This is not to say that the builders simply fished for ideas in a Mrs Beeton's book of recipes for Victorian homes. Rather, in an attempt to produce something that they thought might appeal to buyers whose aspirations did not run to a coherent and unsullied architectural vision, they put shapes, materials and ‘bolt on’ gewgaws into a blender.

The easily recognisable look of many of the inter war semis was born out of this marriage of crude economics, changing spatial requirements and earlier design fashions. There had always been some semis simply because they occupied less of a site and shared the cost of a wall, but in both the Victorian and even Georgian times, detached and terraced housing were much more common. The form and detailing of the semis drew mostly on the former.

It is instructive to look at the marketing literature of the time. Three broad themes emerge.  The first two riff on an imagined rusticity; the third is an insipid pastiche of modernist styles which follows the first two in terms of interior layout but looked very different externally. I would love to give you a pure and undefiled example of each, something that hadn’t been put through that blender, but I cannot. So I will simply try to take a look at what went into it and what came out.

In Victorian and Edwardian times, while the terraces built for the more impecunious classes were cramped and rarely embellished, the dwellings of the middle classes were roomy and sported the occasional aesthetic flourish. The 'Arts and Crafts' movement recycled romantic ideas about olde England to kick back against the cold rationalism of the enlightenment movement and was in its pomp between 1880 and 1920. It is responsible for a lot of this self consciously retro building style. Its aesthetics are hinted at in the cottage style pitched roof, the mock-Jacobean timber framing and small windows of the houses in Wembley shown below. 

Earlier styles such as Georgian and Queen Anne, or the homeopathic ‘gothic’ details of many terraces in the older, inner suburbs; tended to be reserved for larger detached houses and rarely survived in the design of later semis. An entertainingly incongruous Georgian detail is the doorway in the houses in the pic below from 'a 'Georgian Close'. 

That’s a shame! There is an elegance in the uncluttered facades of some Georgian buildings and I like the gothic embellishments, high ceilings and spacious rooms in my bog-standard Edwardian terrace. (I am not so keen on the poor insulation from the solid walls, rattling sash windows and rising damp. Don’t kid yourself that Victorian buildings were more ‘solid’). 

The cheap trick of exposing planks of black wood on a front wall of the semi, is presumably to make it look as if (insert Tudor monarch here) had a hand in building it. One writer dammed it as 'false art and pretentious vulgarity'. And why oh why do you commonly find it in parades of suburban shops? Those bits of wood rarely hold anything up, so it beats me why they didn't go all the way with the Arcadian idyll pictured in the contemporary adverts, by adding a maypole in the front garden and pig sty around the back. But maybe the garages or car ports would spoil the cottage vibe. I bet they never actually built anything like the example from the magazine illustration below! 

It is hard to know how many people bought into the idea that these places were and would remain a semi-rural paradise. Maybe some had faith in a kind of architectural determinism; if a place looks different it will become different; a healthy, relaxed community in the greensward.  If so, given the pace of new development, their faith was surely misplaced.

A thoroughly debased echo of Arts & Crafts designs can be seen in common details. Examples include the windows, gables, pebble dash, tiled or weatherboard walls, pronounced chimneys, porches and odd bits of stained glass. England is awash with traditional building styles, reflecting the materials at hand in different places. Now builders could ship them around the country at will, so developers opted for strange stylistic mash-ups, completely unanchored from their origin and original function. Weatherboarding travelled from the Weald, where it was practical, to Wealdstone where it wasn't; and pebbledash from the seaside (where it offered protection from salt winds) to Sudbury. 

Sometimes it goes beyond mere decoration, like the upstairs rooms built into long, pitched roofs. Maybe this was just cheaper and I grant that some old thatched roofs are shaped like that, but it always looks to me more like a feeble contrivance of the Swiss chalet look; perhaps in need of some cow bells, a cuckoo clock and a lot of snow. As it is, you are more likely to find a carriage lamp, a drooping climber or an unused umbrella stand.

