urban housing

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The earliest surviving town houses are the 12th‐century stone buildings, notably two on Steep Hill, Lincoln, which had living accommodation on the first floor, with space at street level for a shop, workshop, or warehouse. Some had vaulted undercrofts. Such undercrofts remained popular in merchants’ and craftsmen's houses later in the Middle Ages; Norwich has more than 60 dating from after c.1350. By then, the fashion for first‐floor halls had long been replaced by halls on the ground floor, such as that which now forms the Bridewell Museum, Norwich. See Maurice Barley, Houses and History (1986), ch. 4, which notes that it is impossible to find a single town house whose ground‐floor plan has not been altered at some time, and Anthony Quiney, Town Houses of Medieval Britain (2003). For studies of single towns, see Vanessa Parker, The Making of King's Lynn (1971), and David Lloyd, Broad Street, Ludlow (1979).

The houses of the prosperous townsmen fronted the principal streets or marketplace (see markets) and extended backwards along a burgage plot. If the plots were sufficiently wide, the largest houses could be arranged around courtyards. Most plots were so narrow, however, that the plans of houses varied considerably. Narrow‐fronted properties were usually entered by a passage which led under the front range of building and along one side of the plot to an open space at the rear. As in contemporary rural houses, the principal room was in the form of an open hall. Smaller houses were arranged in terraces along the streets which had no burgage plots, sometimes filling in spaces such as marketplaces and the edges of churchyards (see historic churches). A group in Lady Row, Goodramgate, York, which were begun in 1316 and remain as the oldest timber‐framed houses in the city, provided simple accommodation consisting of a ground‐floor room and a chamber above. They, and similar medieval terraces, have left no trace of heating arrangements. The houses of the very poor have long since gone.

The improved standards of housing that have been noted in the countryside during the 16th and 17th centuries were matched in the towns (see also Great Rebuilding). The open hall, with its central fireplace and clay floor, disappeared as houses were reconstructed or entirely rebuilt. D. Portman, Exeter Houses, 1400–1700 (1966), showed how new features such as jettied upper floors and brick chimney stacks were added to old houses or incorporated in the new. Brick was used increasingly in the framework of the house, especially in eastern parts of England, in order to reduce the risk of fire. A. D. Dyer, ‘Urban Housing: A Documentary Study of Four Midland Towns, 1530–1700’, Post‐Medieval Archaeology, 15 (1981), used probate inventories to study the use of rooms in houses in Birmingham, Coventry, Derby, and Worcester. The most detailed study of inventory material for this purpose is U. Priestley, P. J. Corfield, and H. Sutermeister, ‘Rooms and Room‐Use in Norwich Housing, 1580–1730’, Post‐Medieval Archaeology, 16 (1982), which shows how the city's housing stock was used increasingly intensively during this period, with subdivisions into smaller units and the acquisition of more floors. See also Michael Laithwaite, ‘Totnes Houses, 1500–1800’, in Peter Clark (ed.), The Transformation of English Provincial Towns (1984), and the survey of recent archaeological and historical investigations in David Crossley, Post‐Medieval Archaeology in Britain (1990). As with the Middle Ages, there is little evidence of the houses of the poorest sections of the urban community.


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