19th Century English Architecture Essay

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19th Century English Architecture


* The 19th century heralded the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, which wrought unprecedented socioeconomic and technological changes in England, transforming it into a modern industrial society. This essay examines the impact that these changes have had on the design and construction of two new building types, namely the railway station and prison. * This essay argues that the design and construction of railway stations in England had to be adapted to the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, such as widespread rural-urban migration, rapid urban growth and rising affluence in English society. On the pragmatic side, station builders also had to look for alternative materials resistant to corrosion from steam and smoke emitted by locomotives. This essay also examines the social changes and penal reforms in 19th century England which caused a shift in societal perspectives towards crime and punishment, and how these impacted the design of three major prisons at that time.

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Railway Stations

Due to the rapid economic growth and development resulting from the Industrial Revolution, many urban areas expanded at a dizzying rate as people in the countryside flocked to towns and cities looking for employment. Historian Eric Evans notes that Glasgow grew by 46 percent in the 1810s and Manchester by 44 percent in the 1820s. Social problems such as overcrowding, congestion and crime soon followed.

These changes resulted in new functional needs and requirements for buildings. * Prior to the 19th century, trains were primarily built for transporting cargo. At the turn of the century, railway stations had to be adapted to cater to the increase in passengers travelling through England for work and leisure. They served as terminals and interchanges for many trains from the different rail companies, as well as waiting areas and temporary accommodation for passengers. From an architectural standpoint, they were important buildings because their *

construction incorporated all the major architectural movements of the 19th century, in terms of materials, style and structure. * The first English railway station at Crown Street, Liverpool (fig. 1), like all railway stations, was built mainly to provide shelter for its occupants – passengers and trains. In addition, the preceding modes of transportation – the canal and the century-old turnpike system – had specially catered architecture for its passengers; inns were used instead as departure points, relay stations and terminals. As there was no precedent for this building type, most early railway stations, including Crown Street, had their shelters constructed based on the design of sheds built for cattle and wagon. However, the style of railway station evolved in the mid-19th century, due to unprecedented urban growth in cities in England, the increasing social significance of stations and opposition to railway construction.

As railway companies began to expand their networks, more people started moving to the cities. Growth in traffic and migration led to overcrowding and congestion in the cities and soon there was a need for a re-evaluation of the station designs. * Railway stations bore social significance in 19th century England as they were iconic landmarks. Driven by the idea that “the station was to the modern city what the city gate was to the ancient city”, the station’s design was the first impression that travellers got of the city/town. Rising affluence among the English due to the industrial boom meant that the public would also use the station’s design to get a feel of the city and gauge how attractive it was to live in or travel to. One such example is Euston station, universally lauded by the English public for its majestic Doric Arch entrance. As rail travel quickly became affordable for the masses in the 19th century, the design of railway stations also had to take into account class differences in English society. Therefore, the Crown Street station, and many other stations after it, also had different booking areas/waiting rooms designated for first-class and second-class passengers. * The wide-scale construction of railways throughout England faced much opposition from many locals, who criticised the pollution, noise and encroachment it made to rural landscapes.

Therefore, builders used design and local building materials to absorb railways into the rural scene. Country stations were designed to look like cottages, gate lodges and farmhouses, using materials such as red brick in the Midlands, golden limestone in the Cotswolds and pale grey in Derbyshire. In the mid-19th century, station builders sought to achieve architectural feats due to increasing competition between companies. One such example was Paddington (fig.2) – which boasted of having the widest single-span train shed at that time to cater to the technical demands of the changes in occupant load and social identity. This became an example for other railway stations which were built after it. At the turn of the mid-19th century, due to a significant increase in new building material production, iron became increasingly available and was more frequently used in architecture. At the same time, railway stations were expanding in size due to increasing demand.

Wider-span train sheds were needed to accommodate the growing occupant loads on trains. With the previous completion of works demonstrating the potential of iron in achieving wider-span roofs, railway builders started using it. Wide-span roofs allowed greater flexibility in accommodating the growing crowd and the alteration of track and platform beneath it. In addition, iron was regarded as the most suitable choice for railway sheds. As timber (the common material used before iron) deteriorated rapidly under the exposure to sulphurous steam produced by trains, iron, which was more resistant, was used as a substitute. This is a clear example of station builders adapting their materials to peculiar conditions in rail stations.


Prisons in England before the 19th century were places of temporary custody, where inmates regardless of age, gender or offence were locked together in a method known as congregate confinement. Such confinements were overcrowded and had poor ventilation, lighting and sanitation. Among the inmates, there were ill people, drunkards and lunatics. Due to lack of public funding, prisons were also poorly staffed and inmates’ welfare was usually neglected. Official statistics show that crime rates rose in the first half of the 19th century, before eventually falling in the second. The rise coincided with the rapid urban growth in the early years, which led to a demand for more prisons to be built, especially in the cities. In fact, 90 prisons were built or added to between 1842 and 1877. Notable prisons during that time include Millbank, Newgate and Pentonville. The design of these three prisons were affected by ongoing social changes and prison reform movements.

