Red brick semi-detached villas are the stuff of the suburbs of countless English towns and cities. Late Victorian or Edwardian, they are neat and compact buildings, there are flourishes in the brickwork and small, neat gardens at the front. Most now seem to be numbered according to the place they occupy in the street where they are situated, but above the front doors there are names cut into the stonework. “Albany,” “Sandhurst,” and numerous other names drawn from grand houses and estates. Or if there is not an aspiration to grandeur, there are more bucolic names, “Ivy Cottage,” “Floral Villa,” as if the buildings were in villages of thatch and half-timbered houses.
Recently, I saw a red-bricked semi-detached house in a quiet cul-de-sac with the name “Avondale” cut into the lintel above the front door. Was this named after the river that flowed through Shakespeare’s Stratford and ran down to the sea on the borders of Somerset? If I had explored the street, might I have found a house named after the Severn, into the estuary of which the Avon flows? Was there a builder a century or more ago who was taken with paintings or postcards of the river to the extent he thought to use it for a house name?
The houses seem built with a sense of confidence, with a sense of expectation. In French terms the fin de siècle period was la Belle Époque. Between 1871 and 1914 in France there was a period of intellectual and scientific advance, of growth in prosperity and in ambition. Perhaps in England it was more understated, but there was a perception of the Edwardian era as a golden age. Of course, such descriptions may have been belied by the conditions endured by poor people in city and in country, but whatever the reality, there was a sense of optimism. It did not seem absurd to name a modest semi-detached house after a stately home or beautiful stretch of countryside.
The events that unfolded after August 1914 shattered the illusion of perpetual progress. No longer would there be such flourishes in the construction of such modest houses, hopes and aspirations seemed to die in the mud of Flanders and France.
It is instructive to walk a street of houses built before 1914 and one built after 1918. Of course, the country was considerably poorer, but it was not only a material poverty, it was a poverty of spirit, a sense of optimism having been crushed. As the centenary of the Armistice draws closer, the legacy of 1918 has lingered much longer and been much more pervasive than the beauty of Edwardian days.