Victorian House-hunting: Close In

The house my Professor and Mrs. Moriarty moved into in Book 2, Moriarty Takes His Medicine, became an avatar for their difficulty in learning to live together. That meant I needed a floor plan, trouble for me, because I don’t have a very good spatial imagination. The more I can build on a real house, the better.

In a recent post, I said I’d found a nice end terrace in South Kensington and linked to a fancy place advertised in Zoopla. It’s no longer available, which is not why I decided against it. They never did get that floor plan posted and the pictures of the interior, all beautifully updated, were too modern for my imagination to work with. Besides, it took me so long to write that book that I went to London before I finished it. I could do some quality house-hunting and really nail it down.

In 2013, when I started writing in the Victorian period, I visited lots of London houses that weren’t there in the sixteenth century. None of them was quite right for any of my people, but I learned a lot about the shape and flavor of interior spaces after the sixteenth century.

Handel House


Handel House

First on the circuit was the Handel House in Mayfair. Too pricey for my people, but I loved this house! George Friderick Handel lived here from 1723 to 1759. A typical early 18th century London terrace house, it comprises a basement, three main storeys and an attic. It’s been restored and furnished the way it might have been when Handel lived there.

I found a roughly comparable terrace house in Mayfair on an estate agent’s website. That one also has four above-ground floors. It’s just under 4,000 sf (368 sq m.) So each floor is bigger than my house. They don’t feel that big. A lot of space is eaten up by the stairs and the corridor alongside the stairwell. And the front rooms are spacious and gracious.

He was a bachelor and the place is not large. There’s one very nice room at the front of each floor and one smaller room behind it, in a horizontal space shared by the stairwell and landings. The other fun fact about this house is that Jimi Hendrix lived next door in the 1960s. 

I didn’t take pictures of the interior, but there’s a lovely shot of his music room on this page. There must have been people standing around discouraging it. Some places let you take pictures (no flash, of course) and some don’t. I did sneak a shot out the window and give careful thought to how my Victorian burglars could get inside. handel house view

Answer: the usual way. Climb over the garden wall and drop a boy through the scullery window, then wait while he finds his way up the back stairs to let you in. A girl could certainly do this just as well.

The front windows let in a lovely amount of light. His music room, also used to entertain, one supposes, is at the front on the first floor there. I used that room as a model for Sir Julian Kidwelly’s library. 

This picture shows the very urban view from the stairs. Handel had a tiny back garden, just big enough to take a cup of tea in and hang out the linens. But his patrons had lovely large estates and St. James Park and Hyde Park were mere blocks away.

Dickens’s House

dickens desk

Dickens writing desk

Next up was Charles Dickens’s house in Holborn. Part of a Georgian terrace, Dickens only lived in it for two years, with his wife, their first three children, his younger brother, and his wife’s sister. I can’t imagine where all those people slept, even though the house is furnished as it might have been then. Mr. and Mrs. Dickens had a nice, normal-sized bedroom with his study just behind it. Everyone else just squeezed in where they could, I guess. The servant would have slept in the basement.

I’m not usually in awe of artifacts, but I did spend several minutes gazing in delighted wonder at Dickens’s desk. A lot of work got done there! From the Wikipedia page: “The two years that Dickens lived in the house were extremely productive, for here he completed The Pickwick Papers (1836), wrote the whole of Oliver Twist (1838) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39) and worked on Barnaby Rudge (1840–41).” I’m not even going to add up those pages.

This is a perfectly good house, if a little tight for that crowd, but I decided Holborn was too middle-class for my ambitious protagonist, Angelina Moriarty. She needs a house that will impress people in the theater world and doesn’t want to live amongst burghers and other stuffy professional types.

Dr. Johnson’s House

johnsons house

Dr. Johnson’s House

The third house took me even deeper into lawyer territory: Dr. Johnson’s House. This house is  squeezed in to a busy legal and commercial district. Not residential nowadays. Wonderful that it survived! It was built at the end of the seventeenth century. Dr. Johnson lived and worked there from 1748 to 1759.

He compiled his famous A Dictionary of the English Language there. He had the whole attic with skylights and those big windows for his workroom. There’s a long table in it with dictionaries, all that were available in his day. Dr. Johnson defined ‘house’ sensibly, if sexistly as, “A place wherein a man lives; a place of human abode.”

