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Victorian roofing

Updated April 17, 2017

The Victorian period produced rapid industrial expansion and richly varied architecture. Homes were needed for industrial workers; suburban villas for the middle classes and grand homes for newly rich industrialists. While American Victorian roofs featured wooden shingles, in Britain, shingles were reserved for garden buildings. British roofing utilised slate or tile. In rural areas, older materials like thatch or turf continued to be used.

Influence of Industrialisation

The coming of the railways meant that building materials no longer had to be local. Trains brought bricks and tiles to areas without clay. Slate from Wales could be shipped throughout the British Isles, becoming the commonest roofing material, especially for worker housing. Sheet glass and iron were the new materials of the industrial age. These too heavily influenced roofing design.

Decorative Touches

The Victorians decorated their roofs with terracotta or iron ridges and finials. Eaves and gables had decorative wooden barge boards. Chimneys could be ornate. The wealthy built houses with fashionably complex roof-lines, including dormers, turrets, belvederes and steep pitches. This tendency was influenced by the Gothic Revival and Arts and Crafts styles. Both emulated earlier Medieval architecture, recreating it in modern materials.

Glass

Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace was the centre piece of 1851's Great Exhibition. The innovative pre-fabricated glass and iron construction was 549m long and 43m high. It was inexpensive, taking only eight months to complete. Glass and iron construction became a favoured roofing for railway stations, market halls and exhibition rooms, as well as for the conservatories and ferneries beloved by Victorians.

Slate

Welsh slate was plentiful, inexpensive, durable and fireproof. The quarried stone was sliced thinly along the strata of the rock and cut into rectangles. These were secured to wooden roof laths using roofing nails through small holes near the top edge of the slate. If dislodged by storms, slates were quick and easy to replace.

Tile

Clay roofing tiles became popular from about 1870. Shaped with a hooked edge or “lug” that fitted over the laths and adjacent tiles, they needed no nails. Tiles could be produced in specialised shapes for fitting over roof ridges and hips or moulded with decorative textures. Clay finials could be ornately moulded. Combined with the warm red colour, this decorative quality made tile roofs a popular middle-class choice. They gave a Mediterranean feel to the villa architecture of the suburbs. John Ruskin had advocated an Italianate architectural style; Thomas Cook, inspired first by the 1851 Great Exhibition and then by the Paris Expedition of 1855, invented the package tour. This allowed middle-class Victorians to travel to the continent, bringing back an appreciation of Mediterranean architecture and materials.

Thatch

The typical rural cottage depicted on Victorian postcards retained the thatched roof. Thatch was idealised by Arts and Crafts designers like William Morris and Norman Shaw. They advocated returning to traditional designs using local materials and methods. Thatch might be of barley straw or reeds, depending on locality. Thatched roofs were thick and durable but labour intensive. Rural hovels of this era might have turf roofs. Turf was the cheapest roofing material, being universally available.

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About the Author

Based in the Isle of Man, Tamasin Wedgwood has been writing on historical topics since 2007. Her articles have appeared in "The International Journal of Heritage Studies," "Museum and Society" and "Bobbin and Shuttle" magazine. She has a Master of Arts (Distinction) in museum studies from Leicester University.