What is a Victorian house?

What is a Victorian house?

So what exactly is a Victorian house? It’s a good question and a relatively easy one to answer. The quick and simple answer is that the Victorian house is named after an era, rather than a strict style. A particular point in history. In its most basic sense, a Victorian house is any house that was built in the time of the reign of Queen Victoria. Her reign was between the years 1837 and 1901. In terms of style the Victorian house is so many things. So many different styles and influences and nearly all of them good in my opinion. A golden age in home building. That is why I’ve decided to dedicate an entire website to them. Victorian houses are fantastic for a number of reasons and I’ll get to that in a minute or two.

Firstly, I love houses and always have but not in the way that everyone loves their own house,  this love extends to all houses, either in the flesh or on a computer screen. Mainly on the computer screen! There is so much enjoyment to be had from trawling through the internet and picking out the best houses at various price points. This fascination started at an early age. Firstly with big houses. The bigger the better. Big old scary looking houses, the type you see in horror films. The Munsters house was a particular favourite!

Our house growing up was a modern detached house. The only person I knew who did live in a large house or anything significantly larger than our house, was a good friend of my dads. I always thought that the house was a Victorian house but in hindsight it could have been Edwardian. I’ve tried to find out exactly what era it was for the purpose of this article but can’t! The date of 1897 is in my head but can’t verify it.

Typical leafy Victorian terrace in Toronto , Ontario. Very similar in look to British terrace houses.

Either way the house was fantastic. It had big rooms, huge bay windows, high ceilings and an attic. A proper attic with rooms in it! It also had a hall with lovely stained glass, a grand staircase and it was bigger than our living room at the time. It also looked a bit creepy at night time, which was a real plus point when I was a teenager. There was a large tree that half shaded it from view from the outside and cast shadows of leaves on the inside. Spooky!  It definitely sparked an interest in houses especially grand old houses and at that time I mostly associated older houses as being bigger and more interesting.

As an adult, three particular styles stand out. Victorian, Edwardian (very similar in style) and mid century modern/very modern style houses. We don’t have much in the way of mid century style houses in Britain or anything very modern looking, so invariably the pick of the best houses will be a Victorian house at any given price point.

The reason is that Victorian houses have so many things that we look for in a home. The main things are space and light, something you can get in other houses but it is almost a guarantee in a Victorian house. The tall ceiling and high windows really help with this. Then there’s the details. Victorian homes are interesting to look at and they have character. It isn’t even as if I’m only interested in period properties. Modern designs can be fantastic. Particularly anything open plan with large windows and high ceilings.

Sadly these types of houses are rare, in England at least and if you can find one it’ll cost you. Big home builders don’t build these types of houses and one off designs are very expensive. The only other way you are going to get a modern, open plan house with large windows and high ceilings is if you build one for yourself. Something that not many of us can afford to do. Not in Britain. Not me anyway!

This is why people love Victorian houses or I think it is why most people love them.  They do have the space and light that we all love. They are often filled with detail and character even in the smaller, inexpensive terrace designs.  This is why they are by far my favourite type of house. I like almost everything about them. Big ones. Small ones. Even in between ones. It really doesn’t matter and whilst it is the space and light that really stands out there are also a number of other features that make them feel special. Anyway, I’m going to take a little tour through history and the best place to start is the beginning. I’ll run through the very early designs through to the last days of The Victorian era and cover a few different continents to boot!

The early Victorian house

The Victorian era started in 1837. It spanned an incredible 64 years and this period in history included the industrial revolution. What this meant for architecture is that there was a fairly robust evolution of homebuilding across the world in this time. 64 years is a long time. The houses at the beginning of Victoria’s reign were obviously very different in style from the houses built in 1901. The world was a very different place. So when I or anyone says they love Victorian houses they are not just talking about one thing, or any specific thing. There where many different styles, building materials, shapes, sizes and colours. What was consistent was the build quality of the houses.

