The World’s Most Technologically-advanced House – in 1850?
Many people think of Cragside in Northumberland, a building of the 1860s, as an example of the early adoption of industrial-era technologies in a domestic setting.
Certainly, the achievements of Cragside’s builder, the industrialist Sir William Armstrong, are remarkable.
However, an industrialist of the previous generation, Francis Wright, built an even more technically advanced house, Osmaston Manor in Derbyshire, in the 1840s. The great pity is that, whilst modern visitors to Cragside (a National Trust property) can see the results of William Armstrong’s forward thinking, Osmaston Manor was demolished in 1965.
Francis Wright was the son of a prominent Nottingham banker who rose to become a senior partner in the Butterley Company in Derbyshire. They were one of the leading iron and engineering companies of the 19th century, famous, for example for the roof structure at St Pancras Station. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Wright made extensive use of iron columns and beams in his house, a revolutionary thing to do at the time.
Particulars for the sale of the house in 1883, ten years after Wright’s death, record:
‘The Warming and Ventilating is of a singularly complete character, and many miles of Iron Pipes are used. Almost every room in the house is artificially warmed, and hot and cold water (both hard and soft) is conducted over the premises’
(Historic England Archives, SC00200).
The provision of both hot and cold running water throughout a house was a rarity in 1883 ‒ let alone in the 1840s, when they were installed at Osmaston. A railway in the massive cellars of the house carried coal to the boilers, and to a hydraulic lift which enabled coal and luggage to be carried to the upper floors; this was almost certainly the first example of a lift in a private house. A waterwheel at the side of the stable block drove machinery in the kitchen and laundry, a level of sophistication which, even forty years later, was only matched in a few other houses.
Only steps and terracing survive of the house today. These are on a private estate, used as a wedding venue and not accessible to the public. However, the refinement both of the technology and of the design of the property are well illustrated by a surviving pump house built in the style of a Swiss chalet. It contains a waterwheel which drove two pumps, supplying water to two separate reservoirs situated on high ground above the house; one supply was river water, used for the hydraulic lift, and the other was spring water for the domestic supply. The waterwheel also powered a saw mill, which handled the timber from Wright’s 1,400ha estate.
The hidden story of Osmaston is just one example of the development and deployment of domestic innovation explored in a new book Technology in the Country House. The book reveals not just how and why such inventions were adopted, but also what impact these developments had on the people who lived and worked in the houses of the era.
Ian West gained a degree in Engineering in 1975 and worked in the gas industry until, in 2002, he left to study for an MA in Industrial Archaeology at Birmingham University’s Ironbridge Institute. In 2008, he completed a PhD at the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, researching the impact of artificial lighting on early factories. He has written and lectured extensively on utility industries, domestic technology and other aspects of industrial archaeology and is an honorary visiting fellow at the University of Leicester, working on the Country House Technology Project.
The Country House Technology Project, available though the University of Leicester website.
Palmer, M, September 2016 Heritage Calling Blog 'Innovation and the Country House'
West, I and Palmer, M 2016 Technology in the Country House. Swindon: Historic England.
This page was first published on 21 November 2016
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