The 19th century also saw major reforms to the prison system in England, namely the mass building of large prisons and changes to the treatment of prisoners, due to a shift in societal perspectives. Firstly, severe punishment, often through public execution, became less favoured compared to calibrated punishment proportional to the crime. Secondly, thinkers like Foucault saw prison as a tool for disciplining the offender, for correction and reform. Social reformers like John Howard lobbied for prisoners to be separated according to their gender, crime and health, by solitary confinement and imposition of silence to encourage reflection and penitence among the prisoners. Another social reformer, Jeremy Bentham, conceptualised the “Panopticon” scheme for a model prison, which consisted of prisoners occupying cells in the circumference of a circular building, allowing fewer guards to survey them from a central observation point.

While the design was never implemented in its whole, the key idea of surveillance did take hold in certain prisons. Millbank prison incorporated this idea by building small storey surveillance towers for its staff from which they could receive and give information. To deter potential offenders, the architecture style of prisons was adapted to ensure maximum secrecy and communicate the severity of crime. For example, in Pentonville, the imposing Gothic style was used to great effect, with a portcullis entrance and castellation around the walls, which featured in subsequent prison building. Such barriers kept the public fenced out and sent an implicit message about what went on inside. Another example would be the felons’ door in Newgate which was also ominous and foreboding with “overpoweringly grim character”. Such designs gave prisons their own peculiar appearance, which eventually became recognized by the public.

Prison architects also sought to enforce the separation/confinement school of thought in their design of internal arrangements. Large rooms for congregated confinement were replaced with smaller individual solitary confinement cells. Partitions were erected in spaces whereby prisoners were gathered, such as chapels and workshops (fig.X). These designs were imposed to prevent interaction among prisoners and to emphasise penitence. At Newgate, the chapel was designed such that male felons, debtors and women would enter it through isolated corridors. The chapel feature was novel for its time, adhering to reformers’ belief that moral penitence could rehabilitate offenders. In Millbank, prisoners were separated in silent cells and could only graduate to work together in groups through good behaviour.


The 19th century is widely seen as the era in which England developed into a modern state, owing to the Industrial Revolution which saw the inception of important inventions such as the steam engine and the development of the railroad and iron industries. Such technological changes also gave rise to socioeconomic changes in England, which affected the style, structure and materials of buildings. Railway stations had to be designed to cope with population growth in urban areas driven by economic development, but also be aesthetically pleasing – some became iconic landmarks embedded in the public consciousness. The use of materials also had to take into account the practicalities of rail operations.

On the other hand, prisons were more affected by social changes and penal reforms arising from public debate over crime and punishment. Prisons were expected to incorporate elements of rehabilitation in addition to punishment. Humanitarian reformers like Bentham and Howard also lobbied for the separation of prisoners rather than congregation confinement. These movements changed the way prisons were designed and built in the 19th century. Both building types changed and evolved greatly in the 19th century not merely because of technological breakthroughs, but due to changing beliefs, values and attitudes in English society, which was going through an era of Enlightenment. Given the far reach of the British Empire then, these changes not only impacted England at that time but also its colonies throughout the world and remain visible today.

[ 1 ]. Eric Evans, 2001, The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain, 1783-1870 by (3rd edition) London: Longman Pearson [ 2 ]. Carroll
L. V. Meeks, 1956, The Railway Station An Architectural History, Yale University Press, USA, Pp. 27 [ 3 ]. Christian Barman, 1950, An Introduction to Railway Architecture, Art and Technics, London, Pp. 16 [ 4 ]. * Carroll L. V. Meeks, 1956, The Railway Station An Architectural History, Yale University Press, USA, Pp. 39 [ 5 ]. The Inception of the English Railway Station

[ 6 ]. Jack Simmons, 2003, The Impact of the Railway on Society in Britain, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, Pp. 122 [ 7 ]. E2BN, 2006, “Victorian Crime and Punishment from E2BN”. East of England Broadband Network. Web. 5 Oct 2012 [ 8 ]. Robin Evans, 1982. The Fabrication of Virtue: English Prison Architecture, 1750-1840. Cambridge University Press, pp 247 [ 9 ]. John Pratt, 1993. ‘This Is Not a Prison’: Foucault, the Panopticon and Pentonville. Social & Legal Studies December 1993, pp 373-395 [ 10 ]. Harold D. Kalman, 1969. Newgate Prison. Architectural History, Vol 12 1969. pp.7 [ 11 ]. Harold D. Kalman, 1969. Newgate Prison. Architectural History, Vol 12 1969. pp.5 [ 12 ]. David Wilson, 2002. Millbank, Panopticon and their Victorian Audiences. The Howard Journal, Vol 41 No. 4 September 2002. Pp 369

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