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The suburban house mid-20th Century


The 1940s house

As explained on the previous page about the 1930s suburbia, the most up-to-date suburban family home of the 1940s was actually built in the 1930s and furnished with either hand-me-downs or what was still in the shops from the 1930s.

In the first half of the 1940s the house was adapted to meet the needs of war with bomb shelters, windows taped against bomb blast, blackout material, etc., more of which is elsewhere on this site.

Typical house layout

Essentially all these 1930s/40s houses were in the same general style: two mirror image houses in one building, each described as semi-detached. 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.

Ground plan of a fairly typical 1930s semi-detached British suburban house

Ground plan of a 1930s suburban house as it was in the 1940s and early 1950s. Scale is approximate.

Houses on less affluent estates were in blocks of three or four, described as 'terraced', but they were all of the same general layout inside.

The rooms

The arrangement of the downstairs rooms is shown in the above plan.

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.

Note that there was no downstairs toilet, something which is seen as a necessity in today's semis.

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 windows

On some estates the windows were set in rounded bays; on others they were square bays and some had no bay at all. All the opening windows were of 'door' types with smaller fanlight windows above - a major change from the sash windows of previous times. The frames were wooden which had to be painted every few years.

All the windows were single glazed which added to the downdrafts in winter.

Heating and wall and loft insulation

Heating was with fireplaces for coal fires in the two main downstairs rooms, gas fires in the two main bedrooms, a boiler in the kitchen and a hot tank in the airing cupboard in the bathroom.

Does this sound cosy? It wasn't. Money and resources were tight in wartime and the years afterwards. In our typical household, the fire in one of the main downstairs rooms was lit only just in time to warm the room for the man of the house when he came home after work, and I only ever knew the gas fires to be lit when someone wasn't well in bed. I was often cold at home in winter, other than in the kitchen from the heat of the boiler. No ordinary suburban homes had central heating, but fortunately for me, my recently-built school did.

To add to the cold, it was not common to have cavity walls. The outside walls of our house were typical in that they were built without a cavity, two interlocking bricks thick. So they were not well insulated. Neither was the loft lagged, which, along with the single glazed windows, made the house difficult to heat and draughty in winter.

Furnishings and facilities

There are more on inside these houses in pages on the above second menu.

The side entrance

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

Modifications in the 1950s

Ground plan of the 1930s house, adapted later with a garage and access

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

After World War Two when cars started coming back on the roads, the shared side entrances caused 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. This led to garages being built in back gardens, with the side entrances being used merely as shared drive-way to garages. 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.

Home ownership and costs

A feature of these 1930s/1940s houses, compared with the earlier Victorian terraced houses was that they were typically owned by the occupants rather than rented. (There must have been exceptions, but this was the general 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 - but see the cost of a 1930s house.

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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