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Twentieth Century


The inter-war years saw the emergence of a new style of house that can still be seen today in many parts of Dartford, the semi-detached house. People buying the new 'semis' wanted their houses to have some of the architectural features of country cottages. As a result, semi-detached houses and their more expensive detached ones were a haphazard combination of architectural details, which could include mock beams, lattice windows, weather-boarding, pebble-dash and fancy brickwork. Tudor and so-called 'Jacobethan' styles were particularly popular. 3926 new houses were built in Dartford between 1927 and 1936, including 855 council houses.

Among the many semi-detached houses available in Dartford in the late 1920s and the 1930s, at prices between £350 and £700, there was very little variation in the actual layout of each house. The front door opened on to an entrance hall (rarely more than 6 or 7 ft. wide) with hardly enough space for the storage of a pram or bicycle. The hall led to a small kitchen (later called the kitchenette), which just managed to accommodate a cooker, gas washing boiler, wringer, sink, hot water boiler and storage cabinet. Later generations were to have much difficulty finding room for refrigerators and washing machines.

Christchurch Road
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Alongside the kitchenette were the two main living rooms, one behind the other. The dining room, usually smaller than the sitting room, was at the back of the house, often with a serving hatch to enable food and crockery to be passed through from the kitchen. French doors gave easy access to the back garden.

Parallel to the side wall of the house were the stairs, leading to a tiny landing serving the two main bedrooms directly above the living rooms. Leading off the landing and sited directly over the kitchen was a small bathroom and w.c. Most houses in the lower price range had a tiled bathroom. Often the w.c. was placed in the bathroom for economy's sake. At the front of the house (above the hallway) was the third bedroom, usually referred to as the boxroom. This room was barely large enough to accommodate a single bed, small wardrobe and chest of drawers.

Although some of the very cheap houses had only gas or electric water heaters at kitchen sink and bath, the vast majority were fitted with a hot water system operated by a back boiler in the living-room fireplace, or a stove in the kitchen. Electricity was provided in all new houses after 1920, but its use was confined to lighting, irons and small fires. Most houses contained the minimum of power points.

Nearly all of Dartford's semi-detached houses had a modest-sized garden, a narrow strip about 80 ft. long. Many of the new house owners devoted much of their leisure time to gardening, growing flowers, fruit and vegetables. Poor quality fences made of cheap softwood, or chicken wire strung between galvanised stakes, divided the garden plots. Garage space was increasingly available between pairs of semi-detached houses from about 1926, and by the 1930s many builders were ready to provide a brick garage as an extra at a cost of £30-£60.

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Dartford, like most other Kent towns, received attention from speculative builders and property developers in the 1920s and 1930s. Land speculators bought-up large amounts of land for development. When market conditions were favourable, the land would be sold to a property developer.

Having acquired a building site the developer would lay out roads and arrange the provision of main services before offering building plots to individual private purchasers, or disposing of groups of plots to local builders for the erection of houses on a speculative basis. To get an estate started it was often essential for the developer to put up a few houses at his own expense.

The developer's costs included all expenses involved in soil drainage, the construction of roads, connections to the main sewers, and the provision of water, gas and electricity services. Road widths were set by local byelaws or town planning requirements.

Dartford's rising middle classes of the 1920s and 1930s saw their new houses as a status symbol. A significant number of local people and in-comers had well-paid white-collar jobs in London and could therefore afford to take out a mortgage. Fierce competition between building firms and falling costs reduced the price of housing considerably in the 1930s and low interest rates further encouraged buyers.

Old styles of housing were particularly promoted by local companies. These semi-detached houses with their kitchens and bathrooms were highly functional, but with their half-timbering and herring-bone brick and gabled roofs all combined to give a picturesque image of a cosy country cottage. There was a pressing need for smaller more convenient houses that probably could be managed and maintained by the housewife alone.

Some of the small private estates built in the Dartford area by jobbing builders were hurriedly constructed, the aim being to maximise profits in the shortest possible time. On a typical Dartford estate of the 1920s and 1930s, each road would be fully lined with houses, every one set squarely to the building line, staring straight into the windows of another on the opposite side of the street.

Builders looking for economies were tempted to use the cheapest grade of brick, which they would cover with pebbledash or roughcast. This offered fairly adequate weather protection until it cracked, as it inevitably did. Usually the best bricks were confined to the street frontage. Non-load bearing internal walls were often built of the cheapest grades of brick or blocks of coke breeze. Floors in the cheaper houses were normally made up from imported deal. Roof work offered opportunities for economy. In houses selling below £1000, the timber frame was commonly lightly made of cheap woods. Boarding or felting beneath the roof tiles was sometimes omitted. Red roofing tiles were used everywhere by 1920. However, cheap concrete tiles came into general use in the mid 1920s.

Bay windows were an important feature if the houses were to sell quickly. Bay windows made rooms appear larger and gave residents a good view up and down the street; they also admitted more light to rooms. Council houses of the time did not have bay windows, so this feature gave snob value to the privately owned house.

Builders were fond of decorating windows with square or diamond-shaped lead lights which contributed much to the country cottage effect.

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A small number of modern houses were built in Dartford during the 1930s, most notably a block of flats in Spring Vale South (1935). These houses with their streamlined architecture were regarded as ultra-modern. The typical modern dwelling, whether house or block of flats, had a cuboid shape and a flat roof; the walls were composed of rendered brick painted white. Metal windows and curved glass window panes were a common element of the style. Curved glass windows were designed to catch as much sunlight as possible. These dwellings were never particularly popular as the white rendering was liable to cracking and needed constant and expensive repainting, while the metal windows rusted fast, cracking the panes of glass.

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Devonshire Avenue
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A number of Dartford's new estates included bungalows. Before long, the chalet bungalow style of architecture emerged. Chalets usually followed a standard plan, which included one very small bedroom on the ground floor and two fairly large ones in the roof, either side of the central staircase. With their steeply pitching rooflines, chalets looked more interesting and pleasing than the cheaper standard semis.

Windsor Drive
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Flats or maisonettes began to appear from about 1934 onwards. A maisonette was in effect one house plot developed as two separate dwellings. Each maisonette had two bedrooms, a living area, kitchen, bathroom, and a tiny back garden half the usual width.

The style commonly used for council-built housing in Dartford between the wars was neo-Georgian. Its order and regularity produced neat if rather conservative housing requiring the minimum of maintenance. Houses were produced to meet the needs of the average family. Estates like the Tree Estate were laid-out in spacious surroundings on the edge of town. Initially, it was not easy for the new estate residents to adapt to living away from the centre of things. Later, as social organisations and facilities developed and the houses became occupied, the estates settled down to a way of life uniquely their own. For almost all the tenants, the council houses represented a great improvement on what they had known before.

Next topic: Post war developments


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