Among the whole range of human enterprises, there is scarcely perhaps a pleasanter one for ordinary people than building a house. Building a house to live in, or to put some friend into, I mean; for there is nothing particularly interesting in the speculator’s business of erecting houses by the dozen, or the row, or the block, without knowing who will inhabit them.
There is all the difference in the world between the two methods. I need not describe the dreary spectacle of the rows of unfinished or empty houses in and near London — places where the damp is spreading through for want of the warmth of life within; where vagabonds get in for shelter, knowing that nobody is likely to come there but people like themselves; and where all the cats, rats, and mice of the neighbourhood can make as much racket as they please.
The police may look in occasionally in pursuit of thieves, or at the request of some timid resident in the nearest house; but nobody has really any business there, and certainly nobody any pleasure. There is no gratification in such house-building as this.
The case is no better in those manufacturing towns where it was the rage, at one time, to speculate in dwellings for a rapidly-increasing operative population. It was enough to sink anybody’s heart to see the builders’ men at work upon a dozen or a score of cottages in a block. The main object seemed to be to save land, bricks, and money.
The dwellings were all alike, standing back to back, so that one wall, without an inch of opening, formed the back-wall of the whole lot. Only the end houses could ever have openings on the side, and each of them on only one side. The others had a door and two or more windows in front; and that was all the ventilation provided.
Living there was being shut up in a box like a baby-house, with only a bit of the front moveable. Only one chimney to each; windows not made to open, or with perhaps one small pane turning on a hinge; and no fireplace in any bed-room: such was the provision made for the breathing of a whole family. The families
themselves were too little aware’ that it is a poisonous practice to live even in large and lofty rooms which have not openings for the perpetual renewal of the air. They did not understand that their wretched feelings in sleep, and on waking, were owing to their having breathed poisonous air during the night; and so the tenants made no objection to the cottages on that score.
They were more aware of the injury done them by the absence of a proper foundation for the houses. The walls were scarcely inserted in the clay soil, which was left just as it was, undrained, untouched, with the brick-floors slightly rammed down into it, or a wooden flooring merely laid upon it. The damp which crept up the walls and kept the bricks wet, or the boards rotten, was a palpable evil enough ; and the tenants lamented it; but they did not see, nor their landlord either, how anything could be done; and there the place rotted, and the people in it. The houses were built to last only a few years, and to be going to pieces during the whole interval; but the people decayed so much faster, that there was a long series of funerals from the doors before the roofs fell in and the walls crumbled down.
That was a long time ago. The subject happily is better understood now. Prom ricketty dwellings run up to serve a single generation, let us turn to houses which will last a thousand years.
By houses which will last a thousand years, I do not mean any great baronial castle, or even the most substantial manor-house that any ancestor of our generation ever erected. I am thinking of the dwellings, for gentle and simple, which are built every year in those districts of the country in which stone is the material. In the mountainous parts of the kingdom, very few ruins of human dwellings are seen; and such as there are would be sound and substantial houses again if they were roofed and fitted up. The walls are two or three feet thick, and there seems to be no reason why they should not stand for ever, if the foundation is good. The principle of building is the same for the most part in regard to the handsomest and the humblest abodes; and the pleasure, I suppose, is much the same, both in kind and degree, of seeing the future dwelling rising from the ground, and assuming the appearance which it is to have for generations to come. In districts where the land is level, the soil clay, and the houses of brick, the highest policy of building is to emulate, as nearly as possible, the advantages and virtues of the stone regions; and the towns and villages of our mountain districts ought therefore to be models of the art of healthy living in respect of habitation.
In such places there is usually an express aim in building a house, large or small. It is built, not for the chance of letting or selling, but for some particular inhabitant, or class of inhabitant. There is probably a scarcity of dwellings, and the new one is meant to accommodate somebody who is waiting, or any one of a dozen families who are known to be wretchedly crowded. In such a case, the first stage is of hope and fear about getting ground to build on. This is a sore point in many rural districts, and a very expensive part of the business in the towns. It is a painful thing to see, in many a glorious valley and in many an old-fashioned country parish, that ground can always be had for building mansions, but never for cottages. A great lady, perhaps, who owns half a parish or a whole one, permits no house to bo built except on the site of a former one, however populous the neighbourhood may be growing. A tradesman who has a chance to build a house on a lot among others, makes haste to buy up the other lots, or to plant out any cottages which he cannot suppress. Nobody will sell land for building, for fear of the frown of the squire or the parson. But by patient watching land is obtained, sooner or later; the tiresome and expensive forms of conveyance are all gone through, and the building may begin.
