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How the Georgians prevented damp

(54 Posts)
TunipTheUnconquerable Fri 21-Feb-14 11:51:22

I'm a little bit obsessed with damp at the moment.

I've especially been thinking about how to prevent it other than by leaving the heating fairly high even in unused parts of the house, and in old houses where you're limited in your options for internal or external wall insulation.

So I was wondering how people managed it, pre-central heating. Obviously there was less water being chucked into the atmosphere, pre- frequent showers and baths, and open fires are very effective in drying the air. But I was wondering about what happened in unused rooms and areas like servants' rooms where there weren't necessarily regular fires, so I've been reading about Georgian housekeeping routines and have discovered the following things:

1. Even without our amount of plumbing, they were conscious of limiting the amount of moisture that got into the air. Washing floors was disapproved of because it caused damp, so you only did it as part of the annual spring clean. In some houses the number of tea kettles was limited.

2. I don't know when the mechanism of warm air holding more water was first described, but they understood very clearly that heat drove out damp - chafing dishes burning charcoal were used in empty rooms in damp weather.

3. The main one - ventilation, ventilation and more ventilation. In one housekeeping book I read, the servants' garrets were to be 'as airy as possible', which I take to mean windows left open whenever possible. Airing rooms was part of the daily routine, along with opening and shutting the blinds to prevent light damage.

What I find so interesting about this is that was clearly an issue which they saw as needing actively managing. I think these days we tend to expect to be fairly passive in using our houses - we expect them to behave themselves whatever they do and if they don't we often tend to panic and be tempted by expensive treatments, or else want a magic product to solve the problem. I think I assumed people used to be equally passive, it was just that the buildings worked for the lifestyle - but actually, it seems, a large part of housekeeping was actually about maintaining the building itself healthily.

PigletJohn Fri 21-Feb-14 12:34:04

they put the servants in their damp basements and damp attics, so it didn't matter. The servants quarters had to be well ventilated because of the stink of unwashed bodies and tallow candles.

Open fires suck vast amounts of air up the chimneys, so in winter you had a constant inflow of cold fresh air (AKA draughts)

Their kitchens, sculleries and wash-houses would have been running with water.

TunipTheUnconquerable Fri 21-Feb-14 13:33:47

They might not have cared about the servants' health, but they must have kept it all dry enough for the building to not rot. I'm sure all the ventilation made it cold to the point of discomfort.

I'm not convinced you'd want stinky house servants.

Wash houses often have separate entrances or are in separate buildings, so you could get them wet and steamy without it affecting the humidity of the main house. I've seen servants told not to chuck the water away just outside the back door because it makes the yard boggy.

Dairies must have been wet too, because you scalded the floor - again, they tended to be separate.

I'm sure they'd have scrubbed the kitchen floor but then the fire would have been going more there than anywhere else in the house, so you could probably get away with it. It's the rooms without constant fires that were puzzling me.

I wonder if they were concerned about the effect of all the water on building fabric when water closets and bathrooms became more common. Probably not because if you were rich enough to have a plumbed in bath you were also rich enough to keep a fire going whenever it was used.

misscph1973 Fri 21-Feb-14 13:44:18

Oh, so cool that you take an interest in this, OP! In a climate like England it's quite important to take an interest in the damage damp can do to buildings and health, but I must admit I have yet to meet a person in the UK IRL who does.

I think you are right about the passivity. But don't forget that running a household back then was a full time job. These days full time jobs are often not conducted at home, so our interest is not at home, we have so much to think about outside of our home.

To a certain extent out houses should be bulit to avoid damp. I once lived in a house that had a very clever system that was part ventilation and part heating. The ventilation system sucked out the moisture from all rooms in the house and in this process reused the heat to heat the water in the tank. I don't really understand how it worked, but it did work, we had a great indoor climate as well as very cheap hot water. It was a German invention.

It would be so nice if houses in the UK weren't just built to be sold, but if they were actually built so that they were healthy to live in as well as cheap to run. The outside walls could be so much better insulated and there are many inventions like the one I describe that are very clever and energy saving. The popular solar panels are just a small thing.

TunipTheUnconquerable Fri 21-Feb-14 17:10:56

'But don't forget that running a household back then was a full time job.'

Yes, definitely. The housemaids' daily schedule involves an awful lot of opening and closing windows and blinds at set times of day, and that's before you've even started on the cleaning.

I agree that houses should be built to avoid damp. We can put a man on the moon fgs.... And yet there are as many posts on here worrying about damp in newbuilds as old houses.

I'm fantasising about a system where you do all the window-opening and shutting that Georgian maids used to do, but automatically on timers/intelligently responding to temp and humidity changes in the air. (it works with zoned heating on thermostats.) Except then you end up with things like my friend has in her workplace where she has to put an umbrella over her computer every time it rains because the skylight that's supposed to close automatically doesn't. Maybe if it was German-made it would work!

HumphreyCobbler Fri 21-Feb-14 17:13:02

they used lime plaster that was breathable

PigletJohn Fri 21-Feb-14 18:21:36

open fires and sash windows provide a huge amount of draughts ventilation to get the moist air out.

They did still often suffer from rot, especially in cellars.

TunipTheUnconquerable Fri 21-Feb-14 18:29:32

hmm, cellars.... good point.

Humphrey - yep. We have a damp problem in my current house caused by a wall being painted with impermeable masonry paint so the moisture that gets in can't get out again.

Notcontent Fri 21-Feb-14 23:31:57

Very interesting - thanks for sharing Tunip.
I agree more attention should be give to these sorts of issues in the uk. For example, all new builds should be required to have a ventilated utility room so that people have somewhere to dry their laundry without having to use a dryer.

