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The Rise of the Semi

During the 1930’s a building boom took place in England. Towns and cities began to expand rapidly, aided by the improvement of public transport. Out of this period was born the 1930’s semi detached- so named because of their paired up design. Now a recognized design classic, an icon of English history the semi was an instant revelation that changed the way people lived. Most were 3-bedroomed, semi-detached, with good solid roofs, and private gardens epitomising the maxim that “an English man’s home is his castle”. The move away from the inner city created suburbia as it has become known, and the term “commuter” for the breadwinner who now had to travel some distance into the town or city to work. The 1930’s semi stands out as an example of solid English architecture, offering peace and security, in a time when the world was unsettled. Many people still live in their semis, and would never leave them. They are typical of English practicality, and economy, sharing a roof, but affording privacy, and the sense of loving the countryside and open space.

Bay windows were an important feature, helping the houses to sell quickly. Bay windows made rooms appear larger and gave residents a good view up and down the street; they also admitted more light to rooms. Bays made it much easier to distinguish council houses from privately owned homes causing a much bigger awareness of class. This gave rise to a certain snob value, which was for a long time tied intrinsically to the semi.

People buying the new semis wanted their houses to have some of the architectural features of country cottages. As a result, semi-detached houses and their more expensive detached ones were a haphazard combination of architectural details, which could include mock beams, lattice windows, weather-boarding, pebble-dash and fancy brickwork. Tudor and so-called ‘Jacobethan’ styles were particularly popular. Over time, these details have been subject to even further modification as new owners have sought to make their own mark. Due to this streets filled with semis are even more interesting and character-filled as the once moderately ordered rows are now a real mixed bag of colours from plum to peach and window treatments from garish neoclassical curtains to period bridging roller blinds.

In terms of the layout there was actually very little variation. The front door opened on to an entrance hall (rarely more than 6 or 7 ft. wide) with hardly enough space for the storage of a pram or bicycle. The hall led to a small kitchen (later called the kitchenette), which just managed to accommodate a cooker, gas washing boiler, wringer, sink, hot water boiler and storage cabinet. Later as technology advanced, people began to find it difficult to accommodate new home inventions like washing machines and dishwashers. Therefore it is now very common to find a modern extension at the back of the house, usually with radically updated features like Venetian blind covered patio doors.

Alongside the kitchenette were the two main living rooms, one behind the other. The dining room, usually smaller than the sitting room, was at the back of the house, often with a serving hatch to enable food and crockery to be passed through from the kitchen. French doors gave easy access to the back garden.

Today such charming features as hatches and second living rooms only used on important occasions have usually given way to open plan living. This could be viewed as a shame or a loss of heritage, but I like to think of it as testament to the quality and durability of the classic semi- we may change and change but we will never part with it.

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