In the league table of semi designs, the modernist and its bastard offspring Art Deco styles are runners up to Faux Rustic but still a very long way behind it. Maybe that is we pompously regard them as having shallow and aesthetically pretentious European origins rather than reflecting the patriotic and therefore sound and seasoned perspectives of the England of rich tea biscuits and overcooked beef. 

The modernist look drew on the ideas of the Bauhaus and famous European architects like Le Corbusier and Gropius. The idea was that the form of a building should follow its function; in other words you make something attractive by making no effort to make it attractive. 

Thankfully the worst excesses of this austere credo were watered down by the time it reached Bushey and Boreham Wood, and when the tide went out we were left with just more rectangular buildings with flat roofs and strong angles or rounded corners. (If you want to see pure unconstrained public sector modernism, look at the Metroland tube stations. No pitched roofs and weatherboarding there!)

Maybe this appealed most directly to the those who looked forward to a future with marvels like Alexa, air fryers and robot hoovers, rather than the gramophone, antimacassars and aspidistras. It came in two flavours. The hardline modernist creations were very austere and boxy with little ornament. The sub-genres appeal more, to me at least. Hollywood Moderne came with a green pantiled roof and there was a more colourful but lesser-spotted Mexican variant. Personally (and unlike almost anyone else I know) I like the Streamline Moderne variant which drew on the design of aircraft and grand ocean liners. Go faster, further, higher. Very popular with Mussolini. See the reference to Valencia Avenue in my post on Stanmore:   Link:  Stanmore

In contrast, Art Deco was a style that originated in France in the 1920’s and in the eyes of many seemed to epitomise its vacuous zeitgeist. Frankly, given their experience in the previous decade, they were entitled to a bit of frivolity. See the brochure illustration below. Now, while the arched entrances to Parisian Metro Stations are fun and it inspires the design of nice retro ash trays, as far as our semis were concerned it only provided a bit of face paint. They were still boxes with a flat roof, some curves, lots of horizontal detailing and mostly white plaster. Popular add-ons included ‘suntrap’ windows, designed to bring in more light for a generation that had scampered out of the gloom of Edwardian London for a world of sunlamps, health kicks and maybe even a foreign holiday.

Customers for public buildings are not usually given the buyer's luxury of choice. As part of the effort to build houses that were fit for purpose. A Government Report in 1918 made recommendations, so inter war council housing, while it followed convention in interior layout, was functional and less prone to design conceits of any type. The pic below is Council housing built in Welwyn in the 1920' supposedly in a 'Georgian' style. If so, it is very diluted attempt! 


This ascetic aesthetic would not have suited those who chose to buy their own semi; the last thing they wanted was for anyone to think they lived in a council house, so private housing developers usually actively ignored them and opted for something a bit more frilly. 

So what came out of the blender?.

Let’s look at this from the point of view of the buyer. In my experience (and I have some) they are either buying a place in a convenient location that meets their practical needs or aspire to a new lifestyle, signalled by a change in surroundings. Few have any illusion about reaching the stratosphere of the truly rich, but many do like to lord it a bit over their friends and neighbours. I doubt that, almost a century ago, when the semis were being sprayed across the fields of Middlesex, people were much different. A garage for that new Austin, an ornamental front garden and a swing for Janet and John were just the thing! I doubt they paid as much attention to the developers' or architects' fantasies described in the adverts and artists' impressions.

From the developers' point of view, in my experience (and I have some) most are simply interested in what they think people want to buy. I stress ‘think’ here because the standard practices of this business are a tad antediluvian and, as far as I am aware, few did (or do) any detailed market research. Some simply followed ideas from architects who wanted to paddle their own stylistic canoe while being aware that if they proposed something that didn’t sell, they probably wouldn’t get another commission. The relationship between developers and their architects is an odd thing, a bit like dealing with a priest from a different religion, offering interesting insights but fundamentally unhinged.

In practice, many approached the task of specifying what they wanted to build on the Christmas tree principle, hanging baubles and gewgaws to add a homeopathic dose of decoration and differentiation, without giving much thought to achieving any particular look.

 But they did recognise that not everyone has the same budget or the same needs, even at the basic level of different numbers or sizes of rooms, so they usually introduced some variety, in some cases between streets or even in neighbouring pairs of houses. Even so, there was a template, and you can’t look at the design of most semi’s today and think ‘anarchy’.

