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HERITAGE OF THE SEMI

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 17th September 2010
There is always something slightly critical in the word ‘suburban’.

After the obvious definition that refers to the fringes of a town or city, the Oxford English Dictionary says that the word can mean ‘having characteristics that are regarded as belonging especially to life in the suburbs of a city; having the inferior manners, the narrowness of view, etc., attributed to residents in suburbs.’ Anyone with a suburban outlook is damned. The suburbs are the place of the small-minded and the boring.

Yet millions of people live – and thrive – in suburbs. They are one of the most characteristic parts of any British settlement larger than a village. A city’s centre many be individual – like Ripon’s Market Square or the piazza in front of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral – but its suburbs are likely to be much less distinctive. As you move from the centre there is usually an obvious pattern – Georgian houses give way to Victorian terraces, either grand or humble. Beyond then are the Victorian villas, which in turn are superseded by Edwardian houses and then, from the 1920s onwards, the archetypal semi-detached house.

The semi! It is the epitome of staid, middle class life. Boring, conventional, but safe. It is also largely an English invention. Go to a continental city and the suburbs are different – semis are not the norm there. But in this country, certainly until the 1980s, the semi ruled in the suburbs, and semis are still being built today.

Actually, the semi is not as new as you may think. As far back as the 1830s the architectural writer and polemicist John Claudius Loudon was advocating semi-detached houses as an alternative to the modest villa for the middle classes; he lived in one himself. Loudon’s semis, though, were classically-inspired, with columns around the doors (a fashion that returned in the 1980s!) and traditionally-proportioned windows.

Loudon’s buildings are not what we might think of as a ‘normal’ semi. For us, the traditional layout is a pair of mirror houses, often with tiled roofs that sometimes swoop down over an arched porch, which sometimes has a small oriel window above and a circular opening to one side. Front windows are often half-bays – from the 1920s they may have metal frames. Chimneys pierce the roof, usually in the middle of the house.

So where did this example come from? Why do our semis – and there are plenty like this in Ripon, especially south of the city centre – all have these characteristics?

One answer can be found near Ripon – at Baldersby and Baldersby St James. In both those villages there are characteristic cottages by the architect William Butterfield, who was also responsible for the magnificent church at Baldersby St James. They are built of brick, with tiled roofs, mostly plain windows and tall chimneys. Butterfield’s ‘vernacular’ style was perfected in the 1840s. It is seen throughout the country, often in the vicarages that accompany his churches. He was followed by G E Street, who used the same style – and passed it on to his pupils.

Among them was Philip Webb (subject of a talk to Ripon Civic Society last year) who in 1859 designed a new house for his friend William Morris. Built of brick with a tiled roof, it is known as The Red House. It is at Bexleyheath, then in the Kent countryside but now, ironically, in suburban south-east London. For almost the first time a house was built where the style followed the use of the internal rooms, rather than to a pre-decided style.

The Red House is a comfortable, practical house. Its irregular exterior gives a clear indication of the internal layout. It borrows from Butterfield’s ideas, and from Street – and in its turn it influenced subsequent houses. It already has those features we will find in semis, although The Red House is larger. We can trace a direct line from The Red House through Webb’s colleagues and followers, into the 20th century with architects like Voysey and Baillie Scott.

They were good, professional architects – but there were many local practitioners and jobbing builders who took their idea, simplified them and transformed them into the semi we recognise today. It is easy to be architecturally snobbish about semis, and there is no denying that they can become rather monotonous when road after road of identical houses spread out through the suburbs.

Yet the semi has a distinguished pedigree and has proved a winning formula for housing in this country. The continentals have apartments; the English have the semi. It may not be quite the Arts and Crafts shrine that The Red House has become, but at least many of us call it home.

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