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The Maximum Dwelling

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Just as fire requires oxygen, fuel and a source of heat in order to exist, buildings require money, land and someone with a desire to build. These usually come together in the shape of a client. Minimum dwellings will no doubt feature again in this blog but, for now, let’s have a look at the other extreme when these three preconditions for any building to exist, are present in abundance. In other words, when the clients are stinking rich and want to show it. The Victorian Country House is a 1973 book by Mark Girouard.

the victorian country house

Whatever I learned about Victorian country houses, I learned from this book. It opened my eyes to how buildings articulate their clients’ aspirations and taught me one or two other things about how architecture works. It’s also well-written. Girouard writes with elegance and a sense for entertaining detail. ‘Love this sentence.

Kept out of polite society through her mother’s second marriage to a drunken clergyman, Lady Charlotte Guest married Sir John Josiah Guest, the Welsh ironmaster, and used his great wealth with skill and determination to establish their social position.

Before Girouard, Victorian country houses weren’t thought worthy of having their history written. This was a good thing, because it saved that history from being subsequently rewritten. We can therefore see Victorian country houses for what they were, and with a compressed view too, for they originated, evolved and died out all in the course of the 19th century.

numbers of country houses

Victorian country houses were defined by their clients. Prior to Queen Victoria (1837–1901), the only people with money were those who had been born with it. Queen Victoria’s reign saw entrepreneurs mostly make their fortunes through commercial or manufacturing activity. These people were not aristocracy. A snobbish distinction still remains with the term stately house is used to refer to the mansions of the aristocracy and ‘old money’, and the term Victorian country house used to refer to the mansions of those with (ugh!) ‘new money’.

Q: So how did these newly rich industrialists and entrepreneurs spend their new money?

A: Like this.

They supersized (£££)

These houses were big beasts, monsters, palaces. Here’s the plans of Bear Wood, designed by Robert Kerr and built over the period 1865-1874.

bear wood plan

Here’s what it looked like.

Bear Wood

The architect, Robert Kerr had written a book The Gentleman’s House which was an influential and much-read publication despite him being short on experience and the book long on capable analysis of the plans of others.

Whenever a discussion was held, a deputation mounted, or a correspondence embarked on he was certain to be in the foreground. But his career had brought him more publicity than jobs. His book went out on the waters as tempting bait to rich clients. He immediately caught one very large fish, in the person of John Walter, the chief proprietor of The Times. The ostensible reason for rebuilding was to accommodate a large and growing family (eight children and five more to come) but it was probably as much to accommodate a large and growing income, which by 1865 was about £50,000 a year. Looking at the plan of Bear Wood is like reading a synopsis of the contents of Kerr’s book. There are the interminable offices, the housekeeper’s corridor, the men’s corridor, the butler’s corridor, the bachelor apartments and, at the opposite side of the house, the young ladies’ rooms. There are the principal staircase, the back stairs, the women’s stairs, the men’s stairs, the bachelors’ stairs and the young ladies’ stairs, all, with Victorian honesty, easily distinguishable from the outside by the fenestration. There are the main entrance, the luggage entrance, the garden entrance, the business entrance, the kitchen entrance and the cellar entrance. The young ladies are safely placed above Mrs Walter’s bedroom  and boudoir, and handy for the governess and schoolroom. The bachelors’ stair is described in Kerr’s book as ‘one by which single men can reach their own rooms, from perhaps dirty weather outside, without using the chief thoroughfares.’

They paid for many servants to run the house (£££)

This was the era where technology began to replace many of the tasks formerly done by servants. Hot water used to be carried upstairs in the mornings and candles at night. Now, pipes and conduits did the job instead. These pipes and conduits were as invisible as the servants used to be. (In passing, High-Tech would have had to have been a British invention for nowhere else would anyone have been so shocked by the sight of ‘visible’ services.) Plumbing and electricity came to replicate many of the tasks formerly done by servants but the number of servants grew and new domestic functions invented to justify them. Uniformed doormen standing aside entrances can still be seen at ‘classy’ hotels, restaurants and shops. 


