Magazine article The Spectator

'Everyman's Castle: The Story of Our Cottages, Country Houses, Terraces, Flats, Semis and Bungalows', by Philippa Lewis - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Everyman's Castle: The Story of Our Cottages, Country Houses, Terraces, Flats, Semis and Bungalows', by Philippa Lewis - Review

Article excerpt

Everyman's Castle: The story of our cottages, country houses, terraces, flats, semis and bungalows Philippa Lewis

Frances Lincoln, pp.250, £20, ISBN: 9780711233386

'Phlogiston' is an interesting, if obsolete, word. Of Greek origin, it referred to the 'fire-making' quality thought to be present in, among other things, the ashes gathered by London dustmen. In the mid-18th century these ashes were mixed with earth and even 'excrements taken out of the necessary houses' to create the vast numbers of bricks needed for the explosion of house-building taking place at the time in London and elsewhere.

The dramatic rise in building is pivotal to this densely detailed observation of the British obsession with their 'home' and 'comfort' which, we're told, Robert Southey describes as particularly English and untranslatable.

The first third of this trivia-packed and fascinating miscellany sets the scene for the 'haves', living in castles, stately homes or Vince Cable's 'mansions', and the 'have nots', occupying cottages, with less of the romantic and more of the squalid. Medieval hovels and castles, and their origins, are chronicled with efficient briskness, with the 'statelys' more or less brushed aside since, as Philippa Lewis points out, they have been described and photographed far too frequently. But Lewis warms to her theme as the 18th century moves into the 19th with the concomitant industrialisation, expansion, emancipation and mobility.

Unashamedly riddled with class from beginning to end (unavoidably, considering national aspirations and class mobility, both upwards and downwards), the joy is that Lewis has produced a stream of commentary culled from an astonishing range of literary references interwoven with hard facts. Liberally scattered with the rewards of wide-ranging picture research throughout, it's a very handy-sized volume, the text a mere 250 pages.

Focused on London, the practices -- and differences -- in other parts of England, and just now and then, Ireland and Scotland, are mentioned, with comments on slums, philanthropy and council housing. One paragraph can range from the desirability of the inglenook as central to cottage life through the Grand Tour to the welcome introduction of plumbing in a great house, commenting, in passing, on the reckless extravagance of the 'mansion' builder and the consequences for his heirs. …

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