In 1837 the houses in England were still being built in the regency style. This is a neo classical style that followed on from late Georgian architecture and the most famous look was white stucco exteriors, wrought iron balconies and railings and parallel columns either side of the doors and windows. There are thousands of these types properties in London and London in general has the most amount of listed buildings in Britain, Liverpool comes second. It also has its fair share of regency style properties. Although these homes  look as if they were built in the late 18th century, many of them were built in Victorian times. This type architecture is also very similar to Biedermeier in Germany and federal style in The states.

Regency style Victorian houses in London – Photo by Kathleen Tyler Conklin

The spa towns of England are also great places to see these types of properties. Leamington, Harrogate, bath and York have some stunning regency style, Victorian architecture; if you like this type of thing! They didn’t all use stucco. Leamington does have its fair share of stucco fronted properties but Bath, York and Harrogate properties have all been built using local stone. Bath stone is famous for its very distinctive colour but most of the more famous streets in bath were completed before 1837. All of the regency design features are there. The later Victorian properties can be found as you move away from the city centre.

Most towns and cities had use to local materials before 1840 as they didn’t have railways until Victorian times and there wasn’t any other way of moving big heavy materials. So the brick, stone or facias could look very different from one another as they had to use whatever they could lay their hands on. Of the towns I just mentioned, Harrogate got its first railway in 1848, bath in 1840, York a year earlier in 1839 and Leamington in 1844. The rail network was extended all across England. All across the world. It made a huge difference to home building. Materials could be sent via rail to the home builders of the day. Most large towns and cities in the western world where connected by rail by 1850.

There was another big change. The factories opened. Mass manufacturing could produce materials in a uniform way. Quality control went up and of course volume. The factory workers also needed somewhere to live, so more houses where built. More factories to make the products to build the houses for the factory workers working in the factories! The population exploded. It went from 13 million to over 32 million in England and wales. Over 5 million properties were built in England alone, a surge in homebuilding that had never been seen before and not really seen since.

These two factors had a huge effect on the building industry as whole. Now that materials could be manufactured consistently and then sent via rail to any part of the country, similar looking houses were built hundreds of miles apart, built with the same colour bricks, the same slate roofs, guttering and windows. The slate industry in Wales, saw a big increase in its popularity. It was the material of choice for all of the more expensive Victorian properties. The quarries became big business.

Entire estates were built. The site at Dinowig, south wales was particularly impressive. It had purpose built housing, work shops and a hospital. It even had a steam engine and railway that took the slate to the main lines. Imagine a home builder of today doing something like that. It’s just unfathomable.

Beautiful regency style, Victorian stone houses in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

Another big land mark was the architects themselves. Before Victorian times, architects and engineers were seen as roughly the same. This changed in 1834 in Britain and meant that design, was its own separate entity. It was a focused discipline. Again, this resulted in a uniformity not really seen before. House designs became much more familiar and the materials and fit and finish became more consistent. Home building became more formulaic in many respects and yet the overall craftsmanship in this period was of an incredibly high standard. Building a modern house to Victorian specifications today would be very expensive.

I have very roughly estimated the increased costs of the different materials used and at a very loose guess, I would expect a house built to Victorian standards to cost 2.5 times the cost of building a modern house. Just the bricks and slate are about twice as expensive as their modern equivalent. I would love to give it a go though.

I do obviously want to add a small caveat to this post as many people will be aware of the Victorian slums that were built in the bigger cities. Whilst these houses were built in Victorian times, they housed poorer families. The standards were terrible. These weren’t cheap and cheerful. They were very different from the houses you see in the photo’s on this page. Very inexpensive buildings were fashioned together. Sometimes as part of a very short 20 year lease. They only needed to last for 20 years.

The homes were beyond awful. Cramped, squalid and unsanitary are the only way to describe the conditions. London was the centre of the most notorious slums. There were many others. The welsh slate industry built their own. The barracks. Again, these were awful. Follow this link  for more information on this topic. There is a really good book that covers life in a south east London slum – The blackest streets  I know this went a little off topic but I didn’t want to ignore what was a very dark and terrible part of Victorian history and it is often glossed over. The Victorian properties that are left today were the homes of the wealthier working class, middle classes and upper classes. The slums were eventually knocked down.

