Preparation for Local Buildings Walks.

(++still under development)

Walks through local streets will reveal buildings of many different types and each walk will be different. Before we go it might be worth while to consider various things to help us look and understand what we are looking at.

This is a summary of themes which will arise time after time when looking at London houses and indeed houses in many other places. Teachers will want to choose the level of information which will suit their pupils. This article gives fairly simple summaries of the subjects. The links give greater detail.

London grew over the years. Two hundred years ago Stoke Newington was a country area. Slowly individual fields were covered with new roads and houses. House styles changed over the years, so one field will be in one style and the next, built twenty years later, in another. The style of a house reveals the period when it was built.

Secondly, there are some basic rules about house building. Builders use the materials which are available to them and which are reasonably cheap at the time. Shop fronts can be faced by thin sheets of granite and other hard stones today. A hundred years ago we did not have the saws to cut these stone veneers. To think of a Victorian building faced with thin sheets of granite would be ridiculous. Thick, heavy blocks of stone were used, but not thin sheets. So the materials too can help to date a building.

Building styles change according to:-

  1. The danger of fire
    Building in wood - Building Wooden Houses
    Pediment walls - The Fire of London Building Regulations
  2. The needs of health

    The need for fresh air and sunlight in the rooms - Bye-law Houses
    The needs for modern living compared with a peasant cottage. ++LINK TO DRAWINGS, LEPONARD WOOLF ETC.
  3. The sort of land the house is built on

    Its geology - The Geology of Stoke Newington
  4. The sort of building materials available to the architect at the date of building

  5. The price of land at the time of building
  6. The sort of client the house was built for.

    Houses with living-in servants and houses with no servants ++LINK TO 207-233 STOKE NEWINGTON CHURH STREET.
    Long house frontages show houses built for wealthy people. ++LINK TO STOKE NEWINGTON ESTATES
    Short road frontages mean lower house prices because the builder could squeeze in more houses on his site. So do blocks of flats.
  7. Keeping a house warm. Cavity walls and Brick Bonds
  8. Roof shapes - Roofs and Roof Shapes

All these subjects are discussed below briefly.

FIRE Wooden Cities and Brick Cities

Wooden Houses in Holborn, London
From Old London Town, by Will Owen, 1921

These fine old buildings still exist in Holborn, at the end of Gray’s Inn Road. The lower floors are shops and up above, the floors each jetty out beyond the one below so that rain drips away safely from each floor and the building stays dry.

You can tell how old the buildings are by the pavement level. When the original pavement was laid it would have been slightly below the floors of the shops, yet today we step down into them. Each time the pavement has been repaired, it has risen slightly. The new pavings have been placed on top of the old with fresh layers of gravel and sand. Pavements in old towns can rise as much as a foot (15 centimetres) a century. He same thing can be noticed in local streets where the pavement has risen above the old front garden path and a pool forms in wet weather.


The Great Fire of London in 1666

Why the Fire of London spread so rapidly

The City of London was always very small and is still called The Square Mile. It was enclosed in thick walls from Roman times, with gates which were closed at night. Moorgate, Aldersgate and other ‘gates’are still familiar districts, but now well inside our modern London. City streets had always been narrow, with the houses built close to the street edge and just room for a cart to get through. If you met a man on horseback you had to ‘take the wall’ – stand back against the wall to let the gentleman go by. If a rider and a cart met, there was a traffic jam.

With these narrow street, and the way the houses on each side jettied towards each other, there was only a narrow line of sky above to light the street. The two top floors were so close together that one could hear conversations in the next house. This is the origin of the verb ‘to eavesdrop’ – to hear secrets in the eaves of the house. If you heard something about a neighbour in general conversation, you could repeat it, but repeating something you heard by eavesdropping was against the law. This was regarded a private conversation and therefore confidential.

The fire was trapped between the houses. The narrow streets, the jettied houses, and the thatched roofs, made a series of steps on both sides, which enclosed any fire. Houses started burning fiercely and then it was easy for the fire to spread up one house, across to the next and so from street to street. Strong winds carried the flames rapidly from one district to the next. Wooden cities all over the world have had devastating fires. Rome, Chicago, - fires have always been dreaded and the Fire of London was no exception. Often, once started, they had to burn themselves out.


The Fire of London with the Old St Paul’s ablaze


The Fire of London Building Regulations

After the Great Fire of London, in 1666, new Building Regulations were imposed and they, repeatedly updated, have governed London building ever since.

  1. All houses were to be in brick or stone; no wooden eaves were allowed.

  2. Roofs were pushed back behind brick parapets.

  3. Wooden window frames were reduced. Later they were recessed behind brick so that only a narrow edge of the wooden frame was exposed to possible fire. This give the later houses of Swift’s time their delicate proportions.

  4. Thatch was forbidden. Roofs were to be in slate or tile.

  5. Party walls between houses had to be thick enough to withstand two hours of fire. This would give the neighbours a chance of rescuing the people and extinguishing the blaze before it could spread.

These regulations changed the face of London for ever. They have been modified and altered since to suit later requirements but the regulations still govern our building.

The Fire of London Building Regulations transformed London. A new style was born.


A roof built safely with its timbers protected behind a pediment wall.

A section from a house where the water drains through the pediment to a downpipe. Many pedimented houses have V roofs and drain at the back, where there is no pediment. There are no front drainpipes in, for example, Sisters Houses, opposite the Library.

1714, The Sisters’ Houses with pediment roofs.

The frontage is flat. There were no projecting ledges to trap the heat and help a fire to spread.

