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Page last updated at 14:41 GMT, Friday, 10 October 2008 15:41 UK

A box of one's own

Much modern housing is a little bit box-like for some


The idea of a home, no matter how small, to truly call our own, has been the goal of British society in recent decades. But has it gone badly wrong and should we take a lesson from the sprawling family homes of the past, asks Lisa Jardine.

I asked in my last column whether, in the current mortgage crisis, our homes would, in the long run, hold their values. A number of those who responded - in letters and e-mails - were sure we had overvalued our desire to own a family home.

"An Englishman's home is his castle" was already a familiar platitude by 1700. To have a place of one's own for shelter, where dependants are protected and their possessions are safe, feels like a fundamental social good. But have we gone too far in our quest for personal space and privacy?

Lisa Jardine

In our own times, the drive towards privacy has become paramount

The family as a unit has varied considerably in the course of history, but the bond between those who live under one roof together has always been an important one. Today, a "family" tends to mean the tiny cluster of individuals related by birth - typically, father and mother and one or two small children, but increasingly, one adult and a partner or dependant - who share a residential unit.

Until the 19th Century, however, the word "family" was a synonym for an entire "household", and was used to cover all those who lived together in a dwelling, whether related by birth to the householder, employed in their service, or simply lodged with them. "Home" was the bricks and mortar in which half a dozen or more adults lived their lives, supporting one another by their labour.

When the renowned humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam settled in Basle in the 1520s, for example, his familia or family included a collection of friends, admirers and disciples, all living together in one comfortable, spacious house.


Under the watchful eye of Erasmus's formidable housekeeper Margaret, these young men and boys - pupils, lodgers and colleagues - performed all the household duties their distinguished Master required, preparing his meals, doing the housework, running errands and taking care of his horses.

Paintings of Erasmus like the one by Hans Holbein in the National Gallery in London show a solitary scholar in his study, surrounded by his books. But his was no isolated ivory tower. Even at work in his study on the Latin and Greek classics Erasmus had his famuli - his disciples, collaborators and factotums - around him.

Engraving of house of Erasmus
Erasmus would have had house where a vast retinue resided

The same young men who staffed his kitchen and stable also worked as copyists transcribing from manuscripts, as scribes writing to his dictation, and as proof-readers and editors for his publications.

Throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries, household-families like these were the standard type of group sharing a single roof. The historian Naomi Tadmor has argued that the family portrayed in Samuel Richardson's best-selling novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (published in 1740) is typical of the times.

Mr B - the squire who over the course of the novel's two volumes attempts unsuccessfully to seduce his household servant Pamela, eventually agreeing to marry her - is a bachelor, but nevertheless has a fully-fledged household supporting him and his lifestyle. These he refers to consistently as his family.

City life

As a waiting-maid, Pamela belongs to this community of domestic servants, distant relatives, friends and companions, all living in a single dwelling. She never refers to her "poor but honest" elderly parents, who lived elsewhere, as "family". And the plot turns on the fact that she expects to be kept safe and protected within the household where she lives and works.

As family life moved increasing toward cities in the late-18th and 19th Centuries, houses of the type in which Mr B or Erasmus lived surrounded by dependants - big gabled mansions with plenty of nooks and crannies - continued to be built.

Since the scramble for home ownership in the 1980s, our demands for personal space and privacy have come to dominate the planning and construction of domestic dwellings

But increasingly domestic structures centred on the housing needs of the growing middle classes. Scaled-down town-houses were put up, many of which still survive today, modified for modern use. These still provided lodgings for dependants and servants under a common roof, but centred on the family life of a group of blood-relations, in a way we can recognise.

Further down the social scale, accommodation was also always shared, but here it was fraught with difficulties. Just as happens today in rapidly urbanised economies, most of the working classes found themselves living in ad hoc ways, in overcrowded accommodation, which entirely lacked the privacy that we all now crave, and could hardly be said to offer the stable communal structures that Erasmus and Richardson wrote about.

War years

Social historian Amanda Vickery has recently explored in detail the way in which, in multiple-occupancy working-class homes in the 18th Century, locked boxes, padlocks and keys to rooms and cupboards were talismans for hard-pressed lodgers, providing them with a remnant of private space and decency, away from the prying eyes of the landlady and their fellow-residents.

In our own times, the drive towards privacy has become paramount. We can see the modern ideal emerging in those wonderfully dated advertisements for domestic appliances from the 1950s and 60s, which show a smiling housewife, immaculately turned out in a many-petticoated dress with a cinched-in waist, pushing her vacuum-cleaner over expanses of carpet, or admiring her shiny new refrigerator.

Modern flats in London
Modern home construction is often centred on flats

After the crowded, shared accommodation of the war years - shared washing and cooking facilities, wet laundry on the shared landing and a communal toilet - the domestic dream was resolutely a home with a front door of one's own. The promise of government to the returning armed forces was that social housing would make that dream a reality - would provide "Homes Fit for Heroes".

That dream is summed up in the so-called Parker Morris Standards, adopted for social housing in the 1960s. They became mandatory for council housing in 1969, and remained in force until 1980.

The Parker Morris Standards laid down the dimensions for typical items of household furniture for which the dwelling designer should allow space, and provided anthropometric data needed to calculate the living space required to use and move around that furniture.

High-rise blocks

Its rules specified that a four person terrace house should have 74.5 square metres of space; kitchens for one or two people should contain 1.7 cubic metres of enclosed storage space; in one, two and three-bedroom dwellings the WC could be in the bathroom, but in four person houses it should have a separate compartment. The Parker Morris Standards for space, privacy and convenience continue to provide the familiar features of what we feel to be a modestly comfortable and convenient family home today.

