Book review: Technology in the Country House

The history of life in Britain’s most sumptuous homes is about much more than expensive furniture and works of art. A new book reveals how, when it came to inventions created with comfort and convenience in mind, the country’s most affluent families were the early adopters of their day.

It’s not always necessity that’s the mother of invention; in the field of domestic technology, the ability of the most wealthy to throw huge amounts of money at gadgets that are going to make an already comfortable life even more luxurious has always been a significant force driving innovation.

As ‘Technology in the Country House’ by Marilyn Palmer and Ian West demonstrates, rarely has this been more true than in Britain during the period in the 18th and 19th century when landed gentry and nouveau riche were constructing elaborate and isolated properties. Fortunately, the same industrial revolution that was the source of many newly minted families was churning out a procession of gadgets designed to make life more comfortable for those who could afford it.

The era saw the technology that lay behind the facades of country piles overtake strict traditions about how such buildings should look as the key parameter by which they were rated. When influential architect JJ Stevenson wrote in his 1880 book ‘House Architecture’, “Convenience, not symmetry, is now the universally acknowledged rule in house planning,” many owners of massive properties probably heaved a sigh of relief that their homes would be judged not solely on their aesthetic qualities, but also on more mundane aspects like having a supply of clean water, decent plumbing and even novelties like electric lighting or telephones.

Country houses were usually too far from urban centres to take advantage of centralised sources of supply and so were obliged to set up their own systems if they wanted any of these services to improve the comfort of daily living. Some landowners chose to do this; others did not, and this book examines the motivations for their decisions. It also sets out to discover what evidence has survived for the impact of technological innovation on the buildings, contents, parks and gardens of country houses and on the lives of the people within them.

Central heating is a good example. Despite being adopted in public buildings and factories from early in the 19th century, the belief that open fires and fresh air were healthier meant that quite sophisticated heating systems based on hot water were initially confined to the garden, where elaborate systems were used in greenhouses. Even so, burning coal rather than wood meant finding a discrete way of transporting it in large quantities. In some large properties the solution was to install a small railway, or lifts driven by hydraulic power.

Ironically, the same isolation that made such innovations desirable also helped to ensure they’re still around for us to see today. When the fortunes of many country house owners declined at the turn of the 19th century, it was often difficult to replace systems that had cost a huge amount of money to install in the first place and many stuck with them. Which was good news for archaeologists Marilyn Palmer and Ian West, who visited nearly a hundred houses around the country, most of them open to the public but many still in private hands, to research this book.

Their explorations took them into attics, cellars and other hidden parts of houses. Books looking at what went on behind the scenes in these homes tend to focus on drudgery and hard work. It’s nice for once to see how technology made servants’ live a little bit easier.

Beautifully illustrated throughout with a succession of photos from properties all over the country, this excellent collaboration between the National Trust and Historic England isn’t just a fascinating insight into a neglected aspect of domestic history. It also serves as a taster for anyone planning to get out and visit a historic property, where these days the emphasis is often as much on the everyday as it is on the art and furniture.

Publisher Historic England is aiming for a more general audience with ‘Technology in the Country House’, but another of its recent titles will find a much more exclusive but no less appreciative audience.

Pressure to redevelop the sort of sites where railway buildings have traditionally been located for everything from car parking to housing has already accounted for the demise of many of these functional but often beautifully designed edifices. With ‘The Railway Goods Shed and Warehouse in England’, John Minnis and Simon Hickman have  identified some 600 that are still standing and, for the first time, created a comprehensive and well illustrated gazetteer of surviving examples.

It goes some way to balancing the level of attention that has been directed to buildings associated with passengers, even though goods traffic often accounted for a higher proportion of operators’ revenues. Although goods sheds usually functioned in the same way, there was considerable scope for architectural expression in their external design and this book illustrates how they varied considerably in size from small timber huts to the massive warehouses seen in major cities. It also looks at how many railway companies developed standard designs for these buildings towards the end of the 19th century and at how traditional materials such as timber, brick and stone gave way to steel and concrete in the 20th century.

Technology in the Country House by Marilyn Palmer and Ian West is published by Historic England (£60.00, ISBN 9781848022805)

The Railway Goods Shed and Warehouse in England by John Minnis and Simon Hickman is also published by Historic England (£14.99, ISBN 9781848023284)

[Photos of the telephone exchange in the butler’s pantry and the electrical switch room at Castle Drogo in Devon courtesy National Trust]

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