Sisters’ Houses, in Church Street, opposite the Library, were built little more than fifty years after the Fire of London. These are typical Wren style houses, in rich red Queen Anne brick. They have M-shaped roofs tucked safely away behind high pediment walls on three sides and the rain drains to the back. All the roof timbers are short. The window frames are painted white and are fully exposed. Later on the Building Regulations would force the frames back behind one layer of brick, as an extra protection against fire. Houses like this, with only a narrow edge of wood showing, can be seen further along Church Street, opposite Abney Park Cemetery gate. The window frame is the normal size but most of it is hidden. The exposed wooden edges are so narrow that they give an air if delicacy to the whole house.


An elegant Church Street window
with its frame protected by a layer of brick


Building for Health


By the 1850s terraced cottages were being built everywhere, narrow and extremely small. This need for narrow frontages, to keep down the road building costs, conflicted with new health regulations. Landlords wanted short road frontages( which were cheaper) and to to build behind so that what had once been gardens became covered with warrens of interlining tenements. Local authorities were demanding healthy buildings with through draughts. Up to this time it had been possible for landlords to open rooms out of other rooms, so that inner ones might have had no windows to sunlight, or fresh air. Tuberculosis was rife. People needed fresh air and landlords were building unhealthy,airless dens.

New bye-laws made by the local authorities,not central government, insisted that every habitable room had to have windows which could be opened to the air and these had to be of a size related to the floor area of the room, This would reduce fevers and contagious disease by allowing the free passage of air into every, room, These regulations led to The Bye-Law House, with its back addition and typical L shaped plan. This which gave three thicknesses of rooms with windows to fresh air, instead of the normal two,

The 1867-77 plan shows a terraced cottage built by the Artizans, Labourers, and General Dwellings Company at Queen's Park and Noel Park. Crammed on a fifteen foot frontage are two small rooms with a a scullery in the back addition behind, Above are three-bedrooms, The W. C. is outside but integral with the house. Small front and back gardens complete a long narrow site 15ft by 70ft, Built to be rented at seven or eight shillings a week, these cottages were very popular. Today they are fashionable and very expensive.

Notice that these are Bye-law Houses, not By-law. They were minor laws made by Local Authorities, not Parliament and are therefore called Bye laws.



Back Addition houses at the corner of Stoke Newington Church Street and Statham Grove.

The floors of the house and the back addition are at different levels. This is one of the advantages of the design as it allowed the builder to build his house according to the slope of the ground. This ground is level but the houses have basements, while the back additions do not. The basements are not a full floor deep, so the back additions have to be half a floor up.

Brick Bonds and Cavity Walls

Drawings of a cavity wall

The bricks are laid as stretchers because the wall is only one brick thick. These are cavity walls with a thermal concrete wall, an air cavity, and a single thickness of brick outside. These walls became compulsory in new buildings after the Oil Crisis in the 1970s, when the price of oil shot up and with it, the cost of heating a house. Now houses are being built with this sort of thermal (heat retaining) walls, but the outside wall may be in brick, stone, slate, etc., according to the area.


++ 1 6013544

++My pic cavity wall bricks 600

Again the ends of the Albion Road gardens were being built on. The photograph shows several stages in the building process.

  1. In the foreground the three houses have been built in thermal concrete bricks and given a single-thickness brick skin, with an air cavity between the concrete and the brick. The thermal concrete will retain the heat within the building. The air gap will help retain more heat. The outer brick skin will give an attractive appearance, weather well so that it will look attractive when it is old, and will retain more heat. Electricity and gas bills should be small.
  2. Next is a house being built in thermal concrete blocks.
  3. Beyond that, is a house with a high covering so that the timber floors can be put in, and the roof tiled, all in the dry.


Roofs and Roof Shapes

Low slope - Medium slope
- steep slope

Flat roof

Roof Part Names

Half hipped gable

A Hipped roof on a jettied building

A Mansard Roof

A parapet roofed building with a single V roof

A catslide roof.

A saw-toothed factory roof

A folded roof

A hyperbolic paraboloidal roof



Brick lintels

Fig. A. A brick wall with and without a lintel.

Fig. B. The setting out of a brick arch with wedge-shaped bricks.

Fig. C. The setting out of a rough brick arch. These are normal bricks and the wedges are formed with mortar.

Fig. D. A ferro-concrete lintel is the modern solution to the problem. Some builders use steel lintels and wooden ones used to be common, but these were often attacked by dry rot were.

A flat lintel in specially shaped London Stock bricks


Link to Lintels






++Photographed in its book in the Hackney Archive

The original application drawings showing the plan of the five houses and an end view of the houses sunk in semi-basements, with the Back Additions at ground level. The various comments and conditions by the Local Authority have been written on the actual drawings as usual, so that drawings and permissions could not be separated.

The side view of the houses shows that the Back Additions have no cellars. They start at the original ground surface, so that the front and back rooms are at different levels and have to be linked by short half staircases

The houses were built on gravel, so the basements would drain well. This meant that people in this part of Stoke Newington could live and work in the basements. The Geology map shows that houses South of Stoke Newington Church Street are built on Gravel, while most of the houses North of Church Street are built on Clay. Clay holds water so that any basements built here would have become very damp and unhealthy. This is why you find only coal cellars in these houses. [Today basements in Clay can be made waterproof, but only by ‘tanking’ them with bitumen and facing this with brick or mortar. This is very expensive indeed and no builder in the Nineteenth Century could have sold his houses at an acceptable price if he had tanked the cellars].


Map of Local Geology

Main Index