Thursday, May 8, 2014

Make Yourself at Home in a Georgian Town House

by Maria Grace

Terrace Homes facing the street in Ashbourn
Terrace houses dominated the London landscape during the Regency. Almost the entire London population, rich and poor alike, lived in a version of the terrace house. The term terrace was borrowed from garden terraces and described streets of houses with uniform fronts  that present a single elevation to the street.

The design of these houses varied little regardless of their location. Though the exterior facades might feature local stone or brick, stucco or fancy ornamentation, the essential structures remained uniform. 

Although primarily designed as residences, Georgian terraces built along main urban thoroughfares often incorporated ground-floor shops with residences in the upper stories.    

History of Terrace Houses

Historic Town home
The Great Fire of London in 1666 brought about the first of a series of Building Acts (1667, 1707, 1709 and 1774). These acts established building requirements intended to reduce the risk of fire spreading. Although they pertained to London architecture specifically, they  influenced building style in many other cities.

The initial 1667 Act required brick or stone to be used for all external and party walls, eliminating the typical timber fronts of the Tudor and early Stuart houses. The 1707 Act eliminated thick timber cornices. The 1709 Act required window frames be set back behind the building line. The 1774 Act required the use of stone or brick, specified street width, the size and layout of the houses, floor to ceiling heights and controlled decoration on facades even more rigidly. It also divided terrace houses into four classes. 

At the bottom of the scale, fourth rate houses, were those built in large numbers by speculative developers from the late eighteenth century in response to industrial development in towns like Liverpool and Manchester. These houses were often built back-to-back in tiny yards pressed behind street frontages, standing in yards and courts, apart from easy street access. They  were worth less than £150 per year in rent and occupied less than 350 square feet of land, often standing only three stories instead of four.

First, Second and Fourth rate Town Homes
In stark contrast, some of the wealthiest people in the country occupied palatial, first rate terraced houses in prestigious locales like Belgrave Square and Carlton House Terrace.

First rate houses faced streets and lanes, were worth over £850 per year in ground rent and occupied over 900 square feet of ground space. Keep in mind, these houses usually had four stories, plus a basement so they were frequently more than 4500 square feet on the inside. 

Second rate houses faced streets, notable lanes, and the River Thames. They were worth between £350 and £850 in ground rent and had an exterior foot print of 500-900 square feet.

Third rate houses faced principal streets, rented for £150-£300 and occupied 350-500 square feet ground space.

Terrace House Design

Floor plan of very large Belgravian town home, from The Gentleman's House.
Whatever the size of the terrace house, the general floor plan was consistent. Each floor would have one room at the back and one at the front with a passage and staircase at one side. The rooms were sometimes divided into smaller units, in some cases separated by folding doors that could create a larger open space when the occasion called for it.This approach to creating larger rooms was shunned in the country where manor houses did not have the same building restrictions, but considered good planning in the city.


All except the poorest houses had basements where most of the service rooms would be located. Primary access to these rooms would be through an open area in front with steps leading down to it. The open area would give light to the kitchen windows and might open onto storage vaults under the pavement. Small wells around the house allowed for windows to light other subterranean rooms including back staircases and household offices.

A warren of offices might be housed in the basement. These rooms might include
  •  the scullery-a small room for washing and storing dishes and kitchen equipment)
  • pantry and larder for food storage
  • butler's pantry and quarters
  • safe, and cleaning-room for the silver
  • housekeeper's-office;
  • still-room for drying and preparing foods and herbs for storage, medicinal formulations, soap, ect
  • servants'-hall where servants might eat and socialize
  • a wine-cellar
  • closet for beer; 
  • laundry and housemaid's-closet for linen storage
  • quarters for housekeeper, cook and possibly men-servants
  • vaults for coals and dust
Even in the largest of houses not all these rooms might be present and if present, they could be very small, packed tightly into the limited basement space.

