The Victorian period was one of unprecedented expansion for Britain. A vast empire, world-leading industry, and a burgeoning population led to huge changes. Architecturally this meant more building than ever before, and more kinds of building too – churches by the hundred; houses by the million; buildings of industry and commerce – factories, warehouses, shops; public buildings, from town halls and memorial halls to prisons and hospitals; schools and libraries; a transport infrastructure, represented above all by the railways. Most of England's large cities, such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, and London grew vastly, and found their defining form in the Victorian period. The Victorians rebuilt the country, from sewers to spires.
They did so in a bewildering variety of architectural styles. The Victorian era is known above all as the time of the Gothic revival. But it’s also a great era of classical architecture, of industrial building, of the recreation of a range of styles from Norman to Venetian. And much of this diverse building and rebuilding happened before Victoria’s long reign was over. At the end of the reign, around 1880 to 1890, architecture began to change again. For the moment, there follow a few notes on the architectural upheavals that took place between 1837 and around 1880 (with a few glances forward to the 1880s and 1890s). Even in this span, so much went on that in a few short paragraphs one can only hint at the variety.
The Victorians embraced the Gothic style in a way that had not been the case since the Middle Ages. Gothic first of all became the style for church building – and, with a rising population in a Christian country with an established church, lots of church building took place. To generalize, the Victorians took Gothic much more seriously than their Regency and Georgian parents and grandparents. Architects like Thomas Rickman tried to define the styles and periods of medieval Gothic and Victorian Gothic buildings are often very serious attempts not just at imitation but at perfection.
For many, the ornate Gothic of the 14th century – the style the Victorians christened Decorated or Second Pointed – was the most perfect. So many 19th-century Gothic churches have all the ornament, elaborate window tracery, and fancy spires of the 14th century. It’s a style evident in countless Victorian churches. A monument like the fountain in London’s Victoria Tower Gardens (photograph above) shows the 14th-century influence, but the tendency towards this highly decorative Gothic is also evident in countless city churches, with spires resembling the graceful country steeples of Northamptonshire beamed down into industrial quarters or quiet suburbs.
One of the things that impressed Victorian architects about medieval buildings was their perfect marriage of materials and structure. The idea of “truth to materials” was very attractive to them, and this could bear fruit in buildings in which the structural materials also provided the decoration. William Butterfield was a master at this kind of building, as his great church of All Saints’ Margaret Street, London, shows.
But it wasn’t all 14th-century Gothic. 19th-century architects could also play variations on early Gothic or the later, more linear Perpendicular style of the 15th century – buildings like the Houses of Parliament and the imposing Toddington Manor take inspiration from this style. Another direction to look for inspiration was Venice, and Venetian Gothic buildings pop up in Manchester, Bristol, and other English cities. In Bristol there are also buildings that blend Venetian Gothic with Byzantine architecture, to create a style sometimes referred to as Bristol Byzantine. Yet another approach was to take Gothic motifs such as plate tracery, lancet windows, and openings flanked with slender shafts, and add a virtuouso blend of brick and stone to produce a uniquely Victorian kind of Gothic. This was a style that could be applied just as successfully to flashy commercial buildings, such as banks, as to churches.
Gothic, the style of medieval Christendom, seemed right to the Victorians for churches. But the Classical style was still widely used for secular buildings. Many Victorian country houses are classical in style – Witley Court is a memorable example. Classical was a versatile style that could also work for offices and buildings such as libraries. And for those who wanted to turn their back on the established church, the language of classical architecture might come in useful for places of worship too – many nonconformist chapels use a toned-down version of the classical style to indicate visually that they have nothing to do with the church of England and its rituals.
Architecture for industry and commerce
The Victorians built more factories, warehouses, offices, and shops than anyone had done before. Although factory architecture is often rather plain and utilitarian – like the architecture of the mills that started the industrial revolution in the previous century – it’s rarely completely without flair. And Victorian industrial architecture is as varied as any other. There are factories that adopt a version of the classical style, with pilasters and pediments and columns – though these are as often built in brick as the stone of more traditional classicism. Sometimes, the brickwork incorporates details that, although classically based, draw on other traditions, to create the kind of dazzling hybrid style at which the Victorians excelled. This kind of design works especially well when bricks of more than one colour are used. There are other factories that adopt a Gothic style with pointed arches and windows, even sometimes using stone. And there was the plain commercial brick of countless mills and warehouses, which could still look interesting if the brickwork was done with care and the proportions were right – as they often were. Many modest signs and bits of carved lettering remind to remind us that in the 19th century, industries of all kinds thrived all over our cities.
