Houses of the past

I was really thrilled to receive this photo from Michael Wood, who has kindly allowed me to reproduce it on the website. The photo is from a collection taken a member of the Wingfield (Powerscourt) family, taken around the beginning of the twentieth century. The Wingfields seem to have embraced photography from its inception – there is a very early photograph of the village taken by another Wingfield family member in the National Photographic Archive, dating from around 1860.

"Mr and Mrs Reilly"

This photo is labelled “Mr and Mrs Reilly”, and could be of a local tenants of the estate. As well as the main subject of the photo, who appear to have been told to pose, as they look slightly awkward, the house in the background, if it is indeed of an estate tenant, gives a great snapshot into the housing conditions of the tenantry in Wicklow around this time.

For those of you interested in the houses of tenants and farmers in Wicklow during the 1800 and 1900s, there is a fantastic essay by FHA Aalen in Hannigan and Nolans’ Wicklow: History and Society* on the vernacular or local style of buildings.  Aalen notes that Robert Frazer wrote in 1901 that the farmhouses of the principal tenants in the north and east of the county were “in general of a superior style of accommodation”, although the living conditions in the county as a whole for “lower tenants and cottars are in general extremely wretched”.  In my own research, I looked at the quality of the housing stock in the parish of Powerscourt, as recorded by the decennial Census before and after the famine. In the twenty years between 1841 and 1861, fourth class houses virtually disappeared. Fourth class houses would have been built of mud and stone, without doors or windows.

Aalen makes the point that a local style of housing must have been deep-rooted, evidenced by the survival of a number of them, even if local landlords may have preferred a different style (for example houses built for tenant workers in Kilmolin). Most houses from the mid-nineteenth century up to the mid twentieth century would have been stone built using Wicklow granite in hills or limestone (calp) used in the lowlands. Interestingly, the house in the picture is thatched, and I think (I could be corrected) the house just visible adjacent to it is slated. Slate would have been preferable because of the high winds and rain on hillsides. Houses were usually long and narrow, with the house, byre and shed in a line. There were typically two – three rooms in a house, with a small front window in each.

Aalen’s essay has a lot more detail on the common layouts found in Wicklow houses, along with a discussion of hearths and typical furniture. It is beautifully illustrated with a rich variety of photographs. The book is in most Wicklow libraries.

*Wicklow: History and Society, K. Hannigan and W. Nolan (eds), Geography Publications, 1994.