The Villas of Edgerton – Book Review

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It is perhaps trite and cliched to talk of ‘architectural gems’ in an area like Huddersfield which has so many buildings that qualify for the accolade.  However, we certainly have a gem of a book in ‘The Villas of Edgerton – Home to Huddersfield’s Victorian Elite’ , written by David Griffiths, illustrated with photos by Andrew Caveney, and published by Huddersfield Civic Society. Like a gem it is multi faceted. One facet is the beautiful presentation of the book itself, which, besides Andrew’s original photos of buildings contains others from the archives, depicting both houses and their occupants, along with full colour maps and plans which are themselves often works of art. The book therefore amply succeeds in one of its objectives, which is to be a pictorial record of the Edgerton conservation area. No doubt though the author and publishers would have been able to fill a volume twice the size, had they had the resources, and more examples of architectural detail and ornamentation would be welcome in any future expanded edition.

The book also aims to be a guidebook and gazetteer of dwellings and half of the book is dedicated to this aim under the charming Pevsneresque heading of ‘perambulation’. However this avoids the pitfalls often associated with such publications including the terse, formulaic accounts of the old Pevsner guides themselves. The Perambulation is guided by an interesting narrative packed with useful historical details both of the houses themselves and some of their occupants. In some cases the reader almost begins to feel the long gone residents remain as a living presence.  In this respect, as well as the general amount of detailed research, the Perambulation section and the first part of the book, the historical background, complement each other.

In fact the book transcends both facets, that of historical account and guide book, and provides a fascinating analysis of the landscape archaeology of a developing settlement pattern of this corner of Huddersfield in the 19th century. Unlike most landscape archaeology though this development is often well documented and the economic, social, political and legal changes necessary to make it happen are clearly set out by David Griffiths.  The releasing of land for residential building by the subfeudal landlords, the Thornhills, or relative parvenus like the Fentons, is described clearly enough for people like myself, (whose eyes mist over at anything related to deeds and conveyancing), to understand. Similarly, the topography of the area is described with the help of old maps in such a way that even someone unfamiliar with the area should be able to imagine their way around it in comfort. Consequently a well rounded picture of the changing land use and built environment of the area from the 1840s into the 20th century emerges.

There are sections both on the architects, where these are known, and on those who commissioned them. Some of the biographical sketches are inevitably more detailed than others, but the social composition of the ‘Victorian Elite’, referred to in the sub-title of the book, is vividly described, including prominent mill owners, manufacturers, merchants and even the small colony of wool merchants of German origin. Not only is the basis of their economic influence recorded, but also their political and cultural activities.  And here we have another facet of the book. It continues and further fleshes out the work that David Griffiths has done on the emergence of Huddersfield’s bourgeoisie.

In his ‘Huddersfield in Turbulent Time 1815-1850. Who ruled and how?’ (Northern History LII:1 March 2015) and the more specific study ‘Joseph Brook of Greenhead “Father of the Town”’ (Huddersfield Local History Society 2013) David has traced how economic and political power came to be concentrated in a rising class of industrial capitalists, who dominated and shaped the life of Huddersfield, forging complex marital, political, economic and religious connections as well as rivalries. A significant proportion of this class, such as the formerly landed Armitages of Milnsbridge, or the nouveau rich Martins of Lindley, came to reside in Edgerton, where their mansions and villas represented the material expression of their wealth and status – as well as their cultured taste, or , in some cases, lack of it.

David Griff

Author, David Griffiths and Photographer, Andrew Caveney. (Photo coutesy of Pam Brooke).

Implicit in this account is the fact that the buildings of Edgerton grew from the wealth created by textile workers and other workers in the expanding engineering, chemical and other related industries of the town. The author plants enough pointers, with, for example, his references to Oastler and radicalism, for this to be apparent to most readers without harping on about the opulence being founded on the blood and sweat of the workers, However, it would have been interesting to have had some account of the actual builders and masons, as well of the quarrymen who, often at great hazard, won and shaped and piled the stone that shaped these edifices. Lack of evidence is often a problem here, since it is only in the event of some horrible accident, or the misfortune of appearing in court, that the events of manual workers’ lives were recorded in this period.  This also holds true of the domestic workers, without whom the villas could not have functioned, and who before the First World War formed one of, if not the biggest occupational group – although they do receive some mention in the book and several interesting photos of domestic staff at Stoneleigh are included. Given the constraints placed by the practicalities of the book’s production perhaps some researcher, stimulated by David’s account, might be inspired to look into this side of the story.

Of course, the houses form the centrepiece of the book.  Some are indeed the architectural gems of cliché. Indeed it could be said that the book depicts a whole necklace of such gems coiled among the woods and hidden ravines of Edgerton.  Others are of less merit, especially those who have suffered later additions and sometimes create a disharmonious pastiche of styles and structures. Waverley, for example, looks like an institutional building, as indeed it later became. West Mount, described as ‘stolid’ by the author, is austere and unimaginative to the point of ugliness. But this does not mean that they are not worthy of conservation.  The delight of Edgerton is the vast diversity of styles and structural features and the idiosyncrasy  this reflects. In most cases we don’t know whether this germinated in the mind of the architect or the homeowner, or what inspired them.  Similarly with the decoration,  exemplified by the intriguing bas reliefs at Ellerslie (Fig 98).

The book provides an ideal model for further research into the dwellings of Huddersfield’s ruling elite. Hopefully the houses of New North Road, Trinity Street and Marsh and the remaining ‘millowners’ houses, scattered throughout the valleys around the town, will be as artfully recorded in words and pictures and made the subject of such a fascinating literary perambulation.  This book is a great contribution to the history of Huddersfield.  Let us hope that one of its’ lasting effects is to make the people and local government bureaucrats of Huddersfield more aware of the value of all our architectural heritage, not just Edgerton, and the need to conserve it.

The Villas of Edgerton: home to Huddersfield’s Victorian elite

by David Griffiths

Original photography by Andrew Caveney

Published 25 June 2017 by Huddersfield Civic Society

168 pages, 21cmx21cm, pbk

ISBN 978-0-9956328-1-3

PRICE   £12.95

http://www.hudderfieldcivicsociety.org.uk

info@huddersfieldcivicsociety.org.uk