Home > London > The 1930’s semi – the true image of London

The 1930’s semi – the true image of London

Think of a building to symbolise London and you are likely straight away to think of the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London or St Paul’s Cathedral. Thinking a bit more about what London looks like, you might think of the modern offices of the City, or the busy shopping streets in the West End.

Films often show Londoners as living in stucco-clad Victorian terraces in the smartest districts of Kensington or Chelsea, or maybe brick Victorian villas in almost as fashionable North London areas like Hampstead or Islington. More gritty films and TV dramas tend to focus on run-down inner city council estates in places like Bermondsey or Hackney.

All these images portray different faces of London to the visitor, but the most typical London environment of all is rarely noticed – interwar suburbia – with its ubiquitous 1930’s semi.

They are common all over England, especially the south east; suburban London consists of swathes of nearly identical streets of nearly identical houses. Anywhere in outer London, the majority of the built up area consists of houses like this; Enfield, Ruislip, Kingston, Bromley, Romford.

Usually with three bedrooms (though often the third is little more than a box room), sometimes a little larger or smaller, or grander or plainer, they are always built in the same slightly oddly proportioned style – whether mock-Tudor, plastered, pebbledashed or plain brick. The properties advertised for sale in any outer London estate agent will give a full range of examples; here is a house in Hornchurch which, unusually, retains its original windows.


Interwar London semi-detached house

Private developers enabled the massive growth of the 1930s as Londoners moved out in their droves in search of the country, which was promptly built up as soon as they got there. This rapid expansion was only halted by the outbreak of war which gave a pause for long enough for the Green Belt Act to be passed, so the edge of London today remains more or less where it had reached in 1939. For example, the population of Chislehurst and Sidcup Urban District grew from 20,493 to 83,850 between 1931 and 1951 – almost all of this would have been before 1939.

I grew up in a house like this, as did most of my friends at school; and in a quite different part of London, so did my wife. For me, this is the true image of London.


The Rise of the Semi by James Brennan, A short article on the design of a typical semi-detached house.

Another article, The Rise of the Semi-detached House looking at the Kent town of Dartford, officially just outside Greater London now but part of its interwar suburban sprawl.

An audio/slideshow, Semi-detached London – 1930s Suburbia putting 1930’s suburbia in its social context. The site also has a wide selection of images of London on this and other subjects.

1930's suburbia, Romford

1930's suburbia, Romford

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