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A world less ordinary

review - The Small House in Eighteenth-Century London By Peter Guillery. Yale University Press, 2004. £40

In architecture, as in social history, the most confident, even the loudest, voices have tended to prevail, drowning out the whispers of the modest and the ordinary. As Peter Guillery emphasises in his brilliant case for understanding the small artisan dwelling, the gulf between architectural history, a linear account of 'polite' architecture, and the study of vernacular building is deep and wide.

Paradoxically, the little houses of London which Guillery, a historian with English Heritage, has made the subject of his detailed study are now even thinner on the ground than their grander counterparts. For small unexceptional houses to survive 200, even 300, years in the centre or immediate surroundings of such a continuously prosperous capital city as London is unlikely. But those that do are bound to be noteworthy and instructive, for they are the key to how people lived.

Evocative Victorian photographs, such as the cover image which shows timber houses in the East End of a kind which have long vanished from London, are useful evidence.

But for those which survive, Guillery offers a huge array of information, mapping their distribution (both current and historical), recording their varied plans and elevations and studying every clue provided.

This is an invaluable source of information on what he characterises as the unstandardised version of urban vernacular building. Few such structures have received statutory protection or even recognition.

Many are scarcely recognisable to the casual onlooker, hidden by later additions or illconsidered transformations.

Guillery is a confident historian, with a sure grasp of the social and economic world of the artisan classes - the financial and practical realities of their lives. London was the 'cultural parent', as he neatly puts it, of wide swathes of developing areas beyond the boundaries of the cities of London and Westminster. Fairburn's map of 1797 shows how London spilled out along the river, south and east, like liquid dripping through a jellybag, forced out, along with the workshops, factories and dockyards, to the extremities.

In immediate contrast to neatly rectilinear Mayfair or Marylebone, every piece of the grid filled out - elsewhere the contemporary maps show clusters of development, drawn like steel shavings to the magnet of the roads and river and then spilling over into the backyard of the city.

While studying the wider picture, Guillery's main focus is on the distribution and types of house within each district. He examines variables as well as constants. Homing in on the 'fragile and heterogeneous' survivals to be found along Brick Lane or Kingsland Road, he finds their continued existence lies in the absence of large-scale improvement, leading to impoverished but vital districts.

Dickens described Southwark and Bermondsey as 'the filthiest, the strangest' of all areas of London - a frequently incoherent assembly of trades and tenements, divided between the 'land side' and the 'water side'. Yet the coming of the railway, and Victorian industrial and commercial development, scraped the boroughs almost clean of earlier buildings.

Deptford, with Woolwich, described by Guillery as 'a military-industrial satellite' neither conforming to the type of the suburb (as some districts to the north of London already did) nor standing alone as a fully independent town, is still surprisingly rich in pre-1800 houses, many of them along Deptford High Street. After fantastically rapid growth, driven largely by the royal dockyards, by 1700 the population of Deptford almost equalled that of Bristol.

At this level of society, cultural conservatism could be found coexisting with political radicalism. As Guillery says: 'Vernacular architecture survived as an option for the least ambitious, artisans building for themselves or their peers, not the poor who did not build.' The market forces that steered the developers, architects and surveyors of the large Georgian estates towards fashion and the appearance of modernity (itself then rapidly congealing into aesthetic conservatism) never touched the people or corners of London with which Guillery is concerned.

In the pages of this riveting book, he offers the reader, quite literally, another world.

Gillian Darley writes on architecture and landscape

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