The first marking out of the plan of the dwelling on the sod is charming. Children and inexperienced persons cannot understand it, so small do the divisions look. It is like a doll’s house, they say; and the only way to convince them that the thing is true, is to put half-a-dozen persons on the plot meant for the sitting-room, and show them there is room to turn about.
When the final study of the outline is gone through, to make sure that there is no fatal mistake, no crying inconvenience or blemish; and when the first sod is turned by some valued hand, there is an end for a time to the prettiness of the business. The foundations make a great mess. Ere long, however, the walls begin to rise; and one stage seems to have been reached when the spaces for the windows appear. Not many builders of family houses are so indifferent as Mr. Day, the author of “Sandford and Merton,” who was too indolent to leave his book, and decide on the distances between the windows of his dining room when the workmen were waiting. He ordered that the walls should be built up without regard to windows, and he would have them cut out afterwards. He never roused himself to the task: the room was unused, except as a lumber room, and was never entered without a light. People less eccentric take pleasure in standing at the window-places and looking abroad, to fancy how the view will appear under all changes. When the roof-tree is laid on, it is a real festival. The workmen have a bottle of wine; and the wish for many happy years under that roof-tree goes merrily round. Perhaps there are pleasanter moments still to come, during the work. From some hill-top, or from the other side of the valley, there may be an unexpected sight of smoke rising from the chimney. The workmen are melting their glue over some shavings in what is to be the fireplace; and the blue curl or pillar of smoke looks as homelike and hospitable as if there were really a fireside. Perhaps the evening sun gleams upon the windows, seen from afar, but only just put in, in fear of rain in the night. These things are pleasant; and so it is to stand at the edge of the abyss where the floor is to be, — or to step from beam to beam, trying to conceive of the room warmed and lighted, and shut in for the winter evening, — all cleanliness and comfort: and so it is to climb the ladder before the staircase is up, to study the view from the chamber windows, and satisfy one’s self once more as to the height and size of the rooms. As for the finish of all, when the house is habitable, and taxpaying day is past, and you have seen in the twilight the bedsteads coming down the hill, and have stirred up the fire, and set the kettle to boil while the beds are made up, and mustered chairs enough round the family tea-table, and lighted the lamp, and drawn down the blinds, and locked the door, and sat down to rest in your new house, and then go to bed, watching the light of the embers on ceiling and walls (for there must be a fire in the bedrooms at first) till you drop asleep, the experience is one of the most agreeable that a person of domestic tastes can enjoy.
This kind of pleasure is common, as I have said, to gentle and simple. At each stage that I have described the dwelling may be a mansion or a cottage. And it is true throughout, that the essentials of a wholesome and agreeable abode are the same through all ranks of habitations. They are plain; they are easily attainable; they are universal: and yet it is a miserable truth that tens of thousands of persons in our country are killed every year by the imperfections of the dwellings in which they live. It would be easy to show the way in which this chronic murder goes on ; but we need not afflict ourselves with the thought of damp, closeness, dirt, and the disgust and disease which arise from these, if the purpose is answered as well by studying the conditions of wholesome habitation.
These universal conditions are sufficiently obvious. They are included under four heads: — Soil, Air, Light, and Water. The sovereign and the ploughman have an equal interest in these particulars of their dwelling; and if all is right under these four heads, the terms of human life lie pretty fairly and equally divided before the one and the other. They will be more equal in the possession of health and domestic comfort than they can be superior and inferior in other circumstances of outward fortune.
First comes Soil. It is a grave disadvantage to have to live upon clay. Rock, slaty soil, and gravel are good; and clay is bad. The worst effects may be palliated by extreme care in drainage; but nothing can altogether compensate for a soil which will not let water run through it and away. Every order of house, built on any kind of soil, and especially on clay, ought to be hollow and well ventilated under the living rooms. If there are cellars, those cellars ought to be as airy as any room in the house. In the case of humble dwellings which have no cellars (but I never could see why they should not), there should be a space of at least two feet left under the floor; and a ventilator back and front to each space should be inserted in the walls — to stand open except when heavy rain or floods may render it necessary to close them. This secures the floor from damp, and from exhalations from below.
