Building Materials

Before Victorian times, the most common building materials were those local to the area - buildings of the local material are sometimes called of Vernacular style. So the Cotswold villages were built of white Jurassic limestone, much of central England had buildings of red sandstone, Cornwall towns in the south and Aberdeen in the north were built with local granites, and where there was no local hard stone, for example in Norwich, buildings were faced with flints.

Despite heavy building stones being expensive to transport any distance, even before the Victorians exotic building materials were used for important buildings such as cathedrals and stately homes. The Normans brought Caen limestone from back home to England (it came as ballast in their ships which transported English goods back to Normandy), and this is the material used for the fine carvings in Winchester Cathedral, Norwich Cathedral, and the Tower of London.

The first cheap transportation of building stones came at the end of the 18th Century, as the canal system spread across England, and truly wide availability of materials arrived with the railways, from the 1830s onwards. Popular materials, such as Bath stone, could then be bought from any rail depot across the country. Brickmaking stopped being a purely local craft, with the Oxford Clay providing the red bricks of Victorian suburbs across Southern England. Welsh, Cornish and Lake District grey slates for rooftops were transported across the country from more or less the same time.

Common building stones

Portland Limestone is the common white, often fossiliferous, stone used across England for public buildings, e.g. most of Whitehall. Equally popular is the Bath Stone, an orangeish sandstone of great beauty. A more highly coloured reddish sandstone is the Permian sandstone, which often weathers to give a deeply pitted and honeycombed appearance, for example on the walls of embankments on seaside towns. The equivalent old dark limestone is the Permian Limestone, typically almost black with white quartz veins, and very hard but polishing with wear - much of Victorian Weston-Super-Mare is made from such stone.

The two commonest granites are the black and white speckled Cornish Granite and the pink and black and white Shap Granite from Cumbria. A less common granite is Black Granite or Gabbro. Apart from buildings, these granites are found widely as kerbstones and cobbles (many of the black cobbles are Diorite). Flints are found as cobbles too, being ideally shaped, and on buildings such as churches are usually broken (knapped), a traditional method of facing buildings requiring some degree of craftsmanship in a variety of styles.

The traditional paving stone of the Victorians (it is undergoing a renaissance today) is York Stone, and such paving stones are called Yorkshire flagstones. They wear to give a permanently rough and non-slippery surface (as the individual sand grains cannot polish), and as well are highly attractive, with buff, cream or dark orange colour.

Marble, for pillars and sculptures, is imported, typically from the countries around the Mediterranean basin, and the beautiful white one, or white with black stripes, is the Carrara Marble from Italy.

Serpentinite, a characteristic green-veined metamorphic stone, should be used with caution, as it wears poorly on external walls. The floor of Euston Station is of serpentinite. It is used to poor effect on the exterior of many banks, but in Victorian times with great sympathy in interior details. Another popular modern bank cladding is Norwegian Larvikite, the dark blue specked glittering stone with large feldspar crystals.

The Victorian age saw a renaissance of brick. The local brick-making material for London was the London Clay, and these bricks are yellow or greenish-yellow in colour. Older, hand-pressed bricks are often irregular in shape and have lines and squeeze-marks - these are called Stock Bricks. Later, as mentioned, the Oxford Clay bricks dominated, in the plain red of most modern bricks. Much railway architecture used a high-fired Black brick. Minton's perfected the encaustic tile (i.e. with the colour in the material of the tile rather than just on the surface, and so more permanent), and thereafter tile-covered buildings, especially public houses, became common, with a second flourishing in art nouveau decorations after the turn of the century. From around 1860, terracotta became popular, most notably in its bright red form in Birmingham (e.g. the Law Courts). However the yellowish and pink versions were also much used (eg the nice mix on Doulton's factory, Lambeth, or Mount Street, off Berkeley Square).

The availability of all these different coloured materials allowed the Victorians to use polychromy extensively - mixing different building stones or coloured bricks to give patterned exteriors to their buildings. One of the most beautiful such buildings is the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. A very good polychromatic interior in London is that of St James the Less, Vauxhall Bridge Road. Another is All Saints Margaret Street.


Finally, it was Victorian engineers who made great use of iron and steel structures in building. Although the first iron bridge appeared in the late 1770s, it was in the 19th Century when iron columns and frames became widespread. Nash used iron staircases and columns in the Brighton Pavillion. From around 1840 seriously large iron buildings appeared - greenhouses (as at Kew Gardens), the Crystal Palace Great Exhibition building, and above all, the train sheds of the great railway stations (e.g. St Pancras). But while iron and then steel remained, the fashion changed so that it became covered, part of the internal but not the visible external structure, later in the century.

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