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Friday, 14 November 2014

The Area; an essential part of Regency town life.

  Dictionary definition [Chambers English Dictionary] : a sunken space alongside the basement of a building.

Area visible behind railings with gate slightly open. Top of kitchen door just visible under steps to right

This bald description does not describe the whole culture of the area, a Georgian invention but common through the Victorian age too.  In large towns and cities, where space was at a premium, the habit was to build houses up rather than to sprawl across the landscape, and so every inch was utilised.  The buildings are rarely more than 4 stories above the ground, three floors for the family, the attics for the female servants to sleep; and therefore, in addition, there was usually a basement for the domestic offices like kitchen and pantries, and here too was the domain of the male servants.   Where there were natural hills this basement might well be at ground floor at the back of the house, opening onto the garden where washing might be hung out, if it was not sent out to a laundry. Land values in any British town were high, because of the need to preserve as much farmland on a small island as possible; and in London at the time were comparable to land values in Lower Manhattan of today, where every inch had to be utilised to the best purpose.  The London clay and its solid base for building foundations, by the nature of its composition, made it ideal for building basements and dictated the shape of houses, which were able to be built both up, and down.

In the front of the house, however, the basement was accessed by a sunken space alongside it, behind railings, and beyond the pavement, unlike earlier houses, where the cellars often extended under the pavements, and may have had thick glass squares set into the pavement as skylights, which let in light but could not be seen through; or trapdoors for depositing coal or making other deliveries.   The coal in a house with an area had to be carried in sacks down the steep iron stairs and put through the vertical access trapdoor, which with a window into the kitchen and a door into the kitchen was one of the three common piercings of the basement wall into the area.  In ‘Death of a Fop’ the area and basement figure prominently, since one of the servants dallies on the area steps with one of the villains, who is sweet-talking her, and the house-breakers find their way in through the coal house, having to saw off the bolt on the inside, since their confederate had failed to open it when posing as a temporary servant.   

Looking down the area steps.  No coal cellar apparent here

Confined all day to the basement regions, the area was a place of social intercourse for the servants; dish clouts might be hung out there to dry, tradesmen would call there with deliveries, and a young girl might snatch a few minutes when ostensibly hanging out dish clouts, or looking for the butcher’s boy, to have a chance to gossip with the servants in the area next door as voices carried readily in the echoing underground area.

Large houses with a room on each side of the door would commonly have the steps up to the front door built as something of a bridge, in order to leave a way through from one end of the area to the other; often they were also a bridge when on a single room’s width house, and the kitchen door opening from under them, so there was some protection from the weather when receiving anticipated tradesmen, or indeed itinerants.  They may be blocked at one side of the steps over but I have seen some where the area of one house was essentially contiguous with next door.  This is not, however, common as it encouraged the servants to socialise and waste time.

this area is on a corner and is quite large though less useful for servants to socialise as it is not close at all to the area of the next door house! 

 It is important to remember that there were many itinerant tradesmen as well as beggars in the regency, and the traffic to the kitchen door might be quite considerable, with knife grinders offering their services, tract-sellers, who were quite as importunate then as some Jehovah’s Witnesses can be today, flower-sellers, ribbon sellers, sellers of broadsheets, either new songs or news of who was hanged this day, rag men buying rags to sell to paper makers, old wax to sell to candle makers and so on.  Beggars might call to beg a crust of bread or some scraps.  In addition would be the scheduled visits of the milkmaid, the fishmonger, the butcher, the baker and probably the candle maker if not the candlestick maker.  If laundry was sent out, it would be collected and delivered here.  Footmen would deliver messages to the front door, and so too might mantua makers deliver their sewn goods to the keeping of the butler [or footman in a less elevated household] for the lady of the house, but most of the daily running of the house was conducted via the area door.  A very important and busy part of the household!

another view of the area of the house on the corner, looking the other way round the corner
 All photos copyright Sarah Waldock 2013, taken in Brighton at The Steine and on the sea front.  Please ask permission to re-use and credit me. 

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