A Brief Introduction to Terraced Housing

The terrace is one of the most recognisable styles of housing in England.

Around a quarter of the population live with a neighbour on each side of them in a set of three or more uniformly designed houses, sharing common materials and plan forms.

33-42 Brunswick Terrace, Brighton © Historic England Archive DP017943

The style first emerged as a building type in the late 17th century and continued to develop in line with the development of towns and cities across England.

New Ash Green, Kent. Housing by the architect Eric Lyons for Span © Historic England Archive DP138199

There was style of terraced housing for everyone: from grand aristocratic compositions intended to mimic country houses through to modest workers’ housing.

Georgian 1714-1830

The Georgian terrace is often regarded as one of England’s greatest contributions to the urban form; defining and shaping the historic character of places like London, Bath, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Brighton, where whole districts of terraces still exist.

52-55 Newington Green, London’s oldest surviving terrace (1658) © Charles Watson

Georgian terraced housing was initially fashionable and expensive, and speculative builders worked quickly to put up new streets.

1960s London © Historic England Archive aa072838

Technological advances made this increased level of development possible. The price of glass also fell, meaning windows could be large enough to illuminate the floor space and stairs from only two walls. This was coupled with the invention of the sash window, which allowed for improved ventilation.

Sash windows in Liverpool © Historic England Archive DP136126

As the popularity of terraces grew, builders experimented with new styles including circuses and crescents, good examples of which exist in Brighton, Bristol and Weston-Super-Mare. The grandest late Georgian and Regency terraces faced onto a square or garden.

Royal Crescent, Weston-super-Mare © Historic England Archive DP236013

Some of the most impressive terrace compositions were designed by John Nash and Thomas Cubitt in London, Richard Grainger in Newcastle and John Foster in Liverpool.

Seel Street, Liverpool © Historic England Archive DP136132

By the late Georgian and early Victorian period many towns across the country, including York, Exeter, Hull, Liverpool and Leeds, had handsome streets for the wealthier urban classes lined with the ordered facades of terraced development.

Amwell Street, Islington, London © Historic England Archive AA056209

Victorian 1837-1901

Later on, terraced housing became a solution to demographic changes in England that saw huge urban population growth as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

Roupell Street, London © Historic England Archive DP183520

Large numbers of terraces were built speculatively to accommodate householders further down the socio-economic scale, who needed to live near their places of work.

At the same time, the terrace form was also used for model communities sponsored by enlightened mill owners and employers like Titus Salt, who constructed Saltaire for his workforce.

Saltaire © Historic England Archive DP033510

In the middle of the 19th Century the style became more closely associated with the aspiring middle classes, as the rich looked for individual, detached houses.

During this time, the middle class terrace typically had much more colour and decoration than its Georgian predecessor: ornate details and trims, bay windows, stained glass panes and tiling patterns on roofs are all common features.

Noel Park Conservation Area © Historic England Archive DP075216

However, these houses were often put up speculatively and so the quality could be very poor. By the later Victorian period, the upper middle classes were seeking detached houses or villas, and the terrace then became associated with the lower middle classes.

Silvertown, Docklands, London, 1965 © Historic England Archive aa065117

The Public Health Act of 1875 obliged local authorities to use byelaws to regulate terraced housing, and subsequently construction was required to meet a certain set of standards.

The new requirements introduced improved sanitation and ventilation, requiring toilets (often built outside) to be included. Meeting these requirements created the familiar landscape of ‘gridiron’ streets lined with two storey terraces serviced by back alleys seen in the inner suburbs of virtually every town and city. A large stock of Byelaw Terraced Housing still exists.

Battersea, London © Historic England Archive DP149082

Though standardisation is a key characteristic of terraced housing, there is some regional variation. For example the urban mews tends to be a London style (though some examples exist in Brighton), whilst the back to back is more common in the North.

A view from the footbridge above the balcony linking back to back houses in Calderdale, 1962-1972 © Historic England Archive aa083873

The Twentieth Century

In the early 20th Century the popularity of the terrace continued but new architectural styles emerged.

Acton, London © Historic England Archive DP067415

Terraces from this period are typically even more decorative than their predecessors, as the Arts and Craft Movement inspired a greater focus on ornament, for example adding greater embellishment to chimneys, windows and porches.

Following the end of the First World War and the advent of new housing legislation in 1919, Victorian terraces swiftly became associated with overcrowding and slums.

The new kind of terrace was much shorter, usually in runs of four or six, and formed part of the large new municipal estates built between the wars along Garden City lines, with private gardens front and back and set in low density, green streetscapes.

Sunray Estate © Historic England Archive DP186810

In the private sector, the popularity of the terrace declined and gave way to the rise of the suburban semi-detached houses, as the railways and electric tramways allowed workers to move further out from city centres across England.

During this time, Modernism arrived in Britain and some architects made gentle experiments with the terrace. Berthold Lubetkin and Ernő Goldfinger both designed Modernist terraces in south and north London respectively, but this work is fairly rare.

Houses at 85, 87, 89 and 91, Genesta Road, Berthold Lubetkin © RIBA Collections

Lubetkin’s used new construction techniques to reinvent the traditional terrace quite radically, whilst Goldfinger used brick in his ‘adaptation of the 18th Century style’ with Classical proportions.

1-3 Willow Road, Ernő Goldfinger © Steve Cadman

During the Second World War 200,000 houses were destroyed, 250,000 made uninhabitable and three million damaged. A radical rethink of housing design was desperately needed and architects began to look up.

Keeling House, Denys Lasdun © Historic England Archive DP138156

In 1951, England’s first residential tower block opened in Harlow, Essex, setting a new trend for post-war social housing. However, tower blocks declined in popularity amongst architects and the public alike in the aftermath of the partial collapse of Ronan Point.

Glebelands, Harlow, Essex © Historic England Archive DP159910

Some post-war architects continued to design terraces, citing ideas about improved social cohesion and community values. These were often, high-density low-rise terraces of flats rather than single homes as they had been previously.

Alexandra Road Estate, Neave Brown © Historic England Archive DP147528
Davy Place, Loddon, Norfolk, Tayler and Green © Historic England Archive DP162730

Though we commonly associate contemporary housing in cities and towns with high-rise glass and steel, there has been some new terrace construction in the Post-Modern and High-Tech styles.

St Mark’s Road and Cowper Terrace, Jeremy and Fenella Dixon © Historic England Archive DP195618
1-12 Grand Union Walk, Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners © Historic England Archive DP251183

More recently, the Stirling Prize-winning architects Mikhail Riches have won praise for their scheme in Norwich, the terraces of which reflect the much loved housing of the Golden Triangle.

Written by Charlotte Goodhart.

Header Image: terraced housing at Lipson, Plymouth, Devon © Historic England Archive DP08681

Further Reading

4 responses to A Brief Introduction to Terraced Housing

  1. RAY BIRD says:

    Well done Charlotte. A concise digest of English terrace housing. Excellent picture examples too. Good to see New Ash Green included, which I studied as a Landscape Architecture student back in ’74.

  2. Michael Munroe says:

    What an enjoyable piece very informative.
    Thanks Mike

  3. Mary Walden-Till says:

    There is a very good crescent at Buxton too, currently undergoing restoration.

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