Nineteenth Century Housing History in Wales

Abbreviations and Bibliographies ] Early Welsh Industrial Housing ] Evans Terrace in North Hill: High Density Victorian housing ] The Swansea Cottage Exhibition 1910 ] The First Welsh Garden City ] Greenhill ] Swansea's Garden Suburb ] Housing: Sources before 1800 ] Swansea's 'Homes for Heroes' ] [ Nineteenth Century Housing History in Wales ] Swansea's housing problem; A background ] Early Housing in Swansea 1902-1910 ] Henrietta Street in Swansea ] Early Landore in Swansea ] New Street in Swansea ] Housing History Basic Reading ] Recorder Street in Swansea ] Mount Pleasant in Swansea: An early map of the area ] The Mount Pleasant Estate in Swansea ] Mount Pleasant: An 'urban village' in Swansea ] Mount Pleasant in Swansea : A list of shops 1900 to 1960 ]

Here's a brief guide to sources for the history of housing in the nineteenth century. The availability of local sources can be very variable. A good start is the local library followed by a visit to the County Archive or Record Office. My experience is that there is masses of information - far more than you could ever use, you just have to find it.
1. Housing densities

From the nineteenth century, there is more evidence and each of our three main themes may be treated more easily.

The density of population per house can be seen from the census returns. From 1801, the printed abstracts record for each place the number of inhabited houses, those empty and (from 1811) the number of those in process of building, as well of course as the total population. One can thus tell how far the number of houses was related to the population of the place concerned. This relationship can be expressed in terms of different communities or different parts of the same community, and also in terms of trends within the community during the course of the century. It is important to remember that not all communities were of course alike, even similar sized ones. For the larger towns (but not for smaller settlements) the census abstracts frequently give the figures for different areas or parishes and thus internal comparisons can be made.

2. Housing areas

For many towns, the census can be supplemented from other official source material. Throughout the century, a vast library of reports was compiled, and several of these deal with housing. Some were national, like Chadwick’s Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population (1841—2) or the invaluable and extensive Report of the Royal Commission on the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts (1844—5) or (for country districts) the House Accommodation of Rural Labourers (1864), all containing detailed local information in their Appendices. A later one is the important report of the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes (1885). Others were local. For instance in Swansea, an excellent report on local conditions was completed by George Thomas Clark in 1849. Although this was intended as a sanitary report to the General Board of Health, it gives a vivid description of local housing and associated conditions.

Since the census records provide further evidence of the types of house occupation, such as multiple families or the presence of lodgers, visitors and servants, a good deal may be drawn from them. In most towns, the addresses will be given, at least in the form of street names, and it is thus possible to compare areas in more detail.

The process of ‘house repopulation’ from the census books alone however has its limitations. For one thing, one cannot be certain that the entries on the schedules do in fact go from door to door consecutively down the street; the numbers in the census are not street numbers, as any comparison with a town directory will show. Indeed it is clear that on occasions the order was changed, by accident or design. In any case, for villages the streets are not recorded, and the order probably merely reflects the shuffling of the original returns.

For larger places, the absence of a tithe apportionment map can be made good from a number of sources such as rate books or gas or water company account books.

Among the most useful are those town directories which give addresses. Nineteenth-century directories are of immense importance to the local historian. There were two main parts to any directory — the introductory sketch which outlined the history and other useful items of more contemporary life of the community, and the list of principal inhabitants. Some had maps, but these are often the least useful part of the books. County directories soon appeared covering the villages. It was not long however before the introductory sketch began to be separated from the lists of residents and separate ‘guidebooks’ appeared. But the directory proper still kept the two sections and appeared at regular intervals. In this lies its immense value for the local historian.

There are however shortcomings in these books. They are frequently out-of-date, even those which are not (as some undoubtedly were) pirating the material of previous issues. Some directories merely copied the earlier works without any attempt at revision: there were some interesting law suits over this. But the fact that there are such runs of directories and that many were conscientiously revised, enables several uses to be made of this source.

For housing, their main value lies in the addresses which began to appear during the century. The earliest lists of residents were alphabetical, often without addresses; then came the addition of street names. It was however the guidebooks which converted these lists of residents into street lists, often in the 1870s. And from this point on, house repopulation becomes relatively easy. There are still problems. The census and the directory do not always tally. The renumbering of streets, especially in central areas, often causes difficulties. But the task can be attempted.

3. New development

The location of new building in the nineteenth century can also be seen. There is a vast range of sources here. The census returns, compared with each other, will give total figures area by area. Local deeds and rentals are still very important, but sometimes they can be supplemented by the accounts of the local water and gas companies. These will indicate occupiers and the date when these services began — in fact, of course, the date of connection to these services rather than the date of erection, but with the larger type of house these two dates will be much the same. Borough rate books similarly describe occupants and can be used (where they still exist) to show how frequently the occupants moved. Other local official records like the records of Improvement Commissioners, or records in the custody of the local authority like deposited plans of new housing (especially after the nineteenth century health legislation which many boroughs gradually adopted), or minutes of the various local committees such as the Public Health Committee — all these may survive to throw light on individual developments. The house plans are indeed a most important and so far largely neglected source. In Birmingham for example, as in other places, they survive from 1876, after the 1875 Sanitary Acts came into force, giving the council power to demand such plans from prospective developers. In other towns they exist from an earlier date, for the health legislation of 1848 made it possible for some towns to require them if they so wished. The use of these plans, together with field surveys, will reveal a good deal about changing standards of house building in the local community.

Another important source is the series of reports of the local police commissioner, where they are available. Local newspapers, especially the advertisements of houses and land for sale, and national journals like The Builder, estate records and sale notices among the records of estate agents and solicitors, are basic sources, while living memories, biographies and diaries will help to add flesh to the bare bones of figures, as will literary sources.

Then there are maps of varying descriptions. The main source here must be the large-scale O.S. maps. These are of varying dates but by the 1870s large parts of urban Wales had been covered. The uses of these maps and the detail they contain are both very great indeed, especially when coupled with the Ordnance Survey area books which describe land use up to 1878. From them, with the other records, the local historian can trace the process of growth (or in villages, decline) in the built-up area of the settlement, the existence of estates and the reasons for their location. The most useful way in which this can be presented is in a series of maps, showing the process of development from start to finish.

4. Tenure

There are limits to what can be done in this field, but the annual reports together with the records of local housing charities like the Leicester Domestic Mission can show something of this movement. Most building firms were small businesses and their records rarely survive. Rate books and tithe awards help, as they usually record both owner and occupier, so that the number of tenants may be seen; so also for rural areas the land tax. Indeed, the rural areas are relatively well served. In 1873, there was a parliamentary enquiry into land ownership, the details of which were published in 1875. A large number of local lease books survive for private or public estates.



The View for Sunday 4 December 2000

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