Oldham Historical Research Group

A General Introduction

by Alex Balmforth

You were almost certainly conceived in a building, certainly you live in a building and in all probability you will die in a building. Yet we are inclined not to notice buildings. They become part of the street furniture, an unvarying constant in our ever-changing environment.

However, buildings can be 'read', decoded, and by observing, analysing and deconstructing we begin to note trends - buildings prove to be as slavish to fashion as clothing; their design follows contemporary mores, movements, and styles. What is seen as fashionable in one decade can be quickly discarded and be regarded as passé or outmoded in the next. Moreover, in order to reflect our perceived status or convenience, we constantly modify the living space to our buildings; we add porches, dormers, windows and other accretions

From time to time Government legislates on construction techniques or planning - usually, it has to be conceded - following some disaster, such as was the case in the past, knee-jerk reactions to the plague, cholera, natural disasters or fire.

What was once seen as innovative and radical by one generation - take for instance the widespread introduction of asbestos, is by later generations recognised as environmental irresponsibility.

The Great Fire of London, (which, by the way, was not responsible for dismissing the plague) was a catastrophe that at once permitted rebuilding to a more intuitive, rational strategy.

It is a sobering thought that when Messrs John Wood senior and junior designed the lovely Bath circus' crescents; not one building had an internal lavatory or adequate sanitation. As aesthetically pleasing the crescents undoubtedly are, they would now be regarded as unhealthy, unhygienic slums.

We learn by our mistakes. As the famous modernist architect Le Corbusier once asserted, 'a building is a machine for living.'

Within living memory perhaps the most revolutionary instance of legislation which would indelibly affect the United Kingdom was the Beveridge Report, implemented by the incoming Labour Government of 1945 (and realized by Aneurin Bevan). Beveridge caused a monumental sea change in attitudes to all apparent areas of living and society and ushered in a building project the like and scope we have not seen before or since.

Yet, in retrospect we can now identify mistakes, the grandiose ideas, that were not evident or at the time or perhaps not acknowledged. Yes, it is commendable to build to an elevated standard, to use the best materials available, to plan by means of utilizing the minds of the finest available pre-eminent architects and by using top ergonomic strategies Nevertheless looking back at the council 'estates' constructed post war, we are compelled to observe, why did they all have to be so similar? It can be argued that they were replacing the 'sausage' machine construct of the Victorian jerry-builders but our legacy is a five star copy of the past.

Building Styles
Generally, buildings divide into two distinct categories, 'Polite' and 'Vernacular'. Polite, covers the country house, castle or any large building of status, Vernacular, broadly, the dwelling of the worker. (We will examine 'polite' Ecclesiastical building separately.)

Most buildings fall into the categories of 'Classical, Gothic, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and broadly, Modernist.'

The Classical style embraces the three main Greek 'Orders'; Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and the Romano sub divisions of Tuscan Doric and Composite.

Gothic broadly covers sequentially, Norman, Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular - and their respective transitional orders. Each of these styles grew out of their individual evolution. Occasionally, over centuries all the Gothic styles could be incorporated in one structure. (I will overlook, for the moment Saxon and Roman building, of which very little survives…)

In the early days, mankind utilised what he found locally (genius loci). As transport developed and evolved other materials, such as stone were imported. For the artisan, timber and roughcast was often the primary source.
Rough Cast was clay, straw, animal dung liberally mixed and applied, and then finally lime washed.

Lime used in mortars and for infillings and is produced by burning limestone until it breaks down into 'Marl'. Lime burners were evidently a intemperate lot, their thirst brought on by the heat of the 'pits' would propel them into the local hostelries, giving rise to the phrase 'Marl-lark'

By the end of the eighteenth century Brick evolved into the now universal dimensions of *9"x4 ½"x2 ¾". Brick's evolution was ergonomically driven. Though it is not true to suppose that this date was generally the 'cut off point' from whence all bricks could be conclusively dated. Bricks continued to be manufactured in a variety of shapes and sizes and indeed, still are.

Often the brick was manufactured 'on site' from the clay locally available. Which is why many old buildings appear to 'engage' with the 'Genius Loci'

The early bricks manufactured in Oldham (generally) emerge as dark sandy reds. As transport became more convenient, bricks were 'imported' from further afield and the hard semi glazed red brick grew to be increasingly popular. This brick was often identified as 'Accrington' the town from were it was often, but not always manufactured.

A half brick is referred to as a 'bat' which makes the avoidance of 'brickbats' a sensible action.

*it is usual to identify a bricks' dimension in Imperial feet and inches, to convert these measurements into the metric system is generally regarded as imprecise. (and bad manners!)

In the UK, we are blessed with many different geological divisions, limestone, granite, sandstones, to a lesser extent, chalk and flint can all be found in many diverse locations.