As well as functioning as automatic doors, servants also functioned as an intercom system for conveying messages and instructions. For a while, it was fashionable to create the illusion that tasks were performed merely by wishing them done. For example, the host would be in conversation with guests but drop into the conversation certain key words indicating to a servant listening unseen, that it was now time to serve tea. (Let’s not be overly amazed. The host probably said something like “I fancy a cup of tea, don’t you?” and then apparently forgot to ring to instruct.) Smaller houses had at least eight staff and larger houses around 40.

The new railways made it easy for friends and relatives to come and stay in large quantities, each bringing a valet or lady’s maid. A great country house at its busiest might contain 150 people, and a population of 40 or 50 would not be out of the ordinary.


British-set films and TV have consistently provided glimpses into what life in large country houses was like. Highclere Castle which features in Downton Abbey is a Georgian House remodelled once in 1774 and again by Charles Barry around 1840 to suit Victorian Tastes.

Highclere Castle

not only were the main walls preserved with scarcely any extensions of the building or plan other than the building of the tower, but even the secondary features were not altered; ‘in no case was the level of any floor or other opening of a window changed’.

Barry noted

not only were the main walls preserved with scarcely any extensions of the building or plan other than the building of the tower, but even the secondary features were not altered; ‘in no case was the level of any floor or other opening of a window changed’.

His main contribution then, was to tart it up to suit contemporary tastes.

They paid for ornament on the inside (£££)

One can only build so much, employ so many servants, give them so many uniforms. There’s only so much latest technology one can adopt. Ornament, in both quantity and quality provides a infinite means of showing how much money one has.  This next view is looking up the stair hall at Harlaxton Manor (1838).

Harlaxton Manor

And supporting that …


The figures have a name – ‘Atlantides’. The vocabulary used by Victorians to talk about Victorian architecture is wonderful. You might still hear the word ‘muscularity’ used occasionally, but not in the Victorian sense of having a moral ‘vigour’. The term incident as in ‘brings incident to the elevation’ has long been replaced by ‘break it up’ (as opposed to the other fundamental compositional principle of ‘bring it together’).

And they paid for ornament on the outside (£££)

Ornament was applied to the outsides of these houses just as liberally as it was to the insides. Pugin was of the opinion that

Elevation should be subservient to plan, and the different elements of a house should be expressed externally as ‘distinct and beautiful features’.

but even this approach had its critics.

How many elements of a house needed a distinct expression? The hall, the kitchen, the entrance, of course; but did each staircase need a separate turret? and every bedroom a different type of window? Beckett, always a skilful needler of professional architects, attacked ‘the modern notion that cutting out a lot of rooms in cards and throwing them together anyhow is the way to plan a Gothic house. … And so developed, to quote the irrepressible Beckett, ‘the modern Gothic practice of breaking up the roofs of even small houses, and a portion of  large ones, into as many bits and gables of unequal heights and widths as possible though the architects know very well that that increases the expense both of building and of keeping in repair.’  A quick look at Minley Manor will show what he was getting at.

Officers Mess Minley Manor

We know this today as ‘design for the sake of design’.

There were new activities that required new rooms for them (£££)


Conservatories like the one above may have been quite accurately referred to as ‘winter gardens’ but they don’t feel alien to us today. We still relate to them in a ‘bringing the outside inside’ kind of way.

conservatory 2

In addition to conservatories, gun rooms, smoking rooms and billiard rooms, there was also the “Great Hall” that began as Mediaeval affectation

great hall

but, because of its multi-purpose nature, began to be more popular than the various parlours specialised for different purposes, times and occupants. Development of the Great Hall continued in later large American houses and is said to have paved the way for the open plan.

