This old house

25th February 2005 at 00:00
Albert Theobald spent years perfecting this wonderful miniature version of a 1930s home, and today it offers an insight into design, construction, and traditional family living in Britain after the First World War. Helen Thomas reports

"Suburban house" is a highly detailed model and an accurate representation of a 1930s English suburban home. It was constructed between 1944 and 1948, and its maker, Albert Theobald, used his memories of working as a builder on similar houses in south-east London during the previous decade. The model and everything in it is made to a scale of 1:14, so it's easy to imagine it full-size. Theobald spent many hours accumulating material. When he began building the model during the Second World War, London was in chaos. He had to be frugal and imaginative - the 180 pieces used to make the bay window frames were cut from old venetian blinds, the roof was covered in a piece of left-over velvet, and the brass stair rods were formed from hard-to-come-by brass wire, sold by the pound.

From about 1920, teams of builders like Theobald were employed by British developers to build thousands of single-family houses. These were the "homes fit for heroes", built for the families of men returning from the First World War to a severe housing crisis. For many, they are the most familiar type of British home. Although inspired by works of architects, most of these suburban houses were not actually designed by architects, but by speculative builders aiming for a profit. The formal appearance of these houses owes much to the Arts and Crafts Movement, particularly architect Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857-1941). Many of Voysey's small country houses had broad eaves, bay windows and arched porches, which are copied in Theobald's model house.

The Arts and Crafts style was a reaction to historical and academic styles, such as Classical and Gothic, which dominated the Victorian period.

Instead, architects like Voysey were inspired by traditional village and country town dwellings that responded to the local climate, blended in with surrounding landscapes and used readily available building materials. This British vernacular architecture used traditional methods of construction and ornament. Speculative builders copied elements from arts and crafts architecture in the hope of giving their suburban developments the desirable atmosphere of traditional villages.

Theobald was not interested in the style of these houses, however, but in the way they were built. His in-depth knowledge of the materials they were made of, and the way they were constructed, means that this model gives us a precise miniature representation of a dwelling of this type and period.

Most of the exterior wall surface appears to be covered in a durable rough white render or pebbledash that is easy to maintain - only the edges are articulated by yellow brick. The windows are not large - there needs to be a balance between letting in light and stopping heat from escaping.

The roof - normally the most difficult part of a house for us to see - features a weatherproof surface with overlapping red tiles. Each of the three brick chimneys is edged with lead flashing to stop rain leaking through the cracks. Three chimneys seems excessive to us now, but before central heating open fires were needed to warm the rooms. The roof slopes so the rain can run into gutters and down pipes to the ground. Other pipes are visible - these are the bathroom waste-water drains, with one large pipe coming from the lavatory and two smaller pipes coming from the bath and sink. They show us the location of the bathroom. Bathrooms were a relatively recent addition to dwellings, so these pipes would have been something of a status symbol.

The interior of the model house can be viewed online ( or during a visit to the recently opened VA+RIBA Architecture Gallery. Theobald spent six years furnishing the model house; he installed battery-run electric lights in each room, used wallpaper friezes with tiny patterns to paper the walls, and cigarette cards for miniature framed pictures.

All the main rooms feature period fireplaces and scaled-down furniture, some copied from his own house. Consistent with houses of this type and period, the model has a dining-room and a sitting-room downstairs, with an entrance hall at the front joined by a passage to a kitchen at the back.

Upstairs, there are three bedrooms and a bathroom. Such a plan is called "cellular", meaning that each function of everyday life - sleeping, eating, cooking and washing, leisure and entertaining - is given a separate space.

Since the 1930s, when these houses were made, alternative layouts, such as open-plan, have become fashionable.

"Suburban house" is a perfect representation of a 1930s house that has been frozen in time. Using the visual clues he has given us, it is easy to imagine how a traditional British family might have lived in such a house back then.

Since the return of the First World War heroes, who might have originally inhabited the house, the definition of the typical British family has changed. The nuclear family has given way to a more complex idea of extended family. People from many different parts of the world have settled in London, bringing with them new ways of living in the standard suburban house. Alternative attitudes to decoration, propriety, hygiene and fashion have shaped these homes differently than perhaps Theobald could ever have envisioned, making their stories far more intricate than could ever be represented in a single model.

Dr Helen Thomas is an architect and education officer for the VA+RIBA Architecture Partnership * "Suburban house" is on display in the VA+RIBA Architecture Gallery.

Admission is free (school parties must pre-book). A debate for all teachers, "Architecture And ... Education" will be held on March 4, 4-5.30pm. Tickets pound;3.50-pound;8.50.

Tel: 020 7942 2211 Email:

* The VA+RIBA Architecture Partnership has more than a million models, drawings, letters and sketchbooks, all accessible to schools. Visit the "Schools and Teachers" section of the website for further details

Albert Theobald


Albert Theobald began work as a bricklayer, labouring for housing developers. In 1944 he became master builder for Courage Brewery, and served in the London Fire Brigade during the Second World War. His model was used as a doll's house by his daughter Kathleen. Together, they donated it to the VA in 1965.

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