Technology in the Country House

BookTechnology in the Country House

Technology in the Country House

Historic England


September 1st, 2016





Visits to country houses are an important leisure pursuit throughout the British Isles, not just to appreciate their superb architecture, great paintings and elaborate furniture but also to experience something of the past life of our great families and their households. Mark Girouard suggested in Life in the English Country House that ‘even when the customs have gone, the houses remain, enriched by the accumulated alterations, and often accumulated contents of several centuries. Abandoned lifestyles can be disinterred from them in much the same way as from the layers of an archaeological dig’.

By the 19th century, life in most country houses changed as a result of various technical inventions such as improved water supplies, flushing water closets, boilers and pipes to provide central heating, internal communications by bells and then telephones, and better lighting by means of gas and electricity. Country houses, however, were usually too far from urban centres to take advantage of centralised sources of supply and so were obliged to set up their own systems if they wanted any of these services to improve the comfort of daily living. Some landowners chose to do this; others did not, and this book examines the motivations for their decisions. It also sets out to discover what evidence has survived for the impact of technological innovation on the buildings, contents, parks and gardens of country houses and on the lives of the people within them. In the course of their research, the authors have visited nearly one hundred houses around the United Kingdom, mostly those open to the public and the majority in the hands of the National Trust. Many books have been devoted to the life of those in domestic service in such houses, but this book looks not so much at the social records of their lives as the actual physical evidence for the greater levels of comfort and convenience sought by landowners in country houses from the 18th to the early 20th centuries.

Beautifully illustrated throughout with a succession of photos from properties all over the country, this excellent collaboration between the National Trust and Historic England isn't just a fascinating insight into a neglected aspect of domestic history.

Engineering & Technology, Dec'16

... magisterial volume ... The research is presented in an engaging way ... Indeed, the book is attractively produced altogether.

Susan Palmer

The Victorian March 2017

'Technology in the Country House' is full of fascinating details which enliven the core narrative .... is nothing less than a visual treat that reveals many of these previously hidden locations.

Hugh Clout

University College, London


'Technology in the Country House' is an excellent survey and introduction to the subject and a starting point for further study and investigation of the introduction of technologies in a domestic situation.

David J Hunter

Vernacular Architecture, Volume 48, 2017

... an absorbing investigation of the adoption of new technology and a fascinating look at the instruments of domestic life on a grand scale. ...Palmer and West do us a service by showing how understanding domestic technology is critical to understanding how people lives - both the life of comfort that the owners experienced and the life of toil of their servants.

Alison K. Hoagland

Journal of Society of Industrial Archaeology (USA), vol. 41, Nos. 1 and 2, 2015

... exhaustively researched study ... the beautifully illustrated volume ... the volume by Palmer and West is a laudable contribution for understanding technology in the country house and its ramifications.

Artemis Yagou, Munich, Germany

ICON 53 - Magazine of ICOHTEC (International Committee for History of Technology)

'Technology in the Country House brings together the findings of extensive investigation and research started almost 20 years ago by the late Nigel Seeley to record all early mechanical, electrical, gas and water systems on the National Trust’s estate [...] The result is a book which will be invaluable to everyone involved in conserving historic buildings.'
Jonathan Taylor, Context, the Journal of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation

'This book is filled with superb photographs and a selection of contemporary illustrations for example pages from sales catalogues for bell cranks and pulls [...] provides an interesting overview of technological advances in houses and estates, and raises awareness that minimal intervention needs to be considered when dealing with historic services too.'
Kate Andrew, Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings Magazine

'An enjoyable and informative journey back in time [...] The book is a remarkable tour de force, a must for anyone who has an interest in reading how during the 18th & 19th centuries these Country Houses and their Estates with their occupants contributed to the formation of the building services industry.'
Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers’ Heritage Group

Author Information

Marilyn Palmer is an Emeritus Professor of Archaeology and President of the Association for Industrial Archaeology. Ian West is a historical archaeologist and chartered engineer.

Table of Contents

Section TitlePage
1. Introduction: the background to technological change in country houses
2. Beyond the house: technological innovation in estate buildings, parks and gardens
3. Water supply and sanitation
4. Lighting and energy production
5. Heating and ventilation
6. Food preparation and storage
7. Communications: bells and telephones
8. Transportation
9. Security
10. Conclusion