But since the scramble for home ownership in the 1980s, our demands for personal space and privacy have come to dominate the planning and construction of domestic dwellings, and residential units have got ever smaller.

Engraving of mansion
Housebuilding was once tailored to the wealthy

Now is perhaps the time when we have to begin to ask ourselves whether the units of accommodation which have been constructed - often in glamorous high-rise blocks, with built-in appliances and fabulous views - are really, in the long run, fit for "family" living, however we define that family.

In June of this year, at the launch of the London Festival of Architecture, the Mayor, Boris Johnson deplored the fact that "new buildings in London have some of the smallest rooms in Europe". For new social housing to be provided in London, Johnson announced, "we will be re-establishing the space standards first promoted by the visionary planner Sir Parker Morris".

The chair of the London Assembly's planning committee Nicky Gavron welcomed Mr Johnson's pledge, saying: "The mayor has been very clear that he thinks our space standards are shameful; that we are building rabbit hutches." Others poured scorn on his promise, as an impossible dream - property values, they insisted, made reinstating the old housing standards out of the question.

We may have to wait until house prices have fallen dramatically before we know whether the homes designed for exaggeratedly "nuclear" forms of living, offered by politicians and property speculators in an over-heated property market, were part of an impossible dream of home-ownership for every individual.

Perhaps the drive in Britain towards compact, separate "homes", with ever-tinier floor-plans, crammed together by developers on restricted urban sites, is our housing equivalent of the Dutch tulip craze of the 1630s - our housing South Sea Bubble.

If that bubble bursts, it is intriguing to imagine how these undersized dwellings might be combined and converted into homes for other types of "familia" to suit the changing times, just as has happened so often in the past before.

A selection of your comments appears below.

Since my husband and I bought a large house in London, we've been joined (for various reasons) by my sister and two of our friends. We very much enjoy sharing our home with "our funny little family" and it's wonderful to be able to provide for your loved ones when they need help.
Beccy , London

Interestingly, those who defend the 'nuclear family' on supposed Christian grounds fail to notice that in the Bible the nuclear family as such is never defended, and the evidence in the Bible and history is of much wider and more inclusive structures of 'familia'
Ian Paul, Nottingham

I think owning your own property is over-rated and people are judged in society on whether or not they own their own home. I currently rent and people look down their noses at me. I have owned a property and it was nothing but grief and you pay out for every little thing. I rent and its up to the landlord to keep up with the maintenance. I grew up in a council house and my parents bought it, just as my dad retired, by the time it came to selling it and then moving to a new house, my dad had a nervous breakdown. Life shouldn't be about what you own, but what you give!
Claire Macdonald, Crawley, West Sussex

Much of the reason for the diminishing size of houses is the insistence by the government of development at a minimum of 30 dwellings per hectare. The only way that this can be achieved is by the construction of smaller houses. Until this situation is changed, the ability to build larger, more traditional family houses will be severely constricted.
Bryn Roberts, Richmond, North Yorkshire, UK

My landlord is tight fisted, I cannot alter or improve my rented shoebox and my hard earned money ends up in his greedy lazy hands. I think that the right to earn your own home should not be allowed to become a luxury and the complacent tone of this article is exactly the sort of attitude that is turning it into one.
RH, Exeter

I've recently started sharing a house again, after 15 years living on my own, and it's great! I've got much more space than I would living on my own, never mind enjoying the human interaction. I think the emphasis on our own space is not only physically unsustainable, but perhaps not the optimum situation socially, at least for people on their own.
Antonia, London

At the age of 25, I recently moved out of a lovely three-bed 1930s semi with large garden, to a brand new white box with built in appliances and a wonderful view. That move took me from shared accommodation with two extremely messy 20-something blokes, to living my own in my little white box. It was a good move and I don't regret it. I no longer have to live with a multitude of wet clothes drying in every available space or the constant arguments about what to record on sky +. The thing is, they were my family and I miss them. There was always someone to play with at the end of a hard day at work and I never felt lonely. Where I live now, I hardly know the people who live only a few feet away. I love my box, it's mine (...sort of) and I can only blame myself when it's a mess, but I loved my wreck of a shared house more.
Rebecca, Chester

Surely any drive to smaller homes and gardens is imposed by builders and council planners. Few who buy want their life dream of a decent house reduced to a soul destroying cramped box. Is that all we are worth?
Gaz, Herts.

Is the problem that people in the UK don't usually talk about the size of a house or flat in square feet or square meters, but in terms of the number of bedrooms? In many apartment blocks, what the builders consider to be a "bedroom" is not much more than a large cupboard, but it still might be described as a three-bedroom apartment. In mainland Europe, people generally understand that a small flat is 50-70 square meters , while a family house can be around 200 square meters.
Ed, Gothenburg, Sweden; ex-UK

Many of my friends are horrified when they find out my parents are next door! When I got divorced seven years ago, I moved back home with my two children. The money from the house sale gave me enough for a new build but not a flat, so I bought a strip of their garden and built a house. When the children were little their help was invaluable so I could work. Living next door to my parents with my new husband and our four children works well. My parents are in their mid seventies and I am able to help them when they are ill, they help me by keeping an eye on the teenage children when I am at work. We share a vegetable garden and the care of pets at holiday times. We are able to help them with heavy gardening and I am able to pick their wise brains when challenged by work or offspring. As I said it works well. In fact my sister and her family joined us from Surrey, five years ago and are but two streets away. An old fashioned model but it suits us as we are there for each other. As my parents reach their dotage I know we all will be able to be there to care.
Ruth Howlett, Cambridge UK

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