I should note that these beautifully curated museums are liberally supplied with laminated sheets of notes about interesting things, placed strategically around the house to tell you many curious facts about the people who occupied the room you’re standing in and what they did there and where all the interesting objects came from. Visiting these old house museums is one of my favorite things to do.

The most interesting thing I learned is that Johnson had a servant named Francis Barber, originally francis-barberfrom Jamaica. I won’t tell his story here, but the Wikipedia article is worth reading. He lived in the house at Gough Square until Johnson died in 1784. Barber was educated and ended up marrying an English woman and settling in Staffordshire. Further proof that society in the past was more diverse than we tend to imagine.

The house is on Gough Square and has its own microscopic court behind it. You enter through the back door. The Victorian map doesn’t give details about the buildings surrounding it, but there were many printing works in the area, doubtless serving the insatiable needs of the legal community for documents. The Agas map (sixteenth century) shows big houses backed by large gardens in this area.

So it’s too rural for my sixteenth century people and too commercial for my nineteenth. Good thing Johnson lived in the eighteenth century, when a man could still live close to his colleagues!

Carlyle’s House

thomas carlyleThomas and Jane Carlyle lived together at 24 Cheyne Row from 1834  until 1866, when Jane died. Thomas continued to live there until 1881. A long life – he was born in 1795 in Scotland. They’re most famous for their letters; in our time, hers as much as his. You can read them online, if you want to dig in. They were masters of epistolation (which almost sounds like a good hook for a new Marvel movie.)

I thought she had a diary, but no, it’s her letters that are one of the best sources on daily life in the Victorian period. There are lots of quotes from them on the room notes in the house. I kept hearing giggles from the room around the corner. When I entered, I invariably found a woman standing there reading the room notes.I’ll give you a few quotes, but here’s a whole bunch more.

carlyle house drawing room

The drawing room

“The less one does, as I long ago observed, the less one can find time to do.”

“I am not at all the sort of person you and I took me for.”

“Cracked things often hold out as long as whole things; one takes so much better care of them!”

They added a top story in 1853: “one big apartment, 20 feet square, with thin double walls, light from the top, etc., and artfully ventilated, – into which no sound can come; and all the cocks in nature may crow round it, without my hearing a whisper of them!” (Thomas Carlyle.)

carlyle house janes bedroom

Jane’s bedroom

Nice for him, not to have to listen to Jane and the maid attacking black beetles in the basement. But the top floor did make a beautiful study to spend the day writing, with faithful persons bringing you tea and sandwiches as required. 

The maid slept in the basement. Stone steps led up to the scullery and to the back door, which let onto a nice little garden. As in all these terrace houses, the room at the front of each above-ground floor was spacious and lit by ample light from tall windows. The Carlyle’s had a parlour where most people had their dining room: at the front of the ground floor. They had a small dining room behind that where they ate their breakfasts. Did they dine in the parlour? I don’t remember, and the booklet doesn’t say.

They were famously informal and their drawing room on the first floor is a wonderful comfortable space. Jane, who suffered from insomnia, slept in the bedroom on this floor. Thomas slept directly above.

carlyle house kitchen


My people could live in this house, at this address, with pleasure. Alas, it was closed when I went back to evaluate it for their purposes last September and I had too many other things to see to go back. Chelsea, as I’ve mentioned before, was home to many creative types. According to my National Trust booklet, “Throughout the 19th century, this corner of Chelsea attracted artists and writers because of its cheap rents, raffish atmosphere, and the visual appeal of the Thames.”

Another reason I decided not to choose this house as my model is that I can’t find a floor plan. I lamented the fact that they rarely put floor plans in the attractive booklets on sale in these houses and the stuffy lady at the Sambourne House scoffed at my lament. “It’s the standard London terrace,” she said. Well, sort of yes, and sort of no. These houses are the same in gross architectural terms. They all have three or four stories above ground, with a single staircase on one side. But people did different things with the interior, sometimes opening up a wall to make one big room, or dividing back rooms into smaller rooms. And they assigned different functions to these rooms, so they would be labeled differently. 

There are lots of pictures of the interior of the Carlyle’s House. Anyone interested in studying them in depth for Victorian interiors should google it and dig in. The ones I’m showing you here are borrowed from the National Trust. I feel justified, since I’ve given them so much of my money over the years!


Carlyle’s House. 2013. The National Trust. Text by Oliver Garnett.


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