And there were separate more ‘intimate’ wings for family when they were using the rooms specifically for entertaining (£££)

Sometimes, the houses were so large, they were divided into a wing of rooms for the family to live in, and a wing of rooms simply for entertaining. The service wing was usually separate anyway. This plan is by Charles Burn, master of family wing design.

Buchanan House

Remnants of this way of thinking are still present in residential plans that make a distinction between public spaces and private spaces. Or in architectural writing that draws attention to it without questioning whether it’s necessarily a virtue. This next page has some interesting information on why VCH were planned the way they were.


Multiplication of circulation routes (£££)

The servants’ wing had separate male and female stairs and the main wing had a separate stair and entrance for the comings and goings of bachelors, either from hunting or, not inconceivably, a laundrymaid. Harlaxton Manor had service corridors concealed within its walls so that servants could move from space to space invisibly.

hidden passageways

Think of these as shafts, as multi-purpose ducting. Visit for some very nice images of Harlaxton Manor, now known as Harlaxton College.

Harlaxton College

Rooms were linked to create a promenade architecturale (£££)

This is probably best explained in terms of spatial sequencing as theatre. Basically, rooms and connecting spaces were arranged not because of their functional relationships, but so the host would have an impressive sequence of spaces to parade visitors through when showing them the house. Spaces were linked to provide a theatrical yet linear sequence that ended where it began, and perhaps along the way offering glimpses of spaces already seen and spaces yet to be seen. This is a partial plan of Bear Wood, already mentioned. You can see how, from the entrance hall it is possible to view all of the major rooms and visit the central (centrepiece) picture gallery that links them all last.

Bear Wood main part

Along the way, visitors would catch glimpses of spaces yet to be seen, and spaces already seen. Here’s the “screen” separating the “Entry” from the “Entrance Hall”.

Bear Wood drawing room screens

It was also a way of making spaces that were already large, seem even larger. This house dates from 1874. Frank Lloyd Wright was to use similar techniques in his Winslow House of 1894.


And there was the use of latest technologies (£££)

These latest technologies included

  • Concrete construction. Here’s Down Hall in Essex, England, from 1874.
Down Hall 1873
  • ‘Fireproof’ construction that had up to a foot of concrete between iron girders. Here’s fireproof construction for the ceiling of a bedroom circa 1836.
fireproof construction
  • Coal-fired central heating
  • Gas lighting, with the gas produced from onsite gasworks. The first house lit by gas was in 1849. The first house lit by electricity was 1880.
gas lamps
  • Pumped water and, as a result of that
  • Bathrooms and wcs. Here’s a shower and a bath from 1830 (although it was for Queen Victoria at Osborne House).
early shower and bath

And finally, they could choose a famous architect (£££)

This choice was important. The names of competent and inspired architects such as George Devey, Edward Blore, Samuel Teulon aren’t remembered whilst those of Augustus Pugin, Charles Barry, Norman Shaw and Gilbert Scott are, but mostly for their other buildings. Here’s a well known Barry building. (Barry was the guy who remodelled the Downton Abbey mansion.) 


Augustus Pugin did the interiors. Although “dull and predictable”, Pugin was famous, outspoken and beyond reproach. To commission Pugin was to lessen the risk of ridicule and of being too contemporary. Here’s a Pugin mansion. It’s called Alton Towers.


It’s now a shell in the middle of an amusement park.

alton towers

Here’s a site with then and now photos. (See here for a full list of lost country houses.) This next photo though, shows what Pugin was about. See how the chapel on the right has its own volume which is then arranged amongst the others? 


Gilbert Scott, whilst no expert at country houses, was well known for his governmental buildings and for his St. Pancras Station in London.


Unfortunately, his country houses tended to look the same and, it was said, about as intimate. This is his Nilly Hall, completed 1832.

nilly hall

I guess the lesson here is that, to make your point, you don’t always need the best architects, just the most famous. 



  • Your photo above of Bear Wood which you describe as ” Here’s the screen wall between the morning room and the drawing room.” is actually the “screen” separating the “Entry” from the “Entrance Hall”.