Many factory owners encouraged landmark-making architecture, well aware that a factory that stood out from the crowd could act as an advertisement. Brewers were especially good at this approach and there are still many surviving Victorian brewery buildings, such as the brick Wadsworth’s brewery in Devizes, the Italianate brewery at Shepton Mallet, and, most wonderful of all, Hook Norton Brewery, with its part timber-framed tower. Offices too could be advertisements for their owners – many cities had architects who specialized in providing this need locally. Watson Fothergill of Nottingham is a good example, and his own office is one of the best of all, an architect’s calling card in three dimensions. On their factory building in Lambeth, Doulton's had a similar idea, decorating the entrance with an example of their best ceramic work.
Victorian shops could be special too, because of this facility with the art of display. In spite of the transformations and reinventions of the High Street, there are still a few survivors. They exhibit the period’s brilliant use of tiled decoration, an inventiveness with the exploitation of ‘new’ materials such as cast iron, which could be twisted into barley-sugar columns and formed into intricate foliate decoration, and a virtuoso way with lettering, sometimes in mirror glass or in gold. Classical details such as fluted columns were still sometimes used and the upper part of the window was occasionally glazed with stained glass, to provided added colour. Painted facades, too could be taken to extremes unthought-of by today’s retail designers, and even the humble pilaster, the upright that "frames" the shop front, could take on outré new guises. For the Victorians, the shop was about so much more than the shop window.
Building the railways
Britain’s railways were essentially a Victorian creation, and were an engineering achievement of typically Victorian proportions. Creating from scratch a network of railway lines involved a seemingly endless roster of grand projects – bridges, viaducts, tunnels, and so on and on – that speaks not only of engineering and architectural greatness but of boldness of conception and a mixture of financial flair and recklessness. The great stations, such as London’s newly restored St Pancras (photograph above) or less illustrious Victoria, are justly famous bravura exercises in iron, glass, and brick. Gothic masterpieces, such as Bristol’s Temple Meads, also survive to remind us that such structures were spoken of as ‘cathedrals of the railways’.
But the smaller stations can be just as fascinating. If they do not provide the scope for vast spaces roofed with iron and glass, they are sometimes ornamentally breathtaking, as at Great Malvern, or modestly satisfying, as even small wooden station buildings can be.
From hospitals to schools
In parallel with the burgeoning businesses of Victorian England was a movement to improve the life of the people by providing public services. The Victorians built countless hospitals, put up facilities such as concert halls and memorial halls, and, above all, created an education system that offered free schooling for all. Many of the buildings where these public services were provided survive – especially many of the schools, some of which are still used for their original purpose, while others have been converted to new uses.
The typical Victorian school was a brick building with tall, airy rooms and big windows. Many were in the Gothic style and their pointed windows still make their mark in city backstreets and more prominent sites. Cites such as Birmingham still have many of these structures – the Ikon Gallery is a converted school and the School of Art (photograph above) is a graceful brick Gothic landmark. Educational buildings could take other forms, as a number of libraries in Italianate style, like the one at Lichfield, testify.
It’s easy, in this wave upon wave of landmark buildings, to overlook the fact that Victorian builders spent much of their time building houses, especially small houses for working people, rows and rows of them, in towns and villages everywhere. Amongst the thousands of unremarkable but solid survivors, still providing their owners with a roof over their heads, a few stand out. Victorian small houses, especially estate cottages (as at Lamport, photograph above), can sometimes be as polychromatically decorative as the biggest church or showiest factory. They can also stand for an entire social philosophy, like the chartist bungalows that still stand to remind us of the ideals of their builders, who campaigned for electoral reform and set up communities where people could have a house and a plot of land to cultivate. The middle classes needed housing too, in increasing numbers as the population rose, and many of their villas survive in places such as St Leonard's, where white stucco-covered walls and iron-canopied balconies hark back a few decades to the Regency style. Grand terraces in big cities often rose through several storeys and had marks of status such as classical porches. From the most exalted church or town hall to the most modest chartist bungalow, Victorian buildings often stand for such moral ideals, and are no less admirable or interesting for that.