A lift, also called a dumbwaiter, might be employed to bring food and other items up from the basement to the principle floors of the house. The lift could be located in a back stair well rather than opening directly into a room of the house.

Ground Floor

The best rooms in a townhouse were on the ground and first floor and faced the back of the house, away from the dirt and noise of the street. These included drawing rooms, parlors and dining rooms.

Drawing rooms were a place near the front door for accessibility in greeting visitors. The women of the house and their female guests would also use the drawing room as a place to retreat after dinner, so they would be near the dining room as well. Drawing rooms were often the most elaborately decorated room in the house and usually very feminine in style. 

The more modestly appointed parlor was a private room for the family’s enjoyment.This room might be on either the ground or first floor.

In large houses, the ground floor might also house an entrance hall, cloak-room, storage closet, and library or office. These would be more likely to face the street side of the house since guests would not spend time in those rooms.

The First Floor

The first floor contained large rooms for entertaining. These rooms might be used for card playing, parlor games and dancing. Large or folding doors might connect smaller rooms so that they could be opened to create larger spaces.  Principle bedrooms might also occupy this floor, usually located in the front (street side) of the house. 

Furnishings and other decor on this floor would be the most elaborate and expensive in the house, positioned to impress visitors.

The Second Floor

The more modest second floor featured secondary bedrooms for children, or perhaps a lodgers or guests. The rooms on this floor would be more simply decorated than those on lower floors. Older and perhaps unwanted furniture would often find its way into the upper stories. Bathing rooms, closets and linen storage rooms for both cleaned and soiled lines might also be located on this floor.

The Attic

The rooms on the highest floor were reserved for servants, who often used beds that were let down from the wall like murphy beds. Nursery suites and storage rooms might also be located here. These rooms were cheaply painted and furnished with little or no decoration.


Large town homes could also include outbuildings behind the house. Stables and carriage houses might also feature quarters for coachmen and grooms for the horses.Third and fourth rate terrace homes were unlike to have outbuildings.

Even though there was a great deal of similarity between the terraced homes, the differences were important reflections of the wealth and status of the occupants of these home.


Characteristics of the Georgian Town House
The Ideal House
Kerr, Robert. The Gentleman's House (1871, 3ed.)
Lane, Maggie. Jane Austen and Food. Hambledon (1995)
Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams (2002)
London Architecture
Parissien, Steven. Regency Style. Phaidon Press Limited (2000)
Sabor, Peter (editor). The Cambridge Edition of the Juvenilia. Cambridge University Press (2006)
Spencer-Churchill, Henrietta. Classic Georgian Style. Collins & Brown (1997)
Summerson, John. Georgian London. Yale University Press (2003) Town Houses
Yorke, Trevor. Georgian & Regency Houses Explained. Countryside Books (2007)
Yorke, Trevor. Regency House Styles. Countryside Books (2013)  


 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy and All the Appearance of Goodness and Twelfth Night at LongbournClick here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.
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  1. This was so informative. I'm writing a book that takes place in Victorian England, but I think I can use a lot of information from this article, as I would imagine some of those buildings didn't change all that much.

  2. All good to know for when I read books about this period. Thanks, Maria Grace!

  3. Love the details, Grace! Very informative.

  4. Excellent details; I copied them for future use and info.

  5. Thank you Maria. I enjoyed learning from this so much. I figured some of it out from reading , but , you have filled in details and info I was missing. I can now fully picture it in my head. :-)

  6. Well done. Thanks for the quick peek inside.

  7. Thank you for all this lovely information! It is wonderful to have so many tidbits in one reference article.

    As an FYI, however, a dumbwaiter, as you described it, was not an actuality in England until 1847 (although it was in America). Until then, it was a delicate and stationary piece of furniture that was often used for dessert service. The contraption used to bring things behind the walls and between the floors was simply a service lift. (And I must thank Kathryn Kane for pointing out that error to me several months ago)


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