Stone constructed or stone-faced buildings in Oldham are of either sandstone or limestone. Both materials share a similar characteristic, in that they are Sedimentary Rocks. That is to say, they are often, but not always produced by the action of water. Limestone is principally calcium carbonate whilst sandstone is produced predominantly by the concretion or laying down of sand deposits. However, both materials are stratified and are extremely variable in both texture and appearance.

Sandstone can sometimes be mistaken for limestone, so it follows the opposite set of circumstances can occur. The eye can be deceived, though generally the materials are easily distinguishable.

One rule of thumb which our seeker of certainty can employ is to carry an old film canister filled with strong vinegar. Look out a fragment of the stone; often atmospherics 'lift' a fragment of stone from the surface of the wall. Immerse your material in the vinegar and limestone, being derived, as we have demonstrated, from calcium carbonate, will in the mildly acid vinegar 'foam' as it reacts. Sandstone of course is inert and will not react.

Another 'test' is that sandstone tends to blacken with age; limestone is a little more tolerant. Additionally, limestone will take a crisper carving than sandstone.

'Winning' the Stone From the Quarry…
I once niavely asked an old quarryman how much dynamite was used in the quarrying of stone. 'We produce high quality building stone, not gravel.' was his pithy reply. As we know stone is laid down in 'Beds' and there are natural splits, fissures within these beds. The trained eye can identify these natural fissures and the stone can be levered away - or by using various wedges can be prised from the quarry face. Blasting is sometimes resorted to, but as our man asserted, 'Shaped stone blocks are more profitable than gravel'

Sandstone and Limestone are 'freestones'. Freestone is any stone which when freshly won from the quarry and filled with 'quarry sap' can be mechanically sawn in any direction. Later, salts migrate to the surface endowing the stone with a hard almost impermeable surface.

Stone quality is extremely variable - even within small geographical distances; for instance, the stone at Top Mossley is friable and soft, conversely the stone deposits at Bottom Mossley are often good quality building resources.

The great builders of (northern) churches and cathedrals were the Normans alongside their great buddies, the Cistercians. And contrary to popular belief, the Normans were not French; they were Norse (north) men.

A Broad Time Line of Styles

*This is very approximate and should be used as a guide only…

Saxon, 8th Century onwards.

Norman, post conquest and following the 'Harrowing of the North' 12th Century - usually identified by segmental (Semi-circular) arches, and 'Chevron' (zigzag) decoration

Early English, 13th Century - the pointed arch

Decorated, 14th Century - the pointed arch and window tracery

Perpendicular 15th Century - the final stage and most elaborately ornamented style.

From the 15th century onwards, the commonality of communal living, or living within a great hall or space declined and family homes became increasingly popular.

Many buildings are often a mix of styles, incorporating all the Gothic 'orders'. The most complete example of the Decorated style is Salisbury Cathedral, which internally somehow always disappoints.

Sub Genres
Court Style, a broadly (domestic) Gothic inspired style that evolved from the 14th century onwards, to be studied alongside Tudor and Jacobean styles

Classical, was introduced and analysed by Inigo Jones early to mid 17th Century.

Baroque, A short lived classically inspired style from circa 1660 to 1710. N. Hawksmoor being the genres most prolific architect. (Baroque, Portuguese : literally misshapen pearl)

From hereon in, it is difficult and dangerous to speculate. However…

The Georgians 1730 to 1837 made great use of the classical style; though additionally experiments were made in refining the 'orders'.

The Victorians, largely due to the influence of John Ruskin and the later 'Pre- Raphaelite' movement, championed the Gothic and Venetian Gothic. (Interestingly, the complex character who was Ruskin, and who was a major influence on embryonic Socialism and was a Roman Catholic and a Tory, though he famously 'lost' his faith, then regained it - and he briefly flirted with Spiritualism) Some historians in order to delineate revivalist Gothic from early Gothic identify the later style as 'Gothick'.

Later in the 19th Century, William Morris mutinied and founded the Arts and Crafts movement, which appealed to a more naturalistic manner. This (partly) initiated the Art Nouveau, Art Deco and modernist styles. The 20th century saw the establishment of the science of town planning and reforming, idealised Garden City environments - first advocated (Though not the premier builders, think New Lanark) and practiced in Letchworth by the proto-socialist (William Morris influenced) Ebenezer Howard. This is not to belittle or overlook the benevolent altruists such as Ackroyd, Titus Salt or any of the Halifax (and British) benefactors. And for an early example of co-operative living, the Moravian Settlement at nearby Droylsden is well worth a visit.

Taxation on buildings became a popular means of amplifying governmental revenue; of which window tax and hearth tax are perhaps the best remembered. The phrase 'Daylight Robbery' directly originates from the imposition of the window tax…

It must be remembered that this is a broad guide and not a definitive text. Architecture is a fascinating study and the British Isles with its many and varied geological regions and architectural styles makes for rewarding and satisfying analysis.

AB revised 2012

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Contributor: Alex Balmforth

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