It is some years now since the conviction began to spread that the outer walls of houses ought to be double or hollow. In the regions of rough stone dwellings this was, I believe, always the practice. The oldest mountain cottages seem to be like the newest in having walls two or more feet thick — the outer and inner courses of stones being laid with mortar, and the space between filled in with rubble. This is the way to have dry walls; and, when onee warmed through, a dwelling impervious to cold, as far as the walls are concerned. The work must of course be good. The case is just that of an American loghouse. If the filling-in between the logs is properly done, no dwelling is so warm in winter and so cool in summer: but if crevices are left, there is nothing to be said for the comfort. In the same way, I know some cottages on a hill-side which are as comfortable as any mansion in the county, while within a few yards are others in which the surgeons cannot carry their patients through an illness, on account of the bitter cold from the ill-compacted walls.
Where the soil is rooky the roofing is of slate; and much of the flooring also. In such districts the kitchens, cellars, yards, and back passages are floored with slates: and no material can be better for dryness and cleanliness, though a bit of carpet is needed in winter evenings.
A house thus built, whether palace or cottage, is secure from damp, provided the walls have not been saturated with wet in the course of erection; that every loose slate on the roof is immediately replaced; and that the spouts are watched and kept in good order.
In some parts of the country thatch still exists, and is even renewed when cottages, farm-houses, and barns need a new roof. Elsewhere, tiles are the materials. Tiles, formed to carry off rain to the spouts, and well laid, are unexceptionable. Thatch has every fault that roofing can have. It rots with the wet, and admits it to the ceilings: it harbours vermin, and it is liable to fire. Any one who has seen how, in certain Dorsetshire cottages, the family huddle in the corners to escape the droppings of stinking thatch, needs no convincing of the superiority of any other kind of roofing.
As for the next condition — Air — the main pomt is to have a constant circulation of it throughout the dwelling, without draughts on the person. The circulation should therefore be underfoot and overhead. The underfoot provision has been noticed. As for the other, the case has no difficulty in it; and no expense is involved which need place the poorest tenant at a disadvantage.
There must be a door and windows back and front. There must be a back-door, if any neatness is to be preserved in the front; for the washing and other domestic business should be done in the rear; the stairs should have some opening to the outer air; and if there are three bedrooms (and no family house ought to have less), one at least must be at the back. There is therefore a free course for the air through the house.
Next, each separate room should have an equally free circulation. Sash windows, which open at the top as well as the bottom, are better than lattices ; for you can always open them more or less without letting in rain; which you cannot do with lattices. Moreover, lattices, when not perfectly new, let in wind at every pane: so that the candle flares and wastes, and you sit in a draught; whereas the inch or two open at top of a sash window gives you plenty of air overhead at pleasure. In every room there should be a fireplace — for ventilation at all times, and in readiness for days of sickness. Every room should also have a slit over the door, or an opening high up into the chimney, or both. There will thus be a perpetual How of good air into the room, and of spoiled air into the chimney, without any sensation of cold to those sitting below, who will feel that glow of health which cannot be matched by any heat obtained by stifling means.
Under the head of Air comes the consideration of drains: of those drains which carry away the sewage. Not a foot of such drains should pass under any part of the house. The arrangements should be so planned, that everything noisome should be kept outside, and at once carried away. In the humblest cottage there should be a bit of roof behind, — a lean-to, or a roofed morsel of yard where the dish-washing should go on, and the cabbage-water be poured away into the drain. If there is to be health, there must be no muck-heap — no spilling of evil-smelling things upon the groimd; and, if possible, no cesspool. Sooner or later, the soil about cesspools becomes foul, and mischief arises. Some natural slope must carry away all refuse to a safe distance: or an artificial one, with proper channels, must be created.
It is of great importance that some place should be provided for drying the household clothes. In the country, where land is not of such unconscionable value as in some towns, it is really no appreciable sacrifice to the proprietor to afford with the cottage a slip of ground in which potatoes may grow below, and shirts, and petticoats, and blankets dry in mid-air. In towns there will soon, we may hope, be wash-houses and drying-closets for all housewives who can bring their twopences, — the small insurance against bad washing, damp, and illness at home. It would terrify us to know how many persons of all ages have sickened and died from the atmosphere of rooms whero half-cleansed clothing has been hung up to dry, day and night, in the midst of the family. The drying-room in towns, and the garden in the open country, ought to preclude such mischief in future.