Moving back to mainstream Victorian architecture, after the regency style came Italianate designs. These were popular In England, America, Australia and beyond. These typically had much lower pitched roofs, taller first floor windows and in America sometimes included a turret or tower. The style didn’t last that long in England but was much more prevalent elsewhere, especially the states. There are hundreds of really spectacular examples of this design in The states. So much so, it really became an all American style. It is probably the style that most Americans associate with Victorian properties.

These properties are particularly stunning. What I love about these designs is that the many of the smaller, less expensive house still have all of the detailing that really typifies the style. Again this was partly down to large scale production techniques that made it possible to include such details for less money than it would have previously. One of the more famous or certainly perfect incarnations of the type is shown below. Beautiful. It looks like a classic haunted houses from an American horror films I loved as a child!

David Davis mansion, Illinois. Stunning. Photo by Ron Frazier. 

One of the other Victorian design trends was the Queen Anne style design. Many of the properties in San Francisco are queen Anne designs. These are probably the most famous examples of this style. They really are beautiful and among the most sort after and expensive Victorian properties money can buy. The detail on the property below is incredible. These where very expensive houses to build. The colours are the icing on the cake. Wouldn’t like to have to paint them too often!


Beautiful painted Victorian villa in San Francisco – One of my favourites

They were quite similar to Italianate but with higher pitched roofs and didn’t sport the towers or the turrets. They still had detail and character in abundance. Large porches and sweeping staircases are part of the character. Queen Anne style is very popular in The states, Canada and Australia. I have included a house tour of a Stunning San Francisco property below. What is really lovely about this particular house is that most of the Victorian details have been restored. Sometimes the temptation is bring these houses into the 21st century and yet most would prefer to keep the period features intact.

Obviously the house below is a very expensive. Really expensive! I really did want to find a house tour for a cheaper property, to show that big or small, Victorian homes are special. Similar homes found in different parts of the world can be had for a tenth of the price. I used this particular tour as all of the features have been restored, the tour is fairly short and the house is of normal Victorian proportions (1,500 square feet). Any normal working class family could have a very similar house, every bit as beautiful albeit in a cheaper geographical area. In case you wondered the house sold for $2,100,000 dollars! I did say it wasn’t cheap! City living is expensive.

Stunning Victorian property in San Francisco. Sadly it’s sold!

Another Victorian style that was very popular, especially in England was Gothic revival. It can be seen all over Britain. famous examples of this are the parliament building in London and another great example is St Pancras station. It isn’t a house but it is magnificent. The building certainly doesn’t look like a train station. More palace than anything else. The brick work, the turrets and shear amount of detail is unbelievable. The station took 4 year to build between the years 1864 to 1868, I can’t find the original cost but refurbishment of the station cost 800 million in 2007!

Another wonderful example of Victorian Architecture and still not a house is the natural history museum in London. I’ve been there about four times but it never ceases to amaze me. The building is a masterpiece. I spend as much time admiring the building as I do the exhibits. If you have never seen it, then you need to go. The brick work is amazing. In fact the Victorian architecture of commercial or public buildings was every bit as impressive as the houses.

It is incredible to think that so many of these architectural wonders were nearly knocked down. St Pancras station was very nearly one of them. Victorian buildings were seen as dinosaurs until very recently. Sadly and unbelievably there have been many casualties. Lots of incredible Victorian buildings have been lost over the years.

Incredible example of Gothic revival architecture in London. St Pancreas station.

From all of these different styles spawned styles all of there own. In London there are lots of Houses that have little bits of everything. Kind of Frankenstein houses! The redbrick properties you see in the wonderful streets of knightsbridge are incredible. They have classical designs pieces such as the railings but also gothic revival design with the window detailing and brick work. Really stunning. Really expensive!

