building trades

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The fortunes of the building industry have usually provided a sound indication of the health of both the national and the local economy. The medieval masons were often itinerant workers whose trade was controlled through a system of lodges (see masons’ marks). However, the most important medieval towns had various craftsmen's guilds which regulated the building trades. The characteristic unit long remained that of the small master, with perhaps a man or two and a lad, who had contacts with other skilled craftsmen, e.g. glaziers, plasterers, and plumbers. See Donald Woodward, Men at Work: Labourers and Building Craftsmen in the Towns of Northern England, 1450–1750 (1994). In the 1840s and 1850s carpenters and masons were affected by competition with machine‐made products, but most work was carried on as before. The building industry was little affected by technological change before the 20th century. Large employers were a rarity before the 1960s.

Because of the small scale of business units the history of the building trades in the 19th century is not well recorded. See, however, H. J. Dyos, Victorian Suburb: A Study of the Growth of Camberwell (1961), which notes the numerous small variations in house type in this south London suburb because so many different builders were at work. Between 1878 and 1880, at the height of the building boom, some 416 firms or individual builders erected 5 670 houses in Camberwell. Over half the builders constructed no more than six houses during these three years, and nearly three‐quarters built no more than twelve. Many of these small firms went bankrupt. On the other hand, nearly one‐third of the houses were built by the fifteen largest firms, each of which constructed between 75 and 230 buildings. Some attempt at planning control was made by local authorities under powers obtained from national legislation. See Martin Gaskell, Building Control: National Legislation and the Introduction of Local Bye‐Laws in England (1983).

Subjects: History.

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