This consideration of space comes under the head of Air, in regard to all dwellings. It is difficult to understand why the rooms of houses in rural districts are ever made too small, though the reasons for that evil in towns where every foot of space is an expensive commodity, are clear enough. It makes a difference of so little money in building a cottage, whether the enclosed area is three or four feet longer and broader or not, or whether the rooms are six feet or eight feet high, that there ought to be no hesitation, when it is once understood that the due supply and renewal of air depend on that addition to the space.
While considering the supply and quality of the Air in a habitation, we naturally think more of the town than the country. It is true that a labourer’s cottage may be infested with bad smells, if slops and refuse are thrown down near the house, and if the windows are not opened, and the bed-rooms have no chimney, and the place is in bad repair; but still the town seems to be the natural place for closeness and foul air. It is so; but we must not think only or chiefly of blind alleys and streets of low lodging-houses, if we are studying the causes of our undue mortality. There are great houses almost as unhealthy in part as any lodging-house in London. Very high rents are paid for dwellings where three or four reception-rooms make a great show, and are, in reality, very comfortable, luxurious. aud wholesome — with their windows down to the ground, and their large fire-places and lofty ceilings. But how is it with the rest of the house? There is perhaps one pretty good bed-room on the firstfloor for guests. On the second-floor the space is cut up into little chambers where the four-post bed occupies half the room, and you may almost touch the ceiling. Above are attics where you touch the ceiling in putting on your coat or your gown, and where ladies who spend the day in the capital rooms below are frozen at night in winter, and cannot sleep in summer for heat, just under the tiles. As for the servants (at least the menservants) they sleep underground amongst the blackbeetles — it being a great curse to them that the beetles are the liveliest when human beings want to sleep. I am told that there is scarcely a basement-story in London clear of them: and I know of some which are so infested that it is shocking to think of servants ever being expected or desired to sleep in their neighbourhood. If there is occasion to take down the front of the kitchen fire-place, there are the blackbeetles, making an embossed surface, shining and uniform, from their being packed as close as they can stand. When the lights are extinguished, out they come, from every crack, crevice and join, and over-run everything, and the faces of the sleepers among the rest. The world in general believes that they might be got rid of: and the world in general will have a higher opinion of footmen and other servants when they refuse to sleep in any underground place.
By far the greater part of the disease that exists in the world, and especially the great class of epidemics, by which more persons die than from all other causes together, is the direct consequence of a want of good air. The subject is much too vast for this place; and I have only just touched upon the means by which the vital element may be duly provided in private dwellings.
Where there is plenty of air it may be thought that there will be abundance of Light; but this does not necessarily follow. There are well-aired houses which have a bad aspect. I have one in my mind’s eye now, where there is abundant ventilation; but where the health of a large family has certainly been injured, for a whole generation, by the absence of sunshine. The only rooms in the house which admit sunshine are precisely the two which least want it — the kitchen and the laundry. Enough is known now of the special diseases which attack persons who live in dark and sunless places, to show the duty of considering aspect in building the humblest cottage in the kingdom. Its windows must be turned to the sun, (south-west, or south-east, if due south is inconvenient), at any cost of other considerations. If there are housewives so short-sighted as to complain of the fading of furniture, let them be shown that the cost of new curtains and carpet, or drugget, is paid over and over again by the saving in doctors’ bills and physic. There is something more than the simple warmth which blesses us in the sun’s rays.
They have a vital influence which we may not yet fully understand, but which scientific men have ceased to doubt of; while darkness creates cretinism, and a whole train of diseases, some entirely special. A medium condition, one of an abode open to the daylight, but deprived of sunshine, produces the modified effect — of a depressed condition of health, liable to attacks of grave disease from slight apparent causes. We have no window-tax now; and it is a sin to build any kind of new abode without providing for the sun shining well into it.
The remaining consideration is Water, on which it cannot be necessary to say much. Yet I have seen model cottages, built with generous care and pains, where the respectable tenants could not stay because of the difficulty about water in summer, and at any possible moment. It was a part of the country where water did not abound; and wells were expensive from the great depth required: so the labouring class were dependent on the precarious brook and the ditches. The brook occasionally shrank into a series of muddy pools of warm water, or dried up entirely; and the ditches were no better. The difficulty of washing the children and the clothes, together with the daily cookery, was so great, that the tenants surrendered all the unusual advantages for the sake of the one great requisite, without which the children could not be kept healthy, nor the men sober. I have seen in mountain districts, where water was gushing from every upland, and every place was a slope in one direction or another, whole villages living in dirt and bad smells, and the women toiling up the hills with tubs and cans, to bring water, which was consumed more grudgingly than beer, from the labour that it cost to get it. I have seen the sacrifice at which girls have been employed to bring water from some distant pump; the headaches, the sore eyes, and the loss of time and increase of gossiping propensities; and I have seen the effect of the simple operation of searching for water close at hand, and opening a well at the rear of a row of houses which might as well have had that comfort all along. The water-supply, then, is one of the first considerations in taking or building a house.
