Book Review

(First published in 1987 in volume 3, pp. 66-67, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)

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The Rural Houses of West Yorkshire 1400-1830


Workers' Houses of West Yorkshire 1750-1920

HMSO,1985 £12.95 each

The trouble with many architectural histories is that they fail to analyse the relationship between social need and architectural expression. Some never quite come to grips with the effects that social rank and occupation have on the plan and functioning of a house. Neither of the books under review here can be accused of these faults.

The Rural Houses of West Yorkshire 1400-1830 is the outcome of about six years fieldwork, writing and research by Colum Giles of the Royal Commission of Historical Monuments aided by West Yorkshire Archaeology Unit. The core of the book is a study of gentry and yeoman houses of the 17th and 18th centuries based on records of some six hundred houses throughout the county. The planning of the gentry house is a central theme which Mr Giles develops to show the relationships between the various rooms of the house, circulation within the house and the accommodation of servants. He goes on to show how the domestic organization of the 17th century gradually changed and was to be incorporated into houses of classical design early in the 18th century. The gentry way of life which promoted these changes is col1trasted with that of the yeomen and the kinds of houses they built. But while yeomen might continue to build traditional houses, Mr Giles suggests that they were not immune to change, and he is able to demonstrate that yeomen of all stations were moving towards amore compact design of house by the early 18th century, and that regional differences were beginning to disappear. At the same time, the book illustrates a diversity of house types.

I have only two main criticisms. First, the book deals with rural houses, wisely omitting urban houses which are now difficult, if not impossible, to record. This does not, I feel, justify the exclusion of houses built on the outskirts of towns such as the merchants' houses at Woodhouse in Leeds, and at Halifax. Several such houses remain, and their exclusion is the only flaw in an otherwise illuminating account of houses connected with the clothing industry. Secondly, although the title suggests 1830 as the stopping place, the discussion falls off rapidly after 1750. While later houses are mentioned they do not receive the same attention as earlier houses. These criticisms apart, this is a refreshingly intelligent and well argued account of the development of the county's houses with good use of documentary evidence to back up the arguments.

If there is little about cottages in Colum Giles's book, it is because a survey of the county's cottages was being undertaken at the same time. The result is Lucy Caffyn's companion volume Workers' Houses of West Yorkshire 1750-1920. I found this a less satisfactory book. There are quite a number of irritating mistakes - wrong dates, names spelt incorrectly, and so on. The study also lacks penetration in several important places. There is room in such a book for detailed discussion and analysis; instead what we get is commentary. The development of back-to-back houses, for instance, and the growth of model villages are presented as a recital of events with little consideration of the underlying social and political issues. In presenting a conventional view of these subjects rather than some much needed fresh thinking, Lucy Caffyn has missed an opportunity. In mitigation, this is perhaps because the book had to be completed in only a third of the time made available for Colum Giles's study. Broadly speaking, however, this book is a good introduction to the humbler types of domestic architecture, and provides a record of the county's working class housing. Miss Caffyn deals with a wide range of subjects from cottages built before 1800 to speculation in urban houses and the activities of early building societies, as well as some seldom considered forms of housing such as toll houses and railway workers' cottages. Despite my critical comments, improved dwellings of the 19th century and model villages are well represented. The last section of the book deserves to be singled out for it deals with council housing - still something of a dark continent to architectural historians - and there are early examples from Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield.

Both books are very well illustrated with photographs and drawings, and I recommend them to anyone interested in the social as well as the architectural development of West Yorkshire houses.

George Sheeran

© 1987, George Sheeran and The Bradford Antiquary