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The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as a young child

English suburbia
and the 1940s house

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Why a 'modern' 1940s suburban house was a 1930s house

To understand the English 1940s house - ie a typical 'modern' suburban family home in most of the years of the 1940s - you have to start in the 1930s.

This is because no home-building of any significance took place during the Second World War or in the years of austerity which followed. So there is no such thing as a typical newly-built 1940s house. In contrast, though, in the years just before the Second World War, there was a boom in house-building. It was on the outskirts of towns and cities and was in a fairly uniform style which was the current norm. It created what became known as 'suburbs' or 'suburban housing', ie road upon road of rows of houses which were identical on any one estate, apart of course from minor titivations made by the occupiers.

Row of 1930s-built semi-detached English suburban housing, photographed in the 1930s, showing iron railings and gas lamps (now gone)

Typical row of 1930s-built semi-detached English suburban houses (Orpington Gardens, N18), photographed in the 1930s and courtesy of Barry Hooper. Note that the houses are in blocks of two which are mirror images of each other, with a side entrance in between.

The same houses exist today (2012) but there are no verges with shrubs; no gas street lamps; and no iron chains and railings along the verges and in the front gardens. (Chains and railings were removed throughout the country during World War Two to make steel for the war effort.).

So a modern 1940s suburban house was essentially a 1930s one, adapted to meet the needs of the war with bomb shelters, windows taped against bomb blast, blackout material, etc., all of which are considered elsewhere on this site. Of course many families were still living in older houses - for example in Victorian terraces and in even earlier accommodation.

There is also no such thing as up-to-date 1940s furnishings because the shops could not get stock to sell during the war or in the years of austerity afterwards.

My parents were married in 1938. Their house in Edgware, at 9 Brook Avenue, was one of the new suburban houses in the London suburbs, and its furnishings were either bought shortly after they married or in the first year of the war when shops still had 1930s stock; or they were hand-me-downs. I was born in 1939, so my recollections are very much of the house in the 1940s.

Being built in the late 1930s the house must have been among the most modern of the 1930s and 1940s, which includes of course the years of World War Two.

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The style and layout of the 1930s/1940s/1950s house

Essentially all the late 1930s-built suburban houses were in the same general style: two mirror image houses in one building, each described as semi-detached.

Ground plan of a fairly typical semi-detached British suburban house, built in the late 1930s and normally regarded as a 1940s house, as no building took place in WW2

Ground plan of 9 Brook Avenue, Edgware, as it was in the late 1930s and early 1940s, a fairly typical semi-detached house of the period. Scale is approximate.

Ground plan of a fairly typical semi-detached British suburban house, built in the late 1930s, adapted in the late 1940s or early 1950s with a garage in the back garden, access along the shared side entrance

Late 1940s or early 1950s plan showing the common addition of a garage in the back garden, with access was along the shared side entrance.

The front door opened into a hall from which there were stairs to the upper floor, two doors to living rooms and at the end of the hall a door to the kitchen.

On the upper floor was a landing, two bedrooms above the two sitting rooms, a small bedroom above the front part of the hall and a bathroom above the kitchen. Above the upper floor was a sizeable loft with a floor-space equal to that of the upper floor.

The sizes of the rooms varied from one estate to another, and some houses had chalet-style roofs which meant smaller loft areas and, in some cases, one less bedroom.

Some windows were rounded bays; some were square bays and some had no bay, but all were single glazed in wooden frames and consisted of several 'door' windows with smaller fanlight windows above.

I don't know how common it was to have cavity outside walls. The outside walls of our house were certainly built without a cavity, two bricks thick. So they were not insulated which made the house difficult to heat in winter.

Houses on a few less affluent estates were smaller and in blocks of three or four, but they were of the same general pattern inside.

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The side entrance

A major complaint about these houses was that they shared a side entrance with the house next door. Children liked to play ball with their friends in their side entrances which the houses next door found noisy.

After World War Two when cars started coming back on the roads, there was another annoyance. The side entrances were wide enough to take a car but of course only half the width belonged to each house. So if one household's car was left off the road in a side entrance, the other household complained. In the late 1940s and 1950s, this led to garages being built in back gardens, with the side entrances being used merely as shared drive-ways. The gardens were small and the garages did rather dominate. Ours was a cheap asbestos affair which my mother camouflaged with runner beans and then, later when austerity bit less, with climbing flowering plants.

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Home ownership and costs

A feature of these 1930s/1940s houses, compared with their predecessors, the Victorian terraced houses was that they were typically owned by the occupants rather than rented. (There must have been exceptions, but this was the rule.)

My grandparents apparently warned my father that he was taking on too much by going for home ownership. They pointed out that he was tying himself to some 20 or more years of mortgage repayments and that anything that went wrong in the house would have to be paid for out of his own pocket. It did not deter him. Elsewhere on this website are several pages on household costs - see the cost of a 1930s house and links from its side menu.

Fortunately the building society in Edgware, and probably all building societies elsewhere in the country, suspended requirements for mortgage repayments during the war. This was crucially important as men away in the forces would not have been able to afford the repayments.

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