MichaelFinnigan Fri 21-Feb-14 23:48:54

The Georgians were shit builders and only expected their houses to last for less than 100years

Georgian = massive inherent structural issues. Fact.

NigellasDealer Fri 21-Feb-14 23:55:26

was talking about this in ref to the old buildings here in wales - putting in double glazing and velux windows was the wrong move - what they need is slightly rickety window frames and a permanent fire on such as a rayburn or aga

TunipTheUnconquerable Sat 22-Feb-14 09:07:34

MichaelFinnigan - I agree up to a point. There's an awful lot of stuff that was built speculatively and had loads of corners cut. The builder who restored my parents' Georgian house and who specialises in historic building work said the Georgians were cowboys compared with other periods.

I'm looking at the work of a particular architect, John Carr of York, and his stuff was really built to last. His bridges were overengineered to the point that (with a bit of widening in some cases) they're mostly still going, which I think reflected his attitude to houses too. But he probably wasn't typical; it was such an enormous building boom and people wanted quick results.

TunipTheUnconquerable Sat 22-Feb-14 09:10:27

NigellasDealer - yes if you could afford to live like that with the price of fuel through the roof! This tension between draftproofing and ventilation is a tricky one.

thereisnoeleventeen Sat 22-Feb-14 09:42:18

I got all geeky about damp a few years ago as my house had an awful damp problem.

It gets damp now but probably wouldn't have done when it was built. Originally it had an open fire in each room, no carpets, air bricks just underneath the wooden floors to the outside, rattly sash windows and no bathroom. The whole house would have been able to 'breath' apparently.

Now its carpeted, double glazed, central heated and 3 of the fireplaces have been stuffed to stop the drafts and we have a bathroom.

It must have been freezing or perhaps they just burnt fires constantly in the winter, these are old farm worked cottages so they would probably had heating for free as the workers would have been given logs from the farm estate.

I remember watching a program on Victorian living where they kept their beds as high as possible to let the draft run under them so that they could air, they were also very pedantic about airing their beds and bedding every day.

I run a dehumidifier constantly now but before that it was awful, even if I opened windows and used the tumble dryer.

TunipTheUnconquerable Sat 22-Feb-14 09:55:21

How interesting about high beds - never thought of that. We either have divans which come nearly down to the floor, or we store stuff under them, and in a centrally heated house it doesn't cause trouble.

I wonder how much fuller of 'stuff' our houses are now than in the past, and what impact that has. It definitely makes cleaning and airing harder than in an emptier space.

LaurieFairyCake Sat 22-Feb-14 10:02:33

I think that most people's houses would be damp free if they had staff to run them and were there during the day to run them.

TunipTheUnconquerable Sat 22-Feb-14 17:22:20

That depends what they're telling their staff to do though.
Plenty of SAHMs still have damp houses even though they're there during the day, so it might make it more achievable but you'd still have to do the right things.

PigletJohn Sat 22-Feb-14 17:27:52

we have to avoid falling into the trap of assuming that Georgian houses were not damp.

TunipTheUnconquerable Sat 22-Feb-14 17:43:57

Oh, I'm sure in many cases it was a constant losing battle. There are plenty of houses which the owners never liked due to their 'unhealthy' location. The ones that are still around must have been dry enough to keep rot and insect pests mostly at bay, though.

Coming back to the cellars, I remembered my parents' house does actually have a small fireplace in the wine cellar. My dad manages the damp with dehumidifiers (and a pump in really bad weather) and I'd always wondered what possible purpose the grate might have, given that it's only a storage space and wouldn't have had anyone sleeping or working in it.

PigletJohn Sat 22-Feb-14 17:55:25

maybe they burned the old broken-up cases in it?

it would have been useful for drying-out when the house was built, or maybe it was in case that part of the cellar was used as servants quarters later, or a gun-room or boot-room.

It will have been built at the base of the chimneystack, so an extra flue and pot might not have been a significant cost in the build.

Lilly20again Sun 23-Feb-14 09:52:55

I air my house daily,including my cellars. Party to stop damp, bu mainly as I like it fresh. I also air beds daily, duvets outside once a week. Washing out as much as possible.

I also have a Rayburn and open fires which I burn daily.

My house is very old and stone built with lime plaster. There are very few draughts as we have new windows/ doors and are internally insulated.

If I do not air the house, the windows get quite wet. Everyone needs to air their house.

MerryMarigold Sun 23-Feb-14 09:56:43

I think the houses were possibly newer too!! We've just had some work done on our Victorian house and the builder was moaning about how rotten old houses are and how they were built to last 50 years etc. etc. Our house is 150 years old. When I look at our bricks (many cracked, pointing needs re-doing) and roof (old, old, old), I understand how a lot of the damp gets in!!

PoorOldCat Sun 23-Feb-14 09:59:22

Interesting thread. We are in a victorian flat and our cellar walls were painted a couple of years ago with impermeable damp proof paint.

Now the room above the cellar is damp!

Seriously - keep getting mould on things, it's very odd. Glad we are moving out as this house is in dire need of structural repair and it's v frustrating not owning it, and even if we did, we couldn't afford to repair it.

Landlord definitely could afford to, he just chooses not to.

PoorOldCat Sun 23-Feb-14 10:00:30

And none of the windows open. All the sash cords are broken.

UniS Sun 23-Feb-14 10:01:38

It's always irked me to listen to people who love in rented property whining about the condensation on the windows and how the landlord won't deal with it and how they can't afford to keep the heating on all the time and how long it takes to dry clothes in the flat etc etc. Yet the idea that windows could be opened and the property aired is greeted with scorn and derision. Some how its the landlords problem even tho the tennent is massively contributing to it.

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