House history in Shoreditch

When a homeowner asks what they should do when starting a renovation project, I usually suggest that they should understand the building. I don’t just mean getting to know the structure and it’s idiosyncrasies, I mean really getting to know it, and its context, so that mistakes are avoided.

All buildings, whether they’re churches, castles, cottages or houses have a reason for existing and being where they are. These reasons define their status and this defines their appearance. To understand the context of the building one needs to look beyond the four walls and appreciate the area and the social history that goes with it. My aunt, for example, lived in a charming house that’s now in a highly sought after location, but it was originally built for the labourers building the nearby canal and subsequently those constructing the railway.

Recently I was in Shoreditch in the East End of London. As in any area, ‘for sale’ and ‘to let’ signs marked the shifting population and, for anyone thinking about a home, the estate agents in Shoreditch would obviously be a first port of call. Estate agents are often a good source of local knowledge and some are genuinely interested in the history of the homes they’re selling. Another good starting point is the local library or history centre.

Shoreditch offers another and very special resource: The Geffrye, Museum of the Home. This is not just a place for those interested in local history; anyone keen to understand British social history will find a visit worthwhile. The museum focuses on the urban living rooms and gardens of the English middle classes. Visitors can view a permanent display of eleven period rooms which span approximately 400 years from around 1600 to the present day. Its collections show how homes have been used and furnished, reflecting changes in society and behavior as well as style, fashion and taste.

Understanding the status of rooms within a home is important. The front parlor, where visitors were welcomed, is likely to have far more decoration than a back room seen only by the family. Likewise, staircases become simpler as one climbs upward. They may be wildly ornate in the front hall but, by the time the servants’ quarters in the attic are reached, they’ll be plain and functional. All too often this is forgotten in the rush to ‘restore’. Embellishments such as ceiling roses and cornices, or other over elaborate ‘features’, are added where none would have existed in the past. As a consequence the proportions of the rooms are lost and there’s a sense that something is not quite right – it isn’t!

in association with Hurford Salvi Carr

Image: A living room in 1935 at the Geffrye Museum. Credit: Geffrye Museum, London / photographer Chris Ridley