Before the Industrial Revolution many people lived in buildings that combined a dwelling and a workplace – a work home. It was called a ‘house’ such as an ale-house and a bake-house. It was only in the twentieth century that the term ‘house’ came to mean a building in which we cook, eat, sleep, bathe and watch TV.
In England before the industrial revolution, almost everyone inhabited workhomes. The longhouse was a single-storied rectangular building occupied by medieval peasants in areas of England where animals needed to be inside at night and in winter. The animals lived at one end and the people at the other. All the functions of every day life were carried out in and around a single open-plan space. It was a combination of kitchen and spinning/ weaving/dressmaking workshop, bedroom and dairy, dining room, butchery, tannery and byre.
Medieval merchants’ and craft-workers’ workhomes had a shop or workshop onto the street where goods were made and sold. Trading and family life, public and private, were combined in a few multi-purpose spaces.
Customers ate and drank with family members in a central, double-height hall; important deals were made in a small rear room. The family, apprentices and servants slept in the hall, shop/workshop or one of the smaller rooms on an upper floor.
The workhomes of seventeenth and eighteenth century silk-weavers, watchmakers and stocking-knitters had workshop spaces with large windows to provide the high levels of natural light necessary for their trades.
Many of these buildings still exist today. They can be identified by their combination of unusually large and domestic scale windows.
These buildings took different forms depending on the status of the craft-worker. Master weavers’ workhomes often had two floors of elegant residential accommodation below garret weaving lofts where their employees worked
Weavers running small businesses often had workhomes with loom-shops on several floors.
The family lived and worked in these buildings with employees and apprentices, the latter tending to sleep amongst the looms.
The poorest weavers, working by the piece for a master weaver, inhabited small workhomes with a living space on the ground floor and a space for a single loom, lit by a large window.
In Coventry this type of workhome, generally inhabited by silk-weavers or watchmakers, was called a ‘top-shop’ because the highly glazed workshops were positioned under the roof to make the most of the natural light.
The cottage factory consisted of a terrace of top-shops with a steam engine at one end, a single driveshaft linking power-looms in the individual weaving lofts.This meant home-based weavers could compete with factory-based weavers while maintaining the benefits of home-based work.
The industrial revolution saw the working classes toiling in mills and factories but a large proportion of the working population continued in home-based work.
Both self-employed craft-workers and proprietors of small businesses set up workshops where they could make goods, either in their workhomes or in the associated back yards, where they worked with family members and employees.
As the 20th century got underway social reformers decided home-based work was undesirable and slum clearances destroyed the buildings, courts and yards that had allowed people to work from home. New housing was built in residential estates that were segregated from both commercial and industrial zones. Tenancy agreements that prohibited home-based work were universally adopted in social housing. By the mid 1950s the practice of home-based work was in decline, with the majority of households supported by a single male breadwinner who went ‘out to work’.
In the 21st century we are now seeing an increasing popularity in home work driven by computers and the internet and the textile crafts that are carried out in the home are mainly hobby based.
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