Look at them now!

Those original distinctions must often have been too marginal to matter. Over time people wanted to make changes; perhaps re-clad the exterior or add a loft room and double glazing. In the pic below in addition to roof rooms and a museum of porch designs, you can find added tiling, pebble dash and, of course, mock stone cladding. 

Drab pebble dash 

With increasing car ownership and often narrow streets, many people concreted over those carefully tended front gardens that were the pride of the original owners. There is not a privet hedge in sight. 


Many simply arranged things to suit their immediate convenience or budget without any regard for their setting. Is this the same motivation that impels my adult son to wear odd socks? Or my wish to distance myself from the cycling hoi polloi by scorning Lycra and having a bike with no manufacturer’s decals? In any event, the razor-thin unity of the original design concept was soon lost. But this wasn’t really anarchy; it was more like tarting up the family car from a menu of equally mass produced customisation options, or my adding silly stickers to the bike frame.

Sometimes I hear professionals mourning this disintegration of the original homogenous character of the streets. What is to be done with these people? I mean, really! But where inter-war housing is concerned, in most places, minor changes are uncontrolled. It says in the Magna Carta that you can’t mess around with an Englishman’s right to choose between gravel and crazy paving or to festoon his gaff with a light show. While the English planning system has some blunt tools in the locker to discourage the worst excesses, it rarely chooses to use them on private housing in the suburban Sahel.

Now, nearly everywhere, it is too late anyway. The Adams family want their semi painted pink with roses up the front and mock weatherboarding on the gable. And, as their house began to show its age, the Munster's found aluminium windows and doors to be good cheap replacements and had the chimney removed and the brickwork rendering picked out in sky blue. Ironically they have now got their wish – no one would confuse their home with a Council House, because the latter wouldn’t usually have permitted such intrusions into the aesthetic coherence of their estates!

I mock. It is now common to do so. It used to be worse. At the time, the popular post-war cartoonist and sometime architectural critic Osbert Lancaster summed up a common view that suburban housing they offered an 'infernal amalgam' of the least attractive building materials and building devices known in the past'. He came from Notting Hill and was educated at Charterhouse and Oxford University. His early home is shown below. Forgive me if I sniff a hint of snobbery here. 

Elgin Crescent, Notting Hill 

The fact is that semis originally gave Londoners practical family homes and a closer relationship with sunlight and greenery. Hurrah for that; but a side effect is that they take up a lot of valuable urban land and today’s planners want to see more meat per metre. They are set housebuilding targets which are more easily met by heaping up bodies in blocks of flats. That might suit some of the people some of the time, but families in particular are often not keen and, as a whole, even the urban English never seem to have embraced apartment living in the way that, say, Parisians have. It is noticeable that when demand stutters in the housing market, flats are usually hardest to sell.

I find it hard to think that the semis that filled the horizons of my youth are now often almost a century old. In another century’s time, what will we think of those flats? Will we have embraced high-rise living at last? Or will we be mocking them, despising them, clawing our way out of them? And will those semis be seen, not just as a more liveable alternative but as having a bit of period character? Not Arcadia perhaps, but maybe better than a small perch on a concrete cliff with rusting playground kit on a tarmac handkerchief for the kids and a pocket park for greenery?

There are alternatives. Governments have half-heartedly encouraged people to build their own homes on land allocated for that. The biggest example I know is Graven Hill, an old MoD site on a hill just south of Bicester. There is certainly some variety. 

Graven Hill 

There seems to be two main problems with this. Firstly for many people but especially the majority who simply hire their own builder, the cost is high. You might be losing the burden developer's profit margin, but you are also using their construction expertise and significant economies of scale. I bet there are financing and insurance issues as well. Secondly, from what I have seen, these scheme are quite land-hungry and there is a general ambition among planners to encourage higher numbers of homes per acre in order to squeeze everyone in without concreting over the countryside. 

You take's your pick! 

If you want to get a taste of the time, there is an old BFI film on the building of the semi's, embedded in this site: Link: BFI Film


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