The really fantastic thing about Victorian houses is that, regardless of the style and price, almost all of the houses built in this time were constructed to such a high standard. It was a consistently great time for home building. Many of those homes are still here today. It really was a bit of a golden era in home building. Not just in shear quantity, although this was impressive but in the quality of the buildings that were built, all over the world in fact. It is why these houses have captured the imagination of many, including my own. From the lowly terrace cottage to grand Victorian mansions. These houses share a certain character.

ornate Victorian tiled fireplace

Cast iron fire places and colourful tiles

The Victorian home builders also seemingly had an eye for detail. The fireplace above is great example of this. Every feature would be perfectly crafted. Features such as, wrought iron railings, brightly coloured and pattered floor tiles. Plaster ceiling roses, high and elaborate skirting boards. Cast iron fireplaces, sash windows and slate roofs. Balustrades, stained glass windows and cast iron baths. You can find most of these regardless of the architectural style. The tiles are a particular favourite of mine. I’ll be looking through some of these in my next post.

This is why so many people fall in love with Victorian houses. Its why I love them. I know I’ve already been over this but it is fantastic that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a house with high ceilings or a nice fireplace. Panelled doors, stained glass or some colour floor tiles. Even in the most modest of building. The kind of detail and charm that is missing from modern mass produced housing. Its these details that really matter. Really make the difference and make these houses feel special. There is always something interesting about these period properties. People often talk about character and its true. They do have a character and feel all of their own.

red brick victorian property in london

Beautiful red brick Victorian house in Hampstead London 

Other characteristics of Victorian properties include their fairly rigid floor plan design and layouts. This was another Victorian main stay. This is seen through all of the architectural styles. Rooms follow a very strict patterns and the layouts are instantly familiar. If you have ever stepped into a hall to hall Victorian semi, then you will have unwittingly seen the template that all others follow. If you like what you see, then you won’t ever be disappointed. Living rooms and bedrooms all connect to a central hallway. It is a layout that is still the most popular design today. This type of layout although already present in some properties before 1837 was popularised by these Victorian designs. It makes Victorian properties very easy to navigate.

Victorian mews terrace in London

Mews terrace, London England

Same with the hugely popular and abundant (certainly in England!) 2 up 2 down, terrace property. Not only is the floor plan familiar but they also tend to be very similar sizes. Some are slightly bigger than others but generally not by much. Then there is the innovation. The inside bathrooms and proper sanitation. Modern plumbing and drainage. Fortunately, we take all of these things  for granted today but it wasn’t always that way. This was cutting edge in Victorian England!

I would argue that some of the most beautiful and grandest of grand designs can be seen in America, Canada and Australia. The wealthy of the day would live in incredible Victorian style villas. Really spectacular homes. These houses can still be seen in all their splendour and are still as sought after as they ever were.  In most cases they are still the homes of the wealthy.

Typical New york brownstone

Typical New York Brownstones. The detailing is exquisite.

The new York brownstone is a fantastic example of this. For most, this would represent the pinnacle in Victorian style splendour and chic. Not strictly one style but a combination Just a shame not many can afford to live in one these days. We can all dream! Brooklyn, Toronto, Melbourne and San Francisco have similar properties. If you can’t afford a whole one, many of these wonderful period properties have been divided into apartments, with all the period charm left in abundance. Especially if the properties are in the bigger cities or more affluent areas.

red brick Victorian house australia

A late Victorian property in Ballarat, Australia

The really good news is there is a plethora of these type of properties. They have stood the test of time. The fact that so many of them are still standing is a testament to their incredible build quality. Finding a really good example of these homes really isn’t difficult. Especially in the bigger cities.

So, I hope that has whetted your appetite for more and thank you very much for finding your way to my little blog. I’m not really sure if I really got to the bones of what is A Victorian house as it isn’t really just anyone thing, not in a style sense. Exploring them fully will take some time. Hopefully If you are a lover of Victorian properties then be safe in the knowledge that you are very far from alone! If you would like a some more information and history of Victorian properties follow this Link to the Wikipedia page.

I plan to share as many interesting tips for restoration, repair and also images of the nicest examples I can find either on the web or on my travels. I’ve been a property nut all my life and have wanted to do a property blog for some time. I think Victorian era/design houses definitely deserve a fanfare, so here it is.



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