These main conditions apply to all kinds of houses; and there is, indeed, little to be said about the differences between stone and brick houses, or large and small ones, or rich and lowly ones. Brick houses are now built with hollow walls, and ought always to be so built henceforth. The invention of hollow bricks is a truly beneficent one; and the effect will appear, whether it is marked or not, in the reduction of the Registrar’s list of annual deaths.
The practical question remains — How our evergrowing population is to be better lodged? The crowding is dreadful, in every town and village, and in almost every cottage; and the perpetual destruction of dwellings where room is wanted for improvement, seems to intensify the mischief. On the other hand, Model Lodging-houses are on the increase in great cities; and in rural districts the condition of the labourer is certainly rising, because his value is greater, and more freely acknowledged.
Such men as the Duke of Bedford having begun the reform of labourers’ dwellings, the improvement is likely to spread; and when the profitableness of enabling peasants to live near their work, in health and comfort, is once discovered, the welfare and convenience of the peasant are likely to meet with due consideration. In towns, it is only necessary for Model Lodging-houses to be ascertained to be a good investment for money. If they really are so, as seems to be the case, they will take care of themselves, and their tenants will appreciate their privileges. Meantime, if the real cost of providing good dwellings for working-men’s families were better understood, there would surely be a more adequate supply of them.
The estimates differ, of course, in different parts; but it may be said that there are few places in England where a substantial cottage of four rooms may not be built for £60. Built in pairs, each costs rather less; and for £ 120 for the pair, further conveniences can be afforded. If well built, there will be scarcely any repairs wanted — at least in the regions of stone buildings; and five per cent. on the outlay might cover the ordinary interest of money and the repairs. Or say, for such a cottage, a rent of £3 10«. or £4, to include the ground it stands on ; — it would be willingly and thankfully paid in any part of England where the labourer was worth hiring; and it is, in fact, a lower rent than is paid in most of our agricultural counties.
Will not young gentlemen and ladies who have plenty of time, and a few hundreds to spare, and not enough to do, give themselves the amusement and pleasure of building some cottages, in the best known way, where they are urgently wanted? After all is said of the badness of cottage property as an investment, I am as thoroughly convinced as ever that, when well managed, it is an expenditure and trouble which will never be repented of in later days when the issues of life’s enterprises come to be gravely reckoned up. It is something to have lost no money; it is more to be aware that hardworking people have had a wholesome and agreeable resting-place in their home: but what is it to know that some young creatures, who would otherwise have made a row of hillocks in the churchyard, are getting on at school, or taking pride in “going forth to their work and to their labour until the evening?”
On the question of Building Societies I cannot now enter. It is emphatically true of that question, that there is much to be said on both sides. 1 happen to have seen the favourable side: but I have heard a good deal of the other. As long as it is true that, in the long run, men pay rent to twice or three times the amount that would build them a house of their own, it seems rational and desirable that they should combine their resources for the obtaining of dwellings as a family property: and many have prospered iu the attempt.
But the ordinary dangers of illconsidered assurance hang about such societies; and so do speculators, who make a profit of the simple members. At the moment, 1 can only say that the sickness and death rate of our great nation will be prodigiously lowered whenever any considerable portion of the working-classes shall be living in abodes which are their own property; and that the surest and speediest way to that issue is doubtless by means of the economy of association; but association for that particular object is at present particularly unsafe, except in some very favourable instances.
The aim is an admirable one for the working-man; and in the case of well-regulated associations for erecting Metropolitan Lodging-houses, the danger is little or nothing: but in provincial towns and rural districts, a prudent man will inquire well, and make himself sure about the parties and the management (including the bases of calculation), before he puts his savings into the funds of a Building Society. Having found reason to make that investment, and got a house of his own over his head, free from debt, and with no more rent to pay, he may look round on his healthy children with all imaginable satisfaction.